Love's been free for ages. Now it's a public free-for-all
Sex has been detached from the emotion. It is no more significant than an aerobic step class
Monday 31 August 1998
You would, however, be missing the point; the teenage and twentysomething holiday-makers have discovered the Sodom and Gomorrah of our times, with a dash of the decline of the Roman Empire thrown in for spice. At the centre of it all is not drugs, or lager lout violence; rather, it is a vulgar desire for exhibitionist sex, and a bizarre competition to out- shag and out-drink everyone else. Picture this: a group of young people sitting around in the sun, laughing and drinking, throwing each other into 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 whips off her bikini and obliges, in front of all and sundry - including a nearby television camera, which has been observing the group. It is shocking; but passes in a gale of laughter. Elsewhere, a group of young men are chatting up two bored women. It takes a few moments to register that one man has his hand under the skirt of the 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.
Had I not seen this on camera, I would hardly have believed it. However, the producers of the Uncovered series say that none of this is unusual, and that there is virtually no playing to the camera. On the face of it, having filmed many hundreds of people doing all sorts of things in all sorts of places, I would say that this is genuine - it does not look like a set-up to me. What is more, the programme makers say that holiday-makers' behaviour is growing so wild that they are beginning to wonder whether they will be able to show it without censorship.
There is something going on here that I find hard to understand. It is, apparently, a peculiarly British pattern; in Jamaica, the locals refer to the principal resort where this kind of thing goes on as "the monkey house", and though some older Americans play their part, young Brits take the lead.
Second, my queasiness is not about promiscuity, but about public display. I do not think that I am especially prudish, having gone through my twenties in the pre-Aids, post-pill student movement; any leftie could trot out Alexandra Kollontai's defence of free love as a defence of sleeping with anyone in sight. But three things distinguish then from now. In general we did not do it in the streets, or in front of people who were not involved. Second, we tended to have at least a nodding acquaintance with the people with whom we went to bed. And, whatever the reality, we paid lip-service to the idea that sex had some emotional content. None of these conditions seem to apply any longer; sex has been detached from the emotion. It is no more significant than an aerobic step class.
Yesterday at the Edinburgh Television Festival, delegates were still debating the call by the independent producer Peter Bazalgette for a drastically reducing the regulation of such scenes on television. The sort of scenes shown in the Uncovered series are precisely the kind of thing that those who want more regulation worry about - it is evidence of an increasingly voracious appetite for sensational and humiliating behaviour by so-called "ordinary people". They are wrong. There could not be a clearer case of shooting the messenger. In fact, we should be grateful to the producers for revealing a new truth about what is going on, however unpleasant; any kind of censorship would simply have kept it hidden.
The regulators of the Independent Television Commission have a sensitive touch here. Their agreement to the showing of another programme about what young people get up to on Friday nights has added another dimension to the story. The kind of behaviour we see abroad doesn't stay on foreign shores. A girls' night out, with a male stripper, is now, after The Full Monty, commonplace. What the film did not show, however, was what happens after the last frame in the film, the uncovering of the strippers' tackle.
Let's leave aside the fact that the penis is one of God's uglier creations, designed specifically to be hidden. I would not condemn these mass displays of sexual behaviour purely on aesthetic or moral grounds. However, privacy has a social purpose. It prevents our bodies from becoming public property available for invasion by others. I don't think that feminists fought for women's sexual freedom in order to be subjected to humiliation in public.
Most alarming of all is the way in which sexual display is compromising individual privacy. Already this year we have seen a birth on the Internet, and we were promised one young couple's joint loss of virginity via the Net, though this never reached our screens. The exposure of Britain's second most expensive footballer - a young bachelor, I should stress - for secretly filming a sex session with two male friends and four women, suggests that it's not just football which is coming home. But in a culture where most people seem unconcerned about who sees them doing what, is it surprising that such things will happen? Or that we seem to be experiencing a minor epidemic of gang rape in some big cities? The value of privacy seems to be dropping faster than the rouble. Had I known it would end up with crude sexual antics on TV - or "beavers on the box" as one colleague eloquently put it - I might have thought twice about campaigns for sexual freedom in the Seventies. There is a limit to what we should reveal of ourselves in public. A line should be drawn in the sands of Ibiza, Jamaica and Greece, and the authorities there should clamp down hard. And we at home should think again about what public sex is doing to debase us and our society.
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