Green,’ laughs my friend L, choking on her margarita. ‘I’m not sure you are qualified to write a feature on sex. I’ve slept with more people on one holiday than you have in your entire lifetime.’ I can see her point. I did, however, point out I had been in a continuous monogamous relationship for twenty six years and thus done more shagging than most. It was just with the same person.
When I first slept with someone post split, I did have moments of self doubt. Mainly they were about how vulnerable and exposed it would make me feel
Now, I’ve split from my husband, I am having sex again (don’t tell my mother). But this time not as a teenager. As a grown woman. Which poses both delights and challenges.
I feel that not being exposed to many different men, nor many different scenarios, has meant my sexual development kind of froze at my university self. And whilst I can see my university self was pretty pert (I wish I had appreciated this more at the time), she was also pretty naive. Never seen porn (does Porky’s count?), and never really deviated from the ‘sexual shorthand’ we devised at the time. The truth is we found out what worked for us and for years we were doing ‘tweak here, push there, stand-there sex’ on autopilot.
But post break up I realise part of this journey is the potential for a whole new world of sexual pleasure. Because whilst my divorce has swiped away the cosy future I envisaged, it’s also offering me the chance to experience the thrill of kissing someone new, of sleeping with someone new.
Elizabeth Day, author of best seller How to Fail, who found herself divorced at 36, is encouraging. ‘I thought, how much am I missing out on? Sex had always been fraught for me. About ‘pleasing my man.’ It took till I was in my late 30s to get in tune with my own body. I’d felt so suppressed for so long.’
But if I’m going to get in tune with my body and my sexuality, it’s going to involve – deep breath – being grown up about sex. Talking about it, thinking about it, evolving from that eighteen year old who found it all a bit of cringe. Who grew up in culture where the biggest insult you could level at a girl was that they were a slag. Or that she was ‘gagging for it.’
But the good news is, unbeknownst to me (I was knee deep in weaning/Thomas The Tank Engine/school runs) a quiet sexual revolution had occurred since I last gave it any serious thought. I only had to scratch the surface and it was there. First, I came across was Flo Perry. Flo is the daughter of artist Greyson and psychotherapist and Red agony aunt Philippa Perry, and has written a book called ‘How to Have Feminist Sex.’ Flo, a millennial, was born in the year I went to university and feels a lot more woke than me on the subject of sex.
First of all she wants to tell me why sex is so important. ‘We socially bond through sex, it’s a form of communication. Which is why you often have deep chats after it.’ Dr Karen Gurney, aka The Sex Doctor, who has also come on my radar with her ‘Mind The Gap’ book, says ‘good sex has been shown to prevent a drop in relationship satisfaction overtime. It also boosts mood, relationship stability and self esteem.’ (N.B. Dr Gurney is passionate about spreading the message that good sex is not just about penetrative sex and orgasms). I ask them both why I feel such weirdness around exposing my sexual desires. “There’s so much shame around sex’ says Flo. Why? She thinks we have been conditioned to push down our sexual wants because ‘it’s been in the patriarchy’s interest for women’s desire not to be prioritised.’ Dr Gurney adds ‘I write a lot about how women are socialised not to be assertive, to put other’s needs above their own, and that also translates to sex. We are conditioned not to be overly sexual or sexually confident’. ‘It’s because, as girls, we were raised to be kind and nice,’ agrees Elizabeth Day. ‘Whereas young boys were raised to be assertive, mischievous.’
In initiating sex I think women of my generation can feel they make themselves look needy. Which is sad when according to Dr Gurney, the stats show if women initiate sex they enjoy the encounter more.
I wonder if there is a generation gap here. Whilst when I was growing up (I’m in my 40’s) to be the school bike was the ultimate slur, Tash, Red’s Feature’s Director (in her 30s) said the cool girls where always having lots of sex. And that’s a liberating, lightbulb moment for me. It made me question why I felt I could look sexy (I spent most of my late teens and early twenties going out in a Wonderbra/hot pant combo FFS) but needed to be pliant or vaguely ‘take it or leave it’ in the bedroom.
‘Good sex? The simple answer is it’s about allowing yourself to enjoy it.’ – Elizabeth Day
Then there’s body image, which Dr Gurney thinks ‘the number one sexual concern amongst women. (Interestingly men’s is performance). A lot of us think that to be proud of our bodies, we have to conform society’s idea of what is a sexy body is. Here I have to give my ex credit for only ever making me feel good about mine, but I still have been known to shuffle out of a room backwards so as not to expose my arse.
Now, in a way, I feel as if I’ve been given the opportunity to rethink about my approach to sex entirely. The good news for me is that my split has opened up a new chapter of sex with a man who doesn’t want hairless, porn star perfection, but instead open communication and a genuine connection. And as Dr Gurney points out ‘a new relationship is ‘a massive opportunity. You can do something unusual for you, but they don’t know that. It’s a freedom.’
For the first time in my life I have thought about what I want sexually. Not because my ex was controlling it, but because I didn’t ever allow my brain to consider it.
So how do I let go, loosen up? Well first off these women have helped me take the shame out of sex, to realise that wanting to have sex doesn’t make me a needy, desperate women. In fact conversely, it makes you strong and confident. And that I’m lucky to feel pretty okay with my body (bar the odd changing room moment whilst trying on bikinis) so I should enjoy it.
When I first slept with someone post split, I did have moments of self doubt. Mainly they were about how vulnerable and exposed it would make me feel, or that I would suddenly become transfixed in a Pepe Le Pew way and want to marry said person. But I decided to take the one, two, three f**** it approach I do with all slightly scary things in my life. And you know what? It was great and fun and soul enhancing.
My split has actually opened my eyes to the joy of sex. Before, it had become another thing on my to do list. Wash hair, do online groceries, have sex. It wasn’t like I didn’t enjoy it once I’d started, but it felt like going to the gym – a bit of an effort to get there, but you always felt better afterwards.
Those young children years definitely made me shut down a little. When your body is not your own – pulled, prodded, licked, kicked – by small offspring it doesn’t make you feel sexy.
But now? Well, I feel energised and excited. I feel desire. That body tingling, synapse firing desire I haven’t felt since my teenage/twenties. I actively want to have sex (it still makes me feel a bit sick writing that line). Why now? Well there is no doubt it’s triggered by physiological and psychological instinct to want to to reinforce the bond in a new relationship. But more than that I feel freed of my own imprisoning thoughts around it. I wish I’d taken the time to examine where my constructs around sex had come from before, been brave enough to address my issues in my twenties. It actually took a major life event to make me to do that.
So, looking forward, how do you sustain desire? Dr Gurney says its about ‘keeping sexual currency.’ If they position you, and you them, as someone they can’t keep their hands off it keeps it up.’ Fact: we all feel less sexy if someone sees us as the child carer, the lunch maker, the taxi driver.
So I’m determined to fight back if I ever end up playing a role I didn’t ever audition for.
And be better at communication. Answer all those uncomfortable questions. Ask my own.
Elizabeth Day, ever the sage, also offers me great advice.
’Good sex? The simple answer is it’s about allowing yourself to enjoy it.’
Amen to that.