Five friends talking dirty at thirty

You're too married for kinky sex, too honourable for an affair. You yearn to play the field, but you don't want to be Mick Hucknall. Oliver Bennett holds an impromptu self-help session for his thirtysomething mates
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Five men in a pub: it's a grottier, geezer's version of Sex and the City, with pints of lager rather than vodkatinis, and somewhat less glamour. But the principle remains the same: old mates talking dirty.

Five men in a pub: it's a grottier, geezer's version of Sex and the City, with pints of lager rather than vodkatinis, and somewhat less glamour. But the principle remains the same: old mates talking dirty.

As ever, the conversation began with the crudités: the perfect breast size and how long one should have gone out with someone before asking for anything out of the ordinary. But this was the bravado stuff, and strangely, none of the lads wanted direct attribution, which is why I will call them Andy, numbers 1 to 5.

We agreed that the late thirties is a time of sexual conflict for men: of yearning for a racier past and facing up to a more sober future. The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics showed that men were staying single into their forties. Observers attributed this to men wishing to "play the field". But something about it didn't stack up, except to support the commonplace that today's men are a bunch of feckless commitment-phobes.

Frankly, unless you are Jack Nicholson with barrowloads of money, or have a psychopathic disregard of other people's feelings, it is difficult to "play the field" without scoring a few own goals. But the possibility still lends the "middle-youthed" male a lingering sexual hunger. "Did you see that picture of Ridley Scott with a young 'mystery brunette' at a premiere the other day?" asked Andy 3, wistfully.

My anecdotal evidence has it that the overriding middle-years male issue is whether it is best to be single or attached. "It is the big one: whether by being in a relationship you are denying yourself great sex with new people," said Andy 2. "I'm sure we'd have settled for our lot in the 1950s." But would that potential deliver in reality? Or would being single actually lead to sad Cup-a-Soup Sundays? That is the dilemma for us men, while our female contemporaries are clearer about their relationship ambitions.

As late baby-boomers, some of my older pals came of age in the mid-1970s, when you were miffed if your girlfriend wasn't on the pill. Then, in the late Seventies and Eighties came the two body blows to male sexual profligacy: feminism and Aids. "In a way, populist feminism lent a sense of shame to male heterosexuality," said Andy 1. "Some of us are only just getting over that."

Few will have made it to the late thirties unscathed. Some will be fathers, others divorced; many embittered. There are those men happy in the nirvana of coupledom - and more stuck in unhappy marriages, possibly thinking it better than the alternative - a cold bedsit with dirty plates in the sink. Then there is the child effect. The pram in the hall may be the "enemy of promise": it certainly doesn't do much for your sex life.

"There's so much propaganda telling you to couple up," said Andy 5, who is, unusually among our friends, single. Indeed, we are constantly told that men in long-term relationships are happier and even live longer than single males. "Commitment is a duty, demanded by the tribe," asserted Andy 5. Sadly, it conflicts with our fantasy desire for full-on Reichian orgasms with eager-to-please nubiles.

Many of us middle-youths have been through serial monogamy and, despite its emotional highs and lows, have enjoyed the variety. "It's like looking forward to a holiday in a new place," said Andy 3. But while we agreed that we miss different bodies, we concurred that in some existential way, missed opportunity was part of a full erotic life.

Andy 4 mentioned that the thirties was the time when you started to fancy people younger than yourself. "You don't need a guide anymore and it's time to pass down the benefit of your knowledge," he said, invoking trendy neo-Darwinism: "It's biologically determined that we want to impregnate young females." Another ventured that it was a time of sexual connoisseurship - less greed, more finesse; or, to nick Paul Newman's line, staying at home with steak instead of going out for burgers. Ah, but we agreed it would be nice to have the occasional binge.

For better or worse, at thirtysomething we are not old enough to have left the monster of sexual desire behind. If all desire is suffering, then sexual desire is particularly painful: a force that makes the male behave like fools against better judgement. "I think in their thirties and forties men become more sexually competitive, not less," said Andy 3. "They are watching the clock and their hairlines, and it makes them anxious to prove themselves."

Andy 2 admitted to mild envy of those men who had a promiscuous lifestyle. But just as a young hellraiser becomes an ageing boor, so can a "top shagger" turn into a strange and lonely figure. As with booze and drugs, in adulthood it's better to have been promiscuous. As Ozzy Osbourne once said, "Sex with groupies is meaningless. After 10 years, I'd had enough." Why can't the lad become the cad and stay promiscuous into his forties and fifties? "Ask yourself," said Andy 2. "Do you really want to become Mick Hucknall?"

We know that men go downhill after 16, and that women peak at 40. Even so, manuals will tell you that sex gets better and that maturity and talent will mitigate performance anxiety. The American psychiatrist Mark Goulston identified the differences between early and mid-life sex as "passionate and compassionate love". But that's what we middle-aged men fear; that sex will become a bit too cosy. "God, that'll make it seem as if life had ended," said Andy 4, adding that "men get kinkier as they get older. I've noticed it in myself, in a sort of 'want-to-watch' way." And yet, I venture, sexual ennui is probably our biggest obstacle. We may be better lovers, but we are often lazier. "I just cannot be bothered to do oral sex any more," said Andy 2, who added that he had 'been underneath' for as long as he could remember with his wife: "Much more comfy."

There are other forms of sexual profligacy such as "swinging", but none of us fancied it that much: "Unless I could go on my own," ventured Andy 2. "But they always want you to be a couple, don't they? I wouldn't want to pass my missus round to a bunch of seedy old blokes in leather jockstraps."

Perhaps the "baby father" role adopted by some Afro-Caribbean men seems to strike the right balance: combining the pleasure of remote parenthood with the promise of new partners. The role model would be a sultan - to be a languid old sybarite with droit de seigneur across a bevy of babes. "Like the Marquis of Bath and his 'wifelets'," said Andy 3. Well, why not?

Most thirtysomething males will have experienced a long-term relationship and nearly all my friends have at least attempted cohabitation or marriage. Yet we recall the thrills of serial monogamy, and are haunted by the ghost of great sex past, as well as the spectre of our sexual potential diminishing. "I sometimes wonder if I'll ever sleep with anyone new again," sighed Andy 2, a married 38-year-old. "I do hope so." One recalls John Betjeman's comment when asked if he had any regrets, and he replied: "Yes, I haven't had enough sex." I'm already sure I will feel like that.

Yet affairs, we agreed, seemed more exciting than the reality. "Too much like hard work and invariably involving deceit and guilt," said Andy 3. Sex in the thirties and forties is when your conscience wins over your lust - possibly compounded by dwindling opportunity. "If my girlfriend accepted me sleeping around I think I'd get annoyed," said Andy 2. "I wouldn't want her to be a doormat."

Indeed, among my group of horny hets, there was concord about one thing. "It must be great to be gay," said one. "You could just go down to Russell Square and have sex with somebody. Right now." Of course, gays see it differently: one acquaintance tells me that the gay scene "can be very judgemental and looks-oriented, and also very ageist".

And all that leads to a big downside to being single in mid-life: the people. They - that is, women - joke that finding a single male is like the proverbial parking space; either taken or the meter's out of order. Well, ditto with women. We agreed that the market becomes gradually more warped and fraught with raised expectations.

Meanwhile, we talk about sex. And luckily, among my group of thirtysomethings there is no feeling that talking is a subsitute for doing it. We know that the "tell" is as sweet as the "kiss". And we agree that this is the age when we appreciate the deep bliss of the double bed - but retain a bittersweet longing for the hurly burly of the chaise longue.