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Strai(gh)tened Times - Pornography
By David Walsh

Bill Hicks

An economic and cultural phenomenon, pornography is everywhere - even at the speedway?

So, who would like to discuss pornography? Thought not. This is a speedway website! Somehow I sense clenched fists and gnashing teeth right throughout cyber-land.

And that's the curious thing about this subject. Since the arrival of the internet and the creeping emergence of pornography as an increasingly mainstream media commodity, one that has been shown to alter psychology and how people relate to one another, the reluctance to actually talk about it seems to be measured in directly inverse proportions to its ubiquity. It's a shady area, alright, especially shades of grey! The lad mags are off the top shelf and the Flake-type adverts are barely more subtle, and, yet, it's still such a difficult subject. Why? I'll come to that. First, let's get back to basics and try to define what pornography actually is.

Late comedian, Bill Hicks began a famous routine with this definition he cited from the US Supreme Court: "Pornography is anything without artistic merit that causes sexual thoughts." Succinct and to the point? And what better agency for a definition than the US Supreme Court?

Well, the late US writer Andrea Dworkin offered this: "A system of dominance and submission, pornography has the weight and significance of any other historically real torture or punishment of a group of people because of a condition of birth." Phew. Got that?

US Professor of Journalism Robert Jensen has this to say: "People routinely assume that pornography is such a difficult and divisive issue because it's about sex. In fact, this culture struggles unsuccessfully with pornography because it is about men's cruelty to women, and the pleasure men sometimes take in that cruelty." Of course, he's talking about the sexist, degrading pornography that the Web is awash with and with which more and more people are familiar. As such, like Dworkin, Jensen expresses a powerful argument.

But returning to Hicks and the Supreme Court, the line between something possessing artistic merit and something that doesn't can be a fine one. I've come across arguments concerning post-modern art that suggest any object or action that is given a title automatically becomes a work of art. Gustav Courbet's The Origin Of The World (1866) definitely has a title and is a fine painting. Taken in some other context, though, Courbet's image would almost certainly be considered pornographic.

Similarly, erotic statuettes and explicit images on the pottery of ancient Greece or Rome are considered highly valued works of art and precious historical artefacts. Context, it would seem, is everything. Regrettably, today's pornography exists in a cultural context in which women are still fighting for equal rights to men across a whole range of issues, and that even includes the right of dominion over their own bodies. Pornography, therefore, can in effect be seen as propaganda that serves to strip women of their humanity for the purpose of keeping them subservient to a patriarchal system of control. Doesn't quite explain gay porn, but that's the argument.

So, what on earth has all of this got to do with speedway?

Well, we all know last summer was a wet one. In between the chants of "two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate?" some may have even heard supporters on the terraces singing in the rain. Now, I don't know what you might think of brolly dancing, but if we're talking about Gene Kelly's timeless dance routine in the film Singin' In The Rain that arguably marked the apogee of his movie career, then I would advance the argument that brolly dancing was high art (and Paddington Bear's rendition of same? Utterly stupendous!). But how would you categorise what modern speedway's start-line girls do with their umbrellas? Is it art? Does it arouse sexual thought? Does it have a title? Well, I may venture to give it a title, and I think you may hazard a guess as to what it might be. But, actually, I won't. For now I think I'd better deal with the indignant protests that I can already sense brewing amongst SpeedwayPlus's start-girl loving readership.

One of the most common defences of pornography, apart from perhaps the US constitution's 1st Amendment, is the "harmless fun" argument. I know that many believe it with a kind-of-passion. For example, I know people who in the 1980s wouldn't vote Labour solely on the basis that Clare Short MP once stated she would like to see the pornography on page 3 of The Sun newspaper banned. Unsurprisingly, it was The Sun itself that was the principal cheerleader in opposition to her stance. Liberally minded individuals and anti-censorship groups, including such as the 1980s Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT), would have possibly agreed with those opposed to Short's core position, though maybe not their voting tendency. Amongst consenting adults the "pornography as harmless fun/private fantasy" argument against censorship convinces many and, in an ideal, modern, liberal democracy seems reasonable as long as it's within the law. But is the ideal currently the cultural norm in our society? Public, unsolicited expressions of sexual fantasy can be harmful to those who are unequipped to make a mature, informed response, such as children, and those who feel offended and/or oppressed by it.

Pre-internet until the present, The Sun newspaper has been a key agent in the normalisation of public pornography in Britain. It was from those pages, as a fourteen-year-old newspaper boy, that I was first introduced to pornographic images of women. I am of the opinion that that had a formative impact on the development of my own sexuality and has informed my views of those two-dimensional women ever since. The effect on the attitudes of young people is now becoming a recognised problem, particularly amongst adolescent boys who are increasingly exposed to internet porn. Just this week MP Diane Abbott expressed these same concerns. While it is roundly accepted that pornography exploits women, people rarely seem to acknowledge how it also exploits the sexuality of men and boys. Pornography now represents a massive global industry and its operational logic for profit accumulation is, in one way or another, to exploit everyone.

So, since the introduction of start-girls at the speedway arena, has our 'family sport' been subjected to the encroachment of harmful sexist pornography (remember the Bill Hicks/US Supreme Court definition!), however mild and 'fun' it may seem? Well, despite what you may have been expecting, I'm still not going to provide an answer. What I will say is this...

Those in the business of promoting speedway have for years been wondering how they can reach out and appeal to a broader fan-base beyond the traditional hardcore of support. You could argue this is a perennial question that the long-term economic viability of speedway depends upon.

What would the demographic be, do you think, that would be attracted to what may appear to them just another motor-sport and one that was certainly not cheap to attend on a weekly basis?

For a while I attempted to promote speedway at the University of Glasgow, fly-posting and leafletting pre-season, and on one occasion arranged for speedway to be a feature in the university press. I don't doubt the impact of all that was, at best, minimal. But I have watched televised speedway in the company of people from that demographic; people you would expect to go on to earn incomes that guaranteed the affordability of attending speedway; young and idealistic people you'd think would feel comfortable with the technically lighter environmental footprint of a methanol/vegetable oil-based motor-sport; and people you would expect to feel more of an affinity with a community-based team rather than a vehicle manufacturer, but who have reacted with laughter and derision when confronted with the spectacle of the start-girls prior to racing. In consequence, I wouldn't go out of my way to introduce new people to televised speedway, because if they happen to be familiar with feminist theory and/or concerned with those complex, grey issues involving the sexual exploitation and patriarchal control of women, quite frankly, it's too embarrassing. And I find that a terrible shame.

Compared with the supposedly 'golden years' of televised speedway - World of Sport in the 1970s - the expertise that Sky TV has brought to the coverage of speedway is like the difference between night and day. I find the on-screen action at times breathtaking, though not quite so literally as Sky presenters Nigel Pearson and Kelvin Tatum! Sky's coverage is just so much better than the follow-the-leader stuff that Dickie Davis presented back in the 70s. In fact, I'd say the ITV coverage of that earlier era, pioneering though it was, did a great deal to create that tired old cliché that there is never any passing in speedway, so transfixed their cameramen seemed to be on any particular race's leader. No, I'd say in terms of the on-track action we have a lot to thank the technical experts at Sky TV for. However, I'm going to say it, it is quite apparent that Sky TV brings with it another agenda that has been laid bare before us for years in other parts of its associated media empire, not least, of course, The Sun.

That agenda is a corporate one that merely wants to maximise profits and is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to do just that (did you follow the Leveson Inquiry?), including the packaging and objectification of young women's bodies. It's a self-perpetuating process. The self-appointed cultural gatekeepers in the media create the visual culture that we begin to unrealistically crave, and then use those images to help sell their own products back to us. That's an interpretation which, no doubt, advocates of the Uses and Gratifications model of the media would contest. Either way, along the way real lives, sexuality and the way we relate to each other become inevitably warped by values that are born of a cynicism we could well do without. It's basically what Bill Hicks was lampooning in his pornography sketch. Look it up, it's all absolutely hilarious!

I would not advocate for greater censorship. For adults there are countless opportunities to indulge with whatever in the privacy of their own homes, though that's precisely the location where the most explicit and contentious pornographic material is now available. It's become such a big (unspoken) issue that it's implications for society should be questioned much more than is currently the case, academia excepted, while I believe wholeheartedly that speedway is an attractive enough spectacle not to need any dubious marketing ploys that exist at the thin end of the pornography wedge. As a sport, I know its credibility is being diminished in the eyes of a potential new audience because of it, and that's surely something that speedway people, especially promoters, should take the time to think about.

As for the start-girls? I'm sure they'll want to carry on with what they're doing. Those employed at a Grand Prix, at least, are surely well paid for all their trouble and, of course, they should always be at liberty to choose, freely, what it is they do for a living. Many feminists would surely agree with that while others would no doubt protest against the start-girls' performances and decry the need for such employment in the first place. Ultimately, this is an issue with which we as individuals must reconcile ourselves according to our own values and those of a caring, more equitable society, if, indeed, that's what you value? In that, the feminist movement is also a gift to men rather than being a threat, as Professor Jensen has pointed out. As speedway supporters, surely a collective effort towards achieving such an equitable, misogyny-free world starts in the speedway arena. So whatever your view on what you've just read, I will conclude with this:

Call it pornography. Call it harmless fun. Call the start-girls works of art who are speedway's answer to Gene Kelly's rain-splashed maestro, I hope we can all agree on at least one thing: the future of the girls (and boys) should be subject to a much more widespread debate. And if such a debate was to lead to a Mary Poppins-esque exit from the speedway arena, the umbrella girls uplifted back into the infinite blue where all our more unreasonable fantasies belong, there is one thing in all of this that I know for certain: it wouldn't harm the racing one bit!


Next: Part V - Capital


This article was first published on 6th January 2013


  • Tracy Holmes:

    ""Thats not pornography man Dennis, thats art !" Mans got a point like, what will the girls be doing next, pole dancing? All who just thought 'lap dancing' are excluded !!!"

  • David Nation:

    "Thanks for expressing views I suspect many of us share but don't bother to articulate! The start line girls are certainly irrelevant to supporters who attend in person. They may encourage some of the more sick among us to watch Sky - which is surely why they're there at all! It's the racing that matters and long may that continue."

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