The war on sex is out of control

The #MeToo neo-puritans are a menace to human life.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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So now even kissing under the mistletoe is rape. Unless you ask the target of your boozy Christmas peck to sign a contract in advance, I guess, clearly stating that he or she consents to having some part of their face intruded upon by your lips for 2.4 seconds at the office party.

This is according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which yesterday tweeted: ‘If you bump into that special someone under the mistletoe tonight, remember that without consent it is rape #SeasonsGreetings.’ It’s hard to know what’s worse: that the PSNI doesn’t know what rape is, or its use of that passive-aggressive ‘Seasons Greetings’ hashtag. Translation: ‘Have fun tonight, everyone, but remember we will arrest you if you partake in the age-old flirty tradition of trying it on after one too many plastic cups of cheap plonk.’

The PSNI is getting it in the neck for its miserabilist, joy-destroying, authoritarian warning to the populace. It has ‘prompted fury’, says the Daily Mail. Tweeters have ripped the mick out of the kissphobic cops. ‘Are people having sex under the mistletoe now?’, quipped one, handily reminding the police what rape involves.

This is good. The PSNI deserves this virtual mauling. But let’s not kid ourselves that its wacko tweet was a one-off or even particularly unusual. On the contrary, it is in keeping with the now mainstream moral panic about ‘rape culture’ and the slow but sure criminalisation of sex, or at least of the things that make sex fun: passion, chance, taking a risk, making a move. Sex is in dire crisis. It’s being crushed under the jackboot of a new misanthropy that views any spontaneous, uncontracted interaction between adults with dread. We might have to refight the battle for sexual liberation.

It was fun while it lasted, sex. Kicking off in 1963 – in the view of Philip Larkin anyway – it granted men and women a zone of life that wasn’t subject to the same dead, cold rules of work or public life, but rather where caution could be ignored, passions engaged, and chances taken.

Not anymore. Sex is being turned into a suspicious act requiring a battery of rules and minute policing by an army of sexless officials, relationships experts, and feminists who have somehow gone from celebrating the sexual liberation of women to fuming over men who touch a woman’s knee when I guess they should be writing to said woman’s equerry to inquire into the feasibility of touching her knee on an agreed date for an agreed length of time.

Everywhere you look, a new prudishness is taking hold. Campaigners raged against Page 3 with far more zeal than Mary Whitehouse ever did. Lads’ mags are shoved into black bags lest their bikini-clad babes offend magazine browsers. Trigger warnings are added to classic texts that mention dodgy sex. Student officials have made sexual-consent classes compulsory for freshers, where they lecture them about the importance of getting verbal, non-inebriated consent for every stage of a sexual encounter, as if fucking were the same as making a business deal. (And as if 18-year-olds aren’t going to get blotto before sex. What planet do these people live on?)

Then there’s the #MeToo hysteria, which every day reveals its sexphobic streak, its McCarthyite instinct to purge from public life all those who are not perfectly au fait with PC speech codes, the new view of flirting as an ugly 20th-century thing we enlightened people have grown out of, and the treatment of sex as akin to a bank transaction in which every move and smooch and grope must be accompanied by at least a verbal contract of agreement.

In the #MeToo moral panic, perfectly normal behaviour is being rebranded as ‘predatory’. In Britain, the journalists Jane Merrick and Kate Maltby – actual adults – made the headlines when they revealed politicians had tried to kiss them or ‘fleetingly’ touched a knee. That is, someone made a pass at them. That’s now rapey behaviour. Were these women raised in a nunnery? That newspaper editors said to them ‘Give us all the juicy details’ instead of ‘Oh, get a life’ tells you everything you need to know about the transformation of sex into a crime, or at least a scandal.

Two journalists, Rupert Myers and Sam Kriss, were hounded out of the British media over what were in essence bad dates. Myers stands accused of saying to a woman he had a drink with ‘I want to fuck you’, while Kriss kissed a woman and bought her wine and invited her back to his house for sex. Hold the front page. It is a frankly terrifying climate in which such standard sexual fare can come to be discussed as sinister proof of the spread of a ‘rape culture’. And we wonder why police forces warn against snogging under the mistletoe. It’s because even non-criminal sexual advances are now talked about as offences against decency and female integrity.

It’s just as scary in the US. John Lasseter, head of Pixar, has taken a six-month leave of absence over ‘unwanted hugs’. Seriously. When will we recognise that a moral crusade that sweeps up even men who like a hug is a demented thing? One of the things that led to radio presenter Garrison Keillor losing his job – more than that, his life’s work – involved him accidentally putting his hand on a woman’s bare back. He went to comfort her after she told him she was unhappy, but he didn’t realise she was wearing a loose shirt, meaning his friendly gesture engaged her bare skin. He apologised. She accepted. But no matter: in the mad new war on human interaction, even a friendly male hand on a woman’s back is tantamount to a sex crime (never mind puckering up under the mistletoe).

That particular Keillor incident is really sad. For if we accept his account – which we shouldn’t, I know, because he has a penis, which means he’s a liar – then this instance of ‘predatory’ behaviour was in truth an act of warmth; a touch that had a human impulse, not a foul one. And yet it’s now lumped together with all sorts of behaviour, from the genuinely criminal to the flirty or friendly, under the dread title of ‘unwanted advance’ or ‘unwanted touch’ or ‘unwanted hug’. ‘Unwanted’. That’s the big word in all this stuff. And it captures perfectly how the new officious misanthropy views everyday human engagement as suspicious and twisted.

‘Unwanted’ – what this really means is unplanned, uncontracted, spontaneous, sparky, human. What the new moral panics really have in their sights is those free, casual forms of human connection, whether friendly or sexual, warm or debauched, that take place outside of the purview of the obsessive rule-makers of 21st-century public life. But here’s the thing: how are people supposed to know if their friendly arm around a shoulder or the offer of a drink or even the statement ‘I want to fuck you’ is wanted or unwanted until they have done it?

That’s the thing about human life: you take risks, physical risks and emotional risks, and some work out and others don’t. To freeze these engagements, to criminalise or demonise them, to encourage everyone to say ‘May I comfort you?’ or ‘May I now move to second base?’, instead of simply doing these things and dealing with the consequences, is to drain everyday life of the thing that makes it meaningful, or nice, or fun. It would intensify anomie, make workplaces even more soulless than they often already are, and make sexual experimentation history. The war on sex is a new species of anti-humanism.

So we have to rebel. And perhaps we should start by kissing under the mistletoe. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Party views the ‘sex instinct’ with disgust while a Junior Anti-Sex League polices flirting and touching. And in such a sexphobic climate, ‘the sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion’. Today, you don’t even have to go that far; today, we’re so messed up about sex and love and warmth and touch that even to hold mistletoe over a drunk colleague’s head and plant a smacker on his or her cheek is rebellion. So do it. Rebel. Be human.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture by: Flickr.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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