How many times?

I wrote this a few months back and found it in the ceramic Gimli-off-Lord-of-the-Rings biscuit tin in which my flatmate and I put all our letters from Islington Council. 

If Cosmopolitan taught me anything as a young woman, it was that everyone, everywhere, was having hours of eclectic, ecstatic sex or – conversely – worrying that they weren’t. There was ‘bad girl sex’ to clue up on, ‘the secrets of male arousal’ to imbibe, ‘new and naughty bedroom moves’ and endless surveys of dubious veracity. It was all very cloak and dagger, whilst professing not to be, a chamber of secrets I’d never speak enough snake to get into.

There is always, these magazines tell us, something that will improve our sex lives so immeasurably we’ll never get out of bed again, and yet for all the endless TIPS! we’re still no nearer the sexual utopia promised by a £4 magazine and a free lipliner. Cosmo’s front covers from the 70s tell of similar woes: ‘how normal are you sexually? (A Quiz)’, presumably to the collective hand-wringing of 50% of the population crying ‘not at all! I am mad at sex, bad at sex, dangerous to know at sex, I am a FREAK’ and eating the entire contents of the fridge to compensate.

This is why the recently-released National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (proper and scientific if, like me, you are trusting of capital letters and mentions of UCL) has proved so interesting – in a society of sex boxes, embarrassing bodies, in a society where no one person is safe from billboards of lipsticked woman fellating inanimate objects – we just aren’t having as much nookie as you’d think.

The Natsal research has been carried out every ten years since 1990: for this investigation of over 15,000 people the upper age limit was raised from 44 to 74 74. Since 2000, the frequency of sex has diminished per month: from around 6 times for both sexes before, to around 4 times in 2013. This isn’t just a case of people choosing to ‘settle down’ (loathsome expression) later: it’s the faster pace, the comparative lack of job security compared to twenty years ago, meaning you’re more likely to find your partner in his office until the wee hours rather than, say, in you. Smartphones mean that email can be accessed virtually anywhere and work is never really over: we are ever-contactable, ever drawbackable.

By the same token, technology makes fusspots of us all, in the great writhing ocean of possibility. The first time I signed into dating app Tinder, I felt like Scarlett O’Hara against a blazing sky: I’d never be hungry again! Singledom doesn’t feel like singledom when there’s endless profiles, headshots, cringing ‘About Me’s and compatibility percentages to wade through. Whereas my grandparents met, decided they quite liked one another and made a lifelong go of it, online dating’s a buffet we’ll never find space to consume. First dates in 2013 are spent trying to silence the pings and lit-up screens of thousands more down the ether, just waiting.

Very good is the news that over half of women and a third of men have been tested for chlamydia in the past year, and HIV screening is up a staggering 20% since the last survey. This seems incongruous with the shoddy state of school-age sex education on offer, however: we’re like adult versions of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, denied any sort of real guidance other than that which we discover ourselves: from books, from friends. My own school had nowt to say about chlamydia: what we did do was spend an enlightening Thursday afternoon with some bright sparks called ‘SaVe Sex’, who had us stand in a circle and throw tennis balls to each other at random, each dropped ball representing a pregnancy. That’s biology, guys.

Numbers clock up as nights get later. Fulfillment comes in the form of a job well done, bars and clubs, taxis back to the laughter of shared flats. Women are now having fun in ways they weren’t allowed to before, full of variety, independence, meeting a whole range of different people, slowly joining the dots to becoming a person.    It seems logical that once someone’s crawled through shards of jagged glass, they’re unlikely to want to drop back through. Natsal’s results neatly demonstrate that things are lookin’ up, that perhaps – finally – Snow White’s drifting.

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