October 4, 2008

Can We All Please Stop Talking About Sex?

By Christina Patterson

THE NICE thing about sex is that it doesn't involve words. For the overly analytical and verbal among us, it can be a lovely animal respite from what Woody Allen called his second favourite organ, the brain. Try to describe it and look what you get: great efflorescences of purple tumescence, great efflorescences, in fact, of purple prose. Even when good writers try it - Norman Mailer and Sebastian Faulks both won the Literary Review's Bad Sex Award - they often fail. Heaven help the rest of us.

But like a nation afflicted with some kind of mass Tourette's, we just can't stop. It's everywhere: on billboards selling cars and bras, in films, on telly, in the magazines we devour with our Kit- Kat and, increasingly, in the newspapers we scour on the tube. Want a little update on South Ossetia or securitised loans? Fine, but you'll also get "the return of the cleavage". We can't, it seems, get through the day without a little glimpse of - well, what do you call them? Breasts? Tits? Mammary glands? A little glimpse, in any case, of female flesh and some accompanying prose.

The message of the pictures is generally straightforward. "Hello boys!" about sums it up. Hello, this will cheer you up. Hello, you might like to buy this product. Hello, we know what you're thinking and we're thinking it too. The problem, as I say, is largely the prose. Never quite sure of what we're aiming to achieve, we vacillate wildly: from the coy to the clinical to that mainstay of British culture, the double entendre. Carry on camping it up, because otherwise we'll all just get terribly nervous and terribly embarrassed. Even more nervous and embarrassed, that is, than we already are.

If this makes us sound like a nation of schoolboys, giggling over glimpsed knickers behind the bike sheds, then so be it. People giggle because they're scared of something, or they're not getting enough of it, or they're worried about their performance. Freud might have something to say about this projection of mass anxiety on the culture of a nation, but so be it. Does it make the world a worse place? Possibly. Probably. Who knows? It does, however, makes it a stranger one.

Whatever eventually takes our place on the embers of our burnt- out planet will surely puzzle over the constipated (and diarrhoeic) complexities of our sexual culture. Their literary critics will ponder the range in registers from the sublime (Keats) to the ridiculous (Johnny Vegas). Their anthropologists will grapple with the peculiarities of our sexual musical chairs. And their cultural commentators will surely wonder at the need - the compelling, crazy, universal need - to define every member of our culture by who they sleep with.

David Cameron "goes to bed", so he proudly told the Tory conference, with an "entrepreneur". Well, wouldn't we all if we could? Miriam Margolyes goes to bed with her girlfriend of 40 years, a revelation, she told Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs this week, which killed her mother. Gordon Brown goes to bed with a nice PR lady turned silent, dutiful wife, who opens her mouth only when the world's economy, or at least her husband, needs saving. David Willetts goes to bed with Mrs Willetts, a nice, mousy, stay-at-home wife and mum who spends her days polishing cutlery and making cup- cakes.

That, anyway, is what you'd assume from his comments this week on that evil species, the Bridget Jones, a tribe of vicious harridans conspiring to rob the men of this country of their God-given right to "bring home the bacon". The precise details of this mass conspiracy were, sadly, withheld from the speech he gave the Tory conference, but the main thrust of the accusation was pretty clear: the Bridget Joneses of our country don't go to bed with anyone in particular, anyone, that is, identifiable. And that, clearly, is an affront to Willetts's manhood (I'll resist the obvious pun) and an affront to our society.

The point is not whether or not you're having sex. The point is whether you're perceived to be having sex. Poor Cliff Richard has been hounded all his life for a scandalous absence of chronicled sexual activity. When he admitted, last month, that he had a "close friendship" with a male "companion", there was a mass sigh of relief. At last, the truth is out! Actually, it isn't. He didn't say that his friend was a sexual partner. He may be. And it's possible, it really is possible, that he isn't.

Sex, according to recent studies, lasts on average for a measly eight minutes. It can be lovely. It can be horrible. So can coffee. So can tea. Which, by the way, lasts quite a bit longer. But good news for the sensual human animal this week. The tea room, apparently, is coming back. Scones, jam, nice little cakes. Perhaps even a tasty little crumpet.

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