Whether we know it or not, this is what women’s hearts desire. Drawn by D.W. Kellogg, sometime around 1833-42, he attributed it to “A Lady” and warned of the dangers to those who travelled in the land of a woman’s heart. I think “Tenting Ground of Uncertainty”, “City of Moi-Meme”, “River of Drain the Purse” and the mole traps in the “Province of Deception” are my favourites.
“Men don’t pursue women who are pursuing them.” These words of wisdom are from Christian Carter, dating guru, and author of How To Catch Him and Keep Him (a title that contradicts all his advice, but that he presumably thinks is what women want to hear). He was so tickled with his edgy take on the “don’t call him he’ll call you” rule of relationships he had to say it twice to a roomful of eager women sat with notebooks and pens poised to take down every one of his “dating secrets from a male mind”, most of which appear based on the assumption that it’s all your fault if you haven’t found The One. You’re just not doing it right with the result that any man you approach is traumatised on a daily basis by such things as asking him how his day went, talking about anything even remotely related to emotions, or failing to read his mind. When you first see him you’re not allowed to engage him in conversation unless it’s with a coquettish “is this seat taken” followed by an unneeded trip to the loo designed to intrigue though god knows how, or a fake question that makes you sound like an idiot and him feel superior. If you do actually get to talk to him, in between loo-breaks and questions you already know or don’t need the answers to, conversation has to be kept frothy and frivalous and you must never ever suggest you want to see him again. Such behaviour constitues pursuit and that “violates some secret natural law in the world – a psychological, social imperative for us humans and it’s completely unconscious”, says Christian. Indeed. It’s so unconscious, givers of relationship advice have to keep reminding us just how important it is.
“If you have sex with him on the first date, he won’t respect you.” This piece of advice harks back to a more chivalrous (and, possibly, completely made-up) time when the concept of women initiating sex was as revolutionary an idea as the earth being round. It’s based on the assumption that men want to have sex all the time and women will only have it if they’re cajoled, forced, drunk or loose enough to give in to a man’s demand for it. It’s part of the virgin-whore cliche that I’ve never entirely understood, but I think means we’re either regarded as a prude or a slut. Why anyone would give a shit about being called either, I don’t know. What does concern me slightly is the assumption that neither women nor men have any autonomy over their sex lives – when there are innumberable, and more serious, ways in which to gain or lose someone’s respect, having sex before picking out wedding china seems pretty insignificant.
“Show him that you care just for him/Do the things he likes to do/Wear your hair just for him.” This, from Dusty Springfield, possibly the most accommodating, forgiving woman the world has ever heard, is how to get your man: total reinvention of yourself as his ideal woman. I’m not sure what sort of humanoid creature you’d end up being if you replaced your personality with everything he wanted in a woman. I imagine it would be a pretty boring and how far would you take it? You’ve already ditched your friends, taken up an interest in paint balling, and got a new ‘do. What more does he want?
“Let him take the lead.” So says The Rules, a book I think should be banned and every copy burnt. Apparently, men like to feel in charge and that they’re the ones running the show. If you follow The Rules’ way of doing things (please don’t), you’ll spend your time making him think he’s in charge while quietly undermining his authority in ways he might not notice at the time but will provide him with ample grounds when you end up in a divorce court because the woman he married turned out to be a person and not the android she pretended to be till she’d got him up the aisle. The Rules claims to have many success stories from women who’ve followed it and got that man. They don’t have any little-while-down-the-road followups, though, so the world will never know quite how things turned out when she stopped pretending to be too busy to talk for more than three and a half minutes on the phone and he stopped pretending to find her amateur theatrics irresistible.
“Play the damsel in distress to get what you want.” I don’t know where this bit of advice comes from, but it won’t go away. Whining, pouting, baby talk, fake crying and generally acting like a nitwit to get a man to do what you want never seem to go out of fashion. I don’t really know who benefits from such antics. In the time spent warbling “pwetty pwease with sugar on top”, she could have learnt how to change the lightbulb, fix the wheel bearings, unblocked the shower drain and, quite possibly, run for Parliament. Men, surely, don’t feel so insecure they need to be reassured constantly of their ability to carry out the most basic diy by a woman with the vocabulary of a preverbal infant who then oohs, aahs and claps her hands in delight at her man’s competency with a picture hook, nail and hammer. Or maybe they do.
When I was 17 my aunt told me that men find nothing sexier than white cotton knickers. I got some Marks & Spencers finest – 100% cotton, not quite granny pants but not far off. They didn’t have the “I must have you now” effect I was hoping for, though that may have been more to do with the fact that they’d been carted round Thailand for a month at the bottom of my backpack. Slightly mildewed knickers and a blister on my bum two inches across from snorkelling with no sunblock may not have been the most alluring sight, but he could have pretended to go along with the game.
Now that I’m all grown-up and feminist, I’d regard with suspicion men who found white cotton knickers, in particular, sexy because I associate them with children. Aside from a single outing, I haven’t done any field studies so I might just be dissecting a man’s taste in pants when it doesn’t actually mean anything. Since I’ve been buying them, knickers have shrunk in size and grown in stature. Now they’re known as lingerie and seem designed to do anything but be something you get out the drawer and stick on. They’re frilly, lacy, crotchless (I still don’t get the point of those), and sheer, designed to squash in your stomach and festooned with Hello Kitty, Playboy insignia and days of the week.
The strangest development in the knicker department is, surely, the c-string. It’s a piece of plastic, shaped like a C with a small patch at the front and a long, thin bit round the back – basically a g-string with no sides that, as if by magic (or a great deal of buttock-clenching), stays in place. It promises no panty-lines, no tan-lines, and total invisibility. Grand promises, indeed, but I don’t think having invisible pants would make up for suffering an all-day plastic wedgie. As if the concept, itself, wasn’t inventive enough, the makers have come up with all sorts of embellishments on the front. For just a few pounds, you, too, can have a fluffy, sequined merkin that – OMG! – perches on your cooch with, apparently, nothing to hold it in place. And they’re not just for girls. Men can sport them in all sorts of fancy designs and colours, too. This cute little lacy number is said to be a big seller. I’d asphyxiate laughing if a man dropped his jeans to reveal that. Might have to stick some white cotton knickers on to get him back in the mood after being humiliated for his choice in drawers, but I would ask no questions.
Did you know that wearing socks in bed may improve your sex life? It’s true: in a study, 80% of people wearing socks came, compared to 50% of those with no socks on. Brain scans carried out during sex (there were no diagrams so I’m a bit hazy on the details of how, exactly) showed that different areas of the brain are active in men and women during sex: in male brains, emotion centres are deactivated and the focus is on sensations transmitted from the genitals to the brain; in female brains, the response is more complex, combining emotions, physical sensation and the relaxation of brain areas processing anxiety and fear. The more hyaluronic acid a person has in their face, the more attractive they appear. After a break-up, brain scans show that the same parts of the brain light up when someone is shown a picture of their ex and thinks about time they spent together as when they experience physical pain by having a hot probe touch their arm. A study during which men watched porn with a device attached to their penis that measured arousal, showed that homophobic men are most sexually aroused by gay male porn. 60% of normal people have ongoing “sexual desire” problems and 80% of women say they make their loudest ohs and ahs when they’re not enjoying sex and want their man to hurry up and come so it’ll be over with. Exploring your date’s “Sociosexual Orientation” (i.e. why they have sex) can help you decide if there should be a second date or you’re likely to be fatally incompatible in bed.
I know all these things because I read about them in scientific studies which, of course, means they must be true. They’re quite interesting in an anecdotal sort of way, but I don’t really see why the studies are necessary or quite what the point of them is. Scientists have their say about every single aspect of our lives, from what we eat and how much exercise we do to how much sleep we need and how many compartments there should be in our recycling bin. Now they’re dissecting sex by attaching devices to penises that measure girth (increased girth being a sign a man’s turned on) and immobilising people’s heads in CAT scans so they can see which bits of their brains light up most during sex. I admire people who take part in these studies because I’ve no idea how anyone could get turned on immobilised in a room full of labcoats, but the results are hardly likely to be reflective of people who aren’t under scientific scrutiny. Who’s to know what’s going on in the brains of people who are just frolicking in their bedroom? It could be that, left alone, people’s brains light up all over the place – not just in localised spots that indicate men feel no emotion during sex while women experience a gamut of them. Tying desire to evolution already took half the romance out of it and now we’re supposed to have sociosexual orientations that determine why we have sex, none of which allows for just fancying the pants off someone, and a barrage of statistics telling use what, why, how and where we’re doing it. We can’t even keep our socks on without there being some scientific reason for it – it’s got to be because, if I wear socks, I’m 1.6 times more likely to come than if I’ve got bare feet. These statistics and percentages serve no purpose, aside from the faint possibility they might make one of the 80% of women faking it in deafening tones feel a bit better because she knows she’s not the only one having crap sex. I don’t think there’s a place for science in the bedroom (or wherever your sociosexual orientation dictates you like having sex). It’s one of the few places where we aren’t likely to run into science and all its predictions/explanations/investigations – unless, of course, you’re sleeping with a scientist in which case, frankly, it’s your own fault. As far as I’m concerned, it’s my bedroom and I’ll keep my socks on if I want to – or not, if I’m willing to risk a 37.5% drop in the likelihood I’ll come.
Last week someone I went to school with started texting me because he got my number from somewhere and was bored. Bored of his job, bored of his marriage, bored of being fat, bored of his wife, bored of being asked about the accusations that had led to the loss of his previous job – bored of pretty much everything in the life he’d chosen to live. He asked how I was and said why didn’t we pretend he was having an affair with me because it would be so much fun. The brief was pretty straightforward: tell him what I wanted to do to him then get all “oh yes big boy” at what he wanted to do to me. I carried on working and let him ramble on, working himself up into a right state with this really quite complex scenario, most of which seemed to involve me standing on a railway platform waiting for him, dressed in a fur coat and no knickers. I don’t wear fur, but I let it pass because he seemed to be enjoying himself. Then he phoned and said he was going to get a ticket and catch the train up, his wife would never know, and he could get the last train back and say he’d been working late. It would be perfect, he said, he hadn’t seen me for years, but he still fantasised about the time we got off with each other at school. He either thought I was someone else entirely or just remembered it differently. I vaguely remember there being a lot of saliva and him dislodging the wire on my bra, trying to shove his hand in it, not out of passion but because it seemed to be the most accessible bit of me. Such finesse. Anyway, almost twenty years later and, lucky me, I get to make his fantasy come true. Then I said what if I didn’t want him to come just for the afternoon, what if I wanted him to stay longer. He would go back to his wife and I’d have no say in when I might see him again. I might start to like him or, even, fall in love with him and what would I get in return for my sexual and emotional involvement with him. Standing around waiting for him on a freezing Edinburgh railway platform with no knickers on would hardly quell my feelings of adoration or soothe the ache of longing for the relationship I knew we could never have. He’d have me on tap and I’d have more dislodged bra wires and the occasional naughty text. Thrilling. He suddenly had a concert his kids were playing at and, oh shit, he wouldn’t be able to come after all. I haven’t heard much from him since.
I had no intention of having any sort of anything with him and was about to tell him it was stupid and not to get the train because I didn’t want to see him, but I thought I’d give him a glimpse into how things might turn out for me if he did. It had, apparently, never occurred to him that I might want something other than the occasional shag when he could get away or that I didn’t want to be his bit on the side to ease the boredom of domesticity.
I’ve had two relationships with married men and, while I don’t regret either of them – they were both lovely men – I wouldn’t have another. The fact that the man is married adds nothing to the relationship: he may get a frisson from the danger of getting caught or being naughty, but for the woman, it brings no perks. Now that we’re all modern and equal in our right and responsibility to earn our own income, a man no longer has any financial responsibility towards his mistress so the single perk there might have been – being a kept woman – has been done away with.
The perception of the mistress has veered between veneration and disgust, depending on social mores. There’s been a fairly recent trend for laying some blame on the man, but they usually wriggle out of it with statements issued by publicists about sex addiction, as though pathologising it made it all right. “You’re addicted to sex? Don’t worry – we have the perfect rehab programme to help you overcome that. The focus is on learning to love yourself – not just your penis.” The wife is pitied, quite rightly, because she’s got a cheating bastard for a husband. The mistress receives very different treatment. She is tabloid fodder, at once villified and exploited as a source of sex secrets – his penchant for stuffing an orange in his mouth and a pair of tights over his head or a one-time “romp” in a hot tub with a bottle of flat champagne and some soap suds, for example. Then she’s forgotten – or she cashes in on her fleeting fame, sobs on talk shows and designs a range of handbags like Monica Lewinsky.
Thing is, the mistress has done nothing wrong. She signed no contracts; didn’t stand in front of an officiate and promise no other to take. She’s just a woman having a relationship with a man like any other. I’ve heard women say they like the challenge of bedding a married man, but they give the mistress – the woman who’s trying to have a relationship rather than a one night stand – a bad name. Being the other woman is a shit deal. For all the promises to the contrary, you’re the least important person in his life. Yes, he might say he loves you and he might promise you the moon and the stars, but one thing he won’t promise you is that he’ll leave his wife. Married men seldom do. They have the ease of a wife at home and you on call for sex and whatever else you might give him.
There are articles in their thousands about women having it all, wanting it all, trying to have it all, feeling guilty because they think spending time thinking about having it all makes them a bad mother. Aside from the occasional feature-length article about a stay-at-home dad, no one seems to be suggesting that being a working father makes a man a bad parent. Men aren’t being bombarded with criticism of their life choices or having the fact that, selfish cows, they would rather go to work than spend all day at home with their children. The affair is the male equivalent. Even if the wife’s a shrew and the mistress the heartless bitch they’re generally assumed to be, the man is having it all and getting away with it. Unless, of course, the mistress starts asking for more.
We’re not talking the pitiful combustion that was Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, here. Being of generally sound mind and vegetarian, I would no more boil a rabbit than I would eat one. No, it’s more likely to be outrageous things like seeing more of him or having phone calls returned a week after they were made rather than a month or just not at all. Some of the happiest times in my life were spent with married men, but these moments are so fleeting, like a string of fabulous flings – intense, vital, all-absorbing, but a little while after you can’t quite remember why. Being the other woman is all about hope. It’s entirely misplaced and a waste of energy, time, passion, and feeling. You have to lose that hope to move on. It’s disappointing, but it’s necessary that you do. You’re wasting your life, hoping for a glance here, a little love there. If you were with someone who treated you like a married man will, you’d ditch him. For all he might enjoy and care about you, he’ll never love you. Not in any way that means anything. You’re both an indulgence and an inconvenience and you have to be prepared to be treated as such. He won’t leave her and, even if he does, you have to wonder about the priorities of a man who would be so self-indulgent he’d disregard the happiness of both women in his life. To paraphrase Martha Wainwright, you know he’s married, but you’ve got feelings, too.
Sexuality is, to put it mildly, a convoluted subject. From a process of reproduction, sex has become something of labyrinthine complexity. It is far more than just our sex organs. Whether we’re aware of it or want to, we bring to sex our pasts, desires, preconceptions, prejudices, morals, insecurities, and emotions. There are expectations of both men and women – everyone wants to be thought of as good in bed, but what that involves has become increasingly demanding. We’re all to be porn stars. Girls as young as eleven are pressured by their peers (their female friends as much as the boys) into replicating the sex their boyfriends have seen in porn. Admit you like the missionary position and you might as well declare yourself a Puritan and get thee to a nunnery. No, we’re all supposed to be as limber as a Cirque du Soleil contortionist. Sex isn’t just a fun way to spend the afternoon, it’s a competition. We try to be better than the last lover – or, indeed, anyone the other person has ever had sex with. Sex is to be mind-blowing, ne’er before known heights of ecstasy, unforgettable and impossible to surpass. We count our orgasms, rating our lovers by the number of times they make us come in a night. Even if we wouldn’t want to venture into the world of slings and hardcore S&M, we’re blasé about the more extreme sexual practices because that’s the fashionable way to be. We buy into the highly lucrative concept that our sex lives need to be spiced up – thrilling at all times. At the mellow end of the market are scented candles and a romantic dinner; role play and dressing up usually make the list; then there’s a little light bondage of the Ann Summers handcuffs and whipped cream variety; and sex manuals are a must, though nothing of the boring old Joy of Sex sort – they have to be fun fun fun. On and on it goes in the quest for the perfect shag.
No matter how modern all this might make us feel, there remains the double standard between men and women regarding sexual mores. There are no derogatory words for a promiscuous man, but innumerable ones for a woman. How many men a woman has sex with and how soon after meeting shouldn’t be worth even mentioning, but it is the subject of countless, and constant, debates. Living by The Rules or by one’s own ought to be a given, but women frequently lie about the number of lovers they’ve had and the extent of their experience, downplaying both to their partners. I don’t think anyone quite knows why we do this, why we have such contrasting views of male and female behaviour, but it’s a practice that every generation adopts, to a greater or lesser extent, and has done so over centuries. Porn encourages us to act like a slut in the bedroom, but apparently we’re not supposed to actually be one out of it.
I’m not arguing in favour of mediocre sex. No one wants that. I don’t think men should, à la Christian missionaries, pray for god’s forgiveness for taking carnal pleasure and their wives’ bodies be concealed by full-length white nightdresses with a hole embroidered in the shape of a cross over their vaginas. Sex is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be about people – real life ones, not the ones pornography, magazines, adverts, and billboards tell us we should be. The anal sex her boyfriend saw onscreen shouldn’t be a part of an 11-year-old girl’s life. Her life should be about her – what she wants to do and what she enjoys – not what porn told her boyfriend she ought to be. You’d think we’d grow out of that, but the idea that sex is a performance to impress our lover surrounds us and, inevitably, affects the way we view ourselves and those with whom we have sex. In attempting to emulate the moves of a porn star, women are understudying to others paid to fake orgasms and pleasure. Role play is one thing, but if women are faking it, in whole or in part, all to seem like the person they believe their lovers want them to be, then it begs the question of who everyone is sleeping with – the person we know or the one they’re pretending to be for our benefit because that’s what they believe we want and, possibly, what we’ve come to believe we want, too. It’s no wonder we’re confused.