Magazine

A Point Of View: Does the sex debate exclude men?

  • 7 September 2012
  • From the section Magazine
Couple kissing at 1960s festival in Hyde Park

Sex is everywhere in modern society - but why are women doing all the talking about it, asks Sarah Dunant.

I was 18 in America, au pairing before university. It was 1969 and the world was changing. Everyone was reading John Updike's novel Couples about middle-class swingers, and lots of couples were trying to emulate them.

In my Californian family, the doctor husband was working hardest on it. I, deeply fond of his wife and kids, was watching from the sidelines. But when he got caught with her best friend and his wife stormed out of the house to stay with her mother, I was left holding the fort.

Home from work the next evening he asked my advice on how to reconcile with her. I was flattered, though a little uncomfortable. Later there was a knock on my door. "I need to talk some more," he said. I opened it to find him naked outside.

The first thing to tell you is that nothing happened. Well, when I say nothing, nothing I could have him in court for now.

The combination of my evident physical terror and desperate fast-talking persuaded him that maybe I wasn't worth the effort. Next morning as I breakfasted the kids, he nodded at me on his way out. I doubt he gave it much thought.

I, of course, was devastated. Not so much at the horror of what had been avoided, as at the guilt I felt. Had I somehow provoked it? Should I tell his wife? What would she think of me? Alone in a foreign country with no e-mails or cheap phone calls, I swapped frantic letters with my best friend and kept it to myself.

A few months later I came home and got on with my life. I was lucky, 1969 was the cusp of a major societal shift. Post-the contraceptive pill, with emerging feminism and economic independence, women were about to challenge all kinds of conventions about sexual behaviour, and this nasty encounter could be fashioned into a cautionary tale as a thread in the sexual tapestry which I would weave for myself.

I've thought about that night in California a lot over the last few weeks as once again the snake pit of policing sexual behaviour and the conflict between men and women's perceptions of it have become news, such as the would-be US senator who claimed that after what he called "legitimate rape" women's bodies protect them from pregnancy, and George Galloway's assertion that what Julian Assange did or didn't do in bed in Sweden was simply bad sexual etiquette.

From left to right, Ken Clarke, George Galloway, Todd Akin
Politicians Ken Clarke (left), George Galloway (centre) and Todd Akin (right) have all made controversial comments about rape

Meanwhile, a story about a young woman in thrall to a certain Mr Grey who gives her sexual pleasure by causing her pain is being bought by millions of women, at the same time as others are calling for it to be publicly burnt. The proverbial Martian arriving to study contemporary sexual behaviour might find him/ her/ itself most confused. All one can say is welcome to the human race. The story of how men and women negotiate doing the one thing necessary to continue their existence, is a complex and often painful one.

For those incensed that our legal system still drags its feet when it comes to taking sexual violence against women seriously, history offers a sobering perspective. You don't have to go back far to find a time when rape was an acceptable last resort of courtship.

Historians now combing court records in 15th-17th Century Europe (themselves asking new questions about sex and sexuality) find that while Juliet's father might bully his daughter into his choice of husband, if that didn't work he could always get the suitor to finish off the job for him.

Once the threshold was crossed, the young woman was used goods and marriage was the only option. As such, this was merely an extension of a deeper view of women imbedded not just in law but also in the religious culture that informed it. Many may shiver at fundamentalist Islam's view of women now, but for centuries Christianity peddled an equally fertile line in misogyny.

Women, basically, were the problem. Such was their irresistible temptation to men, that for the well-being of society they had to be controlled. Either through flesh and blood marriage or to the only other man who would do - Christ in a convent.

Adam and Eve at the tree of knowledge
Has Eve been blamed disproportionately for the apple incident?

This notion of women goes right back to Eve and that rosy-cheeked apple. Imagine, if you will, another narrative - a garden of Eden where Adam says: "Hey Eve, you know we're not allowed to eat that. Put it back." Alas no.

The fact that Adam succumbs is Eve's fault and within the blink of a theological eye forbidden knowledge becomes linked to sex. Its impact on policing sexual behaviour was immense. For centuries European women of good families would have wedding chests in their bedroom painted with cautionary tales of female obedience.

High on the list was the Rape of the Sabine Women: the story of how out of their - what shall we call it - "stoical availability"? came the Roman people.

So just for a second let's be dazzled by how far we have come in the West. Because it is dazzling. And in so short a time.

It is less than 50 years since reliable contraception took away the fear and stigma of sex for women, allowing them into the workforce as serious earners and consumers whose desires (in all senses of that word) had to be taken into account by the market. The result was indeed a sexual revolution.

At the risk of my children putting their fingers in their ears shouting "Too much information", I should clarify a little. It has not all been great.

Sex - to state the obvious - is not a rational pursuit. For all our cultural and scientific progress, close the bedroom door and what goes on inside is largely animal. It transcends thinking. Sometimes it transgresses it.

That is what is so wonderful and so terrifying about it. It even manages to defy the market. You can make yourself the most attractive human being on the planet but it won't guarantee sexual satisfaction.

Brad and Angelina don't necessarily do it any better than anyone else. The rule is there are no rules. You can have good sex with someone you don't love and - what a kick in the teeth for romance - when you do find "the one", the earth may not move, or eventually sex will become so ordinary you run the risk of desire from outside ripping both of you apart.

So where does that leave us? For years now it has been women who have made the cultural running when it comes to really talking about sex.

Feminism spawned a huge debate about all such things. From the uncompromising idea that all intercourse is close to rape because it is about subjugation, to those like Camille Paglia or Katie Roiphe who took modern women to task for not taking enough responsibility for their own behaviour: if we are to own our desire and be equal players in this dangerous game - we have to careful how and when we chose to paint ourselves as victims.

Book shelf displaying Fifty Shades of Grey
Fifty Shades of Grey might cause confusion to extra-terrestrials

Then there is the power of fantasy. The director of a charity for victims of domestic abuse recently called for Fifty Shades of Grey to be burnt, claiming it portrayed female abuse in ways not dissimilar to the crimes of Fred West. Except this is fiction and the heroine in the novel is getting pleasure out of the pain.

Submission and domination is an age-old business. For many years it was a national joke that some men in power (judges, politicians, businessmen) might seek out a dominatrix to allow them to experience lack of control.

Could it be that something similar is happening to women now they have a greater footprint on the world? Or, if masochism has always been a component of sex, that women can now play with the idea more confidently. Maybe it's simpler.

With sex still the number one way to sell us most things, but modern life giving us little time to explore it, maybe the fact that Mr Grey, loaded in all manner of ways, puts so much attention into pleasuring both of them is the secret.

One thing I do know. If these novels had been written by and for men highlighting the S rather than the M and outselling Antony Beevor and footballers' biographies there would be any army of women commentating on it.

And that, I suppose, is what worries me. Where are the heavy-weight male voices debating contemporary sexuality? It's difficult - getting men to talk honestly about sex. Not the nudge-nudge in the pub, or the throw-away gags of comedians, but serious questioning.

We accept that in the aftermath of feminism growing up male can be hard: but where are the big public conversations about men's sexuality. The impact of pornography. How far has our desire changed theirs? Is their line between what is and is not acceptable different from ours?

Such admissions will not necessarily be politically correct. Sex often isn't. It doesn't help that when men do open their mouths on the larger stage, they are firmly shot down. Both George Galloway and our now ex-Justice Secretary Ken Clarke might have been ill advised in their remarks about sexual behaviour and the law, but like it or not, they thought something needed saying, only to be met by a storm of female outrage that effectively stifled all debate.

Yes, we have a long way to go. But we can't do it without the views of men.

For me there'd be one exception. After I'd written this I decided to look up that Californian doctor on the internet. What I found is that a man of the same name, age and place of work was stuck off the medical register 15 years ago for negligence and involuntary manslaughter. I am still working out how I feel about that.