You may have seen this photo of four young (white) working class lads minding their own business enjoying an evening on the town together, dressed in the way many working class lads dress these days – showing off their ink, their worked-out bodies, and their shaped facial hair. Spornosexuals.
Taken by a stranger a couple of summers ago, it was originally posted by Connor Humpage (on the right) to his Instagram, with the self-mocking caption ‘Tight trousers chose us’. The photo was then hate-memed to death by people who didn’t know anything about them. Except that they could abuse them with impunity.
Initially the remarks and abuse were mostly about their ‘bizarre’ appearance – clearly from extremely-online people who never got out much, even before lockdown. As Connor told The Tab:
The lads were mystified as to why an innocuous picture of them had gone viral in the first place. “I still can’t get my head around why,” says Connor. “It’s just a normal picture with my mates.” Whilst their tight clothes have been mocked, all say they work hard at the gym and just wore normal clothes. “If we were wearing flares or bootcuts we’d get the piss taken out of us,” says Connor.
Well, quite. Every weekend thousands of lads like these decorate city centres across the UK, out for a good time. And perhaps proffering a good time to be had. These particular ornaments were from the Midlands and were on a night out in Birmingham. (The photo seems to be of them outside All Bar One at New Street Station.)
Things took a turn for the even worse when at the height of last year’s BLM demonstrations, their image was appropriated by people making bigoted assumptions about them based entirely on their appearance again – in order to signal moral superiority on social media. Which led to the guys being abused online all over again, one of them even receiving harassing phone calls at work.
One of these memes was tweeted by a (white, gay male) features writer at woke website Vice to his 19.4K followers. It remains up – despite the Tab article last year about the guys’ experience (which includes Connor’s George Floyd/BLM art), and another last month on the BBC website.
One not untypical reply – from an account with a rainbow flag and pronouns in their bio – reads: ‘Every single one of them with their course of antibiotics in their back pocket.’
I’m old enough to remember when gay men were smeared and abused for ‘spreading STDs’. But apparently bigoted slut-shaming of young men you know nothing about is prideful these days, and worthy of 11 likes (including one from the woke gay Vice writer). So long as they’re white, working class and assumed to be heterosexual.
This is just good old-fashioned snobbery – in social justice warrior drag. With a nasty strain of sexual jealousy thrown in. My dear! Have you seen the low-life riff-raff hanging around that awful All Bar One in their vulgar clothes and common, brutish bodies? Ghastly!
The whole demented furore around the photo is essentially a social-media updating of the time the rather plain and dumpy middle-aged middle-class writer Charlton Brooker penned entire column in the Guardian abusing and slut-shaming the underdressed, pumped, young straight(ish) men in Newcastle-based MTV reality show Geordie Shore, as ‘awesomely creepy’, ‘synthetic meat’ and ‘vinyl sex dolls’. But, strangely, had absolutely nothing to say about the equally processed and underdressed women in it.
We’ve also been here before with Vice, before it went woke, back when it was the hipster’s Bible. It was a hilariously sexually confused piece published there some years ago, beating up on ‘sad young douchebags’, which prompted me to rush to their defence: selflessly interposing myself between them and the cruel barbs. It was also when I coined the term ‘spornosexuals’, to emphasise the continuity between metrosexuality and its second-generation, more, ahem, ‘fleshly’ incarnation. As I put it then:
What’s a douchebag? Someone with bigger arms than you, who’s getting more sex than you – and probably earning more than you, despite being considerably less expensively educated than you.
Not to worry – there has however been enormous progress in the years since. Nowadays bitter jealousy is presented as uplifting wokery.
The All Bar One lads got virally memed yet again recently, prompting the current round of media interest. But this time the meme was much more benign, a ‘deep-fake’ TikTok animation of them singing a sea-shanty – which has had 6.9 million views.
Nonetheless, they are once again being ventriloquised – and thoroughly objectified. Albeit in a more sophisticated fashion. The meme is funny because they appear to be convincingly singing the shanty and, like Olde Worlde sailors, they are muscular, have tattoos, ‘silly’ pants and are drinking. But of course, the punchline is that their spornosexuality is a long way from Olde Worlde sailors.
It’s worth noting that sea shanties (a current TikTok craze) are songs from an era when pleasures for the working man were few and far between and ‘grafting’ was hard, and filled almost every daylight hour. This particular shanty, “Soon May the Wellerman Come”, is all about looking forward to that tantalising pleasure:
[c. 1860-70] is a whaling song which has drawn academic praise as “a genuine cultural expression by exploited workers for whom “sugar and tea and rum” provided a much-needed respite from the drudgery and toil of their daily lives.”
Pleasure for the working man, now that ‘the tonguin’ is done’, is much easier to come by today – but clearly not everyone is happy about that.
For their part, the much-maligned lads have good-humouredly welcomed the TikTok meme: Connor thinks it’s ‘hilarious’. And are also relieved that it has prompted a completely different kind of response online to the first two waves of memes – friendly comments instead of hateful. As Connor told BBC’s Newsbeat:
“At first we were blown away by how negative everyone was. We didn’t ask for any of this,” he says.
“I think people forget about the people they’re trolling behind their phones or keyboards. We actually are real people and it does affect you.
“It gets to a stage where you don’t even read the comments anymore. You feel sorry for the people trying to ridicule someone just on how they look.”
Jamie, Connor, Kevin and Alex also ended up on one of the UK’s most popular breakfast TV shows, Good Morning Britain, finally talking in their own voices and own words about their experience. Though very briefly and, understandably, somewhat nervously.
Predictably though, it seems to have been mostly an opportunity for presenters, Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid to reheat the stale ‘bants’ that would have got them totally cancelled if they used them on a woman guest who had been mobbed online for wearing a fashionably short skirt: ‘Couldn’t you find a pair of trousers that fit, was that the issue?’… ‘Couldn’t you find the right size?’…
‘With a bit of hindsight,’ persists Morgan, 55, clearly unable to help himself, ‘would you have worn different trousers?’
‘Absolutely not,’ replies Jamie. Good for you, fella.
But then, no one – NO ONE – wants to see Morgan’s arse.