Peregrine Worsthorne

Are explicit sex scenes OK?

Peregrine Worsthorne raised a storm by objecting to a gay orgy in a novel by Philip Hensher. Here, both authors argue their case


Philip Hensher

In April, I published a novel, King of the Badgers, about a series of events in a small town in Devon called Hanmouth. It is, in a way, about private and public lives, and the surprising and sometimes deplorable events that happen between people when their front doors are closed. It got very enthusiastic reviews: the Sunday Times said it was ‘a really good old-fashioned novel: the sort of thing George Eliot might have written if she was interested in gay orgies and abducted chavs’.

Though it doesn’t make a point of obscenity, it does contain one scene in which a group of overweight gay men meet, as they regularly do, to have sex with each other. The scene has a pivotal function in the book, and some characters have their minds changed by it; others have their moral principles laid bare by it; for others, it has a terrible consequence.

Sometimes, in the past, I have omitted a pivotal scene, to let the reader reconstruct a catastrophe from its consequences. I know that technique often irritates readers. This time I thought I would actually say what happened.

Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, some months later, read my novel, and in The Spectator Diary quoted one of the orgy scene’s frankest sentences. He asked, rhetorically, whether a novelist who describes a gay sexual encounter in specific terms risks reawakening homophobic prejudice in his readers. If an innocent homosexual is beaten to death in Trafalgar Square this weekend, I suppose that Sir Peregrine thinks that I bear some responsibility for that, by alerting readers to what some gay men might do, consensually and in private. But should one, as a novelist, tailor one’s invention to the requirements of people who obviously find gay people disgusting and repulsive on every level? Would any depiction of gay characters satisfy such a reader?

It’s important to distinguish between what people can and should do in real life, and what may be described in a novel.

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Written by
Peregrine Worsthorne
Peregrine Worsthorne was a journalist, author and broadcaster. He was editor of the Sunday Telegraph from 1986 to 1989. He famously wrote of his sacking in The Spectator: over lunch at Claridge’s with Andrew Knight, while eating his favourite dish of poached eggs.

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