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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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The 5 things the Tories aren't telling you about their manifesto

Turns out the NHS is something you really have to pay for after all. 

When Theresa May launched the Conservative 2017 manifesto, she borrowed the most popular policies from across the political spectrum. Some anti-immigrant rhetoric? Some strong action on rip-off energy firms? The message is clear - you can have it all if you vote Tory.

But can you? The respected thinktank the Institute for Fiscal Studies has now been through the manifesto with a fine tooth comb, and it turns out there are some things the Tory manifesto just doesn't mention...

1. How budgeting works

They say: "a balanced budget by the middle of the next decade"

What they don't say: The Conservatives don't talk very much about new taxes or spending commitments in the manifesto. But the IFS argues that balancing the budget "would likely require more spending cuts or tax rises even beyond the end of the next parliament."

2. How this isn't the end of austerity

They say: "We will always be guided by what matters to the ordinary, working families of this nation."

What they don't say: The manifesto does not backtrack on existing planned cuts to working-age welfare benefits. According to the IFS, these cuts will "reduce the incomes of the lowest income working age households significantly – and by more than the cuts seen since 2010".

3. Why some policies don't make a difference

They say: "The Triple Lock has worked: it is now time to set pensions on an even course."

What they don't say: The argument behind scrapping the "triple lock" on pensions is that it provides an unneccessarily generous subsidy to pensioners (including superbly wealthy ones) at the expense of the taxpayer.

However, the IFS found that the Conservatives' proposed solution - a "double lock" which rises with earnings or inflation - will cost the taxpayer just as much over the coming Parliament. After all, Brexit has caused a drop in the value of sterling, which is now causing price inflation...

4. That healthcare can't be done cheap

They say: "The next Conservative government will give the NHS the resources it needs."

What they don't say: The £8bn more promised for the NHS over the next five years is a continuation of underinvestment in the NHS. The IFS says: "Conservative plans for NHS spending look very tight indeed and may well be undeliverable."

5. Cutting immigration costs us

They say: "We will therefore establish an immigration policy that allows us to reduce and control the number of people who come to Britain from the European Union, while still allowing us to attract the skilled workers our economy needs." 

What they don't say: The Office for Budget Responsibility has already calculated that lower immigration as a result of the Brexit vote could reduce tax revenues by £6bn a year in four years' time. The IFS calculates that getting net immigration down to the tens of thousands, as the Tories pledge, could double that loss.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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