SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK 'N' ROLL Thirty years after the birth of free love, Britain is on the brink of a second sexual revolution: porn is old hat, and promiscuity is a treatable disorder. In the straitened Nineties, the sexperts tell Oliver Bennett, sex is a meaningful, holistic experience
long ago - let's say 25 years - there was a simple world where British men were blokes and British women were birds. Sex between them was a matter generally uncomplicated by sexual politics, contraception, or sexually transmitted diseases, though blokes often saw the "clap" as an antibiotic-fuelled rite of passage. Birds, meanwhile, gritted their teeth and hoped for the best.

Bliss it was for some, but things changed. For along came feminism, life- threatening viruses and all this talk about "sexuality" and "relationships" to complicate our love lives. Now sex for the British is considered a serious and complex matter: less a sport than a religion, and more mental than genital.

"I would say we're seeing a second sexual revolution," says Ted Polhemus, author of Rituals of Love (Picador). "The first one, in the 1960s, was about promiscuity: casual sex with lots of different people that was light and recreational. The second is expanding the definition of sex. There are now a lot of people using sex as an avenue to a higher level of consciousness."

Along with the loss of the "sex as simple, natural fun" equation comes a repudiation of the idea that great sex is just a question of doing it right: stimulation by manual, as it were. "In the 1960s and 1970s we followed Masters and Johnson who proposed certain behaviour for sexual dysfunction," says Julia Cole, a psycho-sexual therapist and spokesperson for Relate. "Now people are saying that their sex relationships are more than just mechanical. The whole picture needs careful attention."

It seems that sex in the Nineties is a more holistic affair, balanced by greater awareness of female desire. "Women seem to want a relationship in which they can explore their sexualities," says Cole. "I think this is something new."

Into this fray comes a greater interest in fantasy life and here, too, women have changed. "Women have become more dominant and no longer feel guilty about wanting sex," says Rachel Silver, the author of Where Their Feet Dance (Century), a book about female sexual fantasies. Silver found it notable that there was very little romantic fantasy. Despite such pragmatism, the much-hyped concept of women's porn - magazines like For Women and films by Candida Royalle - has left women largely unconvinced. And some feel that women retain a vulnerable edge. "It's not so difficult to be a wild woman now," says Tuppy Owens, a sex therapist and publisher. "But while women may indeed be rampant, they often have a very untrusting view of men and a fear of being damaged."

There is a greater articulacy in the language of sex and a greater willingness to try and fix problems. "Sexual health clinics are now on the increase, and people are willing to talk about sexual concerns," says Steve Jameson, a lecturer in HIV and sexual health at London's Maudsley Hospital. "Until quite recently, talking about sex was taboo."

This development has tended to locate sex lives at the core of our well- being; for instance, the obsessively promiscuous are no longer seen as heroic or tragic, but simply worthy of help. And snigger as we might at Michael Douglas's stretch in the Betty Ford Clinic, sexual addiction is now taken seriously. The more common clinical complaints, however, are women's loss of interest in sex, followed by males with erectile problems, and recently Cole has seen a dramatic upturn in males with inhibited sexual drives.

A payback from the Sixties is that hardly anyone now believes in the idyll of free love. Sexual guilt exercises many of the Maudsley's referrals: mainly people in long-term relationships who are having affairs but who cannot cope with the remorse. But Jameson is quick to assert that while promiscuity is often self-destructive, he does not castigate it per se. "It can be a way of self-esteem building and I am aware that many find the anonymity exciting." He adds that Aids and HIV have reduced promiscuity among the homo- and bisexual populations, though in young gays he sees it rising. "Unfortunately, they see HIV as being an older person's problem."

Cole adds that promiscuity is "a defence and people who have lots of affairs are deluding themselves". Despite this, Owens says that the swinging scene is none the less growing. "It has blossomed, but is still a bit suburban. The women all wear high heels."

A greater sense of sex as potential danger - threatening the subtleties of mental and physical health as well as personal safety and security - pervades Nineties encounters. "When you have full sex with someone, you're opening up your psyche," says Sophie, 34. "You have to be careful about your partners, because you take on a bit of that person, and they take a bit of you." She adds that "no" is becoming an easier word: unlike in the 1970s, when to go home with someone was to promise sex.

Experimentation in the Nineties is less about sleeping around; more about expanding sexual vocabulary, and James sees "many more clients" trying experimental sexual activities. This broader sexual consciousness has led to old pulling practices being considered uncool. As Roger, 23, says: "You are hardly like to entice someone at a club by asking them whether they come here often". Polhemus says: "Many young people see that kind of pick-up sexuality as boring and old-fashioned. They want to give sexuality a pervy twist."

Testament to this is the way the fetish scene has flourished, almost to the point of becoming a mainstream pre-occupation. This is partly in response to Aids, as it doesn't necessarily involve penetrative sex, but is also a rejection of the 1960s notion that sex is unadorned nature: the beast with two backs. Some sex fashions are skin-deep, however: for instance, though it has long been politically correct to declare bisexuality, there is a new kind of nominal bi who wants to bat for both sides, but who is repulsed by the idea of actually doing anything with the same sex. Pomosexual is the word delegated to them by US Wired magazine.

Sexual society is being more polarised. "Everybody's going off in different directions," says Owen. "Some people are becoming more conservative; others are becoming more extreme." An us-and-them attitude pervades the further shores of sex life.

Nevertheless, titillation appears to be flourishing. There is more sexual subject matter in all media and, if the top shelf at newsagents is anything to go by, pornography is bullish. Yet Owens says: "The porn industry is in bad shape and top shelf material is going out of fashion. Everyone's very discontented with it." Like the old-fashioned pick-up, porn is seen as dated rubbish by sexual radicals.

Increased isolation has led to an interest in remote sex, aided by chatlines and the Internet. Virtual sex or teledildonics, with its unpleasant promise of stained lycra, is not yet a reality, but the Net is an ideal forum for sexual minority interest groups. While it has an image of being populated by paedophiles swapping dirty pixels, the harder stuff, however, remains hard to locate. "If you do a search for sex on the Net, you'll find a lot," says Clive Parker of The Net magazine. "But if you do a search for Star Trek, you'll find a lot more."

Young people are the section of society who receive most sexual prescription. It is common wisdom that teens are at it hammer and tongs. Yet the average age of losing virginity is 17, a full year over the age of consent, and though teenagers are having more sex there is considerably less unplanned pregnancy than 20 to 25 years ago.

"A more liberal, open, pragmatic approach doesn't hasten the onset of sex and fear-based abstinency campaigns have never shown effects on pregnancy rates," says Alison Hadley of the Brook Advisory Centres. "There's much less scandal and hysteria about teenage sex now and acceptance of teenage sex is now nigh-on universal."

Hadley, who believes the old saw that each generation thinks it has invented sex, says that despite public opinion moral probity is often higher in the young. "Older people are just as wayward; in fact, often more so," says Hadley. And while she has yet to see the neo or "secondary" virgins common among US born-again Christians over here, she does think that the young are "generally thoughtful about entering a sexual relationship".

Another development in the Nineties is the growing popularity of groping your way to nirvana. Jane Lyle, co-author of Sacred Sexuality (Element, pounds 14.99), says "People are searching for something more than a mundane, mechanical approach to sex. As people register discontent with their sexual lives, the sacred sex side is returning as a way towards a greater intimacy. People may know how to give oral sex, but no-one knows how to connect in a more profound and spiritual way." The sex practices of ancient religions - Daoism, Tantra, "goddess" worship - all are being corralled into a search for sexual ecstasy through the discipline of breathing and commitment. "You can't just pick someone up after the pub and do it," says Lyle, "but when you blend two bodies, you get a third component which is true fulfilment." It is the rediscovery of sex as life-force.

Polhemus thinks that our preoccupation with sex in its multitudinous forms stems from a greater insecurity. "Whenever a society is in a state of chaos, with no consensus, people focus on the basics, which is sex," he says. It also may be that the restrictions of our times have had the effect of promoting the wider sexual discourse. If so, it would be a fine thing, for as Hadley says: "There has been too much silence in the past, and too many have suffered from secrecy."