Share via Email Is the way we have sex changing? Illustration by Jamie Cullen If, as Philip Larkin claimed, sex began in , it appears to be fizzling to an end in the early decades of the 21st century. We British, never international avatars of sexual prowess, now seem to be living up to our billing: Surveys from both sides of the Atlantic show broadly the same patterns: We may be sexting, Tindering and OK Cupid-ing until our iPhones burn our palms, but when it comes to physical consummation, for many of us, sex has gone the same way as whist drives and tea dances.
In the past two years, Suzie King, founder of celibate dating agency Platonic Partners , has seen a marked increase in visitors to her website which began as a resource for the medically impotent. She puts this down to the common culprits: It used to be that one could work and earn enough to pay off the mortgage and then retire.
These days, it's certainly not like that. This has led to 'pan-anhedonia' — low-grade depression all over the place. And one of the first things to go when we're depressed?
A recent spate of articles has laid the blame for the diminution in heterosexual activity on another, less obvious, source: In the New York Times , psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb dug out an old issue of the American Journal of Sociology and used a study within it — "Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage" — to support her claim that the waning of marital libidos was down to husbands doing too much ironing and, implicitly, wives spending too much time in the office.
Perhaps more interesting than the drop-off in erotic activity is the gleeful way that it is reported; a mixture of prurience and self-laceration driving these frantic swan songs for our sexual lives. The stress of work and online life is having an effect in the bedroom, according to the study.
If you're in a heterosexual relationship and are over 35, then it's likely that you have sex less often than your parents did, and you're enjoying it less, too an unsettling thought. At the same time, though, something new and interesting is happening behind the closed curtains of Britain's homes. For a significant minority — and this is true of both heterosexual and homosexual relationships — traditional genital intercourse is being replaced by other, less mainstream behaviours.
Perhaps the real question we should be asking is what, these days, counts as sex? Justin Hancock, a sex educator who runs the enormously popular Durex-sponsored Bishtraining website , speaks of a liberalisation of attitudes towards niche practices. Rather than witnessing the death throes of sex, we may just be undergoing a radical re-evaluation of what is meant by the term. Sex is no longer so closely geared towards reproduction.
The rise of lesbianism, the rise of anal sex — these things aren't being discussed enough. Continuity and Change ". The study, carried out by a group of North American academics, illustrates how, while outwardly acknowledging the roles prescribed by society for each gender — men as emotionally repressed and sexually voracious, women as monogamous and incurably romantic — the divergence from these normative stereotypes when couples are between the sheets is significant.
People are finding their own ways to pleasure one another and old-fashioned, penetrative intercourse is no longer the sine qua non of sex. Graham tells me that couples are being more adventurous, and straying further from traditional sexual practices.
What they all show, and this is the same for whatever subgroup — gay or straight, across all territories — people are more likely to say that oral sex is sex, that any genital contact is sex. We've definitely been aware of an increase in other types of non-vaginal intercourse. There's been a real rise in heterosexual anal sex … the message that comes through is that there's been a genuine widening of people's repertoire.
Alamy I meet sex blogger Vanessa Pelz-Sharpe in a darkly atmospheric Covent Garden restaurant, wanting to explore — in conversation, at least — some of the outer reaches of contemporary sexual experience. I've been reading Pelz-Sharpe's brilliant, often excruciating, musings on sex and sexuality on her site, Nightmares and Boners, for several years. Pelz-Sharpe was diagnosed with breast cancer early this year and now sits before me in a silk headscarf, her eyebrows pencilled on. Nightmares and Boners has, for the moment, been put on hold, and Pelz-Sharpe is blogging instead at Sarcancerthon.
She tells me about FetLife , a social network with more than three million members. I mean, there are balloon-popping fetishes and farting. If you like gay sex, I imagine that, once you're old enough, you'll find other people like you. If you're into spanking, it's in enough soft-porn movies that you'll know you're not alone. If your fetish is farting, you probably do feel really alone and gross and dirty. Then you find all these other people online who're into the same thing, and who hold down jobs and aren't just sitting in a basement, and you think, 'Maybe I'm OK.
This is something that strikes me again and again as I move through the world of non-traditional sexual practice: Pelz-Sharpe came out as queer two years ago she'd come out as bisexual aged It's a term that casts a broad net, suggesting only a sexual identity outside of the mainstream. I like the nebulous nature of it. It's OK to question these things, not to be penned in by a definition — straight or gay or whatever.
I think of those people who live with a female partner for the first 20 years of their lives and then find a male partner for the next 20 years and look back and say, 'I was living a sham. If you really cared for that person, maybe forcing people into those boxes can be very damaging. Pelz-Sharpe defines it as entering into relationships that are "ethically non-monogamous". Definitions of normal sex are also changing, according to the study. It also meant that I could have friendships and relationships that would be on the edge of acceptable in a monogamous relationship — things that might make your partner uncomfortable, like lying in bed with someone hugging them.
When poly is good, it should mean that you don't own your partner; that you don't have any ownership over their behaviour or actions, that they are their own person. Here, again, is a community that has been given great licence by the advent of the internet. As Cynthia Graham tells me: The internet has helped people to understand how much variability there is in people's sexuality, and total abstention is just one place on the continuum.
But when my brain realises that I'd then need some sort of partner … it just kind of shuts down. The idea doesn't compute. I can't even start to imagine actually having sex with another person — male or female. And the same goes for kissing someone on the lips and making out, or even the idea of being someone's girlfriend. So to follow on from that, no, I haven't had any sexual experiences. I realised when I was about 14 that I wasn't attracted to guys, and lesbianism just seemed like the default setting.
I figured that I'd inevitably fall in love and have sex one day, but it wasn't really a priority at that time in my life. I started to feel that something was wrong with me, and that the whole situation was getting a bit pathetic. Eventually, Google pointed me towards asexuality. I thought I was pretty clued-up about sexuality — I had done a lot of queer activism in high school — but I had no idea asexuality even existed.
It was like everything came tumbling into place all at once, exhilarating and terrifying at the same timeExhilarating because I finally felt like something described me perfectly, and terrified because it involved rewriting every assumption I'd grown up with about love and sex and humanity. But ultimately, I do think that we also need that liberalisation, because the next step is to say, 'so we've broken down a lot of old assumptions about sexuality — let's take that one step further still and start questioning some of the core assumptions we still hold'.
While there was something liberating about the freedom with which people began to talk about sex Foucault was writing in the s , there was also a sense that sexuality had entered the realm of science, where perversions were seen as problems to be treated and sex an act that might be medically altered; biologically enhanced. The industry of sexual confession, Foucault said, "set itself up as the supreme authority in matters of hygienic necessity … it claimed to ensure the physical vigour and the moral cleanliness of the social body; it promised to eliminate defective individuals, degenerate and bastardised populations.
Instead, perhaps we should recognise that sex long ago stopped being about procreation, and most models of sexual activity that circulate at a societal level are woefully outdated when it comes to what we actually do with each other when the lights are out.
From aromantic asexuality to anarchic polyamory, from fart fetishists to frotteurs, our sexual identities are as vivid and various as our selves, and this wild profusion is a thing to be celebrated.