||Please yourself - and everyone else |
Our culture may be obsessed with sex but that still doesn't mean we're any good at it. The latest how-to guide takes up several refreshing new positions
Sunday May 26, 2002
Sex - was there ever a time when I didn't know more than I wanted to know? The coffee tables of my childhood were littered with Playboy magazines. By the time I reached puberty, the Pill was old hat. When my best friend's father made Martinis, he used a Kama Sutra cocktail shaker. My first real job was working for a trendy academic couple whose baby daughter had an inflated Chiquita Banana hanging over her cot. When I asked why, they said because it was 'polymorphously perverse'. When I asked what that meant, they rolled their eyes and gave me Marcuse to read.
Then came The Female Eunuch with its injunction to claim the pleasure that was my due. Then came Our Bodies, Ourselves, to advise me that true pleasure only came to those who spent an hour a day sighing over a speculum. If the very word made you cringe - well, that meant you had a hang-up, and the only way you got over a hang-up was to talk about it.That's what Dr Alex Comfort told his readers in The Joy of Sex.
When it went on to sell 8 million copies, the media moguls of the world took note. They've been making up for lost time ever since. There can't be a day in the past 30 years when I didn't read or hear something new about somebody else's sex life. So how can there be anything new to say?
That was my first thought when I first set eyes on The Sex Book. But then I softened. Before I go any further, I have to tell you - the book itself is quite a sight. It's big and fat, pink and orange, with its title in block letters so large you could read them from the other end of a train carriage. (Or the other end of the changing room at my daughter's ballet school, but more about that later.) The artwork inside is bold and bright, with lots and lots of graphic detail. On the inside cover alone, there are more than 600 teeny tiny copulating pop art figurines.
The authors are Suzi Godson, who writes the sex column in the Independent on Sunday, and Mel Agace. According to the publishers, The Sex Book is The Joy of Sex for the twenty-first century. And whatever you think of it, you have to admit that it does a definitive mapping job of contemporary norms. Stand it next to The Joy of Sex and it shows just how much attitudes have changed.
Alex Comfort was really only interested in heterosexual sex, and wrote his book before Aids. Although he refers to it in later editions, he sees it as a scourge that makes carefree adventure dangerous. Godson treats Aids as a fact of life that anyone can live with provided they are responsible and informed - and that's the tone that makes the book different from what's come before: it really is for anyone. In just under 300 glossy pages, it gives you all the basic facts about the body's pleasure zones. It shows you how to make the most of a twosome, and how to make the best of things if it's just you, your hand, your pillow and your favourite sex toy. If it had a motto, it would be 'Enjoy, but take a condom.'
There is a neat two-step warning system. Wherever you find a yellow flag in the margin, you should understand that there are health or safety implications and go straight to the information page indicated. If an activity carries more serious risks, the flag is red.
This doctorly impulse is offset by the breezy chapter titles ('Hands on - anal', 'Solo Sex,' 'Breasts, Nipples, and Pearl Necklaces') and its let's-relax-now-that-we're-safe-in-the-locker-room subheadings. In 'Going down - male' these include 'Stop holding my ears, I know what I'm doing', and 'Don't talk with your mouth full'. Nothing is excluded. This may be the first book ever that has sections about sex to get pregnant and sex after getting pregnant running right next to sections on dildos, lubricants, swinging, and Viagra. The ill and the elderly share equal billing. The same goes for the couple who are happily childless and the couple who fall asleep mid-coitus because they have two babies who are not sleeping in the next room.
Running in sidebars throughout the book are quotes from real people with real sex lives. There are helpful hints about shaving cream as a fetish accessory, and about how to deal with girlfriends who don't like it that you like having anal sex with yourself. The complaints are raunchy, too. And yes, you may have heard plenty of that sort of thing before. But not, I think, in a book endorsed by someone as respected and respectable as Professor Robert Winston. 'It signals a real change in attitudes towards sexuality,' he sighs in his happy preface. 'Perhaps, after all, it is true that our society is not in a such a bad way if books like this can be written and read without embarrassment.'
A laudable thought. But wasn't that also Dr Alex Comfort's thought? When he sat down to The Joy of Sex in the early Seventies, he thought he was celebrating the end of the 'daft and extraordinary non-statute in Western society, the Sexual Official Secrets Act.' But if frank and unembarrassed prose is still a cause for celebration 30 years later, doesn't that mean that embarrassment is still a very big problem?
Actually, there's no need for a question mark. Not after carrying this book around with me for the better part of a week. Just the sight of it made people's eyes bulge. First they'd clock the book, and then they'd clock me. Then they'd make a nervous joke, something very weak, at my expense. As in 'Are you trying to tell us something?' Then, always a bit too breathily, they'd say, 'Can I take a look?' After leafing through it in a way I can only describe as hungry, they would generally respond with dark asides. As in, 'Huh, here's a section on sex when you're older. Huh. I wish.'
But no one wanted to linger here. Ditto for the sections on sex when you have kids around, or when you're depressed, seriously ill, disabled, or carrying an STD. They only started relaxing when they happened onto the entry for zoophilia: 'Listen to this. Apparently pigs are more responsive than sheep. And oh, you can get infections this way. And injured too. What a big surprise.'
Almost everyone noticed the word 'pomosexual'. Pomosexuals are 'people who don't feel that they should be forced to have their identity defined by their sex lives'.
One friend began with the index, 'because that's what I always did when I got my hands on an encyclopedia when I was a boy'. He'd always go straight to the letters p and v. 'But here,' he said, his voice cracking slightly, 'it's every letter in the alphabet. Where was this book when I was 16?'
He still went to the letter p first, though. This was a good bet, because here he found some rather large pop art figures acting out the basic couple positions. By now a crowd of colleagues had gathered behind him. They all gasped at the same time - when they noticed that the couple demonstrating 'rear entry standing' were same sex. When they read that the pelvic tilt was 'good for vaginal, anal, and strap-on' and 'also good for G-spot and prostate stimulation as it tilts the pelvis upwards,' they gasped again.
The point of this book is that, actually, in spite of all the information out there, most people are still having a hard time having good sex. Most of them know enough to know they are probably not the only ones suffering. When I talked to Suzi Godson this week, she said this was mostly down to lack of confidence. We lack confidence partly because inhibitions don't go away just because you talk about sex a lot, and partly because we are living in a - polymorphously perverse - advertising and media culture - 'all those Cosmo headlines screaming at you, making you feel inadequate if you can't have four-hour orgasms'.
Not to mention all those beautiful people on the billboards and the TV screen, who seem to be able to live for sex instead of having to combine sex with bills, long-hour jobs, and children. The most insidious factor she suggests is the moral agendas that accompany so many messages about sexual health. 'So many of them are scary.' Scary on purpose - to stop people having sex full-stop. But there's no need to stop, she insists. Not when you're pregnant, not when you're over 70, not when you're in a wheelchair. You should be able to have good sex until the day you die. She wanted to encourage people to relax and play and have fun, and she wanted to give them the medical information they needed in a way that was correct but unthreatening.
Godson is a graphic designer by training, so it was very important that the artwork and the layout encouraged readers to use the book in both ways. She was adamant that it was geared to all adults. The Joy of Sex was fine for its time, she says, but if you read it now, it's 'pretty nasty', and very male, and so focused on penetrative sex. And all those Eastern names for things that made things sound so exotic, 'but they were still shagging with your legs in the air'. Our Bodies, Ourselves was also perfect for its time, but 'it's screamingly feminist'. Now, she says, we've moved to a more democratic stance - 'women negotiating their own choices and wanting the confidence to do so'. What they need now, what every one needs now, is a bit more context.
'I wanted a broad, democratic approach,' says Godson 'a book about women and men, gays and lesbians and heterosexuals. It was an opportunity for people to learn more about each other. I went into this thinking women were more emotional and men were more physical, but I think that's kind of bullshit now. So many women are physical, and so many men are emotional. And every time you have sex it's different. When you have sex with a different person, it changes again. It changes with your age and your level of confidence.'
And Godson's right, of course: it's such an important part of our lives till the day we die, so why do we talk about it as if it's something that happens in a dark bedroom twice a week? 'People don't get lazy or complacent about their gardens or their jobs but they do about sex,' she says. 'But sex requires maintenance, like everything else.'
The Sex Book by Suzi Godson with Mel Agace is published by Cassell, £16.99. To order a copy for £14.99, plus p&p, call the Observer Books Service on 0870 066 7989
26.05.2002: How was it for you? Four couples give their verdict on The Sex Book
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