Terence Blacker: Amid all this romping, where did our love go?

'At a time when the press has been full of stories one would rather not hear, conjuring up images that the imagination swiftly confers to the recycle bin, the words of Doris Lessing in a recent interview strike a note of melancholy wisdom'
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The Independent Online

At a time when the press has been full of stories one would rather not hear, conjuring up images that the imagination swiftly confers to the recycle bin, the words of Doris Lessing in a recent interview strike a note of melancholy wisdom. "Old-fashioned love is in defiance of the spirit of the times," she has said. "I know several people who are rather guilty about the fact they have a totally satisfactory love going on."

Yes, where did that old-fashioned, totally satisfactory love go to? Even couples who are seen to have remained couples are, to judge by the latest episodes in the great celebrity soap opera, assumed or alleged to have been wandering from the straight and narrow, together, apart or in company.

Perversity is hot. It has been around for a while, of course, but right now it seems that you don't mean a thing if you don't do that swing, at least in some way or another. Doris Lessing may be right: judging by what we read in the press or see on TV documentaries, the straight couple who like going to bed together, just the two of them, in the time-honoured fashion, are becoming an oddity, a quaint throwback to a more buttoned-up age.

It is tempting to assume that this obsession with the sexually offbeat is a media thing, propelled by frustrated features editors and TV controllers with unhappy home lives. The tabloids can no longer present this year's implanted blonde, Jordan, in the normal way of topless girls ­ wild, willing, generally gagging for it ­ but she must be rumoured to like girls, to enjoy what even the Independent now describes as "three-in-a-bed romps". Channel 4's enjoyable Sex Tips for Girls is not content with toys and techniques but also has to include some obligatory troilism.

On this occasion, though, the media are probably just playing along with the rest of the world. There is a lot of romping going on. A report into the disappearance of Chandra Levy, the former girlfriend of Congressman Gary Condit, revealed that America is enjoying a boom in sadomasochism. Sales of whips and leather gear are going through the roof. In one month, there were 31 million hits on S&M websites. Dungeons and punishment parlours are opening for business all over the country.

Maybe it is a good thing. It takes a dull dog not to entertain the occasional three-in-a-bed thought, or to be tempted to slip into a friendly local sex shop to check out the new handcuff range, but something beyond fantasy seems to be happening here, and it has more to do with fashion than desire.

During The Vagina Monologues, a hot ticket in the West End right now, two stories were particularly enthusiastically received by the mostly female audience. In one, a woman recalled how, on turning 16, she was seduced by an older woman she never met again: the experience had been joyful, liberating, life-changing. In the second story, a prostitute ­ carefully described as a "sex worker" ­ described the pleasures of her work with middle-aged women. The sex she gave and received was a glorious, life-affirming thing.

The audience greeted these accounts with approval and applause, apparently oblivious to the oddness of this reaction. Had the teenager's one-night stand been with an older man, or the prostitutes' punters been middle-aged males, the identical stories would have been tales not of freedom and pleasure but of furtive, clammy exploitation.

Few of the women who stood to cheer at the end of The Vagina Monologues were, I would guess, themselves lesbians ­ indeed several were there with their boyfriends. Their enthusiasm was informed not by gender politics or even by a new mood of liberation so much as the new modishness of alternate sexuality ­ the embarrassment of the straight, attached, two-in-a-bed couple.

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