Category Archives: Sex

‘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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What’s the longest you’ve gone…

…without sex? It’s the simple question that Marie Claire asked a bunch of unsuspecting women who, by the looks of their accompanying snaps, were out enjoying a splash of lunch-hour sunshine Thames-side.

Marie ClaireThey and their intriguing responses feature in the August issue, at the end of a piece I wrote about my own chaste year.

There’s Laura, a 28-year-old teacher who went a year and half between relationships. ‘I can live without it because I enjoy the other elements of getting to know a man, too’ she says.

Stage Manager Emma, 29, went eight months when her partner of three years returned to Australia. Admin Assistant Katy, the youngest at 21, has gone a year and counting. And Mel, a banker and the oldest at 35, recalls how she once went six months: ‘I was single and wanted to find myself, which meant getting away from men.’

Marie Claire‘s intrepid reporters followed up with a second question. What was it like, they asked, when you did finally take someone to bed again?

You’ll have to head to a newsagents to find out how that one was answered, but I’m curious: how long is the longest you’ve gone?

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Chaste or chased?

With the hardback edition of the book newly released (you should find it in the self-help section of your local book shop, unless I’ve paid a prior call and cheekily repositioned it more prominently), plans are afoot to test some of the lessons I’ve learnt.

The sieve relates to the story of Tuccia, a Vestal Virgin who proved her chastity by carrying water in a sieve. Note also that long line of men.

The sieve relates to the story of Tuccia, a Vestal Virgin who proved her chastity by carrying water in a sieve. Note also that long line of men over Elizabeth I's padded shoulder.

We’re calling it the ‘Chaste Challenge’, and later on in the year I’ll be asking for volunteers to swear off sex. Not for a full 12 months like I did, but for three, maybe four – no more than six.

Though the details are still being fine-tuned, I thought I’d float the idea with a scientist friend over the weekend.

I’d barely finished explaining when Heather, let’s call her, had a question to ask.

Could a person volunteer if they had nothing to give up? In other words, could they join the ‘Chaste Challenge’ midway through an involuntary dry spell?

My answer is yes, because it’s making the decision that counts. However long you’ve gone, by taking charge and making that dry spell your own, you fundamentally alter its dynamic. Everything becomes different.

What’s more, as Heather the scientist suggested, as soon as you rule sex out, mischievous cupid will no doubt dispatch a fairy tale’s worth of suitors. That’s certainly how it felt to me.

This seems the perfect moment to share a hilarious and sweet story told to me recently by the excellent critic HB.

Years ago, sat in an A’level history revision class, she happened to glance at what the boy beside her had written in response to a question about why Elizabeth I had never married.

It was, he declared, because ‘she wanted to preserve a chased image.’ He’d misunderstood the term ‘chaste’ for two whole years. Or perhaps he hadn’t. Perhaps he knew exactly what the delicious but inconvenient perk of a chaste image could be.

What is it they say? Men love a challenge. Those 16th-century princes and dukes were presumably no different beneath their tights and codpieces.


Filed under Chastened - the book, Romance, Sex, Things literary

P.S. Latest coverage…

Hot off the press, this just in from this morning’s Daily Mail

Great to see that they’ve picked up on all the positive aspects.

photographer: Paul WebbFavourite comment so far from the message boards, a woman named Kathy who quotes advice doled out by her granny in 1971: ‘Be the one they practise FOR, not the one they practise ON.’

Also, respect to the reader calling herself ‘Marie Claire’ from Brussels, who’s been chaste for eight years and counting. Or rather, not counting, since she sounds far too busy and contented.


Filed under Chastened - the book, Romance, Sex, Things literary

Chastened’s newsstand debut

A big thank you to The Guardian, who kicked off coverage of the book on Saturday with an edited extract in Weekend magazine.

The Guardian, June 20thProving my point that even while appearing nonchalant about high street lap-dancing clubs and call-girl confessionals, people continue to take anything sex-related very, very personally, the message board was deluged with comments.

Almost 300 in all, most were pretty exercised (so much pent-up frustration – you have to wonder…), but some raised interesting points. How ought chastity be defined? At what point in a relationship should you sleep with somone? A British guy in New York fessed up to being about a year into his own ‘chaste’ quest for a meaningful relationship, having realised what a turn-off constant availability was.

Hephzibah-Anderson-001In the blogosphere, mentions popped up on ErosStruck and Mental Imaging, and NBC Chicago flagged another woman’s six-month ‘sex sabbatical.’

A special mention goes out to the intrepid reporters over at They blogged The Guardian‘s extract with a pithy preface that introduces the concept of ‘running the bases backwards.’ Check it out here.

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What’s big in ‘Hung’? Non-sexual sex

Yet another reason to wish HBO were available in the U.K.

‘Hung’ is the channel’s newest comedy, dreamed up by husband-and-wife writing team Dmitry Lipkin and Colette Burson. Its premise goes something like this: imagine an everyday guy – a Detroit high school teacher who maybe coaches some basketball on the side. His marriage has already imploded and now the economy is tanking. He is so cash-strapped that he’s camping outside his parents’ fire-trashed home.

The one thing this guy – Ray Drecker, they’ve called him – has going for him is a really, really big…

Well, the show’s title says it all. But beyond that title is a story that seeks to address middle-class economic distress, and the fate of high school stars (back in the day, Ray was an athlete with an apparently golden future).

And then there’s the sex. This is where things promise to get really interesting. When Ray sets about capitalising on his biggest asset, he finds himself wrestling with that eternal question: what do women really want?

As Lipkin told Dan Barry in a New York Times interview: ‘There is sex in the show. But a lot of it is not sexual. It’s psychological. It’s emotional.’

For those who can get it, the show premieres June 28th on HBO.

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