My left-wing pedigree runs deep. As a teenage activist in the early 1980s I joined every cause and every march of the day, from anti-racism and CND to anti-Apartheid and Cuba solidarity.
I read Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and I joined one of the proliferation of far-left groups of the day. Like many of my comrades, I drifted away from the struggle after Margaret Thatcher’s defeat of the miners, but I retained my core identity as a leftie.
Until, that is, decades later, when a stripper rocked my world.
Edie Lamort is a pole dancer and activist who I first interviewed five years ago, when she was involved in a political battle in east London. Under pressure from morality campaigners, local authorities were deciding whether to withdraw licenses from strip venues and Edie was one of the dancers who organised the fightback.
These women faced a strange alliance of opponents including Labour councillors, feminist activists, trade unionists and local religious groups. Although the protesters claimed the presence of strip clubs was endangering local women, and that clubs were exploiting and abusing their workers, they could not provide evidence to back either point.
Indeed, their hostility to the strippers contrasted oddly with their stated desire to “rescue” them.
I had been used to associating anti-sex attitudes with the likes of Mary Whitehouse, the veteran defender of Christian family values. But after Whitehouse died in 2001, a new generation of morality campaigners had made their presence felt.
In place of attacking the “permissive society”, or lamenting the decline in family values, these activists were armed with feminist battle-cries, and were more likely to be seen reading the liberal Guardian than the right-wing Daily Mail.
A new social conservatism had been born for the new millennium, and this time it was rooted in the political left, rather than the right.
Object, a “feminist human rights” organisation, was a protagonist in the anti-striptease campaign, which they named Stripping The Illusion. Strippers were bemused to find themselves labelled, in the words of one, “as being victims, and on the other hand, evil women who were the cause of rape and abuse.”
But Object was part of a far broader alliance of feminist and left groups with a wide range of anti-sex and pro-censorship objectives. The group received funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an anti-poverty organisation, and was generously supplied with publicity by the Guardian (which simultaneously ran its own disapproving articles about strip clubs).
Object, and similar feminist organisations such as UK Feminista, rolled out a series of anti-sex campaigns, of which Stripping the Illusion was but the first. Each cause was loyally supported by the Guardian, by voices from the Labour and Green parties, by trade unionists, and others that I had previously considered part of my progressive tribe.
From strip clubs, they turned their attention to attacking online pornography, tried to persuade supermarkets to stop selling lads’ mags, and then campaigned for the censorship of “sexualised” music videos, before turning their attention to the pressing goal of removing breasts from Page 3 of The Sun.
Likewise, the old anti-prostitution movement was reinvigorated by a flood of new, feminist and left-wing campaigners under the End Demand banner. The old, censorious attitudes of the religious right had been adopted, intact, by the new left.
Although the language of women’s rights featured heavily in these campaigns, they did not appear to consider that women might choose to work as glamour models, fetish performers or porn stars – apparently, the right to middle-class feminist outrage trumped the more fundamental right to work.
When the trade union Unison gave its backing to campaigns to put women out of well-paid work, I began to feel as if I had stepped through the looking glass.
The anti-sex movement was just the start. The new left’s war on free expression has expanded to attack non-sexual expression too, on the basis that it might be hateful, ‘triggering’, or even merely offensive.
Porn Panic!, by Jerry Barnett, charts the intellectual and political decline of the liberal left over the past few decades. It is published by Zero Books on August 26.