Behind closed doors

You have no idea how hard it was to choose a suitable stock image for this post. In the end, I just opted for “full cliché”.

Hello, people I’m related to. Sorry about this. I’ve never had sex, ever, but please feel free to not read on anyway.

In the summer, I went to one of the events Caitlin Moran did to promote her latest book, How To Be Famous. And something she said that night, during some chat about the #MeToo movement, lodged itself in my head, and I keep circling back to it and trying to work out if she was right. I’ll have to paraphrase, but her comments ran roughly thus: ‘I think post-Me-Too, “vanilla” sex is going to have a revival. We’re going to move away from what’s going on in porn and focus on just having a lovely time…’

I was reminded of Moran’s words once again this week, when the Family Planning Association released the results of their survey on consent. The headline-making statistic was that 53% of respondents believed you can’t withdraw consent once your clothes come off. If ever there was a damning indictment of where we’re at when it comes to discussing sex, it’s that number right there. And if you look at that figure, that 53%, within the context of all the stories of rape, assault, and the ‘not-criminal-but’ incidents that have emerged in the last year or so, then things look pretty bleak. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Ending a years-long relationship does rather prompt a sort of “sex inventory”. Faced with the prospect of – panic! – sleeping with someone new (no-one specific right now, I hasten to add), I’ve been asking myself some questions – what do I like? What do I not like? What would I like to try? What am I good at? What would send me running for the hills and seeking shelter in the nearest bunker? What are my hard and fast rules and what am I flexible on? Honestly, the idea of dating and having to negotiate all those awkward firsts with a new person is terrifying. Thrilling, slightly, but mostly terrifying. And I think I know why that is. I think what a lot of straight men don’t get is that for women, so much of what we’re taught about sex has to do with fear. 

First, there’s the obvious: sex can have some pretty fucking huge consequences for us. We don’t necessarily get to just come and go (God, I do apologise). Then, there’s the utterly abysmal sex education in schools, which for most people of my generation was solely about biology, not feelings. And where do you go for education if you’re not getting it at school? The internet, and your friends. The internet will either show you porn (which is literally people at work) or just show you what’s popular/controversial, not necessarily what’s useful. And it’s only when you’re out of your teens that you get any sense from your friends when it comes to sex – and even then I think there’s something of a gender divide. Women tend to share more generally, and men don’t talk about sex with their friends quite so much – and when they do, it’s in extreme terms: the best-ever times and the worst-ever times, the encounters exaggerated by at least a third to make them banter-worthy.

And in sex scenes in film and on TV, there’s so much you don’t see all that often – like consent being actively sought and given, the contraception chat, and so on. And when it’s a straight couple onscreen, you don’t even very often see the woman on top. Now, I understand that this probably has more to do with what you can and can’t show at any given time – but when 45% of young people learn about consent from TV and film, this stuff matters. The things we see on a regular basis leave their mark.

Alongside all this is what’s happening out there in the world more generally. We’re still learning how not to victim-blame in rape and sexual assault cases. We’re still spending more time discussing at what point bad men should get their careers back than we are talking honestly to our youngsters – and each other, come to think of it – about consent, compassion and basic fucking empathy. We still won’t offer realistic, age-appropriate compulsory sex education in schools. It makes me furious to think how many terrible things could be avoided if a decent sex and relationships education strategy was implemented as a matter of urgency.

Every time I write something like this, I feel the need to point out that for all the guys I know personally, the very idea of hurting a woman or even misreading the signals in some way literally brings them out in hives. Most of us can think of one chap in our social circle who, while he would never be convicted of anything criminal, still couldn’t be trusted to walk a drunk woman home, you know? I feel pretty lucky that I can’t think of one in my group of friends. But the very fact that I think this is remarkable is in itself… remarkable. Because basically I’m saying, “I’m so lucky none of the guys I know have assaulted anyone!”

So it’s those guys – the sweet, kind, fundamentally good ones, the ones who like knitwear and Radio 4 and drunkenly lecturing their other male friends on why we should all be feminists – that need to start talking. Help us out here. How did you lot end up “not dicks” when so many other guys didn’t manage that? How do we go in and fix this?

Ultimately, what worries me most about the whole sex thing right now is this: surely consent should be the bare minimum you’re aiming for? Not that consent and how to both give it and seek it aren’t crucial – they’re the absolute essentials, without a doubt. And clearly, we need to get our shit together on that front. But God, what a low bar. Surely the aim should be that both parties have as lovely a time as possible, no matter how that pans out? Stripping it down to a matter of seeking and granting permission absolutely kills the pleasure, the romance, the thrill. Isn’t it meant to be… fun? A nice way to spend a Tuesday afternoon, a Thursday night, a Sunday morning?

There’s a world of difference between “we don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do” and “let’s have the loveliest, most enjoyable time possible”. Don’t aim merely for consent, aim for joy.


Other stuff I couldn’t fit in anywhere because, well, word count, but wanted to share anyway:

Over and out.

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