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Give me porn or give me death

 
Ole Ege was one of the original pioneers of pornography, and helped bring about its legalisation in Denmark – the first country in the world to do so. He never saw porn as smut, however, but rather as an erotic expression of liberty

The unmistakable whiff of dense cigarette smoke invites you into Ole Ege’s apartment on Amager.

“Do you want a beer or a tonic?” he asks. I opt for the tonic – it might be Friday, but it’s barely noon.

Above his kitchen table hangs an art deco poster of a shape that either resembles a woman with a sizeable set of breasts or a manful erect penis. The text underneath reads Bordellet (The Brothel), the title of his widely-released hardcore pornography-cum-comedy, which was released in 1972.

Ege belongs to a story that few outside Denmark know or remember – a story of how the country made history when , in 1969, it became the first in the world to legalise the production and distribution of pornography.

Today, pornography is a $97 billion global industry that has penetrated the mainstream to such a degree that it is an acceptable motif in big blockbuster films and music videos. According to Canadian porn site Pornhub, Denmark has the tenth highest click rate per capita in the world, just behind neighbouring Sweden. A 2014 Yougov survey found that 52 percent of Danes regularly watch porn.

Ole Ege in his apartment in Amager. He has kept extensive scrapbooks from his days making pornography. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Ole Ege in his apartment in Amager. He has kept extensive scrapbooks from his days making pornography. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Paragraph 234
In his living room, surrounded by scrap books, erotic iconography and memorabilia from his long life, 82-year-old Ege recounts a world where producing and owning pornography wasn’t just a hushed-up taboo, but a serious criminal offence – even in written form.

“When I started in the mid-50s I wasn’t dealing with sex or even spread legs, just pictures of naked women. But in ’57 I had my first run-in with the police when I was charged with what was called ‘speculation in the sensual’, which was ‘stark verboten’,” Ege says laughing while lighting a cigarette and making a German gesture.

“They confiscated everything I had and slapped me with a hefty fine.”

Ege had been running an illegal mail order company that allowed customers from around the country to send envelopes with money in return for pictures of naked women.

This was a grave violation of the notorious paragraph 234 of the criminal code, whose purpose was to protect the decency of the population by banishing all that was lewd and immoral. The law stipulated that anyone who either published, produced, or even publicly discussed degenerate materials, would face fines or, in more serious cases, up to six months imprisonment.

For Ege this meant that even getting his pictures processed was problematic.

“You couldn’t just give your films to Kodak as they would confiscate them and notify the police. The companies shouldn’t act as judges of morality, but they did. So I had to learn how to develop my own pictures.”

A two-year stint in the military meant that Ege’s photography aspirations had to be put on hold, but in 1960 he got a job at one of Denmark’s leading photography magazines as an editor. His history in pornography followed him, and the tabloids Ekstra Bladet and BT ran stories about the young pornographer who was now working at “an established publication”.

After a serious dressing down from his boss he was allowed to keep his job, but in order to save the magazine from disrepute, his name would no longer appear anywhere in the magazine.

After three years at the magazine he left to start a publication in direct competition with his old employer. It lasted under a year, the result of a saturated market and lack of outside investment. But, during the publication of one of the last issues, Ege had an epiphany.

“The November issue was the only one that sold out, and on its cover was a picture of a naked woman, but in an artful way. So I thought to myself ‘there must be something to these girls’. I shut down the magazine, got a small studio and started a large scale production of nudes.”

It was at this time that Ege started making 8mm films as well as photographs. Silent 8mms were mainly black and white, but Ege found an amateur film enthusiast who was able to produce colour films for him. He later moved on to shooting with a 16mm camera, allowing him to make ten-minute long movies with sound, instead of the three minutes the 8mm could fit.

“It was then that I really started to make good money. The biggest profit was in selling movies to all the large hotels, who then sold them to their guests under the table. The three minutes had not been enough to, you know,” he says, gesturing with his hand and smiling. “They were really expensive, about 1,000 kroner in today’s money, but the tourists didn’t care about that. The only things they wanted to bring back home was porn and replicas of the little mermaid.”

The final assault
Ege’s business flourished throughout the ’60s, but in 1967 the police conducted the most extensive pornography raid in Danish history, involving over fifty police officers in several police districts, hitting numerous porn producers simultaneously.

“There I am,” says Ege as he points to a cutout newspaper clipping in one of his scrapbooks with the headline “The top six porn producers”. He is noticeably the youngest of the six.

On the facing page is another clipping with the headline “Major raid: the police’s battle against pornography seems hopeless”. The article proclaims that the “porn industry is worth 250 million kroner in exports”, equivalent to 2.3 billion kroner today.

I remark that the articles are strikingly similar to how the media would cover large-scale drug busts today. Ege smiles as he lights another cigarette.

“It is. They came to my mother’s apartment at around six in the morning. Three towering police officers. They took everything I had and slapped me with a hefty fine of 100,000 kroner. I know that [one of the other producers] Leo Madsen had been tipped off beforehand. He had ordered thirty cabs to take his entire stock to Sweden before the raid. So when they came to the antique shop where he stored his stock they found nothing but empty shelves.”

“The police viewed it all very seriously, but I also think they were really fascinated by it. It’s not like I was running around shooting people.”

The raid in 1967 would turn out to be the last major police action aimed at pornography. The following year the authorities’ battle against ‘speculation in the sensual’ would be signed out of existence.

Ole Ege in his apartment in Amager. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Ole Ege in his apartment in Amager. Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Art vs pornography
Around the time of the raid it was becoming clear that the criteria for defining art and pornography, as far as nudity was concerned, was both absurd and arbitrary. One criteria used by the police to judge the pornographic quality of a photograph was the distance between a model’s legs. More than 20 centimetres was a violation of paragraph 234, anything less than 20 was art.

It was this question of art versus pornography that had been at the heart of the legalisation of written pornographic material which came into effect in 1967. Four years earlier, publishing house Thaning og Appel intended to publish a Danish translation of the novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by the eighteenth century novelist John Cleland. The book, popularly known as Fanny Hill, tells of a young girl’s erotic journey from the English countryside to a high-class brothel in London. It was originally published in 1748 to such a scandalous reception that its publishers were arrested and charged with “corrupting the King’s subjects”. Cleland was forced to appear before court and renounce his work. The book had also been banned in Denmark since is publication, but Thaning og Appel intended to test the waters and gain a bit of notoriety in the process.

Despite some of the country’s biggest writers attesting to its literary value, the authorities confiscated all copies and, in 1964, brought about one of the most high profile court cases of the era.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the 200-year-old novel was not a threat to the public and had sufficient cultural and literary merit to escape the classification of pornography. But more importantly, the book sparked a heated debate in society about immorality and the state’s right to regulate how the public used its free time.

Class war
According to Morten Thing, professor emeritus at Roskilde University, and author of Pornografiens historie i Danmark (The history of pornography in Denmark), the legal community in the post WWII era was becoming increasingly aware of just how complicated the ban on pornography was.

“Sexuality and the view on what could be classified as pornography had changed with time. Nudists, for example, had been allowed to print and sell their magazines that included nude pictures.”

Parallel to the legal complications of the ban ran a host of new radical ideas that were finding a voice in the burgeoning social democratic state. Politicians such as Else-Merete Ross from the Social Liberal Party (Radikale) claimed that the ban was just another example of class warfare conducted by the upper classes against the poor – the wealthy elite using the criminal justice system to force its morals upon the population.

On the issue of pornography, the Danish parliament was split down the middle. The left argued in favour of legalisation, while the right wanted to preserve the prohibition. Despite this political divide, it were two consecutive justice ministers who were responsible for the legalization of written pornography in 1967, and visual pornography in 1969.

The latter decision would go down in history as one of Denmark’s most interesting political miscalculations. Interest in written pornography plummeted immediately after, leading justice minister Knud Thestrup to predict that the same effect would happen with the legalisation of visual pornography.

How wrong he was. In 1969, Denmark became the first country in the world to legalise pornography.

Nazis, nudists and the new-left
The same year the Danish Supreme Court ruled on the legality of Fanny Hill, a corresponding trial took place in the UK with the opposite outcome. It would be a further seven years before Fanny Hill appeared on British bookshelves.

According to Thing, there is no simple answer to why Denmark was the first country to legalise porn. But he claims that some of the reasons lie in the 1930s when a prominent movement started to fight for a more open debate about sexuality.

“Certain radical thinkers started to claim that sexuality was natural and that it was wrong to hinder it in any way. Doctors started to perform illegal abortions and the illegal publication Sex og Samfund (Sex and Society) sought to educate the population about sex. At the forefront of this movement was the architect and critic Poul Henningsen who believed that pornography had an educational value. He claimed that women grew up without having any knowledge of sex and then were shocked on their wedding night when they were expected to be with their husbands.”

Thing also claims that the Nazi occupation had a notable influence.

“During the occupation the idea spread that being as opposite to the Nazis as possible was a form of resistance. But I also think that Denmark’s history of receiving religious minorities played a role. For instance, Denmark had a Jewish population one hundred years before Sweden, and allowed persecuted protestants from France and Germany to settle in the country.”

30-34 Ole Ege4

Into the mainstream
The news about legalisation spread around the world and, overnight, Denmark came to represent a rapidly changing world. The Woodstock music festival took place the year before and around the world young people were rebelling against their conservative parents—growing out their hair and protesting the Vietnam War.

Denmark’s new permissive laws seemed to encapsulate this new reality and international newspapers sent bewildered journalists to visit and document the promising new country. The New York Times claimed that sexual assaults had fallen due to legalisation, and readers of The Guardian could read letters about how everyday life functioned in this strange pornographic society. Mirroring the 2016 US presidential race, a federal commission was established to discuss possible legalisation in the US by using Denmark as a case study.

For porn producers like Ege, the change was rather more direct.

“Mainly I got the police off my back”.

Millionares & misogyny
The fact that a ban remained in place in all the neighbouring countries meant that Denmark had cornered a valuable market. Pornographers went from facing prosecution, fines and public shaming, to becoming celebrity millionaires.

Ege explains that even finding models became easy.

“In all of society the atmosphere was booming. The fashion, the music, people’s views on life was changing and this translated into pornography. Women felt liberated and they wanted to explore their boundaries.”

Legalisation also meant that the production quality of Ege’s movies increased, and in 1972 he premiered the big budget movie Bordellet. The movie featured mainstream actors, a professional crew and took six months to make.

He shows me a newspaper clipping featuring himself, his producers and his girlfriend popping a bottle of champagne at Bordellet’s opening in Cannes. On the next page are pictures from the afterparty, which would end up becoming more notorious than the film itself.

Denmark’s most famous eccentric and womanising millionaire Simon Spies had crashed the party and started to have sex with several of the performers in front of journalists and photographers. In an act of politeness, the press would undoubtedly not show today, one photographer asked Spies whether it was okay if they snapped pictures of him in the act, to which he replied “I don’t think anyone will die of seeing that I also have this little thing that gives life to us all”.

It turned out that Bordellet would be Ege’s last hurrah in the world of pornography. Being a pornographer was a burdensome label to carry, but he was also disturbed and unsettled by the turns taken by the industry he had helped pioneer.

“I wanted my work to be about celebrating women, the most beautiful thing that exists, and I wanted to do it aesthetically and properly. But increasingly the industry was treating women as cattle and representing oppression.”

Pornography is now a multi-billion dollar industry, but Ege regards its legalisation as representing something more undefinable—a sense of liberation.

“With the refugee crisis, Syria, Putin and a faltering EU, you can’t help but think ‘does the world never get any smarter?’ I can’t help but miss the joyfulness of the sixties, the hippies, the Beatles and the hash. I just think that everything is so boring now because there doesn’t seem to be anything but politics and money. Did that answer your question?” he says, laughing. M

 

 

Features, News

By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson elias@murmur.dk

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