Sex Changes (March 1997)Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:46
19th March 1997
It's ideas, not things, that change the world. The mechanics of sex stay the same, generation after generation, but what changes are the ideas we have about sex.
I was born into a society where the dominant idea about sex was that it was secret. Men might talk privately to one another about sex, but they didn't talk about it to women, and women, that is, good women, didn't talk about sex at all. A really good woman didn't even think about sex. My mother, my aunts and my teachers all behaved as if sex didn't exist, or, if it did exist, it was something no teenage girl needed to know anything about.
This idea governed what we were taught at school. When I was in my final year at the Girls' High School in Newcastle, Australia, one of the set texts for the matriculation exams was Shakespeare's The Tempest. The particular text which my class of very bright sixteen years old girls was given was one from which all unseemly words and actions had been removed. We read the text through in class and our teacher, the English mistress, set us an essay about the relationship between Prospero and his servants Ariel and Caliban. Every one of us wrote an essay about how appalled we were by Prospero's unkind treatment of Caliban. At our next lesson our teacher, extremely embarrassed, had to explain to us that Prospero was harsh with Caliban because Caliban had tried to seduce Prospero's young daughter.
We all sat there is silence as she stumbled through this explanation. No one dared to comment out loud, but I remember being disgusted with the sheer stupidity and deceit of these adults. No wonder I became so sceptical of anyone in a position of power!
Now ideas have changed. I spent February with my son in Sydney and every morning woke to the sound of one of the most popular talk radio stations in Australia. It's fast and funny and, whatever the topic might be under discussion, what's always being discussed is sex. One morning the topic was celibacy. Listeners were invited to phone in if they were leading a celibate life. One man phoned to say that he'd been celibate for six days and he was suffering terribly. This was hilarious. A woman phoned to say she'd been celibate for seven years. This was serious. How could she possibly manage without sex! One of the presenters was worried that she might have forgotten how to do it. The one unchallengeable idea in all of these discussions was that if you're not getting plenty of sex and not talking about the sex you're getting there's something seriously wrong with your life.
Nowadays, to be a real, dinky-di Australian, man or woman, you have to be seen to engage regularly in four activities - mowing your lawn, cleaning your car, taking part in or watching sport, and having and talking about sex. No wonder I live in England! Lawns, cars and sport don't interest me at all, while I have always preferred my sex to be private, and I don't want to hear about you unless, of course, you've got something to tell me that's really funny.
Being private about sex is partly a hangover from my childhood and partly from my belief that the ideas people have about sex are so extreme in one way or another that anything I might say could be misunderstood. I've always been puzzled about why our ideas about sex always go to the extreme. In the seventies when the pill had been accepted and still wasn't seen as a danger and Aids hadn't arrived many of us tried to make sex as ordinary and comfortable as a warm sweater on a cold night, but that didn't work. We still got jealous and felt threatened or inadequate and behaved just as badly as did people when sex was the big secret or when, as now, being sexy is what you need if you are going to be seen as someone to be accepted and admired.
Making sex the badge of honour or the standard by which you pass or fail is just as stupid an idea as making it the big secret. It's the stupidity of over-valuing an idea. Sex is important, but it isn't that important.
Every generation of teenagers think that they discovered sex. Ask the Spice Girls and that's what they'll say, except that what they say will be exactly the same as what my friend Merle said when she used to wow the boys. Merle's sixty now. Every generation, on discovering sex, thinks it's important because the very thought of sex can make you feel that life's worth living. The mistake every generation makes is in thinking that it's only sex that will give their life significance. My mother's generation thought that sex expressed as chastity, faithfulness and secrecy made them distinguished in their virtue. Now the idea is that to be valuable you must be seen to be sexually attractive and sexually active. Both ideas are equally nonsensical.
I saw the pain that sex as secrecy caused my mother's generation and their children, and now I see the pain of those people who measure themselves against the standard of sex and see themselves as failing. I see too, out of both sets of ideas, the terrible waste of human energy and talent that could have been spent as friendship, creativity and discovery. When you enter what could be your last decade neither the thought "I am virtuous" nor the thought "I was a sexual athlete of Olympic standards" can make you feel that your life has significance in the universal scheme of things, whereas your friends, the things you've created, the knowledge and understanding you've acquired can give a sense of immense satisfaction. The thought "I've had a great time in bed" can be very satisfying, but if that's all you've got, you'll die wanting an awful lot more.
Dorothy Rowe's Guide to Life HarperCollins