Serendipity

The joy of sex in dark times

I spent eight formative years at the start of my career editing an erotic literary magazine. Then I left – but it didn’t leave me. People still asked me to write and talk about erotic literature, ribald art, sexuality, relationships and the Reverse Cowboy position. I penned four different agony aunt columns for two lads’ mags, then two family newspapers. I guest-curated Sotheby’s first sale of erotic art, reviewed 50 Shades of Grey for Radio Four, and had an orgasm in an MRI scanner in New Jersey for science and the Daily Mail. Over time, I became that dread beast – a sexpert. And even now, aged 54, when I thought I’d hung up my basque for good, I’ll get a message that propels me down the latex rabbit-hole.

June has proved a humdinger for such messages, presumably because everyone needs a dash of smut to distract them from the thundering advance of the horsemen of the Apocalypse. It started with a commissioning editor enquiring whether I’d like to try micro-needling “for the intimate area”, which involves running a small, spiked instrument of medieval torture over your va-jay-jay. Once it’s covered in pinpricks, you smear it with exorbitantly-priced lotions containing “vitamins and peptides” – all in the interests of a youthful vagina. But then I started wondering if I wanted a smooth teen vulva when the rest of my body is becoming Miss Havisham. Wouldn’t that make my best beloved scream? Would he need to have his scrotum ironed?

Barely had I processed this request than the phone rang and I was asked if I’d seen the story in the papers about “love drugs” being on the horizon. The evolutionary anthropologist Anna Machin had told a rapt audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival that within a decade it would be normal for sexually bored couples to dose themselves with psychedelics, while oxytocin – “the cuddle drug” – could be spritzed up the nose before a date. (Although the latter surely enhances the risk of falling hard for the wrong person?) After a few phone calls, I discovered love drugs weren’t “on the horizon” so much as parked outside my front door in a fluorescent Cupid cab. Around a third of my (mostly) respectable, middle-aged friends seem to have got frisky on MDMA, while others have taken magic mushrooms together for a deeper connection. One man said his marriage would have failed at the ten-year point without the experience, because it was the first time he and his wife properly heard one another about old wounds, “rather than listening past each other”.

Everyone needs a dash of smut to distract them

More than that, Sarah Tilley, someone I knew and trusted via the world of sexperts (a bit like the mass coven in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, but with more organic lubricant) had set up a business as a “psychedelic guide”, dosing couples who wanted to revitalise their relationships with psilocybin, the psychotropic element of magic mushrooms. Tilley’s retreats in Portugal or Amsterdam, where the drugs are legal, aren’t free-fall, hippy enterprises, but meticulously overseen “voyages inside the self”. The emphasis is on re-connection in the relationship, based on the idea that better sex follows enhanced communication. I know this because I spoke at length to a thoughtful, satisfied customer: a woman my own age, with a background in mental health, who’d taken her reluctant husband away for a marital reboot. They both found the process highly rewarding. She added that a key part of the process was the non-shroom counselling sessions they had with Tilley before and after the “plant medicine”.

Two days after the psychedelics piece was published, I got a phone-call about Emma Thompson’s new film Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, in which a middle-aged widow hires a male escort in a quest to experience her first orgasm. One critic suggested the premise was far-fetched and anti-feminist, though it’s hard to see what’s disempowering about an older woman gunning for her own pleasure after years of being short-changed by a dull spouse. Once more, a shout-out to the International Federation of Sexperts proved the scenario was far from outlandish. Adam Wilder, of togetherness.com and all things somatic, pointed me to Sebastian Wright, an escort who specialises in intimacy coaching. Wright, an articulate, good-looking chap in his early thirties, proved a breath of fresh air. He said his work divided into women who knew what they wanted and were prepared to pay for it (from a night to a week) and those who struggled to achieve sexual ecstasy.

The latter group often includes people who’ve been subject to cultural or social taboos, he told me, meaning they felt deep shame and inhibition around their bodies; others have often suffered sexual abuse. Wright had undertaken a course in The Wheel of Consent – devised by US chiropractor and sexological bodyworker, Dr Betty Martin – which aims to help people better understand their own boundaries. Many of us, for example, find it hard to say no to unwanted touch or embraces, which often has its roots in childhood. Who hasn’t been instructed, as a child, to hug or kiss a relative or family friend, when your instinct was “no way!” That sense of powerlessness can become ingrained – particularly for women, who tend to be people-pleasers. Meanwhile, cultural and social taboos inhibit thousands from feeling sexual pleasure. If you want to delve deeper, read Martin’s excellent book, or go on one of Wilder’s courses.

If this feels like a whirlwind tour of current erotic tends, that’s rather my point. When political discourse feels this dismal and conflict dominates the headlines, the realm of the personal becomes an ever-more necessary sanctuary. When much of the world feels retrogressive, we can celebrate the fact there’s more erotic innovation right now than I’ve seen in a lifetime. The hippies said it first and best, but it’s time to make love, not war.

Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of the Erotic Review

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