The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is.
George Bernard Shaw
Last week saw me doing a little Maria von Trapp twirl of delight after reading the findings of the Bailey Review, published in the report Letting Children be Children. This hundred-and-eight page humdinger by Reg Bailey, Big Daddy of the Mothers’ Union, says little that will shock or surprise – we are told, for example, that the average parent feels queasy at the idea of toddlers sporting padded bras or muscle vests, or that the level of bump n’ grind on MTV makes for uncomfortable viewing en famille. Certainly, however much I might enjoy singing along to her music in the shower, I for one would go out of my way to avoid watching Rihanna gyrate in her bondage harness in the company of my father or my stepson; even though all three of us are comfortably over sixteen.
The Bailey Review achieves the goal of all good reports: shirking contention, it outlines what many already believe while suggesting a series of measures in response which are largely either unenforceable or ineffective. One passage did cause me joy, however, and it was this: ‘magazines and newspapers with sexualised images… [should appear] in modesty sleeves’. Like the Baroness von Trapp (née Kutschera,) there is little that pleases me more than brown-paper packages tied up with string. Anticipation being nine-tenths of desire, enveloping lads’ mags in the sturdy buff wrappings of yesteryear’s erotica can only be a good move. It should curb inappropriate outbreaks of teenage excitement in the paper-shop or supermarket and, moreover, give their imaginations a bit of a work-out on the walk home; enlarging and developing what we at ER have always held to be the body’s largest sex-organ, the brain. Issuing the top-shelf publications in ‘modesty sleeves’ demonstrates and encourages an awareness of context: that the place for getting-off on a picture of a bikini-clad Kardashian is not next to someone dithering between a Crunchie and a Twix, nor in a busy office, nor on the Tube. I would hope it might restore to the erotic a sense of privacy and appropriateness, in place of its current ubiquity. It would clarify that what is suitable in a sex shop is not really so in Sainsburys. Not – or not only – to protect children, but also to protect sex. I do not want to see salacious lingerie and titillating posing become humdrum. Is nothing sacred?
Not everyone will agree, I am sure. Some will think I wish to cover up these magazines because I consider them to be objects of shame, or because I disapprove. This is not so. I have no desire to live in a country that would outlaw erotica or porn. But just because we should be free to publish and purchase it, doesn’t mean that it is responsible to be able to do so everywhere, without any concessions to context. It hurts no-one to delay their gratification of seeing Britney naked for as long as it takes them to rip off the ‘modesty sleeve’, except perhaps those well-endowed souls whose engorged imaginations deflate with disappointment when they encounter the banal and airbrushed reality. I suppose I must concede this to be a form of censorship, but I’d mud-wrestle my own mother before I’d let anyone accuse me of narrow-mindedness. All the same, I know that’s how it will sound to some. But while there are some cover-ups I want to see firmly in place, there are others I suspect deserve to be exposed.
When it comes to our sexual selves, the question of what we choose to show and what conceal is almost impossible to consider naked of preconceptions: like a holidaying starlet, it simply comes with too much baggage. It would be easy to say it is a purely personal decision, a matter for the individual conscience or perhaps just our own comfort, but it cannot be so long as we inhabit society. It is Newton’s third law, enacted in the social sphere: our actions impact on others, and with that impact comes their response; often in the form of judgement. Cultural, religious, ethical and political issues are all brought into play, and the debate becomes one of rights versus repression. The debate has been much in the public mind recently, whether we’re talking slutwalking or superinjunctions, the return of the Playboy Club or politicians’ paternity-tests. We want to know every last secret of those in the public eye, to show off every last inch of ourselves. ‘It is a free society, a free press. We have the right.’
We too easily reduce the arguments to their most simplistic forms; but while that makes for great polemic, the truth is rather more subtle. For example: I have never exactly approved of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I never cared for his movies. Ideologically, I suspect we’d have little in common: over the seven years of his Governorship I deplored his stance on the death penalty, his persistence in retaining the three-drug lethal injection system despite its many attested problems, his refusal to grant gubernatorial clemency to death-row inmates (including the remarkable Tookie Williams), his reputation for harassing and groping his assistants, and his flip-flopping stance on gay marriage. When the news broke of the collapse of his marriage however, and he publicly confessed to having fathered his housekeeper’ son, I was struck with the paradox of the situation. He had behaved shoddily to his wife, waiting until he was out of office before telling her of his long-term infidelity. Those who voted for him may well have felt betrayed that by so wholeheartedly trading off a wholesome family-image, he had conned them all for thirteen years. And yet, by all accounts he had supported and treated his mistress and their child unusually well. How then should we decide the level of his dishonour? Would we, even if we were one of his constituents, have any right?
I confess that I used to believe the answer was simple: that what happened in politicians’ private lives should not affect their public standing. There was no connection, I thought; it is immaterial. After all, too often such revelations are used as a stick to beat someone we already dislike – ‘I hate his policies, and he cheated on his wife with a parliamentary researcher! The slimeball!’ And yet we cannot pretend that they have no relevance whatsoever. We must wonder whether David Blunkett’s swift career resurgence after his affair with Kimberley Quinn and the ‘questions over his honesty’, for example, encouraged him into the financial cheating which saw his second resignation; this time for insider trading. Do those who cheat on their partners simply have the sort of self-centred personalities which means that they will try to bend any rules they find themselves constrained by? Does it mean they are faithless in all things? Lord Nolan, formerly Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and architect of the code of conduct, certainly suggested as much when he said of Blunkett not that he should have behaved with greater moral responsibility, but that it was: “the fault of the Government that he has been allowed to see if he can get away with it.”
Similarly, it is the opinion of the judges who form the Master of Rolls’ Committee on Super-Injunctions that super- and hyper- injunctions have been granted far too readily. Since by their nature super-injunctions contravene the principle of open justice, they should not be resorted to unless strictly necessary, the report says. Yet those with the money and influence to insist on secrecy are able to exploit this legal method of ensuring it. It is no coincidence that ‘privilege’ meant, originally, ‘private law’. Now, I have no special interest in Ryan Giggs or Fred Goodwin as people, nor do I much care what they do with their cocks, except that in Sir Fred’s case it may have a bearing, the media suggests, on his actions as chief of RBS. And with that we get back into very muddy water indeed.
It is a hard thing, to think that a public figure cannot enjoy a private life; cannot exploit the petty deceptions and fiddles, the ripping up of parking-tickets and snatching kisses at the office party, that the rest of us enjoy. Do we all push life’s rules as far as we think we dare? Are we all only limited by our imaginations and social constraints? Are our sins only small because we’ve never thought big? I hope that the answer is no; that we generally know what is right and choose, most of us, most of the time, to be responsible. But who can predict how they will face temptation? Now that recording and transmitting information onto the internet can be done from a mobile phone, the secrets of the famous must be very hard to keep. Perhaps if we were all as rich and powerful as a super-injunctee or a Dominique Strauss-Kahn, we too would feel we had the right to employ any means necessary to protect ourselves from the results of our actions. Perhaps, like them, we would cease to acknowledge that our behaviour had any impact beyond our own desires; we would treat people as objects to be bought and sold, and would slap a ‘modesty sleeve’ on them when they threatened to broadcast our misdemeanours from the front pages of the press. Schwarzenegger, at least, publicly admitted his guilt. Ryan Giggs employed a court to punish his lover, as if she’d stolen his car rather than participated in a mutually-desired sexual relationship. Locking her in the legal equivalent of a scold’s bridle shows how far a person can go to avoid admitting responsibility or agency for their actions; and that it is possible to be paralysed with fear and embarrassment, and yet be insensible of shame. Giggs: you’re not nine years old now, facing a smashed window with your football inside. Isn’t it more adult just to grow up and own up, not cover-up?