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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear