A nation still sniggering in the bike shed

Popular culture reduces us to the status of infants, gawping at the discovery that adults have sex

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Whatever happened to The Spectator editor and Conservative MP Boris Johnson? Two or three weeks ago, it was impossible to avoid photographs of him looking like a sheep caught in headlights, after the tabloids exposed his affair with a former colleague. To my astonishment - I have never met the man, nor even felt much interest in him - I was invited to make a short TV film about his difficulties for a current affairs programme and take part in a studio discussion afterwards. I politely declined and Boris and Petsy have now been relegated to the status of last month's sex scandal as the caravan moves on - literally, judging by the experience of a friend who lives in central London.

Whatever happened to The Spectator editor and Conservative MP Boris Johnson? Two or three weeks ago, it was impossible to avoid photographs of him looking like a sheep caught in headlights, after the tabloids exposed his affair with a former colleague. To my astonishment - I have never met the man, nor even felt much interest in him - I was invited to make a short TV film about his difficulties for a current affairs programme and take part in a studio discussion afterwards. I politely declined and Boris and Petsy have now been relegated to the status of last month's sex scandal as the caravan moves on - literally, judging by the experience of a friend who lives in central London.

One morning last week, he was woken at 5.30 by the sound of people talking loudly outside in the street. Half-asleep, he stumbled to the window and parted the curtains on a bewildering scene: dozens of men and women, wrapped in expensive coats, clutching flasks and speaking on mobile phones. They looked, he said, like some strange tribe which had congregated at this unearthly hour in preparation for a ritual whose nature he could only guess at; it crossed his mind that they might be hunters, gathering before dawn to make the most of the time left before the ban comes into force. He was right, but only in the metaphorical sense: my friend is a neighbour of David Blunkett and what he had witnessed was the rat pack on the scent of the latest sensational story about sex.

Personally, I cannot think of a single individual whose sex life interests me enough to get up before dawn on a cold, winter morning. Unlike the popular press, I am neither shocked nor surprised to discover that famous people have sex, just like the other 99 per cent of us, and I don't care who Britney Spears, David Beckham or indeed a minor member of the Conservative front bench sleeps with. For once last week, Princess Diana's post-mortem revelations about her sex life - in tapes aired last week on American television - were relegated to an inside page. Sadly, it happened not because of an outbreak of high seriousness in the popular press, but because the tabloids had fresher meat to pick over.

There is a paradox here. In the Seventies, like many women of my generation, I mined Cosmopolitan and Our Bodies, Ourselves for information about multiple orgasms, oral sex and other previously taboo subjects. I welcomed the new openness about sex, following on from decades in which public sexual discourse consisted of exposés of randy vicars and juicy divorce reports in the News of the World. I loathed the old morality and assumed that as we grew more relaxed about sex, we would also become more grown-up about it. What I hadn't allowed for was the rise of a popular culture completely obsessed with sex, to the point where it sometimes seems as though the entire country has become one huge bike shed, populated by sniggering adolescents.

Even if you don't buy the red-tops, you cannot escape the sensational headlines. Sex has gone from being a private act between consenting adults to a species of performance with a potential audience of millions. No one is forced to buy the Daily Star or watch Big Brother in the hope of catching a glimpse of live sex, but the appetite for such tawdry rubbish appears undiminished. Popular culture extends a perpetual invitation to voyeurism, reducing readers and viewers to the status of infants, gawping at the discovery that adults have sex with each other.

In a grown-up society, the fact that the England captain allegedly had sex with women who were not his wife would not be front-page news. Nor would the confessions of a succession of minor celebrities, some of them known to us only because they claim to have slept with someone famous. The fact that sex continues to occupy such an inflated position in popular culture shows that the old Puritanism never fully died out - and that the popular press is as keen as ever to profit from its rank hypocrisy.

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