Richard Benson considers whether boyhood was more innocent in the 1980s compared to today.
We drew Mrs. Foster’s brown velour curtains against the July afternoon sunlight and the neighbor’s enquiring eyes, and in the shafts of light dust bounced up with the weight of our sitting down. There were fifteen of us altogether, fifteen teenage boys blustering and flustering hormonally in the half-light. The room was the lounge of a modern semi-detached house; two Dralon sofas, a big TV set, the faint odor of furniture polish and food. Our tense, cushion-hugging self-consciousness was relieved by intermittent cheering and bursts of banter about who was and was not likely to get laid at the Town Hall disco later that evening. I was about to watch my first porn film. It was a Friday afternoon in the 1980s, and I was 16.
The whole affair was planned to take advantage of Mr. and Mrs. Foster’s being away for the weekend. The video cassette was supplied by Neil’s older brother Andy, and when we arrived, before the viewing even started Neil offered us all cans of lager, which I’m not sure anyone liked, although we each took one. We stood about in the kitchen drinking it before processing to the lounge, and Neil brought downstairs a carrier bag, and pulled out – to cheers — the cassette.
Thirty years later I remember nothing whatsoever of the film we watched. I’m sure it would have been aimed at a straight market (though more of that later), but who or what it was about I have no idea. What I remember is the atmosphere in the room, a teenage-boy rite-of-passage atmosphere of nerviness, vulnerability and shouting. “That’ll be me tonight!” “LOOK AT THAT!” “Neil mate, your mam and dad’ve just come back!” etc etc etc.
The mood and behavior continued as, after the film ended, we all walked up to the disco at the rugby club saying we were now in the mood, and predicting which of the girls we’d get off with. The porn had been much less an end in itself, and more a means to our bonding, and it felt great, because all our insecurities were dissolved in a single, collective, outward-facing outlaw identity. Obviously no one expressed it in those terms; we expressed it by furtively comparing girls in the disco to girls in the film, and saying we were going to get off with them. One or two of the better-looking, more confident boys might have pulled girls, I can’t remember. Even if they did, I doubt it would have led to sex afterwards. I know most of us just sat drinking more beer that we didn’t really like, and then went home.
I thought about this episode recently because a British women’s magazine asked me to consider, in a 1500-word feature, whether boyhood in the 1980s was more innocent than boyhood in 2014. There was good reason to consider the question. In Britain, women aged 18-24 are now the group most at risk from domestic abuse, and it seems likely that this is linked to an increase in misogyny, and to the nature of sexualized images in the media. Teachers report disturbing behavior among pupils: in February this year a headmaster at a Welsh primary school told a newspaper he had seen six year olds enacting rape scenes from Grand Theft Auto.
But were we more “innocent” in those halcyon days before internet pornography, lads mags, rape jokes, video games and the new era of aggressive celebrity coverage? I don’t know. It is probably unknowable. Certainly there are differences in the availability and consumption of sexualized media images. The greatest of these differences seems to lie in the perceived relationships between, “media” and “real life.” Our porn was exotic, acquired by friends’ elder brothers and smuggled around town in carrier bags. It had to be viewed in secret in darkened rooms. Whatever you thought it was, you didn’t think it had anything to do with actual life as you lived it — if it had been, it might have reduced the appeal. True, there were Readers’ Wives magazines, but they were a joke, an outlet for weirdoes and mocked by stand-up comics. Our porn was a fantasy medium, Linda Lovelace no more or less real than Princess Leia or Galadriel.
Since the 1990s, however, that gap has been closing, and not only because of the popularity of amateur pornography and webcam sites. In the UK men’s magazines and websites feature parades of “real girls” or non-models (and models purporting to be non-models) posing semi-naked with interviews in which they claim to love a) cheeky boys and b) the sort of nookie cheeky boys like, such as threesomes, sex with girls, kinky movies etc, etc, etc. These “High Street Honeys” (that’s FHM’s term) and “Bedroom Babes” are in the same ballpark as the promiscuous female characters in scripted reality shows, really. Should you require an actual example of such a real-life girl, there are the burgeoning sex-based dating services promising contact details of “1000s of real women desperate for male attention” as the tabloid Sunday Sport puts it. Until it closed a month ago, Nuts magazine advertised its Hook-ups service among the real girls Bedroom Babes pages, not blurring the lines between “media” and “real life” so much as fusing the two ideas.
Add to this the photos of ex-girlfriends texted among friends, the grabbed Snapchat images and the dodgy sex ‘n’ Photoshopping, and old distinctions between real and represented melt away. Some critics might worry about the effect of images of retouched, unattainable bodies in the media, but it seems to me there is an equal danger from this opposite phenomenon; a fictional world, presented as real, in which ordinary, libidinous girls are attainable almost without effort. It is rather similar to the non-fictional one, described by Nancy Jo Sales in her 2013 Vanity Fair story about tech and teenage sexuality, in which “boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers.”
It is one thing to identify a particular trend in the mass media, and quite another to judge whether or not this trend symptomizes a decline in innocence among young men. Considered in psychological and moral terms, this issue yields ideas that are a little more complex, nuanced and personally troubling than those that fit easily into a 1500-words magazine feature. Did the real problem not lie in school sex education, cut back under the current Conservative government, and even before then entirely inadequate. Why, in the 21st century, do we still teach sex only in terms of biology, as if emotion is irrelevant? Why do we not tell teenage girls what “consent” means? Why not tell boys about the sort of behaviors that girls hope for, if not expect?
What, exactly, are we afraid of our children knowing?
When I began thinking about this, I saw that there is in effect collusion between parents, politicians and educators to minimize the practical information about sex and sexuality supplied to girls and boys. This minimizing leaves open a wide, clear channel for the private and vested interests who benefit and profit from kids’ susceptibility to sexual stereotyping. Your teacher won’t tell you What Girls Want, but FHM certainly will, and FHM will turn it into a subject in which you can feel bonded with other blokes. So the subject is really sexuality and gender under capitalism, which is one to which I happen to have given some thought over the years, because of my father.
My father was a decent enough man, a smallholding farmer of the old school. When his farm started losing money in the late 1980s, my mother had good ideas about how he might change his business, but the more money he lost, the less willing he was to listen. This was partly because he had been brought up to believe that women were bad with money, and more because he felt that as the boss/patriarch, he should be able to sort it out. It was the sort of behavior that appears as vain pig-headedness, and is, to those familiar with the subject, one kind of the peculiar male agonies that hurt both the subject and those around them. My father lost the farm, and never recovered his old equanimity; humiliated, he suffered depression and died nine years later. I believe that my dad’s liberation as a man could have been tied to his wife’s liberation as a woman. I fear that this sounds almost trite, but it is true, and I suspect it is also true for a lot of men who try to impress each other by denigrating women.
But, TMI. Magazine features benefit from having a single, strong, clear idea, so I focused on the closing of the media-reality-gap angle, wondering to myself how that would have felt for me and my friends behind the brown velour curtains. I cannot know how that makes men in the younger generation feel, but I can imagine how it might have impacted relations between my peers and, say, those girls at the disco. I think of Tina and Dawn, the two Kohl’d, tonged-haired, Juicy-Fruit chewing sirens of our year who had boyfriends in the army, and a precociousness that instilled such terror you averted your eyes in their presence. In a strange way their power held all the boys in check somehow, and that power came from sex’s having a curtained mystery to it. If someone had grabbed a Snapchat image of Dawn looking compromised and texted it around the school — this being something that happened last year in a school where a friend of mine teaches — it just wouldn’t have been the same.
Which is what reality-blurring does, doesn’t it? It takes that almost comically powerful female sexuality, demystifies and commodifies it, then implies that all girls should be as game as Libby the breathtaking brunette from Brum (a “real” girl, as described by one lads’ magazine this Spring, from “Brum” meaning hailing from Birmingham) who, she “said,” loves “beautiful girls with massive boobs!” It means that the divide between “media pressure” and “peer pressure,” dissolved on the day that the first dork Photoshopped his classmate’s head onto a Page-3 model’s body and showed it to his friends in school.
In London, a charity called the Gender Rights and Equality Action Trust (GREAT) runs what it calls the Great Men Value Women initiative, which sends volunteers into schools to explore boy’s ideas about masculinity. Its highest-profile volunteer is Doc Brown, brother of Zadie Smith. As part of the research for the magazine story I went to Borough, in South London to meet its campaign manager, 23-year-old Sarah Perry, and Executive Director Maria Neophytou, 36. The offices were in the basement of an office block whose premises were mostly occupied by charities and NGOs. GREAT’s small staff was made of T-shirted and be-jeaned men and women in their 20s and 30s with the busy and focused look of dedicated believers in a cause. Sarah began by showing me collages boys had made when given a variety of consumer magazines and told to choose images that signified “success” for men. The images were all of either middle-aged businessmen in suits, sportsmen or women either topless or in lingerie. “It’s the uniformity of what they admire that struck me at first, says Perry. “I mean, it’s not surprising — you know, passivity, and physicality. But no one ever has a different view.”)
Perry, who admitted that when she started the work she was surprised by the “barrages of sexism” at the beginning of sessions thought that smart phones had increased boys’ access to hardcore sexual images, and brought about a marked shift in the way the internet was used. “When I was a teenager, homes had one PC, and parents were suspicious, so they policed it. Now parents are more relaxed, and the phones are unpoliceable anyway.”
However, she added, some GREAT staff feel the judgment and criticism of women’s bodies in mainstream media such as, say, MailOnline’s “sidebar of shame” column of gossip stories, many of which feature discussions and criticism of female celebrities’ bodies, has just as much, if not more, influence. “In my opinion,” said Neophytou, “mainstream content — the celebrity and lads magazines, the media judging women for having cellulite or no make up on, is just as problematic as pornography. You can tell the boys get overwhelmed and confused by it. When you get them to question it for the first time, a lot of them open right up and change their minds.” Perry nodded at this, and I had a sense that having passed through some initial surprise at boys’ sexism, both women found much to pity, or at least sympathize with.
“A lot of it’s myth-busting, really,” said Sarah. “In one of the workshops a boy asked us if it was true that crying made men’s willies shorter.”
Looking back, I think part of what we were doing in Neil’s lounge was allaying worries about what may or may not make our willies grow shorter. I’d never have believed that story about crying (I didn’t believe Sarah when she told me, though she emphatically insists the boy really asked) but we were gullible regarding myths about sex, just as boys are now. At least two of the banterers at Neil’s were gay, but both were very much trying to appear straight, to be straight, and one was trying to convince himself that he wasn’t having the feelings that he did. (Both have since told me). Metaphorically speaking, it is similar to what some adult men are doing when they go in large groups to the darkened caves of lap dancing clubs; not so much looking at as looking with. As for what they’re specifically trying to hide from others or from themselves — well, for all the sexual and non-sexual explicitness of the great Age of Information, I’m not sure we’re any closer to knowing that than we were in the innocent and long-ago Eighties.
About Richard Benson
Richard Benson’s first book, The Farm: The Story of One Family and the English Countryside was a number-one best-seller, shortlisted for The Guardian First Book Award. His second, The Valley, a multi-generational history of a working-class family in the north of England, was recently published by Bloomsbury. In the 1990s Richard edited The Face magazine, and has since written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The New York Times and BBC Radio 4. He is currently a contributing editor to Esquire, and a columnist for British Farmer and Grower.
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.
Photo credit: IsabelleTheDreamer/flickr