Groping for a new sexual etiquette – and turning into New Victorians

Plus: Clive James, Wilko Johnson and the ways to say goodbye

Share

The war on inappropriateness is now being waged on several fronts. After high-profile cases of rape and culpable behaviour by music teachers, an end to any kind of one-to-one tuition is being considered in music schools. An eminent composer has gone further, arguing that any relationship between tutor and pupil, even an adult, may have to be made illegal.

Elsewhere, the groping crisis has been likened by several commentators to the Savile scandal, while the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien has prompted calls for all priests to renew their vows of celibacy or be forced to resign.

The general view seems to be that at last we are taking seriously the way men in power have exploited their position for their own creepy purposes. The truth about unacceptable behaviour is emerging, it is said, and not before time.

There is another view, and that is that we are going collectively bonkers. In a less feverishly over-excited society, the idea that, for example, adults teaching and being taught music should be banned from having a relationship would be greeted by disbelieving laughter.

Indeed, the only way to understand much of the debate around this subject is to see it as a new form of Victorian morality. The Victorians were said to have covered up naked piano legs for fear of inflaming passion; we fear to allow a piano teacher to be left alone with a young pupil. At every turn, we believe, lust-driven men are waiting to prey upon the vulnerable. As was the case 150 years ago, there is a direct and unhealthy connection between primness and a preoccupation with sex.

Once one accepts that, in spite of the appearance of permissiveness, we are in many ways a prudish and fearful society, the discussions surrounding recent events, their vengeful tone and the general air of moral panic begin to make sense.

The new public disapproval tends to be backward-looking and general, condemning what happened in the recent past from a position of present moral superiority. It is not enough to say that dodgy DJs behaved appallingly in the 1970s; it was the spirit of the times that was to blame. The various inappropriate touchings which have taken place in the Catholic Church, or at Westminster, were more than cases of individual excess. They reflected a whole culture of misbehaviour.

These backward glances are comforting because they suggest that the way we are living now is fairer and kinder. It is no coincidence that, away from sexual inappropriateness, a rash of parent-blaming articles and books are being published right now. Over recent days, lengthy reminiscences of past pain have appeared in the press under the accusing headlines “My father, the smoker” and “The horror of having a father who loves drink more than he loves you”.

The new Victorianism is punitive and frightening. You can hear the nervousness in radio or TV debates. Even those who dare to express the view that the panic may be excessive, are studiously careful. One false word, or hint of levity, they know, will set the morality hounds on their trail.

It is sinister when the tone of public discussion is so charged that it becomes dangerous for people to question too much for fear of being thought soft on inappropriateness or perhaps even secretly guilty of it themselves. When an accuser of Lord Rennard spoke of hands straying to “places they had absolutely no business being”, many men will have started with recognition. Their past behaviour had seemed innocent at the time, perhaps even welcome, but was it?

The effect of this nervousness on institutions is even more evident. There is a new caution among broadcasters and publishers which is not entirely explicable by Leveson or fear of litigation. In the great war on inappropriateness, no individual or corporation wants to find themselves on the wrong side.

Do not go gentle...

As the Pope shuffles off the public stage to end his days quietly, two other public figures are taking a rather more defiant position as they face the final curtain. Clive James, who has emphysema and leukaemia, has written a powerfully honest poem about his waning powers, entitled “Holding Court” for the Times Literary Supplement. “The storm blew out and this is the dead calm./ The pain is going where the passion went./ Few things will move you now to lose your head/ And you can cause, or be caused, little harm.”

In a similar spirit, Wilko Johnson, the great, manic guitarist of Dr Feelgood, is on a farewell tour, having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “I’ve had a good life and if I can round things off with a few really good gigs then I’ll be a happy man,” he says.

Not everyone could stare death in the face, and play themselves out in style, like Clive James and Wilko Johnson. It takes real courage, and more than a touch of showmanship.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Police officers attempt to stop illegal migrants from jumping onto trucks headed for Britain in the northeastern French port of Calais on October 29, 2014  

Tighter security in Calais won’t solve the problem

Nigel Morris
 

Football needs its Martin Luther moment, and soon

Boyd Tonkin
US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines