Labor of Love

When sex seems like too much work

| September-October 1995


You don’t need me to tell you, I’m sure, that you don’t learn how to have sex from doing it with boys, but from talking about it with girls. One girl in particular played a vital part in my sex education. Her name was Janice and she was the acknowledged expert in the field, primarily because she had found a copy of How to Be a Sensuous Woman under her dad’s bed and therefore possessed the key to all knowledge.

Although serious sensuality seemed beyond my reach, Janice soon took me in hand. Up in the bedroom of her parents’ house she turned the lights off, put on a red dress and a Barry White record, and told me to shut up. She said if only you tried hard enough it was possible to come just listening to Barry. We spent many a night lying two feet apart on twin beds, fists clenched, eyes shut tight while Janice began to writhe and I replayed my then most trustworthy sexual fantasy—that I was an alien life form beamed aboard the starship Enterprise, having to be examined by Kirk, Spock, and on a good night various others of the crew. Barry moaned in the background, Janice groaned in the foreground, and I tried to steer my thoughts away from Scotty and McCoy. There was still nothing doing, and so it was that the first orgasm I ever faked was for a girl and not a boy. So much more demanding.

And that I guess is the moral of this story. What Janice tried to impress on me was that sex is an activity that you have to work at, practice, evolve techniques for: one vast exercise in self-improvement. I had never liked sports of any description. I was lazy. I couldn’t be bothered.

But it wasn't just Janice filling my head full of this rubbish. I found it everywhere I turned. Cosmopolitan and all the other women’s magazines were, and still are, full of endless lists of what makes people good in bed, lists of activities that we should explore, experiment with. Recipes for love. Food that we can rub over each other, bits and bobs that can spice up our sex lives, advice on foreplay, afterplay, any old play at all as long as you are in touch with your fantasies, his fantasies, her fantasies, your next-door neighbor’s dog’s fantasies.

Go into a porn shop and these fantasies are categorized with increasing fastidiousness. The sexual imagination is not limitless, just a repertoire of clichés. Are you the pisser or the pissed on? May I suggest something to go with your nipple clamps, madam? Some nipples perhaps. People moan about the sex industry, but the point is that the commercial sex industry is tangential to most of our lives: We are all workers in a much bigger sex industry. Doing it, having it, getting it, wanting it is our duty, our task, our vocation. Boast of your idleness in other areas of your life, but not in this one.

As we blame “the ‘60s” and feminism for everything that has gone wrong with society, I will too. Once women were expected not to do too much. To lie back and think of England. Passivity was all that was expected then, and men waited a long time to hear those three magic words: “If you must.”