Students talk about sex a lot. We live in an age characterised by sexual freedom, where we feel in control of our relationship destinies and view our abilities to determine our sexual preferences as inextricably linked to our individual identities.
Attitudes towards finding a partner have changed out of all recognition in the last century or so. Gone are the days when parents would line up prospective suitors and kissing was only acceptable once engaged. Now sexual experimentation is no longer taboo, one night stands are common, and long term relationships can be born out of drunken fumbles in the smoking area of Evolve. Sometimes it feels like nothing is off limits; games of ‘I have never’ quickly turn into stories of increasingly outrageous sexual exploits.
Sex still sells. Gossip magazines contain the trials and tribulations of celebrities’ sex lives; we pore over news of the Brangelina split, Iris Robinson’s affair, Sam Taylor Wood’s pregnancy by her 19 year old fiancé, and smirk as Tiger Woods and Russell Brand check into clinics for their respective struggles with sex addiction.
But is all this sexual freedom really freeing? In spite of all these choices and all this talk, we don’t seem to be getting much happier in our relationships, or more satisfied in our sex lives. Whilst the trend towards sexual freedom has had many positive consequences, it has arguably caused a trend towards devaluing the idea of monogamous stable relationships. A recent survey estimated that 28% of husbands cheat on their wives and 15% of wives cheat on their husbands, compared to 20% and 5% respectively in 1991. Approximately one in two marriages today can expect to end in divorce and the BBC declared a few months ago that up to 1 in 3 teenage girls had experienced an abusive relationship before age 16.
We are no longer expected to get married by 30 and have two kids, but we are free to have a series of relationships or to remain single. And yet, a controversial new book by Lori Gottlieb, ‘Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough is published this week, and set to be a best-seller. Gottlieb argues that women who are searching for ‘Mr Right’ are misguided, and should settle for an ‘acceptable but uninspiring’ man if they are still single after 30.
Sex is everywhere. 70% of prime-time shows now contain some sexual content. Even the abstinence of the type extolled by the US fundamentalist right is teeming with sex. Miley Cyrus, who recently posed nude on the cover of Vanity Fair and danced with a pole at the Teen Choice awards, is one of many Disney stars lining up to declare the virtues of abstinence. The hugely popular Twilight Saga books and films, on one level simply harmless fluff, a Mills and Boon for the tweenage set, promote an abstinence laced with sexual currents; from Bella, the vapid heroine, panting over her vampire boyfriend and telling him she is about to ‘spontaneously combust’, to the previously mentioned vampire boyfriend’s fear of ‘losing control’ every time he comes near her. In the films, the two male stars take every opportunity to whip their shirts off to the unrestrained delight of 12 year old girls in the audience.
I believe that talking about sex is a positive thing. But with the prevalence of Chlamydia doubling in the last ten years and a growing cynicism towards the viability of relationships, perhaps we are having the wrong conversations. We should talk more about protecting ourselves and about the role we want sex to play in our lives. It’s not just about who managed to have sex in a laundry basket in Rootes.