Looking back, I feel profoundly pleased that I was a hottie when I was: after the Pill but before AIDS. The Seventies brought to the masses the sexual free-for-all that the “Swinging Sixties” had only really offered the few. A rude, raucous song by Della Reese called “If It Feels Good, Do It” could be heard everywhere as I entered my horny teens and one simply presumed that sex — like social mobility — would go on getting better as everyone had more of it.
But just as social mobility has stalled, so has sex. Faced with an online bedchamber of horrors since they were pre-teens, successive generations are holding on to their virginity longer and having less sex. The proliferation of porn since the Seventies has changed us from chastely yearning swains, capable of producing beautiful sonnets, to masturbating chimps — a process completed during the sad months when we were warned not to touch anyone except ourselves.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Meanwhile, young feminist thinkers have reclaimed monogamy, convinced that all permissiveness offers is men who take, in Germaine Greer’s memorable phrase, “joyless liberties” with them. Once girls stayed virgins for fear of burning in Hell; now they stay virgins for fear of being choked to death by a callow suitor who has picked up his smooth moves from playground porn.
We may be vaguely aware that there was once something better than this, but we have no idea how to go about regaining it. It’s always tempting to think that throwing money at a problem helps. Enter capitalism. The commodification of sex starts with pornography — where one literally chooses from a menu of flesh — and ends up with those nutters who get “physical with” model aeroplanes they claim to be in “love” with. But it also provides the wily entrepreneur with an excuse to get rich quick. Having ruined the sex lives of young men by confronting them with super-schlongs, the market then sells them the chemicals that can “cure” them; the most recent sales figures from Viagra Connect show that more than 60% of users are between 25 and 54 years old. Young women, meanwhile, blaming themselves for their lovers’ difficulties, will spend thousands of pounds while still in their gorgeous 20s trying to emulate the actresses they see writhing on screen.
Sometimes the discourse around these sexual accessories reveals unintentionally amusing things about both the buyers and sellers. Lily Allen probably didn’t mean to out herself as a prude when she stated that she didn’t know how to masturbate before she started using “sex toys”. But how else to explain: “I felt weird trying to give myself pleasure. It didn’t feel like something that felt natural to me — then I discovered sex toys and it broke the barrier of intimacy with myself.” Does she think Down There is too dirty to touch? Likewise, though the sexually naive may have found it arousing to see photographs of Cara Delevingne and her girlfriend lugging a £360 “sex bench” into their house, it made me think: “that relationship won’t be lasting much longer”. Within a year, it was over.
It remains a rule of thumb that if you need to spend money on sex, you’re probably not doing it right. But in our efforts to make monogamy last longer than is natural, we’re prepared to purchase endless hardware. We’re so steeped in the flagrantly dumb culture of “retail therapy” that it pollutes the most intimate areas of our lives, giving a glossy sheen to the corrupted heart. The Fifty Shades books were just as reliant on the fiscal as the physical for their appeal: substitute a succession of shabby mobile homes for the string of private jets and suddenly getting bashed about by the boyfriend doesn’t seem luxurious.
So, given the popularity of property porn and porn proper, it was dismally inevitable that Netflix’s How To Build A Sex Room would happen. The presenter Melanie Rose is one of those Game Old Birds who signals sensibleness through her shoes and specs but hints at a raunchy past with cropped hair and Statement Lippy. For over 15 years, Rose has been making “high-end” (over-priced) sex rooms for “bankers, teachers, cops” and more. I’m sure this was meant to be reassuring, but considering that last year a policeman became a household name for abducting and raping a young woman, it failed to give me the warm, snuggly feeling intended.
Still, the couple in episode one, Taylor and AyJay, eyes a-pop with anticipation, reassured Rose (and each other) that “we love each other and we love having sex and we’re ready to have a space to spice things up with a space where we can push ourselves, push the boundaries of our relationship!” Perplexingly, Taylor and AyJay desired “a sex dungeon — but not in any way that a dungeon implies”. Even more puzzlingly, they liked the fact that it was “hidden away, and no one knows that it’s there… It’s a pretty hot little secret”.
Well, unless Netflix has lost even more viewers than they let on, a secret is one thing the couple’s sex room is not. Which is the point. Despite the alleged variety of these couples’ tastes, they’re drearily alike in that they’re all exhibitionists. (Though one man in episodes four and five was very romantic, having asked Rose to help him propose marriage to his girlfriend.) By the time the “polyamorous family” — all seven of the dirty swine — rock up in episode four, you’ll want to watch a documentary on a religious order, just to break the monotony.
Rose’s RP is clearly meant to give the show a frisson of incongruity, but ends up blurring the tours of various shag-palaces into one. She is not prepossessing, but knowing how horny Americans find English accents, I’d guess that the show’s appeal across the pond is the crisp way she says “tit” — like Mary Poppins on poppers. But her superior air rubbed me up the wrong way. Goodness knows I’m not the wokest, but watching this posh white woman instructing attractive African-American couples on how to have orgasms categorically turned me off.
Watching yet another couple gag each other prior to a good flogging (otherwise known as “impact play” — that creepy infantilising thing again), I reflected that, far from being a bit of fun, such antics may express sublimated resentment between long-married couples. Isn’t gagging what he longs to do when she tells the same story for the nth time? Isn’t flogging what she wants to do when he swipes the remote control? I couldn’t help thinking of the day these couples break up and argue over their sex room’s contents in a small claims court — now that I would pay to watch.
I suppose it shows how far we’ve come that no one will think that any of these couples is immoral. These days, ninnies reserve such judgement for bad people like Boris Johnson, who they childishly scold for “cheating”. At least Rose’s subjects are trying their very hardest — indeed, going to extreme lengths — to remain monogamous. (Except in the case of the seven swine.) But they are certainly misguided to ignore the simple truth that when you’re in the first flush of horniness, every room is a sex room, and when the thrill has gone, no room is — no matter how much money you spend on your “high-end” consolation prize.