Apparently, when men flirt with women, they unconsciously modulate the pitch of their voices to make them go all sing-song, and high and low, just like you do when you speak to a baby. Women – unconsciously – love this, because after all, who doesn’t get off on being talked to like they’re 16-weeks-old? For their part, women attempt to make their voices low (an excellent thing in a woman, as Lear said and Thatcher knew), because men don’t like squawkers, and never have done, not even in the ancient world, where a Greek orator once imagined the voices of an entire community replaced by female ones, and a fate “worse than the plague” as a result.
Away from the political or community space, what is irksome to hear may, of course, be secretly what a man desires. The journalist Nichi Hodgson was working as a dominatrix to put herself through various internships – including one at the New Statesman – when she learned the power of the voice in sex: an initial phone consultation was, after all, how you got clients, and you had only a few seconds, discussing prices, times, locations and other unsexy things, in which to hook them in.
I decided to experience Hodgson (who has retired from sex work) at source, on the phone – although it was a conference call, and a PR for her recent book floated somewhere on the line. Her accent was a warm, direct Yorkshire. I imagined myself a businessman, hushed and furtive, calling from a temporary SIM. Many clients were attracted to this Yorkshire accent specifically, she said, because they were old boys of Ampleforth school and – she suspects – she recalled for them some local female authority figure from their early years: a bossy nurse, or possibly a matron. Their demands were specific in other ways, too: they regularly wished her to take the role of an HR executive and to play at firing them, using all the correct jargon. You suppose that losing a job was so far from their unfulfilling realities as to be terrifically exciting. (“Am I weird?” they would ask? “No,” she’d reply, to their disappointment. “HR is one of the top five things I hear.”)
Researching her book, The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder, Hodgson pursued this business of the role of the voice in sex and attraction. She learned that some women in the Nineties had a thing for Gerry Adams’s fake TV voiceover, played by the Belfast actor Conor Grimes – a hard and powerful cipher of the forbidden man beneath. Southern Irish is generally considered more sexy, of course: Hodgson likes to think this is because Ireland, in the collective memory, is where we were sent, in centuries past, to be kept out of the way if we’d been naughty, unruly or bad.
But the biggest “accent turn-on” exists in the relationship between Britain and the US. When American heiresses, or “Buccaneer brides”, came over to marry our penniless aristos in the late 19th century, the pitch, volume and easy buoyancy of their voices was much trumpeted in the press. Fifty years later, and British women were given handbooks to decode the dazzling phrasing of silver-tongued GIs. The love affair goes on: a Time Out survey recently judged British to be the most sexy accent in the world. It was also voted the most trustworthy – the two things go together, after all, in terms of that creepy, early-years psychology. British female voices advertise Viagra on American TV, but they are also used to sell toilet paper, a fact that Freud would enjoy.
To my horror, I learn from Hodgson that while most of the porn consumed in the UK features American voices – something you take for granted, really – the US actually like to enjoy porn filled with our English brogues! An unwelcome cacophony of this island’s sounds cannot help but come to mind – snatches of Carry On…, or Confessions of a Window Cleaner, mixed with the Gateshead drawl of the Big Brother announcer.
Hodgson thinks that the future of erotic fiction lies in sound, too – in audiobooks. What is written looks far less naff when it’s read out loud – preferably in a Yorkshire accent – and you can listen on the Tube without anyone knowing what you’re doing.
Nichi Hodgson’s The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder is available to buy on Audible.co.uk
This article appears in the 08 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State