We’re more fixated with sex than ever, it seems, but still in a strange, repressed, unhealthy manner.
Soldier your way through the Political Compass survey, the internet’s go-to ‘what the hell am I politically’ test, and near the end you’re asked to pass judgement on the following statement: ‘These days openness about sex has gone too far’.
Presumably – I have neither the time nor the inclination to spend the necessary hours twiddling with the survey to find out for sure – if you agree, you’re nudged further to the authoritarian right, and if you disagree you join the teeming legions of people who’d be put in camps if the Daily Mail ever took over.
But in the days when fifteen year olds who’ve never given/received a blow job feel crushingly inadequate and grainy magazine shots of Lindsay Lohan’s vulva are greeted with all the breathless excitement of a renaissance polymath discovering electricity, something’s clearly gone quite wrong. In fact, from Guardian-rustlers leftward, you can imagine a lot of progressive types concluding that society needs a cold shower and a long lie down.
We are, indisputably, obsessed by sex more than ever – and breathing aside, it’s not healthy to be obsessed with anything. The irony is that it’s openness that’s exactly what’s missing. People talk about sex in a salacious, sensationalist, nudge-nudge wink-wink oh-look-what-Miley’s-done-now sort of way. But in Britain, our everyday communication about it is notoriously rubbish. Although it’s undoubtedly improved, the last time we checked, education about it was still appalling. And in a world where this warped, Hall of Mirrors presentation of shagging is more inescapable than ever, our squeamish aversion to talking plainly about sex just makes it even harder for young people to wade through the already-baffling ordeal that is adolescence.
The most healthy, normal thing in the world has been turned into something that makes a lot of people unhappy. Sex-as-presented whips people up into a kind of envious, neurotic, self-loathing frenzy, as they judge themselves against the kind of fantasy land they see not only in porn, but on TV, in Hollywood films and in celebrity magazines.
Faced with airbrushed, silicone-stuffed ‘perfection’, or the kind of (literally) larger-than-life characters they come across in porn, hormone-addled youngsters are filled with a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt – is my cock big enough? Are my tits big enough? Is my arse too big? Is my arse too small? Is everyone having more sex than me? Is everyone having better sex than me?
Lovely, honest fucking is turned into something scary and intimidating – not having had sex by an arbitrary point in your life is treated like some unspeakable shame. For lonely teenage boys, finding yourself with your penis in one hand and a ruler in the other has become a despair-sodden rite of passage, while thousands of women are made to feel broken because they can’t orgasm through penetrative sex.
All this needless misery could be prevented if we got over our prudishness and talked about sex in plain, clear language, particularly to kids. Really, despite the cultural fug it’s shrouded in, sex is relatively straightforward. The reasons why people have sex are anything but, of course, but it’s usually at least partially because of its potential to feel nice.
These days, thankfully, it’s broadly agreed that sex should be mutually enjoyable. For hundreds of years, women had a raw deal in that respect – in some ways they still do.
For most men, sex is fairly mechanical. Work the penis until it ejaculates. Job done. Having someone you’re physically attracted involved in the manoeuvre certainly heightens the experience, but there’s no escaping the fact that a lonely hand or a squirrel in a roller skate could achieve pretty much the same effect.
Contrary to what hordes of ‘Lie Back And Think Of England’-school Jabba The Hutt-style men have thought down the centuries, the female orgasm isn’t that much more complicated – obviously, everyone has different things that get them going, and that diversity should be celebrated. But men and women’s climaxes aren’t as different as it’s often assumed.
Nineteenth century anatomy wasn’t very good to the vagina’d half of the population – then, and for decades afterwards, scientists claimed the female orgasm didn’t exist. They also claimed that the clitoris was really just a stunted penis, and, by extension, that women were just failed men.
Ironically, though, in their flippant dismissal of female sex bits, Victorian chauvinists pinpointed exactly why the clitoris is the key to the female climax. They were wrong in suggesting that one was the superior version of the other, of course – but the male penis and the female clit are basically examples of the same thing, namely ultra-sensitive erectile tissue packed with nerve-endings.
But, funnily enough, squeamish British sex education doesn’t have much time for talking about things like clitoral stimulation – tending instead to be drily anatomical, telling kids how babies are made, how to avoid babies being made and that’s about it – leaving TV, magazines and porn as the primary how-to guide for many teens navigating their sexual awakening.
In Hollywood fantasy land, all it takes is a few manful pelvic thrusts for a gentleman to have his sexual partner writhing in ecstasy. In the real world, as many as three-quarters of females can’t climax from penetrative sex alone, and you have to wonder whether it’s this yawning disparity between ever-present fiction and barely talked-about reality that leaves so many women feeling inadequate over a situation that’s really the norm.
Porn, meanwhile, is a meticulously orchestrated fleshy spectacle. The performers aren’t doing what they’re doing because it feels the best, they’re doing it because the profoundly un-arousing man in the director’s chair has told them to. That sets porn-educated youngsters off to a bad start already.
Then there’s the gruesome objectification of women that’s so prevalent in mainstream porn – females are more often than not presented as shorn sex aids designed to bounce on the gentleman’s member until he’s finished and then go away. It’s one of several grim, socially damaging messages beamed into impressionable young brains, along with the idea that if you cock isn’t huge you’re a failure, that if your tits aren’t huge you’re a failure and that if you’re female and don’t shave your pubic hair you’re some kind of untouchable degenerate.
And as much as middle-shelf ‘lifestyle’ magazines might seem to be a straight-talking antidote to the all the above, in many ways they’re just the more respectable face of the problem. Again, we find the sex-envy thing at work – famous people are having more sex than you are and enjoying it more than you are, the rags tell their readers. And if you just buy enough of the right things you can be just as alluring and sexually satisfied as they are.
But no matter how many dresses you buy, or how enthusiastically you rub your calves with a Cliff Richard LP in flagrante because Cosmopolitan said it will ‘drive your man wild’, there’s still no substitute for a) a reasonable understanding of how the other person’s body works and b) the ability to basically communicate with the person you’re having it off with – actually asking the other person what they like and don’t like, and expressing your preferences in return.
And so, in the bafflingly hyper-sexualised world we find ourselves in, openness about sex is more necessary than ever. We need to fling our No Sex Please We’re British prudishness out the window. What’s needed is a substantial programme of sex education in schools – one that goes beyond the science of reproduction, debunks the kind of damaging cultural myths and misrepresentations kids are bound to encounter as they wade through the hormonal maelstrom, guards them against the dangers posed by online predators, chat rooms, sexting and the like, and teaches them how to have safe, enjoyable sex, based on respectful, communicative relationships with the person they’re attempting to shag.
Maybe then we can bring up a generation with a far more liberated attitude to sex – one that can like it, love it even, but isn’t madly, irrationally obsessed with the act that, really, should be the most natural thing in the world.