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 Tinder dating app isn't just about sex – it's about friendship, too. And sex

The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, as I found out quickly while using the app.

The first time I met someone using Tinder, the free dating app that requires users to swipe left for “no” and right for “yes” before enabling new “matches” to chat, it was an unqualified success. I should probably qualify that. I was newly single after five years in a committed relationship and wasn’t looking for anything more than fun, friendship and, well, who knows. A few weeks earlier I had tried to give my number to a girl in a cinema café in Brixton. I wrote it on a postcard I’d been using as a bookmark. She said she had a boyfriend, but wanted to keep the postcard. I had no date and I lost my page.

My Tinder date was a master’s student from Valencia called Anna (her name wasn’t really Anna, of course, I’m not a sociopath). When I arrived at the appointed meeting place, she told me I was far more handsome IRL (“in real life”) than my pictures suggested. I was flattered and full of praise for the directness of continental Europeans but also thought sadly to myself: “If only the same could be said about you.”

Anna and I became friends, at least for a while. The date wasn’t a success in the traditional sense of leading us into a contract based on exclusivity, an accumulating cache of resentments and a mortgage, but it had put me back in the game (an appropriate metaphor – people speak regularly of “playing” with the app).

According to Sean Rad, the co-founder who launched Tinder in late 2012, the service was invented for people like me. “It was really a way to overcome my own problems,” he told the editor of Cosmopolitan at an event in London last month. “It was weird to me, to start a conversation [with a stranger]. Once I had an introduction I was fine, but it’s that first step. It’s difficult for a lot of people.” After just one outing, I’d learned two fundamental lessons about the world of online dating: pretty much everyone has at least one decent picture of themselves, and meeting women using a so-called hook-up app is seldom straightforwardly about sex.

Although sometimes it is. My second Tinder date took place in Vienna. I met Louisa (ditto, name) outside some notable church or other one evening while visiting on holiday (Tinder tourism being, in my view, a far more compelling way to get to know a place than a cumbersome Lonely Planet guide). We drank cocktails by the Danube and rambled across the city before making the romantic decision to stay awake all night, as she had to leave early the next day to go hiking with friends. It was just like the Richard Linklater movie Before Sunrise – something I said out loud more than a few times as the Aperol Spritzes took their toll.

When we met up in London a few months later, Louisa and I decided to skip the second part of Linklater’s beautiful triptych and fast-track our relationship straight to the third, Before Midnight, which takes place 18 years after the protagonists’ first meet in Vienna, and have begun to discover that they hate each others’ guts.

Which is one of the many hazards of the swiping life: unlike with older, web-based platforms such as Match.com or OkCupid, which require a substantial written profile, Tinder users know relatively little about their prospective mates. All that’s necessary is a Facebook account and a single photograph. University, occupation, a short bio and mutual Facebook “likes” are optional (my bio is made up entirely of emojis: the pizza slice, the dancing lady, the stack of books).

Worse still, you will see people you know on Tinder – that includes colleagues, neighbours and exes – and they will see you. Far more people swipe out of boredom or curiosity than are ever likely to want to meet up, in part because swiping is so brain-corrosively addictive.

While the company is cagey about its user data, we know that Tinder has been downloaded over 100 million times and has produced upwards of 11 billion matches – though the number of people who have made contact will be far lower. It may sound like a lot but the Tinder user-base remains stuck at around the 50 million mark: a self-selecting coterie of mainly urban, reasonably affluent, generally white men and women, mostly aged between 18 and 34.

A new generation of apps – such as Hey! Vina and Skout – is seeking to capitalise on Tinder’s reputation as a portal for sleaze, a charge Sean Rad was keen to deny at the London event. Tinder is working on a new iteration, Tinder Social, for groups of friends who want to hang out with other groups on a night out, rather than dating. This makes sense for a relatively fresh business determined to keep on growing: more people are in relationships than out of them, after all.

After two years of using Tinder, off and on, last weekend I deleted the app. I had been visiting a friend in Sweden, and took it pretty badly when a Tinder date invited me to a terrible nightclub, only to take a few looks at me and bolt without even bothering to fabricate an excuse. But on the plane back to London the next day, a strange thing happened. Before takeoff, the woman sitting beside me started crying. I assumed something bad had happened but she explained that she was terrified of flying. Almost as terrified, it turned out, as I am. We wound up holding hands through a horrific patch of mid-air turbulence, exchanged anecdotes to distract ourselves and even, when we were safely in sight of the ground, a kiss.

She’s in my phone, but as a contact on Facebook rather than an avatar on a dating app. I’ll probably never see her again but who knows. People connect in strange new ways all the time. The lines between sex, love and friendship are blurrier than ever, but you can be sure that if you look closely at the lines, you’ll almost certainly notice the pixels.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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