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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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.