AA Gill On...Sex and Instagram

Our resident agony uncle on walking in on your son in a compromising position, and that person we all can't stand on social media

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Dear Uncle Dysfunctional,

I found a copy of Esquire in my son's room, 10 minutes after I'd found him in bed with a friend's daughter. And 10 minutes after that, I read your "advice column". Inverted commas are surely not big enough to attach to the words. Such a pity the keyboard doesn't have a key for clothes pegs or rubber gloves. "Ho ho," you may think. "Typical mum, didn't knock first." No, I didn't knock. This is my own house and I don't knock on doors in my own house. And anyway, this was 2.30 in the afternoon and I assumed that he'd be out. And, at the risk of titillating your jaded and morally dull palate, I'm going to tell you what I found: not teenagers covertly exploring the joyful possibilities of their budding bodies, but a girl on all fours, having her back door kicked in. Oh yes, I know all the lingo, Mr Gill. I wasn't born yesterday and I'm no prude. There was a chemical smell in the room, which I remembered was amyl nitrate. What shocked me – and I am still shocked – was the obvious casual sophistication of their sex: it looked like they were acting out pornography, and it has depressed me to tears. How can we have allowed our children's innocence and their sense of excitement and discovery at the unfolding pleasure and agony of a sex life that will have to sustain them throughout their lives to be poisoned by the vile body sewage of online porn? It's not that it's immoral (though, of course, it is) or exploitative and misogynistic (which it also is), it's that it's so pathetically fifth-rate as sex, so dull and mechanical, so banal and boring. Oh, I don't expect you to understand or agree, but just in the hope that there's a twinge of unsullied responsibility under all that cynicism – especially as an old man with children – I'd like to hear whatever it is you have to say. Incidentally, my son is 16 and the friend's daughter is 18.

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Philippa, via email

Dear Philippa,
Obviously, you and probably most of the readers will expect me to issue an answer with a "woo woo – respect for your boy" and print a lot of fist-pumping emoticons. Are there fist-pumping emoticons? But I'm not going to. What looked like a porn mime to you was a fraught and heart-pounding construction of performance anxiety, pimple anxiety, smelly-breath anxiety, inexperience anxiety, spiced with hope, lust, excitement. And then, just as he was hanging out the back of some older, more sophisticated, cooler bird, his mother walks in. For God's sake: let's start with what's really damaging here. Let's separate reality from virtual and fantasy. You not giving your son any privacy is what's really wrong here, and you know you're in the wrong because you started off with a lot of self-justifying bluster about not knocking on doors in your own house, as if ownership relegates everyone else's right to privacy. And you would certainly have knocked if it had been your elderly aunt with her new Algerian boyfriend in there. So, the first thing is, 
you owe your boy a big and abject apology, and a promise that you'll never, ever walk in on him unannounced again. Just pray that you haven't made him impotent or a premature ejaculator for life, and that you don't need to start saving for 15 years of Freudian analysis. Now, the second, less important bit of your letter: porn on the internet. And I do have some sympathy with you. I can't watch it any more. I'm old and I suffer from empathy. I can't look at people copulating and not think, "Oh Lord, she must be about the same age as my daughter. And she must be someone else's daughter. And one day, she'll be a mother. And he'll go for a promotion in his bank. And this image will come up in the search his employers do on his past." So, let's start by agreeing that the people most at risk from pornography are those who are in it, who make it, and I say that as someone who has made a porn movie themselves, using my real name. (Still available somewhere out there on the net, Hot House Tales. It's got Ron Jeremy in it. Fill your boots – he can.) You and I both worry about every 13-year-old having seen everything that is humanly possible, and a lot of things that really aren't. And that's because we grew up without computers and our grandparents thought much the same about television ruining us. We worry about this because we worry about sex. Sex was always secret and private, and, let's face it, dirty and shameful. When we look at porn on the net, we can only see it in terms of our learned attitudes to sex. I don't know anyone of my generation who can't tell the difference between real life and television. And anyone old enough to have consensual sex will be astonished at how unlike porn real sex actually is. I don't believe teenagers are that different from us, or our grandparents, or our great-grandparents. I just know that every generation thinks that the next generation is going to purgatory by way of anal sex, which, incidentally, isn't innately rude or dirty or evil or humiliating; it's the preferred position for at least 10 per cent of the male population, including Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing and Leonardo da Vinci. If this generation grows up a little less ignorant and fearful than we were, then that's all to the good. And if internet porn helps, then that's a positive. Probably not an excuse but a mitigation. In the end, sex is complicated and brilliant, with layers of emotional baggage, none of which porn has. What's surprising is not how graphically specific pornography is, or has become, but how very unlike the experience of sex it remains.

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Dear Uncle Dysfunctional,

I'm a gay man and my partner is addicted to Instagram. Like most young, affluent gay couples with double incomes, we have a lot of leisure time, and we fill it with holidays and parties and exotic adventures, which my partner obsessively posts. It's not that I mind being photographed – we keep ourselves trim and are both handsome – it's just that everybody I know knows everything I do now: every hotel room, every meal, every shop and bar. I have no private life, it's all up for discussion and I'm beginning to feel like Ken Kardashian, though with better buns.

Ken, via email

Dear Ken,
Boy, did you come to the wrong place for sympathy. There should be a smug gay button on Instagram. My entire summer has been an Insta-camp of gay friends who have considerably smarter, glitzier, more glamorous, fancier holidays than my straight friends. For every three fish and chips on the beach with our cousins in Polzeath, there are four cocktails on the yacht going round the Aeolian Islands. Tell your boyfriend to stop posting pictures online: it's not fair on the rest of us.

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The Truth About Those Smug Social Media Couples
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