When her celi­bate re­la­tion­ship ended, Monique Rof­fey de­cided to ex­plore her erotic needs, she tells Vic­to­ria Lam­bert

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There’s a se­cret at the heart of most of our mar­riages, ac­cord­ing to award-win­ning novelist Monique Rof­fey. “They may be full of love, friend­ship and shared goals”, she says, “but they’re of­ten celi­bate.”

Re­search from Ge­or­gia State Univer­sity in the United States sug­gests she might be right, and that 15 per cent of mar­ried cou­ples have not had sex with their spouse within the past six to 12 months.

That deficit, warns Rof­fey, can have lifechang­ing ef­fects if left un­ad­dressed.

“Het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples get to­gether, of­ten when young, drawn by this strong mu­tual erotic and ro­man­tic at­trac­tion,” she says. “But over time — af­ter chil­dren, the menopause, daily fa­mil­iar­ity — the sex­ual el­e­ment fiz­zles out.”

It’s a sce­nario many may find them­selves qui­etly recog­nis­ing. But it’s not sur­pris­ing, says Rof­fey.

“In the West, we have de­vel­oped this idea over the past cen­tury that mar­riage has to be all-en­com­pass­ing. It has to be sex­u­ally pro­found, but your part­ner must also be your best friend, and this must last for th­ese long lives. It’s an in­cred­i­bly hard thing to achieve.

“How did this im­pos­si­ble prom­ise at the al­tar get writ­ten into so­ci­etal con­scious­ness?”

Mar­i­tal celibacy and sex­ual free­dom are sub­jects 52-year-old Rof­fey, a lec­turer at Manchester Metropoli­tan Univer­sity, ex­plores in her lat­est book,

The Tryst, an erotic novella about a sexless — but out­wardly per­fect — mar­riage. The union is shaken to its core when wife Jane and hus­band Bill de­cide to “spice up” their re­la­tion­ship by invit­ing a strange woman they have met in the pub to their home and bed for the night.

She ex­plains: “Bill and Jane have both been burnt by erotic af­fairs in the past and now feel they have found sanc­tu­ary in their deeply lov­ing, al­beit phys­i­cally un­ful­fill­ing part­ner­ship. He has mar­ried his mother — a strong, self-con­tained woman. Jane has cho­sen in him a father fig­ure. No won­der they haven’t reached their erotic po­ten­tial as a pair.”

What­ever my next re­la­tion­ship looks like, it won’t be the het­ero­sex­ual norm. There are still more rocks to turn over.

In­stead, the cou­ple be­come easy prey for a mag­i­cal sex­ual preda­tor who has no in­ten­tion of be­ing just a one-night di­ver­sion to their mar­i­tal life.

Although the book is not au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, the loss of pas­sion within a re­la­tion­ship is one Rof­fey un­der­stands well; a long-term re­la­tion­ship with a fel­low writer ended due to his in­fi­delity in 2006, when she was 41. “We were a great cou­ple,” she says, “in a lov­ing-but-sexless long-term re­la­tion­ship.

“Look­ing back, I was so young then. I did not know I had got my­self into the trap, and didn’t know what to say or how to han­dle it, or even how to get out of it.”

Which is not to say she was or is some sort of shrink­ing vi­o­let. Born in Trinidad to Euro­pean par­ents, Rof­fey — a rather ma­jes­tic fig­ure, with a mel­liflu­ous deep voice, sharp brown eyes and a glo­ri­ous abun­dance of hair — was sent to a con­vent board­ing school near Wey­bridge, south-east of Lon­don.

“I was one of the naughty girls, re­ally re­bel­lious. I’d shimmy down the drain­pipe to get out; it was St Trinian’s re­ally.”

Hol­i­days were spent back home in the Caribbean hang­ing out with her brother and their lo­cal friends. Af­ter study­ing English and film stud­ies at the Univer­sity of East Anglia, Rof­fey went into jour­nal­ism, be­fore fall­ing ill with a rare au­toim­mune dis­ease called Churg-Strauss Syn­drome at the age of 30.

“I was in hos­pi­tal for months. It took me a year and a half to get over, stop­ping me in my tracks.”

It was pos­si­bly the life re­boot she needed, and Rof­fey was in­spired to be­gin a cre­ative writ­ing course in Lon­don, and then take an MA at the Univer­sity of Lan­caster in 1999, where she met her ex-part­ner. The pair went on to run an Ar­von Foun­da­tion cen­tre for writ­ers in Devon and worked on their own books: “I used to see us as a lit­er­ary union, like Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I’d sit and watch him work. He had such grit.”

The re­la­tion­ship ended when Rof­fey re­ceived a pack­age in the post con­tain­ing dozens of printed emails, as proof that he had cheated on her. Life as she knew it was, un­der­stand­ably, “blown apart”.

She fled home to her mother in Trinidad, and wrote her way out of despair. The re­sult­ing novel,

The White Woman on the Green Bi­cy­cle, was short­listed for the Or­ange Prize and the Encore Award. Her next book, Archipelago, won the OCM Bo­cas Prize for Caribbean Lit­er­a­ture.

But when the writer re­turned to Lon­don later that year, she was still suf­fer­ing “post-break-up shock and grief”. How­ever, rather than shut her­self away, or look for another se­ri­ous mate, Rof­fey de­cided to ex­plore her own erotic needs. “I wanted to have sex­ual ad­ven­tures. I ad­ver­tised on Craigslist for no-strings-at­tached sex. I was crazy, wild. My friends were hor­ri­fied, tit­il­lated and shocked.

“For some­one from this vanilla, het­eronor­ma­tive back­ground, it was eye-open­ing. I was on my own jour­ney of sex­ual ed­u­ca­tion. And grad­u­ally I learned to com­bine in­ti­macy with ex­plo­ration.

“I feel now I spent the past 10 years get­ting out of the main­stream into this mar­ginal sex pos­i­tive/ queer space I now in­habit.” By which she means she is sin­gle, not celi­bate, and her sex­ual in­ter­ests are “broad”.

She adds: “At 52, I am very com­fort­able with where I am. I had to hack through the jun­gle to get here. But I know that main­stream so­ci­ety might look at me, and won­der why I’m not mar­ried, be­cause I don’t have the sta­tus that we are pro­grammed to de­sire and cap­ture.”

This ques­tion of whether many women will con­tinue to sup­press erotic de­sires in or­der to re­main in oth­er­wise-happy mar­riages is one she comes back to. “At 40, I was deeply dis­sat­is­fied with where I had got to and what had come my way. As a young woman, I hadn’t had what I wanted. I wasn’t sex­u­ally alive.”

But how many women could, or would do what she did? “I’m a bo­hemian, and one of life’s nat­u­ral ex­per­i­menters,” she ac­knowl­edges. “Un­til now it was hard for women to ex­plore them­selves, it was taboo. But things have changed in re­cent years.”

Rof­fey’s new life of­fers free­dom but chal­lenges, too. “Like all child-free women, I have to de­cide how to spend the next half of my life. To think, what now? I don’t have an an­swer. When women get into their 50s and 60s, there is this sense you are mov­ing off the script. Keep­ing writ­ing is a given, but I’ve also started life draw­ing at art school.”

She adds: “I look around me. That script, I tried to live it un­til I was 40. I had a ‘mar­riage-type re­la­tion­ship’, a home, a con­ven­tional job — I tried to fit into the mould.

“But it broke, and I went some­where dif­fer­ent, I didn’t come back. Even now, I’ve been sin­gle for two or three years but I’m hop­ing there’s more out there. What I do know is that what­ever my next re­la­tion­ship looks like, it won’t be that het­ero­sex­ual norm. There are still more rocks to turn over.”

So does she have any words of wis­dom for the Bills and Janes caught up in lov­ing celibacy?

“To any cou­ple out there who have fallen into a sexless re­la­tion­ship, I’d say the first thing to do is find out the prob­lem — if it in­deed is a prob­lem — and talk with com­pas­sion to each other. Fe­male sex­u­al­ity is com­plex. Talk, seek help, or you could try a Tantra work­shop to­gether.”

Per­haps even ven­ture on to the in­ter­net: “It’s not all seedy porn and low-life. My ad­vice is to log on and name your de­sires and see what comes up. Get with the pro­gramme. It’s all there. Seek and you shall find. And take your part­ner with you.” THE TRYST BY MONIQUE ROF­FEY (DODO INK, $16).

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