The unprecedented candour of our age is in danger of destroying the enjoyment of sex as a private, spontaneous and sometimes illicit pleasure. The ‘sexualisation’ of society impels us towards a constant level of awareness of sex – as it has towards food. Yet both men and women have become stressed by the enforced ambivalence about our own and others’ physical and psychological responses to this new sexual climate. If deprived, we long for food and sex. Surfeited, we still seek for more to satisfy the physiological demands of pleasure. But we become guilty about our mistakes, disgusted with the consequences of excess – especially in others – and resentful of those we believe to have misled or exploited us.
We carry around a personal sexual consciousness. While this remains in a semi-dormant state, we are constantly alert to cues that could indicate the prospects for, or dangers of, engagement with the opposite sex at any appropriate level. Much the same way as animals are with food or potential enemies. This is a pragmatic condition that recognises sexual differentiation and has generally served civilised society within a framework of (evolving if fluid) conventions and laws. Yet in some perverse way, social and moral prejudices and cultural liberalism have combined to render our personal relationship with sex a matter of such anxiety and incipient guilt that we might as well all become puritans.
The questions are begged: what are ordinary, (aka ‘vanilla’) men and women supposed to think and feel about each other, and where does sex fit in? From this we may ask how bad are men supposed to feel about their more or less constant, if fuzzy, desire for women and what do women really expect when they feel like having sex? The answer to the latter – other than the obvious, is that men simply don’t know and women prefer not to tell them, though whether this is through delicacy or as part of a gender game is another issue.
So there is much to be said for the varied ways women’s movements seek to privatise, that is to reclaim and own, female sexuality. The Sun’s page-3 girls (born as a by-product of 1960s bra-burning proto-feminism and ‘hippy’ sexual liberation) are little innocents compared to the impossibly omnivorous female myrmidons of the porn business; their images and narratives woefully misinform youthful male expectations and older male fantasies of what sexual relationships, and especially female libidos, are about. Were it not so often tragic in its consequences, this deception would be laughable.
What we like in our personal lives is a matter of choice. And even within a palette limited by convention and the art of the possible, the choices are quite varied. Though as with so much of our culture, what most of us in our deeper being prefer (intimate, cosy, unthreatening, romantic) and what we feel we ought to desire (powerful, adventurous, insatiable) is a conflicted debate. And here the cultural norms suggested by the media (celebrity, high style, intense gratification and voyeuristic) or sometimes by our religious advisers (mostly the sacred, yet inferior, place of women in society) act as a dangerous recipe note for our personal, social and biological stock-pots of distilled Freudian dilemmas.
Most of these dilemmas and associated neuroses are dealt with through the filter of the natural affections that should exist between men and women as fellow humans. Through amiable negotiation a balance can be achieved, whether this is about washing-up or specific sexual preferences. Throughout the last century, in similar modest and evolutionary vein, we have been able to share the enjoyments of sex more openly. These are now equally available to both genders, as varied in stimulus as the protagonists wish, and free of oppressive penalties for indulgence (pregnancy, social disgrace, etc.). In sum, we have been able to gratify quite a deal of our fantasies about guilt-free sex.
That is, up until now. The backwash of the sexual revolution has left some uncomfortable legacies, the fundamental aspect of which may be called ‘loss of innocence’. For western societies at least, the LGBT movement has been more or less complete in its victory for the legitimisation of diversity in sexual practice; hence the searchlight of society’s moral guardians must, understandably, fix on new targets.
It’s an unfortunate truth that, all too easily, pubescence can become the watershed between child abuse and something else. Yet it is an uneasy culture in which sentimental regard, artistic appreciation and personal affection cannot be expressed through figurative representation or gesture without the succubi of guilt by association leaching onto our aesthetic instincts. Somehow, we are all made to share the potentiality of sin and crime with the real perpetrators who populate our media; this includes the porn business for which the word ‘teen’ invokes and exploits the sexual ideal of youth. The Jesuits and the Inquisition would be proud to have achieved such domination of the zeitgeist and its inhabitants’ psyche. Whatever else, it certainly confuses the police and the media, confined as they are, to their Edwardian and suburban outlook of dodgy scout masters and filthy French postcards.
Feminism has played its own part in the creation of guilt by association. Men feel that should their thoughts be known they would cause offense. Indeed, the traditional male challenge ‘who are you looking at?’ may soon be used by offended women and become grounds for complaint to the police. At the same time, entertainment idols such as Beyoncé and Rihanna exemplify an impossible sexual ideal for female as well as male fans, the latter knowing they can look but not touch, while the former remain unclear about whether they want to be touched whilst competing to be looked at.
At a parallel level in the porn-fashion fusion there is the passion for the removal of pubic hair. Apart from any other anxieties involved with taking your clothes off in front of a new partner, the medics now tell us that if depilated you are risking infection, from a nasty case of folliculitis to a dose of life-threatening cellulitis. One had always supposed pubic hair to require serious cleansing, but now we know that it plays an important role in keeping our genitalia healthy. Well, fine, but it’s yet another worry to add to those encountered when intending to have sex with another human being.
The truth is that it is becoming increasingly hard not to see our fellow humans in a sexual frame of reference, but only secretly and whilst feeling bad about it. For instance, encountering some overweight person in a situation of excessive proximity (let’s say, a supermarket checkout line) can lead to a fleeting rejection of their sexual presence; unless, of course, you’re a chubby chaser.
And in the context of sexual repulsion it is possible that Channel 4 is a secret campaigner for prophylaxis by TV. Recently, in one evening, (04/04/2013) they broadcast Embarrassing Bodies, Secret Eaters and Dogging Tales; (the last, an account of this past-time from the participants viewpoint). Add to this the grisly back-story to the Philpotts and their communal sex lives. Add, too, the frenzied police search for generations-old victims of various sleazy sexual advances of differing gravity and consequence, and the enjoyment of spontaneous or speculative or even imaginative sex becomes well-nigh impossible for any person of sensibility – especially men.
Yet it may be more hopeful than this. No doubt we shall go on enjoying our appreciation of sex as an idea or shared instinct both through media and at an interpersonal level. But it will be an even more circumspect matter in its expression, while the consents required between the parties involved will become ever more stringent. This might not be such a bad thing. The danger is that, with increasing force of argument, the advocates of repression, aided by their witless neo-liberal allies, will zealously seek to confine real sex to the equivalent of a cultural ghetto. Here fears of sexual anarchy will limit public discussion to the anodyne, while artistic representations become more concerned with the human physique’s failings than its attractions.
I have a very good orthodox Jewish friend who came to dinner having specifically asked for pork. He ate it and pronounced it delicious – but afterwards said of his indulgence ‘I feel terrible’. Let us not add even more unnecessary guilt to sex and especially to the erotic. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder but we should still give people something beautiful to feed their imaginations. The rest, the fun bit, they should be encouraged to do for themselves.