In sexual matters, the world became modern in early April 1953, on a beach in Cannes, when the eighteen year old Brigitte Bardot appeared in front of the world’s press to promote her new film, Act of Love (co-starring Kirk Douglas). She was dressed in a small floral bikini, an item of clothing until then seldom seen on camera (it was illegal to show belly buttons on American screens until 1961) and condemned only the year before by Pope Pius XII as liable to promote sin and impede virtue.
Brigitte Bardot, Cannes Film Festival, 1953
The French designer Jacques Heim had invented the bikini in 1946, days after the United States had begun nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall islands. He had chosen the name because he predicted that his invention would prove as explosive as a hydrogen bomb. Though it took until Bardot and Cannes for the fuse to light, the bikini and all it stood for did indeed launch a new era. Women around the world shed their old one piece costumes and many of the bodily attitudes that had gone with them. In 1960, Brian Hyland had a hit with his song ‘Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,’ bikinis were center stage in the hit film Beach Party of 1963 and again in Bikini Beach of 1964. The Catholic Church gave up the fight, as did film censors and conservative groups. Within a few decades, the bikini seemed always to have been part of a normal – that is, ‘liberated’ – existence.
U.S. President George W. Bush with members of the U. S. Women’s Beach Volleyball team in their bikini uniforms at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The bikini was not, of course, just an item of clothing. It represented a particular approach to the body and to sexuality: one free of shame and guilt, without the legacy of an embarrassed and repressed past and a herald of exuberance and ease. The bikini reconnected modernity to the pagan freedoms of the Ancient Romans and Greeks, who had in their statues, mosaics and Olympic games known how to feel proud of the body’s beauty and athleticism.
Early bikinis: Roman mosaics found in the Roman Villa of Romana del Casale in Sicily.
It was Christianity that separated Brigitte Bardot from the Romans. The church had waged war on the body for hundreds of years, associating nakedness with the sins of Adam and Eve and making our shame feel like a punishment for the transgressions of our ancestors. That many of us might feel extremely uncomfortable at the sight of our flesh was simply evidence of a fundamental fact about human beings: that we are the descendants of sinners.
Masaccio, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, 1424
Those rare pre-Moderns who had dared to try to enjoy a less hampered relationship with their sexuality and their bodies had had to look far beyond Europe’s borders. The French nineteenth century painter Paul Gauguin, after spending a few months in Provence a few hours from Cannes, had turned to Tahiti for the paganism that his own prudish country evidently could not provide. Far away from Europe’s top hats and long dresses, he found people who were comfortable sitting under tropical trees in Edenic nudity, apparently without any conception of physical embarrassment.
Paul Gauguin, Te nave nave fenua / The delightful land, 1892
But by 1953, there was no longer a need to go so far. Tahiti had come to France.
The attempts of the pre-modern world to deal with sexuality can appear, from the post-Cannes world, painful in their degree of evasion, subterfuge and gingerliness. When nineteenth century doctors first began recommending trips to the seaside on medicinal grounds, the efforts required by women to get themselves into the water without showing their bodies to strangers were as technically impressive as they were psychologically absurd. Horses would be used to drive special huts on wheels into the water, inside which women could open a hatch to lower themselves for a bathe. To glimpse so much as a woman’s elbow or shoulder would have been thought a rank indecency.
Such contortions were underpinned by a view that sexual desire was the enemy of a sane or good life. It was a species of insanity set within us to tempt and torture us, to derail our sensible routines and to sicken us at ourselves (‘Illico post coitum cachinnus auditur Diaboli’; ‘After copulation, the devil’s laughter is heard,’ ran the adage). Except for those very rare moments when one was planning to make a child, sexual activity had no place within a dignified existence. What we thought about and did in its name was bestial. Artists and philosophers described battles within each good person between desire on the one hand and chastity on the other. No one could be spared such perpetual civil war, but the moral among us knew which way to settle the issue.
Gherardo di Giovanni del Foram, The Combat of Love and Chastity, 1475
The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino described two kinds of love. Amor Divinus or Divine Love, united man with the creator of the universe; it inspired gratitude, benevolence, selflessness and devotion to reason. But Amor Ferinus or Bestial Love was a means to perpetual masturbation, exhaustion, debasement and perversion. The purpose of philosophy was to persuade students to shift their interests from the latter to the former. But one was left in no doubt as to the scale of the challenge. Sexual desire was framed as a cataclysmically powerful force that could lay waste to the best prepared plans and the deepest forms of virtue. Aristotle, widely reputed to have been the wisest man of antiquity, was in the Christian era (apocryphally) said to have fallen in love with Alexander the Great’s wife Phyllis, who punished him for his desire by making him crawl around naked on all fours with a leash in his mouth – to prove to the unwary just how much stronger lust could be than reason.
Hans Baldung, Phyllis riding Aristotle, 1515
Venus, Roman goddess of love, was viewed in Christian times not as the charming embodiment of playful desire she had previously been known as – but as a notorious temptress who could shatter the resolve of the sternest minds whom she had cast her spell on. In a painting in the Louvre from the early 15th century, Venus’s vagina is shown emanating rays that simultaneously blind the eyes of six great men: Achilles, Tristan, Lancelot, Samson, Paris and Troilus. It might be very hard to look away; it was even more dangerous not to try.
The priority for all those educating the younger generation was to help them to make the right choices in the battle between vice (almost always a beautiful woman) and virtue (almost always a decent but vacillating man).
Paolo Veronese, Allegory of Virtue and Vice, 1565
But even in ostensibly good people, there always lurked somewhere the risk of falling under the influence of the seductive but evil Cupid, never far away and ready to fire his arrow and destroy the best of our intentions. For many centuries, desire wasn’t something to enjoy or delight in; it was invariably a trap and possibly a death sentence.
Parmigianino, Cupid Marking his Arch, 1533
To this grim assessment of desire in philosophy and art, nineteenth century medicine added a further forbidding layer. In the eyes of the Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, sex may not directly have been the work of a devil or a devious cupid, but it might as well have been given what it made us do: in his landmark work Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), the most influential book on sex in Europe in the nineteenth century, von Krafft-Ebing focused on the multiple perversities and sicknesses that sex inspired. Though written in sober, detached prose, the book couldn’t hide its distaste at the nature of sexuality: ‘Love unbridled is a volcano that burns down and lays waste all around it: it is an abyss that devours all—honour, substance and health,’ noted von Krafft-Ebing in his introduction, then went on to outline hundreds of case studies of the painful and off-beat compulsions bred in us by our sex drives. For example:
Case 1: Mr Y, always given to indulgence in sensuality but always with regard for decorum, had shown, since his seventy-sixth year, a progressive loss of intelligence and increasing perversion of his moral sense. Previously bright and outwardly moral, he now wasted his property in concourse with prostitutes, frequented brothels only, asked every woman on the street to marry him or allow coitus, and thus became publicly so obnoxious that it was necessary to place him in an asylum. There the sexual excitement increased to a veritable satyriasis, which lasted until he died. He masturbated continuously, even before others; took delight only in obscene ideas; thought the men about him were women, and followed them with indecent proposals.
CASE 59. X., a model husband, very moral, the father of several children, had times—i.e., attacks—in which he visited brothels, chose two or three of the largest girls, and shut himself up with them. He bared the upper portion of his body, lay down on the floor, crossed his hands on his abdomen, closed his eyes, and then had the girls walk over his naked breast, neck and face, urging them at every step to press hard on his flesh with the heels of their shoes. Sometimes he wanted a heavier girl, or some other act still more cruel than this procedure. After two or three hours he had enough. He paid the girls with wine and money, rubbed his blue bruises, dressed himself, paid his bill, and went back to his business, only to give himself the same strange pleasure again after a few weeks.
Sigmund Freud, von Krafft-Ebing’s successor, may not have been quite so grim, but there was a similar atmosphere to be found around sexuality in his work: in his patients as well, sex was for the most part dark, compulsive, extremely strange and a disruption to everything we might seek in a civilised and moral life.
How refreshing was Brigitte Bardot by comparison; how far from the dark analyses of those two great Austrian doctors or the finger-wagging warnings from Renaissance painters or the dire admonitions of the philosophers. She represented lightness, innocence – and a return to Eden. Modernity had helped us to fly through the air, cure polio and make calls to other continents; it would also help us to feel natural and happy in bed. We were – as modern people – finally to be ‘liberated’ from hundreds of years of regrettable hangs up and fears, apprehensions and sorrows.
The modern age imagined itself to be supremely helpful. Volleyball on the beach in a bikini certainly sounds preferable to being trodden on in a brothel. But arguably, modernity has complicated rather than eased our relationship with sex. The old world knew that sex was difficult. It had no qualms about admitting that it could be embarrassing, that it might make one do things one would regret, that it stood in opposition to certain dignified ideals, that it might be in conflict with love, that it might inspire self-disgust and that one might want to take sensible precautions not to be turned on and not to excite others, for fear of the consequences. These were basic truths taken for granted by all, and though they were certainly melancholy, in many ways they created a helpful backdrop against which each of us might navigate and mitigate their own sexual urges.
The bikini view of sex, though extremely well-intentioned, may by contrast leave us ill prepared for many of the realities of living with a sexual drive. It finds it hard to admit that sex can – for most of us at some points – stand in direct opposition to anything that seems clean, kind and jovial: it may inspire in us a desire to flog, to debase, to insult, to be roughed up and to say and do things that are directly contrary to a reasonable self-image. By implying that sex should be ‘normal’, the sunny view can leave us more alone, more confused and more abnormal at those times when sex clearly isn’t straightforward, when we find ourselves – as many of us will – craving activities which have no place in a sensible assessment of human nature, and that while they may not be ‘sinful’, are certainly dark and peculiar. Nor does the modern bikini view of sex properly take on board how often desire can be separated from love; how likely it is that – after a while – the person one loves will no be longer the person one wishes to sleep with and how much strangers, even strangers one might hate or dislike, can compell us to take risks we regret the moment after we have appeased ourselves. The modern view of sex gives us no reassuring narrative about the dark normality of off-beat activities. It doesn’t imply, as those grave Austrian doctors did, that all sex is slightly mad and that we should be well prepared for the fact on our wedding days, rather than taking the complexities as some exceptional personal affliction when they develop, as they inevitably will, in the course of ordinary monogamous relationships. The old world made it hard to discuss sexual issues. The modern world has made it far easier to banter about them; we are happy to share details of our conquests and lusts. But we are in no better position to bring up the truly strange sides, the guilt, the fetishes, the very indecent thoughts. Indeed, we may be in a worse position, precisely because we are meant to have been liberated, we are meant to be over the embarrassments and the trepidation. We are meant to be moderns, clean, vigorous and cheerful. And yet in our hearts, many of us are quietly going out of our minds with sexual aches and experiences that feel as out-of-bounds as anything a medieval monk might have gone through.
Sex will always be too potent and too radical a force to be so-called normal. It is inherently transgressive – and has to be so in its very structure. The wisest attitude may be to assume that we cannot return to Eden, and to be hugely suspicious of any narratives of carefree or prelapsarian desire, be they from Tahiti or Ancient Rome. The working assumption should be that sex has to be difficult, perhaps no sin, but certainly a very heavy burden: a dynamic at odds with all the sensible other things we are trying to do, like manage a career, raise children, or simply love someone else kindly and with respect over many decades. The future of sex lies less in imagining that it can be rendered simple and innocent, as in acknowledging its inevitable oddity and preparing for it with courage and dark humour. Cupid isn’t directly firing arrows into us to lead us astray, but there are drives at play in us that will take us shockingly far from where we might want to be if reason were wholly in control. We need a new language in which we can own up to how outlandish and frightening, mesmerising and wicked, sex is and will always remain. That would be true liberation.
If sex were as easy as our society sometimes suggests, we’d expect not to feel appreciably different after, as opposed to before, the act. As it is, for many of us, what we go through immediately following orgasm isn’t so much closeness or joy as a very particular kind of sadness, one all the more lonely and peculiar because it seems so hard to talk about without sounding ungrateful or mean: we may – in the aftermath of one of life’s most pleasurable of sensations – be thrown into intense melancholy.
Lying in the semi-darkness, with our partner breathing gently beside us, sleep may elude us. Our minds may scour the inner landscape, refusing to let consciousness go. We may be alert and at the same time panicky, heavy and sad. How could something so joyful have precipitated such sorrow?
At the root of post-coital melancholy is an awareness of how much sex can involve us in activities and passions which are deeply at odds with our daily conduct and convictions. In the name of desire, an otherwise sober and gentle person will beg to be tied up and flogged; a generally exceptionally loyal and careful person will violate every vow to which they are nominally committed; in a noisy nightclub, an intelligent and thoughtful soul will spend hours chatting with a beguiling companion they have no deeper connection with.
The instant orgasm has occurred, one is back in a position to remember the scale of the internal schism. In past ages, this would have been the moment to head to the church or temple. One would plunge oneself into holy water or say some ritual words of atonement to a grave faced priest. We may scoff at such superstition but these divine rituals existed for a reason: in their way, they recognised both the deep pull of the erotic and the contradictory claims of our higher minds. They were sympathetic to how much good people may long for dignity, fidelity and wisdom and yet simultaneously be drawn towards the most delectable forms of degeneracy and vice.
Our first experience of melancholic guilt probably came in adolescence. Only shortly before, we might have been uncomplicatedly sweet; we could have told our mother everything; our favourite activity might have been horseriding or playing with our trains. Then suddenly, we needed constantly to lock ourselves in the bathroom and think obsessively of certain scenarios and summon up recollections of furtive glimpses. No sooner were we done than a darkness settled in on us which has – in many ways – never left us.
The melancholy and shame come especially to the fore after being with someone we don’t particularly love – yet who might love us a lot. How could we, for the sake of a few moments of frottage, act with such horrifying dissonance? We might hope that we could – insanely – turn to the kindly partner whose body we have spent our lust on and confess our inconsistency and lies and ask that they might absolve us of our transgression: how much we might feel for them if only they could understand that we didn’t, despite what just happened, have the right feelings for them!
In post-coital exhaustion, we become aware how much time we have squandered. In the hours we have wasted scheming and unfurling this delirium, we might have finished a script, written a business plan or sent in a university paper. We might have been looking after some small children who begged us to be back by bathtime. We might long to die.
What we wish for more than anything would be a partner whom we could share our turmoil with, someone to whom we could protest that, despite everything, we remained a sweet person but had lost our way and wanted to come home, a different more broad minded home that could take on our reality and still meet us with love. Our melancholy is reminding us how much we don’t want to be divided people any longer, how much we don’t want to have to pretend one thing while craving another. We want to be sexual, good and true. No wonder we are so sad.
One of the frequent and painful paradoxes of romantic life is that the more we get to know and love someone, the harder it can be to summon up any sincere wish to sleep with them. Intimacy and closeness, far from fostering deeper sexual desire, can be the very ingredients that destroy excitement – whereas having only just recently met a person and not feeling too much for them can set up awkward yet ideal preconditions for wanting very badly to take them to bed.
The conundrum is sometimes colloquially referred to as the ‘madonna-whore complex.’ It can sound offensive and reactionary phrased like this – as if the problem applied to only one gender and might at some level condone or even promote the very dynamic that it described. And yet the phrase circles something highly significant, always contemporary and of relevance to every gender (it might, for heterosexual women, be known as the ‘saint brute complex’).
It was Sigmund Freud who first drew attention to our difficulties connecting love with desire in an essay of 1912 titled ‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’. Of many of his patients, he wrote: ‘Where they love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love.’ In seeking to explain the division, Freud pointed to two facts connected to our upbringing: first, in childhood, we are generally brought up by people we love deeply and yet towards whom we cannot express sexual feelings (frightened as we are by a strict incest taboo); and second, as adults, we tend to choose lovers who in certain powerful (though unconscious) ways resemble those whom we loved most dearly as children.
Together these influences set up a devilish conundrum whereby the more deeply we come to love someone outside of our family, the more strongly we are reminded of the intimacy of our early familial bonds – and hence the less free we instinctively are to express our sexual desires without fear or reservation. An incest taboo originally designed to limit the genetic dangers of inbreeding can thus succeed in inhibiting and eventually ruining our chances of enjoying intercourse with someone to whom we are not in the remotest way related.
The likelihood of the incest taboo’s re-emergence with a partner increases greatly after the arrival of children. Until then, reminders of the parental prototypes on which our choice of lovers is subconsciously based can just about be kept at bay. But once there is a pram in the hallway and a sweet infant referring to the person we once tied up or explored with a sex toy as ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’, both parties may significantly start to take fright, complain of feeling tired and turn in early.
A dichotomy grows between the ‘pure’ things one can do with a partner one loves and the ‘dirty’ things one still longs to do – but can only imagine being free enough to do with a near stranger. It can feel untenably disrespectful to want to make love to, or to put the matter at its sharpest, fuck the kind person who is later going to be preparing lunch boxes and arranging the school rota.
To start to overcome the problem, it pays to observe that not all childhoods are equal in their tendencies to generate sexual difficulties for people in later life. A parent who is very uncomfortable with their body may send out covert signals that sex is invariably dirty, bad and dangerous – and thereby lends their child an impression that it truly can’t belong within a loving relationship. A more integrated and mature parent on the other hand may suggest that they are reconciled to their desires and relaxed about some of the proto-sexual things that small children naturally and innocently do: make a great deal of noise and mess, take an interest in their bodies and (at a certain age) talk about poo a lot. The feeling that one can be naughty and still loved and ‘good’ is one the great gifts a parent may bequeath to their child.
A lot of the work to repair the love/sex dichotomy can, strangely for something so physical, be done in the mind. We can conceptually start to rehabilitate sex as a serious and in its way entirely respectable topic that good people who love their children and their jobs and are invested in an upstanding life can be profoundly interested in; that there need be no conflict between a longing to be filthy and depraved at some points and decorous and respectable at others. We can contain multitudes: the us that wants to flog or be debased or smear and the us that wants to advise, nurture and counsel. One can be whore and madonna, brute and the saint. Rather than seeking out different partners, we might less disruptively merely adopt different roles. A child cannot express love and sexuality to a parent; and vice versa. But it is one of the privileges of adulthood, that we no longer have to be hampered by such a paradigm. Our lovers need not be only cosy co-parents and responsible sweet friends, they can for a time – in the very best transgressive sense – also be something else that is hugely important to our mental well-being and the survival of our relationships: partners in crime.
Understandably enough, our societies pay vast attention to the idea of ‘sexiness’; far more questionably, they tempt us to believe that it might be easy to understand what this quality consists of. The leading suggestion takes its starting point from the biological sciences: we learn that sex aims at successful reproduction and genetic fitness in the coming generation. Therefore ‘sexiness’ must logically comprise a host of semi-conscious signals of fertility and of resistance to disease: bilateral facial symmetry, large bright pupils, full lips, youthful skin and melanin-rich hair.
But this analysis too quickly assumes that it might be simple to know what sex really aims at. Unlike most other living beings, our biological drives sit alongside, and at points take second place to, a range of emotional priorities. Chief among these is the desire to overcome loneliness and share our vulnerability within the arms of a safe and intimate other. We seek, through a physical act, to overcome our customary psychological alienation and a host of painful barriers to being known and accepted. Viewed through such a lens, the erotic is not so much a promise of reproductive health as a suggestion of a redemptive capacity for closeness, connection, understanding and an end to shame and isolation.
It is this emotional mission that explains the conundrum sometimes generated by people whom one would expect, by all standard biological criteria, to possess an exemplary sexual aura but who manage to leave us cold – just as it may shed light on the associated puzzle of those physically more challenged candidates who nevertheless lay claim to a rare power far outstripping the quality of their hair or the lustre of their eyes.
The people whom we call sexy despite, or aside from, the raw facts of their appearance are those whose features and manner suggest an unusual ability to fulfill the underlying emotional purpose of love-making. The way they respond to a joke, the curve of an eyebrow, the characteristic motion of their forehead, the way of holding their hands convey in an unconsciously understood but hugely eloquent language, that one is in the presence of a kindly being who is liable to understand our broken and confused aspects, to help us over our loneliness and submerged sadness and reassure us of our basic legitimacy and worth; someone with whom we can at last reduce our normal suspicions, cast aside our armour and feel safe, playful and accepted. Whatever the quality of their skin or balance of their proportions, it is these aspects that have a true power to excite us; in a melancholy and avoidant world, this is the real turn on.
We hear so much about what we might need to do to increase our physical appeal. But by getting more detailed about the psychological traits that drive desire, we could learn to pay as much, if not more, attention to the foundations of an exciting mindset. Armed with a broader understanding of the aims of sexuality, some of the following might also – henceforth – deserve to be counted as valuable sources of sexiness:
– A sense of being slightly at odds with mainstream society
Whether at work, with friends or around family, we are too often hemmed in by exhausting requirements to fit in and subscribe to dominant notions of what it means to be good and acceptable, requirements which nevertheless leave behind, or censor, a lot of our internal reality; there ends up being a lot we mustn’t say and even more we shouldn’t even really feel. What a relief then to note (perhaps via a wry twitch in another’s upper lip) that we are in the presence of someone who knows how to adopt a gently sceptical perspective on prevailing assumptions – someone with whom we would be able to break away and express doubts about revered ideas or people and cast a cathartically sceptical gaze on the normal rules of life. Good sex promises to feel like something of a conspiracy against everyone else.
– An unshockable nature
The more we are honest with, and exploratory about ourselves, the more we realise that there is much inside our characters that might surprise or horrify outsiders: that we possess alarming degrees of vulnerability, meanness, strangeness, waywardness and folly. Our standard response may be shame and embarrassment – and yet we quietly hunger to be properly witnessed and accepted as we really are. What may prove supremely sexy therefore are suggestions that another person has explored their own deeper selves with courage, has a handle on their darkness – and may on this basis be capable of extending an uncensorious perspective on our own.
– A tension between good and ‘bad’
Someone who paid no attention whatsoever to decency and scoffed at all propriety might be merely alarming. Yet what can prove uniquely appealing is a person alive both to duty and temptation, to the pull of maturity and the draw – at least for a little while in the early hours – of wickedness; a divided person simultaneously responsible and marked by a touch of desperation.
– Vigour and impatience
In addition might come a potential for aggression and anger that they managed to keep very sanely under control in daily life, but that they knew how to release at points in private; someone whose capacity for a little cruelty was all the more moving because it stood out against a customary habit of extreme consideration and gentleness.
A lot of our reality deserves compassion and sympathy. How compelling, therefore, to come across someone whose features would belie a willingness to extend charity towards a lot that is less than perfect in human nature, someone who could know how much we stand in need of forgiveness and who could laugh generously with and at us – because they knew how to do the same in relation to themselves.
We have allowed our concern for sexiness to be coarsened by physical obsession because we are under the sway of an overly simplistic biological sense of what sex might be aiming at. Yet by recovering contact with some of what we emotionally crave from another person, we can – happily but not merely conveniently – rediscover that the real turn on is never just a well-polished body but, always and primordially, a well-fashioned soul.
There’s something you are longing to try or a fantasy that grips your imagination – rough sex, a special garment you’d like to them to wear or perhaps a scenario involving another person – but you are worried your partner will find the contents of your mind outlandish or strange. And yet for the relationship properly to flourish, you crave for them to understand a bit more about your thought processes. You face (yet again) a conflict between honesty and kindness.
The immediate tendency is either to remain silent or else (possibly late at night, in some agitation) to stress how much you want something different, which may cast your partner as the unadventurous, frightened or disappointing one.
A better strategy is to shift matters from a demand to a pressure-free, playful intellectual exploration.
I thought it might be an idea for both of us to think more about our fantasies – as a way of getting to know each other properly. I’d love to understand more about you – and you about me.
However liberated our societies tell us we are and should be, most of us maintain a deep sense of privacy, powered by shame, around aspects of our sexuality. It’s very hard to imagine that someone could both know us candidly – and still respect and like us. But rather than viewing this as a tragedy, we can turn our customary loneliness into an opportunity to create a unique bond with someone we deeply care for. They’ll be as unlikely as we ever to have shared much of who they are sexually.
I know this could sound weird, but…
It’s always useful to signal an awareness that one may frighten someone, given that truly weird people never give this a thought.
I want to play at being aggressive while obviously loving and caring for you. I want to call you quite rude and disrespectful things – even while I profoundly respect you.
Part of the reason we feel so ashamed of our odder-sounding desires is that we’re never encouraged to conceive of them as at some level rather logical. The key move is to start to think of every sexual fantasy as having lodged itself in our minds to counteract a particular fear or difficulty in our lives as a whole. Every fantasy tells you fascinating things about what’s been awkward in someone’s background.
For a long time, I was puzzled why I wanted this. But then I asked myself questions: What is this fantasy doing for me? What bits of my psychology does it appeal to? Given my past, what fears is it working to alleviate?
Sexual fantasy isn’t in the end either mysterious or peculiar. It’s a response to a tension in our lives – which it promises to solve for a while. For example, someone with a bad experience around their father might want their partner to wear a uniform because they are in some way frightened of power and want to tame it erotically: they want to imagine authority not as oppressive but as a source of pleasure and reassurance. Someone might want to play at being utterly submissive, because their day to day life places them under almost unbearable pressure to be responsible.
When I think about why I might want rough sex, it’s perhaps because the idea counteracts my real experiences; in which I feared that I might hurt those I love by showing them my more uninhibited sides. It springs from a longing to be fully myself – and yet acceptable.
A specific desire has emerged for you because of a whole lot of precise and rather touching things about your personal history. What is vital is to stress that a fantasy is not a plan for real-world action, it’s an alternative to it.
I am profoundly uninterested in force in real life. The very idea is shocking. It’s just that I love the idea of playing this as a game.
We adults get very confused about games; we often think of them as anticipations of reality. But that is to miss the pleasure and importance of being able to pretend. Children know that you can play at being a wolf or a pirate without in any way wanting to be one in life as a whole; we should be as wise and imaginative.
Maybe a lot of us are odder sexually than we suppose; perhaps lots of things are pretty normal that don’t sound normal.
For thousands of generations being aligned with the standard behaviour of your tribe was an important factor in survival. Being normal mattered. But our picture of what other people are actually like around sex is liable to be hugely sketchy and distorted. We’re all a lot weirder than we let on – thankfully.
I’d so love to hear more about the strange-but-actually-not-so-strange things that turn you on.
Intimacy is built on a longing to reveal our ‘weirder’ sides – and on the joyful discovery that that might be OK with one very special person.
We have collectively grown highly attuned to the problems associated with a lack of shame around sex: with a decadent culture in which it seems that everything goes, where the atmosphere is often overly explicit and where some people get badly hurt by the unwanted and aggressive attentions of others.
It could seem – therefore – a little odd, even indulgent, to bring up the problem of sexual shame, that is, to discuss the intense mental suffering generated by embarrassment about our desires and bodies, by a feeling of not being physically acceptable and by a self-disgust and terror at the idea of our sexual thoughts being found out and judged. These can seem like issues that no one could sincerely have worried about since the waning of the age of top hats or at least the revolutions of the 1960s. The dangers around sex appear to lie squarely at the other, shame-less end of the spectrum.
But sexual shame has, in truth, never remotely gone away, for it is a psychological, not a political or religious problem.
Our capacity to express our sexual selves confidently and happily, our ability to say what we want, to ask for it without embarrassment and quickly to leave situations where we are unfulfilled or humiliated, all these are enormous psychological achievements. They are also generally only available to those who enjoyed highly supportive and emotionally evolved early environments. For us to be sexually untroubled adults requires that, way back, others will have left us feeling acceptable to ourselves: enjoying a sense that our bodies and their functions were natural and fine things, that we were not naughty or sinful for expressing curiosity about ourselves and that it was more than a good idea to be, at the age of two, properly delighted by the strange and wondrous existence of one’s own bottom.
Sexual desire is one of the most personal and vulnerable things that we are ever called upon to express – and it exposes one to potentially momentous degrees of ridicule. As bullies of all kinds have always known, if you want to destroy someone fast, shame them about their sexuality; they’ll never have the self-confidence to challenge you again. There are few things more deeply ‘us’ than our longing for sexual connection and therefore any feelings of unworthiness – any worries about how nice we are, how deserving we may be or how legitimate it is that we exist – have a sure habit of cropping up in the bedroom and of destroying our ability to be straightforward and unconflicted sexual beings. To generalise crudely, if there is any danger of us feeling bad about ourselves, we’re going – by a psychological inevitability – to feel bad about ourselves and sex. What get called sexual problems – impotence, vaginismus, lack of desire, harmful addictions – are, first and foremost, always problems of self-hatred. And one can’t as a rule both hate oneself and be having a terrific time in bed.
Beginning to repair the problem of sexual shame relies on a basic acceptance that the problem exists and can play havoc with our lives. We need to learn to name and track the matter; despite suggestions to the contrary, a lot of us, women and men, are right now (as in the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition) walking the earth intensely ashamed of ourselves sexually – not because what we want sexually is in any objective way ‘bad’ (that is, willingly hurtful to someone else) but because our histories have predisposed us to feel so negatively about our own selfhood.
A central effect of sexual shame is to silence us. We are so embarrassed that we cannot even speak of our embarrassment. It is of huge importance therefore to dare to put our feelings into words and to seek out warm-hearted, broad-minded people with whom we can, in safety, finally admit to our inhibitions – and learn to see ourselves through more unbiased, non-judgemental and caring eyes.
To take a measure of how much shame we are carrying within us, we might along the way ask ourselves a few poignant questions to which we might not have pleasant answers:
How do you feel about your own body?
How sorry do you have to feel for a person having sex with you?
Could someone know you sexually, properly know you, and still like you?
There are of course a great many dangers around an unbridled hurtful expression of sexuality, the kind that destroys the confidence and lives of innocent people. But there are also enormous dangers in living with an unwarranted sense that we are sexual aberrations. In a caring, mutually supportive environment, our acceptance of our sexuality is one of the most generous and mature acts we’re capable of. We – the ashamed ones – deserve to rediscover sex not as a zone of guilt and fear but as an intensely fulfilling, innocent and in the profound sense ‘fun’ pastime, something we truly deserve to enjoy in the same way that, despite early intimations to the contrary, we truly deserve to exist.
It can seem a highly trivial subject to get so upset about – being rightly no more significant than who should open the door first, or open a new jam jar first. And yet, judging from the heartache it tends to generate, it appears to matter very much indeed. It’s at the root of many affairs, it is the catalyst for vicious arguments and bitterness, the long-term future of small children can be decided by it – and couples routinely end up in therapy or (more often) the divorce courts because of it.
At the heart of the drama are all the complexities involved when, late at night, in the darkness, one person’s hand moves over to tentatively touch the other’s body in a way that signals a desire to initiate either sex or a cuddle – and nothing much happens in return.
This move ends up being so much more fraught than one might imagine because it has so little to do with making love: it’s about knowing that we are wanted. The willingness to initiate sex can appear like the litmus test of whether one is appreciated within the relationship as a whole – and therefore whether a couple remains a going concern or not. For one person never to initiate, or else merely to respond half-heartedly to caresses, is tantamount to declaring that they cannot possibly love the person they are with.
In truth, a lack of initiation or response can mean many things. It may, at points, simply be a sign of exhaustion after a long day of childcare or office work. Sometimes an untouched hand is just an untouched hand. The real problem in the ambiguous darkness of the bedroom is not a lack of reciprocation per se, it is the way that that ambiguity is interpreted: the way that assumptions are formed without discussion – and grave offence is taken without the topic having first been aired.
Beneath this lies a more pernicious problem still: shame. Unreciprocated touch becomes properly dangerous when it comes into contact with a high degree of self-suspicion or self-hatred on the part of the person who has dared to slide their hand across. What might merely have been judged an innocent or temporary lack of enthusiasm comes to be taken – silently and automatically – as evidence of something far more catastrophic: proof that the other person finds one disgusting.
Ideally, if we all loved ourselves enough, we would know better what to do when we moved a hand across and we did not get much in return: we would address the matter within the couple through calm and kindly discussion and tried to determine what was at stake.
If the evidence pointed squarely to a profound lack of interest or emotional capacity, we would leave. After all, there is nothing wrong with ending up sharing a bed with an emotionally or physically withholding partner; there is something very wrong, or at least very unfortunate, with sticking around once one knows this is the case.
But these are not options open to us when we feel overly ashamed. Our unresponsive partners reinforce pre-existing feelings of unacceptability that render us bitter, mute and fragile. A history of not knowing how to value ourselves makes it extremely difficult for us to complain effectively about unfortunate treatment – let alone leave in order to seek warmer lovers elsewhere.
As self-hating lovers, we cannot say, with the requisite calm and strategic patience, that we feel rejected, need to be understood and are looking for change. We will either say nothing at all and might have an affair – or else explode into a rage that guarantees our message won’t be heard. We won’t have the courage to interrogate the signs and adroitly change the course of the relationship in response.
In the tensions around unreciprocated touch, we catch sight of a more general problem in love: the difficulties created when we aren’t able to ask for what we want in a relationship, when we suffer from a sense that we don’t deserve to be content and cannot handle frustration or respond to our misery adequately. We should not leave the untouched hand for too long in the darkness. We should dare to switch on the light, express our pain and consider our options without shame.
When the sexual revolution began in the 1960s, there was a standard understanding of what should happen: ‘sexual liberation’ would mean that people would be freed to have more of the sort of sex they really liked, that is, with more partners and with less embarrassment.
But what was overlooked is that this kind of sexual liberation might, along the way, create its own restrictions, taboos and, so to speak, varieties of imprisonment. The people targeted would not be those who wanted to have more sex but those who – for a variety of reasons – either didn’t want to, or weren’t able to, have the amount of sex now strongly deemed so-called ‘normal’.
Sexual liberation, while driven by a desire to free us of moralistic judgement, ended up – quite unwittingly – putting us in a new kind of straightjacket, insisting not that we have no sex, as moralists of old had thundered, but that we feel wholly at ease around the prospect of making love frequently and diversely.
It now became as shameful to admit that one wasn’t having sex as it had once been shameful to say, outside of marriage, that one was. Stigma continued, shame too, they just changed their targets.
At the heart of this newly stigmatised group, there was a figure of particular mockery and opprobrium: the belated virgin, someone who has by accident or design reached their 20s and still not yet been to bed with anyone.
This shame has nothing to do with statistics. Surveys estimate that as many as 15% of the population between 20 and 25 remain virgins. The point isn’t how many virgins there are – there are clearly many – but rather the extent to which they have been made to feel wretched and inadequate.
The goal of true sexual liberation, the sort we should all be interested in, is not to shift stigma around, it is to remove all stigma around all consensual sexual choices. True liberation means liberating us not just to have sex a lot, with different partners, in ecstatic clinches, but also to not have sex or to have sex quite late on or, for that matter, to have bad or inept or clumsy sex – and never to feel bad on this account. True sexual liberation should liberate us not just to be athletic and tantric and polyecstatic – but also to be weird, reclusive, interestingly shy, intelligently embarrassed and about as peculiar as we want to be – and still retain the right to honour and like ourselves.
What we should aim for is to build a society where we finally stop suffering so intensely around our sexuality, even if that sexuality means we don’t want to, or haven’t yet managed to, have sex. That, and only that, will mean true liberation.
One of the great burdens which our Romantic culture has imposed upon long-term relationships is the idea that love and sexual fulfillment must always, if things are working as they should, fit neatly together.
This beautiful and hugely convenient idea raises a passionate hope that over many years two people will not only like and help one another, manage their domestic finances reasonably well, perhaps raise a family, have enjoyable holidays, understand one another’s problems, schedule cleaning rotas, put up with each other’s failings, see each others’ parents and friends and pursue their careers in harmony, but they will also be devoted and exciting sexual partners, endlessly entwining and recombining, sometimes being gentle and slow, at others, brutal and urgent, travelling together on a shared, life-long erotic adventure.
It’s this sublime idea that begins to torment us when – as is the case in almost every relationship – sex starts with time to get at once less intense and less frequent, more cautious and more frustrating, more at odds with daily life and eventually definitively more daunting as a prospect than reading a book, watching the news together or simply going to sleep.
This can appear nothing short of a catastrophe, a sign of monstrous failing and very often a prelude to a break-up.
And yet the problem is not ours alone. It is simply that almost everything that can make love go well seems primed not to make sex go well – and vice versa. We are afflicted by a fundamental misalignment in the qualities of character and spirit required by good sex on the one hand and successful love on the other.
A relationship cannot survive in the long term without tenderness, soberness, practical intelligence and selective resignation. We have carefully to fathom another’s motives, explain our moods, overcome hurts and sulks and assume a mantle of predictability.
Sex on the other hand, in its most dramatic, thrilling versions, demands that we be heedless, decadent, perhaps cruel or untenably submissive. It can involve the crudest language and moments of sublime degradation.
In having to suffer from feelings of inadequacy around what happens in long-term love, we are the victims of major cultural failure: the failure of our surrounding culture to continually stress a realistic picture of an unavoidable tension between two crucial yet incompatible themes of existence.
In a wiser world, we would collectively admit that the very rare cases where love and sex did run together were astonishing exceptions with no relevance whatsoever to most of our lives. We would instead learn to pay admiring attention to those who had accepted with a reasonable show of dignity and grace that the natural price of long-term togetherness is a decline in the quality and frequency of sexual contact – and that this is, in a great many cases, a price very much worth paying.
A man is with his female partner, foreplay is going well, it’s time for more, but suddenly, a problem occurs. She looks at him expecting him to increase his efforts, but nothing happens. He has suffered what the French writer Stendhal termed ‘a fiasco’. He feels ashamed and desperate. He sees himself as a laughing stock, not quite a man, not fit for a relationship. His partner is worried too. She suspects he doesn’t find her attractive anymore, never really loved her or is perhaps deep down gay. If it happens repeatedly she might start to wonder if they should even be together.
In a great many cases, the cause of impotence is not physical but psychological. And it isn’t a lack of desire, it’s a misfounded notion of respect. The man certainly is turned on. But his desire is joined up with a fear. He’s worried – somewhere inside – that he’s imposing something unwelcome and ‘dirty’ on a partner who couldn’t really possibly want something so crude as much as he does. Sex seems, somewhere in his unconscious, sinister and debased, something one might share with an acquaintance one doesn’t really know or respect, or can explore alone with a porn site, but that wouldn’t be fitting for a soulmate one properly loves. Out of an entirely erroneous but nevertheless powerful sense of kindness and consideration for the beloved’s imagined feelings, the man holds back from pursuing what he’d really like and takes early retirement from his own sexuality.
One of the most basic facts about the relationship between children and their parents is that there is love but can be no sex. A young boy receives care, consideration and tenderness from his mother but – of course – nothing remotely sexual. From this very sensible arrangement, one problematic idea is born: the thought that a mother and, more broadly, women who are as loveable and admirable as she is, must be without sexual desire. However naive that sounds, that’s how it can seem to a three-year-old boy, who gets a lot of things wrong and whose attitudes have a surprising after-life even in the adult mind. A mother may be witty, clever, and very attentive to the boy’s needs, but she doesn’t – surely – have any libido. This necessary and beautifully protective illusion is what can lead men to suspect that the more women have a status akin to their mother, the less likely they are to be fully sexual.
The answer to this hugely naive but properly distressing fear is to reassure the impotent male’s unconscious of a basic fact: that – of course – his mother was a sexual being. She, like almost all women, loved sex, probably had plenty of it and even more in fantasy. It was simply that, out of care and consideration for her son, she didn’t let on. Out of love, she tactfully made out she was, as it were, a virgin.
Rather than simply seeing impotence as a problem to be treated with pills, we can recognise that it is primarily a condition to be addressed by an idea: the thought that sex isn’t simply a low, demeaning activity that men are interested in and nice women aren’t. It is a hugely positive, psychologically-enriching and not at all sinister process that everyone, male and female, can benefit from. Some of the moments of sexuality that can seem so opposed to civilised life – occasional ruthlessness, crudeness or uninhibited energy – are wholly compatible with extreme dignity, kindness and love.
When impotence strikes, it may be time – in the nicest way – for the unconscious to enter fully into adulthood and recognise and honour the truth of male as much as female sexuality.