It used to be easy, typifying British attitudes to sex. We were prudes, bluenoses, disapproving puritans. In the 1950s, Hungarian migr George Mikes famously said, "Continental people have sex life; the English have hot water bottles."
Boy have we loosened up. Just check the headlines in the most sober of modern newspapers. Soccer stars "spit-roasting" drunken girls. Threesomes dogging in the nearest lay-by. British couples arrested in Dubai Dubai for allegedly performing sexual acts on the beach. And all of it treated, by the media, with a kind of blas, tut-tutting amusement.
And then there are the lad mags, a great British invention. I wrote for Maxim and FHM right through the 1990s, when these titles first soared in popularity. There's no doubt that lad mags, though they might have coarsened of late, at first did sterling work in cheerfully "liberating" the British male (and female) in all matters sexual.
But there has been another major factor in the Disinhibition of Britain. The internet has opened the door to the ripe and fecund diversity of human sexuality in a wholly new fashion. If you want to find images of naked Romanian gymnasts in jacuzzis, there they are on the Net. Whatever you desire, whatever appetite you could possibly conceive and way beyond is catered for on the Net. And because it is there it somehow seems, well, more acceptable, more ordinary, more everyone-does-it. Just another part of life. And so the great British sex party rolls on.
But underneath this national libertinism, there is a contrary undercurrent it's that same old prudishness, but with an added tinge of paranoia. The difference nowadays is that the prudishness is aimed not at sex per se, but at certain kinds of "deviancy": peadophilia in particular, fetishism and pornography in general.
Take the case of Jane Longhurst, Five years ago Ms Longhurst, a Brighton-based teacher, was brutally slain. At the trial it emerged that her killer was a fan of nasty, violent porn websites such as Rape Action.
Following the life imprisonment of the murderer, Jane's mother Liz began an understandable campaign: to ban the possession of violent sexual imagery. This campaign got support from then Home Secretary, David Blunkett. This summer a law was passed, containing a clause prohibiting such imagery. Under the law it is illegal to look at images of someone freely engaging in rough sex. That is to say: the act is legal, but looking at a photo of it is forbidden. George Orwell had a word for this: thought-crime. Another description might be misguided puritanism.
How can these two urges absolute disinhibition and illogical prudishness coexist in the same society? I think the problem is that we are very confused about sex. We pretend sex is just a game, but deep down we still fear its power. However, because we now mainly hide or deny our fears, or focus these fears on "deviant" sex, the rest of the time we are free to act in a dangerously amoral way, in a bedroom without basic rules.
Let me give a fairly shocking example: from my own life.
Some years ago I was tried on a rape charge brought by my girlfriend. Although my girlfriend and I did have sex, it was consensual. And I was justly acquitted. None the less, looking back, I feel some responsibility for the sad disaster that transpired between my girlfriend and me. Because the sex we had, that night, and for many nights before, was rough and tough and pretty damn kinky: as that's the kind of sex we both liked. She let's call her Lucia - first entered my life when I was 21; she was just 17. She was affluent, intellectual, well-born, European-educated and wild. She liked drugs and fun. Lucia was also rapaciously carnal. By contrast I was practically a virgin: I had only had one lover by the time I met her; she'd coupled with a score of guys before leaving Sixth Form. And she liked to experiment in an S&M way. But, as it turned out, I was ready for fun and experimentation, too.
The chemical mixture of our similar psyches was combustible. I'm not sure who introduced the kinkiness into our relationship, but we both enjoyed it with exuberance and enthusiasm. After three months we were into everything from handcuffs to outdoor sex to violent and theatrical ravishings. The paradox is that this very passion began to erode the emotional side of things. We did so much sex and drugs we forgot to talk to each other. The end was maybe inevitable. One day we looked across the rumpled bedclothes, and we realised we were strangers . We broke up. But we kept returning to our carnal casino: we were hooked on the endorphine-rush of dangerous sex. Like all junkies, we ended up in trouble. One night I arranged to meet Lucia at her flat, and we did our usual rough sex thing.
After the act I felt a surge of sad revulsion I wanted to move on; this relationship was bad for us both. I told her I'd met someone else. As I ambled out the door, cruelly cool and whistling, she started crying. I ignored her.
That night I was arrested on a rape charge. I spent two months on remand in jail, then I was bailed to my family home. A whole year later I went for trial at the Old Bailey. At the end, the jury retired for two hours, and the verdict was unanimous: Not Guilty. Does that sound like closure? It wasn't. The central question would not disappear: how did the most important person in my life at the time, the young woman I adored, come to accuse me of the most heinous crime?
Something had obviously gone seriously awry that night. Two fairly sensitive people, neither of them wholly bad or mad, landed up in the most calamitous situation. What's more, I don't think Lucia would have made the accusation she did without some sincere motive. She must have truly felt, or passionately persuaded herself, that she was raped. But how?
Following my acquittal, I tried to come to terms with all this, by writing a book about sexual games, and the dangers of eroticism. By way of research, I attended various trials of "sex crimes". Many of these cases were nasty, basic, workaday rapes horrific but easily explicable.
But more than a few came from this ambiguous and sinister area: of carnal experiments that exploded. Orgies of swinging that ended in jealous violence. Sessions of bondage where someone was nearly strangled. "Playful" party-games that ended with blood being drawn and a visit from the cops.
The lesson I learnt from this research confirmed my suspicions about my relationship with Lucia, and about society as a whole. In the end, I've come to think that Lucia and I were both to blame for what happened. Because of the drug-fuelled silliness of our lifestyle, and our foolish and reckless disdain for morality, we had no way of knowing when to stop. We deliberately blurred the boundaries of consent, just for laughs, so there were no more boundaries left. There were no rules to govern us, so we took everything to the max. We were rafting the exhilarating whitewaters of lust, straight towards the precipice of disaster. I think the same goes for Britain as a society. We've gone too far. We've gone from treating sex with absurd mistrust to treating it with perilous nonchalance. We see it sex as an amusing sport, a particularly titillating pastime. Sex is just sex, innit? Just a hoot, a gas, a recreational diversion. And in modern Britain, if you disapprove of this casual, let-it-all-hang-out attitude, then you are one of those awful things: a killjoy.
In most ways this permissive revolution has been good, of course. It is nice that people can freely express their desires. It is good that gays and lesbians aren't locked away or beaten up; it's progress that boys and girls aren't whipped for masturbation. And it is surely a very positive thing that a lot more people are having a lot more orgasms.
But in a way, that is my point: sex isn't just about orgasms. It's not just about pleasure. For all their faults, our forefathers knew something useful about sex that many of us have maybe forgotten. Somewhere within those narrow Victorian attitudes, now comprehensively trashed, was a hard-won and well-advised caution.
Sex is not a contact sport. It isn't backgammon with bells on. The penis is not a playstation; the vagina ain't an Xbox. The sexual urge comes from the most primitive and aggressive parts of the human brain: these are instincts which mix in a volatile way with drink and drugs. Sex also involves profound and serious emotions, from jealousy to love, which means that when it goes wrong it can really go wrong.
Perhaps we need to relearn this central truth. We need to rebalance our sexual attitudes. We don't have to go back to being prudes; we don't have to electrocute deviants. But we do need to teach our children respect, for the unique, intense, and sometimes very dangerous pleasures of human sexuality.
Sean Thomas is the author of 'Millions of Women are Waiting To Meet You: a Story of Life, Love and Internet Dating' (Bloomsbury; 7.99)Reuse content