We’ve come a long way, baby. I’m just three-and-a-bit decades old, and in my lifetime, relationships that would have once been a source of shame, secrecy and disgust have been brought into the light. Actually, “brought” is the wrong word, much too passive: gay rights have been kicked and shoved and scrapped into public acceptance by the hard, brave work of campaigners. Dangers and stigmas are still being undone, and depending on faith and background, some lives are considerably harder than others. But over all? Things have got better.
Sometimes we talk about the world we live in now as one of equality. I’ll come back to that word in a bit. More often, we talk about tolerance, which is in many ways a rather disappointing virtue. Tolerance doesn’t necessarily ask you to embrace anyone else or to extend your imagination in sympathy with their feelings. Tolerance can be accomplished purely by omission, by deciding that something is none of your business. And most of what any of us get up to in (or out of) bed is of course none of anyone else’s business. But there’s an ethical oddity in what should be an obvious good – the right of people to live and love in honesty and fairness – being conceived not as a positive thing, but as the negation of judgment.
It seems to me sometimes that the only thing left to disapprove of when it comes to sex is having an opinion. From dreams of hog-tied rootings to sex urinals to eroticised racism, everything gets a nudge, a wink and a gentle handwave. Who has time to interrogate their libido when they could be coming? And isn’t a regular orgasm every person’s birthright, however they get there? In his new book, Perv, Jesse Bering is something of an extremist in these matters but his rigidly harm-reduction approach to sexual morality isn’t out of step with the general thinking of the times. Bering makes a plea for a “new value system [...] constructed of the brick and mortar of established scientific facts, its bedrock being the incontrovertible truth that sexual orientations are never chosen.”
And by sexual orientations, Bering doesn’t just mean the sex you’re attracted to or your predilection for one partner at a time or several concurrently: he includes the species that stirs you and the age group. Bering’s tolerant case includes erotic rights for zoophiles and peadophiles too. Not, I hurriedly add, that Bering thinks there’s any reduced-harm way for the prepubescent fancier to consummate his desire. (And the paedophile is almost exclusively a him: even in the rare cases where women are convicted of sexual crimes against children, they tend not to have been directed by their own fantasies but by those of a manipulative man.) But Bering does suggest that paedophiles should have access to imagery that will bring them sexual pleasure, and that such images could have a cathartic effect that would forestall rape.
Bering calls this “the ‘medical’ procurement of child porn in an effort to reduce harm to children”. I wouldn’t: I’d call it the normalisation of child abuse images, and even if it does help the morally squeamish paedophile to restrain himself in man-on-infant situations, it also tells those of any “orientation” but no scruples that children are a legitimate place to point their dick. (In order to recruit compassion for the paedophile, Bering points to studies that say at least half of all child molesters aren’t even primarily attracted to children, but just use infants as an available surrogate. I’d say that’s a community that could do without any "medical" encouragement.)
Maybe “born this way” isn’t a comprehensive argument in favour of every possible manner of getting your rocks off. In fact, I think that Bering probably vastly underestimates the plasticity of human desire. It’s true that very few get to decide individually what our orientation is. But orientation is fixed within the man-made environment of society. That’s not just true for paedophilia, but for all the kinks and fetishes that Bering writes of. And in a society where domination is the rule, is it any great surprise that you find people making spunky lemonade from oppressive lemons and finding their pleasure in either subjugating or being subjugated?
Here’s a radical thought – and I’m not judging anyone (of course not), just suggesting that people might try applying their own judgment to their own desires: if your idea of what is sexy circles unendingly around the pain, humiliation and control of someone (even if that someone is yourself), maybe, possibly, there’s something wrong with your idea of what is sexy.
And maybe, possibly the problem with your idea of what’s sexy has come about because you’ve been formed by a world where the archetype of sex is men having control over women. I’m not saying we can’t have our consensually produced, ethically manufactured spunky lemonade. I’m just saying, let’s have a careful sniff before we down it.
Sex is biological, but how sexuality is understood and expressed is part of culture, and culture is something we constantly make and remake. Imagine if that culture was one of real equality; one where men and women, women and women, men and men could create sexual relationships that weren’t about power and control, but about intimacy, sympathy and feeling for each other with their whole body. I feel ludicrous simply suggesting this, because power and sex seem so entwined: even in vanilla sex, there’s a frisson over who’s on top and who is underneath. But the very absurdity of this idea of equal sex shows how politicised sex really is, and what those politics are.
Sex is not a neutral zone. Perhaps it’s not enough for our sexualities to be “tolerable”: why don’t we want to have good sex, in every sense?