Phoning in sick from the sexual revolution

As my friend's mother always says, `If you find a good man, shoot him before he goes off'
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The Independent Online
"So, are five orgasms really better than one?" screams Company magazine. A stupid question, one might feel, but in the current "less is more" climate that governs everything from politics to cuisine, you never can tell. Quality rather than quantity is the order of the day.

There is, you will be pleased to hear, "a flipside to a clutch of climaxes". The most important thing, apparently, is to do it with someone you love. This may explain why four out of 10 women prefer to remain celibate, according to the 1995 General Household survey. Either there are not enough men of a suitable calibre, or we don't love them enough.

Before we proclaim celibacy as the new rock'n'roll, we might question how honest the respondents to the survey were in the first place. As the age group ranged from 16 to 49, we may assume that there were some who lied about how much sex they were having. Yet the figures are backed up by detailed questions about contraceptive use.

Experts are being wheeled in to figure out how this tragedy could have afflicted the nation's women. Presumably it hasn't afflicted the nation's men, or the 60 per cent of single women who aren't celibate and are having to do overtime to make up for the abstainers. But how could four in 10 girls be just saying no when we have assumed they were always saying yes? How could they turn their noses up at this trivial pursuit? Are these women the conscientious objectors in the war between the sexes? Would they really rather have a cup of tea? Could the Spice Girls really be all mouth and no underwear?

It may be hard for a sexually obsessed culture to contemplate, but perhaps we have had enough. We have heard so much, read so much, seen so much sex that we cannot be bothered to fake our interest in the real thing anymore.

We have had buckets of sex in order to liberate ourselves, sex to become emotionally healthy, sex to burn up excess calories, sex to prove we can have one-night stands, sex to cement relationships, casual sex, serious sex, sex in faraway places, sex with the boy next door.

We are all toilers in the great sex industry. After all this sexual experimentation, our conclusions are rather mundane - sex is usually better with someone you like than someone you don't. No sex may be preferable to bad sex. At certain times and for certain people, sex is more important than at others.

I find the news of these sexual shirkers, the "abstainers", those brave souls who have phoned in sick in the sexual revolution, rather heartening. What willpower it must require to ignore the messages beamed out at us from every poster, magazine, advert, film and television screen.

"No sweat! Great sex, less effort" (Minx); "Secret life of a sex addict (Elle); "Aliens forced me to have sex" (More!) are just a selection of headlines from magazines aimed at young women. Company has a feature on women who are "bastards". One such bastard is Maria, who slept with "five complete strangers" on holiday in Greece last summer. Sleep is a peculiar euphemism for such an up-front magazine.

"Rupert was tall and dark and had great teeth." Bloke 4 was not impressive - "I actually fell asleep during sex because I was so pissed, and to be honest, the sex was crap." Keith fared a bit better, but once back in London, "it was a case of been there, done that, time to move on. And without a tan he didn't look half as good".

Is Maria really a "bastard", an example of girl power, a wannabe Girlie Show presenter, a ladette who is "mad for it", a model of sexual health, a product of sexual liberation, a refuter of double standards?

She may be none or all of these things, she may not even exist, but as a role model she is too sorely dated to be worth aspiring to. The days when such behaviour would have marked her out as a sexual pioneer have long gone - they belonged to the Seventies, the era of Erica Jong's "zipless fuck". I care not whether Maria has sex with five of 50 men a week - if it makes her happy: if it doesn't, she may as well stick to aerobics.

I suspect the abstainers may know what makes them happy. Or they may simply view sex as being about more than physical need. Women, accustomed to increased choice in every area of their lives, are making choices in this department, too. Contraception has freed us up, work has given us independence. Many women view sex as part of a deal, not as the deal itself. They want partners to fit in with a lifestyle they have prepared earlier, instead of changing their lives around when they meet a man.

The facade of a successful partnership - the dinner parties, the mini- breaks, the public world of coupledom - is as important as what goes on behind closed doors. Women's refusal to compromise means increased business for dating agencies and marriage guidance counsellors. Sex, in this model, is a perk of the job of coupledom, rather than an earth-shattering experience.

Men are simply not up to it. Or so it has been claimed. As my friend's mother always says, "If you find a good man, shoot him before he goes off." They cannot cope with all these demands, and who can blame them? Given further permission to act like pigs because of the burgeoning Lad culture, they snout around, desperate for those three little words that Mrs Merton claims her husband waited a long time to hear: "If you must."

They are confused poor things, and so are we. Sex is power one minute and play the next, imbued with mystical significance for some, a mechanism for release for others. In a sexually saturated culture, its currency has become devalued. "Shagging" and "bonking" are infantile expressions, holiday-camp activities, that make sex mean nothing. This may be the apotheosis of sexual liberation, but it doesn't pan out like that because too many of us still want sex to mean something.

If some women are shirking their responsibility to be sexually active at all times, it may be because they have liberated themselves from the idea that they can only be defined within the context of a sexual relationship. Celibacy may not be new, but it is still considered shocking in an era of compulsory sexual activity. The abstainers may, like everyone else, talk about it more than they do it, for if there is a moral in the tale it is this: our biggest sexual fantasy is the enduring one that everyone else in the world has more sex than we do. Better start fantasising less.