Robbie Low girds up his loins and patrols the suburban top shelves
I HAVE JUST done something that I haven’t done since I was 15 years old. I went into a newsagent and purchased some dirty magazines.
For those of you who have not immediately grabbed the telephone to cancel your subscription or call my bishop, perhaps you would grant me a paragraph or two to explain myself.
It wasn’t a sudden reversion to adolescent behaviour, a mid-life crisis about my sexuality or thin period in the marriage. It came out of a conversation with two friends of mine – a newsagent and a police officer.
The newsagent, who was not a Christian, but none the less an otherwise decent family man, revealed to me that, without his top-shelf sales his shop would close! One-third of his income comes from what is technically known as “soft” pornography. The police officer, a Christian, whose daily life is spent coping with the results of sexual crime and particularly child abuse, was retailing the monotonous link between pornography and criminals in this field and the present powerlessness, in a liberal society, of the forces of law and order to act against the flood-tide of depraved material daily washing up on our shores in print and via satellite television.
After twenty odd years in the priesthood there is very little that surprises in terms of crime or cruelty or the sinfulness and sickness of the human heart, but some of the examples he gave were truly gut-wrenching and recalled nothing so much as the excesses of the Roman arena. I assumed that such stuff was available only down murky backstreets, under the counter in plain brown envelopes. “Not really”, he replied, “you can get a lot by legal mail order or Internet and, frankly, you’d be astonished what’s on sale on the top-shelf of your average newsagent”.
With my editor’s support and my wife’s toleration I decided to pursue the import of these two conversations.
Taking a known area of population, I called, over a number of weeks, at every newsagent, garage or shop that sold such magazines, and, purchasing a pack of sweets, struck up light-hearted conversation about the top-shelf, prior to asking the key question: “How much of the stuff do you sell a week, roughly?”
The results were intriguing. Many retailers prefaced their reply by their distaste for this part of their business but then revealed what a major part of their economy it is. They also asserted that most of this trade was from non-residents. People, understandably I suppose, do not buy their pornography where they are known and recognised. Even so there remains a strong element of guilt – the conscience cannot be so easily anaesthetised. Whenever I pop into any local newsagent in full clericals, as always, all riffling of the top shelf stops and sullen men hastily depart.
But the results of this survey were not encouraging. The five outlets sold between them some £60,000-plus per annum of this material – the equivalent of two pornographic magazines for every man, woman and child in that little area! One-and-a-half million pages of photographic obscenity squirrelled away in a small respectable community. All legal, and we do not bat an eyelid.
The second part of my inquiry was more difficult. My grandmother always said you can’t touch pitch and not be defiled and she was right. But, I reasoned, if my Christian police chum could deal with this and worse all day – surrounded by the prayers of his friends and church, I could risk a couple of days’ embarrassment and temptation.
When I last bought a top-shelf magazine Lady Chatterley’s Lover had only just been made legal. Weeks of legal argument by the great and the good of the liberal intelligentsia had begun the assault on the moral fabric which has left the ruin we stand in today. Of course Lady Chatterley was irrelevant in a way. No one in his right mind would wade through 124 pages of turgid Lawrentian prose for the sake of the horny-handed son of toil’s couple of pages of aristocratic rumpy-pumpy in the potting shed. But it was the breach that allowed the flood and the advocates of permissiveness know it.
At that time the most exciting mag. a naughty schoolboy could buy was Parade – one shilling and not a stray nipple in sight. Like many of my contemporaries I was a furtive purchaser until the advent of the real thing in the shape of girlfriends, who turned out to be much more difficult to understand, but much more fun.
So… to the newsagent.
I toyed with the idea of borrowing the top-shelf of a friendly newsagent in my parish overnight but I know he would never let me live it down. The daily paper collection would be dogged by “more porn, vicar?” And gossip and misunderstanding would multiply.
Instead, I followed the pattern of most porn buyers. I went outside my area and, you will be partly relieved to know, in plain clothes. I am not a shy person and I do not embarrass but it took me five shops before I could steel myself to stand and riffle through the top-shelf offerings.
I chose a branch of a well-known mainstream retailer. The lady at the till viewed me with the contempt I deserved, bagged my selections, and handed the change. I felt grim.
I wanted to explain, “I’m a parish priest writing an article on pornography”, but I suspected she might have called the police.
It reminded me of dear Iris who used to work into our local paper shop and regarded all such purchasers as “filthy b*****s”. “They all give their excuses”, she told me one day. “One chap bought 40 quid’s worth of this muck and said, “it’s not for me, it’s for my friend in hospital” I said to him no wonder he’s in b******g hospital if he gets through all that lot.”
Not only did I feel grim, I felt like a convict – not least because as I left the shop I saw that I had chosen to purchase at the only shop that recorded everything on security camera! Clearly, 25 years on the art of being furtive had deserted me. I had paranoid visions of coming up on my police chum’s file!
Well, what to report? And here I hesitate because I genuinely do not want to offend our readers but I do want us to be aware of what is really going on. If any of what follows is shocking, and some of it will be, it is not intended to be gratuitous.
Having selected a range of publications I can immediately say that my police officer friend is right. These are not old-style “glamour” magazines in the sense of displaying naked and partly naked women for men’s enjoyment. These are orgiastic, fully obscene, and in the modern term, interactive. That is to say the majority of them are openly advertising explicit forms of prostitution complete with phone and box numbers. Besides these the cards in London telephone booths are tasteful and discreet.
Virtually every page is littered with verbal invitations couched in language that would strip the paint off the wall, and many of them encouraging activities from the bizarre to the downright brutal.
And here I am powerfully struck by a massive change over the years. For all that one can see of the various women’s “charms”, there is nothing really feminine or attractive about them. There has been a “feminisation” of pornography – they demand sex on male terms: their sexual desires, thus perverted, turn out to be no less depraved than the worst of men’s.
Feminists will throw up their hands in horror at this statement, but when you detach the female from her biological purpose and blur her vocation by erroneous politicising of gender it produces every bit as serious abuse as the vice industry. Pornography, vile trade that it is, simply magnifies that abuse and distortion. Feminism, in its heterodox calls for equality and interchangeability and rejection of mutual reverence and complementarity is equally inimical to the interests of women.
The photography is so “in-your-face” and in microscopic detail that it is not “sexy” – it is gynaecological. After a while you find yourself looking in relief at the background furnishing of the studio as there is little more of the candidate one could see without the help of a fibre-optic camera.
There are some lighter moments, but they are brief. One publication is dedicated to mountainous mammaries. Most of the photographs show their owners seated or all-fours because, one assumes, so enormous are their assets that they are unable to stand or move them around without the aid of a wheelbarrow. It is a freak show but there is a market for it.
The phone-sex lines (at £1 per minute!) vie with one another, in disgusting terms, to promise the swiftest “satisfaction”. Several promised results in 30 seconds! They are, unconsciously, opposite advertisements for potions, cream and sprays that are all designed to ensure the opposite.
Three of the magazines are, I think, more worrying. And I have to tell you I could not bring myself to buy two others dedicated to sexual acts with pregnant women (yes there is a publicly available magazine for that!) and one for prostitutes and enthusiastic amateurs aged 60 or more.
One is a magazine entitled Barely Legal which specialises in photographs of girls who look under-age and dress and pose in a manner which adds to that impression. The prose which accompanies their photographs is severely abusive and exploitative and filled with encouragement to degrade.
Another is a curious, but apparently very popular offering, called Readers’ Wives. It has the odd professional text in it – you can tell by the quality of the photo and hackneyed poses – but for the most part it appears to be an endless series of women photographed at home by enthusiastic partners and inviting contact for a limitless variety of adulterous activities.
It is only one-up on the contact magazine, New Directions (yes, it really is called that) where an endless series of bad photographs of genitalia with people on the end of them is accompanied by contact numbers and a code for preferred options.
When you look up the key for the code your heart sinks. Virtually every activity would be regarded by your doctor as clinically hazardous and many of them anatomically ruinous. What is almost humorous is that, at the end of a long list of preferred perversions many of them say “clean partners only” or “must be non-smokers”. The idea that any participant in such sexual degradation could be clean is bananas; and how curious that cigarettes should have become the only unacceptable vice. Forced to choose – give me 20 Senior Service any day.
All of these magazines are held together with text that is, if anything, far more obscene than the photographs. The “Essays” and captions are of a style, and frankly, could have been written by the same hand. (It is a curious thought that the Prime Minister’s press secretary Alastair Campbell, learnt his trade writing the same stuff for pornographic magazines). The language is a mixture of foul, cozening, knowing, lustful, angry and abusive. It speaks to an audience that has failed to make the psychologically required journey from oral to anal to genital, learning the proper place and order of all three, but is profoundly stuck in the earliest and most obsessive stages of each. A surprising but immediately obvious fact is that there is almost as much emphasis on anal sex as in equivalent, homosexual literature. This is at a time when the destructive implications of this for human health can scarcely be more obvious.
And there is an obsession with bodily fluids – all of them. A clinician’s verdict on this whole enterprise would describe it as little more than a sink of pathogens.
“Well”, you will be asking, those of you who have got this far in the article and kept your breakfast down, “what’s all this got to do with us?”
We are, so the banner of this magazine monthly proclaims, “Evangelicals and Catholics seeking to renew the Church in the historic faith”. We are presumably, people who are at odds with the human rulers of our Church because we believe them to be to mistaken in their doctrine of man. In particular we hold them to be biblically disobedient in their teaching and practice of the nature, gifts and vocation of women and wedded, many of them, to the ideology of feminism, which is hostile both to the doctrines of creation and incarnation (amongst others).
Because these are issues of salvation – what the Church teaches as the doctrine of the Word made flesh – we are right to fight them keenly. But that does not mean that we can turn our back on the practical out-workings and corrupting effect which nearly 40 years of liberal supremacy in social thinking and practice have had our society, human relations and sexuality. After all, this is where the Church caught the disease in the first place.
We may not feel we are called to be a Gladstone or a Father Joe Williamson of Poplar and go out and rescue prostitutes – though why not? – but we ought at least to be combative against the philosophies, principalities and powers that engineer this form of slavery and the pervasive and corrupting effect it has on the human heart and the society in which we live.
For most of my lifetime the only serious campaigners in this field have been Mary Whitehouse and her supporters. Banned from the BBC and vilified by media commentators, an embarrassment to liberal Christians and largely unsupported by the Church she has turned out be substantially correct in her analysis and prognostication.
It is true that parts of feminism periodically rail against pornography, but while this is well-intentioned, there is little recognition that 40 years of false teaching has made women much more “sex objects” then my mother’s generation ever were; and disposable ones at that.
The new wave of feminism is much more ambiguous in its reaction, anyway, and talks matter-of-factly about “women in the sex industry! ”
Most of us, tragically, have regarded it as a sufficient victory that these publications have been pushed to the top shelves, “out of harm’s way”. The truth is that if most children saw the contents of these publications they would turn away in disgust. It is the adult who is corrupted in “the imagination of his heart”.
We have gone along with the liberal lie that tolerance is an unmitigated virtue. We have connived at the lie that it doesn’t matter what you do so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else. You don’t need to be a pastor five minutes to be disabused of that deceit. Such isolated activities and lives, as John Donne so powerfully reminded us, do not exist.
Pornography is a kind of demonic kindergarten, a sort of sexual cowboys-and-Indians where the immature can act out the most violent depravity without apparent consequence. The consequences, of course, are all around us.
The implications for human health are clear. The physical disorder and disease, consequent infertility or abortion, and mortality are part of the Health Service budget and are catalogued with horrifying accuracy by Dr Patricick Dixon (The Rising Price of Love). The effects on the mental health of constant exposure to images of degradation are incalculable.
On the crime front it is presumably a coincidence that, as I write, the police are frantically searching for a young schoolgirl abducted from outside her grandparent’s home; while I have on my desk a magazine of girls in ankle socks and pigtails encouraging me to abuse them and sell them into prostitution. It is presumably also coincidence that my policeman friend frequently investigates crimes involving peccadillos and sexual modus operandi unthinkable to the normal mind but quite familiar to readers of these journals. Presumably the increase of sexual violence and indeed, rape against elderly women is entirely unconnected with the appearance of magazine specialising in gerontophilia. One does not need to be an expert in psychiatry to understand the direct link between lust, anger and violence and the deadly cocktail of all three.
I remember hearing a senior liberal clergyman describe pornography as “therapeutic” – especially for criminals! But then I don’t suppose he has ever had to dig up the floorboards or the patio to uncover the results of this “therapy” – or consoled the shattered parents or the permanently traumatised “lucky” survivor.
Of course pornography may be seen simply as one of the more extravagant blooms on the fungus of social decay, but its symptoms and roots run deep. It is a huge industry and by no means restricted to male users. Two things are abundantly clear from its contents. First, it is the ultimate gospel of a masturbatory culture. While this used to be largely the passing domain of adolescent boys, it is now mainstream. Literature, magazines, alternative comedians, common social parlance among the young now proclaim this shamelessly as normative.
That Onan should be reinstated as a cult figure is scarcely surprising for it is not only in sex that we have become such a society. But it is in sex that we see the practice of self-gratification at its most destructive. The primary object is not for the other – the other person becomes a means to an end. That end, which is supposed to be liberating and satisfying, cannot be so, for it has no place for mutual respect and honour and love and giving and sacrifice and cherishing. In short it fails to make any relationship worthy of the name and turns the self-abuser back into his or her own darkness in rage and unfulfilment. The self-gratification principle in sex as in all other material quests is as doomed as it is addictive and destructive, requiring increasing extravagance in the wake of each failure.
Second, it is the natural outcome of a contraceptive culture. The detachment of the sexual from its primary purpose and created intention teeters always on the brink of the perverse. The contrived impotence of the man over a long period is contrary to the biological imperative and subtly but fundamentally undermines the nature of that relationship at its most profound, risky and trusting.
Such contrived impotence for the woman can lead to a libertarianism contrary to her honour, her integrity and the deepest longings of her createdness.
As Anglicans we maybe uncomfortable with the absolutism of papal teaching in this matter but we must also be aware that, even where we argue hard cases and “the greater good,” the contraceptive mentality has substantially derailed the sexual relationships of the post-1960s generations and with none of the benefits its proponents solemnly promised.
Thralled as society is, in a tangled web of self-gratification and psychological and biological pointlessness, it is scarcely surprising that the pursuit of perversity should have become a national pastime. The philosophies that have led to this degradation, in Church and State, masqueraded as benevolent liberalism. They are, in fact, simply a revival of permissiveness and paganism. It was from this abuse and slavery that orthodox Christianity set women and men free. It has not lost the power to do so.
Robbie Low is the Vicar of Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s