I’ve resisted using this line for more than six years but this week’s extended post really is Sex on the Literary Sofa, discussed in very frank terms by two women called Isabel. This is the moment where I might say ‘click away if you don’t like the sound of that’ – except that I really hope you do keep reading and feel it was worth your while.
My Guest Isabel is bestselling narrative non-fiction author Isabel Losada, whose previous personal investigations have included joy, enlightenment and New Age philosophies. With her latest release Sensation, she’s turned her attention to the challenging subject of sex and sexuality. Instead of a regular critical review, I was inspired by Losada’s openness to follow with a full-length and very personal response to the book and the wider issues it raises.
The idea was to dedicate a year to learning everything I could that would make sex into good sex in the context of a loving, long term, monogamous relationship. In my case it would be a heterosexual adventure (because that’s the group I’m in) but any two consenting adults could create a similar journey. I would use myself as a guinea pig and report my findings, writing with as much honesty, vulnerability and courage as I could find. This would be both entertainment and information; messages on social media showed that both were badly needed.
Starting at an all women’s workshop I found that it’s not easy to stand freely, as a child would, in our birthday suit and celebrate what nature has given us. And it’s harder still, it seems, for women to look between our own legs with love and admiration. We can see beauty in a flower but not, seemingly at the source of life itself. With labiaplasty the fastest growing form of cosmetic surgery we are far from recognising that we are all different and all beautiful.
My partner and I progressed to couples’ workshops. The course we attended had of six couples aged 20’s to 60’s and the work was genuinely life changing. I learnt that, in a previous seven-year marriage, I hadn’t even learnt to use the words, ‘no’ – ‘yes’ and ‘wait’ clearly. Hardly any wonder that our sex life had been so bad. Women, how can we ever really say, ‘yes’ if we don’t first learn an authentic ‘no’? Later in the weekend, in a simple ‘Ask for what you want’ exercise – I noticed that I enjoyed my partner’s choices more than my own.
We found an organisation that focuses on female pleasure (really!) and teaches men the correct way to stroke a clitoris. This may sound as if I’d stumbled on the dream job but writing honestly about sensation (and lack of sensation) in my own body required a courage that even twenty years of writing hadn’t prepared me for. Every time I had the thought, ‘you can’t write this’ I took a deep breath and wrote it anyway. These tips for free: the upper left part of the clitoris (if you’re a woman lying down) is the most sensitive and the man should stroke no more firmly that you would stroke your own eyelid. The goal is not to have an orgasm – but just to experience sensation in the body. More details in the book.
One of the most empowering things that we can each do to improve our sex lives on a purely physical level is to learn about our pelvic floor muscles and use them. These muscles can be exercised by imagining that you are trying to hold in urine (but don’t do them on the loo) and they need to be raised in an ‘up and forward’ movement. (A bit like a ‘sit up and beg’ dog). There is a second ring around the anus muscles and together they form a figure of eight. Their health and tone play a vital role in the sexual health of both men and women. I write about my embarrassment at having the health of my own PF muscles tested by an NHS nurse, glad I’m not making TV. In short, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, please find out. There is an NHS app called ‘Squeezy’ – use it five times a day and thank me in six months, especially if you achieve some er, surprising results.
I met a tantric master and discussed touch. One of the teachings I found most helpful was to ‘listen to’ each subtle sensation in my body. Many of us have a tendency to let the mind wander to the past ‘Did I close the back door?’ or the future, ‘Will I have an orgasm?’ My teacher shocked me by saying that if he’s touching my arm, and I’m not fully listening to the sensation – it’s ‘rude.’ “As if I’m trying to talk to you and you’re on the phone to someone else.” Fortunately the solution here is simple – as in meditation, when you find your mind has wandered just bring it back to ‘listening to the sensation.’ And don’t chase orgasms. That’s vital. If you make your body feel good and your partner’s body feel good and you feel happy, loved and nourished, in that moment and the following day – that’s good sex. Touch, Relax, Breathe, Laugh. It’s all good. We also talked a lot about love. It’s called ‘making love’ for a reason. That’s the key, of course.
It’s possible in reading Sensation to decide that the idea of making 2018 a year when you commit to improving your sex life is one that you’d like to explore and then to read the book and decide which way forward would be right for you. It’s a journey that requires courage. But life is short. The body is designed for pleasure. And what better investment could you make in your relationship?
AT LENGTH: My personal response to Sensation and related issues
I write sex in fiction, I write about sex in fiction and I’ve written about the double standards applied to men and women, never more apparent than when sexuality and sexual behaviour are concerned. I was drawn to Sensation by its positive focus on female sexuality and pleasure. Recognising this outside the context of male gratification feels timely and important in the light of recent revelations and debate. (I really like men, by the way. Just not sexist, predatory attitudes and behaviour.)
I applaud Losada’s bravery in taking this project on and for the honesty she brings to her findings. The warm and generous tone – it’s quite light-hearted – makes up for some of it being more than a little New Agey. The author genuinely believes she’s giving readers something of value in sharing her above-and-beyond research, and I agree – it’s both an entertaining and enlightening read.
As a serious subject, sex is shrouded in fear and shame and yet sexualised images of women and girls are used for entertainment and profit everywhere you look. But whilst it is generally assumed that men need, like and are interested in sex, women showing or articulating any form of sexual confidence or appetite are viewed very differently. Sexuality is a big part of human nature and sex is a source of anxiety and insecurity for many, notably that everyone else is getting it better and more often.
As she discusses in this brilliant Under the Skin podcast with Russell Brand, Losada found that even between straight couples who are having sex (many aren’t, or rarely), there is often a fundamental lack of communication centred on the woman being unable to express what does (or doesn’t) give her pleasure and the man therefore not knowing how. Every body is different so that’s not something you can learn from a book – Sensation is about cultivating the connection and sensuality which result in good sex and fulfilling relationships.
It’s strange that I’ve ended up with a semi-professional interest in sex, because the message I received growing up was that sex and everything connected with it was shameful and unpleasant, something women had to endure to produce children. Nobody even talked to me about periods, one day I just found a Catholic booklet on my bed. I remember the utter dread I felt, knowing this unspeakable thing was going to happen to me. Fast forward to my mid-teens. I still had no idea that female sexual pleasure existed until I discovered it on my own one Sunday afternoon (WHAT A DAY!). I know that must sound tragic and clueless to younger people but it was the middle of nowhere, there was no internet and I didn’t dare read racy novels in case I got caught.
Fast-forward decades and fortunately, neither religion nor sexual repression have proven to be hereditary in my case. Writing this makes me appreciate the liberty of fiction; here there are things I can’t talk about because it’s not just my story. In the backdrop to my private life, society has moved on, attitudes have changed, but not enough, as these few snapshots show.
Four years ago, a male gynaecologist told me, in the manner of an astounding revelation, that my sex life could continue once I no longer needed contraception. I hadn’t said or thought otherwise. The idea that women have an expiry date is ridiculous but incredibly pervasive. Losada’s book is the antithesis of the culture in which women of all ages are made to feel miserable for not conforming to an unattainable standard image of beauty closely linked with youth and fertility. I kick myself for being influenced by this despite rejecting it intellectually. The good news is I don’t need to bleed to feel like a woman.
More recently a GP seemed surprised by my correct use of female anatomical terms. Is that so rare? I thought, but actually it is. The word ‘vagina’ is everywhere now, mostly used incorrectly (and if I sound smug about knowing that, believe me, there was downtown geography I knew nothing about before reading books like this). Knowing your way around your body is good, especially when it comes to giving directions… (as she says, read it!)
The doctor asks if I am sexually active – which is a relevant question, but when he follows up with, ‘Married?’ I barely manage to nod; I can’t speak because I wouldn’t know where to start on the assumptions. The human brain has to categorize all data and experience to cope – that’s what leads to stereotypes (and clichés): young gorgeous people and people having affairs = red hot sex; long-term relationships, and especially marriage = predictable, infrequent and unsatisfying sex, (if any). The latter normalises disappointment and low expectations. Losada doesn’t just question the allocation of labels, she offers alternatives to the idea that red hot sex is the only kind worth having.
As Isabel Losada says, you can thank her later, and if you get this book as a Christmas gift for yourself or someone else, I’m sure you will (plus you won’t care what’s on TV). But I’d like to thank Isabel here and now for today’s brilliant piece and for writing Sensation. It was good for me.
In my final post of the year I’ll be sharing my Books (and other cultural highlights) of 2017 next week.
A timely book and blog post. Well done to both of you.
Thanks very much, Alison!
Ha, whatever happened to those Catholic booklets? I tried to get hold of one a few years ago as it was making an appearance in my debut novel, but not even my Catholic friends could find one. Perhaps another church cover up?
It’s so sad that many young people these days are equally uninformed about sex, albeit in a different way, getting most of their knowledge from pornography.
Great post, both Isabels!
I don’t know, Anne! (Not that I ever wish to see one again.) So interesting what you say about today’s young people. Having kids of my own – albeit boys – has made me see the silence of own upbringing in a very different light. (My sister had two girls and feels the same way.) Kids have such a capacity to deal with what’s thrown at them that I only fully realised much later how emotionally unhealthy that approach was. I’ve made a point of being open with my sons about this stuff, and that includes making sure they realise that sex as depicted in porn isn’t a realistic or genuine respresentation. Thanks as always for your comment.
Superb post and deeply useful for the novel that i am writing.
That’s great to hear from a new subscriber and I’m so glad! I don’t know what you’re working on, of course, but I think SENSATION could be of interest to authors who include sex in their fiction. To me, the quality of sensuality is very important. Thanks for commenting.
I sometimes wonder if we were more open about sex in the 70’s during the first wave of feminism. I recall Germaine Greer in the Female Eunuch saying you couldn’t say you were a liberated woman unless you were willing to taste your own menstrual blood; or Erica Jong’s classic renaming of the one night stand as the zipless f**k. And Cosmopolitan ran frequent articles about sex, often very graphic. I wonder how the Millennials talk/read/discuss sex now? I must ask one!
Really interesting reflections, Voula, thank you! We can only hope for a movement towards more openness and women feeling able to assert their own sexuality without deferring to men – have you read that New Yorker short story ‘Cat Person’ that everyone’s talking about today? It reminds me of the interview between Isabel Losada and Russell Brand where she says that many women don’t tell the man it’s not good for them to avoid bruising his ego!!
I’ve belatedly come across this fascinating post (and how ironic that ‘brave’ is also probably an appropriate adjective even approaching 2018). From a writing perspective I think it’s essential for the author of a novel that addresses relationships to have knowledge of the protagonists’ sexual pleasure (or lack of it) — even if it’s not overtly described — as it’s such an important motivation. However, it’s not a subject that seems to work in writing groups, except in rare cases where people know each other well and also have a frank attitude.
It’s good that both the pieces in the post acknowledge that most men are very keen (if not anxious) to ensure that they give a partner the maximum amount of pleasure — and to mention the unfortunate situation where some women miss out on sexual pleasure because they don’t articulate their desires and preferences (through whatever reason). The expression of female sexuality and desire appears very paradoxical in western societies because it’s both hidden (in a personal context) and also displayed everywhere (via common narrative tropes, imagery, etc.) Perhaps some men (not the misogynistic ones) get stuck between the two?
Thanks for your comment and sorry for the delay replying as I’ve been away. For as long as it’s seen as ‘brave’ for women to speak openly about sexual matters, whether real life or realistically in fiction, there’s a problem, in my opinion, and doing it regardless is essential if that’s ever going to change. (I’m not that optimistic but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying!)
Writing what I do, I agree with your opening remarks, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that this isn’t a subject that works well in writing groups. From my own experience, if anyone has the nerve to really confront the subject (as opposed to alluding), it’s very much a question of what the writer is personally willing to risk and wants to say/contribute to the story and process of writing. When it’s me sticking my neck out, I don’t want other people’s opinions and anxieties getting in the way of that.
Absolutely agree with you — it’s the fact that people use descriptions like ‘brave’ that is a form of social censorship.
I agree with you about writing groups but I’ve been in groups where writers have written some pretty graphic horror scenes and other people don’t assume they’ve got hidden pasts as axe murderers or something. Why people assume anything sexual has to be drawn from the author’s own experience is what’s most odd.