Thus he condemns ‘the top shelves of newsagents that now sag with explicit pornography’, ‘mainstream newspapers which cheerfully display half clothed women’ and ‘bare breasts that are now so common on television’. He does not confine himself to his distaste for male titillation but also attacks ‘magazines for well-off, educated, professional women packed with blatant articles about subjects that were once judged to be so intimate that few would have dared mention them even to a doctor’.
He asserts that ‘millions of people probably shudder inwardly when they catch sight’ of this kind of material but they know that ‘it is not respectable to make a fuss’. He exposes the double standard whereby the feminist MP Clare Short condemnation of Page Three is endorsed by the ‘fashionable world’, whilst the equally forceful protests of the conservative Christian Mary Whitehouse are ‘ignored as embarrassing, suburban and repressed’.
Hitchens cites the impact of the Lady Chatterley trial in 1961, widely recognised as having kick started the permissive society, and the Oz schoolkids issue trial a decade later, seen by many as the high watermark of let it all hang out freewheeling bohemian sexual liberation, before feminism took hold. Also being prosecuted at this time was the Little Red Schoolbook, described by Hitchens as a ‘manual of sexual licence for the young’. However, in the view of the publisher the issue at stake was ‘not sex education for young people, but the ability of any people to question authority’. According to Hitchens much of the advice being offered in the book ‘would be issued at government expense to schoolchildren less than twenty years afterwards’.
Hitchens quotes the aims of supporters of publications such as the above as being to abolish ‘undercover puritanism, the more relaxed people were in sex, the healthier the community would be’ and to criticize ‘the lack of dissemination of sexual education’. He concluded that these trials were ‘the last futile skirmish in a lost war’ against pornography and authority in general. As a consequence ‘television, radio and the cinema realized that the restraints were off’ leading to ‘nakedness, explicit portrayals of sex, liberal use of swear words, homosexuality and prostitution’ tentatively at first but ‘quickly becoming so commonplace that they ceased to count as news’.
Hitchens points out that the growth in material which he clearly considers objectionable was facilitated by the passing of the Obscene Publications Act, which included a provision of ‘literary merit’ a phrase he considers to be ‘utterly subjective’. This was exploited ‘to justify the breaking of old taboos’ in which the ‘arbiters of the new morality believed that one’s sexual life did not need to be regulated either by law or conscience’. He observed that ‘the fiercest resistance to this change ‘came from the lower middle class and the respectable working class’ who believed ‘most passionately in order, hierarchy and morality, because they live closer to the edge of chaos’.
Hitchens makes some valid points as the vast majority of pornography is degrading in nature, both to performer and viewer. Promiscuous sexual activity can be a physically risky activity because of the spread of contagious diseases, as well as being spiritually and mentally demeaning by setting a low value on physical intimacy. But at no time in the modern era have there been laws against fornication and adultery. Instead, until the 1960s, there were strong social and religious taboos against such behaviour, although often breached by mostly the higher and lower classes in society.
Virtually all pornography is now on line, and thus is mostly invisible except to those (mainly males) who actively seek it out. Also, the amount of casual exposed flesh of young attractive females has largely been curbed in most of the mainstream media outlets as a result of feminist pressure. The real issue at stake here, which Hitchens does not properly address, is the extent to which the state should intervene in the sexual behaviour of its citizens. He rightly condemns the growing authoritarianism of the left in personal matters, but seems content for the state to prohibit those activities which he personally finds objectionable. Not for the first time this leads him open to charges of hypocrisy and double standards.
Normal sexual attraction towards good looking members of the opposite sex should never be stigmatised. It must surely be possible to allow for a more wholesome interest to be fostered that avoids the debasement of pornography on the one hand, and the kind of prudery endorsed by Peter Hitchens, or the puritanism and repression sought by feminists. At the present time those on the extremes appear to be monopolising the debate at the expense of the vast majority with a normal healthy sexual interest.