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Artillery Row

The age of the Sex Olympics

It is time to resist the pornification of the modern world

The flattening of life into two dimensions was predicted long before the online world gobbled up our attention spans. First aired on BBC2 in 1968, The Year of the Sex Olympics was prescient, giving a glimpse into what is a now familiar media diet of lowest common denominator entertainment. It depicted a future where existence is a spectacle to be viewed; a world where dead-eyed audiences gape at the Angry/Hungry show (where old men are filmed throwing food at each other). Relationships are fleeting and as a central character observes, “sex is not to do, sex is to watch”. 

Channel 4’s upcoming reality programme Virgin Island is the realisation of this dystopian vision. Due to air later this year, the show will film participants having sex together for the first time. It has been reported that prostitutes, euphemistically dubbed “sex surrogates” will be, er, “on hand” to ease proceedings along. 

there is something profoundly inhumane and depressing about reducing the most intimate experience a couple can share to pixels

Breaking boundaries is what Channel 4 is known for, and it is nothing if not predictable in its ability to provoke shock. And ultimately, this tawdry programme is barely a drop in a cultural landscape saturated by much more extreme pornography. But there is something profoundly inhumane and depressing about reducing the most intimate experience a couple can share to pixels. Because whether a one-off encounter or within a relationship, sex was once understood as relational, embodied and involving all senses. This is no longer true. 

Over fifty years on from the The Year of The Sex Olympics it has become a fact that for many men “sex is not to do, sex is to watch”. Around 11 per cent of both British men and women report having sex once per week, meanwhile 36 per cent of men say they watch pornography at least once a week, including 13 per cent who watch porn every day or most days. Despite huge efforts on the part of pornographers to increase the female share of the market, in the UK just 4 per cent of women watch porn on a weekly basis.

The reasons why women are put off the idea of sex with porn-fed men are obvious. Pornography is where kids learn about sex, and according to a 2023 report by the Children’s Commissioner in the UK the average age at which children first view it is 13. When asked, nearly half of respondents stated “that girls ‘expect’ sex to involve physical aggression such as airway restriction or slapping, a further 42 per cent stated that most girls ‘enjoy’ acts of sexual aggression”. Given this it seems fair to ask, what girl would look at images of women being strangled and sodomised and think, “that looks fun”? Of course they’re turned off by what they have been told sex is.

Meanwhile men turn to pornography not just because it’s accessible, affordable and anonymous, but because on the surface it is free from any emotional cost. Setting aside the endless novelty, and addictive algorithmic lure that warps desire there is no risk, no fear of laughter or rejection and no-one else to immediately consider.

The wider implications of this cultural shift are clear, and there is now no escaping the fact that the world is in the death grip of a sex recession. This phenomenon was first observed in the 2000s in hyperconnected Japan, where 68 per cent of marriages are completely sexless or virtually devoid of a physical element. Recent reports from France suggest even the most amorous nation on the planet has fallen out of love with sex. 

In The Year of The Sex Olympics, reality television is used to keep the population docile, and pornography to keep the birth rate down. While it seems safe to say the scheduling of Big Brother isn’t why Britons haven’t stormed parliament, the decline in the birth rate may well be in part a result of a sexless yet hypersexual media culture. And it is revealing that in response to the population panic, governments seem more inclined to offer IVF than to take action against pornographers.

No matter how prescient it might have been, even the most generous of science fiction fans would be forced to admit The Year of the Sex Olympics is comically bad. But stripped of the leaden acting and dire script, this television play which aired just a year after the so-called sexual revolution shook the globe not only foreshadowed grim reality shows, it predicted a social shift. 

Nearly six decades on and The Year of the Sex Olympics stands not only as a warning about the harms of pornography, but also as a now timely comment on today’s neurotic focus on appearance over substance, and the dangers of watching rather than doing. The appetite for programmes like Virgin Island should not be seen in isolation, they are symptoms of a wider social malaise. To paraphrase Timothy Leary, the time has come to turn off, tune out and step up.

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