From 2002 to 2004 I wrote the Sex Talk column in Time Out. It was a problem page that started out tongue-in-cheek, but I couldn’t help putting some serious issues in as well. Sadly, TO weren’t putting much content on their site at the time. I also did features and book reviews, and I went to Sarajevo to find out about family planning in Bosnia.
Here’s my first ever Sex Talk column.
MALE FAG HAGS
I am starting to wonder about my boyfriend. Over the last year he has taken to attending gay dinner parties and wearing brightly coloured designer suits and hats. I fell for him because he was not like the loud, brutal, shagger types I was into before, but softly spoken, and appeared to understand me. I don’t think he’s up to anything sexual, but I keep coming home to find him sitting with his gay crowd, giggling secretively, on our giant pink Conran sofa (a recent addition of his). His voice has become a bit more camp and a bit more northern, which is strange because he is from Esher. Should I be worried?
You have found yourself involved with an interesting sub-species, the Male Fag Hag, or homo pufticus fakerii. He, for he is certainly a he and no she, is the Amazonian tree frog of the masculine world. He’s pretty on the outside, but exudes a nasty poison. The MFH is a cross between light camp and sort-of New Man. He apes ‘gay’ mannerisms in order to appear safe to the maximum number of people. Women will flock to his non-threatening persona, and adore his taste in clothes. He will have a certain knowledge of gynaecological problems, and affect not to be grossed out by them. (When he’s out with his queer posse it will be a very different story.) Straight men, particularly powerful ones whose are useful to him, will find him ditto unthreatening, even amusing. He could arselick for England, without a cottage in sight. WARNING: he does not, necessarily, harbour an undiscovered need to come out. Your man has been infiltrating the gay mafia as a career move. There’s nothing wrong with social survival, of course; anything goes in our tough city. But the MFH can be very nasty when cornered, and will stab you in the back as soon as look at you. Having encountered a few of this type, I would advise you: next time you go on a camping trip, take a canister of Doom.
I’ve been following the Pot Noodle Slag debate, and it’s bugging me that sex being used to sell stuff everywhere you look. Isn’t sex supposed to be about mystery, passion and excitement? And what about the effect on children? I can’t blame the Archbishop of Canterbury for getting upset about it all.
You’re right. I’m half expecting to see a small plastic dominatrix and a couple of condoms fall out of my cornflakes packet next time I sit down for breakfast. The media is riddled with double standards. Take women’s mags – pathetic! Beyond the ‘tempting’ pink headlines, there’s nothing there. And everyone taking part in those sex advice TV shows looks, and sounds, like they’re selling cheap cleaning products. We’re getting wise to this now, which is why the markets are targeting children. ‘Position of the month’ is read by seven year olds.
Of course, the ads, like trillions of porn sites, are only giving ‘us’ what we allegedly want already: sexualised young women. I’m still waiting to see a full-on erect penis, with man attached and no ‘clever’ lighting, in an advert for a mid-range people-carrier, or a cute bloke ejaculating over a pizza being used to sell spot cream. My main problem with the ‘Slag’ campaign was that it was clunky, lazy advertising, like the Rik Mayall Hitler video. Remove sex from it’s original purposes (love, fun or procreation), and you just end up with ugly, banal, or naff.
Here’s one from a bit later:
CALL YOURSELF DOMINANT?
I’m tired of my boring job in publishing. A friend of mine has been a dominatrix for several years, and I’ve been wondering whether to chuck in my job and join her. Men always tell me how powerful I am. What do you think? Amanda, Fulham
It often surprises me the number of women who brag about how dominant they are, sexually and in general, and how they could ‘easily’ do it professionally.
Time to get real. It can be good money, but it’s difficult to do well, and many even widely sexually experienced people bottle out when they do their first trick. Bondage madams are inundated with wannabe apprentices, and they reject the vast majority of them.
Would you like to tie up, and then urinate on, an overweight line-manager with dodgy facial hair, all the while acting like he is the most important person in your world right now? Possibly several times a day, in different configurations, with different guys? You wouldn’t have to do anything you didn’t want to do, but could you switch the role on and off, while keeping an eye on the clock? And how much do you really like men? Because if you don’t, you could end up a junkie. Ask yourself these questions. And, ultimately, a dominatrix is a servant. Don’t forget that.
In the end, it’s often the women who talk up their dominant side who’ve had the worst relationship experiences in the past. You can practice as much as you like on Giles, Toby or Nigel, with a silk scarf and a riding crop, but it ain’t the real business.
And from not long after:
TRUE POWER LIES IN SUBMISSION?
I’ve recently finished reading a novel, written about 40 years ago, called ‘Gordon’. The heroine has a really abusive relationship with a man she meets in a bar. He rapes her on a park bench, and then she submits to him whenever he wants. Even when he’s violent to her, she seems to be enjoying it, and goes back for more! I can’t believe this book is an ‘erotic classic’. I just think it’s horrible. I hope you agree.
For once, let’s get away from the panto façade of leather, whips and chains. There is another side to sadomasochism, which is acted out by far more people than you’ll ever find tied up at your local dungeon.
Edith Templeton’s recently reissued Gordon, (Viking Penguin) which takes place in post-war London, is a period piece in setting only.
The 28-year-old heroine, sexually experienced but not fulfilled, finds her own personal high in total submission to a dark stranger. He also happens to be a psychiatrist, so he knows all the games.
Without spoiling the plot too much, it’s the man who finally ends their relationship, for fear of sinking further into the abyss of absolute satisfaction of his fantasies. She, however, is not traumatised, but later gets married and carries on as normal. Importantly, it is he who eventually succumbs to the horror that our modern victim culture would have us expect to fall to her.
I can’t imagine any recently published book by a woman going this far; or being published at all, in these times of chick lit and wedding fetishes. Not, of course, in terms of violence (yawn), but in mental exploration. I can think of Jenny Diski’s Nothing Natural, (1987), but that’s all. Please correct me if I’m wrong; (drug stories don’t count).
‘Safe, Sane and Consensual’ BDSM involves trust, controlled transfer of power, and safewords. But when these things are going on in the mind, there are no such constraints, or rules. Being honest now, how many of us have found ourselves caught in a power struggle we feel incapable of leaving behind, simply because we are addicted to it, and not a blindfold or Iron Maiden in sight?
There is a belief [see So You Think You’re Dominant?, TO 1682], held by an apparently increasing number of women, that we are all dominatrixes underneath it all. Every woman shows off about how powerful she is, and how absolutely in control of her life. But domination, by its nature, takes a certain effort, another one of the many extra efforts that we women must add to our daily ‘good girl’ to-do lists if we are to achieve apparent equality. The trouble is, with list-making comes banality and loss of imagination. With perpetual acting comes disaffection, and ultimately exhaustion.
To be sure, it seems inevitable that we must play this role if we are to keep an equal relationship with men. But, thinking aloud, can’t we sometimes allow ourselves the luxury of submission? This is, after all, what men are doing every time they pay to be lashed to a bed and caned. (To be clear, I’m not talking about submitting to unwanted coercion, despite the rape fantasies that many women have.)
Perhaps though, for the time being, it’s simply not possible for a woman to give her sensuality free rein, ‘just to see what happens’, for fear of losing what she has worked so hard to gain. Perhaps we really don’t feel powerful enough yet. So Gordon may be ahead of its time. Ahead of our time, in fact.
SEX ADDICTION – FACT OR FICTION?
A mate of mine just got his car scratched up for the third time in a year. He jokes about ‘new bird – new paint job’ because he can’t stay faithful to a woman for more than a few days. I almost admire him for his shagging habits – where he finds the energy I just don’t know. But does he have a problem? Does this mean he’s a ‘sex addict’?
Tony, my love, didn’t you realise? We’re All Addicts Now. In a society where you can go to a clinic and be treated for too much text-messaging, rest assured that your fondness for collecting foreign fag packets, or walking the same route to work every day, will soon have a medical name, and a billable therapy session available to correct it.
Looking back, I’ve met a lot of people (mainly men) who would qualify as sex addicts. They showed all the symptoms: relentless lying about their whereabouts; well-practised methods of telling you that ‘you’re the one with the problem’ if you don’t believe their stories; astonishing manipulation techniques when unmasked; and theatrical helplessness in the face of their ‘needs’. But no-one would have suggested they went to therapy. They’d more likely be given a pat on the back, while the women snarled in a corner, ignoring each other’s advice.
I actually find the concept of sex addiction pretty creepy. It’s one thing using a substance to take yourself away from reality for a while, but using another person is something else. It‘s not about orgasms, or real desire, but about power and insecurity. Your friend is quite clearly trying to fill a hole, if you’ll forgive the analogy. But unless a rejected lady takes him hostage at gunpoint, he may never get the shock he needs to stop messing around.
A sexual compulsion as strong as this can be seen as an illness, particularly when others are getting hurt. But call it an addiction as well, and everyone wants one: it’s increasingly fashionable to define yourself as helpless in the face of your body chemistry. ‘My illness made me do it’ is becoming more popular as an excuse for all kinds of behaviour. Willpower alone cannot cure cancer, so why should it cure the urge to fuck everything in sight? And it’s far safer to admit to an addiction, which still seems ‘cool’, than to admit to the mental disturbance that underlies it. Ruby Wax, in her autobiography How Do You Want Me?, notes that in the smart clinic she attended, the addicts looked down on the mere depressives as pathetic.
You don’t mention whether your friend has a wife and kids. If he’s officially single, you could argue that he’s just doing what he feels like, and caveat emptor to any woman who things she can ‘change him’. Also, what happened to free love? A lot of women dream of having several men in their lives, one for security and niceness, and one for hot sex. This guy might have an important role to play, somewhere. He could even start charging. But, to get out of fantasyland for a minute, until your he realises he’s got a problem, there’s nothing you can do except keep your girlfriends away from him. And were he to become a Recovery Bore, you might well start to miss his Casanova side.
As an aside, it’s funny how women who publicly declare their sexual freedom, such as Anais Nin, get held up as underground heroines. But not by those who knew them personally, it has to be said.
And here’s my Bosnia piece. I took the photos as well. I hope things have moved on since July 2003…
‘DO THEY COME IN EXTRA LARGE?’
Safe Sex know-how is nothing to shout about here in Britain – so what must it be like in war-scarred Bosnia-Herzegovina? Well, slowly getting better, actually. We took to the streets of Sarajevo to join in a campaign that’s dishing out free condoms.
Men, they’re all the same, wherever you go. Women whisper different things, about how men don’t use condoms, or won’t the world over. I’m accompanying two volunteers, Mirjana, 23, and Zbjezdana, 25, round the bars of Sarajevo, as they hand out free condoms as part of an extensive campaign to encourage safer sex in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The name of the campaign translates as ‘What’s Your Excuse?’ We’ve been to a gig in a car park, (a Yugoslav rock band and someone playing jazz covers of Ian Dury); a scene bar called The Bar, and Country‚ a club playing folk house (Hut?). Everyone smiles when we give them the johnnies. But are they going to read the information leaflet that comes with them?
‘Pregnancy is the smallest issue‚’ says Lea, 32, studying management. ‘Sex is not taught in schools. Teenagers behave far worse than adults do. Thank you for doing something about this!’ Trouble is, no one likes condoms, do they? ‘If there was a pill for men, I’d take it once a week, but not every day,’ says 22-year-old Eldan, a law student, ‘But, to be honest with you, men are not too worried about pregnancy.’ I try to encourage the naming and shaming of non-condom wearers, but this, unsurprisingly, just brings on more laughter. ‘The only way to get a man to put one on is to refuse to have sex with him!’ one woman says, firmly.
Let’s go back to the beginning. It all starts with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), a UK-registered charity which links Family Planning Associations in over 180 countries. Its European arm has set up the Balkan Project, a collection of autonomous NGOs and FPAs based in the region that comprises Bosnia-Hercegovina (BiH), Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. Their purpose: to promote sex education and counselling for young people.
Bored by all the acronyms and committee-speak? Remember: without these infrastructures, and the good people who work (and volunteer) within them, nothing would happen. And don‚t forget what happened in the Balkans ten years ago. During the war, too many Bosnians went missing in action‚ through no choice of their own. And many just upped and left for good. Bosnia can’t afford a census right now, to quantify its losses. XY, the organisation behind the condom campaign, is the main family planning association for the whole of BiH. And, boy, are they needed over there. There has been a rise in HIV/AIDS, especially among young urban drug users, along with other STDs, and teenage pregnancy. As with the rest of Eastern Europe, this is a health time bomb which BiH, still building itself after the war, could do without.
However, while the traditional family‚ is very strong, I was wrong in thinking there might be moral or cultural objections to increasing sexual knowledge. There is simply no basic framework for teachers and parents to work with. And, although XY has had a lot of airtime on Bosnian radio and TV, the media in general can be of little help: The problem is that there are no journalists in Bosnia who specialise in sexual issues, says Emina Kupusija, Director of XY. People are probably relieved that Emina and her staff are taking over this role. Dr Semra Cavaluga, Senior Epidemiologist at the University of Sarajevo, has also made a major contribution to understanding the need for sex education for young Bosnians. Her recent survey of schoolchildren reveals that they just don’t know enough, but the good thing is that they’re aware of it. ‘They’re asking for independent health centres, where they can talk in confidence,’ she explains. XY need some funding so they can turn their stockroom into a counselling suite. While I’m in Sarajevo, I’m warned several times that it is Gossip Central, ‘the world’s biggest village,’ so no wonder people keep schtum about personal matters.
Unlike the UK, where vibrators and quality-of-orgasm are part of public life, there is only one sex shop in the whole of Bosnia, run by a middle aged couple. (Tijana Medvedec, XY‚s Project Coordinator, reveals that none of the XY crew have actually been there.) The Sexy Shop is tucked away in a mall on the edge of the town centre. Luckily, customers can order online because most people are too shy to come in person. When they do, ’They always say it’s a present for someone else‚’ according to the lady behind the counter. Happily for the locals, they do stock ‘kondomi’ in XXL.
It’s easy to make the wrong assumptions about Sarajevo. There’s not much on the web, (landmine warnings aside), with the honourable exception of inyourpocket.com. And what information does exist, is outdated, or war-fixated. And while there are old ladies begging on street corners, offering prescription diet pills, you’re as likely to see a vast, shiny, SUV parked on the pavement, getting in everyone‚s way. Since the end of the 90s, Sarajevo has come alive, with bars, clubs, and a thriving café culture. Clothes range from techno-hippy to casual, (a lot of people are students), and they all smoke like chimneys. People are friendly, way more than London, (surprise!), although the sight of ‘RAP’ graffittied on a building strafed with bullet holes gave me a sick, sentimental, little moment. In fact, you’re very safe here, with all the peacekeepers in the region. However, there’s no need to mention the war. If they want to talk about it, they will. But they usually don’t.
So, is the safe sex campaign going to have an effect? The problem is‚ says XY’s Nedzad Hadzialic, ‘When we give them out, they take the condom and throw away the leaflet!’ You know what? The UK’s not so different. Unlike Bosnia-Hercegovina, we’ve had all the sex education that a rich, western society can provide, with publicity drives, clinics and funding – but STDs and teen pregnancies are increasing just the same. What’s our excuse?