Those who celebrated the death of New Labour puritanism may yet live to regret its successor: the new Tory obsession with “sexualisation”. For this is a moral panic that looks set to be even wider in scope, even more finger-waggingly repressive in effect, than anything the last lot came up with.
So what’s new? After all, wasn’t it ever such? And not just in a “remember to keep a spare set of keys to the cuffs available in case of heart attack” sort of way.
Something has changed: is in the process of changing. We’ve reached that turning point when blue sky dotted with cloud suddenly, imperceptibly, gives way to cloudy sky with sunny patches, before greying over altogether and soaking all and sundry with a bitter northern rain.
Its been coming for a while. The turning point, that is. We’ve had a decade of new Labour nannying on sex and sexuality. In hindsight, though, that may turn out to have been preferable. For whilst New Labour may have been concerned with sexual exploitation, they appeared still to believe that once that particular issue had been sorted out, sex, on the whole, was not a bad idea.
Of course, the ultimate exploitation, which government rightly reacted to, was exploitation of children. Yet the battlecry — “think of the children” — now pervades every aspect of our thinking about sex.
Because not only are adults increasingly treated as children — incapable, where sex is concerned, of thinking with anything more elevated than their genitals: but the touchstone for policy in an adult world is increasingly “what would happen if children got hold of this?”
We have grown used to debates on internet regulation being conducted as though the internet were a wholly public, innocent space. So, despite the fact that the internet is an adult tool — a place where adults meet, shop, conduct business and (whisper it low) flirt sexually — it must be controlled, regulated and policed as though it is intentionally open to all.
Calls for closing down sites that peddle images of child abuse have become mingled — and frequently confused with — calls to shut down thoroughly adult places because children might stumble across them.
But that’s only in the online world where such concern might be excused because children are often much more tech-savvy than their allotted grown-ups. Perhaps. Still, the trend is creeping outward, in two ways.
First is the increasingly omnipresent theoretical child. In late 2010/early 2011, a number of fetish clubs were closed — or came under attack — across the UK. Their crime, apart from being “different”, and places where “perverts” congregated? In report after report, appeared the phrase that was to be their death knell: these venues are “not far from local schools”.
That’s one of those wonderful newspaper facts that is impossible to argue with. Yes. They are. Adults visit them on a Friday or Saturday night (a time when all good children ought to be abed) to meet other adults and do adult things. Have there been any reports of children abducted by the denizens of these clubs? No. Stories, even, of gimp-masked weirdos leaping out from behind bushes and flashing the poor darlings? No.
But that doesn’t matter, because they are “near schools” — and everyone knows what that means, even if it doesn’t actually mean anything at all. And suddenly, horrifyingly, local councils are taking action, reporting these places because of child welfare concerns, and looking for inventive new ways to close them down.
That, for me, was the ‘blue sky giving way to grey’ turning point: the moment when I realised that the current obsession with sexualisation was as dangerous, perhaps more so, than anything New Labour ever got up to.
Because as Dr Clarissa Smith observed last year at a conference on sexual expressions in the media (Onscenity), the accusation of “sexualisation” is both meaningless and overwhelming. It’s one of those “when did you stop beating your wife?” questions: impossible to engage with, tangling the respondent up in the tentacles of an emotive non-argument.
Unfortunately, though, the issue has traction, both as one of the slogans that David Cameron nailed to his mast long before becoming PM, and as an issue already on Labour’s agenda as it quietly quit the building. A report by Dr Papadopoulos in early 2010 asserted — with little evidence and even less academic rigour — that children are being sexualised as never before.
The Coalition, despite jettisoning much of what went before, has happily picked up this ball and is now running with it, with a commission due to report back later this year on the inappropriate sexualisation of children.
No matter that a follow-up on the same topic by the Scottish Parliament raised serious doubts that the issue was as serious or even as real as pundits were claiming [i]: the media are in full cry, picking up and gleefully reproducing every image of supposedly sexualised childhood, whilst simultaneously wringing their hands in disgust.
Sexualisation is now the standard — the brand position — for the new anti-sex movement that is sweeping the land. First, and almost incidental, is its cavalier disregard for evidence beyond the anecdotal.
Whatever happened to definition of terms, measurement of outcomes, and principles of basic scientific inquiry? Sexualisation is accused of being behind social problems as varied as domestic violence, teenage pregnancy and anorexia. Evidence? Don’t be daft! Assertion makes it so — and in the process, does away with all the awkwardness.
This impatience with evidence is infecting a number of connected debates.
There is a real debate to be had around the nature and scale of the problem of sex trafficking in Western Europe. The advent of a Conservative Home Secretary might have been expected to damp down some of the hysteria around this topic.
Not a bit of it.
Theresa May, holder of that great office, could be heard last year loudly denouncing those who questioned figures in this area. Meanwhile, from the Shadow benches, Yvette Cooper is warning of great influxes of trafficked sex workers for the British 2012 Olympics.
This is despite the abject failure of such swarms to appear as predicted at the last five major international sporting events, and both sex workers and the Met Police arguing that such a fear is baseless: the economics alone makes such trafficking improbable in the extreme.
Still, there is one way to deal with awkward evidence: and that is to exclude it. So, again in the last couple of weeks, I have heard how the Home Office has excluded from roundtable discussions on sex work the English Collective of Prostitutes, perhaps the longest-running organised group in the UK to focus on this issue. In similar vein, an international conference on the same issue recently attempted to exclude a noted international academic and maverick feminist writer on these issues in much the same way.
This approach is about as bizarre as excluding the archbishop of Canterbury from a debate on the ordination of women.
Still, over and over, the message is that where sex is concerned, poor or misleading research is always preferable to decent research. How else to explain the continuing influence of one of the all-time least reputable pieces of evidence around: the Camden lap-dancing report of 2003 which erroneously made claims of a link between lapdancing clubs and violence against women. [ii]
If absence of evidence is one of the secret hallmarks of the new moral crusade, then the other is proudly proclaimed in its title: its all about SEX innit! For while past generations may have been concerned about overly gendered play by children, the current one is concerned about sexualised play — which only makes sense if one presumes that sex, of itself, is harmful or dangerous.
Little point in suggesting, ever so quietly, that whilst children may not be sexual, they are consummate players — and what they do in play is practise skills that may or may not be of use in later adulthood. Practise, that is, not in some dumb monkey-see, monkey-do fashion, but engagingly, inquiringly. So if adults — the grown-ups in their lives — wear skimpy clothes and prance around in ridiculous heels, children will want to imitate. Yet imitating the behaviour says nothing about their sexuality.
One might as easily talk about ‘gourmetisation’ of young people, which would presumably be an obsession with what they eat.
Previous generations worried about ‘genderisation’; ours is obsessed with the sexual component, which speaks volumes about our value system. If sex is a good or neutral thing, then learning about it early is not a bad thing. It is only in a world where sex is intrinsically bad, wicked or dangerous that our current attitude makes sense.
In all our long history of sexual law-making, sex itself has been the elephant in the room: the great unmentionable. We’ve legislated obscenity in terms of material that tends to “deprave or corrupt”. We’ve “defined” indecency as being whatever a jury thinks it is; we’ve even managed to define both rape and sex work in relation to person A and person B inserting various items into one another’s orifices, with or without consent.
What we haven’t done is talk about sex in our laws.
Yet that is changing: extreme porn legislation (and the more recent “cartoon law”) talks about images produced for purposes of “sexual” arousal. Vetting legislation talks about “sexual” material. Regulation of lap-dancing establishments is discussed in terms of sexuality. The fact that most police forces have evidence suggesting that such establishments are associated with lower levels of violence and disorder cuts no ice.
If new laws were introduced that related directly to the harms created by entertainment venues, it would be the traditional drinking spaces that were closed first, long before the sex parlours.
But we have come a long way from laws that were designed directly to deal with harm.
Sex and sexuality cannot be proven in any sense to be harmful. So the conclusion is just presumed by the powers that be. Sex is re-classified as intrinsically dangerous. And slowly at first, then ever more quickly, the gathering clouds of legislation are scudding in to cover the ground.
My forecast is for dark days ahead.
[ii] Refutation of the original report (by Dr Brooke Magnanti): http://www.scribd.com/doc/47185652/Green-Paper-Camden-Lilith-rape-stats