Howard Jacobson lays pornography bare at debate

Bridget Galton listens in to a lively debate

COUPLE counsellors, agony aunts and Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson all pitched into a lively debate about whether porn damages relationships.

Hosted by the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships – a branch of the Belsize Park-based Tavistock Clinic – Friday’s panel discussed the question: “If he loves me why does he use porn?”

Couple psychotherapist and centre chief executive Susanna Abse has seen an increase in cases where the misuse of pornography was a destructive feature of relationships, while audience member Deirdre Saunders said her problem page postbag at The Sun was bulging with letters on the issue.

“One guy had a terrific wife and a great sex life but had got completely hooked on internet porn and was worried about his escalating addiction to more and more violent images of younger and younger girls.”

Panel member, Times columnist Suzi Godson, agreed that where there was a compulsion there was a problem. But she added that porn could be as ubiquitous and unthreatening as “wallpaper”.

“There are millions of people who happily compartmentalise porn with the sex they have with their living, breathing partner. I don’t have a problem with a man on his own using porn as a release – women have vibrators and fantasise in their heads – they are both a means to the same end.”

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But Jacobson, whose novel The Finkler Question won this year’s Booker Prize, said the problem was that men didn’t feel OK about it.

“I feel quite old-fashioned about masturbation. It makes you psychologically blind. What follows masturbation after porn is depression, grief, isolation and anger with yourself.”

Abse took the opposite view: “We have been given our bodies and sexuality to find pleasure as well as relationships. Masturbating is an ordinary human way of self-soothing, managing feelings of loneliness or frustration.”

“It’s not soothing if you are watching images of violence,” retorted Jacobson.

“Men don’t masturbate before images of the Sistine Chapel but before ugly distorted images of a sexuality that is not available in life because most women won’t give it to you.”

Abse agreed that violence lies at the core of much porn. “The violence is part of what disturbs us, but should it? Or is it a good way of containing those unpleasant aspects of human beings in a safe space?

“Or,” said Jacobson, “it might be that this is what men need. It suggests that being a man is quite a monstrous thing. We have violent impulses and can’t marry all our needs together. So men seek the humiliation of porn – to give yourself to images like that is humiliating.”

Godson also wondered whether porn acted as a pressure valve for violent impulses, associating increase in internet porn use with a fall in reported sexual violence.

Meanwhile, Jacobson asked whether cheap, easy internet access had taken the “fun” out of porn.

“As a boy, one of your rites of passage was having to find out from other boys the shops that sold porn. In the 1950s, that was quite difficult. The only shop I knew was next to Manchester Cathedral and I can still see the man who sold it and the brown paper bag with magazines like Spick and Span and pictures of almost fully clothed women playing golf or tennis. Getting it into the house was often more exciting than opening the magazine. Now, the press of a button, often when you are not even looking for it, brings up an orgiastic scene of mayhem.”

Panel chairman, psychotherapist Professor Brett Kahr, pointed out that making porn involves “illegal life-scarring exploitation of children or models who have often been sexually abused.” He felt easy access to violent sexual images was problematic.

“Taboos get broken down by porn – as those things we are not allowed to think of are there to explore. When the taboo is gone from almost every fantasy and everything is in freefall, it can increase use of more and more violent sexual images. So people who have never used child porn are now using it on the internet.”

Abse agreed that porn was exciting precisely because it transgressed moral codes and thought the need to transgress to become aroused could be built into loving relationships.

Jacobson, who called men watching porn an act of “obeisance and self-abnegation”, voiced a similar idea.

“People say porn is mysoginistic but I think the opposite is true. The man negates his maleness in the act of watching porn. The act of watching someone with no clothes on is itself a cruelty and to want to watch it is to do cruelty to yourself. The essence of eroticism is to despoil, to make beauty ugly. A man turns to porn to see beauty despoiled. The question is: what’s a man to do with this thing? There is always violence in sex as well as kindness. Some men and women find ways of building this violence into relationships.”