Sexual politics in the 90s: Are you getting the sex you want?

At the end of the Twentieth Century, will peace finally break out in the sex war? Real Life's five-page special takes a long, hard look at what men and women really want from each other as husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters - and friends. But first, Hester Lacey on where it all begins... in bed

Hester Lacey
Saturday 17 May 1997 23:02
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What do women really want from men? What do men really want from women? Surely, in the decades since radical feminists and MCPs faced each other over the trenches of the sex war, we should have found the answers. Sex has never been so written about and dissected as it is today; everyone is supposed to be knowledgeable, sophisticated and expert in the bedroom. So, is the modern relationship a streamlined, evolved phenomenon, or are partnerships between the sexes as complicated as ever?

If there is one word that sums up Nineties attitudes to sex it is the ubiquitous term "shag". Sex may have lost some of its mystique, but it has also lost most of its romance. Making lurve is passe; shagging is all about the here and now. "The most important aspect of sex is that it's a physical thing that feels really good," says Matthew, 35, an accountant. "It's not the hearts-and- flowers experience you had to go through a few years ago to get into bed. You can be quite upfront about wanting a relationship that is purely based on having a good time and getting off with a woman, and she'll be after exactly the same thing. I don't mean that you roll on and roll off, but for both partners to achieve orgasm is definitely the key, simple as that."

Women, too, place a strong emphasis on physical satisfaction rather than tender wooing. "When I was younger, I definitely wanted to be thought of as `good in bed' and I would concentrate on pleasing the man I was with," says Nina, 33, who works in PR. "Now I expect proper foreplay and I expect to come. I know that in order to come I need quite a lot of oral sex and I expect my partner to do that for me. After all, I do it for him. Orgasm is just as important for a woman, though I have occasionally faked one through sheer boredom and the desire to get sex over with." "Sex is something you can practise and get better at and I think a man owes it to his partner to do that," adds Ruth, 33, also a PR executive.

And quite right, too, says Phil Hilton, editor of Men's Health magazine. "It's certainly a more demanding market, if you think of women as the buyers. Men have had to get their act together. Independent and sexually aggressive women like Sharon Stone are considered sexy today, and while men may find it slightly nerve-racking to be confronted with an upfront woman, it's better in the long run not to have to go through the charade of trapping women into a sex." He believes that men today are looking for equal partners. "The very fact that differences are breaking down makes women more exciting. The idea of banter, challenge, a woman who gives as good as she gets, is exciting; the idea of traditional femininity where she listens to your jokes and laughs at them is very boring."

One important reason why women are now able to face men on a more equal footing is a matter of pure economics: they no longer have to rely on their husbands financially. "We have moved away from the idea of man as breadwinner and the woman in a lower- status job," says Dr Patrick McGhee, head of psychology at the Bolton Institute. "This means that both men and women are having to think about the negotiation of balance in their relationships."

Economic independence effects the balance in the bedroom, too. Women do not need to extend sexual favours in order to be supported financially. That means that a sexual relationship is now likely to be an erotic contract, not a financial one. "It's essential to be financially independent in order to have an equal relationship and meet men on their own terms," says Clare, 26, a trainee solicitor. "When I think of my mum getting by on pounds 30 a week housekeeping and having to get it like a kid getting pocket money you can see how far things have changed for the better. You can't buy a woman now with dinner out and a few bangles and baubles. If she wants dinner or diamond rings she can buy her own."

But underneath such Nineties brashness, old insecurities still lurk. "One of the things I find most confusing is that everyone is supposed to know everything these days," says Anna, 30, a teacher. "There are all these manuals and videos and self-help books and you feel that if you haven't got a special blow-job technique or if you don't want sex every night or if you don't always come that you are really inadequate." Keeping up appearances remains important. It's harder to find anyone who will confess to not being that bothered about sex than it is to find someone eager to tell all about their five-times-a-night, seven-nights-a-week experiences. "I have sex once a week, in bed, with the lights off - that old cliche. Sometimes my partner comes and sometimes she doesn't, but I know her well enough not to be thrown into a panic if it doesn't happen. I like sex but it's not the be-all and end-all of my life," confesses Rob, 31, a computer support manager. "You do feel a bit worried that everyone else is covering themselves in ice-cream and swinging from the shower rail, but we just don't want to do that."

It's true that one of the most insulting things that can be hinted about anyone is that they just aren't very interested in sex, agrees Sarah Litvinoff, author of What's Your Sexual Style? (Coronet pounds 6.99). "When we talk about sex we're not talking about what goes on in individual bedrooms, but about the acceptable public face of sex. We base our ideas on what is in the media, and the public face of sex in the Nineties is about very upfront sexual gratification; anything goes with anyone. It's a more hard-edged version of the free love of the Sixties and Seventies. For everyone who is liberated by this kind of attitude, there are others who are made unhappy because they feel pressurised into acting in a way that they don't want to. In today's sexual climate, you are assumed to have a problem if you are not particularly into sex."

And, she adds, you can't learn to be a "good lover" from a book. "There is a very mechanical attitude to sex; the idea that if you've done a course on car mechanics, you can strip down any engine. While sexual possibilities have opened up, it has become much less intimate. It's all about self- gratification; if you are an `expert' in bed you aren't thinking about the other person, you are showing off. What makes good sex is a very subtle cocktail of mental and physical turn-ons and it's different for every individual."

So, what makes up this subtle cocktail for today's modern lovers? Notions that come up time and time again, ahead of any sex technique, are those of equality and respect. "My partner loves oral sex and although I'm not mad on it I'm happy to do it because it makes him happy," says Emma, 29, a personnel manager. "But at the same time I expect him to work on making me come, because it's a 50:50 thing. When we started sleeping together he had no idea, it was five minutes of fiddling about then straight in, I really had to train him."

"My partner is quite open about telling me what she wants in bed, and I'm glad," says David, 32, who works in marketing. "No-one is born knowing exactly what to do and I think men got over expecting to take the lead ages ago. And it makes it easier for me because I don't feel I'm being demanding if we are both asking for what we want."

A small but growing minority are clinging to their virginity until marriage; American groups such as True Love Waits are gaining a precarious foothold in this country. But at the same time, particularly among younger people, the notion of the double standard - men who sleep around are studs, women who sleep around are sluts - is gradually dissolving. "There is still a perception that nice girls don't have lots of partners, but I think people of around my age are less judgemental," says Melanie, 28. "My flatmates wouldn't be shocked if I brought home two different men in the same week, but my mother certainly would be."

Who takes the sexual lead? Whoever feels like it. "Sometimes I like my partner to leap on me, but sometimes I prefer her to be a bit more girly and yielding," says Richard, 34, an architect. "It varies. I don't think there are any hard-and-fast rules any more. It's just what we happen to want to do at the time."

This converging of sexual roles is the result of a change in what we want from a relationship, according to Mick Cooper, author of The MANual: The Complete Man's Guide To Life. "Twenty or 30 years ago, men wanted women as a status symbol or a mother figure, and women were looking for an authority or father figure. Now people are looking more for companions. They want a loving sexual relationship, but they also want someone to go down the pub and have a good time with. A girlfriend becomes like a male friend - one of the mates."

This companionship, he says, is based on a genuine move towards equality. "We've gone through the stage when New Man was a feminist because his girlfriend was. I've studied the men's movement in some detail, and a lot of guys were pushed into it by their partners. I am optimistic about the way men are feeling at the moment; there is an awareness of the need for equality, that's now a given, but men aren't beating themselves up about it. There is still some way to go, but I think there is far more desire for real understanding between the sexes."

Trust and honesty are important not only as abstract concepts. The spectre of Aids has put safe-sex firmly on the map. "I always carry condoms, I don't believe there is any stigma attached to it any more - at any rate, not among the kind of men I'm likely to be sleeping with," says Caroline, 28, a publishing assistant. "If for some reason I'm caught without them, there's no way I'd have full sex. But there are plenty of other things you can do; penetration isn't the most important part of sex."

The novelist Elisa Segrave, whose recent book Ten Men (Faber and Faber pounds 10.99) recalls her sexual experiences in the Sixties, is nostalgic for more carefree times. "The hippy period was marvellous; women admitted for the first time to enjoying sex for its own sake and it was totally hedonistic. The Americans used to call it `balling' and that just epitomised the spontaneity of it. This kind of free behaviour is impossible now because of Aids. Young women and men have to be much more serious about sex. There's a parallel now with my grandmother's time - she had to be very discerning because she had one choice to make for life, and it seems a bit like that now."

So: technically accomplished, in theory at least, equal and respectful, and friends as well as lovers. Is a new harmony between the sexes on the horizon? "We are in a state of transition," says Susan Quilliam, relationship psychologist, agony aunt, and author of Your Sexual Self (Ward Locke pounds 14.99). "The parallel I'd draw is that of children growing up. We've been through our adolescent rebellion - the gender difficulties we've had - and now we are starting to form adult relationships."

The notion of fixed gender roles is gradually dissolving, she observes. "There's a different picture wherever you turn. For example, you've got the Spice Girls which is a fresh and new look at feminism and equality. Then you've got John Gray's book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, which says that, in fact, men and women are very different and you have to work with those differences. Then you've got The Rules, the book on how to get your man, which goes back to an almost pre-feminist notion of femininity. It's similar to when a religion breaks down; you get a lot of minority cults. But I think we are moving towards a much more equal relationship between the sexes. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it's definitely coming."

Feminist writer Natasha Walter, whose book The New Feminism will be published later this year by Little, Brown, agrees. "Look at current feminist writing on sexuality; Lynne Segal and Naomi Wolf have both been focusing on how similar male and female sexuality can be. Look at popular culture; it is assumed these days that women can be proactive and men can be soft and yielding. As women become less disadvantaged financially and politically, there is no doubt that it is bringing the sexes together."

And, she says, maybe it's time for a last word on the whole subject. "Maybe this is a time when we can start reaching for more privacy. Sexuality has been the great obsession of social thinkers, psychologists, second- wave feminists. Back in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, women quite rightly wanted to shine a light on their sexuality and dispel ignorance, but now that has degenerated into a constant barrage of articles, especially from women's magazines. Living more privately would be a nice ideal for the next generation. Perhaps now we have reached a rapprochement, we can give sex education to children and then shut up about it."

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