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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I’m a man with bulimia. But too many like me are unable to address their “hidden” condition

A failure to understand that eating disorders can strike anyone, at any time, can make it harder for people to accept they have a problem and start asking for help.

What was it about George Osborne’s last Spending Review that made me physically sick? Fresh cuts to already-sliced government departments? The latest squeeze on vulnerable housing benefit claimants? The sheer jamminess of the Chancellor’s tax credits u-turn?

Actually, it was a handful of salt and vinegar crisps and a couple of tiny triangle sandwiches, courtesy of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

It’s now customary for journalists to head to the IFS for what we like to call the “real” Budget. This hour – blissfully free from “long-term economic plans”, with nary a “hard-working family” in sight – is when Britain’s sharpest economists help us cut through the spin.

Less known about the IFS, though, is that they also put on a top-notch spread for assembled hacks. And it was this, rather than the Chancellor’s latest manoeuvrings, that had me on my knees last November.

For about eight years now, I’ve been bulimic. Bulimia is often described as a “battle”, but I’m not a big fan of this term. You don’t feel like much of a hero when you follow a detailed briefing on the distributional effects of Universal Credit with a bout of shoving your fingers down your throat in a Senate House toilet to get rid of a cucumber sarnie.

According to the National Institute for Care Excellence (NICE), just under 1 per cent of the UK population has bulimia nervosa. Using some back-of-a-fag-packet maths that the IFS would no doubt slam me for, I reckon this means that there are more than half a million of us out there making shonky excuses to leave meals or brushing our teeth at strange times. But we’re a shrewd lot – time and again, the people I speak to about the problem characterise it as a “hidden” condition.

Mary George from the eating disorders charity BEAT tells me that while anorexia is actually the rarest of all the eating disorders – accounting for around 10 per cent of all diagnoses – it continues to receive the most attention, in part because its visible consequences “are much more obvious”.

“With bulimia, somebody can stay the same weight and those around them are just not aware of the struggle that they’re having unless they start observing certain behavioural patterns,” George says. “It’s difficult to spot – but it is equally as serious.”

While we bulimics very often don’t look that different, then – meaning we can slip under the radar of GPs – George says that we can rather quietly be doing ourselves some real damage. Getting rid of food, unsurprisingly, deprives the body of vital nutrients – and over the long term that runs some big health risks.

“It can impact on the heart, the cardiovascular system, it can lead to loss of bone density, resulting in osteoporosis,” she says. “Bulimia can also lead to long-term dental problems because of purging and the acidity passing through the mouth, an electrolyte imbalance in the body because of the purging, a reduction in testosterone levels in men, and a loss of sexual interest.”

My blood ran cold as George told me about those effects. Yet, in the rare instances it is discussed publicly, bulimia can still be seen as a poor relation to anorexia – even a bit of a comedy eating disorder.

Conservative MP Caroline Nokes – who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on body image – tells me that while understanding of eating disorders more broadly has improved in the last few years, there is still “a great deal of ignorance” about bulimia – and an ongoing perception that it’s only a problem for “middle-class teenage girls”.

“When [former Deputy Prime Minister] John Prescott revealed that he had suffered from bulimia, there was almost sort of a collective question mark hanging in the air,” Nokes says. “People were joking, ‘Well, how can he be bulimic, look at the size of him?’ They were making really cruel, hideous jokes about him.”

It’s important to stress that most of those diagnosed with eating disorders are women – NICE figures show a female to male ratio of around 3:1. But there’s also been a sharp, 63 per cent increase in the number of men being diagnosed with eating disorders in the past five years (not necessarily a bad thing – it could mean more of us are seeking help). And research has shown that men are more likely to get bulimia than any other kind of eating disorder.

So it turns out I’m part of a growing group. Like me, Sam Thomas had bulimia as a young man, and in 2009 decided to set up a charity called Men Get Eating Disorders Too, offering advice and support tailored specifically to men, who he believed were still not provided for. Seven years on, he tells me he’s still trying to challenge the view that eating disorders are confined to just one set of people.

“One of the key messages that we try to get across all the time is that eating disorders have no gender,” he says. “They’re very inclusive in that respect – incorporating not just men and women, but trans people too, who often get forgotten about in these sort of debates. Eating disorders are indiscriminate.”

There are all sorts of reasons somebody can get an eating disorder – a traumatic life event, stress, broader psychiatric problems – and Mary George from BEAT tells me “high achievers” and “perfectionists” are particularly at risk.

Nokes meanwhile points out that men are also increasingly getting a taste of the kind of “impossible-to-obtain” body ideals that women have had to put up with since time immemorial.

Yet despite more pressure on men to worry about the way they look, Nokes says there is still an assumption that we’re not really meant to talk about this stuff.

“There’s a view that if a man reveals something like that he’s fair game to be ridiculed – and that’s just so wrong,” she says. “From visits I’ve made to eating disorder units, what has really struck me is that the men that I have met have had conditions that are every bit as severe as the women in there. And yet they have somehow been expected to be tougher about it.”

But research published a couple of years ago in the British Medical Journal, based on extended interviews with male eating disorder sufferers, makes it clear why those misconceptions can be such a problem.

In it, the authors warn that the “culturally prevalent view that eating disorders largely affect teenage girls” meant many of the people they spoke to “only recognised their behaviours and experiences as possible symptoms of an ED after a protracted delay, mitigating possibilities of early intervention and improved prognosis”.

In other words, a failure to understand that eating disorders can strike anyone, at any time, can actually make it harder for people to accept they have a problem and start asking for help.

The IFS incident was arguably my illness at its most daft – an absurd situation that prompted me to realise that something that had become a weary part of my daily routine was now taking control of my life in a big way.

In many respects, though, I’m one of the lucky ones, tentatively wriggling out of bulimia’s clutches with the help of some open-minded friends who’ve been keeping an eye on me and gently reminding me that it’s alright to sometimes have a donut.

I have no doubt, however, that talking about an eating disorder like mine would have been ten times harder if I had been, say, a working-class teenager, or a City trader whose career depended on never showing weakness, as opposed to a hummus-munching trade journalist in a steady job.

But, as Sam Thomas says, nobody suffering from bulimia – or any other eating disorder – should be left feeling like they’re not entitled to seek help.

“Without stating the bleeding obvious, it’s just important to know this is an issue that other people have experienced, right across the world,” he says. “You’re not the only one. You’re not an alien. You’re not a freak of nature. Get help when you are ready to – talk to somebody you can trust. It may not be that you just pick up the phone and call the GP. But that isolation and secrecy that an eating disorder can often thrive on? You can break that link.”

Matt Foster is deputy editor of Civil Service World and a former assistant news editor at PoliticsHome.