We have all seen them - they are in every bookshop next to the health and cooking sections. I am referring to the now vast number of books that claim to tell us how to improve our sex lives. The titles on display contain almost as many permutations of the words ‘sex’, ‘love’, ‘joy’ and ‘pleasure’ as sexual positions described between their covers. They range from Alex Comfort’s classic The Joy of Sex (first published in 1972 and still very much in print) to complete D.I.Y. packs containing books, videos and even massage oils.
If the blurb on their jackets is to be believed, these books will explain ‘how you can become the perfect partner’, ‘achieve new levels of physical and emotional harmony in your relationship’ and even ‘sustain lovemaking indefinitely.’ Regrettably, however, the reverse is true: these books can easily leave the reader feeling confused, inadequate and disappointed. They are a recipe for bad sex, not good, and many men and women would almost certainly feel more sexually satisfied without them.
Most sex manuals are lavishly illustrated with either photographs or drawings of couples acting out the authors’ instructions. The models are always young and invariably very attractive - there are no flabby thighs or beer bellies in sight. The publishers probably believe their books simply would not sell if they were full of overweight 50 year olds, but one of the proven effects of exposure to idealised images is that it increases viewers’ dissatisfaction with their own bodies - as well as making them more critical of their partners’ bodies. Such feelings are clearly not compatible with the scenarios of relaxed and carefree lovemaking religiously documented in the text.
The use of bimbos and himbos to illustrate sex manuals can also lead us to believe that while great sex might well be possible for people like them, it certainly is not achievable by people like us. Exercise psychologists have discovered that posters and leaflets showing smiling, fit people working out actually deter many non-exercisers from donning tracksuits and trainers. Just as more realistic images of people exercising might generate greater levels of physical activity, perhaps the depiction of ordinary people in sex manuals could help propel many more of us in the direction of greater sexual fulfilment.
The books’ relentless explanation of different sexual techniques and positions surely reinforces one of the most potent myths about human sexuality: that it is primarily about performance. One of the biggest anxieties many of us bring to the bedroom is the belief that we are not ‘doing it right’ and that our partner will end up feeling disappointed. Attempting, and failing to achieve, ‘advanced’ procedures which promise hitherto unimagined pleasure could well leave us feeling at least let down and at worst even more of a sexual failure.
There is no doubt that sexual experimentation and variety can be fun, even acutely pleasurable, but for most of us the best route to sexual fulfilment remains intimacy and communication with a partner. If they are missing, sex can be little more than mechanically good. The all-too common feelings of resentment, anger, jealousy or competition within a relationship do not help create the trust essential for good sex either. These emotional issues are addressed in very few sex books. Another vital ingredient in most people’s experience of good sex is humour, yet sex manuals tend to treat sex as if it is as serious as heart surgery. Many of us need to retain - or acquire - the ability to laugh at much of what goes on beneath the duvet.
Many couples would almost certainly benefit from finding ways of developing and improving their relationships in ways that include sexuality but also go far beyond it. Sex cannot be seen as something separate from a relationship - just as the bedroom is an integral part of the structure of a house so sex is intertwined with every aspect of a relationship.
If a couple has a dull sex life, it is of course possible that learning to massage each other, eating soft fruits off each others bodies and sharing sexual fantasies could result in a significant increase in joyful frenzy between the sheets. It is also possible, however, that it will all end in tears because the couple’s sexual problems are rooted in deeper difficulties in their relationship. Their sex life is unlikely to improve unless these fundamental issues are addressed first and, in some cases, this might require a commitment to an often lengthy and painful process of sex therapy or couples counselling.
So can there ever be a good sex manual? Yes, so long as it is honest, realistic and discusses sex into a context that includes issues like intimacy and communication. It would have to challenge many of the myths and fantasies that still exist about sex - that you have to have a great body to enjoy it, for example, or that orgasms must always be a mind-blowing, transcendental experience - and enable men and women to work out for themselves what they want from sex.
What most men and women almost certainly do not need is another book that claims the route to sexual ecstasy simply requires learning 57 new positions for making love.
Copyright: Peter Baker 1999