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 anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.