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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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.