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Sex: A very peculiar practice


We rhapsodise and obsess about it, yet the act of sex is as likely to be ridiculous as sublime. Hannah Betts considers the paradox of consummation. 15 September 2008

Consummation, as set down dispassionately by the Oxford English Dictionary is "the action of making a marriage or relationship complete by having sexual intercourse"; from the Latin verb consummare, uniting con- (altogether), with summa (sum total), the feminine of summus (highest, or supreme).

An end, then, that may be no less a beginning and a lofty one at that, ripe with connotations that the act itself should prove consummate.

And yet, in practice, sex is rather akin to dancing: something physical and exuberant that makes most of us look like arses. Tinseltown intercourse certainly packs a terrific bang for its buck: so many tastefully lit montages of deeply meaningful acrobatics. (What was sex like before celluloid, the post-modern citizen wonders, before orgasms become as platitudinous as Meg Ryan herself?)

Back in the real world, we may dress for sex, hanker after it, thrill and scheme, but the reality is that the fist slamming, raw-faced, ululating meeting-of-minds-as-bodies phase can be frustratingly short-lived. As the American writer and wit Anita Loos decreed: "Sex, which has been acclaimed by too many misguided poets as an utopian activity, seldom attains that status in the human race." Like life, it has a tendency to be nasty, brutish and short, which may or may not be exactly how one likes it.

Too much that falls under the category of consummation conforms to the nursery rhyme dictum that when it is good it is very, very good, but when it is bad it is horrid. There are too many permutations. The anonymous encounter whose ghost looms like a priapic Colossus over congress with someone you actually like. The lacerating, genitals-only connection with someone you once loved. The absurd, two-person pantomime that can have us writhing with mortification years in its wake. As a friend once implored: "Why only beer goggles, why not lifelong blinkers?"

One of the most popular novels of recent years, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, might well be a record of non-consummation, of a honeymoon encounter turned into the dampest of squibs. The British have yet to shake off entirely the impression that sex falls somewhere between the territories of Philip Larkin and Benny Hill: something that is both ignominious and comical.

A run-in with the website beautifulagony.com provides ample fodder for those of this persuasion. The site is a picture library of the facettes de la petite mort (or "cum faces" in the lexicon of the lavatory wall) of its "agonées". "The only nudity it contains is from the neck up," declare its creators. "That's where people are truly naked." And so – gurning or beatific– they are. What is at once most brilliant and terrible about sex is its capacity for self-exposure.

Somehow intercourse makes us feel as if we are revealing something at the very core of our beings; even if at this core lies merely more play-acting. Sex is the most resplendently subjective experience, which implies there is a subject, or so the logic goes. The rhetoric of congress reflects this assumption: an individual becomes known via the sexual act.

And there is a sense in which we all recognise the veracity of this: the rush of something passing for post-coital intimacy; that intoxicating alliance born of pillow talk; the sudden, potent familiarity with someone who was until recently exhilaratingly unknown; something unfamiliar discovered in a familiar ally; the mess of selves and sweat. You and me against the world, if only for the time it takes us to gather our wits.

And, yet, of course, these sexual selves are as constructed as anything else our consciousnesses can muster. Unravel the tangle of many a woman's thwarted idea of arousing feminine behaviour and you will discover some chimera made from: Scarlet O'Hara, Elizabeth Bennett, Holly Golightly and "Not My Mother"; ready to drop her knickers for that elusive Rhett /Darcy /Peppard / daddy substitute.

Someone's particular fetishes may be less knowingly laid down: the thumbsucker who yields to more graphic oral fixations; the squirming schoolboy who grows up ever hankering after a walloping; the News of the World journalist who goes hard at the prospect of a Mosley in uniform. Some epiphanic moment spawns a rubberite here, a frottage enthusiast there, our sexual selves becoming all this and more, greater than the sum of their, or anybody else's, parts.

Animals that we are, we sniff our lovers out. A significant factor in whom we find alluring is that we succumb to the scent of genetic compatibility or, rather, the complete lack of compatibility that ensures a healthy genetic mix. But this is only the beginning of our substance abuse, because sex is chemically addictive, rendering us all crack whores.

The initial flood of lust feeds off the gendered part of the package, notably a torrent of testosterone and oestrogen. This is the pre-consummation stage, or the period when consummation has been so fleeting as to leave no lasting mark. The high it inspires is a gas, but not yet a dragging compulsion. The ensuing love or infatuation phase relies on a potent cocktail of neurotransmitters including adrenaline, noradrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, and phenylethylamine – or in layman's terms, an entirely head-fucking bolt of stimulants.

This is a havoc wreaked in consummation's wake. Where lust was a diversion that could be kept in its box, so the junk of infatuation consumes us. Renaissance poets recognised its ravenousness in their obsession with the erotic contortions of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Robert Burton's early 17th-century treatise, The Anatomy of Melancholy, devotes a considerable portion of its musings to libidinous frenzy. A century on, the vernacular take on such dependency was more spade-calling, the afflicted deemed "cock-struck" or "cunt-struck".

Most of us will have been so stricken. Something bestial crawls under the skin, rendering us moony, jittery, distraught and rhapsodic. Overnight we have the energy for a range of behaviours we would hitherto have strained to accommodate: Herculean erotic feats, the trading of interminable biographical detail, cavernous sleep deprivation, texter's finger, shagger's groin. We become nearly as compelling to have about as the coke addicts from whom we are scarcely distinguishable. The love object's every gesture is analysed, every adjective applied to them qualified, every opportunity to refer to them clawed.

Tedious, yes, but what is most crushing about this chemical high is how fleetingly the fix endures. The affection or commitment stage that follows this honeymoon period, typically at around 18 months, is the product of the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin. Both are believed to interfere with dopamine and noradrenaline pathways, heightening bonding, but sabotaging sexual craving. Hence that most painful of erotic paradoxes: at the point where you have never have loved someone more, you may never have wanted to sleep with anyone less. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it is likely to guarantee sexual torpor, as a million magazine articles testify.

Chemically, then, sex may be mere sex, or it can seem like everything – after which it seems destined to become a chore. Small wonder that we should chose to invest consummation with so much meaning, ham it up in inverse proportion to the brevity and insignificance of the act itself.

Consummation's past associations have been legion: disease, danger, fertility rite, sin, the accruing of dynastic swagger. It was not until relatively recently that sex has been thought to coalesce with wedlock, wedlock with love, and love to loop back again and lasso itself to sex. Frances Osborne's engrossing biography, The Bolter, offers a caution against the impression that our grandparents' sexual mores were more rigid than our own. Meanwhile, The First and Second World Wars unleashed orgiastic eruptions of extra-marital copulation.

Nevertheless, by and large, as the 20th century wore on, consummation came to signify some sort of mystical, marital union of simultaneously orgasmic soulmates (thank you D H Lawrence and Marie Stopes); a fairy-tale that endured long past the sexual revolution that was supposed to have set morals swinging.

If Freud made sex a panacea, Lawrence lent that panacea transcendence – a surrendering to the body to escape its bounds. Bona fide Lawrentian union – proud, elemental, phallic, unselfconscious – was to be favoured over "sex in the head" – visual, voyeuristic, controlling – beloved of "cocksure" females and other deviants. "Why were we driven out of paradise?" he inquires in Fantasia of the Unconscious. "Not because we sinned. Ah, no. All the animals in Paradise enjoyed the sensual passion of coition. Not because we sinned, but because we got sex into our head."

A century on, and postlapsarian sex in the head is the only show in town. While various orifices may be involved, our over-stimulated brains are where it's really going down. Consummation is not epochal, but recreational, as entertaining and banal as any other leisure activity. Sex can be pursued as a team sport, a game of doubles, or a solo exercise. Inanimate objects have become fair game as – in a reversal of pre-20th century anxieties – self-pleasuring has come to be regarded as a purveyor of mental and physical health ("I use my vibrator to give my skin a boost," remarks an acquaintance with the nonchalance of the salubriously orgasmic heroine of Brave New World).

Our culture is not so much navel-gazing as fixated further south. The over-fifties gad about amassing STDs, their offspring hooking up – a fuck not so much zipless as conducted at emotional arm's length, less coitus than mens interruptus. Sex is considered safe if it precludes propagation or disease; an underestimate of the damage one can do while one's wedding tackle remains intact.

The true fetishist has become he or she who abstains from consummation while the rest of society gets its kicks in a post-modern pornutopia in which all manner of experiences can be had with all comers and myriad things. The celibate are stigmatised as freakish, thwarted. And yet the great surveyed platitude among consenting adults is that most would rather sleep than screw; a kink at which uncontracepted generations would surely have gawked.

Perhaps the same chemical flattening that dulls intercourse in long-term unions applies to society at large. Where there is opportunity, satiation, multiple consummations, so there must also be over-familiarity, ennui. The terrier-like, up-against-the-leg sexual enthusiasm of mainstream culture also brings collective apathy in which all rush is spent.

And yet, in spite of all this, sex still has the ability to knock us sideways: that element of voodoo rising that can fell at a hundred paces and have even the most po-faced mouthing Molly Bloom's ecstatic: "Yes, yes, yes!" Its sway is registered on an epic scale from the fall of Troy to the detumescence of the Clinton White House. It imprints itself in our lives like a post-coital bruise. For, suddenly, here you are, stumbling across someone with whom you are not an arse, but dancing with the agility of Sylvie Guillem, to collapse in a great wash of elation, exhaustion, gratitude, spent rubber and, still, every now and then, love.


No sex, please, we're French

It used to be the British who were considered the world's dunces of sex. Now everyone is picking up our bad habits. John Lichfield, Paris correspondent, reports on the globalisation of sexual ineptitude. 15 September 2008

A few years ago I was driving late at night through the Pigalle area of Paris, which has been known as the city's "naughty" quartier for more than a century. I was, of course, merely on my way home.

Out of the darkness, there loomed a tall, male figure: young, pasty-faced, badly-dressed, obviously drunk, obviously British.

"It's all a fucking con-trick," he screamed as I swerved to avoid him. "It's all a fucking con."

A young British male, aggressive, uptight, determined to be virile but not sure how or where to start, had just established contact with the French sex industry, which had offered much but delivered little, at a high price.

Similar scenes are doubtless acted out, with different national protagonists, in every large city in the world. Pigalle is, in any case, not especially naughty these days. But there was something elemental about my late-night vision of young, British manhood on the streets of Paris, the city of lovers. Britons have long been possessed by a suspicion that foreigners especially "the bloody French" are more sexually liberated and active than we are. To put it crudely, that foreigners especially "the bloody French" are getting it more and doing it better.

Similarly, there is a widespread foreign view that the British are erotically inept. Our men are clumsy and hurried and given to strange inclinations. Our women are prudish and cold. Our teenagers are at it like rabbits but in a joyless and brutal fashion, largely under the influence of drink and drugs.

How true are such stereotypes? Are they changing in the globalised world of contraception, liberated morals, the internet, and frenetic travel? Have national sexual characteristics been eroded in a world in which relationships are often international and where sexual imagery infests everyday life?

To try to answer some of these questions, I made an appointment with France's leading "sexologist", Dr Jacques Waynberg, medical doctor, lecturer, writer and sexual philosopher. Dr Waynberg has studied human sexuality from the Brazilian rain forests to Bucharest. He organises academic studies in the psychology of eroticism, and the treatment of sexual dysfunctions, at the Universities of Paris VI and VII. He is the founder of the Paris Institut de Sexologie. What he had to say was startling. He believes that globalisation and modern industrial society have eroded national sexual characteristics. Far from everyone becoming more sexually confident, the developed world has become more erotically clumsy, even autistic, he says. In other words, other nations, even the French, are becoming, sexually speaking, more like the British.

"The British problem with sexuality is not a question of coldness or clumsiness. The problem is that you Britons take sex too seriously, too ponderously, as something deeply personal and secret, to be hidden and discussed in whispers or, conversely, something smutty to be gossiped about," Dr Waynberg said. "Eroticism in Britain has always been a difficult subject, as, of course, in many ways it is.

"The French traditionally have treated sex and eroticism more lightly, as a game, something to be enjoyed. That, I am afraid, is changing. I see dozens of French people of all ages in this office and my impression is that many French people are no longer having much fun out there. The pressures of modern life, the isolation of the modern couple without a wider family structure, the high expectations of performance, have destroyed the lightness, the playfulness which were characteristic of the French Lover.

"Sexuality in France is, I fear, becoming anglicised."

Dr Waynberg blames a paradox of the modern world: the obsession with glorified, or exaggerated, or over-simplified sexuality simultaneously arouses and destroys the true erotic impulse, he argues. As Shakespeare said of drink: "It provokes the desire but takes away the performance".

Jacques-Alain Miller, France's most celebrated Freudian psychoanalyst, makes a similar argument. He points to the systematic media hypocrisy now spreading from Britain and the US to France which glorifies and cheapens sexuality while tut-tutting or sniggering at any manifestation of sexuality in politicians and celebrities.

The Max Mosley affair was much reported in France partly through the device of mocking the prurience of the British press while providing the salient details. M. Miller said that this was symptomatic of changing attitudes in France: "Globalisation is universalising some of the worst aspects of Anglo-American puritanism: a hypocritical fulmination [by the media] against the smut which it encourages and then uncovers," M. Miller said "It is as if orgasm is no longer acceptable in the public domain."

International sex surveys suggest that Dr Waynberg and M. Miller are wrong (but also right). Such studies suggest that there are still great disparities between sexual activity and enjoyment in different parts of the word. A survey for Durex last year of 26,000 people in 26 countries claimed that the Greeks were the world's randiest people. Eighty-seven per cent of Greek adults said that they had sex at least once a week, compared with 34 per cent of the Japanese. The "Anglo-Saxons" came out badly. Only 55 per cent of Britons said they had sex weekly and 53 per cent of Americans.

Seventy per cent of French people made the same claim, which is not bad, but they were less active than such unheralded lovers as the Swiss and Chinese. And only one in four French men and women said that they were sexually satisfied. This compared with 40 per cent of satisfied Britons and 67 per cent of Nigerians.

Like most Africans, Nigerians score low in sexual activity rates but high in sexual satisfaction. Perhaps they are more honest; or perhaps quality of love-making is more important to them than quantity. This tends to support Dr Waynberg's belief that the developed world's obsession with cheap eroticism cloaks, or causes, an impoverished capacity for real sexuality.

Dr Waynberg dismisses all such surveys as "piffle". It is impossible, he says, to adjust the data for varying national tendencies to lie and brag.

The disparity between French activity rates and French contentment rates is, none the less, striking. On the surface, French people remain more relaxed about sexuality than the British. French men still flirt more convincingly, and obsessively, than British men. French women still appear to be more comfortable with their femininity, capable of dressing sexily while wearing relatively conservative clothes.

French advertising still puts tits and bums with almost everything. Almost every French film has a sex-scene, often involving an adventurous position. Paris has more than 60 "clubs libertines" wife-swapping clubs where respectable couples are encouraged to arrive in their best clothes before, in theory, removing them. Is all this, I asked Dr Waynberg, not evidence that France remains a relatively open and healthy sexual society?

"Wife-swapping clubs?" he snorted. "Ha. Have you ever been to one of those places? They are very sad. Often, nothing much happens. Middle-class, middle aged people sit around waiting to be entertained or aroused. They usually find that no one is willing to do anything much and then go home. From what I have heard, if you really want to have fun, you have to go to Belgium." Dr Waynberg says that the reputation of the "French Lover" is in any case misleading or class-based. The French peasant and working classes were never wealthy or well-fed enough to join in the energetic "libertine" behaviour of the nobles or part of the bourgoisie. From the 1920s to the 1950s, France became a relatively strait-laced country. The 1968 May students' revolution began as a demand for young men and women to be allowed to sleep together in university dorms. Free love and flower power had swept the US the year before.

"All the same, France's reputation is partly deserved," Dr Waynberg said. "Even now, some French people are still able to take a relaxed, balanced and healthy view of sex, as mutual enjoyment, rather than an obligation, duty or performance. That is changing, however. The pressures of modern living mean that couples feel isolated. You see them sitting in restaurants not talking to each other. I want to go up and shout at them: 'What kind of sex are you going to have at home if you have nothing to say to one another here?'"

"At the same time, men and women are bombarded with images which suggest that they should be having great sex, that they should have perfect bodies. The modern woman, having paid for her contraception, wants value for her money and she wants her man to perform to a very high level. In truth, most men, even French men, are not very good in bed, and the higher level of women's expectations does not help."

Even French teenagers, Dr Waynberg suggests, are becoming more like British teenagers. "Drink and drugs and sex go together and make their sexual acts more bestial nothing that can help young people to explore properly their sexuality and help them in their more adult relationships later on."

As I left Dr Waynberg's institute, one of his patients was waiting in the court-yard. I was pruriently curious to see what kind of French person would consult an eminent sexologist. A failing middle-aged man? A dissatisfied wife?

The patient was a good-looking, well-dressed young man with a neat, trendy beard. He was about 21 or 22 roughly the same age as my frustrated British apparition in Pigalle. So much for the sexual prowess of the "bloody French". Quel dommage.

See also
Sinful sex
Women marriage and sex
Sex in Crisis: How the Religious Right Is Trying to Ruin Sex

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