The first and most significant talk about sex I ever heard was delivered by my mother. I was having supper with my older siblings when one of us asked how babies were made. I was 9, my big sister was 11 and my big brother was a world-weary 13. Mum didn’t shy away from the animal mechanics of sex and told us about erections, penetration and the male orgasm (but notably not the female one). Some of her descriptions were downright confusing; my big sister and I agree that when she told us the penis “becomes hard and horny,” we envisaged something akin to an elephant’s tusk, and this thought haunted us for years.
I’d be inclined to rate my mother’s birds and bees talk as a five out of ten, if it weren’t for one key aspect. When she described the intimate business of making love, we three made the usual protests of, “Yuck!”, “No!” and “I’m NEVER doing that!”, at which point Mum said, “You’re wrong. It’s the most beautiful feeling in all the world.” I was watching her face and, 43 years later, still recall a fleeting moment of ecstatic reverie. It was clear to me she was telling the truth (her truth, in any case) and from then onwards I nurtured the idea that the end game of sex should be rapture.
Which takes us — as all discussions about sex do at the moment — to the Netflix series Sex Education. The local academy my sons attend thought it necessary to send a memo home a couple of weeks ago from their “PSHE Coordinator” (Personal, Social and Health Education) warning parents to be aware that their children were likely to be watching the new season, despite its 18 certificate, “due to its representation of a variety of different teenage issues and curiosities”.
Damn right. My 15-year-old had pretty much inhaled both seasons and was delighted to note that the main character’s mother, a sex therapist and writer played by Gillian Anderson, “is almost as embarrassing as you”. The chat also meant I learnt exactly when his classmates had discovered, courtesy of Google, that I’d edited two erotic magazines and appeared on programmes with titles like, “100 Greatest Sexy Moments”.
The geography teacher who wrote the school’s letter went on to say, “Personally, I will be making sure I watch the series to ensure I know what is being shown and therefore to support questions should I be approached at school by pupils.” Judging by Series 1, I hoped she was braced to discuss rimming, scissoring, alien-themed erotica and how to suppress the gag reflex while performing fellatio. Of course, many of the show’s themes are more universal: performance anxiety, consent, the perils of sexting, body dysmorphia and the pervasive influence of porn culture.
There’s no doubt Sex Education has usefully broadened the debate about the kind of sex scenarios we might reasonably expect our teens to encounter. There’s wide acceptance outside religious lobby groups that current sex education provision at UK schools is woefully inadequate. Worse than that, it’s not even compulsory by law. That will change this coming September, and even then “parents and carers may withdraw their children from sex education until three terms before they are 16 in secondary school”.
But even when children do exit school knowing a modicum about consent, the clitoris, gender fluidity, masturbation and full-on intercourse, there are significant gaps. It’s one thing for a teacher to say oral sex is perfectly normal, and quite another to explain how it’s best performed. And they’re certainly not braced to argue whether sex could or should have meaning beyond being a pleasurable horizontal workout.
To return to my late lamented mother’s thoughts on sex, what none of the current educational provision deals with is the beauty. Or to misquote Woody Allen: is sex beautiful? Only when it’s being done right. This erasure of erotic value in our sex ed affects many people, whatever their age or level of sexual experience. If you don’t expect an ecstatic sexual experience, you’re more likely to accept the mundane or disappointing.
Take a friend of mine in her 50s, who’s just exited a long marriage to a stolid businessman who cheated on her with his tennis coach. She has just taken up with a sexy chef and their lovemaking is the stuff of revelation. She told me: “It’s a cliché to say it, but I didn’t know sex could be like this — an out-of-body, electrifying, almost religious experience.” Then her voice became wistful and slightly accusatory: “You knew this, didn’t you?” I had to admit, yes, I did. Not on a constant, smug or failsafe basis, but definitely as something to aim for.
Of course, it’s hard to the point of impossibility to talk about the sublime in sex. It either sounds absurd or boastful — just dwell for a nanosecond on Sting talking about Tantra. The forces that have shaped our culture, from Protestantism to the Enlightenment and capitalism, aren’t too wedded to transcendentalism. And then we’re British, so inclined to snigger.
Our natural instinct is not to take sex too seriously. Some years ago the classified ads manager at Private Eye told me the most popular lonely heart in the entire history of the magazine was a woman who described herself as, “Lady doctor, who likes laughing in bed.” It’s a brave person in western society who tries to put sincerity and meaning back into sex. Naomi Wolf had a go in her book Vagina, which took as its starting point the author’s sudden diminishment of sensation at the point of climax. When the full force of her orgasm is finally restored to her she writes:
“Sexual recovery for me was like that transition in The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy goes from black-and-white Kansas to colorful, magical Oz. Slowly after orgasm I once again saw light flowing into the world around me. … I looked out of the window at the trees tossing their new leaves and the wind lifting their branches in great waves, and it all looked like an intensely choreographed dance, in which all of nature was expressing something.”
Cue a chorus of critics cackling like hyenas. To my mind, that passage was the best bit of the book: an unabashed acknowledgement that there’s something about great sex that resets all your dials, knocks twenty years off your face, and — yeah, let’s go full woo-woo — makes you feel at one with the planet.
But wider society often seems far keener to embrace the spirit of porn culture — namely that sex is primarily a frenetic but largely meaningless shag-fest — than to imbue it with some form of greater resonance. Screen depictions of intercourse are almost invariably of the thrusting, pumping, sucking variety. Which is tedious if there’s no counterbalance — no sense that time can seem to slow down when you’re totally absorbed with another person’s heartbeat.
No one seemed perturbed that the first episode of Sex Education — to return there for a moment — opened with a sex scene depicting a young woman having an orgasm from doggy-style sex while receiving no clitoral stimulation whatsoever. I felt compelled to lecture my poor 15-year-old son (“Mum! Shut up!”) on the fact that it’s quite rare for women to experience an orgasm through penetration alone and research suggests that almost 80% of women rarely or never have a climax that way. According to TV drama, around 95% of women achieve vaginal orgasms with no problem whatsoever.
Perhaps I protest too much. Is sex really that sublime? Olivia Fane doesn’t think so: she’s written a book called Why Sex Doesn’t Matter— reviewed for UnHerd by Zoe Strimpel — despite or, perhaps, because of having an open marriage in her twenties. Sarah Vine has written that she values sleep over erotic intimacy, and Suzanne Moore has been bored for some time now.
I understand their arguments and that it’s the columnist’s art to be provocative. Our culture is over-saturated by tedious images of mindless rutting and ersatz passion. When you’re married for many years — as Fane and Vine have been — erotic hunger fades and companionability is often more highly rated.
Still, it feels like a terrible swizz to complain from your 50s and 60s, when libido has often dampened, that sex is overrated. Imagine spinning that yarn to a younger self back in the days when you yearned for nothing more than to become one with the beloved. No citizen of a Latin American country would every say such a thing — to them it would be like saying you can dispense with food or water (but then they’ve never had to suffer Luther and a cold climate).
To disparage erotic intensity is to disown the most powerful feelings most of us (alright, not nuns and asexuals) will ever experience on this planet. Our love for our children tends to be more steady and steadfast. We would willingly die for our offspring, but we wouldn’t be so cavalier as to risk our livelihood for them. It’s erotic yearning that precipitates moments of madness that bring presidents to the brink — as so strikingly illustrated by Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
Sexual passion is unpredictable, unfettered and often takes on the quality of obsession, which leads to fear and censure. But living without boundaries in a stupor of the senses can give us some sense of the infinite and the unobtainable. The language of rapture belongs equally to lovers and God and it’s a dim-witted vicar who doesn’t acknowledge this. You can be sure they haven’t read the line, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God…”
How can I back up any of these assertions? Not with statistics, as they’re notoriously unreliable on the subject of sex. That’s why the topic is such an alluring land-grab for anyone with a theory to pedal. But there’s plenty of persuasive evidence in myth, legend and literature — which is why novels, classic films and art should be employed in contemporary love lessons.
Since the dawn of narrative storytellers have known one thing for certain: sex matters. It really, truly matters. It’s the reason Paris of Troy started a war with the Spartans, having abducted and seduced the Spartan queen Helen. It’s why the Greek and Roman Gods were always quarrelling, finding themselves unable to resist illicit love affairs with stray nymphs, or mortals. Apollo had an impressive array of male lovers for starters. It’s why King Arthur was betrayed by his wife and the knight he most trusted. It’s why Scheherazade told so many erotic stories in the Arabian Nights, knowing few other themes would prove quite as compelling.
It’s why Romeo and Juliet defied their feuding families and why Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina enthral us a century and a half after publication. It’s why we return to Wuthering Heights despite Heathcliff’s barbaric behaviour that we’d now term domestic violence. There’s something numinous that speaks to a profound, hungry part of the reader when Cathy declares of Heathcliff, “he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”.
It’s why Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People met with such widespread critical and popular acclaim and is about to hit our TVs as a drama series. Few writers since Emily Brontë have captured so acutely the sense of jeopardy, ecstasy and narcotic intensity that results from two young people baring bodies, minds and souls.
And it’s why readers of all stripes delight in Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty: the recognition that desire transcends gender and heterosexual clichés.
There’s something all those bards, storytellers and novelists know as they turn their own experience into fictional narrative — that there are heightened times in most people’s lives when nothing matters more than the desire to drown in the physical perfection of the longed-for lover.
Commentators are always telling us we ask too much from sex, but I think it’s possible we ask too little. Why crush physical connection into a small space and say daft, but socially acceptable guff like, “I’d prefer a cup of tea,” or “Chocolate’s better than sex”? It’s impossibly hard to assert that there’s nothing wrong with seeking profound physical connection that leaves us quivering with rapture.
A good friend calls this uncanny bond quantum entanglement: the sense that if you and best beloved mate are on opposite sides of the planet your atoms will be moving in tandem, twinned across time and space. This may be more poetic than strictly scientific, but at least it transports sex to the realm of the imagination where all the finest human endeavours are nurtured. I can’t help feeling a great metaphysician like John Donne would embrace the concept. This Valentine’s Day, it seems only appropriate to quote the most sublime lines from the most sublime poem in the English language, “To His Mistress Going to Bed.”
Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys.
This is the erotic education I return to more than any other, because Donne’s sentiments are always freshly minted: reborn in the rapture I glimpse around me and anticipate for my sons when they come of age; relived in the beauty I have sometimes been fortunate enough to experience myself.