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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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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

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