From Mary Whitehouse to the new ‘puriteens’, there is a growing anti-sex movement gathering pace
“What everyone’s doing, apparently,” my boyfriend said last night, in a conversation about heating bills, “is buying an electric heated hoodie from Aldi,” and that was when I knew it had arrived. The anti-sex backlash was here.
It’s been murmuring for a while now, the threat of a zipped-up reaction to recent decades of sex positivity, and to mainstream relaxing of attitudes towards sex and sexuality. It culminated last month with a number of headlines asking, “Was Mary Whitehouse ahead of her time?” The thoughtful emoji comes into its own here, its yellow face and furrowed brow doing the work of a thousand think-pieces. With its contemplative finger it considers the claim: morality campaigner Whitehouse was forthright on the dangers of pornography.
But Whitehouse was also a homophobic loon, outspoken against equal marriage and feminism, arguing that the BBC was at the centre “of a conspiracy to remove the myth of God from the minds of men” and homosexuality was caused by abnormal parental sex “during pregnancy or just after”, saying, “Sixty per cent of homosexuals who go for treatment get completely cured.” She would have applauded Boris Johnson’s exclusion of trans people from the conversion-therapy bill. The question seems to be then, not “Was Whitehouse ahead of her time?” but “Is time doing a screeching U-turn in order to catch up with its conservative queen?”
In philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s brilliant essay collection, The Right to Sex, she discusses her surprise at her Oxford University students’ reaction to sex-negative feminism of the 1970s and 80s: having seen the effects of pornography on their own lives, they were deeply sympathetic. They weren’t the only ones. New Statesman columnist Louise Perry is publishing The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, which argues for “a new sexual culture built around dignity, virtue and restraint”. It is likely to find a hungry audience in the “puriteen” generation, so-called because it is turning its back on sex-positivity and, in some cases, sex itself. But from this distance it seems clear that, on the whole, sex is not the problem. The problem is that sex continues to be used, not for pleasure, or function or boredom, but as a political missile.
Like Whitehouse, Conservatives today continue to see themselves as anti-establishment rebels, marching into battle with only their decency and common sense to protect them. Sometimes also, admittedly, a gun. As puritan politics spread, marginalised groups feel the first pinch. It’s no coincidence that in the first few months of 2022 alone, more legislation targeting LGBTQ+ people was introduced in America (seeking to criminalise transgender healthcare and ban transgender kids from participating in youth sports) than in any year so far.
Anti-trans activists on social media claim trans people are “grooming” children, a shuddery word that comes up again and again today in rightwing discourse, especially in the US around new Florida legislation that critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It’s a particularly mad and cynical tactic, using the reality of child abuse to raise panic about predatory behaviour, the intention being to seed the idea that LGBTQ+ adults cannot be trusted and should live under the threat of criminalisation, surveillance and, inevitably, violence.
Since Disney said they’d no longer support the bill (which prohibits teachers from discussing the existence of LGBTQ+ people) the company has become a focal point for far-right fury, with US extremist politicians, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene warning that Disney “wants to completely take your children and they want to indoctrinate them into sexual, immoral filth”. “Take me, Mickey!” shout the kids in the glittering fetishwear their parents bought them from the merch stand. “Take me completely!”
No wonder there’s an anti-sex backlash, when today sex and the threat of sex is routinely framed as something intrinsically dangerous, whether discussing dating apps or Disneyworld. But despite the illusion we’re living in a sexually liberated culture and despite the internet revealing new depths and flavours of lust, I think the backlash is happening because we were never truly liberated. Not from the model of sex designed by men, nor from the threat of sexual violence or shame or even from the idea that sex is necessarily important, political or identity-defining. Despite Love Island and Sex and the City, it seems the sex-negative feminism of the 1970s and 80s never really went away, because so many of the issues that drove it were turfed over, rather than destroyed.
The anti-sex feelings rising today build on historic wounds and the lessons sexual liberators attempted to teach – that sex was powerful and meaningful and greater than the sum of its parts – are manipulated and weaponised daily, by bad people in bad faith. I’ll watch this culture war play out from the vantage point of middle age, in my heated hoodie, sexless, but cosy at least.