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Opinion: In-your-face sex

It is strange how the definition of socially acceptable sex has changed. This year's gay Mardi Gras festival in Manchester was reported with benign approval.

The sight of gay men dressed only in flip-flops and flesh-coloured thongs strolling along Deansgate, and displays of pierced nipples, bondage gear and sex toys, attracted affectionate rather than outraged comment in the press. A contingent of louche male nuns, including one in a camouflage habit riding a motor scooter, was described as 'idiosyncratic' rather than sick: 'Nun but the brave' read the caption under a picture of one moustachioed habit-clad participant. From the tone of the Guardian report it seemed that 'Sappho Square'-'a central and visible focus for dykes'-was just the place the women's page readers should head for.

A breath of fresh air, you might think, for those of us who have long been frustrated by the media's puritan attitude to sex. But not so. Curiously, on the very same day that the homosexual displays of the Manchester gay scene were described with affection, old-fashioned heterosexual displays were making outraged headlines, as the British vice-consul in Ibiza resigned in disgust at the behaviour of the 18-30 crowd who flock to the island to explore their sexuality. The very same liberal papers that were so amused by the Manchester Mardi Gras were doing a Victor Meldrew in response to the sexual antics of British youth abroad.

Condemning the 'vulgar desire for exhibitionist sex', Independent columnist Trevor Phillips (whom many of us remember from his days heading up the National Union of Students) described Ibiza as 'the Sodom and Gomorrah of our times, with a dash of the Roman Empire thrown in for spice'.

What Trevor describes is clearly not for the faint-hearted: 'A group of young people sitting around in the sun, laughing and drinking, throwing each other in the pool, daring each other to ever more outrageous acts. One boy dares a girl to take off all her clothes (all? we are talking about a bikini that conceals less than a postage stamp) and sit on the face of another young man. Without a moment's hesitation she obliges, in front of all and sundry...It is shocking; but it passes in a gale of laughter.' He also observes the sorry state of a young man 'with his hand under the skirt of [a] woman, whom he hardly knows; yet she can barely summon up the interest in the invasion of her own body to tell him to stop'.

Trevor-who admits to having put it around a bit himself in the pre-Aids, post-pill eighties-says that it is not the promiscuity which shocks him, but the public display, and that if he had known what it would all lead to he would have thought twice about his involvement in campaigns for sexual freedom in the 1960s.

Not being much of a party animal myself, I have some sympathy for Trevor's despair at the abandonment of sex as a private matter, best kept behind closed doors. But I cannot agree that it is a consequence of sixties sexual experimentation. Nor can I empathise with the wider media's dual standard, which says that two chaps wandering around Manchester city centre in PVC bondage suits is an interesting display of sexual diversity, while a bloke touching up a woman on a beach in San Antonio is outrageous.

Are the young people who take a break from being bank clerks in Norwich to get out of their faces on lager or whatever, and to indulge in a two-week shag-fest, any more decadent than those who flocked to the lesbian and gay Mardi Gras? Or is it just that in these politically correct times heterosexual sex is a no-no, while queer is quaint?

Of course, I understand that there is a significant and important difference between gay and straight. There is still discrimination against gays, and coming together (in the geographical sense) for a collective event can be a way of making a statement about your right to live as you see fit. But to meet that end, a collective event must involve a protest for what we want-not just a celebration of how we enjoy sex. A bunch of queers and dykes celebrating their sexuality in Manchester is no more political than a bunch of straights having a good time in Ibiza. Whether or not it offends is simply a matter of personal taste.

Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998

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