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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.