Veteran campaigner for sexual freedom Tuppy Owens speaks to Paul Mitchell about sexuality, disability and British attitudes to sex
Having brazenly signed off on her emails as 'Dr Tuppy Owens, at the Centre of the Erotic Universe', the lady in question smirks when it is suggested that her home in the Highlands, near Inverness, is an odd location for such an accolade. "Don't be so sure," she laughs playfully, "the locals here are pretty wild!" Well, probably no surprises there, but it's obvious that the metaphor extends beyond the geographical. The venerable Dr Owens (though her degree is aptly enough in zoology and the doctorate is an honorary one from the Institute of Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco) has long been a high-profile advocate of the adoption of more liberal sexual attitudes in this country and beyond.
But are we, as a nation, really so puritanical? "The British have a reputation for being somewhat sexually inhibited. I don't believe it's true but I still think the average person won't talk openly about sex. Extroverts may get away with it, but generally people are reticent. That said, I found myself getting highly uncomfortable recently when I became conscious I was talking about prostate orgasms quite loudly on the bus - it happens. In any case, the average person thinks they know a lot but it's all superficial garbage. Mostly what gets talked about is the sort of bland ignorant stuff peddled by journalists on TV and in the tabloid press." Her solution seems straightforward. "Sex education in schools needs to be taken more seriously. In the Netherlands for example, children receive education graded according to their age, same as it is for maths. It's all matter of fact, the way it should be."
Indeed, it is this matter of fact approach that has served Tuppy well in her multiple campaigns. Having published groundbreaking sex manuals since the late 1960s, and subsequently qualifying as a sex therapist at St George's Hospital Medical School, she has also appeared in erotic films. In 1979 Owens founded Outsiders, a charitable organisation campaigning for people with disabilities seeking sexual partners. So, after almost twenty years of existence, what, if any, progress has been made? "Most of our members are less emotionally isolated. They might have a better social life but they still go home on their own and can't find a partner. It isn't just about finding a partner but being in a group of people who acknowledge that you are a sexual person regardless of what you look like or sound like. We're campaigning for sex to go on the agenda for all occupational therapists or disability agencies so that if somebody in that position wants to, they can have this dealt with professionally.
"We are also focusing on things that are holding people back. My big concern right now is people who are without speech as I find that that is the most debilitating impairment that there is. If they have no speech, you can't natter, and people really want that most of all in a relationship. They have discussed things like relaxation, confidence and assertion. Relaxation works, I know because a chap with no speech I used to have sex with was able to speak quite eloquently after the second orgasm. Just shows ya!" But do people with a wide variety of impairments and disabilities take kindly to being labelled as 'outsiders'? "Actually, I'm not sure it's the right name, it can preclude people. Most people feel that it suits how they feel however."
Owens is also a founding member of the Sexual Freedom Coalition, formed in 1996 to challenge laws and media campaigns which are viewed as taking away the sexual freedom of consenting adults. Right now, she has issues with England's recent Criminal Justice and Immigration bill, which includes legislation outlawing the use of 'extreme pornography'. She’s also concerned about some of the campaigning used in the aftermath of Scotland's recent legislation making kerb-crawling a criminal offence. "The wording on that campaign very much suggested that any time a man approaches a sex worker he's damaging her and encouraging women to be put down. It was basically saying to men 'Don't use sex workers!' which is appalling, because in my view a lot of men rely on them. People need to know their facts better. For starters, you can't say that prostitution is violent to women when the reality is that quite a lot of sex workers are male."
Painfully aware of the stereotypes and prejudices many people hold about sex workers in general, Tuppy Owens has made it her mission to 'normalise' attitudes to those who work in the industry. "I try to show people that a sex worker can be a nice lady, or man. People have got the idea that it's somewhat evil: they're all druggies and being pushed into it. The men will ravage them and there'll be diseases, etcetera, and they can't see anything positive about it. I think it's important to give people permission to be sex-positive."