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Sex, politics and the new blasphemy
December 2017 / January 2018

Again, I offer no judgment on the rights and wrongs. That strikes me as fruitless. Indeed, I found it fruitless when I told my own children (aged 22, 17 and 15) that the expression had been used quite innocently by myself and others when I was a child (I was born in 1958). That was certainly not regarded as a mitigating circumstance, and even to suggest it might be was considered highly offensive.

So what is going on? It seems to me we are inventing a new law of blasphemy. In 2008, the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in England and Wales. The last attempted prosecution for blasphemy was in 2007, by a Christian group which objected to the portrayal of Jesus in Jerry Springer: The Opera, and the last successful prosecution was in 1977, by Mary Whitehouse against Gay News and Denis Lemon, for publishing a poem about Jesus and gay sex called “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name”.

From the start of the Sixties, any kind of restraint on what could be said about sex seemed to be dying away. The failure in 1960 of the prosecution brought under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 against Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover had ushered in more permissive attitudes. Repression was in headlong retreat. Yet immediately after the Lady Chatterley trial, Michael Frayn wrote a prescient piece for the Guardian:

Fort Sex is the last stronghold of taboo in our society, and already the outer fortifications are starting to give way before the assault, and then there won’t be any more taboo subjects left. Or will there? I have a horrible suspicion that people may insist on keeping one area permanently shrouded, shifting the subject as their feelings dictate. I suspect that even sex has been opened up once before (they must have talked about it in Anglo-Saxon days, at any rate) and then closed down again as a compensation for all the areas that have slipped out of taboo with the shift away from religious explanations.

My prediction is that the new taboo subject will be something analogous to sexual relationships — an experience which will be fairly universal, involving a skilled technique which gives pleasure if properly understood but leads to disaster if misapplied. How about motoring, for example? I foresee that the day will come when the bonnet of a car may be opened only in the privacy of the garage, and when the man who doesn’t want to be arrested for public indecency will restrict his driving to the dead of night.

Oddly enough, attitudes to drink driving — still regarded as an acceptable, though slightly imprudent, activity in 1960 — have since become as censorious as Frayn, for comic effect, suggested attitudes to driving in general might become. But some of the fiercest taboos are still to do with sex. Paedophilia is condemned with the ferocity once reserved, in some quarters, for homosexuality.
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Lawrence James
December 21st, 2017
10:12 AM
We are well rid of the old blasphemy for law. It was always unfair since the victim [ s ] were never present in court for cross-examination.

F Hugh Eveleigh
December 7th, 2017
8:12 AM
What a well written and argued article. As one born in the late 1940s I have sufficient memory of what was allowed (or not) in earlier times as to be able to understand the transient nature of much of the current madness. We are all human beings but the 'sapiens' part of our Latinate descriptor is sometimes a little suspect because many of us have at some stage said or done something spontaneously which could 'offend' someone somewhere and which in retrospect we might have managed in a more nuanced manner. As most of us are not politicians, actors or widely known in any sense our actions are a part of the somewhat idiosyncratic cut and thrust of daily living and go unnoticed. Balance and 'common' sense are lost in the current flurries of outrage and offence. It will, like most trends, pass in due course but in the meanwhile many public lives are being ruined because of PC reactions to alleged misdemeanours of word and deed.

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