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

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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.

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