Pornography series 2 – the dealers

The Guardian, November 28 1994

Forty years ago, the pornography industry in Britain consisted of a single London dustman. His name was Ron Davey and he stumbled on to a source of easy money when he discovered the Surrey Nudist Club, where a few of the women members were happy to pose for photographs. Mr Davey copied their blanched breasts and carefully folded thighs on an aging Gestetner and managed to sell several hundred pictures a week.

Today, the heirs to Mr Davey’s enterprise are extremely wealthy men. Some of them still work illegally, in a black market which has flourished and grown into a lucrative international business. The distribution of pornography has attracted some of the old London crime families who buy videos in Holland, break open the cassette so that they can easily conceal the little spool of tape, smuggle it into the UK and sell copies through mail order, usually from a PO box back in Holland. On the rare occasions when police have managed to trace them, they have found businesses with annual turnovers in the millions.

For years, there has been little or no production of illegal adult pornography in Britain, but now it has become a natural sideline for the men who run prostitutes in British cities, most of whom also sell crack cocaine. A big North London pimp who was arrested earlier this year in possession of guns and cocaine, had a studio in his basement flat, where he offered his women crack for their compliance. His men whipped one prostitute so badly that they had to stop filming and dump her in a public toilet. When he was arrested, he was driving a brand new Jaguar XJ6 and sporting a wallet which was said to have been ‘as thick as a Bible’.

This new line in the production of adult material follows a well-established industry of ‘home-made’ child pornography which grew up in Britain in the 1970s and has never been broken. When police in Portsmouth arrested one leading paedophile pornographer, John Bulloch, he explained that he had been making up to six videos a week of himself having sex with young girls and that he knew of a dozen other men who were also producing and selling for a market whose demand seemed insatiable. But the clever pornographers, the men who have made the really big money, are the ones who work with the law on their side.

The richest man in Britain now is a pornographer. Paul Raymond, who controls some 50% of the market, has accumulated a fortune of £1,700 million and continues to earn a regular income of £11,000 an hour. No one in this country has more money than Paul Raymond. Last year, in Britain, he and his fellow dealers sold more than 20 million pornographic magazines through High Street newsagents. Their industry earned some £52 million. And they are still growing. Pornography now is the fastest-growing sector of the British magazine market, and there has been a comparable boom in videos.

Those who produce these glossy colour magazines will tell you that this is not pornography at all, that this is a respectable business.They will tell you that they employ a lot of people, they pay a lot of taxes, they satisfy a well-established demand in the market place and that, although there may be some nasty stuff at the illegal end, their product is not really pornography at all. ‘Adult magazines,’ they call it. ‘Glamour publishing. The top shelf market’. And yet….

The whole pornography industry in Britain has been riding on an escalator and as Soho and the illegal dealers have moved upwards towards more bizarre and more violent material, so the legal ‘top shelf’ dealers have moved up behind to take their place. They now sell through High Street newsagents material that would once have been hard to handle even under the counters of Soho. So far from being different and distinct, the two markets – the respectable and the hardcore – have been intimately connected. And, as time goes by, the distinction is increasingly hard to spot.

Scotland Yard noticed this escalator at work last year when the then head of the Obscene Publications Squad, Michael Hames, analysed a small stack of paperwork which he had seized from hard-core mail order firms. “We looked in some detail at the material which was being ordered. We found that something like 70% of the requests were for material at the extreme end – rape, torture, eating of excrement, urination. This was not about consensual sex, heterosexual or homosexual. This was much more bizarre than it had been.”

You can see the equivalent shift in the Top Shelf market, which has spawned 68 new titles in the last four years. And almost without exception these new titles are what the trade calls euphemistically ‘specialist’ – bondage, rubber worship, whipping, tattooing, old women, fat women, black women, fat black women, shaved women. All of them are produced by real women who are variously stripped, shaved, caned, and wrapped up in rubber to make the pictures. And as these new titles have found their way onto the top shelf, the older titles alongside them have adapted to compete.

Take Penthouse, for example, ‘the international magazine for men’, one of the oldest and most respectable on the top shelf, modeled on Playboy, pitched at the business executive. Now, look at its colour advertisements for telephone sex lines. These are not exactly glamour: “Piss on my tits…Wank Into My Wet Mouth… Let Me Lick Your Arse… Suspended and Strapped… Inexperienced Woman Made To Suck Cock…” One naked model has a speech bubble coming out of her mouth to tell the readers of Penthouse: “You can do anything to me. Please abuse me.”

Penthouse also sells hard core pornographic videos. For example, SFP Trading from Brighton are using the columns of Penthouse at the moment to distribute 65 videos of women being beaten up. Carlton Trading, who sell from a PO box in Amsterdam, are using Penthouse to trade 24 colour videos including 90 minutes of women being buggered and a special on ‘forced sex, leather and chains’.

This UK edition of Penthouse is published by Mr Richard Desmond, who is a most respectable businessman. He lives in a mighty mansion near Hampstead Heath, drives a Bentley, sports a fat cigar and counts the Duke of Edinburgh among his supporters. Last year, the Duke even went round and cut the ribbon at Mr Desmond’s new block of offices in the London Docklands. Mr Desmond’s company, Northern and Shell, publish 15 different pornographic titles (‘the best in top shelf entertainment’). He has explored almost every little niche of the market.

He publishes fat women without their clothes in Big and Fat; elderly women without their clothes in Forty Plus; women dressed in rubber and PVC in Eros. He is especially keen on race and sex. His magazines have been advertising a video called Shunta: “If you’re turned on by Pakistani women this is the video for you – real Asian sex. Shunta is married with four children (witness the stretch marks for yourself). It could be why she’s able to take the really big guys without even wincing. For hard cash, she will do whatever someone asks… On this video, you can witness Shunta being given a good seeing to by her ‘new white men friends’.” And there she is in the photograph holding the bottom of her T-shirt up to her throat to show off the goods for Mr Desmond’s readers.

He sells Black and Blue (“Packed Full of Bra-Bustin’ Black babes… Meat our Hot Chocolate Babes.”) as well as Asian Babes (“Eastern Cuties Show the Lot… Pakistani Princesses of Porn… I Need Three Men, Pants Naughty Norinda…”). Asian Babes is currently running advertisements for a Leicester company called Filco, which specialises in importing hard-core videos from the Third World – Cambodian virgins, Thai ‘teenage babes’, Phillipino women wrestling in English school uniforms, women from Africa, India, Brazil, China, all of them variously subjected to the extremes of sex and violence, all of it on colour video cassettes (one for £15, five for £50).

Paul Raymond is no different. His seven glossy magazines, which dominate the Top Shelf market, advertise the same kind of phone lines (“Fulfill your kinks with horny sluts”) and the same kind of films, including sex with animals, sex with grandmothers and a straight 60 minutes of women using toilets in close-up. His magazine, Escort, was caught running advertisements for a paedophile who offered ‘schoolgirl photos’ through a box number and sold hundreds of photographs of children in grotesque poses.

Ray Wyre, who spends his life trying to unravel the knotted personalities of sex offenders, was amazed to see a copy of Razzle, one of the magazines that has made Mr Raymond so rich: “There were references to four kinds of criminal behaviour. There was a letter from a reader who said he had drilled holes in the bathroom wall so that he could watch his relatives and friends going to the toilet and so on. There was another man who said he believed that if he was any kind of a man, he would rape this woman he was interested in. There was an article on peeping toms which suggested that women who think they are being watched will expose themselves more, and there was an offer to pay £5 for photographs of women in unaware positions. All these things are criminal. You get arrested and sent to see me for doing them.”

The businessmen who are harvesting this cash crop of women do so at little cost to their respectability. Just as Richard Desmond has been able to count on the support of the Royal Family, so Paul Raymond has found himself a guest at Downing Street, welcomed to a reception by Mrs Thatcher. However, some of them have needed a measure of hypocrisy to maintain their respectability.

WH Smith, for example, the most respectable of the High Street newsagents, refuse to sell almost all of these magazines on their shelves. “It is a matter of public taste,” they say, “a question of what our customers expect to see from us.” And yet the same WH Smith run a wholesale division which is one of the biggest distributors of pornography in this country. Last year, they supplied nearly £25 million of magazines for the top shelves of High Street newsagents, and their internal newsletter, Relay, shows that pornography is an increasing proportion of their trade. They won’t touch the extremes, but some of the stuff which WH Smith supply is pretty rough.

For example, they have been promoting a magazine called Lipstick, which is almost entirely devoted to oral sex. “More Suck-ulent Sensations Bend to Your Will… Suck it and See – Our Girls Do.” The magazine carries advertisements for phone lines which specialise in women drinking urine and semen. It runs a cartoon about Little Oral Annie who spends almost every frame on her knees in front of some suit. It has jokes about secretaries called Miss Suckworthy and Miss Cockworthy and its readers’ letters debate the advantages of oral sex in Asia: “Are slant-eyed suckers best?”

WH Smith argue that they are simply responding to a demand. However, some newsagents disagree. They say that Smiths are actively creating the demand by supplying pornographic magazines on sale or return even though they have not been requested by either the newsagent or his customers. One north London agent, Hamdy Shahein, in Stoke Newington High Street, has been fighting a running battle with Smiths to stop them sending him any pornography at all. They keep saying that they will stop, and yet it keeps coming. At the moment, he has a fat pile of unsolicited Lipstick magazines in his back room.

Now Mr Shahein says he wants to sue them. “I did used to sell pornography and I used to make a lot of money out of it. But I stopped because of what is happening to the children around me, rapes and so on. The magazines became worse, too. When I stopped, I had big support from a lot of people coming in the shop – ‘thank you for taking it out’. But I can’t stop Smiths sending this stuff to me. I spent a lot of time on the phone to Smiths, writing letters to them, going to see them. They always said they would stop it, but they don’t. Now I put it in the back room. I won’t pay for it and I won’t put it on my shelves.”

This tidal change, which has seen the legitimate market move into waters which once belonged entirely to the black market, has carried with it the women who work in the production of pornography, drawing them deeper and deeper into more extreme and violent work. A young woman named Megan discovered this when she moved from Cornwall to London and found herself isolated, short of cash and unqualified for any well-paid work. A friend from her home town, who was already in London, showed her advertisements for models in the evening paper and told her that she was so pretty that she was bound to get work.

“So I called one of these numbers and they asked me to come along. They were in Southwark in one of those little units on an industrial estate and there was this man, who was quite charming really, who told me to change into a swim suit and high heels. I was very nervous but they just took a few pictures and told me they’d call me. They said they’d have to see how I looked in them because you can be all right in the flesh but the camera may not like you.”

When the photographer called her a few days later to say that her pictures were very good, Megan was glad not only for the prospect of earning some money but also because she felt as though she had passed some kind of test. Glowing with approval, she signed on as a resident model, posing for photographers who hired her along with the studio. “I started doing topless stuff, not hard core, never open legs. Sometimes two girls were allowed, but not men. I wasn’t doing anything major league rude. I was getting £15 an hour and I started signing on with other studios.”

Megan was working at the very softest end of the industry and, to start with, she was happy enough, hiring out her breasts. But she began to feel she was being pushed around. “I looked like a bimbo, and I was treated like a bimbo. I was prepared to do it because I couldn’t find any other way to earn the money, but I felt like the photographers had bought me. They’d bring over the light meter and rest it on my shoulder and touch my hair or move it or stroke it or start straightening my bra strap. And they were always pushing you to go a little bit further, trying to get you to do things you didn’t want to do.

“There was a swing in the studio and one of them had me leaning on it and looking back over my shoulder. I was wearing a very short skirt and he kept asking me to lean a little further forward and a little more, just a little more. I knew he was trying to get a shot of my backside. But he’s saying ‘Oh, I like this long angle. Oh, you’ve got a lovely curvy back.’ And it’s just your arse they’re looking at. And I wouldn’t have it, and they’d get very angry. But a lot of the young girls would give in.

“And once you’re in the business, you are constantly being pushed to work for these other people. Girls would start in a studio like mine, which was just playing about really, helping a photographer to build up his portfolio, and then they’d be offered a spread in Men Only – £250, but it’s open legs and they write all this filthy stuff about you. I’d see girls saying they were just going to do a few of those until they earned enough for some particular thing they wanted, but they’d get sucked into it. They get frantic about how they look. They take slimming pills, they go to exercise clubs and spend hours on tanning beds. They can’t keep up with themselves. They start off doing it for money and then they end up spending a fortune to stay with the work.

“The rougher the work, the more they’ll get paid. They get offered hard-core modelling and live sex lines. I know some who have ended up doing work with torture racks and leather masks over their faces. I was very friendly with a model who had always said she wouldn’t do that kind of work, but she needed more money, so she said she’d do one, then she did another and eventually she had a nervous break-down and ended up in Friern Barnet Hospital.”

The police who deal with pornography have watched with bewildered fascination as the suppliers of pornography have pushed back the line of acceptability. And as they watch the national psyche drift off course, they wonder why it has happened.

It is possible, they guess, that there was always a demand for images of women being tormented and that for years it was simply frustrated. But it is more likely, they believe, that the open supply of hard-core pornography has raised the threshold of frustration for its consumers, so that they are moving up a kind of spiral of depravity, looking for more and more bizarre material to provide the intensity of excitement which was once provided simply by the illicit sight of the women of the Surrey Nudist Club. And enough men are making enough money from it to ensure that the supply continues to stoke up the demand.

The men who consume Top Shelf magazines may want to be free to look at these images, and the attack on them by right-wing Christians like Mary Whitehouse has failed. But this is not an argument about sexual freedom. To ban pornography is no more an attack on sexual freedom than the banning of piracy is an attack on sailing. The crucial issue is the damage which may be done to those who are involved in its production and that, in turn, is a question of consent.

If there are women who genuinely and freely choose to publish photographs of their genitals, as perhaps the women of the Surrey Nudist Club once did, then there is no great problem in men buying them. But if the truth is that these women are doing so only because they are financially pressured or emotionally damaged or, at the hard-core end, physically coerced, then that is not free consent, and the men who buy the photographs – and the men who sell them – are exploiting them.

If it is also true that there is a kind of conveyor belt at work, pulling women from Top Shelf work into the hard-core end of the industry, and if the industry as a whole is moving further and further into hard-core material, then the damage which is inflicted is all the clearer and the claim of consent is all the weaker. The position that may have been tenable 30 years ago – that any attack on pornography was an attack on freedom – collapses in the face of an industry whose entrepreneurs have pushed its boundaries so far so fast.