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1 May 2020updated 04 Aug 2021 9:08am

From the NS archive: Why soft-core porn fails to get a rise out of me

14 December 1973: Martin Amis reviews an array of pornographic magazines and finds it a detumescing experience.

By martin amis

In 1973, following the publication of “The Rachel Papers”, Martin Amis wrote two columns for the New Statesman as the lusty “Bruno Holbrook”. The first, “Fleshspots”, was a tour of Soho strip clubs of varying distinction. In the second, he reported on the erotic bankruptcy of soft-core pornography. Amis would go on to work on the New Statesman’s books pages.

**

Realistically considered, the nude magazine is a visual aid, designed (in Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase) for lonesome men “to jerk off to”. Since my own early activities in the field were confined to nocturnal, torchlit perusals of household copies of Woman’s Realm (the underwear ads) and Littlewood’s Catalogues (surprisingly good value in this respect, actually), and since I had caught only the odd Titbits and Parade during my formative years, it was with some trepidation that I fanned out the glistening cache of masturbatory material assembled for the present report. If I was once so stirred by those reticent likenesses, how would I react in the era of the full-frontal and ice-hardened nipple, of the Tampax shot and the pubic close-up?

Now I think I know why there was once an American nude-mag called Droop. Ecce femina:

“Our pictures help to provoke those thoughts of petals, soft and silkily smooth to the fingers. . . buds flesh pink, glistening with dew as they proudly await the warm kiss of the sun to blossom round and full. Rosie. . . a bush of magical delight. There is no doubt that Stella enjoys your stares of pleasure at her luscious body. Her expression in her poses, open and honest, prove [sic] it . . . So what would Stella want from you? Perhaps, the answer is exactly what you would want from Stella. But, speculate as we may, with a woman you never know.”

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Nor you do. These paragraphs are taken from Soho International, the grubbiest item I had the stomach to purchase. That Rosie has nipples like cupcakes (and no visible bush, incidentally), and the splay-legged Stella might as well be rehearsing her 13 times table, is also very characteristic. The rougher the goods, the breathier the sell.

For the most part, the lower-order mags are grey, dispiriting bestiaries, in which haggard and portly persons display their charms with a combination of listlessness and unalluring candour. Legs are parted, breasts cupped, derrières hoisted towards camera, while the face – in life, the sexiest part of the naked female – remains dourly stupefied or else contorted in cynical ecstasy.

Now these girls are probably much on a par with some of our own imperfect consorts, and they might even prove endearing if more modestly presented. Perhaps it’s with this in mind that the pimp-like copywriters encourage you to make, as it were, the girls’ acquaintance. On the one hand, the nudes; on the other, the husky, nudging captions: caught in that sensual music, presumably, the subscriber grinds himself empty.

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As the quality of the mags rises, the canvassers have less work to do. A publication like New Chance, for example, will still gawp and gloat at its sitters but won’t actually caress itself with the deliciousness of it all. Similarly, editorial pressure eases and the nymphs are allowed to speak for themselves, although one way or another they usually end up stressing their scorn for monogamy, their freedom from inhibition, their empiricism in matters sexual, their firm preference for men with a sense of humour – in short, their availability.

Girl Illustrated is fairly typical in this respect. In the current issue, the lovelies are asked to air their views on the dividing line between sex and art, a debate that naturally enough centres on the performances of their more creative boyfriends in bed: “He was the most wonderful artist I ever met. But he didn’t use a brush” – thus spake Zette, and thus speak most of her colleagues.

No less detumescing in its way is the house-style of the ritzier glossies. Partial exceptions include Penthouse and Mayfair, which – despite Hopkinsian nonsense along the lines of “sea-spangled, sun-stained, Suki steps in sand-summer silence”, etc – limit themselves to analyses of the playmates’ careers and keep-fit programmes, only rarely probing into their lifestyles (ie, sex lives).

Conversely, Paul Raymond’s booming monthlies, Club International and Men Only, revert to a sophisticated version of Soho’s hard sell. In Club, the photographers are permitted to gurgle on about the cuties in a free-associative style, eloquent either of disabling vacuity (“Belle likes to take off all her clothes and file her toenails with her dad’s Black and Decker”), or sneering prurience.

In Men Only, the team concoct idylls round their subjects’ hackneyed whims: recluse Inga strolls the Scandinavian fjords which “allow the sounds of Sibelius to haunt the penumbras of her mind”; liberated Danielle manifests her dual commitment to free love and communism by going about Nice painting “Fuck” on backstreet walls. Since the posh magazines seem to be intent on letting everyone get on with being as silly and mawkish they please, the effect of the captions invariably runs counter to that of the (really very taking) studies they annotate.

For by now – fair’s fair – the girls are often depressingly attractive: a bit powderpuffed and idealised, but photographed with frankness, cunning, and a sound sense of what is and is not sexy. Instead of being implicit recommendations of the priestly life, these magazines actually sex you up.

And there’s the rub. The magazines I have mentioned retail at the same price (40p). Some readers may opt for the seamy mags because of the occasional shaved vagina or sapphic snap, but my guess is that they just like sex to seem monochrome, furtive, unreal. Some readers may opt for the dinkier mags because they prefer fantasy girls to everyday ones, but my guess is that they like sex to seem brisk, throwaway, unreal.

The only moralistic line one can take against these magazines is that they are malum per se: they cheapen and dehumanise; although they may not be corrupting, they are corrupt. Perhaps there’s life in this argument, despite the fact that masturbation has always been a rather private thing. If television kills the art of conversation, then nude mags kill the art of erotic imagination. Your reporter for one – meat-replete, gonad-glutted – will in future stick to the well-thumbed photographs of the mind.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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