BOOK REVIEW / What's love got to do with it?: It: Sex Since the Sixties - Jonathon Green: Secker & Warburg, pounds 17.99

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The Independent Online
IT IS a depressing thought, but perhaps It (a collection of vox pop interviews edited by Jonathon Green) is the sex book that our self-reflexive society, with its mixture of hang-ups and exhibitionism, deserves. We pour scorn on French erotica and philosophies of desire; and on the plethora of American advice manuals, and instead we get this - an unsatisfying hybrid of analysis, opinion and private experience.

Green doesn't seem to know quite what he is doing in this book. It is subtitled 'Sex Since the Sixties' but it is not a history. Still, he is clearly looking for something in the mass of words he has collected. 'Whether our Nineties will produce a pioneer of sexual knowledge to rival Freud . . . remains to be seen,' he intones in his introduction. But if his book shows anything, it is that there is no chance 'our' Nineties could ever produce a genius, both blinkered and visionary, who would want to work on our collective obsessions and drive them forward and outward. The collective unconscious is out on view now, and it is a little dull.

Some people in this book were initiated into the primal scene early on, and took it as it came. Take Kitty Gadding, who looked through the french windows at the age of eight and saw her parents 'lying on the sitting-room floor and they had their tops on, but not their bottoms, and what I thought was that it was funny to see their bottoms naked, that was really what struck me.' Funny. That was a side of it some of the great psychoanalysts may have overlooked, but she bears witness to her own experience, and she will analyse it for herself, thanks very much. 'The effect it had on me was a good, salutary effect - the one area of my life in which I don't have hang-ups is sex.' Interestingly, scenes like these are routinely offered in books that reconstruct the lives of serial murderers as good reason why young Dennis or Jeffrey went so peculiar.

The odd, but probably unsurprising, thing is that the more open people are, the cooler and brasher and more upbeat, the less sexy they are. After reading the reminiscences of Linzi Drew, porn model; Lindsay Honey, porn actor; Paula Lewis, purveyor of telephone sex; and Elinor Starr, up-market prostitute, you are tempted to agree with D H Lawrence: 'The Chief Prostitute of Europe would know truly as much about sex as Mr Shaw. . . which is not much.' But that is also the fault of Green's technique - by asking people to talk generally, and chopping their words into bite-sized pieces, he misses the frissons a more patient interviewer might have drawn. As long as people stick to this sort of easy commentary, all the dreams and ecstasies of sex, that probably do lie in the hinterlands of their consciousness, remain hidden.

But the really depressing thing about It - which is a subject hardly touched upon in education videos and advice books, agony columns and magazines (even in other reviews of this very book) - is how much people still hate it, deep down, but not necessarily secretly. 'This is what I say to my children. Don't ever let a horrible smelly dirty willy near you. It's revolting, it smegs all over you,' says Frankie Goddard, a Sixties survivor. Is this the permissive legacy? 'Then, in 1969, it happened to me, and I then felt even worse - sullied, ghastly, ugh,' says another veteran of the supposedly swinging age. 'I just thought, Well, that's what sex is like, I always knew it was filthy and dirty and awful - and yes it is,' says Ellen Severin, who lost her virginity in 1982. While Tracey Minto, one very together 16-year-old, remarks thoughtfully, 'I don't always feel dirty after sex, but most of the time, yes I do.'

It is rather salutary to see that happen, to see how on paper (just as in real life) people that seem attractive and switched on suddenly betray the most unappealing hang-ups and prejudices. While others, who start out by looking as if they belong to another world, suddenly shoot into focus.

Matthew Russell, for instance, who began with endless descriptions of his loveless performances while high on coke and heroin in New York, suddenly tells a sweet tale of a woman he gets to know very well, but only over the telephone. They agree to set up an erotic encounter, he goes round to her flat and she opens the door to him blindfolded, and they make love: 'She's now a rabbi; I found that out because six years later I'm at home with my wife, a child asleep, and the phone rings and I answer it and instantaneously I recognised the voice.' Put that in a novel and it would look too set up; hear it from real life, and it sings.

But those moments are rare; most people speak from afar, and, in fact, the spokespeople for the Nineties seem the farthest away. They pride themselves on coldness and lack of affect: 'People don't feel anything any more,' says Chris Esmond, with a triumphal note. And they are so media-literate they've lost their sense of reality. Here is a funny one: 'The idea that women should get pleasure out of sex probably emerged from the media.' Here is another: 'The New Lad was a media invention and not a particularly good one, but it did give us that chance to stop for a little while and go back down the pub.' Doesn't anyone act out of desire and conviction any more? Or do you have to read about it in Esquire first?

But drag through all that, the generalised comments and rehashes of media nonsense, the sexist twaddle and the mixed-up saddies, and sometimes something will break through, as though to disprove Jonathon Green's brief assertion: 'Sex is. Tout court. Plain and simple.' Adam Cole, a pornographer, moves, almost without realising it, into deep waters when he says that sex is spiritual, 'symbolic of unity and liberation . . . when they have an orgasm, for a few brief moments they get a glimpse of the fact that they are unlimited, they're not restricted to the rather paltry body they find themselves inhabiting.' As the poets have said.

But although the speakers know their video and magazine culture - Skin Two, for instance, which 'has articles by famous writers - it's sexual, but on a more serious level' - no one would dream of referring to Donne or Lawrence, or even Pauline Reage or Anas Nin. For our culture, as for no other, sex is a realm of its own, utterly sui generis, in which literature, spirituality, and even love and friendship have almost melted away.

Almost the only person who stresses love is a spokesperson for the S/M scene; and why? Well, because unless you know someone very well indeed, how do you know 'if someone says she'd like to be tied up, what does she mean? Restricted for three hours, or just having her wrists tied up?' Quite.

Robert Winder is on holiday.

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