Do we live in a top-shelf society?

Sunday 21 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Garden Room

Sexually explicit material has always challenged censors and traditional moralists. From the 1960s, liberal values on sex and sexual relationships became one of the markers of a civilised, modern society. Over the past decade, however, there’s a gnawing unease that sexually explicit material has gradually stepped down from the top shelf and into the mainstream. Whether it was Rihanna’s raunchy display on The X Factor, Jonathan Ross’ lewd chat shows or Katie Perry simulating oral sex in pop videos, pornographic imagery has become the wallpaper of twenty-first-century society. With the rise of the increasingly ubiquitous ‘celebrity sex tape’, fans of chart-friendly pop stars such as Tulisa Contostavlos are exposed to increasingly graphic and intimate depictions of their icons. And then there’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

Traditional moralists have always found much to censor in modern society, but when former champions of sexual liberalism, such as Joan Bakewell, start bemoaning the onslaught of naked flesh into the living room, something appears to have changed. Indeed, it is fortysomething ex-punk journalists turned parents who have started to wonder aloud why thong-thrusting pop videos are being shown at lunchtime.

But could it be argued that we’ve been here many times before? From Elvis Presley and David Bowie to Madonna and Prince, pop stars have sought to challenge and question society’s taboos around sex. Surely Rihanna and Perry are simply the latest practitioners of taboo busting exhibitionism? Or is it the case that sex and relationships have become devalued, with porn aesthetics the new low-grade currency? A civilised society should be open about sex, but are we in danger of forgetting that civilised values also means the separation of the public and private, the decent and the debased? Is the rush to smash sexual taboos a sign of healthy libertarianism or of self-loathing by a cultural elite unwilling and unable to promote higher culture? Are the sexual-taboo smashers really hammering elite traditionalists and conservatives or is it a radical way of sneering at ordinary people’s ‘small minded’ values?

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Neil Davenport
sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist

Dr Jan Macvarish
associate lecturer and researcher, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent; author, Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life

Anna Percy
feminist performance poet; member, Stirred Feminist Poetry collective; organiser and facilitator, live poetry events and writing workshops

Suzy Dean
freelance writer; blogger, Free Society

Produced by
Neil Davenport sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist
Suzy Dean freelance writer; blogger, Free Society
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