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 decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era