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.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.