Rachel Dobson – The Sunday Times September 14, 2003
It’s midnight on Friday at the Tuxedo Princess Nightclub in Newcastle and the atmosphere is electric with desire. The dance floor is a heaving mass of bodies gyrating, kissing and groping to the pounding beat.
Cocktail-fuelled young women flit and flirt from man to man, eyes locking, hands feeling as they size up potential mates. Janine, 27, a sales worker from Darlington, Co Durham, makes her choice and they indulge in some serious snogging by the fruit machine. It’s not long before he leads her to a cubicle in the ladies’ toilets where they have sex. Minutes later they part; she doesn’t even know his full name.
This is the power of love that Cosmopolitan magazine, the sex bible for the independent women, has made famous. It has promoted a go-get-it-girl approach to sex, trumpeting a woman’s right to choose when, where and how often.
As the magazine found when it recently sent a writer to Newcastle and other clubbing hotspots, it’s a message that’s been taken if not to heart, at least to certain parts of the anatomy. In many clubs the brief bonking encounter is the order of the night.
From teenagers to twenty-somethings and up, young women regularly wake up in a strange man’s bed on a Saturday morning with a hangover, wondering what happened.
But to Cosmo it’s now an orgasm too far. In its issue out this week, the magazine will commit what many might see as heresy: it will say casual sex no longer hits the G-spot.
While the editor, Lorraine Candy, defends a woman’s right to choose, she derides what she calls “McSex” — the takeaway coupling that leaves you feeling empty and slightly nauseous. This “soulless sex”, says the magazine, can cause lasting emotional damage as women move from partner to partner seeking little more than instant satisfaction.
Cosmo says no to sex? Can it, after all those years of striving for liberation, be serious? Candy recognises it’s a surprising change of tack, but feels it is one that must be made. “The message for young women today has been that sex is fashionable and to have as much of it as you can; but what is being missed is that you don’t have to be a part of it if you don’t want to.
“There is too much peer pressure to go and get drunk and sleep with people you don’t really want to without an emotional choice being made,” she said last week. “It has ended up with Cosmo saying no to sex, which is a rare thing.”
Thirty years ago the all-you-need-to-know-about-sex formula of Cosmopolitan took the country by storm. When the magazine launched it sold 365,000 copies on its first day, even though some newsagents relegated it to the top shelf.
“In the early days of Cosmo nice girls didn’t do it,” said Marcelle D’Argy Smith, a former editor. “It then moved from getting your man to being all about sex — the attitude of grab him and pull his pants down in a phone box on the M4 or anywhere.”
As the idea that women can enjoy one-night stands has become acceptable, they have increasingly done so. In a recent study 37% of British women admitted to going out seeking casual sex — in Newcastle, 43% of women were on the prowl.
A new survey, the biggest for a decade, by 4Learning, Channel 4’s education arm, reveals how prevalent casual sex is among teenagers. The “This Teen Life” study interviewed 1,000 boys and girls aged 14-19 and suggests that one in three lost their virginity on a one-night stand.
Almost half said that it was acceptable to have sex or oral sex on a first date. More than 70% believed that threesomes or sex toys were an acceptable part of a relationship.
Among teenage girls, one in three sees infidelity as normal, and the same proportion said they would rather live with someone than get married.
Natalie Turner-Mitchell, 15, from London, said: “No one really makes a big deal about it, and it’s just expected that everyone has sex. Losing your virginity is not a big deal, it’s just something that people have to do.”
Heather Rabbatts, managing director of 4Learning, believes it is a common attitude: “Teenagers have a much more experimental attitude to sex — it is a much more carefree and easier attitude and they don’t necessarily think that love will be permanent.”
Nor is it just teenagers who hold such attitudes. For women such as Sarah Hamilton, 34, a promotions manager for a record company, sexual confidence is about the right to choose how many lovers they have. Hamilton, who has had 42 partners, said: “I have a high sex drive so when I want sex I go and get it. I’m not averse to one-night stands, and as long as I’m careful and use protection I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
The urge for easy, instant gratification is also borne out in Cosmopolitan’s research. At Ice, a dance club in Tonbridge, Kent, it observed how a quick chat at the bar resulted in Holly Stevenson, 22, going home with a virtual stranger. It turned out to be her fifth one-night stand.
But further research found Stevenson and other women were waking up the day after a night out and realising that quick soulless sex was neither satisfying nor enjoyable.
“It’s a buzz,” said Stevenson, “but it seems that once you have sex there’s nowhere else to go.” The man she had taken home had left by 4.30am. To experts such as Dr Terri Apter, social psychologist at the University of Cambridge, it is more evidence that women have been deluded about sex.
“There have been some misguided assumptions linked to the sexual revolution,” she said, “and one is that sex can be both casual and happy. In human beings sex is usually linked to an emotional bond, and without that it is at best unsatisfactory but at worst humiliating and degrading.
“In time young people discover they are likely to feel shame, regret, anger. It has to be more than entertainment.”
In the past, Cosmo woman might have shrugged off such views like an unwanted man. As Candy says: “We didn’t feel ashamed about one-night stands, we didn’t judge each other . . . This, we thought, is what feminism is about.”
But now she is urging women that soulless sex is no route to self-esteem or indeed orgasms. The resident agony aunt, Irma Kurtz, puts much of the blame on alcohol. “Social lives are fuelled by alcohol and it makes it much harder to make a clear decision about sex,” she said.
“If we start to use sex as a drunken amusement, then we can stop expecting it ever again to be significant and special.”
WHILE the magazine may be leading the way publicly in forging a new sensibility, some young women have come to the same conclusion themselves. Lucy Baker, a 27-year-old marketing executive, used to pursue the sort of Sex and the City wild social life many expect of young women loose in London.
But after a string of drunken flings and bouts of memory loss she decided the lifestyle was damaging, not strengthening, her self-esteem. “I kept having memory blackouts and would be told the next day about my appalling behaviour,” said Baker. “I needed to take control of my life again.”
She visited a psychologist and gave up alcohol for six months: “I slowly started to believe in myself again and ironically found love on a sober night out with friends.”
It takes time for attitudes to change, and different age groups react in different ways. But change they can. In America a similar rebellion against casual sex is already under way.
“Born-again virgins” are making headway, with teenagers joining groups such as True Love Waits. Thousands are rejecting their past and becoming “renewed virgins” pledging not to have sex until they get married.
The administration of President George W Bush has ploughed millions of dollars into state-sponsored abstinence programmes which seem to be having an effect. In one New York scheme the proportion of 15-year-olds having sex fell from 47% to 32% in three years.
Dr Trevor Stammers, a senior tutor in general practice at St George’s hospital, London, believes they would also be effective in the UK.
“We expect our children to abstain from stealing, bullying and a host of other activities, but often imply that it is less important where sexual activity is concerned,” he said. “Yet by telling teenagers to delay gratification it may stop unfulfilling sexual encounters later in life.”
Will the readers of Cosmo heed its call for less soulless sex? D’Argy Smith is sceptical that an audience used to a diet of sex can starve itself. “It is hard to pull back from the brink and try to inject philosophy and intelligence when up to now it has just been about getting laid,” she said.
But Candy is convinced the message is needed: “Sexual liberation is about enjoying sex but having great self-esteem attached to that,” and not feeling pressure to have lots of partners. “Women need empowering and to understand that it is okay to say no.”
What the teenagers think
Cosmopolitan says women should reject “soulless sex”, but perceptions among teenagers may be hard to change. A new survey by 4Learning, an educational arm of Channel 4, found:
· One in three teenagers admit losing their viriginity on a one-night stand
· One in three think the age of consent should be reduced to 14
· More than two in three feel it acceptable to have a threesome or use sex toys
· Almost half of teenage girls say it is acceptable to have oral sex on a first date
· One in three teenage girls think infidelity normal
· One in four teenagers do not feel marriage is important
· One in three think they would rather live with someone than get married
· Nearly half would rather have money than marry
· Nearly two in three would prefer to work than study
Last updated 18/09/2003