Joan Bakewell: Now it's official: sex improves with age

I learnt that the most powerful sex organs are the brain and the imagination
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The Independent Online

When it comes to sex lessons: only the practical really matters. Certainly there is sex education expressed in a whole vocabulary that never gets mentioned in bed: ovulation, vagina, erectile tissue, menstrual flow. That's the theory, the basic essentials reinforced with diagrams, biological models and discreet questions behind teenage embarrassment. Then there's the informal education of sex mags and girlie magazines: boys tend to browse over the glossy pictures, the greater the anatomical detail the better; girls veer towards advice columns and articles: "How will I know when I have an orgasm?"; "What if he wants oral sex?" After that, it's trial and error. Possibly for the rest of your life.

Anything more is open to speculation and surveys. The latest global survey hit an eager public this week, and covers nearly 300,000 people in 29 countries. It comes up with, as all surveys do, findings that match the times. Thus did the Kinsey reports of 1948 and 1953 discover there was a lot more sex happening than had previously been supposed, that masturbation was widespread and premarital sex pretty common. It reinforced and endorsed the post-war impulses to enjoy and own up to pleasures previously denied. Sex was suddenly something you could discuss. Social awareness gave an air of respectability to human curiosity and prurience.

Next up in the mid Sixties came Masters and Johnson, practising sex therapists, whose Human Sexual Response was a bestseller and did much to debunk the prevailing myth that homosexuality was an illness. It came too late, though, for the mathematical genius Alan Turing, inventor of the computer, who in the mid Fifties had been subjected to hideous hormone treatment to "correct" his sexuality. Then, coinciding with the high tide of feminism in the mid Seventies, came The Hite Report, whose author Shere Hite discovered that women were not getting the sexual satisfaction they believed could be theirs and that, in fact, traditional sex - defined as foreplay, penetration and male orgasm - was itself sexist.

Decades pass and social change brings to Western countries greater equality between the sexes. We see it in the two-career families, in young dads who change nappies and do the cooking, and women who manage companies and hedge funds. And now we see it in bed. The Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviours finds that those in gender-equal relationships enjoy the best sex and are more likely to have fulfilling sex lives in their later years.

This is a report that matches our current preoccupation with an ageing population and all its associated problems. Sex, however, appears not to be one of them. Austrians especially, the findings say, are wallowing in sexual happiness well into their seventies, with Canadians and Swedes also aglow with pleasure. Britain ranks lower on the scale of Western countries. But even then the news is good: 75 per cent say they have good sex lives. This is a statistical triumph to set against the gloom of NHS closures and unhappy literacy rates. Close the bedroom door and sudden happiness blossoms.

Can any of this be true, we ask ourselves, conducting a quick personal audit of how we match up. I had no sex lessons as a schoolgirl and no chick lit to look to for guidance. I learned my sex at the cinema, both from the writhing figures in the back-row seats, where lack of space inhibited anything athletic, to the closed-mouth kisses of Gone with the Wind, and the dramatic tide-washed encounter of From Here to Eternity in which a decorous Deborah Kerr remained chastely trapped in a one-piece swim-suit throughout. I learnt then about passion rather than sex. I learnt, too, that the most powerful sex organs are the brain and the imagination. I have been using both vigorously ever since.

Apart from death, sex remains the most mysteriously elusive of human experiences, and one most hard to define and describe. Where once it inspired Donne and Marvell, it now finds its place in pop songs and commercial jingles. Its exploitation to sell everything from cars to chocolate focuses, as artists have always done, on the young and beautiful. Titian and Picasso are here at one with Sophie Dahl's perfume poster and the Megane promotion. So, by such constant exposure, we have unwittingly come to believe that sex - really good juicy sex - belongs to the young. Not so. In real life, most of it is conducted between flagging limbs, swelling paunches, often with one ear for the baby's crying, or, more maturely, a mind to the recurring back problem. It is the noisy, clamorous young who make all the headlines, with their drunken forays, their shrieking hen parties, their insecurities and bravado.

How nice to learn that, once the headline-grabbing years are over, there is a steady prospect to be found in the deep, deep peace of the double bed. I see it in the quiet but evident happiness of lives I know. Sex matters a lot when we are young. But a sustained partnership will enfold sex within the other shared compatibilities of being together. A common level of intelligence and of interests will see you through the patches of sexual boredom, and, if you have a bond strong enough to survive the infidelity years, you may well come to a closer understanding than before. Certainly to lie in the arms of someone you love and who loves you is beyond measure one of life's great happinesses. But whoever needed a survey to tell us that?