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

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The surprising truth about ingrowing toenails (and other medical myths)

Medicine is littered with myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery.

From time to time, I remove patients’ ingrowing toenails. This is done to help – the condition can be intractably painful – but it would be barbaric were it not for anaesthesia. A toe or finger can be rendered completely numb by a ring block – local anaesthetic injected either side of the base of the digit, knocking out the nerves that supply sensation.

The local anaesthetic I use for most surgical procedures is ready-mixed with adrenalin, which constricts the arteries and thereby reduces bleeding in the surgical field, but ever since medical school I’ve had it drummed into me that using adrenalin is a complete no-no when it comes to ring blocks. The adrenalin cuts off the blood supply to the end of the digit (so the story goes), resulting in tissue death and gangrene.

So, before performing any ring block, my practice nurse and I go through an elaborate double-check procedure to ensure that the injection I’m about to use is “plain” local anaesthetic with no adrenalin. This same ritual is observed in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries around the world.

So, imagine my surprise to learn recently that this is a myth. The idea dates back at least a century, to when doctors frequently found digits turning gangrenous after ring blocks. The obvious conclusion – that artery-constricting adrenalin was responsible – dictates practice to this day. In recent years, however, the dogma has been questioned. The effect of adrenalin is partial and short-lived; could it really be causing such catastrophic outcomes?

Retrospective studies of digital gangrene after ring block identified that adrenalin was actually used in less than half of the cases. Rather, other factors, including the drastic measures employed to try to prevent infection in the pre-antibiotic era, seem likely to have been the culprits. Emboldened by these findings, surgeons in America undertook cautious trials to investigate using adrenalin in ring blocks. They found that it caused no tissue damage, and made surgery technically easier.

Those trials date back 15 years yet they’ve only just filtered through, which illustrates how long it takes for new thinking to become disseminated. So far, a few doctors, mainly those in the field of plastic surgery, have changed their practice, but most of us continue to eschew adrenalin.

Medicine is littered with such myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery. Until the mid-1970s, breast cancer was routinely treated with radical mastectomy, a disfiguring operation that removed huge quantities of tissue, in the belief that this produced the greatest chance of cure. These days, we know that conservative surgery is at least as effective, and causes far less psychological trauma. Seizures can happen in young children with feverish illnesses, so for decades we placed great emphasis on keeping the patient’s temperature down. We now know that controlling fever makes no difference: the fits are caused by other chemicals released during an infection.

Myths arise when something appears to make sense according to the best understanding we have at the time. In all cases, practice has run far ahead of objective, repeatable science. It is only years after a myth has taken hold that scientific evaluation shows us to have charged off down a blind alley.

Myths are powerful and hard to uproot, even once the science is established. I operated on a toenail just the other week and still baulked at using adrenalin – partly my own superstition, and partly to save my practice nurse from a heart attack. What would it have been like as a pioneering surgeon in the 1970s, treating breast cancer with a simple lumpectomy while most of your colleagues believed you were being reckless with your patients’ future health? Decades of dire warnings create a hefty weight to overturn.

Only once a good proportion of the medical herd has changed course do most of us feel confident to follow suit. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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