Come on, baby, let me know

David Aaronovitch (46, proud owner of one alluring chaise longue) is confused. He's been following The Independent's sex survey all week, and he's got a few questions. Do you think he's sexy? Does he like his body? Do we care? Does he? Here he reflects on our series with a frank and fearless account of sex on the Net, on TV and, of course, on the couch
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The Independent Online

When I was just 15 I had a lover. I had met her on holiday under canvas in Shropshire, and there, the smell of hay all around, I had first tasted of the apple of love. Her name was...

When I was just 15 I had a lover. I had met her on holiday under canvas in Shropshire, and there, the smell of hay all around, I had first tasted of the apple of love. Her name was...

In general, sex surveys worry me. Would I tell the honest, unembellished truth to a newspaper, when I don't even dare tell it to myself? In the week of The Independent's sex survey, I looked up other sex surveys on the Net and came across (as one does) the inevitable ultimate, authoritative penis-size survey - a survey so scientific that it even offered an illustrated guide on exactly how to make the various measurements required and what equipment to use. The researchers, linked (or so they said) to an obscure American university, were pleased with the number of responses to their questionnaire and gave a detailed breakdown of the answers of some 30,000 men to their inventive queries.

One aspect of their figures, however, was puzzling. The average penis size increased, as one might expect, between the ages of 12 and 16. But after 20 there was a noticeable decline; a heretofore unnoticed atrophy seemed to take place at the end of the teen years. What could account for the extra teen half-inch? Diet? Usage differential? Evolutionary development? Or was it, as the researchers laconically put it, the tendency of teenage boys to lie about such things?

Me, too. My Shropshire Lass had no name, because she didn't exist. I made her up as a story to tell friends who had decided that I was sexually precocious and whom I didn't want to disabuse of that idea. But even now that I am a mature man, the raw statistics of a sex life can make uncomfortable reading, particularly in an epoch in which the dial seems sometimes to have stuck at "Swive". I peruse the results of the survey. Where do they find the bloody time? Whoever "they" are. And whatever happened to that staple of human sexual activity, masturbation? Perhaps we assume - post-Kinsey - that this is a given.

But even if we could trust ourselves with the "how many times a week?" bit, what about the unconscious? Where was the question asking about how much (on a scale of 1 to 5) respondents wanted to sleep with their mothers or murder their fathers? Or whether our dreams featured deep pools or ravenous beasts? I am old enough now to think that the sex that gets had is merely the visible tip of the sexual iceberg. Think you, as Hamlet said, so easily to find my stops, and play me? (An interesting metaphor, that flute one, eh, Sigmund?)

Yet, for all that, I still ploughed through the week's sexual discussions with great interest - gusto, almost. What did today's teenagers think of sex in the media? Are 20-year-olds doing it more than I used to (and if so, how can they be stopped?)? What can I expect to feel as I get older? And above all, the question my psychotherapist friend, S, tells me never goes away: "Am I normal?" I found the answers fascinating and sometimes depressing.

Actually, before the survey started, I had asked S what he thought was the difference between sex in the 1970s and sex now. I had expected something about mass id transference, but instead he sipped his espresso and said, "Anal sex." There's a lot more of it about, apparently. When I was 20, anal sex was purely a gay thing, seen among hets as the second best for those deprived of access to more conventional outlets. In fact I don't remember ever so much as discussing it, except in the single context of Marlon Brando wielding the butter in Last Tango in Paris. It was really the butter that caused the fuss.

Now, anal sex appears to be to 2001 what mild bondage was to the Eighties and French kissing was to the Fifties. On the football internet chat site that I occasionally visit about six times a day, the younger men - bored at work - amuse themselves by conducting their own impromptu surveys. Last week Graham posted this: "Poll: anal sex with your girlfriend, yes or no?" To which someone else immediately replied, "Yes, providing we can return the favour with yours." After that there were some enthusiastic endorsements of the practice. No one said, "Ugh."

Martin Amis recently recounted, in an article for Talk magazine, an interview that he'd had with the American porn king John Stagliano. Sitting beside Stagliano's pool, Amis asked him why his videos contained so much anal sex. "Because", replied Stagliano, "pussies are bullshit." This gnomic response was taken by Amis to mean that anal sex was seen as being more authentic, somehow, less open to fakery and "Oh yes, yes, yes!" than traditional intercourse.

If so, that is interesting. One of the problems that most long-term sexual relationships encounter is trying to cope with the coexistence of anger and love, both of which are an essential element of sex. Many couples find it impossible to incorporate the aggressive, exciting side of lovemaking, and split it off from their own more anodyne, comfortable relationship. This can contribute to boredom, dissatisfaction and the desire to find fulfilment elsewhere. It also explains why, when affairs become marriages, they often follow exactly the same cycle.

Since anal sex is, in heterosexual terms, clearly a less comfortable (indeed, I am told, often painful) and more dangerous form of sex, its popularity is open to interpretation. And I can see one positive and one negative explanation; explanations that run through the whole survey. It could be that greater openness and honesty is assisting younger people in particular to a more integrated idea of their sexuality - an idea in which anger and love are both permitted. If couples can have exciting, transgressive, fantasy-laden sex lives together, perhaps we may be happier.

The other explanation, of course, is that it is merely another sign of the declining mutuality of relationships, another symptom of there being no such thing as couples, only men and women. After all, if greed and acquisitiveness rule the economic and social worlds, why would they not also make an appearance in the sexual world? You could almost have a Marxist analysis here of sexual progress since the Sixties. Back in the happy hippie days, when trade unions ruled the world, the emphasis was on the collective, and beaded people gathered in communes for group sex. The early version of Dr Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex gave a great deal of space to the pleasures of sharing. Also, when I was a teenager, mutual, simultaneous orgasm was our largely unattainable, utopian goal. Nowadays, with global capitalism rampant, and with every schoolchild's ambition to be a millionaire, it's all wanking and buggery.

Of course, both could be true, especially if you're a postmodernist. Lacan has argued that, anyway, there is no such thing as "sexual relations", that the term is an oxymoron. We go to bed, first and foremost, with ourselves. We sometimes gratify ourselves (or not) in the presence of others. Was it, perhaps, the teachings of Lacan that the intellectual Bill Clinton had in mind when he stated so emphatically that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms Lewinsky"? He simply forgot to add, "in the Lacanian sense".

Clinton embodies in many ways what is both good and disturbing about how the Western attitude towards sex is developing. The tolerance shown to him by the American voters was a rejection of the sexual hypocrisy of the born-agains and the fundamentalists. Nevertheless, there was something troubling about the cold incontinence of it all. I feel the same ambivalence about it that I feel about one of the other major sexual changes in my adult lifetime - the availability of pornography through the internet. I embrace the honesty; I shy away from its consequences.

For me the most surprising finding from the survey was the proportion of younger people who thought that there was not enough about sex in the media. At first I wondered how there could possibly be any more. It isn't just Sex and the City, with its faux honesty (I mean, why would any male professional these days possess porno mags to be discovered, when he could use his laptop?) or Denise Van Outen, or Keith Chegwin's genitals (though I suppose that I am now going beyond "sex" into some other, mostly unexplored realm). It's also Crossroads, for God's sake. As I recall, that motel series left our screens with septuagenarian Amy Turtle complaining about her back, and returned two decades later in the middle of what used to be Children's Hour with a one-afternoon stand, two snogs and three attempts at seduction. Not enough sex?

And then you realise that they're saying something different. It's not that there isn't sufficient reference to sexuality on TV and in the papers. It's the way sex is dealt with that's the problem. We simply don't treat sex seriously, in the way we do archaeology or gardening. It's all snigger or glamour; there's nothing there for the mind, for the intellect, for the emotions. Sex in the media tends to be stupid sex, unsubtle sex, dishonest sex. They may be asking for something a bit more (and here I use a taboo word) intelligent.

Certainly I've had it up to here with tits and cocks, particularly in the form they take in British light entertainment. I want a discussion on why it is that I now find the back of women's necks so attractive. Of why - as the Kinks so nearly had it - I'm a nape man.