Men seek a lifeline on sex: Geraldine Bedell on the male anxieties revealed by a BBC advice service
For the past three weeks, a free telephone helpline has been on offer during and after the Wednesday evening programme. Eighty per cent of the calls (which came in at the rate of 120 an hour) were from men, mainly worried about their performance and how to please their partners. 'Sexual problems aren't the sort of thing you can talk about down the pub or the rugby club,' said David, a psychiatric nurse. 'Straight men with straight friends can't get straight answers about what is normal.'
In a converted warehouse in Acton, west London - home to Broadcasting Support Services (BSS), an independent charity - 20 counsellors sat round half a dozen tables, facing sandwiches, juice cartons, and telephones.
The strip lights and white walls lent a purposeful, even clinical atmosphere, but the fragments of conversations were often bizarrely colourful. 'All your attention is focused on your own penis,' was one. 'You don't know where it is? Buy a book, with diagrams,' was another.
The counsellors were from the National Aids Helpline, rape crisis centres, the Beaumont Trust (which works with transsexuals and transvestites), lesbian and gay switchboards and other counselling services - but what they really needed, it turned out, was expertise in premature ejaculation.
This week's Talk About Sex, the last of three, focused on rape, teenage pregnancy, and abuse; but overwhelmingly the calls came from men, and overwhelmingly they had the same worry. David spent 15 minutes counselling Simon, a 34-year-old who said he had always suffered from premature ejaculation. 'There was a time when a man would have thought 'So what?' but not any more,' David says. 'Men are desperately concerned now to satisfy their partner.'
David reassured Simon that he was not abnormal, which seemed to help considerably. 'I suggested various things he could do: think about other things, like, um, painting the ceiling; stopping and starting - breaking off to watch television, trying delay creams and squeeze techniques.'
Depending on which counsellor callers got, recommendations for premature ejaculation varied. Bill, who worked for the Beaumont Trust, suggested changing positions, and breathing techniques. The others on his table showed great interest in the breathing techniques. Jenny from the National Aids Helpline was keen to remind callers 'that sex can be a good laugh'. Alison didn't want to discuss what people actually meant by premature ejaculation - 'I didn't want to get into the realms of what is normal'.
David, however, had spoken to a man who thought he had premature- ejaculation problems because he couldn't go on after an hour.
Talk About Sex's producer, Charlotte Blofeld, says that the helpline had attracted people who had never sought help before - particularly men aged 16 to 25 and from social classes C2, D and E. Liz Rowlands, who was running the London end, (there were four lines in Glasgow and 10 in Cardiff) thinks men find talking on the phone easier than writing letters, or seeking face-to-face help. 'There's clearly not very much provision for men to talk about sex. A lot of calls have been asking for very basic information: what are sexual positions, how do you do it?'
One 32-year-old man rang in: what was he supposed to do to clear up the mess? A counsellor suggested tissues, condoms, and removing clothes. A 16- year-old was worried about penis size, and, more perplexingly, angle, and just needed reassurance.
'The picture I'm picking up is that a lot of men are having a rotten time and don't know how to get out of it,' said Jenny. 'They're trying to crack this mystery about sex and they don't have very good communication skills. The poor little moppets want to do better, but don't know what to do.'
Bill thought many callers' worries were wholly unfounded: 'They want to know why their wife doesn't have multiple orgasms, or about the infamous G-spot. They worry, and that causes problems.'
Bill spent a long time talking to Dean, who was in his late twenties and had no trouble with premature ejaculation when masturbating but went to pieces with his girlfriend. Again, breathing techniques were recommended, plus some details on how to move.
Then Bill talked to Clive, whose wife was always passive; Clive said he sometimes wanted to lie back and think of England.
'Emancipation doesn't seem to have got into the majority of bedrooms,' Bill said. 'Women want help in the house, but in the bedroom they want a dominant man. So feminism has made things quite hard for men; women are also more aware of their sexual needs, and men have come to see that as very stressful.'
Broadcasting Support Services will send a report on the calls to the Department of Health. This is certain to focus on the lack of provision for young men to seek advice about sex; on their ignorance, uncertainty and confusion.
'The days when men could go to bed, have sex and roll over and start snoring are long gone,' Bill said. But, said Jenny, if they ask what they are supposed to do, they feel they are confessing to inadequacy, to having a problem. 'They feel they should know already. But why should they? No one's told them.'
Coverage of the helpline was allowed only on condition that the confidentiality of callers be respected.
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