Desperately seeking sex in the city

The twenties: they're wild, glamorous and confident, all Cosmopolitan cover-lines and sophisticated one-liners. Or are they? Polly Vernon talks to her fellow twentysomethings about a generation that is dazzled by media images of sexual excess, and for whom the greatest taboo is not doing it at all
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The Independent Online

Sex for the twenties is an appealing prospect. In theory, it's the optimal combination of feckless youth and the emergence of a confident sexual urbanity. It's beyond the fumbling uncertainties of teen sex, yet untainted by the messy procreative pressures of the thirties. It's the stuff of slick American dramas and Black Lace erotic fiction. In pop culture terms, it's the only sex that matters. More than that - it's the only sex that exists.

Sex for the twenties is an appealing prospect. In theory, it's the optimal combination of feckless youth and the emergence of a confident sexual urbanity. It's beyond the fumbling uncertainties of teen sex, yet untainted by the messy procreative pressures of the thirties. It's the stuff of slick American dramas and Black Lace erotic fiction. In pop culture terms, it's the only sex that matters. More than that - it's the only sex that exists.

Needless to say, the reality is rarely all that glamorous, adventurous, or even frequent. The annual Durex report tells us that on a global basis people in their twenties have sex an average of 2.1 times a week (compared to our survey, below, which suggests that a quarter of 20- to 29-year-olds have sex most days), while the tone of the survey suggests a wild erotic abandon which characterises each coupling. But my experience, as a 29-year-old unmarried woman, is rather different, and probably more complex. Quite apart from anything else, your experience of sex varies enormously through your twenties, moulded and reinvented by what is probably the most volatile period of your life.

For a little while - for me, at least - my twenties were almost as sexy as popular culture insisted they should be. At 21, I imagined myself a sexual crusader. Sex, for me, was part political act, part femme-fatale role play, and highly self-conscious as a result. I thought I was terribly Betty Blue, all cartoon sensuality and Rouge Noir nails. My contemporaries and I felt it was our duty to have lots of uninvolved, unemotional sex. We sought to shock our male equivalents out of their belief that, for women, sex was inextricably bound up with emotion. I personally made it my mission to take my leave of my one-night stands before they got a chance to make their excuses and run off into the night, secure in the misapprehension that they had conquered me.

And in a way, for a while, it all worked quite nicely. Admittedly, I was often disappointed that my conquests didn't seem shocked by my brazen cavorting. And although it all seemed rather hard work at times, I imagined that my "message" was getting through.

But from 23 on, when the frantic struggle to establish myself professionally, and the uncertainties of life outside full-time education monopolised my life, I didn't have the time, energy, or inclination for it any more. I was socialising - if at all - with people from work, and it didn't seem appropriate to have sex with any of them.

No one lies about their sex life like a woman in her twenties. Admitting to a quasi-monastic existence at 25 is still something of a taboo. Openly discuss your STDs, your threesome fantasies, your twisted, fetishistic proclivities, but never admit to celibacy - or worse, to perfunctory, unimaginative, infrequent couplings you don't like very much. There's a new sex-related shame amongst modern twentysomethings. It's compounded by the relentless, manic sexuality portrayed in Sex and the City and young women's magazines. The message is clear: give up on wild, sexy sex, and you give up on life.

The south-east is studded with All Bar Ones: open, airy stripped-pine bars designed with a female, mid-twenties consumer in mind - the kind who are popularly perceived to be risking their blood pressure and their ovaries by working harder and drinking more than their male counterparts.

By 8.45 on a Thursday night, my local All Bar One is crammed with target customers wearing Zara trouser suits and sharing bottles of Pinot Grigio and bowls of fat chips, and the male groupies they inevitably attract. I eavesdrop on their conversations for a while, and find them spiked with the kind of hyper-sexual attitude that best-selling women's lifestyle magazines dictate. They talk about vibrators ("But where do you keep it?" asks a super-groomed brunette of the English rose sitting next to her. "Does it mess up TV reception?"), and who gets more oral sex.

Do these women feel they're competing with their friends for the wildest sex life?

"Yeah, to be honest, I do feel that," says Karyn, a 26-year-old press assistant who is currently single and admits she recently lied about a one-night stand to her closest friends. "The sex wasn't that great at all, it was embarrassing, and I was a bit gutted I wasn't with my ex. But I told my friends that it was great, just what I needed."

Others I talked to admitted to similar moments of insecurity and resentment. One was annoyed by a friend's bragging about her skill at fellatio. Another admitted she often hinted that she'd had lesbian affairs and threesomes in the past - although she hadn't - because she'd been cast as the hedonistic member of her social group and felt obliged to perpetuate the myth. A third said she'd once admitted to a single friend that her sex life with her boyfriend wasn't up to much - she wanted, she said, to make her friend feel better - and her friend had laughed at her and brought it up subsequently in front of other people.

Generally, there does seem to be a feeling among women of my age that media overkill has demystified and rendered sterile the kind of excitement they experienced when they first experimented with sex as teenagers. A straw poll of my friends revealed a distinct antipathy toward media sex. "I really can't stand to hear another 40-year-old therapist talk about her sexual responses on Channel 4," admitted one. "It's got to the point where I think about those images when I'm in bed with my boyfriend. I'd rather relate what I do to porn films than that."

"It's like I've got a built-in filter for magazine sex now," adds another. "It's all crap, and it's really, really unsexy - all those exclamation marks and stupid euphemisms."

Men in their twenties were generally less forthcoming with anything but vague statements about not knowing what women wanted any more. They are, after all, less accustomed to offering up sexual truths, more used to being passively mainlined a certain kind of sex by FHM-informed culture.

Graham, 27, suggested that the spectrum of sex surveys, from Masters & Johnson to New Woman, have provided the grounds for comparisons that often leave them feeling inadequate. "On one hand, everyone's insisting that there's no such thing as normal, that everyone does different things," he says. "On the other, there are all these statistics available that suggest some things are more normal than others.'

Darren, 28, revealed that he truly doesn't believe any woman is capable of having sex without engaging emotionally on some level. "I'd love to think it happens, but I really don't believe it does." (Sadly, this would imply that my sexual crusader period was rather ineffectual.)

If gay men started the decade on a sexual crusade, most ended up basking in the aftermath of Channel 4's Queer as Folk. One clever TV programme has arguably done more to up the status of British gay men than years of Pride marches. According to Si, a 26-year-old gay friend of mine, Queer as Folk presented an image of gay life that was "glossy and desirable. Nice flats, good gadgets, mobile phones, brilliant one-liners. Everyone wanted a part of it. Straight people wanted a part of it."

A confusing, complicated breed of sexual politics reverberates through other aspects of twentysomething sexual conduct. The sexual trophies one collects in the early years don't seem so clever later on. Lucie, a 29-year-old, has ambiguous feelings about the two years she spent sleeping exclusively with black men. 'I can't stand to think too carefully about what I was playing at. I presume there was a bit of trophyism going on somewhere. I have friends who insist there are plenty of black guys who like to 'conquer' white women, but that just makes me feel more uncomfortable."

There are also, it would seem, more specific predictable sexual taboos preoccupying this generation. The top three unmentionables of the moment run: female masturbation; anal sex; the fact that we do not use condoms as often as we should. But essentially now, as ever, for the twenties as for everyone else, the basis for sexual shame, awkwardness and angst is lodged in the gap between the things we think we're supposed to be doing and feeling, and the things we actually do.