Watching The Look Of Love, Michael Winterbottom's recent film about Paul Raymond, the pornographer and one-time richest man in Britain, it struck me that in some small way I must have contributed a little to the man's vast fortune.

As a sweaty teenager back in the 1970s I sneaked into the newsagents, waited for a quiet moment and hurriedly snatched a copy of Men Only from the top shelf and rushed to buy it before any other customers appeared. It wouldn't have happened often – I was too embarrassed most of the time – but I'd be lying if I said it didn't happen at all.

Do people still get embarrassed? When half of Tesco's limited book range seems to be made up of 50 Shades Of Grey knock-offs, when material much more explicit than anything Raymond ever imagined is just a mouse click away from everyone, and when even academics announce that they are launching a new academic journal called Porn Studies to "critically explore those cultural products and services designated as pornographic", the answer is perhaps not.

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And when it turns out that one of the two women who will be editing the journal, Clarissa Smith, has spoken in a debate in favour of the motion "pornography is good for us", it's possible that the ground has somehow shifted.

The normalisation of pornography is under way. Newspaper gossip columns are constantly speculating on who might play the leads in the film version of EL James's novels. And there's already a Linda Lovelace biography, starring Amanda Seyfried in the title role.

How do we react to this? We can either tut and frown, and say it's terrible. Or we can start to ask questions about pornography, the audience it serves and the behaviour it encourages.

The fact is, there is nothing new about pornography. There was nothing particularly new about it back in the seventies when I was loitering around newsagents eyeing the top shelves. It has always been with us, as ancient Roman friezes remind us. The danger is that as it creeps into the mainstream we begin to conflate pornography with sexuality. There is a difference and we need to remember that.

And yet anecodotally it's not hard to find the signs of how one is feeding into the other. High-street waxing parlours – for both men and women – can be traced back ultimately to pornographic trends. And there are no shortage of scare stories suggesting teenage boys are expecting their girlfriends to act in the same way as porn stars. That's not a healthy foundation for society's sexual future.

Ultimately, pornography is the commodification of desire. It has no shortage of willing consumers. It's difficult to source an exact figure of its global value (it's reportedly worth $5 billion a year, though it has been suggested that this is a conservative estimate), but it's clear that it's worth far too much to risk challenging its audience.

Desire is unruly. It's not always politically correct. But when it comes down to it, most porn is aimed at men and reinforces regressive and sometimes even abusive ideas about women. Not all its consumers will accept those ideas. But some will. And that's a danger. Pornography is good for us? It depends who the "us" is you're talking about.

In a culture that has been for centuries all too neurotic about sex and sexuality a little more openness wouldn't do us any harm. One of the most encouraging developments in the past 30 years in Britain has been the growing acceptance of homosexuality, but it's by no means complete. The resistance to gay marriage and the rise in homophobic attacks (an increase of 14% last year) is all too evident proof of that.

Still, a culture that is moving towards an acceptance of sexual difference is a healthier culture. Some might argue that pornography is helping that push to acceptance. But to do so you have to whitewash its more deleterious side effects. In the end, porn is best for the pornographer.