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"Porn is a feminist issue"

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If we made a list of the people least likely to make a documentary about porn this year, former Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith would be at the top. The scandal that ended her 12-year political career in the summer of 2009 centred around two adult pay-per-view films that she’d claimed as part of her expenses; paperwork her husband Richard Timney put together in his role as her office manager. Weeks of press scrutiny, photographers on her doorstep and speculation about her marriage ended in a humiliating resignation. It was the kind of experience public figures rarely recover from. So why, almost two years on, has Smith made a documentary exploring porn, a move guaranteed to reignite the scrutiny? Is she a glutton for punishment, a limelight-seeking ex-politician or simply a woman with a mission?

As if to reinforce the point of the documentary – which, Smith explains, is designed to get us “talking about porn as a serious issue rather than giggling behind our hands about it” – our interview takes place in the middle of a crowded brasserie. Sitting opposite me in a black suede jacket, chunky turquoise pashmina and silver necklace, Smith doesn’t lower her voice one bit. She’s clearly proud of the documentary, which explores an industry worth £1 billion in the UK alone and accessed by 9.4 million UK women each month. In it, she interviews Britain’s premier male porn star, sees a porn film being made and even watches internet porn with Men’s Hour presenter, Tim Samuels. Why did she want to immerse herself in a world she feels is so troubling? “I didn’t want to be one of those people who ranted against porn without ever having watched it. Now I’ve watched it and I still hate it, but at least I know what I’m talking about.”

She certainly does. Indeed, at one point she even refers to the “money shot” (in relation to Demetri, the male porn star she interviewed) which nearly makes our waitress spill Smith’s tea. But that doesn’t explain why she’s talking about it. Especially now? “Everyone else seemed to think it was OK to talk about me and pornography. Now I’ve got a chance to say what I want. I’ll still be the butt of jokes, but it feels like I’m taking control.” No vague, politician-style answers; she is remarkably frank.

As for what her husband thinks about the project, Smith admits, “I could never have done it if Richard didn’t support me but he didn’t think twice. Most people didn’t realise that I already knew Richard watched pornography. That wasn’t the shock. What was so upsetting was that something which you argue about behind closed doors could be suddenly brought out in the open. I felt so exposed.”

Most people have issues in their personal life which they are relaxed about, she explains, until someone finds out. “All couples have things they argue about, issues they always return to but it doesn’t mean you want them splashed on the front of every newspaper.” She harbours no anger or bitterness. Just logic, and a slight whisper of resignation.

In a segue she manages, without pausing for breath, to move deftly from the public scrutiny of her private life to the prevalence of porn. “It’s so readily available on the internet,” she says, gesticulating wildly. “Clips on free websites get millions of hits a day.” The figures are staggering: every second, 28,258 internet users are viewing porn in the UK. The aim of the documentary, Smith explains, is to make people aware just how prevalent porn is and that it’s our responsibility, as well as the government’s, to make sure we know what is accessible in our homes.

Everyone seemed to think it was OK to talk about me and porn. Now I’ve got a chance to say what I want

The impact of porn, Smith explains, is clear on both men and women. “Men grow up thinking porn is sex education. Women try to force their bodies into the moulds set by porn stars.” While her own relationship has stayed solid, Smith was struck by the impact of porn on other people. “I met a woman whose marriage ended because her husband was addicted to porn. I’ve met women who claim they are in the porn industry through choice but who actually use it as a way of gaining control over physical or sexual violence from their past. Pornography objectifies women and that’s why it’s dangerous.”

What Smith learned in the making of the documentary is personal as well as principled. “I’m the mum of two boys and I kept thinking, ‘God, they could so easily watch this.’” She seems more upset about this than about the original scandal.

So her husband has watched porn, and now so has Jacqui. Is it something they’re able to talk about over dinner? “Richard and I have spoken about it extensively. I wasn’t angry with him for watching the films but I was livid that he put together that claim. I said to him, ‘You can watch porn, but for God’s sake, get the paperwork right!’” With her sons it was more tricky. “My youngest was fine [with the documentary] but my eldest was less enthusiastic. The porn industry and teenage boys do have one thing in common: both think the idea of anyone having sex over the age of 40 is disgusting!”

Underneath the quips and the anti-porn, pro-women rhetoric, it’s clear this is a subject she is deeply passionate about. “I’m a feminist, and porn is a feminist issue.” But the incident was clearly personal as well as political. She admits that it made her question herself as a woman. “I said to Richard, there must be something lacking in me for you to want to do this. What I now understand is that it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t fancy me. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t care.”

Jacqui’s not alone in hating porn, but what about the millions of women watch and enjoy it? Smith accepts the point, one the documentary brought home to her. She met counsellors who told her the benefits of porn in relationships and a female ex-teacher happily working within the industry. “She was just like us, a normal woman. It really opened my eyes to the roles women play in the porn industry.”

Smith is a woman we wouldn’t want to cross in a debate. We almost feel sorry for Richard – an idea that she is able to laugh about. “When the scandal erupted, all the papers wanted to report was that our marriage was on the rocks. It never was. The first thing people would say, in that voice you use for dying people was, ‘Are you OK?’ and, ‘How’s Richard?’ What they were really asking was, ‘Are you together?’ The answer is yes!” Smith is now happy to be, in her words, “liberated” from Parliament, and free to pursue other opportunities. As for Richard, “We’re still in love, but we still argue about porn.”

Porn Again is on Radio 5 Live on Thursday 3 March, 9.30pm. Got an opinion on this article? Have your say in the comments below.

Photo credit: Peter Dench for Stylist Magazine

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