THE REAL JOY OF SEX

Other than the baby boomers, is any­one hav­ing sex any­more? And if you are, is it ac­tu­ally any good? Liv Sid­dall speaks to the women push­ing fe­male plea­sure in a new (and very horny) di­rec­tion

ELLE (UK) - - Contents -

How much sex are peo­ple re­ally hav­ing? To find out, Liv Sid­dall meets the women push­ing it in a whole new di­rec­tion

I THINK I SPEAK FOR A FEW OF US when I tell you that, through­out the win­ter months, my vagina semi-re­sem­bles a locked, cob­web­strewn at­tic in­hab­ited only by the ghosts of sum­mer vis­i­tors. Much like Thorpe Park, my gates shut around Hal­loween, only open­ing to the pub­lic once again for the spring sea­son the fol­low­ing year. For me, sex in De­cem­ber is just one long en­durance test of hold­ing in canapé-in­duced bloat­ing and ma­noeu­vring my pale, hairy body to shy away from the light like Colin from The Se­cret Gar­den.

OK, maybe I’m be­ing a lit­tle dra­matic. But sex at this time of year does have some­thing of a dif­fer­ent feel, doesn’t it? Com­pared with the heady sum­mer months, when we’re all bonk­ing drunk­enly in sand dunes and get­ting horny just watch­ing some­one un­wrap a Cor­netto, things take a dif­fer­ent turn as win­ter hits.

But per­haps – just as we make New Year’s res­o­lu­tions about tak­ing up ex­er­cise or giv­ing up smok­ing, or hap­haz­ardly sign our­selves up to ‘self-im­prove­ment’ evening cour­ses – the chilly months of De­cem­ber and Jan­uary are the per­fect time to re­flect on our at­ti­tudes to sex. After all, no mat­ter your age, gen­der or re­la­tion­ship sta­tus, your feel­ings to­wards sex­ual plea­sure and de­sire can de­ter­mine your hap­pi­ness in so many ar­eas of life. As psy­cho­sex­ual and re­la­tion­ship psy­chother­a­pist Kate Moyle puts it, ‘When we are sat­is­fied with our sex lives, it has a pos­i­tive im­pact on our gen­eral well­be­ing.’ So aside from the ben­e­fits of phys­i­cal skin-to-skin con­tact and the mood-boost­ing neu­ro­chem­i­cals re­leased dur­ing or­gasm, ‘When our sex lives are in a good place, we don’t take up time and en­ergy wor­ry­ing or think­ing about them.’

Ev­ery era has its own re­la­tion­ship with sex. The Six­ties and Seven­ties were fa­mously lib­er­ated; then came the power Eight­ies, when at­ti­tudes to sex con­tin­ued to be­come more open-minded (thank you Grace Jones, thank you Madonna). The Nineties pushed things fur­ther, with TV shows such as Sex and the City show­ing women openly dis­cussing sex, fe­male sat­is­fac­tion and mas­tur­ba­tion. As for to­day… well, so far, the nar­ra­tive around mod­ern mil­len­nial sex has been pretty bleak – mainly fo­cus­ing on how we’re not hav­ing any (pre­sum­ably be­cause we’re too busy In­sta­gram­ming our avo on toast). This sum­mer, Pub­lic Health Eng­land pub­lished the re­sults of a sur­vey show­ing that nearly half of women aged be­tween 25 and 34 do not have an en­joy­able sex life.

Half! Rea­sons men­tioned were a lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with their part­ners, ex­pe­ri­ence or di­ag­noses of STIs. Mean­while, Moyle sin­gles out mo­bile phones as a prob­lem: ‘Great sex hap­pens when we are fully in the mo­ment and fo­cused on en­joy­ing what we are en­gag­ing in – it’s pretty dif­fi­cult to do that if your phone is con­stantly vi­brat­ing on the bed­side ta­ble.’

The good news is that things are chang­ing. Thanks to a new wave of books, events and groups such as The Plea­sure Pro­ject – which pro­vides friendly, non-stuffy ed­u­ca­tional re­sources for all things sex-re­lated – fe­male de­sire and sex­ual sat­is­fac­tion are now be­ing dis­cussed in in­ter­est­ing new ways.

Take our at­ti­tude to mas­tur­ba­tion. Wank­ing, jilling off, hav­ing a ‘free­lancer’s nap’ – what­ever you want to call it, 2O18 has seen the art of get­ting to know your­self shrug off its taboos. The #self­plea­sure hash­tag on In­sta­gram has more than 17,OOO posts, and the BBC has brought us the joys of wit­ness­ing a wo­man mas­tur­bat­ing to Obama giv­ing a speech (in the TV series Fleabag). Ear­lier this year, I at­tended a panel dis­cus­sion ded­i­cated to this very sub­ject, or­gan­ised by the in­de­pen­dent women’s mag­a­zine Ri­poste. In it, a col­lec­tion of women pub­licly talked about the first time they mas­tur­bated. The at­mos­phere was elec­tric. ‘It was only af­ter­wards that you

re­alised just how rev­o­lu­tion­ary this all is,’ re­calls jour­nal­ist Tah­mina Begum, who was one of the panel mem­bers. ‘This cer­tainly wouldn’t have hap­pened 1O years ago.’

‘Tak­ing the time to get to know your­self is im­por­tant be­cause a lot of sex­ual con­fi­dence comes from feel­ing good about your­self,’ agrees Kar­ley Sciortino, au­thor of the ac­claimed Slutever: Dis­patches from a Sex­u­ally Au­tonomous Wo­man in a Post-Shame World.

‘I feel like ev­ery year my sex life has got­ten bet­ter be­cause I know more about my body. You be­come more con­fi­dent in your sex­u­al­ity be­cause you are more fa­mil­iar with it.’

It isn’t just mas­tur­ba­tion that is be­ing re­ex­am­ined. Ac­cord­ing to Scortino, a big part of ex­plor­ing your body and what turns you on is find­ing out what your fan­tasies are. ‘A lot of the time, for women – and men – there is shame around lik­ing cer­tain things. The prob­lem is not the fan­tasies; the prob­lem is the shame that emerges around the fan­tasies,’ she says.

Shame is some­thing that 26-year-old Zoë Ligon also feels strongly about. Since 2O15, she has run Spec­trum Bou­tique, a pop­u­lar sex-toy shop in Detroit, and has amassed more than 17Ok fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram thanks to the funny, pos­i­tive clips and pho­tos of sex toys she posts. Her mis­sion is to help us shed the un­healthy at­ti­tudes to sex that Hol­ly­wood and porn have be­stowed on us. To this end, the com­pany’s web­site sells books on ev­ery­thing from BDSM to hav­ing sex while preg­nant so cus­tomers can ‘sex ed­u­cate’ them­selves, as well as in-depth re­views of the best sex toys (ac­cord­ing to Ligon, CBD lube is hot right now). ‘I think a lot of peo­ple shop based on what they feel they should be buy­ing, as op­posed to what they re­ally want to buy,’ she says. ‘Go with what you want, not what you think you’re sup­posed to.’

This is a sen­ti­ment echoed by Kate Devlin, the Gold­smiths lec­turer who spent three-anda-half years re­search­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween in­ti­macy and tech­nol­ogy for her book

Turned On: Sci­ence, Sex and Ro­bots, about sex ro­bots chang­ing so­ci­ety. ‘What struck me when writ­ing is how, even in these sup­pos­edly en­light­ened times, we still moralise ev­ery­thing,’ she says. ‘We’ve been so­cially con­di­tioned to stick to a par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive about what sex “should” be. It’s dif­fi­cult to throw off cen­turies of wari­ness.’

Even if you’re not quite ready to jump in at the deep end and in­vest in a state-of-the-art sex doll, Devlin stresses the im­por­tance of be­ing open to any sex out­side of the sex we al­ready know about and are com­fort­able with. ‘We’re all sold cer­tain ex­pec­ta­tions around sex, but it shouldn’t be pre­scrip­tive – un­less you want it to be,’ says Devlin. ‘Sex is not just het­ero­sex­ual, monog­a­mous, pe­nis-meets-vagina-and-or­gasm-en­sues. There are many, many ways of feel­ing good.’ And she’s right – ar­guably, sex­ual plea­sure ac­tu­ally falls un­der the lim­it­less

um­brella of self-care, which can mean a whole bunch of things. Us­ing a fa­cial sheet mask. Re­vis­it­ing a favourite piece of art. Buy­ing some­thing ex­pen­sive that only you will ben­e­fit from.

One wo­man who can tes­tify to the ben­e­fits of fig­ur­ing out what turns you on, whether that’s through mas­tur­ba­tion, en­gag­ing in fan­tasies or ex­plor­ing the lat­est sex toys, is writer Stephanie Theobald, whose au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal book Sex Drive: On the Road to a Plea­sure

Revo­lu­tion was pub­lished in Oc­to­ber. It’s writ­ten for any­one with a ‘nig­gling doubt that some­thing is miss­ing from her sex life’, and de­tails Theobald’s de­ci­sion to em­bark on a jour­ney of sex­ual self-dis­cov­ery: ‘My li­bido seemed to have van­ished, and my or­gasm, when it did come, was much slighter than it used to be,’ she says. ‘Fol­low­ing an in­cred­i­ble mas­tur­ba­tion masterclass from 89-year-old fem­i­nist leg­end Betty Dod­son [con­ducted for a pre­vi­ous ar­ti­cle she wrote for ELLE, in July 2O14], I re­alised that self-plea­sure was go­ing to be the royal road to my re­cov­ery.’

Along the way, Theobald tried ev­ery­thing from or­gas­mic med­i­ta­tion to adopt­ing the prin­ci­ples of ‘eco­sex’ (find­ing sen­su­al­ity in na­ture). A quote from the book reads: ‘This time last year I was in Lon­don, prob­a­bly hav­ing roast din­ner and lis­ten­ing to Ra­dio 4. And now I’m in a dun­geon in San Fran­cisco with a sadis­tic dom­i­na­trix and a horny cross­dresser.’ Theobald, of course, is an ex­treme ex­am­ple – just be­cause you’re more into eat­ing tortellini in front of the telly than head­ing down to a tor­ture dun­geon doesn’t mean there’s any­thing wrong with you. But, ar­guably, we could all ben­e­fit from putting a lit­tle more thought into what makes us feel good.

So as you step, waltz, creep or stum­ble into a brand new year, maybe it’s time to think about the at­ti­tude you have to­wards plea­sure. What makes you feel good? What would you like to try? Is there any­thing in your way that you need to deal with be­fore you con­tinue on your jour­ney? It’s clear to me, par­tic­u­larly after speak­ing to women who re­ally know what they’re talk­ing about, that the key to sus­tain­ing a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude to­wards sex is to get to know your­self be­fore get­ting caught up in what any­one else wants. Your vagina is yours and yours only. So in the win­ter months, why not al­low your­self to take con­trol of the one thing in life that is guar­an­teed to give you, and only you, a huge amount of plea­sure?

“YOUR FEEL­INGS TO­WARDS DE­SIRE CAN DE­TER­MINE YOUR HAP­PI­NESS in SO MANY AR­EAS of LIFE ”

“WE’VE BEEN SO­CIALLY CON­DI­TIONED TO STICK to a PAR­TIC­U­LAR NAR­RA­TIVE ABOUT what SEX SHOULD BE”

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