It's brutal, it's selfish, it's sex today

Somewhere along the line something has changed, and the age-old search for pleasure has turned nasty
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The Independent Culture
FOR THOSE of us concerned about directions in contemporary morality, it has been a rough couple of weeks. On the BBC, the activities of three groups of swingers, swappers and fetish fans were presented with dismaying documentary candour.

Another fly, another wall, and there was Channel 4's Boogie Nights in Suburbia revealing more than anyone could want to know about the world of amateur pornography, in which clammy, bald, middle-aged photographers film creepy male porn stars coupling with dumpy, amiable women in Home Counties front rooms.

Elsewhere on TV, the absurdly over-hyped Sex and the City featured a comic routine about sodomy. In the theatre, The Vagina Dialogues played to packed houses while, at the local cinema, you could catch Your Friends and Neighbors, an inexorably gloomy exploration of sexual misery. An innocent browse on the Internet may lead to an advertisement for Booberama, an invitation to take a trip to Spankland or the offer of a chance to see the latest adventures of someone called Little Oral Annie.

All right, maybe the browse was not quite so innocent. Hearing one of the new, jaunty warnings of explicit content, nudity and bad language on TV does not have me reaching for the remote control. Like many people, I find a documentary revealing the peculiar things that people get up to in their personal lives incomparably more interesting than a hospital or detective drama, or Rolf Harris going goo-goo over a sick hedgehog. I have even, during one of those lonely late-night moments, found myself investigating the kind of adult entertainment on Channel 5 that the channel has been accused by Lady Howe, who chairs the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, of transmitting purely for titillation's sake. It was unsatisfactory, possibly even unsavoury, her ladyship pronounced, ignoring the fact that many people, myself included, find more that is unsatisfactory or unsavoury in yet another of the endless programmes extolling comfy suburban values in the form of cooking, gardening or redecorating a flat.

Yet something odd does seem to be happening to sex. If Channel 5's Compromising Positions or Hotline presents a soft-focus fantasy version, the shows on the other channels might have been put together as a course in aversion therapy for sex addicts. There's nothing new, of course, in low-budget, slappers-and-slapheads porn, nor in the fondness of bored suburbanites for dinner parties that conclude with knickers-in-the-spin-dryer swap games, but in the past these activities have belonged to the outer reaches of human experience.

Now their grubby, onanistic version of sex seems to have become part of everyday life. Americans spent $8bn last year on pornography, rather more than they spent on hot dogs. Hollywood produced no fewer than 7,970 porn films. American students can now take porn studies, a discipline in which, presumably, experts such as Little Oral Annie will be offered honorary doctorates.

Everywhere we turn, whether it is to a ghastly, demeaning sitcom such as Gimme Gimme Gimme or to Bret Easton Ellis's best-selling novel Glamorama or the coy and self-consciously controversial Sex and the City, sex is presented as a harsh, solipsistic process in which each side is negotiating exclusively for his or her own short-term pleasure. Could it be, the frightening thought occurs, that this development is not mere fashion, an exploitative media trend, but the way it really is out there in the clubs and bars - sharp, greedy, brutal and, above all, selfish?

Of course, it is possible that the Muggeridge effect is to blame. The writer Malcolm Muggeridge, you will remember, was famously promiscuous during the first half of his life. Then, almost overnight it seemed, the wind changed, the hormones calmed, a rictus of distaste descended upon the ageing features, and the ladykiller became St Mugg, a raving, God- bothering TV moralist forever inveighing against permissiveness and the misbehaviour of the young. Germaine Greer seems to have undergone a similar process, taking a hard line against casual sex these days, whereas, as Christine Wallace's forthcoming biography reminds us, her behaviour in the late Sixties and Seventies makes the Sex and the City girls seem as responsible as Lady Howe.

Perhaps I have reached the moment when I have become haunted by the ghost of St Mugg - but somehow I doubt it. Somewhere along the line something has changed, and the age-old search for pleasure has turned nasty. "How do you feel?" the lanky French pornography star of Boogie Nights in Suburbia was asked at the end of a hard day's humping. "I feel empty."