It hasn’t always been easy being a progressive-minded man who prides himself on his sensitivity to issues of race, gender, feminism and sexual exploitation — and still gets to walk on the wild side. Political principles tend to get in the way of politically incorrect passions. You like to watch porn, but as a good feminist man you know that porn exploits women. You like to take cocaine, but it exploits poor Latin American farmers and enriches corrupt drug cartels. And maybe you have a secret passion for prostitutes, but you hate the idea that you’re paying for sex with some underage Albanian who’s been trafficked for your gratification. No porn. No drugs. No sex. What’s a poor would-be decadent to do? Take up golf? Knitting? Stamp collecting?
Nowadays, though, you can indulge your more dissolute pleasures and still occupy the moral high ground. Welcome to the era of ethical decadence, where yesterday’s shameful vices are repackaged and promoted as today’s politically correct virtues. A good example of ethical decadence is the growing market for what is called vegan bondage. Vegan devotees of S&M can now purchase a wide range of ‘cruelty free’ and ‘ecologically aware’ equipment: whips, handcuffs, neck chokers, gags and harnesses — and they’re all made without leather. After all, there’s nothing worse than having to stop mid-flogging to ask, ‘Is this whip suitable for vegans?’
The British sex industry is also getting a moral makeover, to allow it to cater to a new type of politically aware consumer who wants sex to be not only erotic but also ethical. Belinda Brooks-Gordon of Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of The Price of Sex: Prostitution, Policy and Society argues that there is a big demand for this. Consumers, she believes, would prefer to know that the people appearing in porn films, engaged in live sex acts or hired through an escort agency are there by consent, earn decent money and have access to health and welfare services. I’m sure she’s right, because that way you can totally exploit women and do it with a clear conscience.
These ethical concerns help to explain why the number of lap-dancing clubs, sex shops and sex cinemas in the UK has fallen by a third over the past five years. Who needs the embarrassment of going into an old-fashioned sex shop full of sleazy, sweaty men when — thanks to the internet — you can do everything from the privacy of your own home?
Those shops of old failed to move with our enlightened times, and take the sexism out of the sex trade. Instead of embracing gender politics and feminism, they remained male bastions of erotic exploitation. But where we once had dirty-mac wearers scuttling out of Soho sex stores with their brown bags full of sinful pleasures, we now have well-lit, female-friendly sex shops like Harmony on Oxford Street, where the smiling staff are always happy to help.
These days you can sit back and enjoy pornography and still be a sensitive and caring #MeToo Man, thanks to the growing market in ‘feminist porn’. No longer are you some sleazy onanist objectifying women. You’re actually ‘empowering’ them by providing support for women of all races, genders, sexual identities and sizes as they get their kit off. There are even celebrated feminist porn directors such as Cheryl Dunye. You may laugh but I will have you know that Ms Dunye’s film Mommy Is Coming won the Orgasmic Original Concept prize at the 2012 Feminist Porn Awards.
There’s another kind of mainstream porn available, one that is far too high-minded ever to admit its pornographic nature. This uses surveys, scientific research, statistical data — often with hardcore visual aids — to unravel the mysteries of female pleasure. It wants all of us to have good, healthy sex so that we can become good, healthy people. Let’s call it enlightenment porn.
The website OMGYes is a perfect example. It’s like a book club for your vagina. Here women talk ‘honestly’ and share with each other their favourite sexual techniques. Each topic comes with an explicit how-to video that left even an old degenerate like me blushing.But of course OMGYes would never think of itself as porn. It, too, is all about empowerment. It lets women speak out and break the ‘silence’ and ‘bust the taboos’ that repress female sexuality. You’re not some sexual narcissist concerned with your own gratification, but a member of a pro-orgasm movement that is setting women free. The ethical, the educational and the erotic become one. Even drugs are now sold with the imprimatur of moral goodness. When I was a teenage druggie in the 1970s, there was always something morally dubious about the purchase and consumption of drugs like cocaine — and that was a crucial part of their appeal. But these days, we even want our drugs to be fair-trade. Here is one boast from a group of online dealers: ‘We are a team of libertarian cocaine dealers. We never buy coke from cartels! We never buy coke from police! We help farmers from Peru, Bolivia and some chemistry students in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. We do fair trade!’ Of course no one can verify claims like these, but they show that there is a demand.
Personally, I prefer the decadence of the past to the phoney moral posturing of the present. By all means, be a perv. Gorge yourself on guilty pleasures. But please don’t dress your indulgences in ethical concerns. That’s just too disgusting for words.
Cosmo Landesman and Renee Denyer on the ethical sex trade.