What a tremendous shock the weekend’s revelations about Russell Brand’s treatment of women must have been to the bosses of Channel 4, the BBC, and any number of newspaper executives. I mean, who would have thought it? Sure, this was the guy who in 2008 left screeching messages on the answerphone of the elderly actor Andrew Sachs, bragging about sex with his granddaughter; who said that being asked to apologise to the women he had wronged was like “Saddam Hussein picking out individual Kurds”; who described his own sexuality as “complex and rapacious”; and whom Dannii Minogue summed up, after a brief TV interview with Brand in 2006, as “completely crazy and a bit of a vile predator”.
Still, who could ever have guessed that the treble-winner of The Sun “Shagger of the Year” award — the self-confessed owner of a “Wonka ticket to a lovely sex factory thanks to the ol’ fame” — might stray into territory which the words “rape” and “assault” would feature? Of course, there was that 2015 Mail on Sunday interview with Brand’s ex-girlfriend, an articulate former model called Jordan Martin, in which she said that during their six-month relationship, in 2007, the star was controlling, verbally cruel and sexually assaulted her. She warned politicians such as Ed Miliband — recently interviewed by Brand — to stay away. But the wider media didn’t really want to hear. Exes, eh? And anyway, Brand was box-office: a quick-witted, motor-mouthed Essex Byron in a fright wig and skinny jeans who made scant secret of his predilections, although his rhetoric cleverly shunted them more towards the seaside-postcard end of sexuality: his helpless eagerness to service a non-stop parade of willing dolly birds — “different women three, four, five times a day. In Ireland, nine times a day” — which had intermittently landed him in the sex addiction clinic, alias “sex chokey” or “winky nick”.
There are no doubt numerous women for whom sex with Brand delivered more or less what was expected: a fleeting encounter with celebrity, and a longer-lasting anecdote. The details that emerged from the joint investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches, The Sunday Times and The Times, however, were grimmer and more shocking. One was of Brand pursuing a star-struck 16-year-old girl, Alice, now a regretful adult. At first, the fact of taking Alice’s virginity was enough to excite him, she said. Later, she alleged, his kick came from spitting in her mouth and compelling her to swallow it; or forcing her into oral sex until she punched her way free. Another woman said he raped her at his LA house, an allegation backed up by her visit to a rape crisis centre, and text exchanges in which she wrote “When a girl say(s) NO it means no” in response to which Brand apologised. Yet another woman — whom he met at AA and later worked with — described a sexual assault from Brand which she finally fought off, reportedly leaving him furious.
Dispatches is not a courtroom, of course, and Brand has not been found guilty of a crime. But, then, this type of incident often doesn’t make it to court, as both predators and victims are acutely aware. They unfurl in territory with which many women are nauseously familiar, but which a certain proportion of men seemingly struggle to see clearly or take seriously: situations in which a woman agreed to one sexual act but not another; or consented to sex on a previous occasion but not this time round. Situations in which a measure of trust is swiftly and starkly betrayed.
Brand, who denies the allegations of rape and assault, is now married with two children. He has created a bolt-hole from cancellation in his social media platforms, flanked by an army of 6.6 million followers on YouTube alone. From there he accuses the mainstream media, or “MSM”, of having “another agenda at play” and seeking to silence him for asking difficult questions about Big Pharma and other hot-button topics. Elon Musk and Jordan Peterson have already responded to the clarion call with sympathetic comments. Yet the truth is that Brand himself is a creature of the MSM, as he must know. Mainstream broadcasters and media built him up, flattered him, fawned over him and handed him the keys to the sexual “Wonka factory”. And if its previous record is anything to go by, his spell in what Brandspeak might dub “reputation chokey” may not last long.
A brief list of things that — by a kind of communal consensus — the media has ultimately found excusable in the past: John Peel’s penchant for sex with underage girls (broadcasting genius, and it was the Seventies). Bill Wyman’s sexual relationship with Mandy Smith, then 14 (he was a Rolling Stone, for god’s sake, and it was the Eighties). Jimmy Carr’s Channel 4 rape jokes, such as “what’s the difference between rape and football? Women don’t like football” (if you don’t like “spicy content’” don’t listen). Frankie Boyle’s rape jokes about female athletes, and foully relentless gags about the abducted child Madeleine McCann (ditto: anyway, Frankie’s ‘progressive’ now).
If you’ve been around long enough, however, some things stick in your mind — extraordinary pieces of moral blindness, enabled by the media. One came when Dylan Jones, then editor of GQ, commissioned the late A.A. Gill to write and direct a porn film. What could be more “outrageously funny”, as Jones recalled in 2016, than to see “the country’s best critic immersing himself in the seedy world of hardcore pornography”? Until you read it, that is. Perhaps wisely, the article itself no longer seems to be available online. But it’s included in a 2002 collection of Gill’s journalism. In his other pieces there is room for elegant flourishes of authorial compassion, but not here: the subject-matter — commercial sex — has blotted it out.
The setting is LA, in 1999, and Gill is busy directing his own lurid script. In his own words, a half-Mexican girl called Clarissa – who is “very young and exceedingly nervous” – is being plastered with make-up for her scene, which is with the “truly, madly, deeply hideous” veteran porn actor Ron Jeremy. He’s “funny and he can act” but is considered so unattractive that Clarissa is getting “a $200 premium to do it with Ron”.
Clarissa’s wary of doing porn, but she’s “grateful for the money”. Why, we don’t know: Gill doesn’t ask. Perhaps he senses that her answer might spark the libido-killing onset of sympathy. This is only her second film, and so she isn’t really listening to Gill droning on quasi-ironically “about motivation and the Method”. Gill is contemptuous, describing her as “such a bad actress” and “not bright”. She is “horrified’ when she sees Ron, who — perhaps mercifully — can’t get an erection, and ends up masturbating on to Clarissa’s cheek. After this young girl finally leaves the set in distress, Gill — having orchestrated the entire grotesque scene — follows her out to ask “Are you all right?”. Ever the English gent.
A coda to the article: earlier this year — due to advancing dementia — Ron Jeremy was deemed incompetent to stand trial on serial charges of rape and sexual assault, involving 21 victims aged from 15 to 51. Allegations dated back to 1996, three years before the making of Gill’s Hot House Tales. The comments beneath the news reports were telling: many were sceptical, asking why Jeremy would “need” to do this, given the numerous sexual opportunities afforded by his work. They appeared unable to consider an alternative scenario: that Jeremy was so steeped in the mores of porn plots — and his own star status in the industry — that he had lost sight of any sexual boundaries, in particular those of consent.
These real-life stories aren’t about sex, freely if recklessly exchanged in mutual appreciation: the happy, heady original vision of sexual liberation. Instead, to varying degrees, they’re about porn, ego, power, money, cruelty and humiliation. Some men saw the direction of travel early. In 2001, the novelist Martin Amis also travelled to an LA porn set, not to direct a movie but to write about the dynamics on set. Amis wasn’t exactly a feminist saint: he’d once cut a swathe through literary London, leaving women stung by his infidelities, and was sometimes accused of misogyny in his depiction of female characters. But he wrote about the performers with feeling, and in his brilliant and disturbing article “A Rough Trade” he recognised straightaway where the industry was headed: “the new element is violence”.
The thing that Amis feared most in porn’s endless pushing of boundaries to darker places, its taboo-breaking quest for the “polymorphous perverse”, was what it might speak to in the user: that it might draw out the inner “Mister Monster” in him, triggering arousal at something his value-system knew to be wrong. “Porno, it seems, is a parody of love,” he wrote, “It therefore addresses itself to love’s opposites, which are hate and death. ‘Choke her!’ ‘Spit inside me!’ ‘Break me!’”. Amis had perhaps more reason than most to contemplate where male lust, when fused to violence and cruelty, might take society in general and women in particular: in 1994 he discovered that his 21-year old cousin Lucy Partington, an English student missing for 20 years, had been murdered by the sexual abuser and serial killer Fred West.
In the years since Amis’s article, porn has indeed followed his prophecy. It’s more ubiquitous, more extreme and being absorbed in heavier concentrations at a much earlier age. A report by the Children’s Commissioner earlier this year found that young people were regularly exposed to content in which “pictures of degradation, sexual coercion, aggression and exploitation are commonplace, and disproportionately targeted at teenage girls”. Earlier this year, the Times journalist Helen Rumbelow wrote searingly about a day spent “watching what the kids are watching” on Pornhub. Of the 32 sites deemed “most popular in the UK”, 12 showed men being physically abusive to women, and 11 featured “pseudo-incest” between step-parents and adult step-children or step-siblings. One of the most popular categories is “teens”: in many videos, young-looking girls, officially over 18, are bound, frightened, or shown with restricted airways. It is deeply chilling to think that — barring actual murder — the stuff of mainstream porn is inching ever closer to the practices of 25 Cromwell Street.
There remain many adult men who instinctively understand the line between consent and its refusal, pleasure and abuse. But online porn culture does not, and its effects have already manifested themselves in real life: in a 2020 BBC Disclosure survey of 2,049 UK men aged between 18-39, 71% said they had slapped, choked, gagged or spat on their partner during consensual sex. One third of that percentage said they wouldn’t ask verbal consent for such acts, either before or during sex.
The 48-year-old Brand is perhaps unusual in his generation for the degree to which he was steeped early in prostitution and porn, starting with the stomach-churning way his father introduced him to sex as a teenager, hiring prostitutes for them both in their shared hotel room. But now hardcore porn is schooling children en masse through their smartphones, while much of the “mainstream media” long ago paved its way by demonstrating that — when it came to women, at least — boundaries of legality and taste could frequently be transgressed at no cost to career. Even as Dispatches puts its spotlight on Russell Brand, the painful reality is that future generations of young women will almost certainly experience much more of the behaviour the programme describes, not less. A.A. Gill and Martin Amis are both dead, but it was Amis who saw the danger and called it correctly. The genie’s out of the bottle: Mister Monster is everywhere.