Sex in the 21st century

How do we feel about sex in our teens? In our twenties and thirties? In middle age and beyond? All this week, Independent writers will examine what different generations are doing, feeling and thinking about sex in the modern world. Here, Deborah Orr introduces the series; while teenagers talk about their attitudes, and Virginia Ironside analyses the findings of an exclusive Independent website survey
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The Independent Online

It is more than a little hasty to consider a new century to be, 14 months in, something of a disappointment. But I think that, especially for people born in the third quarter of the 20th century, this new one has already fallen far short of our wild expectations. In the Fifties, Sixties and even the Seventies, we were encouraged to imagine the 21st century as mind-blowingly exotic and almost alien.

It is more than a little hasty to consider a new century to be, 14 months in, something of a disappointment. But I think that, especially for people born in the third quarter of the 20th century, this new one has already fallen far short of our wild expectations. In the Fifties, Sixties and even the Seventies, we were encouraged to imagine the 21st century as mind-blowingly exotic and almost alien.

Perhaps we would live in silver towers in glittering cities, sustaining ourselves on vitamin pills rather than eating food, wearing throwaway clothing, zooming through the air courtesy of our personal jet-packs, and holidaying on Jupiter. And as for the sex...

But such ludicrous visions of a definitely futuristic future, one that would be easy in every aspect to identify and define, have proved not just to be wrong, but also to be laughably inaccurate. The changes wrought by technology have been subtle and hard to quantify. We're not even absolutely certain what they are, let alone quite sure how to measure them. We hang on to our ideas of a bright, shiny and different near-future, but our expectations are confounded almost as quickly as we realise them.

Take the very title that pulls together The Independent's survey: Sex in the 21st Century. It still sounds full of erotic charge and future promise, somehow involving a flash of chromium-plated thigh and an endless, amorphous, ecstatic orgasm. But the truth is that anyone who has not already experienced 21st-century sex, and found it to be not unlike the sort of sex we had last century, cannot really be considered at this time to be sexually active.

Nevertheless, only a couple of years ago, speculation about the promise and promiscuity of cybersex hung heavy in the air. What, so far, has cybersex really amounted to? At its least troubling, it has heralded a steady flow of items on So Graham Norton, with odd and oddly touching couples picked up from the internet and offered for the delectation of his knowing young audience. At its most troubling, it has assisted child abductions or paedophile porn rings, and offered a glimpse of seething corruption in a slippery, impenetrable, abstract space. The future may be what we make it, but it is never how we imagine it.

The past, however, is another space, one that is far easier to assess and to understand. We can look back on the 20th century and simply reel at the changes in sexual mores that took place during that time. In this context, the very idea that an openly gay man can appear on television, surfing the internet and mocking the sexual propensities of Duane and Martha in Illinois begins to look like a future we never dared to dream of. Even the editor of the Daily Mail is said to have a soft spot for Mr Norton. This is a change far more significant than anything the swingeing Judge Dredd had to offer us.

In the main, though, the Daily Mail (aka Adultery News, as my colleague David Aaronovitch would tellingly add), remains Britain's most consistent critic of the sexual revolution and all of its freedoms. That is utterly unsurprising. The Daily Mail represents Middle England. It is to Middle England, or at least the development of the middle classes as part of the Industrial Revolution, that we owe the establishment of the repressive sexual double standards that, for much of the 20th century, we struggled to reject.

The Victorian sexual legacy pressed heavily upon the emergent middle classes. Here was a world in which not just ladies' ankles but the legs of their dressing-tables must remain always concealed, for fear not only that such a sight would arouse men, but also that it should upset women, for whom sex was an unpleasant duty. Here, too, was a world in which prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases and paedophilia were rampant.

This Victorian hypocrisy can most sympathetically be viewed as an attempt to reconcile two entirely contradictory social orders. The middle class was a new breed, attempting to straddle the social and sexual mores of the two groups, the land-owning aristocracy and the masses, which had gone before.

The upper classes had long pleased themselves sexually, marriage being looked upon as dynastic, and the pursuit of pleasure being considered a right that was theirs alone. The masses, though, were either respectable, and therefore hugely influenced by Christian attitudes that were highly prescriptive about sex, or not respectable, and barely kept in check by the harsh privations that could be visited upon them if they stepped out of line. Condemnation of a working girl falling pregnant to a landowner - a pretty common occurrence, of course - would often result in her marriage to a man who would expect to oversee her punishment and slavery for a lifetime in return for his generosity.

The odd, destructive mores of the Victorian middle class can be looked on as an attempt to accommodate these two moralities, the males broadly aping the aristocracy in their discreet but colourful sexual lives, and the females embodying all the so-called virtues of the perfect Christian woman. The double standard that gave us scrubbers and Jack-the-lads endures, though to nothing like the extent that it did. It's worth noting, though, that it remains difficult to find a suitable male equivalent for "slapper", a fashionable 21st-century word that continues to carry pejorative sexual judgements on women.

As the middle class expanded, so, too, did its repressive sexual code. In the current television documentary The Middle Classes: Their Rise and Sprawl, it is suggested that the famous middle-class reticence came about because these social pioneers preferred to keep themselves to themselves for the simple reason that they were not sure of what behaviour was appropriate and did not want to expose themselves to possible humiliation.

I think it's fair to say that they wished to keep a lid on sex for similar reasons. Anyone who believes that this way of going about things actually works, despite its history of cruelty and entrapment, would do well for a moment to consider the case of Stephen Downing, who was released last month after serving 27 years in prison. For what reason was this innocent man imprisoned for 27 years for a murder he did not commit? To protect both the respectability of a married, middle-class woman who had broken the rules by having affairs, and the respectability of her businessman husband.

The middle classes' growing social confidence - alongside those seismic shocks to the prevailing sexual system, the Second World War and the Pill - helped them to liberate themselves, or at least their children, from the repression that damaged people - especially women and sometimes men - so much.

The middle classes joined the upper classes in sexual freedom before the respectable working classes got around to it. Not that it wasn't a struggle to keep the myth alive that no one was having sex outside marriage, as Mr Downing is now free to attest. This, too, created much guilt and confusion around sex, just as regarding ourselves as sexual, rather than social, beings always has.

In 1982, when I was 20, my parents, who had discovered I was not a virgin, told me in all seriousness that I had made the most awful and irrevocable of errors. This act would blight my life, for no decent man would want me now. Neither of them are in the least religious. They are simply conventional and deeply respectable. For them, and for many of their generation, nice girls still don't - not unless they have to.

And classless as we may, in the 21st century, like to think of ourselves, sex and social standing are still intertwined. Why else would the publishing of Lady Victoria Hervey's nipple in The Sun be considered such a big event? Why else, more seriously, is promiscuity among students looked upon as part of the experimental excitement of growing up, while sex among teenagers on sink estates is considered a threat to civilisation as we know it? Why else does the Daily Mail itself feel that it can support Channel 4, with its sassy Sex And The City attitude, while it must condemn, Channel 5, with its soft porn for C2s?

It's surely because the desire to harness sex as a means of social control is still strongly apparent. Some people, it is still widely considered, can be trusted with sexual freedom, while others cannot. This may well have truth in it. Many aspects of the sexual revolution are not especially edifying, not least the tendency to sexualise or over-sexualise every aspect of our lives. Maybe this is a part of the ongoing sexual revolution, whereby the hangover from our previous tendency covertly to define ourselves socially through sex is the tendency to do this blatantly and sometimes with vulgarity or irresponsibility. We may yet, in the long course of the 21st century, reach our sexual maturity.

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