Sex sells! Or why British journalists are prudes in print and pervs in pubs

Oooh, matron! Etc.

The British press has an attitude to sex that oscillates between the kind of puerile pointing and laughing you might expect during a Year 9 sex education lesson and the hypocritical cant of a Victorian patrician who lectures his servants on the perils of VD before taking the scullery maid up the coal chute.

While newspapers nod towards LGBT relationships and occasionally run wide-eyed features about openness, poly structures, and setups that go beyond man + woman, their default setting — partly driven by what’s easy for advertisers to understand — is aggressively heterosexual.

The recent case of Professor Neil Ferguson was instructive. While it was widely known that the woman who visited him twice in a breach of the lockdown measures that were then in place had an open marriage, reporters reverted to their standard ways of describing two people — one of whom has a PhD — having sex ‘outside of marriage’. She became his ‘mistress’ and, in the words of The Sun, Ferguson was ‘the bonking boffin.’

Outside of the news sections, the papers scrambled to find writers who would talk about open marriages, but many, like The Daily Telegraph, conflated open marriages with polyamory. The two are not the same; loosely, the former means an ability to pursue sexual experiences out of the confines of a relationship, within agreed limits, while the latter means having a series of connections — romantic and/or sexual — at once, with the potential that members of a group could all be involved with each other or simply linked by sharing the same partner.

The Ferguson story illustrated the gulf between news editors and reporters who tend to cleave to the very old-fashioned ideas of what a relationship should be, and features and magazine teams who treat the richness of human sexuality with all the tact and class of rich Americans on safari pointing and shouting when they spot some antelope banging. Neither approach is particularly helpful.

Every couple of years, the British press rediscovers the notion of open marriages and polyamory, and there are a string of articles, each one subtly misunderstanding what’s going on. Each one implying that having sex with more than one person is a new ‘trend’, rather than something that some people enjoy and pursue, with a range of results, from ‘fine with everyone’ to ‘complete destruction’.

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What is particularly maddening about the UK media and sex is that the prudishness in print and on broadcast is not matched by how journalists and presenters act in private or even the pseudo-private of members clubs and pubs. Journalists often have all the sexual morality of alleycats with expense accounts. A connections map of London’s journalists, for example, would be a crisscrossing map of shared shags. If you tried to make it on a corkboard with map pins and strings, it would be impossibly tangled.

When I worked in a national newspaper newsroom, the first day I was on the floor, the person at the desk beside me spent a good 40 minutes outlining which columnists and section editors were at it, many despite marriages that were far from open. A current national newspaper editor has been engaged in visits to a high profile columnist during lockdown, in direct contradiction of his own paper’s high-handed take on lockdown and rules, while columnists that work for him have been called out repeatedly for breaking the rules brazenly. It is ‘do as I say, not as I do’ writ large.

As one fellow freelance journalist put it to me:

“None of them can maintain honest relationships. Almost all the editors are fucking; fuckers who fuck. They think it’s dishonourable to be open, even though they enjoy the drama. They prefer tacit approval of affairs to actual agreements. It’s such an Establishment way to think of it - have courtiers and mistresses sure, but don’t be so organised about it.”

I remember seeing a senior journalist, now firmly ensconced in a cushy job massaging the reputation of an international bank, on TV talking about the sexual morality of a politician in the midst of a scandal and knowing full well that he had been schtupping his paper’s star columnist for several years.

This guy’s whole newsroom knew, but his lovely wife remained oblivious. He was so capable of compartmentalising that he genuinely believed the moralising he was doing on national TV, even as he was almost certainly heading to a hotel after broadcast to silver fox his way all over the much younger woman for whom he also had direct management responsibility.

Journalists — and particularly columnists — are married to politicians whose parties they write about, change their surnames to disguise connections, jump in and out of each other’s beds with the alacrity of people in a Ray Cooney farce, while holding on to a kind of ‘spectacles pushed down on the nose’ disapproval of anyone else doing anything remotely ‘non-standard’ sexually. Kink? Good for a prurient article but not something ‘we’ do. Open marriages? Can’t you just have an affair like a good British journalist? Group sex? Anathema to many in a business where narcissism is not just prevalent but actually a professional advantage.

So, next time you see a columnist on television talking with moral certainty about the sexual or romantic ‘failings’ of a politician or celebrity, don’t imagine them naked, just imagine them at the desk of an anonymous hotel, getting ready to boff someone other than their husband or wife. They might not be doing it, but it would put them in the minority. The sex columnists? They’re actually the cleanest of the lot!

Want to read someone who actually writes honestly about sex of all types and speeds? Try Girl On The Net.