positions were clear - pornography was generally frowned upon, left men were instructed to eschew strip clubs and especially prostitutes. The ISO (International Socialists) when I first joined were known to walk out of restaurants if there was a belly dancer and some members argued strongly that even drag queens were sexist and should be shunned. Sexist advertising was regularly attacked with graffiti.
But Jill Sparrow has observed a change. The leftists she knows have now embraced the very things they once opposed so fiercely. She quotes the American feminist, Ariel Levy, who has noticed the same thing happening in her social set in the US:
Some odd things were happening in my social life too. People I knew (female people) liked going to strip clubs (female strippers). It was sexy and fun, they explained; it was liberating and rebellious. My best friend from college, who used to go to Take Back the Night marches on campus, had become captivated by porn stars.
Jill Sparrow herself is not sure how to respond to this shift in values on the left. She writes:
what's interested me is the way in which activities that I would have once uncompromisingly condemned as sexist now seem to be increasingly difficult to categorise. I honestly couldn't work out whether there was something wrong in going to a strip club these days when so many women and men I know do so.
Someone recently told me about a workshop he attended on family violence, where participants were asked to say whether they agreed on or disagreed that it was wrong to use pornography and whether it was wrong to visit a prostitute - and I found when raising these issues with others that the Left no longer seems to have a framework to even attempt to answer such questions.
So the radical left failed to hold the line on sex. The leftist version of a sexual ethics wasn't adequate in the real world; it collapsed into its opposite, leaving behind no clear way to understand how such issues ought to be addressed.
Why? One reason is that the left is generally part of the liberal orthodoxy, and a key principle of this orthodoxy is that we become human when we are self-determining.
This means that the underlying aim of a liberal politics will be to "liberate" the individual from anything "external" which impedes what he can do or be.
Therefore, there is a bias in a liberal society, in which breaking down moral taboos is assumed to be progressive and emancipated, rather than transgressive and destructive.
So it was always going to be difficult for the left to maintain its own moral taboos on sex; notice that Ariel Levy's friends justified going to strip clubs on the basis that it was "liberating and rebellious" - this is simply the underlying ethos of liberalism reasserting itself within a left-wing milieu.
Then there is the issue of choice. Liberalism claims that the key thing is to be self-determining; therefore, liberals often take as their guiding moral principle the idea that individuals should choose to do whatever they wish as long as it doesn't directly harm others.
So individual choice is what matters: if an action is something that I choose to do as an individual, then it is morally legitimate.
This approach to morality, though, is once again fatal to the efforts by leftists to maintain their own taboos on sex. After all, a prostitute might argue that she is freely choosing to engage in sex work; a woman might argue that it is her choice to visit strip clubs.
If women are choosing such things, and individual choice is what matters morally, then how can a moral taboo be defended? At best you might argue that a particular choice is inauthentic, that it is not what the person really wants but is a product of some kind of manipulation. This argument, though, can't survive the simple comeback, of someone reasserting that their choice really is authentically their own.
Finally, there is the distinctively left-wing twist to the basic ideas of liberalism. Leftists, more than other liberals, emphasise the idea of relationships of power within a society.
If what matters is that I self-determine, then it's important that I have the power to do so. Yet, there appears to be an inequality between differing classes of society in the wielding of power. This, conclude the leftists, must be due to one class of society deliberately taking power away from another oppressed class.
The dominant, privileged class is believed to maintain an inequality of power by a systematic discrimination, which shapes the way a society works. For feminists, the basic dynamic is between men as a dominant class who maintain power over women through a sexist discrimination.
Therefore, when left-wing feminists reject pornography or prostitution, they tend to do so by claiming that such things represent a sexist discrimination, which reflects male power over women.
There are problems, though, with using this framework to hold together a sexual ethics.
First, women who choose to engage in the sex industry can claim that they are being "empowered" by doing so: that they are doing it in terms of their own self-assertion and self-actualisation, rather than in terms of what men want of them.
Second, if women increasingly run the industry, it becomes more difficult to sell the idea that it exists in order to maintain a male power over women.
Third, if there are female strip shows and porn and the like for men, but also male strips shows and porn and the like for women, it's difficult to oppose such things as "discriminatory" - particularly if women make up an increasing section of the market.
So the cry of "sexism" hasn't been adequate in practice to uphold the earlier left-wing objections to pornography and prostitution.
What then might have held the line? What kind of framework do conservatives look to in considering these matters?
This, I think, requires a serious discussion of its own, so I'll tackle this question in the next post.