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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.