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
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”