SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK 'N' ROLL It used to seen as the be-all and end-all of sex. Now a generation of 'tactical virgins' is showing there's more than one way to skin a cat. By Cora Mann
"YOU want to know what I see in my wife? Well, I'll tell you!... you put it in, and it goes right through the main saloon and into the galley... then the cabin boy comes down a ladder and rings a bell... in other words, you stupid bastard... IT FITS."

The joys of penetration, as described by one late great Hollywood star (John Barrymore) to another (Errol Flynn), at top volume in a crowded Beverly Hills restaurant. Sadly, Mrs Barrymore might not have got quite so much fun out of the process. Only about 5 per cent of women climax through penetration alone, according to Women on Sex (Smith Gryphon, pounds 9.99), a survey of women's sexual lives by relationships psychologist Susan Quilliam.

Radical feminists have been known to argue that penetration can even be interpreted as a downright hostile act. Many others have noted that penetration alone is rarely enough to make the female partner dissolve in ecstasy. So why is it the be-all and end-all of sex? Andrea Dworkin, interviewed in this newspaper, said: "I never said that intercourse wasn't pleasurable. I never said nobody should have intercourse. The question is, if people haven't had intercourse, why do they think that they've not had sex?" Well! They don't any more, it seems.

The first rumblings that penetration was no longer the sexual Mecca happened in the early Nineties when date rape suddenly became a hot media topic. It seemed, however, that young women had cottoned on to this change rather earlier than young men. Nineties Girls such as Emily Barr, who had somehow become an authority by having sex (or not) with a Tory MP, came out with statements such as: "Going to bed with a man no longer automatically means full sex... even in bed, if a girl doesn't want penetration, she doesn't have to have it."

So is penetration really passe? The younger generation don't seem bothered by the notion. "There are so many other things you can do that can be so nice and satisfying for both of you that there really doesn't seem to be any reason to go the whole hog. I don't propose to lose my virginity until I really want to," says Sarah, 19, a virgin "but only just."

"It's not essential at all, really," says Laura, 23. "I don't feel cheated if it doesn't happen."

Men are also falling into line, perhaps a little reluctantly. "I like penetration, but I'm happy with a blow job," says one 20-year-old.

"It depends what else happens as to whether or not I feel cheated. It's not essential, there are plenty of other ways to get your rocks off," adds another, aged 24.

Not everyone agrees, however, particularly the slightly older. "I think I'd have to say it is pretty much essential," says Simon, 32. "There's something so cosy about it, so intimate. It has something to do with the temperature change. You go in and you think 'God, it's nice in here, it's so snug'."

"It's primal," claimed a 30-year-old man, immediately. "It feels nice," he added, after some minutes of concentrated thought.

Shere Hite, in her Report on Male Sexuality (Macdonald, pounds 11.99), quoted such responses as: "My partner's vagina feels warm and smooth... deep inside her I feel secure and loved" or "to penetrate a vagina is the male's reason of existence". She goes on to suggest that men "express their love through sexual intercourse".

Women like it, too, however. "Penetration is 'proper' sex as far as I'm concerned. Other types of stimulation come into foreplay. I would feel a bit cheated if I got to a stage where I expected full sex and didn't get it," says Joanne, 23.

"Of course it's essential," says Becky, 35. "I wouldn't feel as though I'd really made love without it, and I also wouldn't feel my partner was happy."

Psychologist Susan Quilliam agrees that part of the reason for this new attitude lies with age. "There is an idea that Americans have called 'tactical virginity'. Many young women in particular are saying to their partners: 'Let's cuddle, have oral sex, masturbate each other, but let's get it right before having sex'."

Things are quite different for older women, who regard intercourse as more of a "getting-to-know-you" act. "A woman in her forties will say: 'Let's have penetrative sex now and explore the rest later'," says Ms Quilliam. Tactical virginity also means retaining a technical purity at least. "Young women like to be sure before going the last two and a half inches. The feeling is: 'Let's get the rest right, and if it's not working, at least I haven't had full sex with you'."

Also, while penetration may mean "proper" sex for one party, it often doesn't for the other, if served up plain with no extra garnish. "Twenty or 30 years ago women were still falling for the idea that they needed penetration in order to orgasm," explains Ms Quilliam. "Today we are realising that for pure pleasure, it rates about five on a list of six. Women don't expect to orgasm 100 per cent of the time with penetrative sex: they do with masturbation and oral sex."

All, however, is far from lost for penetration. "Once you are older and have got the whole package bundled up, and you know you can come this way or come that way, penetration becomes essential," adds Ms Quilliam reassuringly. "Symbolically it's the most unified experience you can have, the closest you can get to another person. Also, it's the 'real thing' in that it's the reproductive act. And it's very much a way to please your partner - men have a very direct link between penetration and orgasm."

She points out that one of the central techniques of sex therapy, used to treat female vaginismus and lack of orgasm, and male impotence and premature ejaculation, is "sensate focus" - which boils down to delaying penetration as long as possible.

Any men who still feel unreconstructedly stubborn might like to reflect on how they would like it if they were expected to orgasm simply through having their testicles fondled. "The equivalent of expecting a woman to orgasm through simple penetration is giving a man four or five squeezes round the balls and saying: 'Did you come?'," warns Ms Quilliam.

Most men, however, are sensible enough to go with the flow. "With penetrative sex, you can think about anything - work, going shopping - but when you're having oral sex you can't think about anything else," says Michael, 31, a fan of alternatives to the traditional making the beast with two backs. "Oral sex is much more indulgent. It's nice if you're doing it back at the same time, but if you can just lie back and receive it, it's Christmas all over again."