Women, not men, talk about sex these days. Maybe it's better that way

Share
Related Topics
A Man I like but don't know very well is speaking in intimate detail about his sex life. Shyly at first, but with growing confidence, he recounts passionate kisses, unbuttoned shirts, fingers probing at waistbands, the squeezing of a nipple, a naked body on top of his. He names names. He gives us the when and where and how. Thoughtfully, without boasting, he shares a chapter of his sexual history.

If it sounds an implausible scenario, it is. Men aren't good at talking about sex these days: neither priests nor therapists, neither wives nor drinking partners, it seems, can get them to open up. Only in a bookshop could you hope to find this sort of candour - which is where I heard the man in question talking: the writer Tony Gould, reading to an audience an autobiographical piece that appears in the latest issue of Granta. It was a thoroughly endearing performance. But, significantly, the events he recalled not only go back 40 years but happened with fellow male boarders at a public school. If the episodes had been more recent, and with girls, the effect would have been far less engaging.

Less honest, too, perhaps. Heterosexual men seem to have trouble writing sex scenes these days. Tony Gould, looking back on a schoolboy homosexual crush, is a candid exception. So is Nicholson Baker, writing about voyeurism and phone sex. John Updike and Nick Hornby are still prepared to have a go. Otherwise the story is one of growing male inhibition. Women do the job much better. Gay men, too, whose prose is energised (read Alan Hollinghurst or Edmund White) by the excitement of breaking taboos. Whereas the heterosexual male writer is jaded with the knowledge that it's all been said before.

But male inhibition about sex isn't just a feature of literary culture. According to a new survey by the British Men's Counselling Association, reported last week, it's a national epidemic: we chaps would rather talk about anything else. We bottle things up, especially if we're from the North. If we've a sexual problem, or an emotional one, we pretend it doesn't exist and hope it will go away, taking refuge in sport or television.

Women, by contrast, think it's good to talk - about their lovers' sexual predilections, and about their own. Their mothers and grandmothers, lying back and thinking of England, may have suffered in silence. But - so the theory goes - young women in the Nineties know what they want of men and aren't going to keep mum if they're not getting it.

If even only a bit of this holds true, men are facing a serious problem. It's not just that, by holding our tongues, we're missing out on the therapeutic benefits of a talkie culture. There's also the deeply perturbing thought that women are sharing their (and our) most intimate bedroom secrets, telling their friends how adept we blokes are at love-making, how long (if at all) we can keep it up, what score they'd give us and how we rate on the all-important matter of size. To which we assume the answers are: useless, brief, one out of 10, and small.

Of course, women who are married or in long relationships are far less likely to spill the beans about their men, unless those marriages or relationships are in trouble. But even they may feel quietly pleased that it's women who are talking dirty these days rather than men. After all, the visceral and physical has always been the natural homeland of women, so it's not simply a matter of taking over enemy territory. The taciturn, paranoid male should console himself with the thought that when women do talk and laugh about our bodies, it's often affectionately, or at least without malice, even if (sexually) we've failed them - lack of love, loyalty or truth are more important failures.

Besides, if men are newly mute and embarrassed, that may be no bad thing: there's still a loudmouth, wolf-whistling history to live down. The talk I heard about sex from other men as a teenager was mostly of a bragging or misogynistic kind. There wouldn't be many details beyond such and such a girl being hot, easy, a real goer, the town bike, all that. Boys then were expected to brag about having sex even if they hadn't, and girls to keep their mouths shut even if they had. Sex was a conning job, to be achieved with the minimum number of words (to her) beforehand and the maximum number (to your mates) afterwards. It was a horrible time.

Later, when longer and closer relationships with women became possible, there was an understanding that the talking had to stop. It would seem caddish, not laddish, to tell a mate, or mates, "There's this thing she does where she ..." Why would you want them to know this, about someone you loved or felt protective of or at any rate wanted to keep for yourself? Possessiveness, as well as chivalry, buttons our lips. I've had conversations with men friends about their passions but not about positions; we've talked sperm counts but not Kama Sutra. Maybe it's my age. Maybe I move in the wrong circles, or rather the right ones, away from the braying conquistadors. But all the men I've asked about this say the same. It would be embarrassing. It would be disloyal. Their women's sexual secrets are safe with them. Stiff upper lip.

This is not to say there aren't still a few indiscreet charmers around: There's Alan Clark, and Stephen Norris, and there was, until he died last year, Robert Stephens, all of them blabbers of bedtime tales. The tabloidisation of our culture, the use of sexual confessions to sell newspapers or to bump up viewing figures, will prolong the existence of Don Juans who kiss and tell. Those who think the culture is as sexually candid and obsessed as it can get may find they're mistaken. In all likelihood, for the next generation of biographers, it won't be enough to name, say, Samuel Beckett's lovers; there'll be stuff about the size and texture of his organ; there'll be memoirs that go "There was this thing he liked to do where he ..."

Candour isn't a relentless forward march. Kathleen Tynan's revelations, 10 years ago, that her husband Ken was fond of spanking girls and sado- masochism and dressing up was neither shocking nor a betrayal of secrets. But the passages JR Ackerley wrote in My Father and Myself about his own "sexual incontinence", as well as a thing or two he did for his dog Tulip when she was on heat, are still shocking 30 years on. The problem is that heterosexual male candour isn't shocking any more, merely grungey and rather dubious. There's too much bad history in it, too much murk and braggadocio and triumphal swiving - with only men in a speaking part. Reading the erotic classics now, it's hard not to be aware of all the silenced women who'd have liked to get out of bed and have their say.

In effect this is what the actress Claire Bloom has done in her autobiography, Leaving A Doll's House, and it makes her an icon for our age: the raw material taking revenge on literature. Having figured, she feels unflatteringly, in a number of novels by her ex-husband Philip Roth, she has decided to redraft the script through her own (non-fictional) account of their relationship. What angers her isn't so much his describing the sex they had but, rather, the sex they didn't have, the sex he (or his protagonist) had with other women. Well, she seems to be saying, two can play the candour game. She fights back by writing back. And Roth, for all the love she protests for him, comes across not as a charming, priapic Portnoy but as a mean wanker.

There may be life yet in the tradition of sex talk which Roth did his bit to usher in. But for the moment it's better if women do the talking and men save their breath for the sex.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

LSA (afterschool club) vacancy in Newport

£40 per day + Travel Scheme : Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job: Our client ...

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curre...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: You must:- Speak English as a first lang...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: low pay, E and non-E online, and the pointlessness of chess

John Rentoul
 

i Editor's Letter: There's a crackle in the Brum air

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style