Sex Isn’t Sexy Anymore

THE NEW A-SEXUALITY – why is everybody over ‘it’? From The Sunday Times, 2011

Idly answering a friend’s emailed sex problem, as you do, I stopped right in the middle of  “masturbat…” with the realisation that sex is not sexy anymore. Having spent over a decade ridiculing people advising people about sex, this came as a shock. You know, I remember sex – the subject, not the act – as juicy, daring and fun. Now? It’s just dull. Someone mentioned, “orgasmic nipples” at dinner the other night and everyone nodded and kept chewing. That’s not supposed to happen.

The end of an era was confirmed in Sex And The City 2 when Samantha throws condoms around the souk. In a single moment, that silly, tingly thread of sexiness that ran through the Carry On films to the present stopped like a set of ceased brakes. Shocking sexuality isn’t giddy fun anymore, which is why we cringes at the thought of Sex And The City 3: sex as a topic is over. We may read about it in a medicinal, informative or even pornographic way, but it will never lure us in as the enigmatic, turbulent hybrid it used to be because it’s been overexposed. As one of those who helped bring this sacred act to its knees, I hang my head. We knew not what we did.

I’m not alone in finding the subject of sex more hum than ho. You know something’s wrong when famous people are sick of it. Kelsey Grammer may be a bit of a goer, but his ex-wife Camille, one of TV’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, told him she didn’t care about sex anymore and put her (now ex) husband on a 12 month holding pattern. Courteney Cox reportedly told husband David Arquette that she was ‘over it’ and they then separated. Before their split, rumours were that Guy Ritchie’s Cookie Diet was enough to put the libidinal brakes on with Madonna.

Not convinced? The grapevine says Paris Hilton isn’t bothered about sex at all (which explains those blank eyes in her sex video). Patsy Kensit too has said, “I no longer feel like a sexual being, and I’m okay with that.” Tessa Dahl’s become a nun, saying, “My romantic journey now is with God. I am not remotely interested in sex, and I haven’t been for a long time.” Add to the pile Chloe Sevigny who isn’t interested anymore because she’s, “more self-aware now.” Transgender muse Lea T says that, “Sex for me was zero,” admitting she only had sex in her 20s and didn’t think much of it then. Paul McKenna now lives non-sexually with his ex, saying it feels, “nice and natural.”

But Paul, it isn’t. Or is it? Have we moved to a new era of asexuality where men whose fingertips we used to envy – Lenny Kravitz and Jack Nicholson – aren’t doing it anymore and that’s normal?

Before you say it, this isn’t about age: I sat next to Sean Connery recently and he’s still magnetic. The attitude amongst teens and “the olds” I’ve talked to is unanimous: no one’s really excited, ensnared or intrigued by sex anymore. Jack, a handsome and savvy 16-year-old shrugged and said, “Sex is a thing, yes. But so is music and film.” Anna, in her 70s, smiled and said, “It’s nice but there it’s not everything.” Even my tall, lissome 39-year-old lady physio said, “It used to be central, you know, that seems so of out of kilter now.” What has been so powerful and profound over millennia is now last year’s viral video: gobs of fun at the time, but, you know, we’ve either seen it before or something like it before.

A friend, Richard, prides himself on being ahead of this curve. He’s not asexual androgynous, he’s just not ‘into it’ for myriad reasons. “First thing,” he says, “Sex has turned into a marketing vehicle. Anyone who doesn’t think that has been living in a cave. There’s no mystery now and that’s tainted sex for me. That beautiful moment has turned into a TV ad.”

Sex is not big in Japan, at least according to Kunio Kitamura, the head of Japan’s Family Planning Association. His study shows 40% of married couples have not had sex in the last 30 days, adding to Japan’s low birth rate. This is bad for business. Equally bad is the fact that American marketing experts are wracking their brains trying to find a way to sell things to Japan’s ‘herbivores’ – the 36.1% of the young male population that purports to have no interest in the old in-out. It’s this sort of thing that could drive Man Men’s Don Draper to (more) drink.

The sages saw it coming. The late, legendary comedian Bill Hicks used to joke how successful sex was at marketing sugary snacks and drinks. He likened it to the definition of pornography, “No artistic merit, causes sexual thought. Hmm. Sounds like… every commercial on television, doesn’t it?… Damned if I’m not buying these products. My teeth are rotting out of my head, I’m glued to the television, I’m as big as a fucking couch.”

Of course, that was back in the 90s, before we were immune to naked models selling scent and a bare-assed Lady Gaga – the same lady who told her UK fans just last year, “You don’t have to have sex to feel good about yourself, and if you’re not ready, don’t do it … It’s not really cool anymore to have sex all the time. It’s cooler to be strong and independent,” – promoting her new song.

This is not a rant to complain about there being no boundaries, A Serbian Film style. Rather, it is an observation of how we see the boundaries stretching away from us and how we recoil in an attempt to bring them back – not only for our own lives but for that of our children.

When I was an agony aunt, a pair of 10-year-olds wrote to me, saying they were having sex and wanting advice. I still can’t get them out of my mind. If that was shocking, it wasn’t as bad as seeing padded bras marketed to the under 5s on Oxford Street last year. Here, you’ll find me agreeing with asexual Richard: “There’s something quite wrong about sex being marketed to tweenies. Kids know how to do it – I see kids walking around dressed like hookers. Sex is no longer something you learn about, it’s just there.” We can’t blame the kids. They want to grow up and be like us.

The decline of sex being sexy is down to good old fashioned overexposure; that which used be exciting is now part of common parlance, with emphasis on the common. I suspect this is the real reason America’s version of Skins is running into trouble: being sexually explicit is very 90s. Speaking of the 90s, take Sting. He gained SOH points for admitting that those hours spent in tantric sex with wife Trudie Styler were spent mostly begging for it. However, the couple’s recent appearance in American Harper’s Bazaar was just bizarre. “I like the theater of sex. I like to look good,” Sting said. “I like her to dress up. I like to dress her up.” Comments on blogs were not favourable, which is a turnup for the books. Back in the day, that would have been a hot interview. Now, it’s kind of tacky and yawny. Trudie Styler and Sting have so much more to talk about than sex: what’s happening with rain forests and what was Trudie doing playing a nurse in that Russell Crowe film? Then there’s the puzzling release of ‘The Lovers’ Guide 3D’ – the “Avatar of sex-instruction movies”. This title peaks my curiosity on only two counts: 1) I’ve liked sex expert Dr Andrew Stanway from his 2D days and 2) I want to see what parts stick out.

Rowan Pelling, the nation’s classiest sexual intellect, sees the new asexuality as a symptom of lifestyle overkill. “I think people want to keep sex at a more enticing distance,” she says. “Sex as a topic shouldn’t be boring but I do feel the enormous avalanche of badly written books about it hasn’t helped. We’ve become unforgivably dull writing about sex in lots of ways. People used to be skilful at not boring people, but now they’re always going into tedious detail. You don’t show off about your cream dream walls or culinary skills any more than you do about swinging off the chandeliers. Sex remains interesting, but the way it’s portrayed in our culture is all too often about selling some dream to other people. I lump it into lifestyle porn.”

There is, too, the fallout of the ever turning wheel of liberation and its redress. Every revolution has its evolution – and the sexy rampage of the last 20 years is no exception. According to Philip Hodson, Fellow of the British Associaton for Counselling and Psychotherapy, we may have been sold a pup. “While love can deliver sex, sex can’t deliver love and yet this generation expects it to.” Sex didn’t deliver what it promised and now the guarantee’s run out.

It’s simpler than that, I think. After all the hurly burly of finding a mate and getting all excited, it’s quite nice to be able to enjoy pottering around the house and maybe ruining a new recipe. What’s chic now is letting yourself find a balance between sleep, work, food, sex and play. My 87-year-old mother, who has always been a smarty, says, “Sex is important, Karen, but no more important than everything else we care about.” The new asexuality, if we should call it that, is all about alignment: we have nothing left to prove.

This doesn’t mean sex is dead. It’s merely receded back into the pack of conversational subjects. But, like those tetchy topics religion and politics, show-offs may deploy it – so you still have to be ready. As I was leaving a dinner party, the host dragged me over to a collection of Franco-African penis-handled bottle-openers. His daughters rolled their eyes, “Oh, he didn’t show you the penises, did he?” “That’s okay,” I said, grabbing my coat. “I have a bunch of vaginas at home.”

Published version:

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/style/living/Emotions/article534411.ece