The 'playful' sexuality popular today expresses a fear of other people, says Jennie Bristow
Whether you are advertising coffee or chocolate, shampoo or cars, it seems that the way to sell it is to make it sexy. Literally. You can't turn on the television without being bombarded with images of sex, and these are as likely to come in an advert as they are in a third-rate post-watershed movie. In March, when the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission slated broadcasters' obsession with sex and roundly castigated several channels and specific programmes for their nothing-but-salacious content, you could only wonder what took them so long.
All varieties of sex are strutting their stuff across the screen. The appeal of Channel 4's Sex and the City is its brazen approach to less-than-conventional forms of singles' sex, from the plight of the 'up-the-butt girl' to the potential of mechanically aided masturbation. Queer as Folk, the out-and-proud series about the things that young gay men get up to, has achieved massive billing and a cult following. Once-taboo subjects are now encouraged as subjects for polite conversation, whether that's oral sex and multiple sex or fetish and even sado-masochism - provided it's girls on girls and nobody gets hurt.
But sexual liberation seems to have arrived with major conditions attached. New sexual crimes and misdemeanours are being created, from date rape and sexual harassment to stalking and teacher/pupil relationships. Forms of human contact that used to be seen as part of everyday life, and at worst as a nuisance, are now punishable offences. There is a greater focus of public concern on individuals' private, intimate relationships, and more laws and rules surrounding them, than at any other time.
This is where anything goes meets Victorian sensibilities. It's like the summer of love where you can't get a tan - the experience of having somebody smear sun cream on your shoulders is supposed to be sensuous experience enough. Culturally, sex is everywhere, but try flirting with a colleague or having a drink with a sixth-form pupil and a ton of censure drops down on your head. An unprecedented openness about sex and sexuality coexists with puritanical regulations governing relationships - and sometimes the two apparent contradictions seem to complement each other rather well.
Antioch College in America is notorious for its code of conduct governing sexual relationships. The 13-page Sexual Offence Prevention Policy demands that students obtain consent ('not an ambiguous yes but an "absolutely-yippee-yahoo yes"', according to sexual offence prevention and survivors' advocate Christina Cappelletti) at every stage of a developing sexual relationship. You can't touch somebody's knee without asking first, you can't kiss without them saying yes, and so on.
Yet, as Barbara McMahon pointed out in the London Evening Standard, the sexuality on display at the college is, if anything, more explicit than would normally be the case (16 July 1998). 'I couldn't help but notice that the atmosphere on campus was slightly, well, libidinous', she writes. Despite this apparent display of 'sex-mad kids', all the students she interviewed were unequivocal in their support for the policy, and their belief that it gave them more scope for sexual experimentation.
'There's a lot of bisexuality, a lot of multiple-partner sex, a lot of risky S&M sex', says Jesse Miller, a 20-year old communications student. 'But we're very moral in other ways. I'd never take advantage of a girl who was drunk, for example. There's no date rape here.' Other students echo these points: you can be sexually liberated precisely because the rules stop you from being hurt. Yellow ribbons are pinned to a tree outside the cafeteria, carrying messages claiming to be from victims of childhood sexual abuse. 'I'd like to be sexual with you, but I want no penetration', says one. 'It makes me sad.'
Doesn't it sound like utopia? Sexual freedom with no abuse, no misunderstanding, no risk of getting into something you can't get out of? For those of us who have suffered the grubby humiliation of alcohol-induced one-night stands and the frustration of wanting to do something other than conventional heterosexuality, there is a certain appeal to this kind of enforced experimentation. But the message behind the policy is disturbing.
The Antioch code and other regulations governing sexual relationships are based on a profound fear and mistrust of other people. What are students scared of, when they go to a mixed-sex college and cower gratefully behind the anti-harassment policy? They are worried that, somewhere out there, there will be a person who will 'take advantage' of them. This person might get them drunk and persuade them into bed; they might flirt with them and make them feel uncomfortable; they might attract their love and respect before dumping them heartlessly, with all the emotional damage that causes. The bottom line is that, when it comes to sex and relationships, there are many ways to get hurt - and there are many people out there who might hurt you.
Okay, so that's true. It has always been true. It is equally true that most human relationships are not abusive. But the risk of being hurt used to be seen as a risk worth taking: you might get hurt, but then again you might transform your life through a new relationship, or even liven up your evening with a shag. Now, the risk of being hurt - physically or emotionally - is seen as an insurmountable burden, a risk that is never worth it. And for many, protecting oneself from being hurt seems to have become the prime goal in life.
All of the new regulations governing interpersonal relationships appear to focus more on the 'potential' for abuse than abuse itself. There are already plenty of laws against actual rape, assault and child sexual abuse. There is no shortage of laws either against practical sexual discrimination in education and the workplace. But there is a clear difference between laws like these, which punish criminal offences that have taken place, and policies that regulate behaviour simply because of what it is feared people might do.
Policies like the anti-sexual harassment codes in universities and workplaces take as their starting point the notion that any interpersonal behaviour can contain the potential for all kinds of abuse, and seek to regulate all spontaneous behaviour to contain that potential threat. So, as Daphne Patai explains in her stinging critique of America's sexual harassment industry, those campaigning against sexual harassment in educational institutions, having removed most tangible harassment and discrimination, have now turned their attention to what they describe as a 'chilly climate' surrounding women (Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism). A 'chilly climate' is not one in which women are actually abused or discriminated against, but one in which they simply feel 'uncomfortable' because of the presence of certain (male) attitudes. A more common formulation in British anti-harassment policies confers on the employer or educational institution the need to create a 'safe' or 'supportive' learning/working environment for its staff or students. The only basis of such policies is the existence of potential harassers and abusers who haven't done anything wrong - but they might.
The focus on the 'potential' for abuse, and the introduction of regulations to restrict this potential, reflects the extent to which suspicion of other people tends to dominate life today. It is as if every time you walk into a new environment, you expect to have to guard yourself against being hurt. And so rules that exist to restrict the 'looks, jokes, comments about appearance' that might make an individual feel uncomfortable, or the images or forms of behaviour that might result in a 'chilly climate' for some people, are seen as some kind of safeguard against the possibility of emotional harm.
We are constantly reminded that anybody - male or female, gay or straight, employer or employee, and so on - can hurt anybody else. Concepts such as 'peer harassment' sum up the notion that harassment is less about an imbalance of power than it is about forms of behaviour that simply cause discomfort. Yet there is no getting away from the fact that, of all potentially abusive relationships, traditional heterosexual relationships are perceived to be the most dangerous of all.
That intimate relationships should be the most profoundly affected by suspicion of other people is perhaps self-evident. But the focus on heterosexual relationships as particularly problematic is largely due to the impact of feminism. Notions of sexual harassment came out of feminist politics, which saw male power as the problem with society. Transforming the heterosexual relationship became the big feminist idea: if the link between power and intimate sexual relationships could be severed, women would no longer be subordinate to men.
The rise of feminism in the past couple of decades has pushed this idea near to the top of the agenda. Throughout the Western world, intervention into and regulation of relationships between men and women has become the basis of major policy initiatives. Campaigns against sexual harassment and domestic violence are at the forefront of debate, and public institutions are consistently called upon to 'do more' to prevent these problems.
A general mistrust of other people, when combined with a feminist notion that individuals' sexual relationships lie at the root of major political problems, has created a modern paradox. There is an obsession with sex and sexual relationships, and yet people are increasingly alienated from sexual relationships and human intimacy. And as sex now tends to be attached to everything it has become meaningless and banal. Sex is everywhere and nowhere, baby - in effect it has become desexualised.
It is striking that issues which have nothing to do with sex now tend to be discussed through the prism of sexuality. In early March, a headteacher at a Luton primary school made the headlines when she banned the playground game 'kiss chase'. The primary reason, she said, was her concern about the spread of meningitis through the children's 'exchange of bodily fluids'. But she also raised concerns about the 'inappropriate behaviour' of kiss-chasing kids. Later that month, an 11-year old boy was placed on the sex offenders' register because he had been found lying naked on a bed with his two-year old cousin. The judge, quoting a doctor's report, said that there was '"no clear evidence that sexual motivation was a part of this incident"'. But the register bears his name.
What has either of these incidents got to do with sex? Only that they are understood in this way. As Tiffany Jenkins explains in this issue, children's play is a world apart from adult, sexual relationships. Yet at a time when sex is seen at the basis of everything, society finds it increasingly difficult to draw such distinctions. All forms of interpersonal behaviour, from the manner in which a father touches his son, to the tone of voice used by an employer to an employee, can be read as having some kind of sexual overtone. And maybe this isn't surprising, given that everything that is to do with sex - masturbation, fetish, erotica, prostitution, impotence, yawn yawn yawn - is endlessly talked about, read about, depicted. In public, sex is more than acceptable; in private, between individuals, it is treated as suspect.
For the students of Antioch College, the once-risqué forms of sexual experimentation - bisexuality, multiple partners, S&M - are preferred to the straight penetration that makes some people 'sad'. Why? Because the less conventional forms of sex are more likely to lack the degree of privacy or intimacy associated with straight sexual relationships. The very term 'experimentation' implies that they are more playful than conventional heterosexuality; the promiscuity associated with much of what tends to be known as 'queer culture' implies that the degree of commitment between two individuals, which is associated with traditional family structures, is less important here. In a world where people spontaneously mistrust one another and where emotional commitment is seen as a high-risk option, is it any wonder that this 'queer culture' appears attractive? If sex can be reduced to erotic play, and relationships can be held at a distance, you are certainly less likely to get hurt.
But we pay a heavy price for that. The fact that people seem to be consciously rejecting the more all-consuming, intimate forms of sex in favour of the playfulness of 'queer culture' because of the non-intimate nature of sexual play, indicates a broader sense of suspicion between people. Exactly how people have sex may be irrelevant, and is nobody's business but theirs - but when they start embracing a form of sexual activity for reasons that are more social than sexual, there is something else going on.
When it comes to sex, it doesn't matter if we are talking about straight or gay, a fling or a lifelong commitment, teenage exploration or whatever old married couples might get up to. In all of these instances, sex is about a basic human interaction, with some level of commitment to somebody other than yourself. When passion is involved, the idea that you might get hurt, get ill, not be able to get home is the last thing on your mind - as is the idea that 'erotic play' is enough. You can't be passionate and hold back at the same time, and that's surely the point about it.
Passion is what sexual codes of conduct seek to regulate, and passion is what most of the fashionable forms of sex are safe from. In today's antiseptic culture, where relationships are conducted at arm's length and in the public eye, the closer you get to somebody the less you are encouraged to trust them, or commit yourself to them. No wonder vibrators have become so popular.
Not so Blue Peter
Back in the old days children�s TV presenters kept their kit on. That nice Valerie Singleton and loveable John Noakes were known for their pets rather than provocative photos in glossy magazines. Now it seems you cannot move for sexed-up sassy TV ladettes in lip-gloss and little else.
Zoë Ball regularly displays her stomach in Sky magazine. Channel 4�s Big Breakfast stars Kelly Brook and Melanie Sykes (following in the barefoot steps of Denise Van Outen) look semi-naked, oiled and pouting on and off screen. Even ex-Blue Peter presenter Anthea Turner has worn nothing but a snake wrapped around her skinny torso in Tatler. So many TV starlets have pulled down their panties and put on bikinis for magazines like GQ, Esquire, FHM, Loaded and Sky that it�s become part of a children�s TV presenter�s job description.
But strip away the bikini, and these cute nudes are as safe as Blue Peter.
With so many young women panting for a TV career, once your rival has done That Photo Shoot it would be prudish not to do the same. But it has been done so much that the photographs have become more of a yawn than naughty porn. Smiling in skimpy knickers for a men�s magazine is no longer original. It is mock-shock.
Take the photographs of MTV�s Donna Air appearing in a bikini and holding a chainsaw on the front page of Esquire magazine. The magazine�s readers may or may not find it sexy; but the chainsaw is more of a challenging image than yet another photograph of a blonde-haired missy with tanned limbs.
The new norm is to go naked without breaking taboos. What better children�s TV chick to personify this than Gail Porter, the BBC youth presenter who recently showed off her attractive butt to GQ readers. Ooh what a saucy bird. Beneath that naked exterior the doe-eyed, pretty Gail is as safe as they come. She lent her name to the Health Education Authority�s Christmas safe sex campaign called �Get it on!�. Porter was photographed by the Sun in a rubber dress while telling her fans that, like a nun, she hadn�t had sex for several years. As she put it: �I�m happy on my own and intend to stay that way.� The message: I may be saucy, but I�m safe.
These girls seem to have nothing more to say than �look at me, I�m butt naked!�. Some say we shouldn�t expect much more from children�s TV presenters than flaunting flesh. Why not?
Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999