We talk a lot about tolerance, but surely we need something more than simply deciding something isn't our business. Photo: Marya/Emdot on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Judging sex: why can’t we have opinions about what we get up to in bed?

Jesse Bering's new book, <em>Perv</em>, puts forward a rigidly harm-reduction approach to sexual morality (although at times his theories seem to be proposing the normalisation of child abuse images). But tolerance alone isn't enough. Shouldn't wanting to

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?

If you need any support related to the issues raised in this article, contact Rape Crisis on freephone 0808 802 9999 or the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”