In a far away land and a parallel time, I became an expert on sex.
When I was young I was a naive and ignorant kid. Nobody helped me understand that I was drop-dead gorgeous. I was petrified of men and of sex. I lived in the countryside, where to be a gay man was to be a freak and there wasn't any possibility of being a lesbian woman. Unsurprisingly I failed to realise that it isn't a natural fact that women are more beautiful than men; if you think that you probably want to sleep with them.
I went to university and tried sleeping around, thinking that lots of sex equals sexual freedom. (Sometimes I was just lonely and wanted someone to cuddle me.) I had lots of bad sex and felt even more trapped. I had lots of gay men friends because I was still frightened of sex and they were the only ones I could safely flirt with. They are so lovely to me. One of them helped me go to London to live and others took me to gay clubs where I would sometimes see a gorgeous bird in a dress and think: Wow! another woman, and then:Whoops, not a woman after all. Gradually I got in with a set of black and Asian lesbian women. They were also lovely to me and we learnt feminist anti-racist politics not through books but through practice. I went on marches against Section 28, worrying that the police would take my photo and that one day I might be imprisoned for standing up for sexual freedom. I read and talked about whether sado-masochism is a re-enactment of slavery, of child abuse we experienced, or whether it's just good dirty fun.
One fine day I managed to go back to university and do my PhD. I read and wrote about issues of identity I'd struggled with for decades as a young woman, including sexuality.
Academic thinkers from Freud to Foucault argue that it's in sexuality that we form and continue to formulate our identities. This is the realm in which we engage with our core selves and with others (society) at a visceral level, making a persona. This isn't the self-absorbed one-on-one activity that we tend to think it. We can only do this within the available ideas which society provides to us about who we might be and how (Foucault calls this discourse).
So what is the current discourse available to us to formulate our selves within?
Like "Joe Blow", I notice the huge interest in 50 shades of grey. I haven't read the book and don't intend to since reviews suggest it's badly written and I suspect it isn't even an accurate account of the Bondage and Sado-Masochism world (BDSM). What intrigues me is that mums at my daughter's swimming class are avidly reading this account of a billionaire tortured by yearning to play out his sadomasochistic desires on a young virginal girl. What are they getting out of it?
In our society, women are not encouraged to be sexually pro-active. I was outraged recently in talking to a young student of mine about her essay on intimacy when she revealed that she thinks it would be wrong to approach a man she likes and ask him for a date. I thought that sort of ridiculous sexual code of conduct had long gone. I was cross because I suffered tortures at times, thinking, Shall I say something? about someone I fancied - lesbian women are worst off here since they're mutually shy and sometimes just glare at each other before going shyly off home alone (in fact come to think of it, maybe my grumpy rugby team mates actually fancied me? What a missed opportunity!). Once I did say to a man who had been flirting with me, Are you serious, how about it? and he said, Oh no! which was embarrassing but we are still friends and I could get on with life. Too embarrassed to say anything, I once snogged a man on a train who was failing to make a move on me although I wore skimpier and skimpier outfits to our office, and I'm still with him ten years later. Imagine if I'd felt I really must wait for him to make a move, I'd still be waiting wistfully at home alone. I'm good looking so people are often too intimidated to make a move on me but as I only recently realised this I would just think they didn't like me after all if they were too shy to come and say, How about it?
Instead of going up to a bloke and saying, I like you and I want you at this time, in this place and in this way, women are obliged to fantasise about some man who'll come and force us to enjoy pleasure, a man who'll enjoy us having sexual delight rather than a man who'll join us in an equal pleasurable partnership, a man so knowledgeable and experienced (although where he learned it all is a bit obscure) that he'll just know how to please us without us having to say, I like having my toes sucked. Women avidly read BDSM fantasies although they don't really want to be tied up and beaten, they just wanna have fun but they think they need a man to order them to do it.
Hilarious fun though it might be to be tied to the bedposts and have my toes sucked, I think we do need to talk about the possibility of an equal partnership and mutual pleasuring in sex. That has to be a sexual pleasure based in the ethos of equality that is feminism. Feminists argue that submissive women and dominant men is an inefficient and unbalanced mode of production, that we could all get more out of a world where there is diversity and sharing of responsibilities and activities.
I'm not an expert on BDSM but I imagine that the pleasure in it comes not from the total domination or submission of one over and under another. My ignorant impression is that what's really exciting and wonderful about BDSM isn't so much the dominatrix sex, it's that one person holds the other in their power and doesn't abuse them, that within an adrenaline fuelled world in which power is nakedly acknowledged, the dominant partner controls the subordinate and manages the pleasure they share with absolute love and care. Absolute love and care - who could resist. Gimme that blindfold!
It's of course more difficult to negotiate absolute love and care when you and your partner are from the ordinary world of people thoroughly fucked up by our mums, dads and the rest of society and you are attempting to come together in mutual pleasure naked in each others' arms. Tempting to manage it all with the whips and bonds - and the leather, chains, feathers, lace and other fetishistic accoutrements have their own sexy appeal of course. But I think the feminist mode of lying together and figuring it out in an egalitarian way is worth working towards. The International Planned Parenthood Federation describe sexual rights as human rights, linking issues of gender politics and the right to choosing when to have family to the right to enjoyment of your sexuality.
Actually I think that sexuality is not just fun and games, that when you have sex with someone it isn't just about a quick thrill or wham, bam thank you and come again next Friday, Ms. Plumber. Sometimes it can be but I think that after a while, when you go and lie naked and caressingly often with someone you like, parts of you from way deep down come up asking to be loved. Most of us have not been brought up in a confident loving belief in ourselves as people deserving of the tenderest love and affection so when some small part of us from way down, sometimes some part of us which was badly hurt in the past, comes surging up asking for affection, the prospect that we might not get it can become so scary that we will behave in all sorts of strange ways trying to push that part of us back down again.
Recently I started doing research on Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). Now I realise why it is that my poor student is still stuck in thinking that some knight in shining armour with the karma sutra hard-wired into his brain has to come and get her instead of her saying to a bloke with a cute twinkle in his eye: I quite like you, how about it? SRE is still obsessively focussed on SEX!!! People are terrified of sex so instead of saying, Let's approach this gently, they become hysterical and just give slide shows on how to do it with sessions practising putting condoms on bananas. Well, I suppose there will be fewer banana babies in the world at least.
What SRE doesn't do is provide lessons on relationships. Young women and men aren't told, You're a beautiful and funny person who will be loved. They aren't given advice on how to treat someone who is probably as ignorant, shy and vulnerable as they are with respect and tenderness. Young men and women are taught to put a condom on a banana but they don't learn to have the respect for each other that would mean they offer to put a condom on before having sex.
Where do these young people go to for advice about how to conduct sexual relationships? Well, I expect nowadays they turn to the internet. Here they will find raging debates about whether it's contrary to freedom of speech to publish fictional stories about incest, bestiality and non-consensual sex with children. This is an important debate but in the furore about this, a debate about how to provide young people - and many of us ill-educated older people - with a set of stories suggesting how you might go about respectful, tender, loving sexual relations with someone (or more than one person) you are attracted to, is completely absent.
So again, I think we need a feminist erotica, a means of marking out fiction about which we can say: Um, take a look at this, when our kids are growing up and looking about them for examples of how to do it. Sure, if you think you might like being tied to a post and smacked then you can get some stories about that and consider it. But here is something about a man who treated a woman with tenderness and love and enjoyed that, about a woman who was confident and knew what she wanted and asked for it respectfully.
Babette Cole has written the hilarious children's stories about Princess Smartypants, who turned a dreary old Prince into a warty toad when she wanted to carry on playing with her dragons and not have to get married. (If you are having to talk about the birds and bees with a much younger child, check out her hilarious Mummy Laid An Egg.) One day Princess Smartypants will grow up, she already knows that arrogant bastard Princes are not the only option - there are the lovely old dragons, but do Princes know that they are allowed to be gentle and affectionate, that having 20 pictures of naked girls' breasts on their smartphone is not the best way of demonstrating your virile masculinity.
For my daughter's sake, I hope we can write an erotica that will tell them so.