On the road again – with Marilyn

Well, I’m back on the book tour road, and full of good intentions for keeping up this blog.

Chastened was released in French last month – under an English title, No more sex in the city – which gave rise to plenty of ‘only in France’ moments.

Chastened à ParisIn what other country would a national broadsheet enquire about an author’s ‘fantasmes sexuels’? Likewise, where else on earth would a two-hour radio show, hosted by a former porn star and tackling such subjects as the geography of the vagina, air daily not at midnight but at midday? (Then again, aren’t the French meant to know all that stuff? Can they really need two hours of tuition each day?)

One character who featured large, though I never actually got to meet her, was my excellent publicist Silvana’s Italian aunt. Her views on romance, men and marriage (she’s now on her third) may sound shockingly un-PC to the Anglo-Saxon ear, but conveyed in French, they carried an irresistible authority. I might just have to share some of them in a separate post. Travels with my publicist’s aunt?

This all gives the June 24th launch of the US edition quite a bit to live up to, but it seems a happy sign that sat behind me on the flight to New York was a pretty convincing Marilyn Monroe look-alike. It’s Marilyn’s words that I borrow for Chapter Four’s epigram:

It’s a woman’s spirit and mood a man has to stimulate in order to make sex interesting. The real lover is the man who can thrill you by touching your head or smiling into your eyes or just staring into space.

I think Silvana’s aunt would agree, though she’d insist that not even a real lover should be allowed to get away with splitting the check.


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WHO wake-up call

Anyone who thought that the feminist movement’s work was long done will have been shocked by news from Geneva yesterday.

The World Health Organization’s first study of women’s health around the globe has concluded that H.I.V. is the biggest cause of death and disease among women between the ages of 15 and 44. According to the U.N. agency, one in five deaths among women in this age group is linked to unprotected sex.

‘Women who do not know how to protect themselves from such infections, or who are unable to do so, face increased risks of death or illness,’ observed the 91-page report, which aims to highlight gender inequalities in health care.

As WHO chief Dr Margaret Chan told journalists in Geneva, ‘We will not see a significant improvement in the health of women until they are no longer recognized as second-class citizens in many parts of the world.’

By way of an interesting addendum, it’s well worth reading William Pesek’s recent column for Bloomberg. ‘Following the money often gets you to the bottom of a story,’ he notes, but ‘following the economic experience of women may offer more insights.’ In short, the more a society values women, the healthier its economic prospects are likely to be.

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The real secrets those sex diaries reveal

Photo: Joshua Allen for New York magazineEvery Monday since April 2007, New York magazine’s ‘Daily Intel’ blog has posted an anonymous, seven-day sex diary from one of its readers. Contributors have included a gay commodities trader, a therapist in a relationship with an almost-divorced family man, and a semi-retired engineer who has discovered nudism, Tantra and internet porn. There is even a twenty-something, temporarily celibate actress.

More than 140 weeks on, trends have begun to emerge from their saucy, sad, and sometimes plain strange stories. As journalist Wesley Yang puts it, ‘They cracked open a window into the changing structure, rhythm, and rhetoric of sex in New York’.

From the experiences of this admittedly self-selecting group of chroniclers, Yang has identified 10 key trends, all of them anxieties. Their polarities encompass the eternal (from the anxiety of too much choice to the anxiety of not being chosen), and the peculiarly modern (from the anxiety of appearing overly sincere to the anxiety of being unable to love).

Yang notes that taken together, they pose a single question: ‘Are the digital tools that make it easier to find sex compounding the confusion that accompanies it?’

This is the question that the New York Times’s David Brooks chose to run with in his recent op-ed column. His answer? Yes.

It’s the influence of cellphones and texting that he zeroes in on. They encourage compartmentalization and contingency, he says, promoting a utilitarian mind-set that is ‘naturally corrosive toward poetry and imagination’.

Poetry! When did you last hear that word uttered in connection with sex? The imagination is of course crucial, yet the mainstreaming of ever more explicit imagery denies it a role.

In such an environment, Brooks writes, ‘a coat of ironic detachment’ is required to survive the marketplace hurly-burly. ‘In today’s world, the choice of a Prius can be a more sanctified act than the choice of an erotic partner,’ he concludes.

The reader response is also well worth checking out. Plenty disagree, but the thought they’ve given his column confirms that Brooks is onto something. As, indeed, does the very fact that New York magazine’s readers have been so eager to (over)share details of their conquests in the first place.

Whatever else they suggest, these diaries – along with websites such as IJustMadeLove.com and the British craze for ‘dogging’ – indicate a group of people failing to connect with one another through that most intensely personal human activity, sex. Instead, they require an audience in order to fully inhabit their own intimacies.

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We don’t need no sex education

That was the catchy title of a Sunday morning debate at the Battle of Ideas, held in London last weekend.

Four panellists and their chair – plus an audience alert as a double-espresso – hunkered down in the Royal College of Art‘s cafe to discuss whether sex education can possibly fulfill political expectations, parental hopes, and pupil needs. Does it even have a place in the curriculum?

Those were the questions. The answers that emerged over the course of 90 minutes were as varied, complex and personal as the subject itself, and that was one of the sessions’s most inspiring messages.

Battle of Ideas

For Simon Blake, director of Brook, the sexual health charity for young people, there was too much emphasis on biology. Dr Hera Cook, a lecturer in modern history at the University of Birmingham, felt we were still too uptight about sex. She also insisted that abstinence teaching had failed, throwing down the gauntlet for David Paton, a professor at Nottingham University’s Business School.

He argued against current teaching on economic grounds. The emphasis on safe sex has not significantly reduced the teen pregnancy rate, he said – why not try another approach, and talk about partner reduction or delaying sex? It’s the role of parents, he believes, to start these conversations. Sex education we need, sex educators we don’t.

In true BoI style, plenty of smart thoughts came from the audience, too. An Iranian student confessed that he was 12 before he had any idea of what sex involved biologically. This was shameful, he declared, but on the other hand, he hoped that there was room for discussing the emotional effects of sex.

Overall, there was a strong feeling that in trying to teach relationships, they became at best just another subject. As one woman put it, sex ed denied ‘the passion and privacy’ of those fumbling early enchantments. (A sly smile suggested that her mind was right back there, enjoying the charged clumsiness of a roaming hand in some boy’s bedroom, Pink Floyd pounding from a record player.)

Again and again, speakers and listeners alike made the point that some things simply can’t be taught. As Dr Jan Macvarish from the University of Kent at Canterbury said, intimate relationships cannot be reduced to a set of learnable ‘skills.’ We infantilize sex, she declared, thereby denying the fact that it does have serious consequences. To use that caddish line: it’s complicated.

Too often, this challenging yet oftentimes rewarding complication gets lost in the other battle surrounding the subject – the battle not of ideas, but of agendas.

The debate was part of a two-day festival organised by The Institute of Ideas. Check out the website for more details and ways not to miss out next time.

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‘Hot English Chastity’

So autumn is on its way and it’s time for me to be getting back to this woefully neglected blog.

I’ve been tweeting plenty, but in the spirit of new terms and clean slates (can you smell those freshly sharpened pencils?), I’m hoping to begin posting at least weekly.

For now, I just had to share a quote that I stumbled upon while catching up with the papers. It’s from Jane Campion’s recent interview with Ella Taylor of the New York Times. They were chatting about Campion’s latest film, Bright Star – her first in six years – which tells the story of Keats’ chaste love affair with the seamstress Fanny Brawne.

Yes, that’s chaste love from the same director who had Harvey Keitel and Holly Hunter strip down for those scorching sex scenes in The Piano. But as she puts it:

You know, sex is actually not so original as the way people love or the stories behind each relationship, which is what you remember. Sex is sex in the end.

p.s. This same movie has also given rise to my favourite headline in a while: ‘Keats and His Beloved in an Ode to Hot English Chastity.’ Bring it on!

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‘Feminism 2009’

If I had to nominate a column of the week, it would be Janice Turner’s ‘When Feminism Went Nuts,’ which ran in the London Times on Wednesday. Sure, some of the evidence was a little shaky (that Bebo stat, for instance, was misleading), but it was bold and badly needed, and full of thought-provoking reflections like this:

Feminism 2009 means acting out male masturbation fantasies —because you want to.

Or as David Kepesh, the sexagenarian narrator of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal, puts it:

The decades since the Sixties have done a remarkable job of completing the sexual revolution. This is a generation of astonishing fellators.

Turner’s article was still ricocheting around my mind when I met up for lunch with a male friend. It was a long lunch – long enough that he got to telling me about some of the problems of dating younger women.

He’s in his early 30s, so for him, younger means early 20-somethings. It means that not only have these girls never heard of the late John Hughes, say, but they also pull some crazy X-rated stunts in the bedroom.

Enough guys their own age presumably expect it, but I’ve a hunch that plenty of others will respond like my friend – with slightly embarrassed confusion. As he said: “I’m like, ‘Really? Who’re you actually doing that stuff for?'”

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Just say no?

In a post on Salon’s ‘broadsheet‘ today, Judy Berman flags an interesting essay by Heather Corinna, founder of the sex-ed website Scarlateen. Sex is as much a minefield for 21st-century teenagers, Corinna suggests, as ever it was for their mothers and grandmothers.

I’d link back to the original article, but Berman turns out to have filleted all the best quotes. Take this, for example:

[M]any grow up also experiencing that while no may mean no, they don’t always have an easy time saying it or feel the permission to.

A few years back, I interviewed a group of young women for a magazine feature about hook-up culture. They were friends of friends of friends – a narrow, wildly unscientific selection of bright, bold girls who’d graduated just a year or two previously.

What struck me was the group’s dynamic. There was one girl who was a lot more bolshie than the others. A spunky, full-figured blonde with dark roots, she described the kind of scenario that for her would typically end in a one-night stand.

She’d be at a party, say, on the far side of town after midnight. She didn’t want to pay for a cab home, but knew it wasn’t safe to ride the night bus alone. So she’d glance around the club, see if she saw anyone cute, and recruit herself a bus (and bed) buddy.

The next morning, she always wanted him off the scene as early as possible. Having sex with these guys was one thing, but letting them see what kind of breakfast cereal she ate was way too intimate.

She wore these tales like the ultimate badge of liberation, but though they sounded bleak to me, I wasn’t there to judge her. She, however, seemed to be silently judging the other girls in the group. They’d all been there, in a dingy bar after the witching hour, a little tipsy and in search of a kind face.

For another girl, that face usually belonged to the same boy, a guy she’d been at college with. Every few months, they’d spend a night together. She was trying to make her story sound as brash as her blonde acquaintance’s, but kept hitting the wrong note. In the end, she confessed that she was longing for those random hook-ups to turn in to something with more continuity. An actual relationship.

She looked down as she said this, averting her gaze from the other girl’s as if she were ashamed of her own feelings – as if she felt like she was deserting the sisterhood.

As far as young women and sex is concerned, coercion doesn’t just come from men, it comes from other women, too.

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Pop clip of the day

What do you on a wet summer Sunday? You watch old movies – some not really old at all, though you’ve seen them so often that they have to count.

Well, that’s my excuse for revisiting random cinematic moments sure to bring a smile to the lips of any chaste romantic. Moments like this, from Cameron Crowe’s 2005 Elizabethtown.

At the heart of what Drew dubs 'the rich flurry of our almost romance.'

At the giddy heart of what Drew dubs 'the rich flurry of our almost romance.'

Failed shoe designer Drew (Orlando Bloom) has lost his career, his girlfriend, and his father in the space of a few days.

Dispatched to the Deep South to represent his mother and sister at the memorial service, he meets air hostess Claire (Kirsten Dunst) en route.

Ever heard the saying ‘he chased her until she caught him’? Their romance is the epitome. Claire even invents (or does she?) a married boyfriend for herself, Ben, whose name is invoked when they at last get around to kissing.

Drew: Ben’s very lucky all we did was kiss.

Claire: Most of the sex I’ve had in my life was not as personal as that kiss.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s also worth catching for their first date, which is near perfect – so physically chaste they’re not even in the same town for most of it, yet wholly and gloriously soul-baring.

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Not done yet

I’ve confided my passion for The New York Times‘s ‘Modern Love’ series before, but lately I’ve heard others wonder whether the column isn’t running out of inspiration. This week’s proves just how endlessly intriguing the subject can be.

Written by an artist named Nancy J. Freedman, ‘Yes, We Do. Even at Our Age’ tackles that enduring taboo: golden age passion. It’s a subject guaranteed to get even the most with-it 20-somethings shuffling their feet in embarrassment. Threesomes? Whatever. Latex? That’s so, like, last millennium. But sex among the over-70s?

In her candid yet discreet essay, septuagenarian Freedman ponders her own happy marriage, reflecting on the assumptions she’s encountered among health care professionals, and the ‘creative lovemaking’ DVDs she and her husband mail-ordered after spotting an ad in a magazine for retirees (they arrived in an unmarked package).

Yet it raises plenty of the questions that aren’t age-specific. Is lifelong passion a realistic relationship expectation? And what constitutes an active love life anyway? Pharmaceutical companies are eager for us to define it in sexual terms, but what if it’s something altogether more complex?

My favourite passage is this:

‘An active love life isn’t based on a random number in a study of couples’ intimacies. It’s based on decades of enjoying each other’s company; sharing silly jokes; recalling life’s events both good and bad; voicing our opinions, concerns and fears; and encouraging and caring for each other as we age.’

You can read the whole thing for yourself here.

p.s. It all reminds me of my wonderful great aunt’s response to receiving a copy of Chastened. She was thrilled that I’d finally got around to writing it, and she loved the jacket, too. As for what lay within, ‘I’ll read it when I’m old enough,’ she promised.

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And let’s not forget…

We in the West are constantly prodded by pop culture to be turned on and up for it. Even staying in to wash your hair – that time-honoured turn-down – is nowadays sold as an orgasmic experience. Yet here’s the thing: we can always simply switch off.

We take that for granted, as we should. But we’re often so busy lamenting dry spells or joking awkwardly about what a great contraceptive marriage and parenthood makes, that we forget how hard-won a right it is, our right to say no.

A face of Afghan womanhood not see often enough: MP Malalai Joya

A face of Afghan womanhood not see often enough: MP Malalai Joya

A news story that emerged from Afghanistan a few days ago is a disturbing reminder.

As the UK’s Independent reports, back in March, the Afghan parliament passed legislation that effectively legalised marital rape.

World leaders were outraged (President Barack Obama described it as ‘abhorent’), and within the country itself, brave women took to the streets in protest, only to be attached by mobs of men.

President Hamid Karzai ordered a review of the law, and according to Human Rights Watch, signed off on the amendments July 8. All change?

Not exactly. Instead of condoning marital rape, it now permits husbands to starve wives who refuse sex. A host of other appalling clauses remain, say civil rights groups, including one that enables rapists to marry their victims by way of making amends.

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