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Sex in the Noughties: How was it for you?

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Comment When it comes to sex, New Labour claims that the last decade has been about the rights of sexual minorities and support for victims. In the last few years, however, that view has been challenged by a gathering dissent that includes many supposed beneficiaries of such liberalism.

An alternative demand for sexual liberation is coming of age, and its roots are growing in the most unlikely of places.

The official message is set out in a joint statement from the Home Office and Ministry of Justice: "The Government’s priority is the protection of children and vulnerable people from sexual exploitation and violence. Sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse are amongst the most serious and damaging crimes in our society".

They add: "Our three main aims are to support victims of violent sexual crime, improve the criminal justice response to these crimes and to prevent them occurring in the first place."

That is a clear and not altogether inaccurate reflection of the last decade’s law-making. On coming to power back in 1997, Labour instituted the Sexual Offences Review Team (SORT) to carry out a wholesale review of the law on sexual conduct.

The consultation document - the appropriately named "Setting the Boundaries - makes for sterling reading: shock horror as the Team discover that neither necrophilia nor bestiality are strictly illegal (though the latter was always capable of being dealt with under cruelty legislation). Some peculiar logical gymnastics take place as the Team decide that despite the absence of any evidence that necrophilia actually happens, it is such a horrid pratice that there ought to be a law against it.

There is a narrow squeak for late night leakers, as SORT briefly contemplated making exposure a "strict-liability" offence: luckily that one was headed off after strong lobbying from the naturists.

The Team also put forward changes to the law on rape, firming up a shift from "honest belief" in consent being a valid defence to "reasonable belief" being required. They then built on this, as the idea that it is "reasonable" to believe someone incapacitated by drugs or alcohol can give valid consent was holed by legislation although, courtesy of judges, not yet wholly sunk.

All this, and more, formed part of the wide-ranging Sexual Offences Act 2003.

There were, too, major gains on sexual orientation and identity with moves to strengthen protections for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities: an equalisation of the age of consent between gay and straight; and new powers to allow gender re-assignment to be reflected in a revised Birth Certificate.

So far, so good. In parallel with the law, the real world has moved on too: Gay Pride is widely celebrated across the UK; BDSM is hovering on the edge of mainstream culture; swinging is the new boom industry, whilst polyamory is putting its head above the parapet. In many parts of the country, so long as practitioners are discreet, police even turn a blind eye to "dogging".

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