So, naked women are fashionable again. A (male) friend of mine who works on lofty documentaries at the BBC and cheerily admits to using pornography regularly puts it this way. "The use of porn is like the use of drugs - you might be seen as a prude if you didn't indulge in some of it." But, according to him, we are not talking about old-fashioned "dirty magazines" here. We are talking "modern porn".
Modern porn is all about funky films on the sex channel Television X and reading up about the top five vibrators in a women's glossy. It's about picking up your copy of Derriere magazine (yes, indeed) from the local newsagent, catching an early-evening showing of 9 Songs, then going on to Spearmint Rhino and watching pole-dancing with the lads. Because hard-core pornography has been by and large decriminalised, magazines that formerly just alluded to the subject of, say, anal sex, are now allowed to show penetration (hello, Derriere) and no one gets done for it. "Once, these magazines were totally underground," says my friend. "Now they are freely available at dinner parties."
Today, pornography is not so much on the edges of civilised life as right there in the middle of it. The arrival of bestselling magazines such as Nuts and Zoo, with their ever more upfront use of soft porn, has contributed to this change, although some credit for the arrival of overt sexuality in the mainstream goes to smart, famous women deliberately using erotica to make headlines - the Vanity Fair covers by Annie Leibovitz, for example, or the imagery of Madonna, who cemented the notion that Working Woman could indeed operate alongside Erotic Babe, in the same persona and (almost) the same outfit.
The photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, who snaps women bound up in rubber, wearing fishtails and so on, says that everything changed in 1992, when Madonna's book Sex was published. "Hetero erotica used to be impossible. And women were so unfashionable! The whole business used to be about mechanics with bulging biceps and a fundamentally gay outlook, and was focused on the work of people like Robert Mapplethorpe. I went to LA a few years ago with a portfolio of pictures of women, and they said, shaking their heads: 'Wrong sex.' Fortunately, the climate changed with Helmut Newton. And the other person was Madonna. Directly after Sex came out, models started coming through the studio doors naked. Almost overnight."
Andy Ide, my former beau from our time at university, is a soft-porn director working for Richard Desmond's Television X. Keen NS readers will know I have written before about Ide - or rather, about my surprise at discovering what he is up to.
"It's a noble profession - if you get it right, that is," he attests. He says his films are "funky and left-field. I want to create something that twentysomethings and thirtysomethings can really get a kick out of, not like the old style of soft porn." Meaning? "Some people like to see the girl next door. Others want to have glossy porn with chic couples," he explains kindly. "I like to boost the horn content. I don't want creativity to get in the way of the horn . . .
"Some films these days concentrate on everything except the sex," Ide also says. "I try to shoot improvised dialogue, Mike Leigh-style. If you are hiring performers to fuck in front of a camera, that is what you are hiring them to do. You are not hiring them to learn lines and do a script. So what you do is make sure at least one person is all right with improvising.
"I plan the first three minutes of each film, much as a mainstream director might for a multiplex. And then you let them go. I like to include faces in my films. Obviously you have to show the gyno shots, but you also have to show people enjoying themselves." I nod, inwardly cringing at the terminology.
Is it only about the gyno shots? You bet. Anyone who wants to do something arty and serious with their cameras is a mere "propeller head", according to Ide. "It's a Faustian pact. Your job is to make a film that makes people come. But as long as you deliver the horn, there is room for a whole lot more," he insists.
Ide explains that the rising profile of sexual imagery in the mainstream has had a fundamental effect on his work. Women willing to play ball, as it were, in a soft-porn film are a rarity, largely because there is now too much competition from the mainstream for what they can offer. Where once there was only page three, now there is a raft of male-orientated glossies.
This causes Ide all sorts of difficulties, and not only those of an overcrowded market place. There is, for instance, the knotty problem of models turning up with a proper amount of hair in key places. As even a cursory glance in the changing rooms will attest, no decent woman can go out these days without being waxed to a pole-dancer's minimum requirements. Forget the bikini line; it's landing strips we all want nowadays. "No woman has a decent amount of pubic hair any more, because everyone is walking around with Brazilians," grumbles Ide. "It drives me mad. I offer them money to grow it back, but they refuse."
Basically, the demand for pretty girls to take their clothes off outstrips the supply. "Lads' mags and the lap-dancing clubs have created so many opportunities," Ide says. "So it's difficult for me to find actors particularly as, with porn, they obviously have to have sex." At least one hopes the performers will be able to charge a fair amount for their time; one still suspects that, fashionable though it may be, anyone appearing in a porn flick is likely to be doing so out of desperation.
Let's get straight to the point. Porn may be in vogue, and have a French title, or come with fancy ribbon around it. Porn films may have pretensions of trading up to the status of Mike Leigh movies with gyno shots. But in the end modern porn is just like any other porn. What it boils down to is no more glamorous or clever than finding a swift and easy route to self-gratification. And surely, creativity in life, from making films to making babies, has got to be about more than that.