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You can’t teach good sex Young writers view making love through a vale of tears

This is what sex education looks like. Credit: Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage

This is what sex education looks like. Credit: Peter Dench/Getty Images Reportage


April 19, 2022   5 mins

Where I grew up in the Sixties, girls were expected to marry straight from home. So when I went to That London at 17 to become a famous writer, I was widely assumed in the neighbourhood to have gone there to sexually misbehave. My parents were loving, puritanical, and too embarrassed to Have the Talk, and the school stuff was perfunctory. Yet I went on to have extremely enjoyable sex — rather too enjoyable: it dictated my life choices for a very long time — and I did this by just picking it up as I went along. I certainly didn’t expect the State to help me out in getting my end away.

The young women of today have other expectations, apparently. In her new book Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century, Sophia Smith Galer scolds that sexual health service budgets have been cut by 25% since 2014, around the time she left school. She believes this has profoundly affected her life. “The sex myths that I unknowingly subscribed to went on to destroy my first sexual experiences,” she writes. “I spent my eighteenth year viewing my body as a failure
 Nearly a decade later, I think quite differently. I see someone who was failed.”

But doesn’t everyone today feel failed in some way? There’s a “there-there” tone to Smith Galer’s writing which seems somehow incompatible with the swashbuckling nature of sex. Indeed, sometimes this book seems less about sex as the slappers of my generation understood it — something which would at least be fun and at best bring love — and more about feelings (preferably hurt ones) and “validation”. Still, despite my initial fears of Wokedom (“We need to be intersectional when we probe our sex lives”), Galer is not afraid to criticise other cultures. It is a relief from the relentless message from certain fauxminists that the white Western world is a hellhole unlike any other for women.

The ludicrous and often lethal value placed upon virginity in parts of Africa and much of the Middle East is examined in grim detail; I’ve never come across anyone who mentioned the lives of women in the West Bank without dragging in wicked Israel, but here we read of “Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian girl from the West Bank who died of multiple injuries in 2019. Thousands at the time expressed concern that she might have been killed by her own family members on the basis of photos that she had posted with her fiancĂ©.”

Which is not to say that sex is a day at the nudist beach for Western women either. The author has come up against some grim stuff in her life; though much younger than me, she experienced a sex educator who told her: “Every time you have sex, you will lose your special glue. And when you have lost all of your special glue, no husband will love you.”

But many of the ignorant idiots involved aren’t worth railing at: “Countless interviewees have told me how this (idea of virginity) has affected their actual sex lives, including one woman whose partner told her ‘You can’t get into heaven now’ when they had sex for the first time.” Breast-beating and soul-searching aren’t the correct responses to this sort of thing; a quick knee in the groin and a cry of “Neither can you, Numb-Nuts!” might be a better reaction.

Thankfully there’s a chapter on asexuality because by the time you’ve finished this book, you’ll be in the mood not to be In The Mood. This is something Sophia seems to understand — “sexlessness
 exists perhaps not in spite of sexual liberation, but because of it” — while not grasping that books like these, presenting sex as a vale of tears, might well be part of the problem. It’s only slightly less off-putting than Laurie Penny’s ridiculous new book, Sexual Revolution, which really appears to believe that having queer sex (aka having regular sex but with blue hair) can bring down fascism.

Sex, as a problematic issue for women, was meant to have been “solved” by now. The Pill and divorce lessened the vulnerability which forced us into sexual servitude. The idea of “Free Love” also promoted in the Sixties promised that men and women could come together as free agents, motivated by nothing but pure pleasure — and nobody would get hurt.

But somewhere between burning bras and online pornography something went awry, and now young women may well find themselves called upon to enjoy being slapped and choked as part of a “fulfilling” sex life. Now, it seems, getting hurt is part and parcel of having sex; as Rousseau might have said “Woman was born free, and she is everywhere in chains.”

And now, the state is increasingly giving hormones and amputations to young people with body dysmorphia. That is a true example of women being “failed” in sexual matters. But the young Smith Galer isn’t interested in inquiring why girls are submitting in droves to having sex organs hacked out of their unformed bodies — so great is their fear of growing up to be the mere Whack-A-Mole of orifices which they see in online pornography from childhood. Consider the admission of teen idol Billie Eilish: “I started watching porn when I was, like, 11
 I think it really destroyed my brain and I feel incredibly devastated that I was exposed to so much”, adding that it made her feel “cool” and “one of the guys”.

In the face of this, we have Galer’s at times an unintentionally comical blend of sleeves-rolled-up can-do gumption and existential sorrow: “If I do my job right, you will finish reading this book armed with knowledge around sex, relationships and society that you have been both actively and passively denied. I am not a doctor or sex expert — just a journalist who is used to reporting on the fault lines between the spiritual and the corporeal.”

Much as I love my trade, I wouldn’t trust a journalist to give me advice about sex, as I’d presume they’d want to take surreptitious snaps of my subsequent folly and sell it to the papers.  Somehow a profession which invented Love Rats, Threesome Romps and Hot Tub Frolics isn’t quite the one I’d recommend to instruct the nation’s youth in the way of sexual wholesomeness.

I realise that as a louche sexagenarian who, in the words of the old pop song has “seen some things a woman ain’t s’posed to see”, I’m not the demographic this book is aimed at. Of course, all education is a good thing and only a cretin or an exploiter would say that ignorance is bliss. But education doesn’t seem to improve sex either; you can recite all the terms and technicalities and still never understand why X made you want to do Y. You still can’t understand why people risk their marriages, lives, and empires for what is on paper a simple physical function.

That’s why it’s not like just having a cup of coffee, as the swingers liked to say. We know 69 ways to have sex but not the first thing about sexual love — what it is and why it leaves, why it can make us so happy and so sad. At the risk of sounding like an old romantic, getting to grips with the ins and outs of sex is probably the least interesting thing about it.


Julie Burchill is a journalist, playwright and author of Welcome to the Woke Trials, available now. Her latest play, Awful People, co-written with Daniel Raven, comes to Brighton Pier in September 2023.

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Arjun D
Arjun D
2 years ago

Fundamentally, good sex is a result of and an extension of wholesome, natural, instinctive human interaction.

Something that has been lost, it seems.

We, well those born 1985 onwards anyway, interact of course but mostly in a structured, hyper curated, super manufactured and pre planned way.

Is it any surprise they lack natural connection?

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago
Reply to  Arjun D

Totally agree. The most important ingredient for good sex is that it involves people who want to give each other pleasure. If there’s that good will, you’ll normally find a way to good sex.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago

Most sex education today is less how to do it and more what to use to do it safely and avoid STIs. This is because no one who isn’t a cretin wants to be responsible for teaching young people to have sex. There are few other things that need to be passed on as sex Ed in my mind, things like non consensual sex is rape and bad regrettable sex isn’t rape. Porn and romantic movies are fantasy based and completely unrealistic and neither should be used as a manual to a satisfying sex life.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago

I dunno, like Julie, with limited sex I education, along with my lovely partners of youth and wife of thirty years, we managed to figure out how to have fun together.

There may be a place for therapists for those struggling, it’s probably sensible to tell young people that Hollywood sex scenes and porn are shows, not real, and, maybe, half an hour on contraception. Sex education is largely a waste of time. Do more mathematics or art in school, get your sex education in practical research with willing partners.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Schools don’t do sex education, they do sex training.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Forty years of sex education, and kids are more confused than ever.
Isn’t it time we just abolished the Sex Education profession?

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago

For all the glossy brochures and brittle matiness of the presentations now being used, sex education remains, fundamentally, an embarrassed middle-aged geography teacher stammering through the main points in front of a class of smirking 13 year olds. A hopeless endeavour.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago

Where did romance go? Call it delusional or whatever….it’s dreamy, if you can practice it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Cathy Carron
Dave Corby
Dave Corby
2 years ago

Complete freedom is never good for anything because with everything there is an underlying objective truth of what is right.
Sex is no different.
Is it just possible that the underlying objective truth is that it is far better for us to only have this most intimate exchange with someone that we promise to love and cherish for the rest of our lives?
That doing this provides an innocent, gentle, loving environment for exploration and discovery that brings us closer together?
The reason rape is such a heinous crime is because it steals something that is so deeply precious – almost as precious as life itself, hence the equivalent penalty in most countries.
Giving this precious gift away is asking for pain and a feeling of loss later – or regret when you get married that the sex is disappointing compared to previous casual relationships that you supposedly did not care about but still yearn for.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago

I agree that young people today don’t fully understand the term liberated. They believe that they are liberated because they can have sex with anyone they want and that means they’re having the best sex ever. Of course they also think that foreplay and oral are gross which makes me laugh because it sounds like they’re lying back and thinking of England and going in dry! (Which really doesn’t sound like the best sex ever)
I have also noticed that despite all the “we’re liberated and can have sex with whoever we please”, they’re still considered a sl@g, when they do. So actually no you can’t. We have easier access to contraceptives today than ever before and still have frightening rates of STI’s and unwanted pregnancy.
technology and fashions change, but people largely remain the same.

Last edited 2 years ago by Lindsay S
Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
2 years ago

Still, despite my initial fears of Wokedom (“We need to be intersectional when we probe our sex lives”),

Wokedom can’t be sexy.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  Katy Hibbert

I was intrigued by this sentence. Are schools now teaching white pupils they should have sex with someone with black skin of African origin three times for every ninety seven partners to show a proper intersectional approach. I presume the same doesn’t apply in reverse. Who knows?

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

An important point for sex educators here. The dominant explanation for the sex recession affecting Gen Z this past decade or so seems to be the tech platforms, followed by cultural shifts, increased economic pressure on young people & increased anxiety levels. Maybe excessive emphases on the scary aspects by sex educators is a significant cause too.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
2 years ago

I’d like to think if I had been born just a few years earlier (than 1982), I would’ve enjoyed some good sex with Julie Burchill in London in the 80’s

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 years ago

“And now, the state is increasingly giving hormones and amputations to young people with body dysmorphia. That is a true example of women being “failed” in sexual matters.”
Indeed, this stuff didn’t come out of nowhere. There will be a reaction: We will stop having s* x and take up pastry making. There will be censorship of course. And transgressive pastry. I am old enough to change trains quite easily – Lucky me.
I had quite forgotten Laura Penny.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Re: body dysmorphia and cutting off body parts…it’s as if we have slipped back into the Middle Ages…

nigel roberts
nigel roberts
2 years ago

Veil of tears, surely.

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
2 years ago
Reply to  nigel roberts

Are you criticising the spelling, or making a clever pun of some kind? If the former, I’m afraid ‘vale’ (as in ‘valley’) is correct!

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Tonkyn

Sorry, Nigel, you may well be right, and it’s Julie who is either punning or misspelling (or both).

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Julie reads the books you’d never read for you. Thank god.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

I developed a lifelong hatred of sex education nurses after being humilated by one who required me to put a condom on a d***o in a sex education class in front of a class of howling teenagers.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
2 years ago

Sex was far more attractive and exciting when you weren’t taught it as a school subject. Our school stapled up the Human Reproduction chapter of the Biology textbook but, fortunately, our form included several farmers’ daughters and doctors’ daughters (who knew all the correct terminology but only about dysfunction – one informed me about premature ejaculation after an early experience came to a sudden end with, ‘Oh my God, something desperate’s happened!’) and a girl who had acquired a copy of The Joy Of Sex and read it to us at a drunken all-female party when we were fourteen!
I can’t think of anything more excruciating than embarrassed teachers trying to tell us what went where and why. It would have put us off for life!

Graham Strugnell
Graham Strugnell
1 year ago

Lovely article, Ms B. You are a wise old soul.

Graham Strugnell
Graham Strugnell
1 year ago

Lovely article, Ms B. You are a wise old soul.

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
2 years ago

Worth it for the last paragraph.

N T
N T
2 years ago

WTF was that about?

Miguelito O
Miguelito O
2 years ago

Pardon me for what I am sure will look like a stupid comment, but at some point, I should probably write a book about the topic of sex – this kind mentioned here – sex that is good for you.
I write from a peculiar perspective and the last time I had the occasion to write about sex in moral terms I skipped it as I couldn’t decide what made more sense (in terms of survival) between the logic of Vulcans and the passion of Romulans. WTF, it’s good for you physically and mentally though. I will be writing about it again, but the overwhelming truth of this article makes me want to think about it a bit and maybe expand on it if I can. Sex is (can be, should be) one of the greatest of human activities… and then there is reality. I look at paths to the future though and clearly it needs to be for humans to survive.
I’ll comment about how I look at things. Everyone gets in a lather about abortion, but is that the moral issue? In my terms, it’s less important than is birth control. Birth control short circuits a natural biological pathway. We don’t have great instincts to have children, but we have great instincts to have sex. Pregnancy and children follow that, nurturing instincts and behaviors naturally then follow as well ala Conrad Lorenz. So the instinct to have sex is the key and birth control changes the outcome of that. It’s a different way of looking at it, but you might be surprised at what it can reveal.

Dan Keough
Dan Keough
2 years ago

Sex is the most natural and beautiful thing that money can buy. – Steve Martin

Lee C
Lee C
2 years ago

As every human body and every human response is different, the only way to enjoy sex is by exploring it with a like-minded soul. Books can give you ideas but the most important thing is to focus on your partner’s pleasure as long as it doesn’t offend you to do so. Mutual consent is vital. Too many younger people seem to think it’s someone else’s job to teach/counsel/mediate in these matters.

Miguelito 0
Miguelito 0
2 years ago

I’ve studied sex extensively, especially in moral terms. I have little constructive to offer other than since it is good for you physically and mentally, it is probably morally good. Personally, I like it and as the wifey ain’t into it, I am quite familiar with smut… which is notorious for bad advice. Viewing smut though… on Pornhub I saw a video that I actually thought was great. The lessons I never learned but should have and wish I had. It is in Spanish, with subtitles. I won’t offer a link, but I do recommend seeing it, for almost anyone. If you want to see it, search on “How To Make A Woman Orgasm”. It should be required for high school students… which only describes just how bad our teachings on this important subject are.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Five minutes I’m not getting back. Maybe she should have listened to the guy about the glue…