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 Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad