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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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