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: ASA
Show Hide image

Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA