I was in my teens when a sudden rush of sexual publications became available, thanks to a change in censorship law.

The left-wing bookshop where I worked bought boxes of them, mostly lurid black and yellow-covered paperbacks of Robert Burns' jaunty poems about fornication, The Kama Sutra, and The Perfumed Garden. We possibly made a profit for the first time ever, though these were mostly rather dull clinical descriptions of the contortions you can get into having sex, just to prove it can be done.

They were innocent times. The Joy of Sex appeared, with illustrations of people performing and encouraging - from memory - the wearing of a kind of absurd loincloth arrangement to spice things up. People huddled over copies of this in their lunch hour, too timid to be seen buying them, too nervous to take them home. I think they thought this was pornography. How quaint we were.

I'd seen the real thing by then, shown to me by older men who little cared how disgusted I was, and what the images showed so explicitly. It wasn't pleasant, it never is, and it didn't have a pleasant effect on me, but the thrill of potentially corrupting young people is irresistible to corrupt adults.


Nothing has changed since, as far as I can see, except that much more degrading images are now freely available everywhere, with the result that some young men's brains get hard-wired with images that degrade women, and none that celebrate affection. We thought feminism had won the battle for equality only to find young women, who now excel academically, are targets of misogyny that reduces them to sex dolls for male amusement.

The pity of it is that many young women think this is okay. Some boast of being prostitutes to support themselves through degree courses, and somehow we've come to think this is okay. It's okay, in other words, to be a high achiever so long as you demean yourself at the same time. No harm done. I don't believe it.

The big arguments against porn used to highlight opponents like Patricia Bartlett for ridicule in the 70s. Yes, she had been a nun. Yes, her favourite film star was Deborah Kerr, and yes, some of what she said was silly. But we have come to see that the prevalence of porn - she didn't know the half of it - and its easy accessibility to young people hasn't had a cheerful outcome.

A Ministerial Inquiry into Pornography report in 1989 reached a conclusion that is still relevant: "There is enough evidence that pornography may have harmful effects on male attitudes and behaviour," its report said, "And it is clear that pornography harms women directly, but [sic] presents them in a stereotypical and demeaning way."

It has always been an unpopular view that porn can harm people. It is not a fashionable liberal stance, and I once agreed with it.

That was before children could see acts of nastiness we never dreamed of at the push of a button, and young people could become addicted, with unfortunate effects on their future relationships. If porn is callous, as I think it is, the same callousness is evident when groups of schoolkids arrange fights and record them on their cell phones. Porn and violence are closely linked, yet we react as if this is a novel discovery.

Of course porn-driven fantasies are talked about wherever young males get together to swap wishful accounts of sexual conquest, and gross each other out with what they've seen online. Of course they target young women, and fantasise about getting them drunk and comatose so they can act out what they've seen. Visual information is more powerful than words, and as I found when I had to view R18 material for work, it is intrusive. Its images can unexpectedly cut through into ordinary life for some time, and I can see how frequent viewing could normalise what in reality would be criminal behaviour.

Lately it's been Wellington College and St Pat's Silverstream where distressing attitudes have been disclosed. Other schools have dealt with similar scenarios, and those that haven't must know it will happen on their watch sooner or later. For all we know this will be normal in the future, and nobody will care. But I feebly hope not.


Rosemary McLeod is a journalist and author.