The Sunday Times: The posh smut pedlar fights porn with a feather

The former Erotic Review boss despairs of the generation reared on online sex and its cold, heartless imagery. She explains why a little titillation is far more satisfying.

Like a posh Hugh Hefner, Rowan Pelling has spent most of her life selling sex. She was 29 when she became “editrix” of the Erotic Review, a journal that styled its upmarket filth as “intellectual eroticism” or — as she put it — “Penthouse for people who actually live in one”, leaving when the real Penthouse bought the magazine in 2004.

Now 49, Pelling is surprised to find herself peddling smut again with a new publication, The Amorist, which will be launched in April. Pelling’s return to the coalface of erotica comes out of sheer frustration and disillusionment over how the sexual landscape has changed in the 20 years since the Erotic Review began.

Those days were more innocent times. Pelling recalls packing two reporters off to an orgy in Hemel Hempstead — “It was like the cheese and wine party from hell: dull conversation, dreadful canapés and you couldn’t leave before you shagged the hostess” — and debating with her art director whether the magazine should feature pubic hair.

She also recounts the time an old gentleman took her to the Savoy Grill to propose that she become his mistress. “I said: but if I extended that service to you, how would I compensate the other readers?”

By some accounts, a normal working day at the original Erotic Review office could include the new girl being lashed with a cat-o’-nine-tails. When they weren’t throwing bikini parties or posing for nude photoshoots, the female staff clopped around in the unofficial uniform of stockings and suspenders.

The Erotic Review was launched in 1995, just as the internet was born. Now we can’t move for free porn, celebrity sex tapes and pictures of Kim Kardashian’s bottom. But rather than feeling that such modern sexual freedom has liberated us, Pelling believes that, for young people especially, something has died. As she says: “I’ve met young adults who’ve tried everything —ménages-à-trois, same-sex clinches and open relationships — except falling in love.”

In a recent article she raged against pornographers colonising the web with “pernicious material”, the “incoming tide of free porn” and “a generation of males . . . growing up believing women should be fully depilated, fake-breasted and open to any sexual practice, however outré”. Today she seems more relaxed.

We meet at the Academy Club, a crumbling corner of old literary Soho, which suits Pelling’s posh, bohemian-bluestocking vibe. She is wasp-waisted in Vivienne Westwood under a yellow librarian’s cardigan. A diamanté brooch flashes on her coat. (I assume they aren’t real diamonds, as Pelling has joked she is the only person not to have made money out of a lifetime in sex.)

For the pervy old buffers who read the Erotic Review, the attraction of the glossy-haired Pelling is clear. She has classic filthy posh girl appeal, talking innocently in plummy tones about anal sex. She recalls naively starting at the magazine and “whole expressions being new to me. Like ‘vanilla’. What do you mean I’m vanilla?”

Despite her objections to modern porn, she’s hardly Mary Whitehouse. In fact, she seems very liberal. She isn’t appalled by sexting but doesn’t find it a turn-on: “Some of my friends have reams of those pictures on their phones. I feel lucky I’ve never had one.” She’s not against prostitution: “If people want to make money selling sex, that’s fine. Feminism isn’t telling other women what to do.”

She wasn’t thrilled by Christian Grey, the protagonist in EL James’s bonkbuster Fifty Shades of Grey, but was far more offended by his control-freak tendencies than the fact that he indulged in extreme bondage. She knows that for some women, making their own porn can be liberating. She certainly didn’t fight to end The Sun’s page 3: “I felt there were bigger battles than girls in bikinis.”

Yet Pelling, now married with two children, thinks that modern pornography has crossed a line, describing some as “unspeakably violent and degrading”, and that it can be too easily found online. She was horrified when her eight-year-old son stumbled on X-rated material, despite the parental controls. And she worries that pornography “has a cultural effect if that’s the way most young people are learning about sex, especially men. As a mother, common sense tells me that I do not want this to be the first and main influence that my children have.

“I’m not someone who is horrified by anything outside the missionary position. I think between two adults anything that ticks their boxes is fine, but it’s just when things become a real pressure. You think: golly, I would not have wanted to be faced, aged 18, with someone thinking that what is normal is for me to have my hair totally shaved off.”

But Pelling believes that pornography’s worst crime is making sex “boring and normal”.

She tells me: “I have no interest in pornography. I only look at it when I have to professionally.” (What an excuse.) So she objects not on censorship but on taste grounds. “It could be better. Pornography bores me. I’m amazed by how little it turns me on. It doesn’t fulfil any of my complex desires about sex, which is about the imagination. In the same way you might want to read a great literary novel because it takes you on a greater flight of fancy than a James Patterson thriller.

“I’m not angry about most pornography. I want an alternative. You counter bad writing, bad architecture or bad pornography with artistically interesting stuff. After all the filth, many long for something more romantic and elegant.” That is what The Amorist will offer.

Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-posh-smut-pedlar-fights-porn-with-a-feather-2ln07r5l9

Image: FRANCESCO GUIDICINI

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