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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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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