At its core, my book is one big teenage rebellion against my mother, for whom sex absolutely did matter. She loved sex,and wanted me to know its joys too. At the age of twelve, there was nothing I didn’t know. She made me feel this was the whole point of a woman’s life. Everyone, it seemed to me, would want to take down my knickers very soon, including women, because some women were lesbians, and that was just fine. If another girl got into bed with me at boarding school, and put her hand on my ‘puss’, as the family word used to be, then that was just fine. If it gave me pleasure, wow, that was wonderful, but if it didn’t, I had to say ‘no’ and be firm about it.
In fact, my mother would have thrived at the helm of the Government initiative to teach all Primary School children about Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans relationships fromb next Autumn (2020).
When I told my mother that I didn’t like the sound of all this, and that I was happy to put up with sex three times to have three children but certainly no more, she laughed.
‘Wait until your hormones come!’ she said. ‘You’re going to have SO much pleasure darling, and sexual pleasure is just the best!’
I used to dread my hormones coming. I have always loved reason; even as a small child, I used to love the fact that I could think. Thinking was like being naughty; you could think whatever you liked and no one could see or judge you. My parents’ friends didn’t know I was thinking, because I pretended that I wasn’t, that I was just playing like a good little girl. I enjoyed being the proverbial fly on the wall.
I imagined that when the hormones came I would be deprived of my ability to think. I had been led to believe that hormones were a drive, and you were powerless before them; that the second they arrived with my period (any day now!) I would become like those women I’d seen in ‘adult’ magazines, driven by some wild impulse to take off my clothes and look gormlessly expectant for a penis.
Things got worse. My mother also told me that I had to be good at sex, and that it was a skill like any other. I had to learn what gave me sexual pleasure, and also how to give it. She told me that the reason why so many of her friends’ marriages were unhappy was because no one realised how very important sex was, particularly for a man. If I didn’t learn how to be good at sex, she told me, my husband would either set up a mistress in a flat in London who was good at sex, or leave me for another wife.
At sixteen, my anxiety about losing my ability to think had given way to an anxiety that I had succeeded in self-repressing too well. I now solemnly took my mother’s advice. I began to read books on how to be a good lover, how to give a great blow job. I had been a rebel up to then; now I realised I had to socially conform.
Thank-you, textbooks. I learnt how to be a good lover. I learnt about my body, I learnt how to experience sexual pleasure. In fact, there was a moment when I thought I might just clear up my student debt and be a high-class prostitute. I got better at it. But what no textbook can teach you, is why sex is even the slightest bit important, except as one of many social skills and to make sure your partner’s sexual needs are being met so he/she doesn’t go off with someone else.
I like the term ‘sexual needs’, because that’s all they are, needs, of the sexual variety. They are merely the equivalent of ‘nutritional needs’. A libido and its satisfactionare like hunger and its satisfaction. In fact hunger and desire operate in exactly the same part of the brain. The hungrier you are, the better the food tastes, and in the same way, the more filled with sexual desire you are, the better the sex, the more breath-taking the orgasm, and the more exquisite the pleasure.
Over the couple of years it took to me write Why Sex Doesn’t Matter, one of the most surprising things I’ve discovered is the lack of sentimentality about sex. There is an ideology, which I thought would be still current, that love and sex are one and the same. Now my mother didn’t think they were for a moment, and certainly the sex education I received at school never brought in the importance of a ‘loving relationship’ – it was all about how not to get pregnant. Nonetheless, surely, the popular view is that they are somehow connected.
But in the literature pleasure definitely takes precedence over love. Even in the Relate book of ‘Sex in a Loving Relationship’ we are told that if all else fails, think about someone else you’d rather be having sex with. And the nonagenarian Dr Ruth told listeners to Women’s Hour that if a couple can’t reach the requisite amount of pleasure without it, then they ought to watch porn. Roleplay, pretending to be someone else, pretending you’ve not met before, reading 50 Shades of Grey and fantasy of all sorts: these will make your pleasure quotient skyrocket. And that’s what we’re told actually matters: pleasure. Herd-like and obedient we follow and say, ‘Of course it does!’
Like no other activity, we live within our own worlds during sex. I have no idea what’s going on in my partner’s head, he has no idea what’s going on in mine. There is no connection, no communication. Like pain, pleasure is solipsistic. We can’t get into one another’s heads. It is also, in the modern era, compulsory. The more pleasure we get from sex, that must mean we are healthy and happy, that’s the myth we’ve told ourselves. Before sex became ‘making love’ in the late 1950’s (thank-you, Hollywood) sexologists discovered (wow, some discovery) that the people who enjoyed sex most were not the happiest and the healthiest, but those with the greatest libido. And these couples did not have the best marriages, but simply the most tempestuous natures, leading to arguments quite as often as sexual passion.
Western culture has turned a mere biological drive into the essential component of being human. Modern academic textbooks agree that our ‘sexuality’ is paramount and we must follow our drives wherever they lead us, and society just has to fall in line with that. Children, therefore, must be looked after by the community so that we adults can be free to fulfil ourselves. The family is patriarchal and must be dismantled ASAP. Sexual love is REAL love, even if it lasts only as long as a pleasure-filled afternoon; other kinds of love should be the province of the state, and relegated under ‘care’. A human being consists of little more than his/her hormones, which must be obeyed at all costs. These books are so, so wrong.
Human beings are spiritual, first and foremost. We are moved by the stars, by sunsets and dawns, by music, by teaching a young child how to sing her first song. We care for one another with our hearts; our pains and pleasures are dependent on the happiness of others, over and above the quality of our orgasms. The pleasures of food and sex might be great, but ultimately they reduce us as people. We are so much more than that.
True intimacy is not at all sexy. It is telling the truth about ourselves and opening our hearts and minds to the lives of others. To talk of grieving for a parent is not sexy. To talk about despair is not sexy. To hide; to put on make-up and wear red lingerie is. To pretend to be someone else for a moment or two gives us relief, perhaps, but it is not intimate.
If my visceral motivation in writing the book was some sort of revenge against my mother and modern society, a more generous motivation is to remind people of what real love is ultimately about. Because you don’t have to be fit, healthy, young, beautiful to know this ultimate prize of our human existence. You just have to be open, honest, and risk everything. You have to learn to listen to another person with a full and generous heart. You have to learn to matter, not just to excite.
A Brief Word about Gender
If I had not been a freelance writer – if I had been an academic, a doctor, or worked for the government, I would have had to resign because of my radical views about gender .
The crux of everything, it seems to be, is whether it is even possible to answer these two questions: what is it like to feel female? What is it like to feel male?
I am first and foremost a novelist, so I have been asking myself these questions for decades. Thirty years on, I still haven’t a clue. I just know I always feel more confident, more certain of my ground, when I write as a man.
Society has made the distinction between an ‘alpha’ male and a ‘beta’ male very clear. It’s relatively easy, therefore, to imagine what it’s like to be either of them. I can take on the persona of someone who is focussed, strong, unyielding. The description of a beta male, as someone who is sensitive, reflective, hesitant, melancholy, perhaps (think Hamlet), is one recognised by all of us. But what is an alpha woman? An Amazonian supermodel who runs a flourishing international company and always takes the lead in sex? Do we like her? Not much. And who are the beta women? Those who are sweet, submissive, anxious to please, always looking for someone to love them? So, I could have a beta male as my hero for certain, but never a beta woman. I might like her, sympathize with her, but she’ll never be my hero.
Am I being sexist?
Because not only am I a beta male, according to these stereotypes, but so are all my girlfriends. We all ‘identify as’ beta men, which means, according to the Gender Recognition Act, we all are men.
But we are not men. We are women. We just have marginally more qualities traditionally associated with the opposite sex. My argument here is that men and women are remarkably alike.
I have never dared to present a properly rounded, interesting woman in my novels because I am not sure what I should add to the beta male recipe to make her distinctly female. I dread the beauty malarkey foisted upon us females, for a start. I don’t want my heroine to be looking in the mirror, wondering what to wear, putting make-up on, because I don’t admire these activities. So would I make my heroine in touch with her feelings? That would be easy, I’m certainly in touch with mine. I have a night range (pretty gloomy), a day range (much more positive), a range for when I’ve slept well, and another for when I’m exhausted. Should I call some of these feelings ‘false’ and others ‘genuine’ insofar as they all contradict one another? No, they are just feelings, and therefore they are all equally true and equally unreliable. I have feelings, I observe them, and then I laugh at them.
Women don’t think differently from men. An examiner can’t tell from marking a script whether its author is male or female. When a male studies languages, his skills are every bit as good as the female’s skills. When a female studies maths, her exam script is every bit as logical and coherent as that of a male. None of the clichés are valid.
Equally, men and women react in the same way to music. Music surely is the arena of emotion where one might expect a difference; but it is impossible to tell if a piece of music has been played by a male or a female.
Every single adjective which exists can be applied both to men and women. Any one of us can be courageous, cowardly, aggressive, intelligent or lazy.
So if a transgender person has to give an answer as to why they feel the opposite gender, it proves incredibly difficult. They have to transcend their bodies, their hormones, their upbringing, their feelings, their emotions and their minds. I defy anyone to be able to do this.
Or perhaps that is the ultimate difference between people who were born women and those that merely think they’re women. I have never met anyone who didn’t think they had stereotypical qualities from both sexes; transgender people wouldn’t be able to compute that. For them, it’s all or nothing. In modern-speak, we are all gender-fluid bar trans people, who insist they’re one sex or the other, stuck in some kind of time warp. Gender is there to be played with, and trans people won’t play. Their ideas are set. They are, by definition, conservative.
Watch this space. In ten years’ time the trans phenomenon we see today will be a thing of the past, and men and women will learn again quite how much they have in common.