The perversion of privacy

Today's uptight society is relaxed about sex - so long as it is viewed in public.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

‘Hardcore pornography was found in Matthew Kelly’s holiday home’, screamed a front-page headline in the News of the World (1), after the UK TV presenter was arrested over allegations of sexual abuse against boys during the 1970s.

When Scotland Yard questioned The Who guitarist Pete Townshend for downloading child pornography over the internet, the press reported that he ‘enjoyed hardcore pornography’. Elsewhere, when police raided the flat of Anthony Hardy, who has been charged with the murders of three prostitutes, local BBC news reported that ‘hardcore pornographic material was discovered’. There’s a suggestion in these reports that hardcore porn is a catalyst for degeneracy and moral decay.

In the 1980s, radical feminists often argued that looking at pornography encouraged men to rape women – that flicking through adult magazines would automatically unleash uncontrollable and disturbing male fantasies. When Jarvis Cocker was promoting Pulp’s 1998 album This Is Hardcore, and involving himself in Townshend-style ‘research’, he said that viewing pornography leads to a fascination with increasingly murky areas of porn.

And yet if viewing sexual material were seen as problematic and dangerous in itself, newspapers, middle-shelf ‘lads’ mags’, films and TV wouldn’t be saturated with references to sex. Previously, the groaning double-entendres of Carry On and On The Buses, and the odd flash of nudity in Dennis Potter plays, were as far TV went. Now there are almost gynaecological references to intimate sexual acts that were once the domain of lovers’ pillow talk or top-shelf magazines. Top-shelf magazines, meanwhile, have graduated from soft to hardcore, since Britain relaxed its censorship laws on adult porn three years ago.

In such a highly sexualised public climate it seems rather perverse to express shock at discovering public figures’ porn stashes. It is much like saying: ‘Police discover first series of The Sopranos on video at Matthew Kelly’s holiday home.’

Hardcore pornography only becomes a problem, it seems, when consumed in private. The suggestion is that a free individual left to their own devices behind closed doors is furtive, seedy and, above all, unregulated and unaccountable to anybody else. By comparison, sexual material in the public arena is regulated but arguably ‘open for all’. If Christina Aguilera’s crotch-thrusting pop videos and BBC dramas like Tipping The Velvet provide enough voyeuristic thrills on TV, who needs to view porn videos or adult websites in private? And if they do, surely they must have something sinister to hide?

This is why Jonathan Ross’ locker-room comments on his chat-show about the ‘under-age’ Charlotte Church, or the tabloids’ obsession with ‘school-girl virgin’ Britney Spears a couple of years ago, coexists with the hysteria surrounding paedophiles and sexual abuse. Society has become simultaneously relaxed and up-tight because the boundary between the public and the private has altered dramatically.

Until relatively recently, what happened in your private life was of little concern to anybody else, least of all the state. The proverb ‘an English man’s home is his castle’ reflected the importance of a retreated private sphere. You were judged in society on how you conducted yourself in public, from your occupation to your political views.

The separation between our public and private lives was once considered the hallmark of civilisation. In recent years, what you do in private – your religious views or the culture you consume – has become an important marker. As such, your private life is now a matter of concern for others, too, particularly public bodies and the interfering arms of the state.

When it comes to sexuality, the role of the public and private spheres hasn’t so much been blurred, as completely reversed. Exploring sexuality in a public medium such as TV is acceptable, but sex in privacy is seen as problematic.

In the past, because of oppression, gay men tended to explore their sexuality in (discreet) public places, as society had closed off the private sphere. Now it seems that the degrading consequences of gay oppression have become almost a guideline for everybody else.

The changing position of gay men – from retrobate to role model – has become a vehicle for altering the boundaries of sex. Hardcore porn was previously illegal in the UK as there was concern that straight men would find male genitalia sexually desirable. The ‘role model’ status afforded to gay men paved the way for the gradual legalisation of hardcore pornography.

It is the same, too, with explicit sexual references on TV. A key watershed drama in recent years was Manchester-based Queer As Folk in 1999, which was praised for its daring depiction of fellatio and candid references to sexual acts. Now no innocuous serial or drama is complete without a similar sexually explicit tone.

Of course, there’s nothing particularly wrong with having a more relaxed attitude to sex in the media. But it is worrying when sex in public is seen as preferable to sex and sexuality in private. Far from being a new era of relaxed ‘self-expression’ and ‘free love’, sex has become a way of intruding into our personal lives.

As we’ve seen with the Matthew Kelly and Pete Townshend debacles, the more obsession with sex and sexuality becomes public, the more privacy becomes viewed as the place for perverts.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Love and Sex

(1) News of the World, 19, January, 2003

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Topics Politics


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