Page last updated at 16:17 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 17:17 UK

What porn is really for

A POINT OF VIEW

After years of watching late-night porn in anonymous hotel rooms - for research - its purpose is clear, says Clive James. To keep one's mind off sex while one's partner is absent.

Ken and Barbie pretend to make love
Plastic boobs? Check. No body hair? Check? You're hired

Very few voices have dared to speak up in defence of the Home Secretary's husband, but let mine be one of them.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, is in an invidious position. Before I start defending her husband, Richard Timney, let me be blunt about just how invidious that position is. It always looked unduly cosy that the Home Secretary should claim £40,000 a year of public funds to pay him to run her constituency office.

Though it is common practice for parliamentarians to employ their spouses, the Home Secretary's employment of her husband was bound to draw scrutiny to her broad interpretation of what constitutes a legitimate expense.

A bedroom counted as a primary home. It looked even more unduly cosy when her husband started claiming his expenses, including the purchase of a bath plug and a home entertainment system. Some might have thought, the modern world being what it is, that although the bath plug might be morally neutral if used responsibly, the same might not apply to the home entertainment system.

And so, indeed, it proved.

While the Home Secretary was away on official business, on the evening of 1 April 2008 at 11.18 her husband watched an adult entertainment movie, and on the evening of 6 April at 11.19 he watched another adult entertainment move. Since these movies were available only on subscription, he had to pay for them. He charged the payment to the public.

Flushed away

It is doubtful if the Home Secretary was entertained at all when she found out this was going to be made public at the very time in her career when she has legislation going through parliament to regulate such adult entertainment matters as businessmen putting visits to pole dancing clubs on expenses as if they'd just been to the pub.

Clive James

Is your partner away in Brussels making a speech? Get your mind off sex by watching a porn video

Tough on pole dancing, tough on the causes of pole dancing - it's a New Labour policy in the grand modern tradition, which takes a moral view that includes the economics, or, if you like, an economic view that includes the morality.

Either way, when you hold the position of Home Secretary and have been so outspoken on the topic of adult entertainment on expenses, it isn't the best moment for headlines to be telling the world that your husband has not only been watching porno movies, he has been off-loading the cost of doing so on to the tax-paying public.

Her husband has dropped her in it. Some would say that she was already in it, because she has patently never been able to judge the effect of an expenses claim in which a principal item is a salary for her husband's efforts in running her constituency office, a salary with an expense allowance down to and including bath plugs.

But he has dropped her further in it, as if that were possible. If she was already in it up to her lower eyelids, he has now stood on top of her head. From where her fringe was previously visible, bubbles are coming up, and it's all his fault. Is there no-one to speak for him?

Field research

Let me be the one, because it just so happens that I know the truth about pornographic movies.

Elderly Japanese porn actor with ad for his latest film
Some break the mould - like this 74-year-old Japanese porn actor

As a professional critic of the media I have always felt it was incumbent on me, as a public duty, to keep up with developments in all the means of expression however disreputable. So for purposes of research I began checking out the adult entertainment channels in hotel rooms all over the world. If I was filming in Hawaii or Tokyo or Berlin I would switch on the adult entertainment channels late at night to see what was on offer and make notes.

One of the first things I noted was that although there were hundreds and even thousands of pornographic movies, they all had the same few half-witted story structures. Almost without exception they were manufactured in Los Angeles, with a cast of characters that soon became recognisable, no matter where in the world you were watching.

Indeed that was the chief comfort they offered. If you were lonely in a hotel room in Sydney or Amsterdam, there on the screen were the same old familiar few faces from the San Fernando Valley, the men with their improbably low foreheads and permanently puzzled expressions, the women with their enhanced lips and strangely rigid chests, as if wearing a tungsten basque internally.

What's my motivation?

For a student of bad acting, there could be no richer field. It's not as if the porno stars merely lack dramatic talent. They have the opposite of dramatic talent. Yet touchingly they're more interested in the acting challenges offered by the roles they play than the sex.

EastEnders scene of Roy buying Viagra
Take the blue pill...

The man pretending to be the scientist whose job is to check the sexual sensitivity of the female astronaut just back from space keeps adjusting the collar of the white coat which proves that he is a scientist. He holds his clipboard in a scientific manner.

Meanwhile the woman playing the astronaut delivers her line of dialogue. "I don't know, doctor. I guess something happened to me out there."

None of them can act because none of them really has a personality: a fact which is only further emphasised when they attempt to effervesce. As a result, they are no more erotic when they disrobe than plaster casts of roughly the same size and weight.

I hasten to add that not all of the women are low rent in their physical attributes. All the men look stupid beyond belief, but some of the women would be almost personable in the right light, which this definitely isn't. The lighting is harsh for the same reason that there is so little pubic hair in evidence. The aim is to make the whole thing look clinical.

The real story in this matter isn't about a man watching images. It's about a man leaving a paper trail

From the erotic angle, adult entertainment movies are made for men whose idea of the adult barely gets beyond the babyish. For anyone with a brain, there is not only no question of being aroused, there is a detectable shrivelling effect on the libido. In time, a connoisseur of the form learns to trust it as a sure-fire means of getting the mind off sex.

Is your partner away in Brussels making a speech? Get your mind off sex by watching a porn video. Just don't watch too many of them, or you might burn out your circuits permanently. Plenty of men have done this. They watched Barely Legal Teenage Terminators once too often, and now nothing stirs - even when they eat blue pills like peanuts.

Yes men, you can watch the stuff in perfect safety any time you want to quell that urge. But it might, on the whole, be safer not to expect the public to nod with understanding if you charge the expense to them.

Power as aphrodisiac

I'm quite confident that Jacqui Smith's husband was doing her a service, as it were, when he switched on the purportedly hot movies. He was doing it to cool himself down while he counted the hours until her return.

Willie Whitelaw
Willie Whitelaw, a past Home Secretary

But then he made the mistake of claiming the cost as a legitimate expense. You could say that it was, in a way. If his job of running her office is legitimate, then keeping himself sane in the absence of his partner is plainly part of his duty, and the attendant costs shouldn't have to come out of his pocket, especially in view of the fact that her position as Home Secretary must infinitely multiply her effect as an object of desire. I can remember very well when I felt that way about Willie Whitelaw.

But Mr Timney should have realised that the mass of the British public is still convinced that there is such a thing as sauciness. They are not yet living in the modern age. They are still living in a Carry On movie.

Only a comparatively small proportion of the public have as many channels as Mr Timney had in his home entertainment centre, and have seen what a cable channel programme like Sexcetera is actually like. The presenters, when they aren't hearty young American females with breasts bigger than their behinds, are hearty young American males with grins bigger than their heads, screaming in a stage whisper about the secrets behind the silver studded, black leather quilted door.

There are never any secrets worth bothering about behind the silver studded, black leather quilted door. There are people of repellent aspect doing ridiculous things to each other with clinical looking equipment, but there are never any secrets.

Couple stand before The Kiss
I'll have what she's having...

Because there is only one secret about sex, and that is that it's a feeling, and you can't see feeling. Some of the greatest artists who ever lived did their best to register the look on a woman's face when she is in ecstasy.

Bernini almost did it, Gustav Klimt almost did it, and if you're a man dying for lack of love you could start with them. But looking at porno movies will get you so far in the opposite direction that you might as well watch a programme about stock car racing.

The real story in this matter, however, isn't about a man watching images. It's about a man leaving a paper trail. In that respect, it was he who hadn't caught up with the modern age.

In a hotel, they promise you that the name of the porno movie you watched won't show up on your bill. But if somebody else is paying your bill, they can easily figure out that you watched it.

Richard, if you had resigned yourself to paying for those two stupid movies with your own money, Jacqui wouldn't be paying now.


Here is a selection of your comments.

Anyone watching the Channel 4 series on porn last week, would have seen that it is in fact a real menace in our society, a menace to the kids who watch it (25% at age 13) and a menace to the adults who become obsessed by it. Clive has this one wrong. With smoking, it became clear that there were physical dangers. And then the tide turned against it. With porn, there are psychological dangers, maybe not the TV porn Clive watched but internet porn he hasn't. Free, and some of it uploaded by amateurs, including teenagers, of themselves. When people talk about a clash of cultures, the obsession with porn and easy accessibility and apparent lack of concern should be right up there with the worst of reality TV as something that denigrates our society.
Gary, London

I'm not so sure of the "conclusions" of the author. In my humble opinion, one views porn not to take one's mind "off" sex, but to take one's mind "on" sex. Mostly, it's my experience that married folks view porn to view sexual acts that they aren't likely to do with their partners (If they DO have partners).
Gerald Shields, Seattle, WA/United States

Clive James really is living in the past with bygone blinkers on his specs if he thinks the British public are still fixated with a view of pornography akin to Carry On movies. As any adult with internet connection can access the most hardcore of material and visitors to Ann Summers' sex shops are more familiar with a smorgasbord of exotic sex toys and other explicit paraphernalia - it's unlikely than anyone under the age of forty five in the UK equates adult entertainment with the ribald laughter of Barbara Windsor and Sid James. Get real James.
Richard Bevan, London

Interesting observation, "sex is about feeling,..and you can't see feeling". Well, why then, are beautiful women considered sexy, and are highly desired? Something very strange about this claim, the writer obviously missed the fact that our perceptual world is 80% visual. Perhaps a correct perspective would be that sex is a feeling evoked by the mostly) visual stimulus.
Mike, Listowel, ON Canada

It's always been obvious to me, that men have a higher sex drive than women and use porn to get the excess of it out of their system and stop pestering their partner, just as women have a higher romance drive than men and so read/watch romantic stories for the same reason. It's like a short, sharp espresso shot of what you need - not realistic but that's not the point of it. Getting upset or jealous about either pursuit is pure ignorance.
RJ, London

I sincerely hope that this article is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and not actually judging on the British people for living with outdated morals. I have no idea which expenses are able to be charged to the public directly (gourmet food, fine wines?), but many extravagant luxuries could arguably increase your workplace effectiveness by increasing your happiness. I would expect then it justifying an expense that seems absurd on its face, then there should be a showing of direct causation that his job effectiveness was increased in proportion to the cost of the movies. The article's meant to be satirical, right?
Anne, Boston, MA USA

British morality still seems to run on the following four principles:

1) If you enjoy it, that's probably bad

2) If you enjoy it and didn't pay for it, it's definitely bad

3) If you enjoy it and someone else paid for it, that's disgusting

4) If you enjoy it and it was paid for with public funds, it's a scandal.

Time to grow up perhaps? And definitely time to put MP's on fixed and realistic salaries, and scrap the gravy train.
Stephen du Toit, London, UK

Clive James's view is an interesting one, but doesn't paint the entire picture. Porn appeals to the animalistic side of a persons sexuality, particularly male - no emotions, no ties, seemingly perfect blonde women. It's pure unadulterated sex, sex itself being a basic instinct. Now people may choose to enjoy porn for many reasons; partner is away, they can't find a partner themselves, they need to release a little tension.

However, the rapid ascension of porn's popularity suggests a nation that is desperately sexually frustrated, and it's naive to suggest that Mr Timney was watching to "cool himself down".
Steve, Leicester

Whether Clive James wishes to believe it or not, loads and loads of people love porn in the world. And while it may be dumb, and stupid, and intellectually vacuous, they still do! So while Clive can peddle his wonderfully morally upright view of the world where there is nothing more beautiful than Klimt's expressions of bliss, countless millions can go watch some porn and revel in their base, low desires. I know where I'll be.
Sam Child, London

"So for purposes of research I began checking out the adult entertainment channels in hotel rooms all over the world." I know what you mean only the other day for the purposes of research I had sex with two prostitutes and perform regular research on pornographic websites, I like yourself suffer for my research. Needless to say my wife doesn't understand.
Michael, Newcastle upon-Tyne



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