How "sex tips for girls" are ruining sex

Is letting someone lick Nutella off your nipples really so different from ‘lie back and think of England’? Or are they just different ways of going through the motions?

Have you ever seen anyone having sex? And we mean actual sex, where at least one of the participants has cellulite, and oral more often produces jaw ache than cataclysmic mutual orgasms. One of us once caught a neighbour in the act. We say ‘caught’, but the circumstances surrounding the scene imply that our witnessing of said act was entirely intentional. We’re talking kitchen table, curtains wide open, house lit up like Blackpool pleasure beach - a delicately staged performance, in other words, as opposed to an accidental act of voyeurism on our part. The couple wanted us to see their Tuesday night session by the colander. And boy, did we all see.

The word ‘performance’ is key here. The randy couple living opposite knew that everyone was watching them getting jiggy with it in their kitchen, and behaved accordingly. Thus the (un?)fortunate inhabitants of a particular street in Finsbury Park were treated to the full shebang: hair grabbing, theatrical moaning, arse gyrating - the kitchen table received the humping of its life. In fact, the female part of this magical experience behaved with such enthusiasm that it really can’t have been necessary for the male to be there at all.

Anyone with a shred of sexual experience (and we’re talking the kind of rudimentary knowledge that can easily be gained from a quick teenage fumble behind the youth club bins) can distinguish spontaneous shagging from amateur dramatics: we all know the difference, whether we like it or not.

And as much as a well-planned - and expertly executed - carnal production may well do it for the Finsbury Park exhibitionists as well as a fair few others in the world, it’s not quite as convenient as a night in with a hot chocolate and a cheeky finger. Truth be told, the fingering over a warm beverage is way more spontaneous as well. So why is it that nowadays, we are increasingly encouraged to adopt the theatricality of porn and incorporate it into (‘improve’) our own sex lives?

Women’s magazines are especially to blame in this regard. They tell us, weekly and in slightly different ways, that the way to spice up our love lives is through role play, lap dancing, and double-ended plastic dildos. ‘Make his fantasy become reality!’ they scream - for it is, more often than not, his fantasy, or so we’re told.

How beneficial all this play-acting is to men remains something of a mystery - and nine times out of ten, they would probably find the truth behind the reason you introduced a seven-foot pole to the bedroom horribly disconcerting. After all, Harry wasn’t overjoyed by Sally’s demonstrably fake public orgasm; even last generation’s men were baffled by the things that women did to ‘spice up their sex lives’ without actually enjoying themselves any more than they previously did.

A couple of issues ago, a confused young man wrote in to Cosmopolitan, questioning their sex tip culture. ‘What’s wrong with a bit of a oral sex and then the missionary position?’ he asked, which turned out to be the equivalent of walking in on a pride of feasting hyenas and asking why they don’t give vegetarianism a try. He was told by the ‘professionals’ on the magazine’s sex tips panel, in no uncertain terms, that he would have to work harder should he want to truly please a woman.

The reply to his perfectly innocent question was an unequivocal ‘that’s just not good enough’. Poor lamb. Just for the record, Brett, 21, from St Albans (or whatever your name was): we’re with you. Cunnilingus followed by sex seems like a thoroughly enjoyable Tuesday evening activity - if everyone’s still cumming, don’t tear yourself apart that it was due to your tongue rather than the latest vibrating cock ring.

There’s a crucial difference between encouraging sexual experimentation amongst women as a form of empowerment, and telling us that we should be re-enacting a strip club in our bedrooms every night. The former involves an element of truth-seeking, of body confidence building and laying positive foundations for relationships in the future - what is it that I want, and, equally, what doesn’t work for me at all? – while the latter is basically a group of mainly female journalists trying desperately to second guess what men want.

Much of the so-called information that they sell is derived from pornography, fatally ignoring the distinction between porn’s fantasy land and Real Life Sex that men (and women) actually want to partake in. The unbelievable element is one of the things that draws an avid viewer to porn, just as we accept that chick lit fairytales are unrealistic and the likelihood of a Batman-style vigilante popping up to save Stoke Newington from mobile phone snatchers is sadly quite low.

In other words, a solid dollop of common sense will tell you that watching porn and shagging someone you really fancy are two very different activities. It’s when someone tries to blur the two that the whole thing becomes unnatural, staged, and frankly confusing for all involved. Sex becomes pre-meditated, an activity planned with military precision: ‘I need you to be at home on time this evening, because we’re doing spanking.’ And how many plastic implements do you need, really, when we’ve all been blessed with perfectly adequate genitalia for the act?

That’s not to say that donning a wig and pretending to be strangers who have just met doesn’t do it for some people every now and then. It’s when the assumption that it does it for everyone, all the time - that every sexual encounter should be mediated by pornographic shenanigans, and as such needs to be calculated, arranged, and ultimately worried about - that it starts to look less like freedom and more like a sexual circus. Before you know it, you’re hanging upside down from a trapeze every Monday after work and looking at your watch out the corner of your eye while he tries to kick start your ‘squirty flower’. It just sounds like so much effort.

Perhaps it was inevitable that sex would become just another form of labour, that we would all begin to bandy around phrases like ‘erotic capital’, and that our most intimate of activities would come to be defined through consumption and performance. But if enjoying each other’s bodies at a leisurely pace when you’re just plain knackered is seen as a bit of a sexual failure, it feels like we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere on the way to Liberation Town and ended up at Surrealville.

Because really, is letting someone lick Nutella off your nipples really so different nowadays from ‘lie back and think of England’? Or are they just different ways of going through the motions?

Cosmopolitan promises to destroy "sex myths".

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.