‘That picture looks like two slugs performing a mating ritual’. I couldn’t disagree with this comment as I sat pouring over a set of interviews I spent a lot of last summer sourcing & editing….and the lurid image chosen by The Guardian to illustrate them.
I was in Athens when the interviews went online. They feature people discussing their sex lives so I was performing wifi gymnastics in a street-side cafe to get onto the website and find out what people thought of them. I love the comments. They’re like an extension of the feature for me. A bonus piece of ‘content’ if you must. An added extra peep into people’s interior lives’.
Because whomever we may appear to be in normal life: the barista who helped kick start your day today with hot coffee, your dad or a fighter for ISIS, my interviewing world has taught me that every person we encounter has a vulnerable place inside them that needs to be heard. Every single person – no exceptions. Trust me; I’ve collected a book’s worth of virginity loss stories. I’ve been told some stuff and I’ve come to the conclusion that vulnerable places are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. They just are. May as well wrap your arms around them and make friends. They’re not going anywhere.
And from time to time, these soft spots can be spied in the comments section of The Guardian. I know! But I had my socks knocked off a couple of years ago when they published a feature I’d written about being single. Men and women of all ages had let down their guards and told me how they felt about being un-attached, (with varying degrees of happiness it must be said). Some were delighted about it and some really weren’t.
You’ll rarely meet a more cynical crew than those who inhabit the comments section of the Guardian but reader, they sung like recently dumped canaries. A nerve was twanged like an out of tune guitar. The response to my interviewees was poignant, tender, brotherly at times. At one point commenters began to counsel each other. ‘Don’t give up mate’ one reached out to another. People revealed their innards to each other in a way that took me by surprise. It is precisely this reaction that inspires me to keep mining. To keep finding out how people think, feel and function in this funny, awful, incredible world. To keep reporting from the front line of what it is to be human.
And when I say frontline, I mean the actual version of our lives and not the curated version that we present in its place, on social media, at the school gate, wherever. Slipping between the slats of these two versions of ourselves is what gets me out of bed. Once I’m armed with this emotional cargo, I attempt to create what social research agency Mass Observation first called ‘weather maps of public feeling’ back in 1937 when they began doing what entire ad agency planning departments do today.
‘The science of us’, Mass Observation named it i.e. finding out who we really are and not who we say we are.
The genesis of last summer’s feature lay in a bunch of interviews I originally conducted about LOVE. I wanted to know how our ideas about the L word evolve over time. I have thoughts on this (actually I have a million thoughts on this). But what would a child tell me? What does the word mean to someone who has not been around for that long? Compared to someone who has been around the block a few times? And what notions do we distill about love when coming towards the end of our lives?
I did the interviews (in the process interviewing a man who had been married for 60 years. He knew some stuff about love), got pulled swiftly in another direction and ended up pitching them to the Guardian as a Valentine’s day piece. It was January at the time so they laughed me out of the room and the interviews are still on my hard drive.
But they did say this: you’re always banging on about sex & relationships Kate, so why don’t you ask people to talk you through their sex lives instead? Yes, just like a sexual CV. The whole shebang, from start to finish. Go and find out about the bits that people bring to mind when they’re asked to smile for a photograph and the heinous shags they’d rather forget. What makes them so? What is the architecture of a rocking sex life? We want to know it all. Go forth and ask people what they get up to behind closed doors (and other places). Anonymously. That way they can say what they like. So I did.
Well now. First of all, in the pits of a terrible summer, during which my mum retreated slowly away from me in a hospital bed, the ability to journey into the most private part of other people’s intimate lives allowed brief moments of mental flight during the saddest time of my life. There is much to be said for an absorbing project when you are having a shit time. I could have loved it for this reason alone, for keeping me sane and for connecting me to something that is very much about being alive.
But it was also the sheer breadth of people’s experiences. We are so convinced that this post Fifty Shades world is new. It is not. People have always dabbled, had sex with multiple partners or experimented with different genders (ok not everyone and not all the time, but you get my drift); it’s just that now we live in a culture that can have a conversation about it…just.
All of my interviewees bar one wanted to be off the record. People understandably do not welcome the thought of work colleagues/in-laws hopping online to read about their sex lives. But they definitely want a place and a space in which they can chew over their intimate lives. Especially given the highly sexualized world in which we now live.
I’m the lucky person who got to listen whilst they did that. Here are some précised thoughts on what I heard:
I loved the variety and the ways and means with which people found their way quite naturally towards what they wanted, both pre and post internet: ‘back in 1987’, 64-year-old Christopher told me, ‘my partner and I set up a role-play group….we put an advert in a magazine, and a lot of people joined, including trans women.
I am hetero-flexible, he continued. ‘I respond sexually to girls, transvestites and transsexuals, as long as they’re dressed as girls. As soon as they put on men’s clothes, its not working for me.’ And so many more gems like that that I had to cut as I couldn’t squeeze the cascade of information into the frustratingly small word count. Talk about killing your darlings, I could do another book on these interviewees alone.
Sarah was the hardest of all to edit as she talked me through her Revenant-style epic life story via a broken home, the gay women’s liberation movement, a deep dive into the hardcore gay male S&M scene, addiction and now, fully back in the light, working with what she calls her ‘naked men’ (a massage service) and discovering ‘the simple sense of playfulness that gets lost in adult sex’.
How very beautifully put.
‘I’ve had some wonderful experiences of joyful innocent play. And those men tend to look a bit bewildered afterwards. They sort of go, woah that was really...WOW, thank you. And nothing really complicated has happened. Its just about showing up and in a way that’s possible because its this kind of container…’
What a breath of fresh air.
I hear a lot from the younger generation, raised as many of them are on mainstream porn, about the pressure to come up to the sexual mark, how difficult it is to throw the porn rule book out the window and go on a genuine exploration with each other. That we often assume we should ‘know’ what our partners want, as if the information might be absorbed just by looking at each other.
That if you have to ask, it might mean you’ve got a problem. That sex is a formula to be followed. Each time the same moves, even if its with a different person…*snore*
As I have found during years of talking to people about this stuff, the people with physical disabilities are almost always the most clued up because they have been put in a position, literally, where they have to experiment and communicate in order to get what they want. They are fearless and way ahead of the game as a result.
‘Disabled people have a blessing in a way’, 28 year old Matt confirmed, ‘because they learn that there are lots of other things that you can do that are way more pleasurable (than penetrative sex)…..a lot of men have a narrative in their head about how sex should play out, which ends up prohibiting genuine experimentation. I see sex as play’.
Ahh there it is again. The magic word: play. Strangely discouraged as soon as we become ‘grown-ups’. Note to self: get Matt to write a book about sex & play. I know enough about him to know that he would probably call it ‘Crip sex for normals’; or something similar, and that it would be a best seller. I do so love a man who walks the walk with way more confidence than most – with one less leg than most of the population.
My panel were insightful on the emotional as well as the physical. ‘One thing I have learned is to maintain my privacy and not tell my partner everything’, Hattie told me. ‘Not that I’m being deceitful, but having boundaries – whether that’s physical space or not oversharing – is a good thing. There needs to be a little bit of mystery there, too’.
This is a great point. Our current relationship model appears to be built around the idea of being, or attempting to be, everything that one person can be to another: partner, lover, best friend & co-parent all wrapped up in one exhausted unit.
I know lots of people who can live this way, and an equal number who can’t, but try to because we have been hoodwinked into thinking that total transparency is ‘romantic’ and in Hattie’s words; retaining something of ourselves is ‘deceptive’. Crap! And people are surprised when the known becomes dull and sexual desire takes a nose dive. Which is fine if you’re ok with that and not so great if you’re not. FYI, Esther Perel is the queen of this subject. Read Mating in Captivity for further enlightenment.
On other fronts, my male interviewees, both straight and gay slayed myths with lightsaber-like precision. Jonathan on the angst of a commitment-phobe partner: ‘I don’t find uncertainty thrilling; I find it a pain in the arse. The more you feel that sense of commitment, the more playful and expressive you are able to be. A big part of sex is getting to know someone…’
Paul, on being a young gay man: ‘people sleep around and it’s not my scene. I remember going on Grindr when I was 16. I was terrified…’
I also liked the way one of my interviewees summed up the BDSM component of her partnership with prosaic simplicity: ‘It’s really nice to have someone take control for a little while. It doesn’t mean they take control in the rest of our life together. At the end of the day, it’s just an act.’ Nothing more complicated than that.
I mentioned the architecture of a rocking sex life before but let it also be said that a sex life should be whatever you and your partner want it to be: rocking, sedentary, whatever moves you, literally or metaphorically. Christopher likes getting it on with girls….and boys dressed as girls but ‘in the end, it’s the cuddling and the spooning that matter.’
Swinging from chandeliers can be fun but finding someone who thinks the sun shines out of your backside is also a deal breaker. Twenty five year old Sadie nailed it: ‘My ex had a look that only certain boys are capable of giving: it’s about love, and who you are, and wanting you because of that, and that’s really hot’.
It really is. We live in a brutally visual world, where we can reject or accept another person with the flippant sideways swipe of a finger across a smart phone. Clearly life has moved on from my mum’s era, when you passed quickly from child to adult hood, got married to the first person who looked halfway decent and if you were very lucky, fancied the pants off each other. But modern life has challenges too. We are liberated, for sure - and lucky to be so – but current sexual mores can be oppressive in their own way. And complicated.
I often think to myself that in a hundred years’ time, sociologists will look back at the late 20th/early 21st century and think holy smoke, what a tricky time that was for women and men to try and get to grips with each other. Because we are poised on a tipping point between the patriarchal age (literally. Centuries of men being in charge) and something new and different and we constantly make the mistake of thinking that its sorted. Job done. That men and women are on an almost equal footing and therefore, everybody should know what they are doing and exactly how we should relate to each other.
We don’t know. Not because we are stupid but because it takes longer than the evolutionary equivalent of five minutes to work out how to co-exist after such seismic change. Women gaining control over their fertility in the 1960’s was a massive deal. The repercussions of which we are clearly still sifting through today. Simply put, and with increasing frequency, women do not depend on men in the way that our mothers and grandmothers did.
Today’s young Western women can direct the course of their own lives and as a result, we are all shuffling around, occasionally bumping into each other, (some because they clutching their out of joint noses), trying to re-arrange ourselves into new groups in light of this humungous power shift and discovering in the process –thank god – that there are a lot more choices than there used to be. There are all sorts of new ways to fit together. That there is something for everyone. That you don’t even need to identify as exclusively male or female anymore if you don’t want to, let alone tie your sexuality down to boring old gay or straight but it is discombobulating.
It is painful at times. We are very much mid shake down. Men aren’t sure what their role is in this new order and women are impatient whilst they work it out. There is collateral damage as we work our way towards the relationship iterations of the future.
And all of this is reflected in the complexity and color of our sexual lives. It’s all being played out in bedrooms and living rooms as we Netflix and chill, fall in and out of partnerships, raise children in new kinds of families and figure out how it all fits together as we wave goodbye to a generation who for better or worse, often partnered for life. It makes me unfeasibly happy to know how much my mum, like many of her generation, enjoyed her second marriage. She passed on in the autumn, just shy of her fortieth wedding anniversary to my step dad. There is a story that involved love.
We are all headed in the right direction, much as it sometimes feels otherwise. And we are doing it at a speed commensurate with actual change i.e. it doesn’t happen overnight. It happens as it happens, in its own good time.
Whilst that bubbles away on the back burner, talking helps build bridges, between men and women of all persuasions and types, between old ways and new. And if you can’t face talk then doing what you’re doing now, i.e. peeping through the port holes of other people’s lives is the next best thing.
Either way, together we are creating some pretty cool weather maps of public feeling, even here on this blog. We are building the science of us brick by brick, as we walk the walk, dare to talk and play our way towards the new normal, whatever that may be for you.