Sex, moral panics and capitalism

A rather grandiose title perhaps writes Jane Kelly, but how else to write about young people, sexuality and new technology without trying to relate it all to the society within which we live? Young and old, women and men, white and black, etc. etc. we all have our understanding of what is right and wrong cut through with dominant ideas created in society, ideology. 

See if you can spot the ideological message
See if you can spot the ideological message

Young people, both female and male, are especially targets of ideology, not only in simple terms of creating desire for things to buy – from soft toys to the latest shoes, from trainers to electronic toys – but also in how to behave, what’s acceptable and what isn’t. But like all ideology these ideas are riven with contradictions especially when it comes to sex and sexuality.

Two reports were recently published on sexual practices amongst young people. The first, ‘It’s Wrong But You Get Used To It’ was published by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England. It discussed sexual experiences in “gang-associated contexts”, and found “shocking and profoundly distressing evidence of sexual assault, including rape, being carried out by young people against other children and young people.”  The deputy commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, stated,”this is a deep malaise within society, from which we must not shirk”.

The second, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles published by the Lancet, is described as the most comprehensive survey of Briton’s sexual behaviour for a decade, was reported as finding that, “One in 10 women in Britain admit they have been forced into having sex against their will, prompting a warning from researchers that sexual coercion may have become ‘normalised’.” It noted that the majority of such cases were amongst young women around the age of 18.

These reports come on top of the recent discussion on ‘sexting’, images of  themselves by young women and girls in sexually provocative poses sent  to individuals which then go viral. Obviously we are against rape and coercive sex, but the social context of sexist images (mostly of young women) in adverts, newspapers, on the TV, etc. is missing from the comments on these reports and about teenage sexual behaviour generally. We are all surrounded with so-called ‘news’ about the sexual exploits of the rich and famous, sexist lad’s mags, sexually explicit adverts and soft porn but no connection is made between these and teenage behaviour. And the issue which has created the most moral panic is the availability of pornography, especially involving young children, on the internet, leading to calls for censorship.

On this I agree with Laurie Penny when she says:

The British like to ban things, but we don’t like to change things. This week, there’s been yet another conflict between Silicon Valley permissiveness and British censoriousness, as our politicians attacked Facebook for hosting graphic videos. Elsewhere, the latest flagship campaign in mainstream UK feminism focuses on pressuring Tesco to remove lads’ mags from its shelves, as if by some sympathetic magic sexism might thereby be solved. In a country with no constitutional protection for freedom of speech, calling for censorship lets the moderate left politely ask for progress without really asking.

Guardian (26 October 2013)

This call for internet censorship has been described by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the worldwide web, as part of a “growing tide of surveillance” threatening the democratic nature of the internet, telling us a lot about how this is being planned. Stung by the recent secrecy leaks by Edward Snowden, those who would censor the internet are using the fear of pornography, especially child abuse, as a means of gaining control over what is and isn’t allowed to be posted.

A spectrum of panic

How are the authorities able to use this fear of sex to attack our democratic right to know what governments are up to? And what lies behind this moral panic about sex and young people?

There is a spectrum to this panic. At one end of this spectrum we have the appalling sexual exploitation of young girls by older (mostly Asian) men in and around Rochdale, including various reports that expose the incapacity of all the agencies involved to protect the children despite many warnings. Then there is the gang-associated sex that seems to involve young people mostly of the same age involved in rape and coercive sex. What these news items have in common is the class of the young people involved – working class children, many supposedly under local authority supervision – and race, Asian men exploiting poor, white girls, or in the case of ‘gang culture’, black kids gang-banging other mostly black kids.

At the other end of the spectrum we find young women (and young men) from wealthier backgrounds ignoring the age of consent and having plenty of underage, hetero and homosexual encounters, but here the discussion is more ‘sociological’ than ‘judicial’. There is a concern about ‘sexting’ because it might catch up with you when you apply for a job, but no suggestion that these young people are ‘out of control’ or need social services to take them into care.

Why is all this so problematic for the powers that be? One reason is the situation many young people find themselves in. Most are unable to leave home because they are unemployed and rents are too high, and even when you have a job it is likely to be on a temporary, zero-hours contract. Increasingly alienated from society, young men especially are seen as dangerous to the status quo, a force to be controlled.

Another reason is the inability of society to square the circle that says that sex should take place in marriage when only a minority live in traditional family set-ups and our society uses sex in advertising and elsewhere to make us desire things we neither need nor want? In the 1970s feminists in the women’s liberation movement did some useful work on deconstructing these messages, showing how along with the sexist imagery went other contradictory ideological messages about the importance of the family and the roles women should play and for a time the extreme end of sexual selling was curbed. But today it is back with a vengeance, naked or semi-naked women (and men) in sexually alluring poses suggesting that if we buy this or that perfume we will become irresistible.

Sex is good for you

A report from 2011 showed that less than a fifth of people think they are part of a traditional family, and eight in 10 thinking their families do not conform to the stereotype of two married parents with two or more children. Despite these statistics the family remains the basic unit of society for the ruling class. Thatcher’s famous dictum, ‘There is no society, only families’, remains the disappearing ideal through which children are raised, ideology taught and pieces picked up as the welfare state is torn apart. While the WLM of the‘70s and ‘80s debated and analysed the problems and oppressive nature of the family, there is much less discussion today on the ways that the family and especially mothers are being blamed for the ills of society.

Finally what, as socialists, do we have to say about these debates?  Firstly I think we should make it clear that having sex is good for you! And the fact that the age of consent is being ignored by thousands of young people is neither here nor there. There is some evidence that in early, tribal societies teenagers went off together for several years at a time to look after themselves and do whatever they wanted beyond the judgemental eyes of their elders. While there is no real comparison between tribal societies and our own, we can still point out that sexual repression and the guilt that accompanies it is not healthy.

We should also refute the current demands to ‘censor’ the internet on the basis that young people might come across pornography. There is no real evidence that viewing such things in and of itself leads to distorted ideas on women, sex or anything else. Abuses of young children for sexual gratification can be prosecuted by all sorts of legislation without introducing censorship. The oppression of women (and other groups in society) is reproduced by many things above and beyond sexist imagery, including the nuclear family. And the intention of government to censor internet pornography is simply a cover to censor many other, especially oppositional ideas freely available to more people than ever before.




  1. Very interesting. I feel out of touch on subject of sex and the young so not sure I can speak with any confidence. But you challenge my notions, indeed my convictions that pornography does lead to distorted attitudes to women. Surely that is irrefutable now?

    But as you say it is good lever to use to put on controls on the internet and a clever one which can allow the debate to be framed “correctly” to achieve the desired results – to protect us all etc.

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