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The sex lives of others are our greatest fetish

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

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

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.