Lovers in Naples. Credit: Salvatore Laporta/Kontrolab//LightRocket/ Getty

May 8, 2020   6 mins

Pity poor Neil Ferguson. For the past few months he’s been acclaimed — and denounced — as the most influential scientist in the UK. Now he’ll forever be Prof Pantsdown for breaching the lockdown instructions he’d issued to the rest of the nation. Even so, I feel sorry for him. Yes, he’s a total raging hypocrite, but so are countless thousands given half a chance. Almost all the doctors I know ignore half the health advice they issue to their patients – especially the part about recommended daily units of alcohol. A US university-based study into morality found that books on ethics (presumably borrowed by those studying moral philosophy) were more likely to be stolen from libraries than any other volumes on philosophy.

But we small islanders are never more at home with our own hypocrisy than when it concerns our sex lives. I’ve known married relationship counsellors warn clients against the perils of conducting love affairs, while having a string of lovers themselves. One tale that best demonstrates our wayward attitude to sexual mores involves my publican mother. When I was editing the Erotic Review magazine in the late 1990s (a job that raised eyebrows) my mum bumped into a church-going neighbour while walking in the local woods. In the course of conversation the woman said to mum, “I’m so sorry about Rowan, that all sounds dreadful”.

My mother replied she wasn’t the least bit embarrassed and was happy I was doing what I loved. At which point the neighbour, without missing a beat, said, “Actually, I was thinking of taking out a subscription for my husband.” Most middle-class Brits main concern when discussing sex is to give the appearance of conforming to societal norms. If the rules are suddenly relaxed within a friendly and discreet setting your average upright person may confide eye-popping misdemeanours.

The contradictory messages about sex are also apparent in people’s reactions to the BBC drama Normal People. It was announced this week that there had been 16 million downloads of the series in its first week on iPlayer. The pre-publicity and reviews all focused on the intense portrayal of sexual intimacy, which presumably helped boost the ratings.

Yet a number of comment pieces — and myriad threads on social media – expressed discomfort or shock at the unbridled coupling.  One newspaper headline announced, “The sex scenes in Normal people give me the ick.” Which, in the stubbornly enduring spirit of Mary Whitehouse, is a bit like settling down to watch a dramatisation of The Kama Sutra and declaring yourself astonished there’s so much rumpy-pumpy.

If I hear there’s graphic violence in a film or TV series, I tend to opt not to watch it. Yes these sexually-tormented viewers of Normal People nobly struggle on, through every erotic last erotic frame. (Btw the director Lenny Abrahamson has pointed out the two stars were semi-clad in almost every sex scene, so clever cutting and camerawork gives you the sense it’s more explicit than it actually is.)

What Normal People and the Neil Ferguson debacle show is that we Brits are pretty useless at acknowledging our sexual needs. If this is clear under usual circumstances, it’s even truer under lockdown. When New York first locked down the city, NY Health issued a two-page memo detailing how turned-on citizens could stay safe during the epidemic. With endearing understatement the experts said, “This is not a good time to be having orgies.” Instead their top tip was “You are your safest sex partner,” suggesting you wash hands for 20 seconds before and after use. Try as I might, I could find no similar instructions for Londoners, or anyone in the UK. No official recognition that single people, or couples torn apart, would find sexual frustration boiling up like steam in a pressure cooker as lockdown progressed.

As ever, the inconvenient force of desire isn’t something we really want to talk about in this country. The closest the Government came to issuing advice was telling couples who didn’t live together they’d better “choose now” where they were going to stay throughout the period of self-isolation, then stick to that arrangement. Which didn’t begin to cover the full gamut of sexual ‘arrangements’. There were those in tentative new romances who didn’t want to put them under the strain and accelerated familiarity of living together. There were divorced or separated adults in new relationships, who often had children in different abodes to consider. Then there were those, like Ferguson and his married lover, with more unconventional arrangements – licit or illicit lovers outside their own home. On top of that were millions of lonesome souls continuing the search for love on dating apps. As week after week passed some people were bound to find lust overwhelming caution.

At this point readers are almost certainly dividing into two groups. The ones thinking, “Death-wish morons, I have no sympathy”, have a valid point of view, and the Government and tide of public opinion is with them. I’d hazard a guess a significant number are in stable relationships where parking sex for a bit doesn’t seem like a big sweat if other priorities – work, small kids, Covid-19 and the imminent threat of death – assert themselves and if your best beloved shares your house.

The only problem with that point of view is that it ignores historical precedent and the line of persuasion best used by the metaphysical poets. Writers like Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell knew the most effective tool of seduction was reminding the beloved of their own fragile mortality. When Marvell wrote his famous couplet, “The grave’s a fine and private place/ But none, I think, do there embrace,” the bubonic plague was still a very real hazard, with the Great Plague of London (1665-6) sweeping off  nearly a quarter of the city’s residents. If you prized sensible chastity over the chance to seize some rapture, there was a good chance you’d die in any case, but without gathering any rosebuds. Similar reasoning was evident in the Blitz when falling bombs led to increased risk-taking and thousands of brief encounters.

Twenty years into the new millennium, nothing much has changed. Persistent thoughts of death lead to insistent thought of sex and, for that second group of people, a heightened risk of infection is a calculation worth living with. Furthermore, learning to calculate risk is something we glean from the earliest days of maths and use in many everyday scenarios, from giving birth, to driving a car and playing contact sports — as Timandra Harkness detailed so compellingly on UnHerd yesterday. Neil Ferguson had already had Coronavirus and been through quarantine, so I have some sympathy for him reasoning the chance of re-infection wasn’t huge. I suppose all this depends on whether or not you acknowledge how overwhelming sexual connection can be and see it as a driver of the human life-force, akin to hunger and thirst. From my reading and viewing of Normal People I’d guess Sally Rooney believes in that kind of erotic imperative.

What’s notable in my own circle of acquaintance, is how many otherwise sensible, intelligent people have followed all the rules – except the implied one about not seeing a sexual partner outside the home. I’m not talking about cavalier sex-jaunts days into lockdown, but the kind of cumulative longing for human touch, sensuality and reassurance that can make you flout rules and risk social censure. One 50-something friend broke at the six-week point and took an empty train to London (“far safer than my local Co-op”) wearing a mask, where her boyfriend picked her up. Another allowed her partner of a year’s standing to stay twice at her house, but said her teenage children gave her, “such a bollocking it almost wasn’t worth it”. A third moved in with a new man half-way through lockdown, after a flirtation fuelled by long Facetime calls and emails became a fully-fledged romance. You may believe your own circle has behaved more impeccably, but as my anecdote about my mother and the Erotic Review shows, when it comes to sex, people tend to tell you what they think you want to hear.

I’d like to think we could grow up a bit about sex in this country. That we could applaud a drama like Normal People for showing the most realistically tender love scenes in British TV history without anyone calling it icky. That we could draw up some guidelines for any future pandemic that give more leeway to the realities of adult sexual behaviour. If two adults are reasonably sure they’re not infectious, don’t use public transport and wear masks when out, should they be pilloried for having sex – especially if the married one’s spouse had approved the arrangement? Although of course it wasn’t the shagging that did for Neil Ferguson – it was the double standards. And quite right too. But if our experts were prepared to be more honest about the fact there’s little that’s normal when it comes to sex, there’d be no need for such hypocrisy. As Sigmund Freud once observed, “The only unnatural sex behaviour is none at all.”

Rowan Pelling is editor of The Amorist and a comment writer for the Daily Telegraph. She edited The Erotic Review magazine for eight years (1996-2004)