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Laurie Penny: My night at the Shaftas, porn's award ceremony

What I learned at the porn industry's annual ceremony.

"If a girl wants to get into the porn industry, the most important thing is to act natural," says Hannah, 20, fluttering her huge fake eyelashes. We're at the Shaftas, the UK porn industry's annual awards ceremony, in the gloom of an upmarket London strip joint that reeks of power and cheap perfume.

Hannah is plastered in spraytan and crystals, the elaborate porno-drag not quite hiding her natural beauty. She started being fucked on film when she was 18, moving into the industry because her shop job didn't pay quite enough.

"I love doing porn, yeah, love it," she says, brandishing her gloriously tacky award for best sex scene: a golden statue of a woman's hand holding an erect penis. "The gold cock is smaller than last year," complains pornstar Angel Long, 29. "It must be the recession. It's a real wilter."

There has been much discussion, over the past 12 months, of the impact that the $96bn pornography industry has on women and on young people. As study after study has coyly revealed that yes, quite a lot of people downloading naughty pictures on the internet, anti-porn feminists and legislators have suggested that the ease with which pornography can now be accessed might contribute to rape and domestic violence.

Here, at the high end of the British porn industry, men and women dressed like extras from a low-budget remake of American Psycho drink warm beer and plunder the awful buffet. A woman with straining plastic boobs pouring out of a satin ballgown munches on a mini-fishcake. It's like being at an elaborate funeral for the human orgasm.

"What's the difference between having dirty sex in private and having it on camera, apart from the money?" says Hannah, who is slurping a cocktail called a Pussy Bomb. Porn director Dick Bush, 30, chips in. "The difference is that you don't have a bloke like me standing there, telling you to open your legs wider so the camera can get in, five minutes like that, then turn around for doggy style."

"We're all all one big happy family here," he adds, jiggling a drunken Hannah on his knee. He smoothes his hair back like a politician, and smiles. I go to the toilets to apply more makeup. There are bloodstained tissues strewn around the sinks.

The feminist porn director, Anna Span says: "There are no proven links between porn and violence, rape or any other damaging behaviour by men towards women, even though governments have spent millions of dollars trying to find one." She adds: "A third of all porn viewers online are female, too, so it no longer makes sense to discuss the subject in terms of 'men's opinions of women." Watching the Shaftas' endless rolling footage of naked people grimacing as they pummel each other's bodies robotically into submission, it strikes me that Anna is half-right: mainstream pornography is not anti-woman. It is anti-human.

Danny, 21, wins the Shafta for best male performer. He is dragged onto the stage and shouted at until he agrees to take his leviathan appendage out of his trousers. "So much blood goes to his erection that he often passes out on set. We have to hook him up to a drip," says Dick Bush. "The insurance is insane, It's an affliction." Danny waves his affliction dutifully at the crowd.

At the bar, Angel Long laughs aggressively and goes for another Pussy Bomb. "For Angel, doing porn is a competition thing rather than a sex thing," confides her friend. "She has to have the most hardcore scenes, the largest and most frequent penetrations. She's a star."

There is a hollow teenage atmosphere to this place, a desperate striving for status played out over the sort of naughty pop songs that once marked the end of school discos in the 1990s. Sullen-looking waitresses in satin thongs distribute drinks to the strains of No Diggity and Ebeneezer Goode. The guests air-kiss, greeting one another with shrill smiles: they all know why they're here. "It's for the money, and sometimes the fame," says Dick Bush, "although of course, enjoying it helps."

Pornography holds a dark mirror up to our culture. It places a frigid factory-line of violence and competition at the heart of human intimacy. With 92% of 14-17 year olds having seen porn online, a generation of young people is now growing up believing that this this brutally identikit performance is what real sex really looks like.

One doubts that any government ban on wank material will save sexuality from this trough of profit and power. "I love the idea of people watching me, of making money from performing," slurs Hannah. "but I've never had an orgasm from sex. Not from sex, no."

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

Photo: Getty
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Labour's dilemma: which voters should it try to add to its 2017 coalition?

Should the party try to win over 2017 Conservatives, or people who didn't vote?

Momentum’s latest political advert is causing a splash on the left and the right.

One of the underreported trends of 2016 was that British political parties learnt how to make high-quality videos at low-cost, and Momentum have been right at the front of that trend.

This advert is no exception: an attack that captures and defines its target and hits it expertly. The big difference is that this video doesn't attack the Conservative Party – it attacks people who voted for the Conservative Party.

Although this is unusual in political advertising, it is fairly common in regular advertising. The reason why so many supermarket adverts tend to feature a feckless dad, an annoying clutch of children and a switched-on mother is that these companies believe that their target customer is not the feckless father or the children, but the mother.

The British electorate could, similarly, be thought of as a family. What happened at the last election is that Labour won votes of the mum, who flipped from Conservative to Labour, got two of the children to vote for the first time (but the third stayed home), but fell short because the dad, three of the grandparents, and an aunt backed the Conservatives. (The fourth, disgusted by the dementia tax, decided to stay at home.)

So the question for the party is how do they do better next time. Do they try to flip the votes of Dad and the grandparents? Or do they focus on turning out that third child?

What Momentum are doing in this video is reinforcing the opinions of the voters Labour got last time by mocking the comments they’ll hear round the dinner table when they go to visit their parents and grandparents. Their hope is that this gets that third child out and voting next time. For a bonus, perhaps that aunt will sympathise with the fact her nieces and nephews, working in the same job, in the same town, cannot hope to get on the housing ladder as she did and will switch her vote from Tory to Labour. 

(This is why, if, as Toby Young and Dan Hodges do, you see the video as “attacking Labour voters”, you haven’t quite got the target of the advert or who exactly voted Labour last time.)

That could be how messages like this work for Labour at the next election. But the risk is that Mum decides she quite likes Dad and switches back to the Conservatives – or  that the second child is turned off by the negativity. And don’t forget the lingering threat that now the dementia tax is dead and gone, all four grandparents will turn out for the Conservatives next time. 

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