The sex lives of others are our greatest fetish

Legitimate public interest stories about sex are sidelined by the seemingly scandalous.

George Michael has claimed that the News of the World fabricated their front page “sex shame” story, luridly implicating him in “illegal gay sex thrills” on Hampstead Heath. The unethical tactics associated with the now-defunct paper were all present and correct, according to Michael. His supposed “cavorting” partner was allegedly threatened with the publication of compromising photographs, blackmailed and bullied into signing the fake exposé. What’s more, Michael suggests, no news outlet would retract the story - unless (in the case of the Sunday Mirror) the other man was HIV positive. 

Whilst the less cynical of us are hoping the Leveson inquiry will lead to a systematic overhaul of ethical abuses within the British media, salacious reporting on sexual practices will still be seen as fair game. We’re free to read about Tulisa’s sex tape, Gareth William’s possible interest in erotic cross-dressing, Milly Dowler’s father’s kinky porn stash. Tabloid rhetoric on “romps”, “vice girls”, “hookers” and “ladettes” is so well worn that it has permeated into public consciousness. Multi-billionaire Max Mosley may have obtained extensive compensation over the fiction that his paid-for orgy had “Nazi” content, but the damage to his reputation, dignity and privacy is done. 

This is not something inflicted by the press on an uninterested public. Our pursuit of sex-related gossip amounts to fetishism. Foul media tactics aside, stories about sexual activities, particularly those seen as non-conventional, sell and sell. We, the public, lap it up, and in doing so drive the reportage. Forget party politics, (men’s) football, or The Voice: we want to know the details, spurious or otherwise, of what people might be getting up to behind closed doors. Which successful female pop star will this week be accused of having intersex genitalia? Who is Jordan marrying now? The front pages create a celebrity’s sex “shame”, whilst international news is relegated to the lesser-read middle. 

Of course it is necessary for the media to put a “public interest” spin on reports on the sex lives of celebrities, politicians, or other public figures. The Press Complaints Commission Editors’ code holds up public interest as the primary justification for any breach of an individual’s privacy. Fair journalism might then arguably include the uncovering of a homophobic politician’s hypocritical same-sex activity. The replication of pictures of Chris Bryant MP posing in his underwear on a members-only dating website, however, has no such justification. 

Invoking public interest also serves a more insidious purpose. It allows for a nod to sexual conservatism, a wink wink attitude of superiority, an expression of shock that conceals our arousal. It is an angle that legitimates our interest: whilst we, of course, would never do something so crude as, let’s say, partaking in group sex with a spatula and the Vicar’s wife, the frisson of reading about it becomes an all-compelling social pastime. 

As long as you don’t admit it, that is. Secretly, everyone knows that the photos of women in various states of undress and/or intoxication are there to titillate, that the outraged commentary that runs alongside performs the double function of shaming the exposed and legitimating our reading - but we do a bloody good job of pretending it isn’t so. It’s taboo to admit that the shaming is all part and parcel of public sexuality; that mocking or denigrating those with sex lives in the public eye is not just an expression of prejudice, but also part of the turn on. 

This double standard, however, both reflects and creates a sexual morality. Its a sexual morality that enforces the idea that public figures must be monogamous, staid, and preferably heterosexual and married. Only certain kinds of sex are acceptable; those who deviate are punished. A round mocking in the media may be preferable to the arrests of the past, but unquestioned in it all is the public devaluation of certain kinds of sexual acts. The link between a person’s sexuality and their human worth likewise goes unchallenged; for all too many enthusiastic spectators, the giver of an on-film blow-job is irrevocably damaged. 

Pursuit of the vicarious thrill leads, meanwhile, to more serious problems. Rape or sexual assault charges are regularly reported as “sex” allegations and graphically described, as if those accused were allegedly guilty of a bit of exciting, risqué sex. Ironically, it is this sort of trivializing attitude that feeds the high incidence of rape and sexual assault. 

Moreover, value-based fascination with others’ sex lives most impacts those with minority or queer sexual desires, creating a vicious circle of social prejudice. We are so busy heaping shame on what other people like sexually that the production of actual knowledge about what other people like sexually is inhibited. It is left to the religious, the mainstream pornographers, and the writers of the national curriculum to battle it out for the truth of the matter. That sex can still seem scandalous suggests that none of the above have much of a handle on it. 

If there is no shame, no stigma, there is no story. Society will be much kinder when a penchant for bondage, for instance, is about as notable as a fondness for the colour blue, left-handedness, or an interest in golf. There are legitimate stories to be told where details of sex or sexuality are genuinely in the public interest. Yet these can’t be gauged whilst we still allocate others’ sexual interests with more significance than almost anything else. 

George Michael has claimed that the News of the World fabricated their front page “sex shame” story Photo: Getty Images

Ray Filar is a freelance journalist and an editor at openDemocracy. Her website is here.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad