Don’t mention the sex war - if you're a man, that is

Why, when it comes to sex, are "simple, easily pleased" men always pitted against "complicated, wordy" women?

How do men talk about sex? It’s a question that invites a veritable smorgasbord of sarky replies ("as often as they can" certainly sprang to our minds). At first glance, the idea that we even need to question the male contribution to boning banter seems absurd: aren’t they supposed to be the salivating wolves snapping at the heels of so many Red Riding Hoods, in danger of corrupting all womankind with talk that’s "not appropriate for ladies’ ears"? They’ve surely had the authority on sex chat since time began, historically regulating what’s normal/moral/desirable and what isn’t through the legal and medical systems; creating the first widely available, standard-setting internet porn; and originally policing the sex education of children. Yet there seems to have been a dearth of baritones in the carnal chorus of late, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.

A couple of weeks ago, the BBC ran an article asking whether men are "excluded from the sex debate" nowadays, citing the plethora of feminist commentary on sexuality as proof that women are being heard on all things penetrative where their male counterparts are not. They have a point. Discussions ranging from the effects of human trafficking on prostitution to whether or not the missionary position is inherently submissive have almost exclusively involved women. The academic study of human sexuality comes with a reading list of majority female writers. The real questions about social sexualisation are almost always asked by the gals. Meanwhile, cultural recognition of what heterosexual men contribute to the sexuality debate can usually be boiled down to "we like sex. Now show us yer funbags!"

Replies to the BBC article came thick and fast from men themselves, proving that they are at least participating as readers, if largely silent ones. A lot of them accused female feminists of being responsible for the apparent male exclusion from the "sex debate" (perhaps an instance of what Rush Limbaugh memorably referred to as "Feminazis".) They claimed that they would be "shouted down" if they stormed onto the scene with the equivalent of Naomi Wolfe’s Vagina and Rosin’s The End of Men. And there’s no denying that it’s certainly difficult to imagine a prominently placed stand in Waterstones bursting with copies of books called "Penis" and "The End of Women". The idea that all women would balk at - or worse, attack - a contribution to feminist issues merely on the basis that the contributor was male, however, sounds like just another form of prejudice. Reasons for that male silence have to run deeper.

We’ve been schooled into thinking that women are complicated, and that satisfying a woman is an "art form". Meanwhile, men are supposed to be the microwaves to the female Aga vagina (vagaga?) - instead of slowly heating to perfection when all the constituent parts are in the right place, they ping on and off as needed, job done in a number of seconds if need be. Teenage girls need to be "protected" from sexual discourse; meanwhile, boys will be boys. And we’re not lying when we tell you that girls’ magazines introduced the issue of masturbation when we were young with the suggestion that you "treat yourself to an evening", run a bubble bath, light some candles, and then "take time to explore your body". As well-meaning as it sounds, the way in which it diverges from the media’s curt nod towards male masturbation - a young boy’s computer table overrun with a pile of tissues, a three minute video of "college babes" paused on a screen - sets us up for conversational inequality that will persist into the academic journals, the halls of national newspapers, and the inner sanctums of personal relationships.

So beyond "nice tits versus great arse", what do men talk about when they talk about sex? We rarely hear them pitch in about emotions, connections, or even their own physical sensations, while they make the beast with two backs - as one of our followers on the Vagenda blog pointed out recently, we definitely never hear about a man’s "screaming orgasm", never mind an admission that on their anniversary, it feels more like lovemaking than fucking. Frank discussions of personal experiences are just as sparse as any theories or abstractions developed from them. Both are notable in their absence.

Laurie Penny said that masculinity - and by extension, male sexuality - is "like Fight Club": the first rule is that you never talk about it. Based upon her own journalistic experiences, she said in an article for the Independent, men are willing to write reams on their place in the world of penetration and celebration, so long as it’s behind those modern-day metaphorical closed doors, their computer screens. Hidden from view, they replied to her request for male commentary on sexuality - things like how the proliferation of porn affects their own expectations and anxieties, or whether the media dents or bolsters their sexual confidence - in their droves. But when offered a platform in real life, we know that most of them shy away.

The gender that is expected to take sex in its stride is not expected to waste time talking about it. Emotional sex, meaningful sex, even mind-blowing sex with a perfect stranger that leaves you tingling all over from the sheer physicality of it, has been out of bounds for discussion in the male sphere for too long. This sort of dialogue is reserved for women, who battled their way to sexual equality and then, to their surprise, found themselves almost alone on the podium. Of course, there are some genuinely incredible male contributors to the study of sexuality - the heterosexual male being the least likely of all to raise his head above the parapet - but a problem still clearly exists. If we are trapped in a world where "simple, easily pleased" men are pitted against "complicated, wordy" women, we will never see entirely eye-to-eye.

There is no easy answer to how we can encourage a more balanced dialogue on the issues of sexuality, but professing our need for it might help. Like boardrooms, bedrooms, and indeed almost every facet of life, diversity is the key to success: we need men to come into the fold with something more than the "safe" professed admiration for a pair of 34GG basoomas. We need to hear about their experiences of sex, journalistically, academically, anecdotally on a Tuesday evening over a flat white. And in order to encourage its existence, we need to acknowledge that need. Because it seems like there’s a hole in the market we desperately need filling - and a dude needs to do the job.
 

We need men to talk about sex (other than professing admiration for a pair of 34GG basoomas, that is). Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty
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A year on from the Brexit vote it’s striking how little we know about where it will lead

So many questions, so few answers.

One year one. Anyone who hoped we’d know what Brexit might look like or even, heaven, forbid, that we’d be inhabiting a post-EU UK by now, must be thoroughly disappointed. Even those with more modest expectations are feeling slightly uncomfortable. Because, a year on, we don’t know that much more about what Brexit means  than we did on 23 June last year (well, we know it means Brexit, I suppose).  

We do know some things. First, that divorce talks are preceding trade talks, as the EU insisted – and David Davies denied – all along. Second what the European Union wants in the initial negotiations is crystal clear and indeed on their website, if you’re interested.

Third, the government, for the moment, remains committed to the kind of hard Brexit it has laid out since the Conservative Party conference. Nothing that has been said or done since the election indicates a softening of that position.

That’s it. That’s essentially all we have to show for the last year. This isn’t to say that stuff hasn’t been done. Both the European Commission and the British civil service have been beavering away on the Brexit issue. Papers have been written, careful, detailed analysis carried out. In fact Brexit has dominated the work of Whitehall since the fateful vote.

But for all this work, it’s striking how little we know about where this process will lead. The government’s commitment to a hard Brexit might not survive. Whether it does so or not will depend on what happens with the things we don’t know. The known unknowns, to coin (well, quote) a phrase.

First, we don’t know how long the prime minister will remain in post. This is obviously important, not least given Theresa May herself has seemingly singlehandedly been defining the kind of Brexit Britain should seek. Yet there is more to it than that. A leadership election would take time, and eat up yet more of the two years stipulated by the EU for the Article 50 process. It would also open the rift within the Conservative party over Brexit. Always a good spectator sport. Never a recipe for effective government.

Second, we don’t know how parliament will behave. Much has been made of the "soft Brexit majority" in the Palace of Westminster. But remember last June? When the significant majority of pro-remain MPs were expected to kick up a fight over Brexit? The same MPs who nodded the triggering of article 50 through with hardly a glance? We just do not know yet how MPs will behave.

And their behaviour will be shaped by both inter and intra-party dynamics. Both the large parties are internally divided over Brexit. The Labour leadership seems happy to leave the single market. Many Labour MPs, in contrast, are fundamentally, and publicly, opposed to the idea. Whether loyalty (not least given the prospect of another election) triumphs over opinions on the EU remains to be seen.

As it does for the Tories. I imagine the phrase "do you really want to risk a Corbyn government" will soon trip off the tongue of every government whip. Whether this threat will prove effective is anyone’s guess. Tory Remainers certainly seemed to rein in their criticism of the prime minister following the "chocolate trousers" affair. Maybe this was simply a case of keeping their powder dry until the legislation needed to make Brexit work hits parliament in the autumn. We’re about to find out. And it will matter much more now the Tories have lost their majority.  Indeed, I think this, more than anything else, is why the prime minister called the election in the first place.

One crucial determinant of how MPs behave will be what public opinion does. Regular polling by YouGov since the referendum has, until recently, shown virtually no movement in attitudes towards Brexit. Around 52 per cent think it was a good idea, and around 48 per cent a bad one. Sound familiar? There has in recent weeks been what could best be described as a slight wobble. What we don’t know is what will happen in the weeks to come. Should the polls show a swing away from Brexit, might politicians swing with it, increasing the pressure on the PM to modify and soften her stance?

Turning from Westminster to Whitehall, will a government with no majority adopt a different style to a government with a small one? This matters, particularly when it comes to business. The May Government before the election was notable for the way it put politics above economics, focusing on the need to ‘take back control’ even if this meant the potential for real economic damage. A number of business leaders report getting short shrift when they visited ministers to voice their concerns.

But can a weak government be so dismissive? We know what most businesses want – certainly the kinds of business that get to knock on ministerial doors. They want single market and customs union membership. They want, in other words, a soft Brexit. Chancellor Philip Hammond, it would seem, has been listening to them from the start. Will his colleagues now start to do so too?

And if government policy does start to shift, this in turn will open up a whole host of new unknowns. Most importantly, might the EU be open to some sort of deal whereby we limit free movement but get some kind of single market membership? That discussion has simply not happened, because of the way in which Theresa May closed it off by stipulating a hard Brexit.

Most EU observers think a compromise is unlikely in the extreme. Yet while the EU won’t be more generous to a non-member state than to a member state, there is no reason a non-member state should buy into all of core EU principles entirely, so there might be some room for compromise. Again, we don’t know. And we won’t unless we decide to ask.

So many questions, so few answers. That is the story of Brexit to date. One year on, and those answers are about to get clearer.

Anand Menon is the director of The UK in a Changing Europe. Read their report: EU referendum: one year on to find out more.

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