Naff: sexual depravity will never be eliminated(Photo by: PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

July 7, 2021   6 mins

Is “vanilla” sex old hat? Increasingly, this sort of bland, un-adventurous congress is deemed to be a Bad Thing, and it’s now reasonable to ditch a partner for not being kinky enough. But why?

Behind the social pressure to add seasoning to your sex life lurks a particularly ugly compound word: “cisheteronormativity“. Roughly speaking, it means that human sexual expression is constrained by oppressive, patriarchal norms including heterosexuality (and being “vanilla’). We should bin these, the argument goes, and accept that the range of human sexual and gender expression is infinite, and that queer sexualities have always been around.

Certainly, tales from classical antiquity support the idea that unconventional tastes have a long history. According to Suetonius, the Roman emperor Nero (37-68AD) enjoyed dressing in the skins of animals and savaging the genitals of bound slaves. And the emperor Elagabalus (204-222AD) is said in the Historia Augusta to have (among many other things) attempted self-castration, enjoyed performing in live sex shows during banquets and scandalised Roman society by raping a Vestal Virgin.

Instead of clutching our pearls, theorists argue that we should celebrate the full rainbow of erotic expression. In this spirit, recent queer scholarship has promoted Elagabalus from his classical depiction as a depraved maniac who appointed ministers based on penis size to a transgender icon.

But the debate doesn’t just concern how we read ancient history. It also invites questions about the boundaries we set on sexuality today. Should anything be taboo? Last week, Lauren Rowello argued that these boundaries are nowhere near liberal enough. Not only should sexual fetishes be openly on display as part of Pride parades, she claims, but she believes it important for her children to see it – because kids should be taught that “that alternative experiences of sexuality and expression are valid”.

Normalising the public display of kinky proclivities, she argued, encourages children to pursue their own desire and pleasure: “We don’t talk to our children enough about pursuing sex to fulfill carnal needs that delight and captivate us in the moment.”

The dreary alternative to this is the old-fashioned “respectability politics” that used to be used to oppress gay people. This view is perhaps best summed by the Edwardian actress Mrs Patrick Campbell: “Does it really matter what these affectionate people do — so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses!” But Rowello argues that the fact gay people are now imposing the same ‘respectability’ on kinky people means they’ve sided with the oppressive, bourgeois forces of stodgy old heteronormativity.

Whether or not Elagabalus viewed himself as bursting the bounds of bourgeois oppression, Rowello’s vision of “carnal needs” as an end in themselves dates from the beginning of the Enlightenment. Notably, we owe these ideas to the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), an egalitarian, anti-Christian and proponent of absolute freedom, who served under the revolutionary regime as “Citizen Sade”. His prolific literary works interweave attacks on Christianity and conventional morality with philosophical musings about the nature of freedom and graphic descriptions of kinky sex.

He was, in other words, a very modern kind of liberal indeed. It’s no surprise to find him among the first high-profile advocates of sexual liberation. As one of his characters puts it in Juliette (1797) “Sex is as important as eating or drinking and we ought to allow the one appetite to be satisfied with as little restraint or false modesty as the other”. It’s not such a big step from here to Rowello’s advocacy of “pursuing sex to fulfill carnal needs that delight and captivate us in the moment”.

But de Sade also thought the usual rules of political equality, which he embraced so eagerly as Citizen Sade, didn’t apply to sexuality. In Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) he wrote that “every man wants to be a tyrant when he fornicates.” That is, buried deep in every free and liberal citizen is the longing to dominate and be obeyed, and this is most freely expressed in a sexual context.

De Sade thought the best way to square freedom and equality with these naturally violent and domineering sexual instincts was to have a class of women whose job was to act as outlets. As the historian Peter Marshallnotes, he advocated the establishment of free public brothels where men could sate their sexual desires and longing to dominate – because in his view, not gratifying these desires would result in criminal acts.

Today, of course, we don’t do anything as crude as compel women to act as human disposal units for men’s baser urges. Or at least, we insist on ‘consent’. That is, by ensuring that the violence, rape and humiliation visited fictionally on weeping, unwilling women by de Sade only ever happens IRL to women who like it. The byword for advocates of ‘BDSM’ is ‘safe, sane and consensual’.

I dare say there are some for whom this theory hangs makes sense. But evidence is mounting that it’s prone to the same pitfalls as many other efforts to replace normative rules with individual choice. That is, it may work if you’re a highly educated, well-adjusted adult with plenty of social capital. But it leaves those who are impulsive, emotionally needy or otherwise vulnerable at risk of abuse.

A poll conducted last year by BBC Scotland reported that two-thirds of men under 40 have slapped, spat at, gagged or choked a partner during sex. Maybe some of the women enjoyed it, but all of them? I doubt it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a growing chorus (mostly of young women) is complaining that for them, “kink” turned out to be less a mutually pleasurable exchange than a vector for abuse.

The question of “consent” is further complicated by the fact that normalising “alternative experiences of sexualty and expression” creates perverse social pressure not to be “vanilla”. Even Women’s Health magazine has suggested its readership try choking if blindfolds and roleplay “have veered into vanilla territory”.

And here we get to the core difficulty with trying to liberate human sexual expression from social norms: it doesn’t work. Young women now feel the need to say “It’s okay not to want violent sex”. The fact that it’s now cringe to have “vanilla” tastes suggests normalising “kink” has not created an open space for free, tolerant self-expression at all, but a surreal inversion of “respectability politics” in which you’ll be shamed if you aren’t depraved enough.

Worse yet, this upside-down respectability isn’t even the promised nirvana of pleasure. De Sade summed up the problem in 120 Days of Sodom (1785): “If it is the dirty element that gives pleasure to the act of lust, then the dirtier it is, the more pleasurable it is bound to be.” So what happens when “dirty” proclivities are so normalised people are OK with their kids seeing them?

The most likely outcome is they will stop feeling “naughty”. This helps to explain the aura of naffness which clings to the kind of people who like to be “open” about their “BDSM lifestyle”. But it also points to a structural problem with the idea of normalising “kink”: it is (as someone once said of Brexit) less an event than a process.

The opponents of cisheteronormativity argue that the whole point of Pride is broadening what’s acceptable in the mainstream, which in turn means rejecting “respectability politics”. As Vox puts it: “Queerness, at its core, is a rejection of that respectability.”

But if you reject respectability politics, you’re rejecting the whole structure of social stigma that surrounds forbidden practices, and as such endows them with frisson. What, then, is even the point of such practices, when the campaign to destigmatise them has rendered previously dark and thrilling scenarios as exotic and forbidden as a trip to Asda?

We may have embraced wholesale the idea that “anything goes” provided it’s “safe, sane and consensual”. But if the excitement of sexual taboos is precisely their forbidden-ness, then sooner or later someone will come for the taboo of consent itself — and especially on violating the consent of those who aren’t deemed able to consent in the first place: children and animals.

A steady tap-tap-tap on that door can be heard today. When Tom Chivers mused in these pages about why we’re disgusted by people having sex with animals recently, the ensuing brouhaha illustrates the extent to which this remains, thankfully, a no-go area; but earlier this year Joanna Bourke wrote a whole book seeking to question the taboos around bestiality.

Elsewhere, the internet is full of edgelords seeking to “complicate” the boundaries of underage sexual consent. This also extends into academia: Allyn Walker recently published a sympathetic study of non-offending paedophiles.

In other words, the “slippery slope” is not a conservative bogeyman. It’s a structural inevitability. Kink without “respectability politics” has no endpoint; or rather, its endpoint is well beyond the tolerance of even your average whips-and-chains hobbyist.

History suggests it’s not realistic to imagine sexual depravity can ever be eliminated. Humans are simply too perverse for that. But if we’re not to chase the high of sexual transgression even further into the terrain of sexual abuse, or perhaps trigger a puritanical backlash so monumental it sweeps away even moderate gains in sexual tolerance such as the acceptance of normal gay and lesbian couples, we need to reclaim ‘respectability politics’.

This should be a win all round. After all, it’s in the interests of those who enjoy transgression to restore the thrill of the forbidden. This means, in effect, a pro-pervert defence of bourgeois hypocrisy; a kind of degenerate’s Fight Club, where the first and second rules are: you don’t talk about it.

Those who are ineluctably drawn to the dark side will find their way there anyway, in due course. And those who would not otherwise be tempted are well out of it. But no one who is incapable of discretion is mentally equipped to enjoy depravity – and besides, proper enjoyment of the forbidden means something must be forbidden in the first place.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.