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Sex in the Noughties: How was it for you?

Politically correct mainly

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Lest anyone imagine the government is talking about "inappropriate behaviour with children", a review of news stories over the last few years reveals dozens of cases where adults guilty of little more than indgulging in consenting legal activity with other adults have been outed and then fired for their pains. In one case, a youth worker who had acted in a porn film some five years previous was suspended and later fired when this fact came to light.

This insistence on the "heteronormative" – basically: sexual freedom, so long as it is mostly straight, non-commercial, lights out and "vanilla" - is beginning to chafe. After all, as Consenting Adult Action Network argues: "If it's not illegal, what business has government to intervene?" But this has not stopped the government going a step further, piloting the right to check out a new partner’s "riskiness" on much the same basis.

The government also buys into the theory that economic measures are the way to clamp down on sexual "nastiness". One rationale behind the extreme porn laws was that cutting off demand for a certain sort of image would disrupt the trade. The same thinking appears in recent legislation on prostitution – the Policing and Crime Act 2009 – which makes no bones about going after the punter.

This is despite the counter-argument from organisations representing sex workers, such as the International Union of Sex Workers, that such an approach is ideological, does little to protect those involved, and in the long term may increase the levels of harm inflicted.

So where are we now? There are growing signs that a broad coalition is emerging from a number of disparate sexual interests to challenge the government’s credentials over sex. This includes many from the Gay Movement: an increasingly militant "Queer Academy"; sex workers; and politicised practitioners of bdsm.

In that context, 2008 saw some support for the belief that legal sex between consenting adults is no-one’s business but those taking part, with the landmark victory by Max Mosley over the News of the World. An English court decided that there was no public interest in lurid exposure of his private life and newspapers have since been treading more carefully – although the Vetting Act seems set to breathe new life into media excuses for delving into individual private lives.

The radical critique of government thinking is based on the accusation that most recent progress has been illusory and "assimilationist": that is, select groups have gained rights only where they play the game and make the effort to appear "normal". As the government looks set to use the Equality Bill now before parliament to roll back rights recently granted to the LGBT section, the radical point of view is gaining ground.

That is: rights should not be granted on the basis of "fitting in" – but should be applied universally. Why, after all, should the debate on sexuality be about which group gets preferential treatment, when discrimination on the grounds of a peculiarly prurient view about sexual propriety remains endemic within our culture?

According to academic and blogger on sexual law, Chris Ashford: "The question must surely be whether the next decade will see growing number of gays, lesbians and queers starting to question the reforms to sexual conduct over the last ten years. Perhaps it is the tribute to how rapid and far-reaching the change has been over the last decade, that gay men and women can actually criticise it."

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