Porn never did me any harm

Parents and educators alike know they can do everything in their power to stop kids from being exposed to stuff that isn't 'age appropriate', but they'll find it sooner or later, whether we like it or not. Should we worry?

There it was, half buried in the snow. We knew what it was almost as soon as we saw it: Our very first sight of a grumble mag.

We'd been sent home from school early due to the freezing weather, and because we didn't have far to go, we were making our way back along the crunching white pavements as a gang of three tiny figures dressed in parkas and scarves and school uniforms.

It was around Matlock Crescent, I think, that we found it, poking out of the snow, its garish colours and abundance of pink, voluptuous flesh. This was PORN. And we were going to see it, at last.

I don't mean to make this sound like Stand By Me but with a copy of Razzle, but here it is: you remember these little incidents from your childhood, whether you want to or not. We must have been about eight years old, maybe a little older, and we were about to enter the adult world - the world beyond having a crafty leaf through your mate's dad's Pirelli calendar in the garage. That world of filth and smut and depravity.

It wasn't me who reached a rapidly de-mittened hand down to the snowfall's erotic booty, but one of my friends. Quickly, a struggle erupted to see who had control of the contraband treasure: the first possessor found himself having to fight the other two of us off, as a carnivore might battle other predators at a freshly-killed carcass.

Then, we settled down. Our hearts were thumping as our breaths rose in the freezing winter air, and the front cover was turned. This was it. This was what we weren't old enough to reach on the newsagents' shelves. This was porn.

What happened next? Well, we stood there, giggling. Giggling and shouting at what we were looking at. What was that?! What was she doing?! What was going on there?! We didn't have the answers, we just had questions, and the nervous laughter masked the bizarreness of what we were seeing. There was... pubic hair. There was... a vulva (though we had no idea what a vulva was, or might be for). There was... oh JESUS CHRIST. There was a page of MEN.

Look, we were young boys. We didn't know any different. But we weren't meant to see what we'd just seen: it should have been kept from us, until such time as we reached the maturity to see it; our plastic minds could have been damaged by what we saw, and read (though we certainly did learn some new vocabulary that day from the letters pages).

But we weren't damaged. Not by one exposure to something like that. Just as we wouldn't have been damaged if, for example, the worldwide web had been available in those days, with all the stuff we now take for granted as being a mouseclick away.

Sure, it was just a mucky mag, but I think this story tells me a couple of things about pornography and the relationship some of us have with it. First, you're never going to keep it away from children, no matter how hard you try: the "discovery in the bushes" of yesteryear is the "happened on a porn site by mistake" of today.

Parents and educators alike know they can do everything in their power to stop kids from being exposed to stuff that isn't 'age appropriate', but they'll find it sooner or later, whether we like it or not. However, what is different is the degree and intensity of what you can find online; much stronger, in places, than what you might have discovered in a newsagent (or elsewhere) back in the day.

I think the key to the whole experience is that we three kids on that day all those years ago saw the mucky magazine as something strange, something unusual, something that belonged to another world - an adult world. I think that was probably what defined that experience - it was a first glimpse, albeit mediated through shiny paper, and ink, and torn around the edges.

It didn't change us, or affect us, precisely because we saw it as something alien, something that wasn't appropriate, that we knew wasn't part of our world and our lives at that age. For me, that's what makes the difference. It wasn't a normal thing to happen. And I'm glad it wasn't; it shouldn't have been, I think.

Playboy. Photograph: Getty Images

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.