Let’s talk about sex
London - Honestly, with all the fuss you’re making of it, you’d have thought no one went to bed with anyone who wasn’t their wife before now,” grumbled an old friend of mine at the beginning of the sexual revolution in the 1960s.
He was referring to Philip Larkin’s poem Annus Mirabilis:
“Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the
And the Beatles’ first LP.”
And in a way my friend was right. Widespread and raging sexual intercourse began a long time before 1963.
But the 1960s were different. The Pill had arrived and women were liberated. It was thought that now women needed have no fear of becoming pregnant, they would want to have sex as much as men.
The only problem was that many of them couldn’t cope with this sudden transition. It was a confusing time for everyone. When they said to a reluctant woman: “Come on, you know you’re dying for it,” men really did imagine this was true. Sexual equality – and by that I mean equality in desire and behaviour – was almost imposed on women whether we liked it or not.
It took the women’s movement in the 1970s to free us from this imposed sexual freedom. And, oddly, the liberationists’ message was at once freeing and restraining. “No means No!” they proclaimed.
And although they meant the phrase as empowering for women, it was ironic that it was almost exactly the same one as used by the modest girls in the 1950s, who would push men away when they’d gone “too far”.
Despite this, people went on having sex like there was no tomorrow. Agony aunt columns were packed with enquiries like: “If I don’t have an orgasm will I get cancer?”, “Where is my G-spot?”, “Do women ejaculate and if they do, why don’t I?”
The next brake on the sexual revolution came, of course, from the outbreak of Aids in the 1980s. Doom-laden ads featuring mammoth gravestones warned us not to “die of ignorance”. Condoms were handed out like sweets, and meant sex wasn’t quite as fun as it used to be. If it didn’t stop the sexual revolution, it at least limited the spread of the one-night stand. Temporarily.
Because it soon turned out that we weren’t going to “die of ignorance”. So people went on bonking. And bonking. And by now, women’s liberation had meant that women were able to gets jobs, and become self-sufficient. They didn’t have to use sex as some kind of lever to find a husband, as they used to. They could look at sex now in a more dispassionate way. It was more up to them whether they had sex or not. And, perhaps, some did finally find they could look at sex in the same way as men.
And some men, too, freed of the ties that made them feel they were weird or different unless they said “Phwoarr!” every time a pair of boobs on stilts passed by, found that they could be a bit more relaxed about sex, too.
No question, these days most people have many more sexual partners than they did before 1963. So where are we?
As sex becomes more part of our normal lives than something special, and as we take it more for granted, isn’t it becoming less important?
Love and sex are no longer inextricably combined, as they used to be. The art of seduction, which took a lot of time and energy, has all but disappeared. There’s even a website called Friends With Benefits, which, if you want to have sex, allows you to log in and find someone in your area who’s also ready.
There are hardly any tut-tutting noises to be heard at all. True, there are mutterings about whether gays can marry in church. And there’s a wave of anti-paedophilia. But will these voices, too, eventually die down?
Could Philip Larkin have been right?
1 THE MINISKIRT, 1964: The miniskirt, which Mary Quant named after her favourite car, saw newfound freedom for legs and leg lovers. Although the French designer Courrèges was also slashing skirt lengths, Quant herself said, “It wasn’t me or Courrèges who invented the miniskirt – the girls in the street did it.”
2 THE SUMMER OF LOVE, 1967: 100 000 bare-breasted, barefoot flower children gathered in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco to “make love not war”. But at a price. From 1964 until 1968, the rates of gonorrhea and syphilis in California rose 165 percent.
3 MIDNIGHT COWBOY, 1969: A film about a naive male prostitute (which starred Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman proved how out of touch the censors were when it became the first (and only) X-rated film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
4 EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK), 1969: Sex was out of the bedroom and into the spotlight as the popularity of Dr David Reuben’s sex manual proved. It became a bestseller in 52 countries and has been read by 150 million people. Woody Allen, who based a 1972 movie on the book and called sex “the most fun you can have without laughing”.
5 FIRST LESBIAN AND GAY PRIDE MARCH, 1970: The first Lesbian and Gay Pride march happened in New York. The first UK Pride march through London was held on July 1, 1972 with about 2 000 participants. By 2010, the event was attended by a million people.
6 FANNY HILL FINALLY PUBLISHED, 1970: Never mind Lady Chatterley’s Lover, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of A Woman of Pleasure (written 1749) was still considered too scandalous for publication in 1963. It wasn’t until 1970 that an unexpurgated version of the most frequently banned book in history was published.
7 THE FEMALE EUNUCH, 1970: Germaine Greer’s seminal text argued that women were separated from their sexuality by the trappings of femininity. She went on to encourage women to accept their bodies, taste their own menstrual blood and give up monogamy – “The c**t must come into its own.”
8 THE JOY OF SEX, 1972: The illustrated guide by Alex Comfort was banned in Ireland, removed from libraries in the US and went on to sell 10 million copies. The illustrations were based on photos of the artist Charles Raymond and his memorably “bushy-haired” wife.
9 PLAYBOY REACHES SEVEN MILLION, 1972: Founded in 1953 by Hugh Hefner with a $1 000 (about R8 500) loan from his mother, Playboy peaked at a circulation of more than seven million copies – a quarter of all American men were buying the magazine every month. It was also the first men’s mag to be printed in Braille.
10 LAST TANGO IN PARIS, 1972: A middle-aged Marlon Brando having sex with Maria Schneider in a bare Paris apartment was hailed as “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made”. Several countries banned it.
11 PLAYGIRL, 1973: The success of the first ever male centrefold – a nude Burt Reynolds lying on a bearskin rug in US Cosmopolitan – inspired Douglas Lambert to come up with a women’s version of Playboy.
12 MASTURBATION IN MILLS & BOON, 1973: It wasn’t until the 1970s that unmarried characters could have sex in Mills & Boon novels, but 1973 marks the first masturbation scene, at the, ahem, hands of lonely heroine Suzy Walker. The first oral sex scene came in 1982 in a book called Antigua Kiss. The heroine “surrendered to ecstasy”.
13 DEEP THROAT, 1972: Considered the first mainstream porn movie, it featured a plot (of sorts), relatively high production values and was screened in selected cinemas. Despite (and probably because of) numerous obscenity trials, it went on to become the most popular porn movie of all time, banking a reported $600m.
14 THE CHIPPENDALES, 1979: Founded in Los Angeles by Steve Banerjee as a Broadway-style show that would attract middle class women, the Chippendales and their polished pecs, bow-ties and shirt cuffs are now seen by two million people a year. But the story gets darker than their tans; in 1990, Banerjee hired a hitman to murder ex-Chippendales who were starting up a competitive show, and hanged himself in prison in 1994.
15 INTERNET PORN, 1991: Tim Berners-Lee’s worldwide web has revolutionised the way we communicate, shop and do business. It’s also the largest assemblage of bottoms in the history of the universe. A recent report estimated that 30 percent of all web traffic is for adult sites.
16 MADONNA, 1992: With the release of her coffee-table book Sex (arty shots of a leather-clad Madge straddling a dog) and her album Erotica, Madonna’s controversial message of female sexual empowerment defined her career. And she’s still flashing at 50. See also Christina Aguilera, Rihanna and Lady Gaga.
17 ONLINE DATING, 1995: Market leader Match.com launched back in 1995, and now millions of people around the world turn to dating websites hoping to find love at first byte.
18 VIAGRA, 1996: When volunteers testing a drug for high blood pressure reported a suspicious number of erections, pharmaceuticals company Pfizer realised something was up. Literally. Tens of millions of the little blue pills have now been prescribed.
19 THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES, 1996: Drawing on intimate interviews with more than 200 women, Eve Ensler wrote a series of monologues to “celebrate the vagina”. It has now been performed in 140 countries by all manner of celebrities.
20 SEX AND THE CITY, 1998: HBO’s comedy about four single women in New York managed to be both funny and (mostly) realistic about sex, thereby spawning legions of fans, two terrible films and endless conversations about whether you were actually a Carrie, Samantha, Miranda or Charlotte.
21 RAMPANT RABBIT, 1998: Though vibrators have been buzzing since Victorian times, they went truly mainstream after Rabbit featured in an episode of Sex and the City.
22 BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, 2005: It took eight years for the film starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to find funding and it was first released only to limited cinemas, but eventually “the gay cowboy movie” lassoed box-office gold and became one of the most honoured films in cinema history, despite missing out on a Best Picture Oscar.
23 SLUTWALK, 2011: Three thousand women took their “sluttiness” to the streets – marching in bras and panties – in protest after a Toronto police officer suggested that to remain safe, women should “avoid dressing like sluts”. The movement has divided feminists, some calling it “the pornification of protest”.
24 THE FIRST GAY SUPERHERO, 2012: Although there have been doubts about the sexuality of Batman and Robin for years, the first major comic book hero to come out of the cartoon closet was the Green Lantern. After 72 years, DC Comics said Hal Jordan would be reintroduced as a gay, prompting outrage from a Christian family group.
25 FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, 2012: Writer E L James brought BDSM (that’s bondage, dominance and sadomasochism, by the way) to the masses after her smash hit “mommy porn” sold more than 40 million copies around the world, mainly thanks to downloads by e-readers. Could it be the start of a new sexual revolution? Or is it just the same old submissive woman cliché, reworked and repackaged for the age of the Kindle? – The Independent