Nothing stabs the quick of liberal self-image harder than the charge of being a puritan. Ugh, puritans — gross. Who wants to be one of them?
Liberals took the side of sex in the 20th century’s culture wars, and rightly so for the most part — pushing for the destigmatisation of extramarital sex and divorce, the acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships, freedom of access to contraception and abortion. (The dalliance with paedophile advocacy has, it’s fair to say, worn less well.)
Where these causes succeeded, it was on the back of strong arguments about privacy, consent and women’s rights. Most of those arguments are basically forgotten now, replaced with the catch-all principle of “tolerance”.
There’s a favourite theory among liberals that conservatism is a kind of pathology, driven by higher susceptibility to disgust. The more anxious someone feels about the literal contamination of a dirty toilet or a sore-covered face, the more anxious they’re likely to feel about metaphorical contaminants such as immigration or same-sex relationships.
What’s interesting about this theory is less the degree to which it’s true (a bit, possibly), and more the degree to which liberals want it to be true: it becomes a point of pride to be impervious to revulsion, to refuse to cast judgement.
When it comes to sex, the moral language of the Left casts critique as a kind of individual disorder – hence the drift from “isms” to “phobias”. And while the concept of homophobia contains the important truth that opposition to same-sex relationships is entangled with an irrational abhorrence of “unnatural” attachments, the extension of “phobia” formations to other contexts is incredibly misleading.
The word “whorephobia” implies that both criticism of prostitution as an industry and the abuse of women in prostitution spring from the same mentally unwholesome root; as though the feminists who point out that commercial sex is a violation of women were working in concert with the men doing the violating.
It’s an implication that is obviously absurd, once it can be unmoored from the presumption that negative reactions to anything involving sex must inevitably spring from an ickiness about moral dirt. But the dread of the ickiness is where we start from, and dread of the ickiness is as far as we are permitted to get. To be a liberal, as the slogan goes, is to tolerate anything except intolerance. So to the concept of “kinkphobia”: what, apart from revulsion, could inspire any of us to criticise what someone else wants to do in bed? Nothing at all, so long as we refuse to accept that personal conduct can have social consequences.
It is very difficult, for example, to simultaneously sustain the positions that it’s wrong for men to choke women for sexual kicks, and that “breathplay” is something that can be practised safely so long as you follow one of the sex guides that promotes it. (It is also very difficult to sustain “being alive” when someone is compressing your airways.) Throw in an accusation of “kinkphobia”, though, and the hideous prospect of being taken for a puritan scares off criticism like a gargoyle warding off evil spirits at the church door.
“Transphobia” functions in just the same way. In that word, the belief that sex exists (and is unaffected by how someone dresses, acts or claims to identify) is lumped in with the attitude that violence or discrimination is a reasonable response to someone not dressing, acting or identifying themselves in the way usually expected of their sex. Again: absurd. But totally consistent with the belief that only an irrational fear of contamination can explain any resistance to another party’s desires. You must tolerate, or be defined as the victim of a sickness.
Sickness is a kind of corruption, an invasion of the self by something that shouldn’t be there. And this is the strangest thing about the fervent liberal rejection of puritanism: it is a kind of perverse purity test. The more you purge yourself of these “phobias”, the purer you are. This helps to explain why it’s women, not men, who are especially required to avow their freedom from phobia; why it was the female Labour leadership candidates, not the male one, who signed up to the pledges of the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights which committed them to expel “transphobic” members, meaning anyone who did not recite the correct doctrine on gender identity.
Even in a politics where Ash Sarkar boasts that she “fucks like a champion” and Owen Jones celebrates a woman in a “will suck dick for socialism” T-shirt, women are required to be intellectual virgins. To keep their thoughts unsullied by anything that might make them ideological damaged goods, while men are permitted to play the field.
But as some of us have learned from experience: while being able to suppress your gag reflex and swallow anything can be impressive, it isn’t necessarily a virtue. Tolerance isn’t much of a value when it’s women being required to do all the tolerating.