Cock tales that are all too Commons
When you’re a child of the 1990s it’s hard to muster any real enthusiasm for nostalgia. Whereas our elders can look back on cream teas on the village lawn, miniskirts and buying butter in imperial units straight from the cow, we’re expected to go rheumy-eyed about Terry Christian, Pogs, and the music of Jamiroquai. When we wistfully remember the smack of willow on leather, we’re not remembering cricket, but an eight-page feature on fetish-wear in Loaded. It’s difficult to muster a decent “things were better in my day”, when they were, quite patently, worse. Pubs still had to close in the afternoons.
The high-speed internet has changed the world. If we wanted to buy a book 25 years ago we had to go to a shop that sold books on the off-chance they might have it, rather than clicking a button and having it arrive at our house in less than a day. If we wanted to become a filmmaker, we’d have to get cameras, films, microphones and Equity-minimum actors rather than just pointing a phone at whatever was happening nearby. If we wanted pornography, we had to visit a specialist shop or have a tall friend and a permissive newsagent rather than streaming it at full 4K straight into the House of Commons.
In our day, if a Tory MP wanted to pleasure themselves they’d at least have the common decency to put on some stockings, wedge a satsuma in their mouth, and retreat to their own home. Nowadays, they don’t even leave their place of work. Even five years ago, Damian Green had the courtesy to shut the door.
Given that most Conservative backbenchers haven’t had an unassisted erection since the Falklands War (it wasn’t just the Belgrano that went down that night), it’s unlikely that Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton, was actually masturbating while watching pornography in the House. If he’d really wanted to achieve climax, he’d more likely have viewed a slideshow of the battered faces of miners subjected to police violence during the Battle of Orgreave, like any sensible member of the 1922 Committee.
Before the identity of the parliamentary penis-paddler was known, everyone wanted to know who it was. The more important question afterwards was: what was he watching? By a man’s porn search history ye may know him – and we certainly learnt how shameless Parish is when he popped up to give us the full facts. He would have us all believe he accidentally watched the porn when he was looking for tractors (what farmer hasn’t stumbled across an orgy while looking for his next Massey Ferguson?). He wasn’t able to name the site he went to that “had a very similar name to tractors” because it didn’t exist. Although, in fairness, he found something just as effective as a tractor at dragging his family’s name through the mud.
It would be tempting here to reminisce about furtively buying Wordsworth Classic Erotica in the late 1990s, just to spend an afternoon with out-of-copyright smut called something like Memoirs of a Hellraising Rake or Fanny Underhill: The Swiving Of A Parlourmaid. You could wallow in memories of cheap paperbacks full of tribadism and lusty wenches who rode a most glorious St George, and compare that favourably to having “Busty Stepmoms Near You” just a click away. It would be easy to confect some young fogey outrage about how the lack of easy access to porn made it that much more naughty – how the frisson of shame that came with indulging in it in the 1990s added to the experience. And how the search for filth (like an elusive early-pressing LP) added to the thrill of discovery.
For some, the 1990s weren’t like that at all. Bliss was it in that dawn to be a smut-obsessed young man, and it was very heaven to have access to a modem. But for many the tabloidisation of everything and rise of lad culture blurred the line between sex-positive and sex-compulsory. The codification of the porn aesthetic and normalisation of lewd behaviour, under the banner of “banter”, made the decade a toxic cocktail of harassment and low expectations.
In parliament, it seems, that decade has never gone away. The Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme is currently investigating 56 MPs for sexual misconduct, including three members of the Cabinet and two members of the Shadow Cabinet. It’s difficult to hear Lynne Featherstone’s memories of a Labour MP in his 60s inviting researchers to sit on his knee without being reminded of the elaborate amnesiac rituals the country has had to put itself through to pretend it didn’t know anything about Jimmy Savile.
Of course the country knew and approved of Jimmy Savile. In the 1970s, it didn’t think the sexual assault of children was a particularly important or pernicious thing. Benny Hill was constantly chasing schoolgirls across our screens, we were all told about the teachers we shouldn’t be alone with in the showers, and not to do the extra badge with certain Scoutmasters. The Paedophile Information Exchange was officially affiliated to the National Council for Civil Liberties.
The country knew about and revelled in the toxic sexual culture of the 1970s in the same way it knew about and revelled in the toxic sexual culture of the 1990s. I have no doubt we shall, in the same way, gasp and flutter our fans and feign ignorance when the victims of that Nineties culture are heard.
In the last few weeks, Imran Ahmad Khan has been convicted of the sexual assault of a fifteen-year old, David Warbuton has lost the whip over accusations of sexual harassment, and Neil Parish has been caught watching porn. Last year, Rob Roberts was suspended from the House of Commons for sexual harassment, but got his Conservative party membership back after twelve weeks.
The problem isn’t that Parliament’s sexual culture has changed since the 1990s. The problem is that it hasn’t.