Friday, 12 March 2010

All About Anna

As I predicted, porn director Anna Arrowsmith's candidacy for the Liberal Democrats in Gravesham has attracted quite a lot of attention from the press. You read it here first. (Unless you got if off Twitter like I did, of course.) What I hadn't expected was that the coverage would be almost entirely uncritical. Even the Daily Mail was surprisingly complimentary - at least Ms Arrowsmith thought so - noting for example that "a quick glance through the titles of her 300 or so films may suggest she has used them to address some of the major challenges facing Britain today". The paper illustrated its story with photos of Anna Span posing with some of her performers, everyone looking happy. A potted biography of the candidate informed readers that "she became involved in porn to make it more accessible to women."

The Guardian's take was entirely straight, meanwhile. It described Span's ouevre as "250 raunchy scenes", mentioned her how-to guide for couples who want to make their own sex videos, and added approvingly that "she describes herself as a keen campaigner for women's rights and anti-censorship issues and says she has spent 12 years trying to make the adult industry more female-friendly." The Sun couldn't resist its usual lascivious tittering, telling readers that Anna Span had "produced more than 300 filthy films". But it, too, mentioned her commitment to making pornography accessible to women, describing her as a "cutting edge director" - and noted how as a child she had been "desperate" for Margaret Thatcher to be Britain's first woman prime minister.

Since the story broke yesterday (for non HC-readers, that is) Arrowsmith has been interviewed by the BBC and the Times, and commissioned to write for the Observer. The Times could find only Ann Widdecombe to condemn the selection: it was, said the retiring MP for Maidstone, "entirely inappropriate that someone involved in that sort of business should be a candidate." Nick Clegg - who perhaps has a difficult tightrope to walk here - welcomed Ms Arrowsmith's candidacy, while stressing that her films were "not exactly my cup of tea". How does he know, if he hasn't seen them?

"Everyone has been so supportive," she Tweets. Perhaps it's Span's much-vaunted feminist beliefs that afford her the benefit of the doubt - this isn't just porn, the subtext reads, this is serious political porn (even though in all honesty it isn't). Would a male pornographer who put himself forward for election attract quite such positive publicity, I wonder? While for many feminists all porn is inherently objectifying and degrading of women (and indeed of men; but mainly of women) the argument is less immediately convincing where the filmmaker is female and knows all the right words. A few years ago, Span suggested that "it’s going to take time before people realise that somebody isn’t a bad person because they choose to take their clothes off and perform sex." She also argued that attitudes towards pornography were so critical "because people haven't yet developed a language to understand it".

The description of the films themselves was notably coy in the press coverage, the tone nudge-nudge. To judge from the reports one would expect them to be fairly mild stuff. In fact, while Span's style of porn isn't exactly "extreme" - she submits everything to the BBFC for classification and is only rarely forced to make cuts - it is certainly hardcore, even rough.

She has for example contrasted her approach with that of American director Candida Royalle, whose films were made on the assumption that women wanted involving storylines and romance along with the bumping and grinding. Not a bit of it, said Anna - feminist, "female-friendly" porn could and should be just as full of in-your-face, unapologetic, anatomical sex as stuff aimed at men. She seemed to suggest that the Candida Royalle-style rom-porn was a necessary transitional phase, which risks stereotyping women as unable to enjoy sexuality in the absence emotional fulfilment: "I think the female audience has already experienced some form of transformation and needs to be treated as equals."

Perhaps it would be too much to hope that the lack of indignation, even (so far) from the Daily Mail, indicates the dawn of a more mature attitude to sex. There are, after all, only two registers in the British media when it comes to talking about sex (if one excepts the po-faced earnestness sometimes to be found in the Guardian): childish humour and hysterical moral panic. The coverage of Anna Arrowsmith/Span has so far consisted almost exclusively of the former. The latter may kick in soon enough.

Even if she doesn't win the seat (which is, to be frank, unlikely) the publicity won't have done her films' commercial prospects any harm. Such controversy as there has been seems so far to centre on Iain Dale's discovery that her personal website still (as of this morning, at any rate) announces that "Anna is liberal and open-minded but politically she supports the Labour Party, for all its sins." This is a little puzzling, given that she told The Times that she had supported the Lib Dems for the past five years (turning her back on Labour after Iraq) although she only joined the party a year ago. Presumably she had just forgotten to update her profile.

Still, her declaration of support for Labour was interestingly worded, wasn't it? She is liberal and open minded but supports Labour? I've long thought Labour illiberal and closed-minded, of course, but then I have never described myself as a Labour party supporter.

The fact that she has only been a Lib Dem party member for a year explains why I was able to discover so little about her political activity, bar her support of Jo Swinson's anti-airbrushing campaign at the party conference. I still find that strange. The idea may sound feminist in theory but it is by its very nature illiberal and quite unsupported by any scientific evidence. Indeed, buried in the recent Papadopoulos report on "sexualisation" was the information that "one study found that there was no statistical relationship between long-term exposure to thin images, the internalisation of the thin ideal and body dissatisfaction, dieting and bulimic symptoms". For some reason that didn't prevent Dr Linda from recommending a Swinson-like restrictions.

Nevertheless, among the major parties the Lib Dems probably have the fewest hang-ups over sex - something that may reflect the inheritance of the old Liberal Party. John Ozimek (who now prefers to be known as Jane) writes in a forthcoming pamphlet on alternative sexuality that it "was the party that appeared to have supped deepest of that heady draught of 60s sexual liberation that espoused the view that freedom in the areas of sex and sexuality came through living the life." And of course the one thing everyone "knows" about Nick Clegg is that he has had around 30 sexual partners. Then there was the business a few years ago with Mark Oaten, who admittedly had to withdraw from the leadership contest when it was revealed that he had developed an interest in other men's poo, but at least he remained in Parliament.

More seriously, it was a Liberal Democrat, Baroness Miller, who led the rearguard action in the House of Lords against last year's "extreme porn" legislation. One could also mention Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, a prominent party activist in Cambridge, who regularly exposes the counterproductive absurdity of Labour's prostitution policy. The Times news item about Anna Arrowsmith contrasts the fate of two previous candidates: Marina Pepper, a former glamour model who once posed for Playboy, who contested Brighton Kemptown for the Liberal Democrats in 2005, and Christine Wheatley, who was dropped as a candidate by Labour in the same year after it was revealed that she had briefly worked as an escort in Paris thirty years earlier. That tells you everything you need to know about the modern Labour Party.