MIDWAY: Sexual liberation

Men and women plot their way with bitter bravado through a minefield of sexual mores that bear little relation to their desire for sexual fulfilment. They recount the mismatc-hed expectations, the lack of romanticism and the huge quantities of alcohol requi-red to mask their self-doubt.

The rise of raunch is about how we’ve been persuaded to market ourselves, to advertise our desirability. Another of the many concepts of the market that have infiltrated intimacy is an instrumentalism: “I get this need met in return for meeting her need on that’’; when people talk honestly you can often hear the totting up of an emotional account. At its crudest there is no responsibility to the other person beyond the striking of the deal. So a woman can defend her decision to sleep with a man she knows to be deeply in love because she’s feeling lonely and wants a bit of sex on the grounds that he consented — he knew the deal. He’s left feeling heartbroken; she exploited his emotional vulnerability. Aren’t the ethics of intimate relationships based on response-ability?

There are other metaphors of the market distorting our behaviour. We’ve deregulated the market in intimacy over the last 30 years as taboos have been dismantled and the pressure to sexually perform has emerged. As porn technology becomes more sophisticated, the boundary between real people and fantasy creatures will become increasingly blurred.

Virtual reality’s fantasy is control — how will that further confuse the capacity of a 19-year-old to decipher consent? The intriguing question is why we have been susceptible to this reconfiguration of our sexuality in line with market principles. The answer is that we’ve been seduced by a dream of sexual liberation, but what we’ve ended up with is a tatty cardboard-cut-out version — perhaps the most promiscuous are the least liberated.

There’s been no golden age when people succeeded in matching their desire for sexual pleasure with their needs for emotional fulfilment. This has been the arena of human relationships most riven with conflicting irrationality. Just don’t make the false assumption that we are more liberated than previous generations: we are as badly served by cultural conventions as ever.