A perfectly British business: Stagnation, continuities, and change on the top shelf

Clarissa Smith*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


It used to be complaints about scantily clad ladies in provocative poses, but now opponents of girlie magazines are applauding the accumulation of dust on British newsagents' top shelves as sales of soft-core plummet. In defiance of the claims of antiporn campaigners that pornography can only proliferate if allowed high street outlets, this branch of sexually explicit production seems to have had its day. All the major UK publishers have felt the effects of waning sales and diminishing profits as "top-shelf lovelies" have been replaced by more profitable sandwiches in high street newsagents. The decline of the girlie magazine could simply be ascribed to competition from new media formats, but the picture is more complex than a linear movement of consumer preference from page to screen. Research and debate about "pornography" have tended to favor exploration of content and effects, ignoring investigation of the market and the political and institutional frameworks that determine the professional production of top-shelf magazines: the economics of the trade are generally judged to be exploitative and therefore to be condemned, not investigated. Thus, very little reliable empirical and statistical evidence exists. In the twilight zone, regulated and curtailed by a legal system that grudgingly acknowledges profitability but not probity, soft-core pornography has rarely been considered as a business. The details of who owns what; the production contexts of girlie magazine publishing; and the costs of staffing a magazine, commissioning articles and photography, and preparing layout, print, and distribution are discussed only in the context of scandalized exposés of the possible harms of smut for profit. Traditionally, discussions of pornography have failed to engage directly with either the producers of pornography, except as the vilified and shadowy figure of the "pornographer," or readers of such material except where those readers "confess" to the ways in which pornography has contributed to their corruption. 1 Where women's voices have featured in accounts of the pornography industry, it has generally been as victims either of its production processes or of its use in social or personal situations.2 These accounts, with their attendant focus on the "harms" of pornography, have also tended to sediment the gender divisions of "male perpetrator" and "female victim" so that pornography has achieved dubious status as the subordinating representational regime underpinning patriarchy. The central characters in the pornography drama have not, of course, gone unchallenged, but, where authors have raised important questions about porn's monolithic status within academic, legal, and social discussion, their interventions are not problem free. They tend to valorize certain "transgressive" practices of producing and using pornography, thereby contributing to a further hierarchizing of desire with "radical" or politicized porn at the top and the more mundane and widespread use of mass-market porn at the bottom. The recuperation of some producers as "sex radicals" does not illuminate the more mundane activities of the "pornocrats"-those publishers whose intentions are not taboo busting for political ends but, rather, for economic rewards. Beyond being an object of concern, pornography is a continuously expanding phenomenon, constantly able to "reinvent" itself (although the extent to which its favorite representational tropes are reinvented is the subject of some dispute), utilizing new technologies such as CD-ROM, video, and the Internet in order to reach ever more consumers. The exploitation of new technology is matched by an ability to cater to increasingly specialized markets: for example, the rise of materials addressed to gay and lesbian consumers and the growth of sadomasochism (S-M) materials. These expansions have seen pornography move from a very narrow availability to what at times seems like very mainstream acceptability.3 Although its expansion is a fascinating area for exploration and investigation, I focus here on stories of stagnation and contraction: one high-profile publisher has recently proclaimed the death of the UK's traditional soft-core business. This essay focuses on one sexually explicit media form: British soft-core publications available at high street newsagents.5 The UK pornographic publishing market can be divided into two spheres: material that does not violate current laws in force (i.e., legal material) and everything else. My concern here is the legally available material easily accessible through the network of newsagents throughout the United Kingdom. In the past two years the soft-core scene in Britain has changed substantially with the decision by the British Board of Film Certification (BBFC) to pass seven explicit videos for R18 certification on appeal.6 This has meant that sex shops are finally able to sell explicit and close-up shots of actual penetration; in line with this relaxation of the BBFC guidelines has been a major increase in the number of hard-core magazine titles on sex shop shelves. These magazines are excluded from my discussion here as they are primarily confined to licensed premises rather than the high street newsagents.7 Material available on the top shelf in Britain is still the softest soft-core in Europe, and my focus here is limited to the traditional adult magazines featuring glamour pictures of women (usually alone but sometimes with a female partner) in various states of undress. In delineating my area of study, I take an industry classification rather than a definition derived from moral or aesthetic discourses. By focusing on one narrow (and peculiarly British) section of the adult trade, I am attempting an analysis that recognizes the specificities of individual pornographic forms and their commercial determinants.8 This position can be defended by noting Linda Williams's comments on the scarcity of writing about "actual texts" that has led to the polarization of the debates such that pornography is either totally divisible from or entirely conterminous with other forms of cultural production.9 Williams observes that "pornography may not be special, but it does have a specificity distinct from other genres."10 That specificity lies in its representational intention to arouse its viewers/ readers sexually, and it is this quality that sets porn as a genre apart even as it might share some of the representational tropes of more "mainstream" or "respectable" forms. Studies of sexually explicit material often flatten out the mediumspecific qualities of, for example, video or photography in order to make the generalizable case about pornography. This categorization has produced an essentialist tendency that finds continuities and uniformity of content in material ranging, for example, from photographic images of children to depictions of sexual activities between consenting adults in videos marketed to gay men. The concentration or distillation of the "essence of pornography" distorts the ways in which we could understand the production and uses of individual forms of sexually explicit materials,11 leading to claims such as Simon Hardy's that "the appearance of colourful diversity belies uniformity of content and quality and the fact that, like brands of washing powder, 'top-shelf ' magazines are almost all owned by the same two or three parties."12 Like washing powder and many other mass-produced commodities, pornography suffers from a surfeit of contempt that manifests itself in characterizations of the category's homogeneity and, following from that, the uniformity of possible responses to, or expectations of, its subsets. However much the products may appear alike on the shelves, this cannot be an indication of the ways they are used once removed from there. Although issues relating to content and consumption are not for discussion here, the accusations of banality are precisely symptoms of the tendency, found in theory as well as "commonsense" discourse, to produce pornography as genre and form without boundaries, thereby avoiding the material elements of its production and reception in favor of its social role as the repository for all things abhorrent. Accusations of misogyny and the corrosive influence of big business are often deemed sufficient analysis of material production.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInternational Exposure
Subtitle of host publicationPerspectives on Modern European Pornography, 1800-2000
PublisherRutgers University Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9780813541044
ISBN (Print)0813535182, 9780813535180
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2005
Externally publishedYes


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