E Jane Dickson: Forget the housework - sex is more fun

Young people don't have sex, whatever we might like to think, to spite their parents. They do it because it feels good

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Yet again we hear that women prefer housework to sex. Yet again I worry that I'm doing the wrong kind of housework.

Yet again we hear that women prefer housework to sex. Yet again I worry that I'm doing the wrong kind of housework.

A survey conducted by Good Housekeeping magazine (and what better organ to promote red-hot, five-times-a-night Hoovering?) reveals that 40 per cent of women under 35 find more pleasure in spring cleaning than making love. The good news is that in the 35 and over age group, the dismal statistic falls to 25 per cent.

Nevertheless, if we line up these fastidious women with their equally jaded sisters who claim, in surveys, to prefer chocolate, jogging, or the time-honoured cup of tea to sex, the continuance of the species starts to look distinctly iffy. "Better than sex" was once the ne plus ultra of lip-smacking endorsements. These days the phrase has an oddly defeated ring to it. I shouldn't be at all surprised if the Government's next televised campaign to get us all to fill in our tax returns on time doesn't feature a harassed looking woman sneaking down in the middle of the night to seize on a mountain of paperwork while some weary-voiced wonk advises, "Go on, at least it's better than sex."

Oddly enough, it is advertisers, a body generally associated with finger-on-the-pulse cultural awareness, that persist in the notion that we are all, deep down, gagging for it. (What other good reason could we possibly have for eating a Flake?)

And, up to a point, women continue to respond to this overplayed stimulus. We dress for sex, we cook for sex, we take out second mortgages to enhance our secondary sexual characteristics with plastic surgery. We talk about it till we're blue in the face. We're just not that keen, or so we are told, on Doing It.

Of all the exhaustive - and exhausting - surveys on the subject, perhaps the most depressing was the one which found that the majority of women interviewed (presumably by Ann Summers or one of her representatives on earth) would choose a sex-toy party with the girls over a night of passion with her partner. (Tip to frustrated husbands: next time, throw in a bottle of chardonnay and some cheese balls).

So what brought on this collective headache? When exactly did sex become No Big Deal?

There is no shortage of hoary commentators pointing back, like Marley's Ghost, to the moment it all went wrong. By broad consensus, it was the 1960s that did it. The permissive society. The availability of effective contraception that made sex permissible, even - whisper it soft - enjoyable for women. But, or so the Marley line goes, the poor dears couldn't handle it. Too much of a good thing and all that. We wanted the zipless fuck, but what we got (and serve us right) was sex without zip or zest or joy.

I mistrust this reasoning on two counts. Firstly, I would be surprised and sad to learn that no woman of my grandmother's generation ever enjoyed sex. And secondly, if we were, or consider ourselves now to be, so damned permissive, how come we are still in the 21st century discussing sex as if it were a Class-A drug, a guilty pleasure, for which some dreadful price must some day be paid?

In this we hark back to the morality of Charles Dickens and even, god help us, Giuseppe Verdi, where the ultimate sin for a woman was not having sex, but being seen to enjoy it. Think of all those adventurous - and titillating - heroines, from Tess of the D'Urbervilles to Violetta in La Traviata, then think again: how many of them lived to tell the tale? A slow death by tuberculosis was, frankly, the best they could hope for.

Earlier this summer, I watched a performance of La Traviata in Verona which was booed by the public and castigated in reviews because Violetta, instead of looking a wilted camellia in a big white dress, looked like a hoyden in killer heels. The sex scenes were joyous; the audience was enraged. And the message couldn't have been clearer. Nice girls don't let on they like it.

So much for ancient prejudice. There is a more insidious strain to the trumpeted insistence that sexual pleasure, for women, is overrated. To deny the joy of sex, the specialness of sex (if such a hopelessly old-fashioned term may be admitted), is seriously to underestimate its power both to enhance and to confuse lives.

We are hugely and rightly exercised about the "sexualisation" of young girls before their time. Last week we wondered if it might be the amount of bed-hopping on pre-watershed TV (well, duh!). This week we're thinking it might be that sparkly lip-gloss we put in our daughter's Christmas stocking that tipped her too early into sexual activity. Yet at the same time, our daughters are hearing from every quarter that really, sex is no big deal for women. Well, actually, it is a big deal, and the younger you are the bigger deal it is.

Young people don't have sex, whatever we might like to think, to spite their parents. They do it because it feels good. To insist otherwise, while ploughing grimly on with the Janet and John Use a Condom curriculum, can only cement a child's belief that parents know nothing about anything and are best ignored. How can a young girl in the hormonal maelstrom of first love be anything but confused about sex when she hears her mum droning on with her pals about how they'd as soon go to bed early with a packet of Hob Nobs? The difference, should it still be unclear, between sex and biscuits is that no 12-year-old ever woke up after a night on the Hob Nobs with, at best, her self-esteem, and at worst, her life in shreds.

It's not that I want mothers to start regaling their daughters with personal recollections of sexual bliss - I can imagine nothing more horrifying - but it does strike me as somehow ungallant to diminish a girl's expectation of sexual happiness right from the off. "Lie back and think of England" was unhelpful maternal advice. "Lie back and think of dusting" seems to me immeasurably worse.

But that's just the soppy stuff. The pernicious reverse of the notion that women don't enjoy good sex is that bad sex doesn't much matter to them either. Not even really bad sex. Not even the rape of a 12-year-old. Men, we are told, are different. It's in their make-up to get excited about sex. They just can't help themselves. That is why we shouldn't go round in mini-skirts (men, you see, take these things seriously).

And that is why, in 2004, when every political party is nailing its colours to child protection, it is fine for 18-year-old Michael Barrett to commit statutory rape on a 12-year-old girl and walk away with a two-year conditional discharge from Bristol Crown Court. Sex, it has been suggested, was no big deal for the 12-year-old in question. Certainly it was no big deal for the judge.

Our own judgements on sexual matters, unlike a responsible court's, will necessarily be clouded by personal experience. But we should not be lulled, by false notions of permissiveness, into thinking these matters are unimportant. Because sex, good or bad, is something to get excited about.

e_jane.dickson@virgin.net

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