Sex Education and Sexual Intimacy 

Scene from Mr & Mrs Smith

We know more about our partners and potential partners than ever before, as algorithms chart our compatibility, Twitter — the minutiae of our daily lives, Instagram — our most flattering selfies and Facebook — our passions. Social media isn’t just having a negative impact on girls’ self-esteems, it’s also impacting our sex lives. As Janet Street-Porter writes in The Independent:

“These new puritans have turned out to be surprisingly unskilled and inexperienced — very different to my generation, which invented wife-swapping, orgies and free love in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Our bible was The Joy of Sex; their mantra is probably an app telling them which “clean food” to eat or listing minutiae from Game of Thrones.”

Rachel Hosie reported earlier this year that Big Data is inhibiting the sex lives of millennials who are having fewer sexual partners and marrying later than previous generations. Aside from the distraction of choice, human enhancement through selfie apps inflates expectations that are then easily popped in real life:

“Social media consumes so much time and offers so many choices that, in the end, young people don’t bother with real experiences, where there’s high percentage of risk and potential embarrassment. They seem frightened of failure in a public arena.

Online dating is a ritualised game that generally doesn’t result in messy tactile experiences. The result is a self-inflicted chastity. The birth rate among young people is dropping steadily while the middle-aged are spreading sexually transmitted diseases, drinking, taking drugs to excess and having abortions.

The young have an over-abundance of choice when it comes to sex: easily accessible online pornography caters to every taste, explicit and highly manipulated images arrive constantly on smartphones, and there’s unrelenting social interraction via messaging sites. A vast array of unlimited free entertainment is available at the touch of a screen.

Each day young people spend a huge amount of time filtering though this stuff, ranking their friends, deciding who to engage with and what to watch or listen to, which means that there’s little time left to work out how to have three-dimensional sex, how to take the first step and stumble hesitantly towards a grope, and then a cuddle and a kiss, and then even penetration, with a real person. Plus the images which might have aroused or stimulated them online are perfect Photoshopped bodes, not the hairy, smelly things you encounter in the real world.”

And yet there is also plenty of evidence that young people are genuinely wrestling with the constraints, constructs and conventions passed down from previous generations. This need for adventure is touched upon in an article by Emily Witt “Sex in Silicon Valley: are millennials better at free love?” — an extract from her book “Future Sex” (published January 2017). The article discusses the fluid relationships that many millennials are exploring (lots of them at Google apparently); a resistance to labels, to commitment and an openness to sexuality and polyamory. Witt focuses on the adventures of one particular couple Elizabeth and Wes:

“Elizabeth and Wes felt they could draw upon certain ideas of the older polyamorists, but had to do a lot of the thinking on their own. After their research, they began to draw up rules.

The first held that, on any given night, one could call the other and say, “Will you please come home?” There was a shared understanding that each of them was the most important person in the other’s life. The second rule was about disclosure: if one of them suspected he or she might sleep with another person, the premonition should be disclosed. They agreed to discuss each other’s crushes. If a sexual encounter happened spontaneously, the event should be disclosed soon afterwards. They would use condoms with their other partners.

Despite making rules, they would aim to fail. It was a concept they borrowed from computer security: if an unplanned event occurs, the default is to act first, then worry about formulating responses for the next time.”

Open relationships and polyamory are one solution to exercise this need for novelty, but if more of the same isn’t appealing — there’s always the option to explore something different, with an increasing number of women switching sexual identity later in life. (“Why it’s never too late to be a lesbian”):

“when a person comes out in later life, the accepted wisdom tends to be that they must always have been gay or bisexual, but just hid or repressed their feelings. Increasingly researchers are questioning this, and investigating whether sexuality is more fluid and shifting than is often suspected.

Dr Lisa Diamond, associate professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, has been following a group of 79 women for 15 years, tracking the shifts in their sexual identity. The women she chose at the start of the study had all experienced some same-sex attraction — although in some cases only fleetingly — and every two years or so she has recorded how they describe themselves: straight, lesbian, bisexual, or another category of their own choosing. In every two-year wave, 20–30% of the sample have changed their identity label, and over the course of the study, about 70% have changed how they described themselves at their initial interview.”

A friend of mine who I originally met as a married man about eight years ago is embarking on the slow transition to a full female identity. Her experience closely mirrored this interview with “Paige” in the Invisibilia podcast by NPR. When I moved to Canada, a female friend who had been in a gay marriage got together with a male friend of mine and a friend who’d I’d previously understood as straight, is now happily involved in a gay relationship. Friends’ fluid sexuality has been a bit of a learning curve, not in terms of acceptance, but in negotiating a new vocabulary for people who resist today’s labels.

Of course, maintaining novelty in a relationship isn’t just about experimenting with partners. I particularly like this quote from Barack Obama when interviewed about his relationship with Michelle:

“What sustains our relationship is I’m extremely happy with her, and part of it has to do with the fact that she is at once completely familiar to me, so that I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me in some ways. And there are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for something strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder about the other person.

In many ways, you can swap partners out as much as you want, but without indulging time and energy to explore the depth of a lover — physically, sexually, psychologically — intellectually — it’s going to be challenging to get the level of sexual and emotional satisfaction that we are promised by Hollywood. We live in a world where technology steadily reduces the probability of, and opportunity for, sustainable mystery in a relationship. Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist argues that…

“…at the heart of sustaining desire in a committed relationship, I think, is the reconciliation of two fundamental human needs. On the one hand, our need for security, for predictability, for safety, for dependability, for reliability, for permanence. All these anchoring, grounding experiences of our lives that we call home. But we also have an equally strong need — men and women — for adventure, for novelty, for mystery, for risk, for danger, for the unknown, for the unexpected, surprise — you get the gist. For journey, for travel.”

There are lots of reasons for the erosion of desire in marriage, not least the different forces in a woman’s life that compete with her libido. It would appear that men mistakingly interpret this a decreased appreciation for sex, when in fact the evaporation of sexual appetite can be linked to fatigue of some of the pressures and responsibilities dumped on women and the impact on self-esteem when she inevitably fails on delivery. Maureen McGrath, who hosts the Sunday Night Sex Show on News Talk 980 CKNW states in her TEDx talk that…

“Most women today are working inside and outside of the home. We’re doing the lion’s share of the house work because according to research men don’t feel they’re that good at it and we’re bridging the gap between growing children and aging parents. We are exhausted doing it all and then never doing it. When we are doing it we’re checking our smartphones. 10% of people check their smartphones during sex, 35% immediately afterward. We are connected to the internet — and disconnected from our would-be lovers.

“Most men complain that women never initiate sex. The reason for this is because once again the sex education we provide to women. Women falsely believe that female sexual interest desire precedes sexual activity when in actuality it is sexual activity that prompts sexual interest and desire. Sexual arousal emerges as a result of sexual activity.”

When I educate women and I say if you’re not having sex with your husband, someone else may. They get upset and they say that I’m blaming women for men’s bad behavior, when in actuality I’m doing a community service. You see men in sexless marriages cheat to remain in that marriage in general. And women cheat to leave a sexless marriage. Nobody ever thinks we do. We’re just sneakier about it, we just don’t get caught or socialize very differently. This is one thing we have on you guys.

Women cheat with other men and women cheat with other women. And technology has made cheating accessible for everybody from the politician to the stay-at-home parent, that quick swipe right can lead to an online passionate love affair from texting to sexting to secret phone conversations. The more two people communicate online, the more likely an in-person encounter will occur.”

We get married for romance, but perhaps too few of us have a game plan for how we’re going to retain this tension between adventure and security. When one partner’s affection drifts beyond the relationship, it is easy to isolate that behaviour and use it as a scapegoat for a break-up. Healthy relationships are a continuous opt-in (“this is still what I want”) and an investment to comfortably stretch and challenge each other.


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