Why do we let the Prudocracy police our sexual fantasies?

I masturbate. You masturbate. Let's not get our knickers in such a twist about it, says Martin Robbins.

I’m a "clit-licking beta-boy", according to some recent fan mail; an "unmanly" creature who only supports feminism out of some desperate need to get laid. As an insult it doesn’t really work. Beta Boy sounds like the Incredible Hulk’s side-kick (think about it), but in reality it’s just the desperately insecure phrasing of someone who considers themself an alpha male, and therefore isn’t one.

As for calling me a "clit-licker", well that’s basically the same as walking up to me in the street and shouting: “You give pleasure to ladies!” I can live with that. Unmanly? Well I'm not the one afraid of having my face near a vagina, or whining about how terribly unfair it is that I have to compete with women on equal terms.

Since childhood I've often been called a "wanker" - more recently a "smug wanker" - and even on the cusp of pubescence I could appreciate the irony in hearing this from teenage boys. Scientists say that in a typical urban environment you are never more than 50 metres away from somebody having a wank, and this great human impulse has driven many advances in technology - the iPad was invented specifically to solve the problem of getting a decent screen in bed with you to watch internet porn on, while the telegraph was constructed for the transmission of what Victorians called "fornigrams".

My point is there’s nothing "dirty", "perverse" or "deviant" about masturbation or clit-licking. A brain as powerful and sophisticated as mine can’t just be cold-booted in the morning, and masturbation is one of the best ways to fill the long minutes that elapse between the first signs of consciousness and the ability to crawl and signal basic emotions to others. Indeed, wanking is a powerful motivator – there’s only so long you can lie clutching a handful of your own sperm before disgust overwhelms laziness and forces you to the bathroom. Similarly, clit-licking is a relaxing and efficient pursuit that requires little more than lying on your back, letting a lady sit on your face, and trying to avoid suffocation.

It’s all good wholesome fun, and yet there's an alarming tendency in modern society to demonize anybody with sexual preferences more adventurous than the Kellogg brothers, who of course pioneered the use of Cornflakes to discourage masturbation. (I’m not sure how this was supposed to work - presumably people were put off by the noise and the chaffing and the yellow crumbs everywhere.)

Simon Walsh, recently cleared of possessing "extreme pornography", is only the latest in a long line of public figures whose private sexual preferences have been used against them. A recent Daily Mail report on his case opened with:

"A gay former aide to Boris Johnson admitted to being a sadomasochist who enjoys a 'strange sex life' but denied possession of extreme images . . ."

It’s hard not to admire such a brutally Orwellian bit of phrasing: note the irrelevant reference to his homosexuality; the use of "strange" to define his sexual preferences, the framing of his statements as an "admission", as if sadomasochism were a crime to be guilty of; the use of "but" to imply a contradiction between the Mail’s description of Walsh and his denial.

Compare and contrast with the opening paragraphs of this report on Max Mosley:

“The bizarre sex life of motorsport supremo Max Mosley was described to a court in all its lurid detail yesterday. He admitted indulging in sadomasochism and corporal punishment - and paying women to act out fantasies with him. But the 68-year-old son of Fascist leader Oswald Mosley strongly denied a Sunday newspaper's claim that...”

It’s all there again: "bizarre", "admission", "but" - the similarity is uncanny. Written four years apart, carrying different by-lines, these paragraphs were born of the same editorial assembly line that smeared the likes of Stephen Gateley.

Implicit in many of these stories is the idea that having such deviant tastes and desires renders one somehow unfit for society. “Primary school teacher who led double life as kinky sex dominatrix is free to continue working with children,” screamed one headline last year, the implication crystal clear. In fact the woman in question didn’t offer sex, and even if she had it is unclear why this would make her more unsuitable for working in a school than anyone else having regular, consensual sex.  Whisper it quietly, but I suspect most parents of school-children have had sex at least once in their lives. 

The faux-puritanical use of sexuality as a smear is galling when it comes from publications who routinely publish pictures of bikini-clad women to boost hit rates, but even more sinister is the selectively-applied denial of the distinction between fantasy and reality. The "porn trial" and the "Twitter joke trial" are two recent examples of this: a pair of follies pursued at great personal and public expense by stubborn-headed prosecutors, who in both cases were either unwilling or unable to grasp the distinction between our imaginations and our real world actions. Simon Walsh poses as great a threat to society as Paul Chambers does to Robin Hood airport, or Dan Brown does to the Pope. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be the kind of person to whom this is not immediately obvious. 

The distinction between reality and fantasy is particularly important in the world of adult entertainment, which is subjected to more double-standards than virtually any other form of entertainment. Dress up in a Nazi uniform and pretend to kill British soldiers in a Hollywood movie and it’s all good clean fun, but show off your swastika thong at an orgy and your crotch will trigger global outrage. If a sexy woman in a skin-tight cat-suit slaughters people in The Avengers that’s perfectly acceptable, but put death or violence in the context of porn flick and suddenly it’s dark, evil and possibly criminal.

Of course there are many fetishes and sub-fetishes that involve death or a close simulation – strangulation or voraphilia for example – but they don’t tend to involve actually finding a corpse sexy; often the turn-on for fans is the extreme exhibition of power, or their complete surrender to it. More importantly, our fantasies have little connection with what we would choose to do in real life. An ex-girlfriend of mine liked to randomly pounce on me around the house, but if a random woman tried to surprise-sex me on the tube I’d probably do what I usually do when women I don’t know try to touch me, which is to turn bright red and enter a catatonic state. People with a strangulation fetish don’t wander the streets looking for victims, and women who fantasise about rape scenarios don’t actually want to be raped.

Fantasies are just fantasies, to be acted out in our imaginations or in safe environments with like-minded, consenting adults. Law-makers and prosecutors have the right to regulate the things we do in public, but their willingness to police and censor the dream worlds of our gloriously kinky imaginations is far more sinister than any Nazi-themed BDSM orgy.

Photo: Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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The polls are bad, but Jeremy Corbyn’s office has a secret weapon

How a shake-up of the leadership team has steadied nerves at the top of Labour. 

If polling had existed back in 1906, Jeremy Corbyn quipped at one recent strategy meeting, the Labour Party would never have got started.

As far as Labour’s direction is concerned, it is that meeting at four o’clock every Monday afternoon that matters. The people who attend it regularly are the Labour leader, his aides, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as well as the party’s election co-ordinator, and their respective aides.

In recent weeks, the meetings have been stormy affairs, and not only because the numbers from the party’s own pollsters, BMG Research, mirror the uniformly bleak picture from the public polls. There is also concern over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager. Murphy is highly rated by Corbyn for having brought increased intensity and efficiency to the leader’s office. Corbyn often struggles to deliver bad news in person and appreciates that Murphy will intervene on his behalf.

Her intensity is not uniformly welcomed. “She could start a fight with her own reflection,” in the wry words of one friend. An argument with Jon Trickett – the Hemsworth MP whose unusual career trajectory took him from being a parliamentary aide to Peter Mandelson to the inner sanctum of Ed Miliband’s leadership and finally to the role of election co-ordinator for Corbyn – led to Trickett going on a two-week strike, recusing himself from vital meetings and avoiding any contact with Murphy.

That row eventually led to Trickett being stripped of his role and banished from the Monday meeting. Murphy had a similar turf war with the campaigns director, Simon Fletcher, which culminated in Fletcher resigning on 17 February. In a letter to staffers, he called on the party to “keep the promise” of Corbyn’s first leadership bid, a period when Fletcher was central and Murphy had yet to start working for the Labour leader.

All of which, in better political weather, would simply be part of the back-and-forth of office politics. However, set against the backdrop of unease about by-elections in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland, and a series of unhelpful leaks, it adds to a sense of vulnerability around the leadership. One loyalist shadow cabinet minister calls it “the most dangerous time” for Corbyn since he was first elected leader.

Why the danger? Contrary to popular myth, the backbone of Jeremy Corbyn’s successive landslide victories was not a hard-pressed twentysomething, struggling to find a fixed job or to get a foot on the housing ladder. The shock troops of Corbynism, at least as far as the internal battle in the Labour Party went, were baby boomers. Many of them were either working in, or on early retirement from, a charity or the public sector, deeply concerned about the rightward drift of British politics and worried about the next generation.

Corbyn’s decision to whip Labour MPs in support of triggering Article 50 – the process whereby Britain will begin its exit from the European Union – was, in their eyes, a double heresy. The vote signalled acceptance that the forces of the Eurosceptic right had won on 23 June, and it conceded that visa-free travel, membership of the single market and freedom of movement are over.

None of this is automatically great news for Corbyn’s internal critics – not least because the vote on Article 50 is rare in being an issue that unites Corbyn with most Labour MPs. Yet it adds to the sense that his leadership has passed its best-before date.

Adding to the general malaise is a series of unhelpful leaks. There was a story in the Sunday Times on 12 February claiming that the leadership was road-testing possible replacements for Corbyn, and on 20 February the Mirror claimed that the Labour leadership had commissioned a poll to find out whether or not the leader should quit his post. These stories are hotly denied by the leader’s office. Some in Corbyn’s inner circle believe they are the work of Trickett, embittered at his demotion.

It is true that Corbyn is not enjoying the job as much as he once did. However, if the conversation shifts from the minutiae of Brexit to his natural terrain of the NHS and the continuing consequences of government cuts on education and the prisons service, he could quickly find himself relishing the role once more.

Corbyn retains two powerful cards. His newly energised office, under Karie Murphy, is one. Although her brisk approach has generated some public rows, the feeling in the leader’s office is that a chief of staff was needed, and Murphy has assumed that role. The media team has also grown sharper with the addition of David Prescott (son of John), Matt Zarb-Cousin and the former Momentum spokesman James Schneider.

Corbyn’s second asset is more unexpected. His rivals inside the party now fear rather than relish an immediate end to his leadership. A former shadow cabinet member splits his supporters into two groups: “idealists and ideologues – the first we can inspire and win over, the second have to be got rid of”. In their view, the idealists have not yet moved away from Corbyn enough to guarantee victory; the ideologues, for their part, will slink off as Corbyn puts the demands of his office above their interests, as he did over Article 50.

Although self-defeating panic has never been a rare commodity in the Labour Party, the settled view of Labour MPs is that their leader must be given time and space rather than hustled out of the door. There is an awareness, too, that MPs who are united in opposition to Corbyn are divided over many other issues.

So, while the inner circle’s Monday meetings might be fraught, and Labour’s current polling would have given Keir Hardie pause, Jeremy Corbyn is safe. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit