“Sex Has Lost All Meaning”: My Cambridge Union speech
So this is the speech I gave last night at the Cambridge union in support of this proposition. I will warn you now that there is some STRONG LANGUAGE in here- part for the topic, really. What did I realise in writing this speech? I really am a second-waver (feminism). I know. Old school. Also: please remember it’s a little exaggerated- I can’t possibly think sex has lost all meaning for everyone all the time etc etc – this was something people in the chamber quibbled over. But oh well – you can’t take things too literally in life. Look forward to your views…
A year or so ago I interviewed a group of women for my book about being a single female in the West today. In particular, I was interested in the effects of strings-free sex on women. My interviewees’ responses were instructive. Let’s start with Susan, 28. Sex – having lots of it – was her MO. As she told me, in terms of Sex and the City, she wishes she was Carrie but she’s more Samantha. To fulfil this persona, she doesn’t “personalise things”. “I am sensitive,” she clarified, “but I have a thicker skin when it comes to guys, because nothing has ever happened like I want it to and I learned that sex doesn’t make a guy like you. So I just keep going anyway, I have a slim figure and long brown hair so it’s easy to get them to sleep with me – I guess I’m not sure why I do it,” she added. I was curious about what this thicker skin “when it comes to guys” meant exactly. Susan clarified. “With sex, I don’t need to see their face. I don’t really want to see their face. It’s too…much.” I asked Millie, 24, if she could enjoy sex with someone she doesn’t like. “Depends on the sex,” she said. Then there was Mona, 29. Mona – beautifully groomed, intelligent, highly flirtatious – also fulfilled her duty as a modern single woman by giving sex the old college try. It wasn’t the numbers of men she slept with that caught my attention, but the anxiety and pleasurelessness with which she discussed her sex life. In the first place, Mona could not begin to rate the experience as a success if she failed to make the man come. In fact, his orgasm was to be obtained in any way possible – blow jobs that made her skull ache, enthusiastic performances and positioning, studied submissiveness – anything to, in her words, “get the job done”. When the job was done, did she then enjoy herself? “Sometimes,” she said. “But not really. It’s hard for it not to be a performance.” Did it help when the sex was “meaningful”? I asked. She sniggered. “I wouldn’t remember at this point!”
My argument tonight hinges on my conviction that sex is better when it involves intimacy beyond the thrusting of polished genitals and the expert use of luxe toys – and meaningless, and thus pointless, when it lacks that intimacy. I will argue that sex has been denatured, denuded, sanitised and commodified into a series of exchanges that are motivated more by the grim acquisitiveness of the umpteenth metallic orgasm than by anything like proper chemistry between two people. The engorgement of the global sex industry and the more general flood of sexual imperative flowing around us has turned copulation into a never-ending performance – a performance that’s all about short-term consumer satisfaction and display, rather than emotional or even intellectual eroticism. When Mona told me she couldn’t not perform, she spoke for the hordes of women today trying but failing to assume the powerful role in the sexual landscape of booty calls, fuckbuddy relationships and strings-free hook-ups. So much sex, so many tiring calculations, so little proper pleasure – and no, I don’t think a stash of Coco de Mer’s most expensive wooden cock rings or jade-engraved dildos in the bedside table is the missing ingredient, here.
I’m going to take my argument up a notch. Sex has not just lost its meaning. That would make it a neutral act. Sex has become something else, something with a negative energy. It has mutated into the plaything of strip club impresarios and online editors, who commission a grateful band of young women to go out, shag, and write about it in detail. Sex has morphed into a brand where sterile libidinousness and the agility of fake seduction pays big bucks. In other words, sex has become porn’s Mini Me. Thanks to porn, with its brutish nihilism, a dark energy has oozed into the libidos of millions – even as it helps them come more often. It oozes off popular sites like Gag Factor, Anal Suffering (advertising a new “suffering slut” in “agonizing anal pain every week”), and Fuck the Babysitter. It oozes off gonzo porn, off the spanking, open-handed slapping, and gagging that happen in 88 per cent of hetero-porn scenes. [source: Wosnitzer and Bridges, Aggression and Sexual Behaviour in Best-Selling Pornography, 2007]
I’m aware that any person speaking negatively of porn these days has to face accusations of being sex negative, some kind of hideous out of date fun-ruiner, and hairy in all the wrong places. And, when she identifies as a feminist, she is seen to be letting down the side by viewing all women as helpless romantics unable to orgasm without a diamond on her finger and a house in the ‘burbs. I’ll take that risk. Because porn is massive – worth around $96bn, 13,000 properly produced films released each year, 450m internet pages and a fast rising number of people reporting for porn addiction therapy – women as well as men. With such a tsunami of distended groins throbbing in the ether, it’s no wonder sex has become de-sensitised not just for us, but for the next generation too. How can it not? Boys are commencing their life’s sexual journey with lashings of gonzo on their iphones under the desks at school. And even if you, or they, don’t tune into Gag the Babysitter daily, porn’s message is clear everywhere, in everything from the strip clubs both men and women frequent, to car ads to Superbowl half-time shows. The mainstream displays of perfected female sexual readiness and hot bulging men on billboards, TV ads and elsewhere are merely porn’s more tasteful backdrop.
Perhaps I’m being dramatic, you say. After all, people can compartmentalise – can separate real life sex from porn. But I would have to disagree. Because porn is in our brains and in our bodies – not just on our screens. I don’t know if anyone here remembers Duke University student Karen Owen, a prime example of how pornographic norms can be internalised to the detriment of sexual meaning, not to mention mental and physical wellbeing. In 2010 her “fuck list” went viral – this was a powerpoint presentation that ranked every member of the Duke lacrosse team that she slept with. What was notable about the fuck list was how awful the sex sounded – on every level. Mostly the guys would take her home when she was too wasted to resist, often she’d pass out. But when she didn’t, her analysis of their body parts was razor-sharp. It’s as if she carried a protractor and ruler with her to get accurate readings of their penises. Sex seemed partly about dimensions for Karen. The other part was about roughness. She described liking the bruises she often had the next day, of being barely able to walk – hard and fast was her watchword. The rougher they were with her, the more she felt it was a success. There was no mention of pleasure in any of her powerpoint slides, however – scorn for her ravagers was the main point. People loved it – Owen was hailed as a true woman of her era.
Another example of porn’s reach into “real life”. I was at a party the other month – a wedding party, in fact. A lawyer, a guy I remember from a few years ago being clear-eyed and upbeat, cornered me drunkenly. He wanted to tell me how he broke up with his long-term girlfriend and several after her because he stopped feeling anything. In particular, the sex. “I got bored of her pussy,” he told me. “And the next one’s”. I asked him why he thought that had happened. “Porn,” he said. “Porn has ruined sex for me,” he said, nearly in tears, his beer sloshing dangerously. This sorry encounter brought to my mind a bit of wisdom the feminist Naomi Wolf wrote in a New York Magazine article a little while back. It was a write-up of various interviews she had conducted with young men and women on college campuses about what porn had done for their relationships. “Mostly, when I ask about loneliness, a deep, sad silence descends on audiences of young men and young women alike,” wrote Wolf. “They know they are lonely together, even when conjoined, and that this imagery is a big part of that loneliness. What they don’t know is how to get out, how to find each other again erotically, face-to-face.” And that is because it is unbelievably hard to undo porn’s work. As one woman I know put it: “I had to spend years undoing the work of the video clips my partner’s had in his head for a decade.”
Now, a debate about sexual meaninglessness would not be complete without some mention of pubic hair. And here I offer you this tidbit from porn scholar Gail Dines’s book Pornland. Dines is reporting on a lecture she gave to some students at “a large West Coast university” in spring 2008. The female students spoke openly about how they preferred a totally hairless pubic area because it made them feel “clean”, “well groomed” and “hot”. Fine. But when the conversation turned to their boyfriends’ preferences, things got distinctly less hot. Dines recalls that “the excitement in the room gave way to a subdued discussion of how some boyfriends had even refused to have sex with non-waxed girlfriends, saying they ‘looked gross’.” That’s right – gross. One student gave his girlfriend a waxing kit for Valentine’s Day (I hope none of you have done this) while another was overheard sneering to a friend about his girlfriend’s “hairy beaver”. When sexual appeal is about waxed vaginas above all else, I think it starts to become pretty clear that sex has lost a good deal, if not all, of its meaning.
To conclude, the hypersexuality of modern culture does not mean we’ve been sexually liberated. On the contrary, it is creating an ever-bigger void where the real thing, the human exchange of something other than just fluids, is meant to be. Without doubt, I’d rather be numbly hypersexual than stigmatised or restricted in my choices. I wouldn’t undo the sexual revolution. But we can do better. We should be carving out a sexual landscape in which it is considered neither uncool, regressive, anti-feminist nor Tory to value meaningful sex and to NOT value meaningless sex. Otherwise, we can look forward to a world of Karen Owen-style shagging with its bruises and its faceless brutes. Which is just such a waste.