It is more than a decade since The Independent on Sunday newspaper hired me to write the UK’s first ever broadsheet sex column. It was a daring move and the newspaper was promptly reported to the Press Complaints Commission. Fortunately for me, the charge of obscenity was dismissed and my column, ‘S is for Sex’ ran unchallenged into the next century. By the time Carrie Bradshaw had fully penetrated the British psyche even The Times was ready for sex, and in 2004 I decamped and began writing the column that is now known as ‘Sex Counsel’.
By 2009, The Times was online and the volume of enquiries about sex had increased exponentially as a result, however the nature of the questions had changed. There were notably fewer mentions of erectile dysfunction because Viagra and it’s competitors Levitra and Cialis were already so well known. And thanks to online shopping I got fewer and fewer enquiries from shy post-menopausal women who wanted to know how to go about buying a vibrator. More recently, the contraction of the economy and the expansion of the internet has generated a tsunami of correspondence about the stress of unemployment and associated issues such as boredom, porn use and chatroom infidelity.
It is not just reader’s questions that have changed over the years. The editorial goalposts have also shifted considerably. In the early days of the ‘Sex Counsel’ column the words ‘vagina’ and ‘erection’ were routinely snipped from my copy, but some years later a certain male editor clearly favoured letters from spankers and swingers. More recently, my columns have been subject to ‘The Croissant Test’, an indeterminate measure which estimates the likelihood of a question, or indeed, my response, causing a Times reader to choke on their breakfast on a Saturday morning.
It is a test I frequently fail because sex is such a messy, complex and controversial subject and there is no polite, one-size-fits-all solution to the knots that individuals and couples tie themselves into. When two people start a relationship they take with them, a predictable, almost universal, set of hopes and aspirations, which usually includes the dream of a happy ending. In reality, the minute they form a couple they begin to create their own unique narrative, a script which is driven by their personalities, their experiences, their sexual history and, more often than not, the trolley of ‘monogrammed’ emotional baggage that they have each dragged into the relationship.
The letters I receive are a window into the ‘human condition’; love, sex, birth, jealousy, divorce, death, not to mention gimp hoods and dressing up in women’s clothing. Sex touches every aspect of our lives. It is physical, emotional, psychological and political. It can be the very best and the very worst of our experiences, and despite eighty three million Google pages dedicated to the subject, it continues to perplex us all.
This book represents a small selection of the hundreds of letters that I have answered over the years. As a collection, they create a fascinating snapshot of the complexities of sexual relationships, and they remind us that the way we live may have changed unrecognisably, but the way we love hasn’t changed at all.
You can order Sex Counsel, a collection of my Times columns on Amazon now.