It can be the strangest things which make one miss lost friends. Over the past few days, I have found myself thinking of the writer Willie Donaldson, who died just over three years ago, every time I read reports from the High Court concerning the activities of Max Mosley and five prostitutes. With a powerful member of the English upper classes, some cheerfully frank working girls, uniforms, marathon spanking sessions, German accents, a member of MI6 and, taking the high moral ground, a News of the World reporter, it is the perfect Donaldson story.
Sexual fantasies, particularly those of men who are ferociously correct in their public lives, can be hilarious, as Willie proved, but are always more than a comic sideshow; there is connection between the social and professional roles people play and their more intimate, unbuttoned games. The dramatically complex sexual scenario of which Max Mosley was producer, director and star, was not merely, as he has implied, a private enthusiasm. It is part of who he is.
That, as it happens, is the case of the News of the World, which filmed the thrillingly depraved events and decided – for the most ethical reasons, of course – to tell the story and release a video online. It was not that Mosley liked paying prostitutes to beat him which shocked the newspaper but the storyline he chose for his fantasy. With his five accomplices, he had enacted “a sick Nazi orgy”. It was in the public interest that the story was published.
Mosley’s case has been to admit the spanking but to deny any connection in the sexual play to concentration camps or Nazism. On this matter, the two sides agree: it is not what happened which matters but the connection with the real horrors of 60 years ago.
So the thought police have entered the bedroom. For the first time, thinking some dark lustful thought, and then acting it out with another consenting adult, is enough to make a person morally culpable. This is surely a significant step forward for the forces of repression, a real invasion of privacy. Humans bring the imagination to bear on their sex lives. Pretence and fantasy is what makes human desire different from the animal version.
Until now, the games which adults play have been accepted as a sort of safety valve. All over the country, the most respectable of wives will, once the world has gone away, become shameless tarts; the most upright of husbands will be simpering gimps and sex slaves. There is no limit to the strangeness of the games that desire plays.
In the light of day, these things may be funny, embarrassing and sell Sunday newspapers, but only the dreariest prude would deny that they are part of the human condition. Fantasy allows people to enjoy the forbidden without doing harm to society at large or (with only rare exceptions) to themselves.
But now we are in such a confused state about sex and offensiveness that we are losing sight of the difference between thought and deed, between the imagined and the real. It is as if we have become so anxious about immorality that merely by allowing thoughts into our heads, we fear we are on slippery slope to actual evil. The dangerous and dodgy landscape of our secret desires will soon spill over into actuality. Sexual dreams alone, if we believe the barrister representing the News of the World, can be “a form of corruption of the personality” leading to “true depravity”.
When thought is being policed – by anyone, let alone tabloid journalists – we are in trouble. Who, after all, is to decide the point at which a fantasy becomes unacceptable? In the Mosley case, both sides seem to agree that if in that Chelsea flat the imagined setting had been an English prison then it would have been harmless. Even a contemporary German one would have been fine.
It was the Nazism that was the problem. But what if a Nazi guard had through time travel – anything is possible when desire is the director – entered an English gaol? Where would a fantasy set in one of Stalin’s gulags have registered on the scale of acceptability?
It is a shame that Mosley’s lawyer was unable to say that his client’s fantasy was indeed sad and sick, but it was a fantasy. It belonged to him. Maybe it was his way of dealing with particular demons of his past.
Instead, the idea that even the most private of fantasies can be policed has been given legal force while the News of the World has been able to play the moralist and to accuse the victim of its sting of cynicism. That, like Max Mosley, takes a lot of beating.