God loves a sinner that repents more than ninety-nine righteous men. But when it comes to preaching on TV about the effects of porn, even the Almighty might wince at the hypocrisy demonstrated on Channel 4 this week by Martin Daubney, former editor of UK lads mag Loaded. Daubney fronted C4’s shockumentary “Porn on the Brain”, billed as a ground-breaking exposé of how teenagers’ pornography habits have changed and the effect porn is having on their brains. Since he praised model Abi Titmus for doing “subservient poses with her arse in the air that other girls won’t do” and described men’s sexual health features as “boring”1, Daubney has apparently experienced a Damascene conversion. Concerned for the future of his young son, he now writes for the Daily Mail and takes an anti-porn stand on Twitter. So what better figure to lead a further media-driven instalment of the moral panic over the impact of pornography on the nation’s youth.
The substance of the programme was predictable to anyone familiar with the current corruption of innocence debate: interviews with school kids whose familiarity with sexual activity Daubney’s generation never knew even in their wildest wet dreams; MRI scans of brains supposedly addled by exposure to porn; and the compulsory trip to the Netherlands to see how sex education works so much better over there. So much, so predictable. As usual, the really important questions got squeezed out by the hyperbole of talking head TV. How do we educate young people to evaluate sexual activity online, to exercise critical judgement about what is real or fantasy, liberating or exploitative, and how do we enable them to make informed choices about what sort of sexual activities they want to try? Daubney’s only answer was to encourage families to have that traditional uncomfortable talk about sex. But given that the programme was likely to leave parents distressed at the supposed deluge of “Asian Butt Fisting” videos streaming onto their kids’ mobiles during break time, open and honest discussion of sex hardly seems more likely.
But while the programme informed the pornification debate not a jot, it did tell us a lot about Daubney and his view of his role in the proliferation of pornography in the UK. Daubney now looks back on his past with blue tinted spectacles. The 2000s were “an age of innocence”. Zoo, Nuts and Loaded may have vied with each other on nipple counts, but “it never occurred to us that was porn,” protests Daubney. Yet these magazines were as influential in making it acceptable to objectify women as Playboy and Mayfair in the 1960s and 70s, but this time the new market for glamour and lifestyle porn was young adult males. Apparently Daubney had no idea then of what he learned in the programme, that the teenage brain might be particularly susceptible to sexual stimulation. Perhaps he was just naive and ran Loaded as some sort of immature joke, whose tit fests had a “sense of humour” quite unlike the current “buffet of online depravity”. Yet this is the man who said of the ubiquitous Ms Titmus: “The great thing about Abi is she’ll say exactly what men want to hear – that she likes being bent over from behind, shagged like an animal1.” Innocence indeed.
Daubney likes to play the idiot. When the programme moves to the mandatory experiment to show how porn might impact the pleasure centres of the brain, he needs to find “someone really smart” to carry it out. C4’s study, undertaken with Cambridge University, has a control group of 20 healthy guys and 20 men “so controlled by porn they were willing to take part in this study”, making this not so much TV science as vintage Brass Eye. Daubney too is ready to face the MRI porn test, and having spent much of his career micro-analysing women’s bodies, he admits to “absolutely crapping myself” that his brain would give him away as a “porn fiend”. Fortunately, although excited by what he sees, his response was barely visible, whereas the brains of the compulsive porn users “lit up like Christmas trees”. Science journalist of the year he is not.
Rather than being a study of porn’s potential impact on youth, this programme was more a ham-fisted attempt by Daubney to absolve himself of any responsibility for what he sees now as a harmful social trend, the further integration of porn into mainstream youth culture. Unfortunately he doesn’t even have the half defence of the Playboy generation that they were seeking to liberate sexuality through porn. New Laddism was not in fact divorced from the growth of the world wide web and the increasing ubiquity of sexual imagery. It was part and parcel of the process, naked commercialism personified in Abi-on-all-fours, ads for phone sex chat lines and as many images as you could download at increasing broadband speed.
Yet rather than face up to this negative social legacy and offer a sincere mea culpa, Daubney prefers to see that era as just good clean fun. In the end he is just another haggard old masturbator turned moral crusader, a man who plastered tits across teenage boys’ bedrooms but prefers to use “willy” rather than “penis” and is shocked at the idea of teaching the names of genitalia to kids. His immature sexuality fitted him perfectly to sell sexual imagery in bulk to adolescent males alongside aspirational advertising for designer clothing and men’s cosmetics. His hypocrisy continues to be typical of a society that considers censoring the web on one hand while viewing lap dancing clubs as tools to empower women and regenerate high streets on the other. In the end, this was all just too much about Martin, as when he confronts his dad, a retired miner, about the box of porn mags that Daubney once found under a bed. As Daubney Senior reminds his son, “That was when you realised what you were going to grow into…a wanker.”
- Janice Turner, “Dirty Young Men”, The Guardian, 22 October, 2005. http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2005/oct/22/weekend7.weekend3