From Adam and Eve, to Paris Hilton, Ryan Giggs, and Kim Kardashian, what people get up to in bed has been the subject of fascination since the beginning of humanity. When sex tapes are leaked and infidelities are revealed, time and time again we can’t help but delve into the sordid details, with head-shaking claims of increased depravity being met with equal proclamations of greater sexual freedom. As science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein once famously said, “each generation thinks they invented sex”. The age-old cliché rears its head every so often, reminding us that sex has been had by all for as long as humans have walked the earth.
Still, now and again, a book, film, or celebrity might come to public attention, to be heralded as emancipating, liberating or shocking, for a sex-related story. Shockwaves inevitably ensue, with commentators exclaiming that new ground has been broken, that something more shocking and salacious than ever before has taken place. So it might be asked, are we as liberated as we’ve ever been? Are boundaries really being broken down when it comes to our attitudes towards sex?
Where literature is concerned, erotic fiction is not a 21st century phenomenon. What goes on between the sheets has been slipped between lines for centuries, titillating readers with innuendo and erotica long before Fifty Shades of Grey brought BDSM to bedrooms across the world. The infamous Marquis de Sade created scandal with sordid accounts of his violent, criminal and blasphemous sexual exploits, inspiring the term ‘sadism’ as a result of the great controversy he created in French society of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, his most famous work 120 Days of Sodom inciting action from censors.
Where change might be noted is in the perception of what, and how much, can acceptably be shown to the masses.
Likewise, with abundant ellipses which carefully omitted any explicit description of the lesbian exploits of her protagonists, iconic 20th century figure Radclyffe Hall suggested enough for her 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, to fall foul of UK obscenity law. These days, however, instead of Christian Grey being barred from Britain’s bookshops, he has created enough of a stir to reignite the erotic literature genre. Indeed, this year, Lisa Hilton’s novel Maestra was met with critical success and reviews which of course likened it to E.L. James’ offerings.
Likewise, when it comes to what is seen of sex, traces of what we would call ‘pornography’ in the modern sense have been around since Antiquity. Pompeii homes were adorned with phallic good-luck charms and penises painted above doorways, while the walls of its brothels depicted sex acts in great detail. Historians aren’t certain as to whether such objects and paintings were simply examples of fertility imagery or, in the case of the brothel frescoes, if the images were used as sexual ‘menus’ for customers or intended to arouse the brothels’ clientele.
Regardless, they’re lasting proof of societies’ enduring obsession with depicting sex. Even the supposedly repressed Victorians distributed erotic postcards which displayed naked nuns and nude cyclists among more conventional images of women lifting their petticoats. Although the images may not have moved, the sex they showed was often no different to that shown on our screens in Game of Thrones, an object of the contemporary focus of debate about sex in the media. Where change might be noted is in the perception of what, and how much, can acceptably be shown to the masses. Television has pressed on in this respect over recent decades, and storylines that deal with same-sex relationships have stopped being headline-grabbers and are now run-of-the-mill in most soaps.
Sex on screen has been a bone of contention in British society for decades, with debates about the dangers of Internet pornography as rife as ever. With the advent of the digital age, pornography has infiltrated the masses like never before, spurning fears of desensitisation to hardcore sex, and the premature sexualisation of children who might watch, and be influenced by, porn. Yet with this has come a proliferation of documentaries and television series in the 21st century dedicated to the subject of sex.
[Steve Jones in Sex Box is] the immature kid in every Sex Ed class, balking at a ‘weird’ admission and offering a juvenile joke in reply.
While most of us were still in secondary school, The Sex Education Show went into frank detail about what the nation gets up to in bed, offering facts and figures to inform young viewers on topics which ranged from STIs and penis size to virginity and sexual positions. Similarly, Stacey Dooley and Billie JD Porter have both delved into the intricacies of sex in recent years, investigating the lives of sex workers, the sexual activity of teenagers, and international sexual exploitation. Most famous, perhaps, are Louis Theroux’s in-depth accounts, which continue to look at all manner of sexual behaviour, exploring the lives of porn stars, swingers and prostitutes.
As far as television goes, it does seem as though frank, open discussions can regularly take place. Channel 4’s Sex Box is a prime example of this type of programme. By using two big onstage boxes in which couples have sex as the show goes on, the programme offers a matter-of-fact discussion of pre and post-coital sex between those having it, and a designated ‘sexpert’ on it, in front of the studio and at-home audiences.
However, for all the good that documentary makers and television producers endeavour to do, prejudice undoubtedly remains in other corners of our screens. Case in point: as weird and wonderful as Sex Box is, its presenter, Steve Jones, is never quite capable of preventing bad, fairly judgemental comments from pouring from his mouth. He’s the immature kid in every Sex Ed class, balking at a ‘weird’ admission and offering a juvenile joke in reply. He exemplifies a closed-mindedness that still lurks in the public consciousness in 2016 which holds onto taboos, and perpetuates certain prejudices and misconceptions about sex.
Sex among our own ranks is still the subject of scrutiny, judgement and gossip.
It seems we can’t help ourselves when it comes to prying into the sex lives of others, with anything deemed out-of-the-ordinary gaining column inches as a result. Amber Rose’s #FingersInTheBootyAssBitch tweet, directed at her ex-boyfriend Kanye West, caused a stir on Twitter. It prompted Kanye, in typical form, to fire back and defend himself so as to dispel Rose’s statement. Although his ‘the Kanye doth protest too much’-style response was met with swathes of indifferent Twitter users who couldn’t care less what he may or may not enjoy doing in bed, the fact that he felt the need to justify himself speaks volumes. Nosing into the sex lives of others and worrying about being judged for what we do in the bedroom is still alive and well today.
Just last month, web users became transfixed on unearthing the names of the married couple who had taken out a super-injunction to prevent details of an alleged extra-marital threesome being made public. Although issues of media censorship were also at play, the stream of eager Twitter users attempting to unearth the couple’s identity seemed to have more to do with sheer nosiness into the sex life of a public figure than upholding a principled press system.
Sex is still held as an inherently private affair, and so of course talking, writing about, or showing sex in public is, still, automatically claimed as envelope-pushing and headline-making. Even here in Exeter, sexual scandal has spread like wildfire in recent years. Those who have been here long enough will undoubtedly remember the events in 2012 involving a leaked video which led to the Safer Sex Ball being banned. In 2013, a student was reprimanded by the University for being named the UK’s horniest student in a national student contest. Sex among our own ranks is still the subject of scrutiny, judgement and gossip. So, when it comes to reflecting on the product of Original Sin, is our society as liberated as we might like to think? I’m not so sure.