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Are we sex-literate? Why we should all be writing more about pleasure

Being able to articulate our desires is key to our wellbeing – but if we want to be sex-literate, we need more inventive writing than Fifty Shades of Grey.

In the UK, according to the association for PSHE teachers, “‘Personal, Sexual Health and Economic’ education is a non-statutory subject on the school curriculum”. It’s a frequent but unresolved complaint that children are taught no more than the mechanics of sex, and are sent out into adulthood with little beside biological basics, except warnings of STDs and other consequences. “Thou shalt not [is] writ over the door” of the Garden of Love, just as it was when the poet William Blake questioned why our “joys and desires” should be bound by prohibitions and prescriptions. But what constitutes sex-literacy, and why does it matter?

Few, after Freud, would dispute that sexuality is at the heart of personal and social identity and – as in every other area of life – if we’re not able to tell our own stories then we are not able to articulate, to construct, to explore or manage these identities. That women are much less likely than men to be literate worldwide has been strongly linked to their smaller share of economic and political power. 

Greater moral strictures on sex-literacy for women have likewise given them a smaller degree of power in the sexual economy, including the power to understand and control their own bodies, not to mention the power to defend themselves from exploitation and violence (I remember a 2013 Vice report on women in a conservative religious community in Bolivia, who were unable to complain of rape because their genitals had never been named to them.) Words, written and spoken, are of key importance here; after all, the “graph” in pornography means depiction with a pen.

In 2010, UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon said, “Every literate woman marks a victory over poverty.” It seems likely that every sex-literate woman could mark a similar victory over poor sexual health, as well as for improved family, romantic and sexual relationships, not to mention the self-esteem – the effects of which reach into all areas of life – that comes from no longer finding parts of your body and their activities unmentionable. 

In order that these effects be achieved we need to break the biggest taboo around sex literacy which, as we see from the PSHE guidelines, is not the “facts of life” or their downsides, but the idea that it might be fun. But here’s a pleasure gap that online porn – often shoddily produced, and, being made mostly by and for men – is not filling. It was all over the cover of Time Magazine when I was in the US last week: a generation of boys “brought up on pornography” are turning away from its limited possibilities. However, if much contemporary pornography is an imperfect attempt to make art about sex, there is no freedom to be gained by giving the genre up as a lost cause. 

For a personal education in pleasure, we need not lessons, but stories. Freud was a master story-teller. His case notes, however much they have superseded by more recent theories, remain important because he gave us the bones of how to talk about sex in terms of narrative, and his use of symbols is parallel to literary language: imagery, metonymy and metaphor. Unlike video porn clips, which offer a set, linear consumer experience, words can be used both critically and creatively, to break down and analyse concepts and, reconfigured, to build stories that express something new and personal.

And, though there’s nothing wrong with it as an icebreaker, we probably need more inventive sex writing than Fifty Shades of Grey. For good, unabashed, sex writing in contemporary literature in English, go to Katherine Angel’s Unmastered, Nicholson Baker,’s House of Holes, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Rob Doyle’s This Is The Ritual, Joshua Cohen’s Four New Messages. . . Or try some comics, from Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, to Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets, to Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch out For. 

Don’t expect to agree with everything you read: sex-literacy reminds us of the potency of words, raising the same question as online porn, film, and video games, about the power of representations to prompt actions off the page. Sex-writing is a speech act that not only describes sex, but is usually a turn-on of one kind or another. Part of the issue is that nothing about pleasure is uncomplicated: no one would dispute that something so central to our lives can be difficult and controversial – and this is another thing we should not shrink from exploring.

Again, women have historically been less frequently given (or allowed themselves) permission to incorporate sex-writing into fiction. There are notable exceptions, including Anaïs Nin, but they have often taken sex as their subject, which is a different practice to including it in more general works. This gap offers contemporary writers an opportunity as well as a constraint: as Heti wrote, tongue-in-cheek in How Should A Person Be?, “One good thing about being a woman is we haven't too many examples yet of what a genius looks like” – and that includes genius sex-writing. It is perhaps incumbent on women to write more about sex, which – irony! – might convert a pleasure into a duty. 

Luckily pleasure and language go hand in hand. As Roland Barthes posited in his 1973 Plasir du Texte, literary jouissance, or bliss (which also, in French, carries a connotation of orgasm) is produced by the union between the writing and the reader. Sex-writing can be a paradigm for writing in general. Working playfully, or provocatively, with what “can” and “can’t” be said – not only with the direct description, or evocation, but acknowledging the wordplay of dirty jokes – sex writing is a direct encounter with the some of the things language can do, and excellent practice for any kind of writing. Is writing dirty per se? “Only”, as Woody Allen said, “if you’re doing it right”.

Joanna Walsh is the author of several books including Grow A Pair, 9 1/2 Fairytales About Sex. ​

This article is part of the New Statesman's Literacy Week.

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.