The Man Diet: One woman’s quest to end bad romance
The Man Diet
Join one woman on her quest
to end bad romance
An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 77–85 Fulham Palace Road Hammersmith, London W6 8JB
© Zoe Strimpel 2011
Zoe Strimpel asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
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Extract from The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge by Michel Foucault and Robert Hurley © 1998, reproduced by kind permission of Penguin Group UK.
Extract from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver © 1992, published by Vintage Books. Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Limited.
Extract from The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer © 2006, reprinted by kind permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
Extract from The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr Right by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider © 1997, reprinted by kind permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
Extract from Living Dolls by Natasha Walter © 2010, published by Virago Books. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown Book Group.
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Source ISBN: 9781847563057
Ebook Edition © NOVEMBER 2011 ISBN: 9781847563064 Version: 2014-07-23
To my old, dear friend Eleanor Halgren.
And, of course, to all the single ladies.
Here’s a little story …
I’m with this gorgeous guy, we’re two-thirds of the way through a free bottle of champagne that I’d arranged through PR contacts and I’m calculating the likelihood of a kiss or maybe more when we’re finished. Just as I’m picturing his bedroom, and what a triumph it would be to see it, his iPhone rings. It appears that another girl needs him – an on-off friend ‘with issues’ – and so off he goes. Not, however, before I wrest a smooch off him as he unlocks his motorbike.
But when I get home, instead of feeling jubilant about kissing a text-book hottie that had entered my life as a very professional masseur at a spa in central London, I lie on the bed and feel … down. Rejected. Crap. Tired. Like I’ve sold myself short, but I’m not quite sure why. What had I been hoping to gain? A romp with a man – albeit a muscular one – who I’d had to lure out on a date with the promise of free alcohol?
Here’s another story: My friends Kim and Kate are watching Uruguay play Holland in the World Cup semifinal and end up snogging a couple of happy Dutch fans. However, expecting their snogees to be eagerly in touch afterwards, both Kim and Kate are dismayed when they hear nothing. Kim follows up with an email only to receive a downright rude reply. It would have been comical – if it hadn’t made her feel crap and empty and induce a week-long funk of low self-esteem in which she threw the baby out with the bathwater (job bad; career trajectory stalled; life going nowhere). And for what? A randomer! Meanwhile, Kate’s lad does respond and agrees to meet her for a drink. He isn’t free for a week, during which time Kate gets moderately excited. When they meet, it’s at a grotty pub of his choosing, and afterwards he seems to expect her to accompany him home. She allows him a snog and then – three days later when she still hasn’t heard from him – she sends him a drunken text. He doesn’t reply and she too enters a few days of self-loathing and anger.
We’re meant to be having the times of our lives but, as the above stories suggest, being single and content in the 21st century is far from straightforward. Ruth, 29, puts it well: ‘Being single is a job. But it’s a secret job.’ We’re constantly juggling our private anxiety about being single with a free ’n’ easy public persona. So while being single sounds like a barrel of laughs for the well-waxed, sexually liberated, financially solvent young woman, it is far from being a walk in the park.
What made me want to write this book is the fact that the Western single woman has never had it so good. She’s got more opportunity than ever before – professionally, socially and sexually. She puts up with less harassment and fewer superiority complexes from men than ever before. She earns more, shags more and drinks more than ever. She can do what she wants. But somehow – when it comes to society’s ultimate flash point, sex and love – she can’t get no satisfaction. Or not enough.
The Man Diet expresses my belief that it doesn’t need to be that way. I want to help the single woman cut through the biggest obstacle to her happiness today: junk-food love. I want to help lift the sense of doom and even worthlessness many of us feel if we are sporting neither a rock nor a man on our arm so that we can get on with the business of being – and feeling – awesome.
‘Being single is a job. But it’s a secret job.’
Easy highs, easy lows:
welcome to a world of junk-food love
Badoo is a mobile hook-up site for the straight market with 120 million users and 300,000 more added per day at the time of writing. Floxx, which originated as FitFinder, is a microblogging site where users describe hot people nearby in salacious terms (a perving portal, in other words), while tube.net allows users (female only, interestingly) to post pictures of hotties photographed surreptitiously on the Underground. Flirtomatic allows users to send electronic flirts – the homepage is a surge of photos that come forward then recede ever so slightly sickeningly. There are dozens more like this being conceived every day. I’m going to sound hideously prim here, but I see these sites as a natural by-product of a dating environment that’s becoming increasingly high in poorly made fast food and low in slow-cooked, well-sourced nourishment. There, I’ve said it.
Back at the beginning of 2010, when I became single again, I was all about the fast-food style of love, and warmly embraced the ‘many fish in the sea’ idea. I was a bit manic, going after men and saying yes to them as if it was my job to do so now that I was single, and – as I said above – supposedly ‘loving it’.
It was psychologist and relationships expert Dr Cecilia d’Felice who first recommended that I go on a ‘Man Diet’ after I told her about my experience of being single.
‘With each failed encounter – a man that doesn’t ask for a follow-up date, a guy that is rude, or a date you didn’t enjoy – there is the potential to lose self-esteem. Too many negative experiences will chip away at your self-worth leaving you feeling low and anxious about your date-ability.’
Dr Cecilia d’Felice, clinical psychologist and relationships expert, author of Dare to Be You
So, I hear you all ask, what is a Man Diet? Well, pure and simple, it’s a diet, in which you take a break from chowing down on men – literally and otherwise. You let them go. Forget about them. Instead, you focus on building up your sense of self-worth, your interests, your personhood. Your ‘you’. You relax, and give yourself a time out on dating, romantic timelines and so on.
I thought more about this brave idea. Could I do it? And ultimately, did I want to do it? I had to admit it sounded tempting and challenging in equal measure. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but equally, I sensed I’d benefit massively if I did. The Man Diet smacked of a path to somewhere good, not without its tiring uphills but generally pleasant and with interesting scenery along the way. It seemed like the kind of ride whose uphills would leave you with excellent, enviable glutes and thighs at the end of it.
I started not only to pay close attention to where I was going wrong, but to quietly observe my single friends’ behaviour, rather than just urging them to keep going in order to erase the bad taste of one unsatisfying encounter with another one. Of course we were all roughly going wrong in the same ways: giving ourselves away too much and to too many people, for no particularly good reason. Great men – potential life partners – don’t grow on trees these days (did they ever?) and you know them when you see them. We weren’t seeing them, so instead we channelled a Samantha from Sex and the City-style quantity-over-quality approach, and guess what: it wasn’t making us happy. Nor did it appear to be increasing the chances of meeting someone worthwhile – the types of guys we were attracting never really improved or changed.
And if we weren’t getting action – if we were in a ‘drought’ – we talked about that, using up our emotional energy. Follow-up dates with guys we didn’t particularly like spending time with – whether we met them online or elsewhere – bruised and eroded our self-esteem, too. With men or without them, we seemed to be defining ourselves in relation to men.
Who fancies you, how many hook-ups, shags, suggestive texts, Facebook come-ons or intrigues you can run up seem to be the single girl’s bread and butter (or rather, her high-carb fix). I began to see that, in reality, they’re our poison. Not because they are bad in themselves, but because they so easily become like drugs: without them, we feel crap, and when we have them we can only think of our next fix. Are we ever left feeling satisfied? Of course not.
Identity and the single woman: am I hot enough?
Hotness, like gold (only not nearly as solid), has become society’s most sought-after social and sexual currency.
In Female Chauvinist Pigs, a brilliant book, Ariel Levy states in no uncertain terms that the image-generated, ‘overheated thumping of sexuality’ in the West is far more about consumption than real human connection. Indeed, people spend a large amount of cash acquiring this glossy form of hotness.
As Maria, 31, puts it: ‘Everything comes down to: “Do you think I’m good looking or not?”’
Somewhere, nestled deep inside our brains, is the childhood idea that good things come to pretty girls. Namely: knights in shining armour; doting attention; popularity. So, lacking her knight as well as a range of good options, the single woman feels she has to prove to herself and others that she’s not single because she isn’t attractive. While being considered hot is a huge motivator for women of every romantic status, I think it’s an even more emotional concern for the single woman. We feel a bit like this: ‘Show me I am pretty enough so that I know I really am. Otherwise I’m afraid that people – myself included – will see my singleness as a function of subpar hotness. And that will crush me.’
The false promise of shagging like a man
We want to show we’re hot, and sex is one way we do it. But it has to be easy, breezy casual sex because we’re independent women and are led to believe that a good way to show independence is to shag a lot or outrageously.
Getting notches on the bedpost has become a widespread symbol of empowerment, but in my view a false one, because the quantity over quality equation doesn’t add up to happiness for most women. This conviction is based partly on my experience as a single person – numerous generous offerings of my body with little repayment of the friendly, caring or (God forbid) emotional variety. (Random Italian men with sub-zero IQs in hasty encounters in borrowed flats and drunken German cheaters in broom closets at parties may sound like rollicking fun but they lose their appeal very quickly.) It is also based on a whole host of research, some convincing, some not. After all, the last thing you need is male researchers saying that science shows women should be chaste while men should continue to enjoy rampaging the field because it’s in their DNA. And authors such as Natasha Walter in Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism and Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender are excellently enraged on the topic of biological determinism and will convince any thinking woman to take prescriptive biological arguments with a rigorous pinch of salt. But there are grains of useful, fair evidence about women and sexual profligacy that can help substantiate what I have learned from experience and observation, of which more later.
The idea of ‘throttling up on power … and having sex like a man’ seduced a whole generation of young women through the delicious portal of Sex and the City. We thirsted to see Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and, of course, Samantha, the show’s proudest sexual figurehead, hilariously and frankly discussing, then actually having ‘sex like a man’ (their stated goal in the first episode). There was a kind of competitiveness to it, and many of us watching this and numerous other episodes in which the girls indulge in purely utilitarian sex (the norm for Samantha) felt an urge to chant ‘yeah!’ and fist pump the air. After all, it looked an awful lot like feminism – indeed, the casual and experimental sexual ideal presented in SATC helped define the kind of feminism known as ‘third wave’. US magazine Bust co-founder Debbie Stoller has said that in their quest for sexual fulfillment , the ‘lusty feminists of the third wave’ are leaving no stone unturned. Toys, techniques: we’re trying them all.
However, I think a friend of mine called Kristen, 32, presents a picture that’s closer to reality than the powerful one of clacking Manolos and perfectly coiffed just-had-sex hair in SATC:
‘There’s this expectation that we’re supposed to be having casual sex, that it doesn’t touch us – but it does. We see casual sex as empowerment. But when I was having “casual” sex with my flatmate, I would lie there sobbing in my room while he had sex next door with someone else. It didn’t feel all that empowered.’
Several of the young women interviewed in Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs explain frighteningly well how they and their friends are using a gung-ho, blokeish approach to sex to show they’re not ‘girly’.
Boatloads of casual sex does not signify actual empowerment (though it’s not necessarily contrary to it). Empowerment isn’t feeling like shit when a guy has used you as a masturbatory aid, or pretending you don’t care. Empowerment isn’t insisting: ‘I can do what I want and if I want to get hurt and misused and undervalued and feel corroded and lower my self-esteem, I can!’ And it’s not about performing empowerment through sex. You are empowered if you pay close attention to what really builds your sense of wellbeing, and to knowing and understanding the difference between fun and crap treatment masquerading as fun.
Social discomfort and the single woman
As if the cake needed any more topping – single women today still feel an anxiety about their non-manned status that ranges from the manageable to the debilitating. Women are no longer defined by their childbearing and house-cleaning skills. But that doesn’t seem to diminish society’s obsession with female romantic and sexual status. In the US, successful professional women are known to take two years (TWO YEARS) off work to plan weddings.
‘There is this societal pressure whereby if you’re a single woman in your 30s, you’re seen as mad, desperate or somehow lacking. It’s like Stanford in Sex and the City says: “you’re nobody until someone loves you”. But I don’t want to reach 50 and be really successful and live in a nice flat and all anyone can see is I’m single. I don’t like being reduced to that – a failure because you haven’t got someone to shag you long term.’
Ronnie Blue, 30, journalist
Reality shows about weddings and man-finding are cultishly popular and spawning like rabbits: Bridezillas, The Bachelorette, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and dozens of others. In the UK, the hen party has become a kind of adulation akin to goddess worship and money is not meant to be an object to the full homage the bride-to-be deserves. ‘Marriage has become a cult,’ says Ronnie. ‘The hen-dos have become insane as if getting married is the biggest achievement a woman can have. If you’re single, it makes you feel like you’re a total failure. But if there wasn’t that pressure, that view, you wouldn’t become so anxious about finding someone, and that anxiety affects the way you are with men. It makes you less attractive.’
The waning glory of the single woman: from Cleopatra to Elizabeth I to Bridget Jones
It’s worth remembering our proud origins. The most terrible epithets were thrown at non-widowed single women – they were, at the bare minimum, assumed to be either shameless whores or hideous spinster frigid virgins. But many of our predecessors, from Joan of Arc to Florence Nightingale, saw their singleness as essential to the pursuit of the kind of work they wanted to achieve. Cleopatra spoke nine languages fluently as ruler of Egypt and could barely tolerate lover (not husband) Antony’s idiocy. Elizabeth I remained a virgin, ‘wedded to her people’. Catherine the Great of Russia had numerous lovers who she paid off generously when they no longer satisfied her – meanwhile changing the course of European history.
Such stateswomen were, of course, rare among rare exceptions to the rule of ‘to be a single woman is to be pitied and kept down’, and the obstacles facing them were enormous (men mainly, and the laws written by men). Now that we’re free to get on with doing whatever we want with or without a man, with as kinky or polygamous a sex life as we want, we should be racing ahead, full of the joys of freedom.
Yet instead of seeking to emulate Catherine the Great’s astonishing approach to lovers and imperial policy, it’s Helen Fielding’s hilarious but terrifying model of early-mid-life singleness, Bridget Jones, that exerts real influence. We adore that chaotic jumble of career ineptitude, vulnerability, embarrassment and frustration in part because it seems to say, ‘this is you, too’.
On the page, in that nice font, it’s all charming and fine and ends in a fairy tale marriage. Reality is different, though, and we can do better. The more I observed and considered, the more it became blazingly clear that Dr d’Felice was onto something – we’re filling our lives with too much junk-food love and instead of making us stronger, it just bloats us with dead emotional weight. So I decided to give the Man Diet a go.
The Man Diet explained: what’s it for?
The Man Diet explains and explores ten rules designed to wean you off junk-food love, namely:
• negative man-related experiences
• corrosive man-obsessing thoughts
• damaging man-related actions
It is designed to tweak your behaviour – mental and social – in such a way as to strengthen your core sense of self. In doing so, it should make your singledom healthy, creative and, yes, happy. Many books either add to the stigma of being unattached, by trying to show you how to snare a man, or aggressively trumpet the message that you can be happy even though you’re single. This one shows you how to treat yourself well – emotionally and intellectually – while you’re single.
Diets are hard. Is this one?
Not hugely, but it’s not a breeze either. Though definitely less painful than following a food diet (though not necessarily less challenging), the Man Diet does require significant effort. It does involve a cutting down of widely available, habitually consumed junk-food love. JFL is everywhere – it’s in our Facebook newsfeeds, our availability online, our multiple inboxes, our short attention spans. It’s in the belief that emotional attachment is bad and that it certainly doesn’t go with sex; that some guy is better than no guy; that the easiest and best way to pass the time is to think and talk about men. It’s in the guys themselves: men fed on a culture of porn and anything goes, in which chivalry is dead and – miraculously – sex grows on trees.
Remember, good love is around, too. That’s why this diet is ultimately positive. In cutting down on bad love, it opens up space for good love. Good love can involve good men, or good things with men you like, or it can mean you feeling good without a man. The Man Diet is a method of discerning the wheat from the chaff: emotionally, sexually and romantically. Whether you’re enjoying dating and having fun, you’re long-term single and feeling desperate for a shag, or serious about finding a life partner, cutting down the junk-food love is a major bonus.
Can I date when I’m reading this book?
Yes! But in the healthy, Man Diet/No Junk-Food Love way. You can snog men and even shag them on the ‘diet’ – but only if you’re doing it in the right way, from the right place and, to put it bluntly, with a nice man. It’s about cutting down on junk. In other words, the Man Diet is about setting emotional, not physical, boundaries.
Who is the diet for?
The diet is not just for people that are having their doors banged down by voracious men: man droughts are just as common for the attractive single lady as unhealthy man binges. No, it’s for anyone that thinks too much and unconstructively about men, or whose lives are being adversely affected by their presence – or absence.
Your goal is to feel whole, and enjoy your wholeness, entirely separately from men and the validation their attention gives us. The purpose of this book is to inspire you to embrace self-respect and to pursue your interests single-mindedly. As you. Not as a person who desperately wants to be chosen, and who thrives only on male attention and the validation it brings.
The key to satisfaction, as the Man Diet will show, is not sleeping with another fittie or having a little affair with the married guy at work, or trying to lure that beautiful man from the gym on a date. Rather, it is entering a robust and respectful relationship with yourself. Yes, I know, ‘love yourself’ is the oldest and least well-explained piece of advice in the book. But if you’re a single woman or a woman with a dodgy relationship with menkind, the Man Diet will show you how to do it. Or, for those with a slight issue with the word ‘love’ in relation to themselves (my hand’s up), it’ll put you on a track to happiness as you, your own woman. The rest – finding Mr Right and all that – should follow naturally, though being your own woman is the primary goal here, and a brilliant end in itself. The Man Diet is for anyone who wants to feel her best – particularly if she’s finding it hard as a single woman.
The ‘Mix and Match’ Diet Plan
If you’re a perfectionist and someone who likes drastic measures, you can do all of the rules at once, cold-turkey style, but you’re likely to get frustrated or feel bored – much as with a food diet.
I prefer a more flexible approach – one of the reasons I like the Man Diet is that it’s perfect for mixing and matching rules, as well as the intensity with which you do them. I recommend picking anywhere from three to seven to do simultaneously at any given time.
How do I follow the rules?
The first part of each chapter explains the social context of the rule and why women may need it. At the end of each chapter there is a ‘how to’ that ranges from the general to the very specific.
How do I know which ones to pick?
At the beginning of each chapter is a guide to who will benefit most from the rule, along with which other rules they complement/work well with. When I started, Do Not Pursue (rule seven) was the one that felt most urgent. You will have a gut feeling about your biggest problem area, too. Some of the rules have to be done in their entirety right away – and Do Not Pursue is one of them. Others can be done to greater or lesser degrees, like No Talking About Men.
Once I began relaxing my constant lookout for potentials, sending follow-up texts and so on, I followed my nose about the next rules to follow. I was doing well not pursuing men most of the time, but at night, after a few glasses, I’d feel my fingers twitch towards the phone. Equally, when I got home I’d head straight for Facebook. So next up: curb your drinking (rule two – and something I’d long wanted to do anyway) and No Facebook Stalking (rule three).
The rest followed soon after, but you can’t expect to do them all hard-core at once. Start with your most pressing rule and roll them out. Do Not Pursue and No Facebook Stalking go together, for example, and Do Something Lofty with No Talking About Men.
How long will it take to work?
You can go on the Man Diet for two weeks, a month or a year (or forever). Its benefits kick in anywhere from within a day to a month of starting – long enough for lifestyle tweaks to really have an impact. And once you’ve felt its benefits, going back to the old attitudes and ways will probably be a bit less appealing.
Doing something asexual/lofty (from reading a good book to doing a good deed) makes me feel like a stronger, more complete woman immediately. That’s because it’s an active rule. By contrast, something like cutting down on talking about men (rule four) can take a little longer because there’s more of a weaning period involved, for both you and your friends. But after a week or two – depending on how much you get to practise – you should notice a genuine rewiring of your brain and emotions for the better. For best results, employ as many rules as possible at once (though not all – as I said, you don’t want to get frustrated) and keep them going for a month to start with. The benefits will go deeper than that surface pleasure at having, say, picked up a difficult book or fought an impulse to stalk a guy on Facebook.
Followed with some degree of discipline and passion (but also patience with yourself), you should manage to enhance your self-esteem in the long term, as well as sharpen up your act – as a woman and a person – overall. Other benefits of the Man Diet include flourishing at work, finding new outlets for creativity, and exploring new territory with friends.
Do I have to do it forever?
Not in the strict sense. You can do it for a week, or month or two months and feel the benefits. When you return to your pre-Man Diet ways, you’ll be more aware of what you’re doing, and how it affects you.
Ideally, the Man Diet will give you a useful outlook, of which a part may become second nature after a while. You may choose to stick to certain rules as a matter of course – having tasted the freedom afforded by No Facebook Stalking, you may never open Facebook again. Other rules you may let slide. But the thoughts, feelings and ideas you’ll have while doing the Man Diet for however long will stand you in good stead.
Will it drive me crazy?
No. Quite the opposite – it’ll make you happier. Plus, the rules are a fun, not a gruelling challenge. I promise.
I’ve been single for ages! The last thing I need is a Man Diet!
Ask yourself the following questions and be really honest with yourself: Does the absence of men in your life get you down? Have you been rejected – perhaps more than once – in ways that make you sad or that lower your self-esteem? Are you spending a lot of energy plotting new ways to meet a decent guy to go out with? Does it annoy you that your friends constantly feel the need to discuss your romantic prospects with you? If you answered yes to any of these then you can benefit from the Man Diet. Because it is about emotional, not physical boundaries.
What are the first signs I’m benefiting from the diet?
Well, within a few weeks of Man Dieting, I lost a whole load of empty emotional weight. It was like an end to water retention and wheat-related bloating. I felt better psychologically and focused better on real things like work and books and good conversations, as opposed to the ever-changing shape of romantic possibility. The same will happen to you.
The other thing that you will notice with wonderment is that with the men you do meet you will have better conversations because they won’t be so loaded with expectation. Whether they get in touch or not will cause you little wasted mental energy. For me, simply not conniving to get in touch (rule one) freed up a good bit. The saying tends to be: ‘No pain, no gain.’ Well, I found that on the Man Diet, it was more ‘Less pain, more gain’.
Which would have been immoral, really, to have kept to myself.
What if I fall off the wagon?
You’re human. Get back on – and read the SOS sections at the end of each chapter. Honestly, this diet is not about deprivation and self-punishment – it’s about happiness and self-worth. I invite you to follow the diet as closely as possible, but when life takes you in a different direction, ask yourself why. Don’t beat yourself up about it! Sucky diets never work, anyway. Just ask the folks at Weight Watchers.
You need this rule if you …
• Have lots of No Strings Attached (NSA) sex but it doesn’t make you particularly happy.
• Feel crap when a guy completely loses interest after sex.
• Always say yes because you:
• don’t want to let them down
• think they might like you more if you do
• think it’s your ‘job’, as a single woman, to do it
• figure ‘better something than nothing’
• Are afraid of appearing demanding if you get attached.
• Want to show you’re a tough cookie and a modern woman and you are sure this is the way.
• Have a number in your head you’d like to get to.
• Want a relationship but have got into the habit of ‘shag first, think later’.
Goes well with …
• Dwell on Your Sense of Self
• Do Something Lofty
• Do Not Pursue
Lucy, 33, was out on the town with her friend Karen, 29. They met two guys, and it wasn’t clear at first who fancied who. Soon it became clear that both the guys fancied Karen. But Karen wasn’t up for it with either of them – one was downright unattractive, let’s call him Bill, and the hotter one, let’s call him Bob, didn’t do it for her either. When Lucy, who had been single for two years and felt insecure about her attractiveness, asked Karen if she’d mind if she took Bob home with her, Karen gave her the thumbs up. ‘But don’t expect anything,’ she called after Lucy as she got into Bob’s BMW. Karen worried about Lucy when she did this kind of thing, since she always wound up hurt or with a sense of self-loathing.
What happened next …
Lo and behold, the next day Lucy rang Karen to talk about Bob, who had not made much effort to show he liked Lucy either in the bar or after sex. Lucy knew he wasn’t a candidate – he was good looking but a typical sports-car-owning chump and none too bright. She knew she wasn’t supposed to have had any expectations, or to have developed any. And, like a ‘good’ girl, she’d made it clear to him the night before that it was a one-off. All the same, like a ‘bad’ girl, she’d developed expectations since they’d shagged. And now she felt rejected, angry with herself for doing this again, used and a tiny bit abused. What for? Because she was horny and it would be fun, she’d thought, but since he hadn’t been that into her, the sex hadn’t been warm or nice or horn-satisfying; it had been alienating and detached instead. She’d felt compelled to do it even though she knew it would be like that, she confessed to Karen.
What does ‘no strings’ sex really mean?
Technically, it means both parties walk away from the sack unfettered by commitment and, supposedly, any desire to commit. It means that you can sleep with lots of people at once. It means you don’t have to be burdened. In reality, it means that guys don’t have to do anything boring like call the girl or seem interested in dating her (or date her) after sex. As a woman, it means that you’d better not show attachment, need or expectation after sex – if you do, you’ve broken the rules and you have to go to your room for punishment. Bad girl. Above all, it’s a term that goes hand in hand with ‘fuck-buddy’ and ‘friends with benefits’, and that often doesn’t bear much relationship to reality – at least, reality as it is for women. Who are, of course, half the heterosexual sexual equation.
Why it’s a hoax
The drive to undersell our needs in love and in bed is amazingly strong. Recently a friendship of mine with a suddenly single man turned flirty. I suggested, as did he, that some sex could be fun, but refused to guarantee I would do it without feelings. ‘If we do it, it’ll have to be on my terms,’ he said. ‘What are they?’ I asked hopefully – rather relishing the prospect of something as-yet unnamed with him. ‘No strings,’ he replied curtly, accessing with instinctive ease that cold, sibilant rule that enables men (and women) to forbid the natural by-product of sex and one of its great joys – actual intimacy – to come anywhere near the act. Great for men, perhaps, to whom ridiculous amounts of research has attributed a desire for quantity over quality in sex, as well as a lower amount of oxytocin, the post-sex attachment hormone. But not great for me; or for most women. Post-Man Diet, I refused to recant this rule, and we didn’t end up doing anything. But there have been many times when my mind has returned to his offer. Even though I know I’d have hated it when, after we’d slept together, he’d inevitably have boasted about other conquests in front of me, and that I’d have to present this chipper, tough facade so that he didn’t think, God forbid, I’d felt a string of attachment.
The audacious Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), rages wonderfully against the injustice of a slightly different type of sexual servitude in 1792. Lambasting her infuriating contemporary, she writes:
‘Rousseau declares that a woman should […] be governed by fear to exercise her natural cunning, and made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire, a sweeter companion to man, whenever he chooses to relax himself.’
She’s right: being ready to indulge male predilections for NSA sex, for fear of not being wanted at all, makes willing slaves of us. The Man Diet should ignite a resistance to being available for whenever a man ‘chooses to relax himself’ (for all intents and purposes).
Put those feelings away: why NSA is worse for women
The ‘no strings’ proclamation before sex is far more evil than it might sound. It slams the door not just on the here and now – as in, this sex will be about bodies only, so don’t you even think about enjoying it too much in your head or heart – but on the whole question of possibility and potential. It says: ‘You will only ever be about sex, because I don’t fancy you enough to think about anything else, and I will never fancy you enough to think about anything else.’ This is an immensely bitter pill to swallow for women (and perhaps some men), and yet so many of us – myself included – have swallowed it numerous times.
That a lot of no-strings sex is bad for women is widely acknowledged by the psychological community. Dr Cecilia d’Felice, clinical psychologist, says: ‘In studies we have found what you might expect: that if you offer men opportunistic sex, most of the time they’ll take it. If you offer women opportunistic sex, most of the time they won’t. There’s a huge difference in the programming of risk-taking between men and women. Women are biologically more risk averse for obvious reasons.’
Relationships therapist Val Sampson says women are hardwired to be quite choosy about who we have sex with. ‘So even if women say they’re fine with no-strings sex, it’s not necessarily the case. If you become just a vessel a lot of men have sex in, you’re going against the grain. Whereas men can compartmentalise sex more easily, women feel a sense of being let down. All that potential they could use in a sexual act isn’t being used – it’s actually being rejected and this triggers a feeling of “What am I worth?” She may end up feeling like a hooker but get no money at the end of it.’
No-strings sex and its spirit of female denial and stagnation is lambasted deliciously by Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch in 1970. In her forward to the Paladin 21st Anniversary Edition, she lists all the sexual freedoms women can now enjoy since the book was first published. ‘What else could women want?’ she asks dangerously. ‘Freedom, that’s what … Freedom from self-consciousness. Freedom from the duty of sexual stimulation of jaded male appetite, for which no breast ever bulges hard enough and no leg is ever long enough … The argument in The Female Eunuch is still valid, for it holds that a woman has the right to express her own sexuality, which is not at all the same thing as the right to capitulate to male advances.’
Just say no … but why is it so hard?
For one, agreeing to no-strings sex is easy. All the terminology is laid out and ready to go: ‘fuck-buddy’, ‘friends with benefits’ and so on. And, as I said in the introduction, it masquerades as empowerment for women, whereby shagging like a man is what we do now because we can and, as ‘feminists’, we should.
But on a personal level, a deep fear of seeming needy has taken hold of women – the stereotype of the woman who encumbers her man and everyone around her with a bottomless pit of wanting and needing and insecurity has reached epic proportions, and floats tyrannously through our minds as we conduct ourselves sexually and romantically. Dr Janet Reibstein, Visiting Professor in Psychology at the University of Exeter and the author of a book reporting on what makes couples happy, observes: ‘It’s seen as somewhat shameful to say “I want to settle down.” The shame comes from admitting prioritising relationship over independence. If a woman says, “I don’t want to have sex with you because I want a relationship,” a man may respond with alarm: “uh-oh, she’s trying to capture me!”.’ Reibstein also thinks there’s a political accent to the NSA idea: ‘Settling down is not part of the feminist heritage. It was a mistake of the feminists of the 1970s, of which I was one, not to stress how important relationships are.’
After the escapade with Bob, I asked Lucy what motivates her to offer herself no-strings, when inevitably she’ll want strings. ‘Feelings are NOT ALLOWED,’ she told me over sushi. ‘Even though we wish they were. But since they’re not allowed, we don’t go with them. But we have them. And so we’re confused. And fragmented.’
Of Bob, she explained: ‘That was casual sex but it was fine because I didn’t have any expectations. The worst is when you take a guy home and have expectations. With this guy I didn’t cry. So that was a win. So I say empowered, but what I mean is that it just wasn’t a disaster.’
The rise of the NSA creed has its roots in a culture that has turned sex into an anecdotal accessory, a must-have store of experience, and a branded display of power, as determined by the status of the person you’ve shagged or the quantity of ‘shagees’. Sex is the social currency (it’s what people talk about most), sexualisation is the social and entertainment aesthetic (advertising, magazines, posters, cereal boxes, newspapers are a jamboree of limbs and post-baby, pre-summer, post-break-up bikini bodies), porn is the private backdrop (‘A Billion Wicked Thoughts’, as per the name of the recent massive study of internet porn by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam), and choice of prospective sexual partners is almost infinite, thanks to the internet. As usual, women’s bodies, preferably naked or near enough, are at the centre of this highly visual culture of hypersexuality.
Women and the rise of the one-night stand
Modern female one-night-standers are riding the wave started by the feminists of the 1970s, who wanted us to have sexual freedom and a chance to explore our sexual natures beyond the strictures and servitude of mid-century wifehood. But those feminists split into warring factions: crudely divided into the ‘sex-positive’ (those in favour of porn as a slice of the sexual freedom cake) and the ‘sex-negative’ (those who saw porn as degrading to women). For various reasons, such as having the extremely rich Hugh Hefner on side, the sex-positive, pro-porn group won out, and their influence evolved into what many girls and women today call feminism – i.e., stripping, shagging, ‘choosing’ to use their own bodies for public or pornographic enjoyment. This is a deeply simplistic account, but I think it’s essential to note that the NSA norm originated – however perversely or ironically – from the brains and hearts of some of the 20th century’s noblest feminists.
Unsurprisingly, one-night stands have risen sharply. According to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, in 1990, 53 per cent of men and 79 per cent of women considered one-night stands to be wrong. Ten years later only a third of men and half of women held that view.
Teenagers – tomorrow’s adults – are leading the charge. Teen specialist Raychelle Lohmann notes in Psychology Today that high school relationships are being replaced by a hook-up culture, where no-strings pulling rules. They are to become the women for whom Natasha Walter says, ‘having many sexual partners without much emotional commitment is often seen as the most authentic way to behave’.
It’s not that this kind of sex has been digested wholly by society – Hollywood, for one, is not comfortable with it. That doesn’t mean it’s not obsessed with it. Consider three recent films whose protagonists begin with a seeming paradise of strings-free sex but end up choosing monogamy: No Strings Attached has Natalie Portman’s character coming round from a booty call mentality to a relationship; Hall Pass has Owen Wilson’s totty-ogling husband given free rein by his wife to go off with other women for a week, and Friends with Benefits stars Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake using each other for sex.
All these films want to show us that no-strings sex is not a good idea – unless it’s leading to love. It’s a nice sentiment, but by showing repeatedly that shagging for shagging’s sake is one way into a happy, romantic ending (after all, who wouldn’t want to steal the heart of Ashton Kutcher?), Hollywood is, as it’s always done, giving us a fairy tale that has very, very little to do with reality. (Unless, of course, you look like Mila Kunis or Natalie Portman.)
NSA sex: the reality
Inevitably, raunch culture has taken a toll on the way women see themselves in relation to sex. We are voracious seekers of answers to the question ‘Am I hot?’, and tend to seek validation externally rather than internally. I know that when I go out hunting down a man, or hoping to be hunted, I’m looking for the thrill of a compliment – not of my brains, but of my beauty, or more specifically, my sexual allure, as much as for intimacy.
So for many women (although certainly not all), that quaint old duo of sex and love has been decoupled, leaving us performing sex for sex’s sake in a mechanical vacuum with our inner sexual impressions, feelings and needs somewhere tucked under the carpet, away from the public and the male eye. Putting the two back on the same track, if not the same train, feels much better when your self-esteem has been worn down by a single spell. It also helps with raising the quality (i.e., human element), rather than the quantity of sexual contact.
The sense of numbness and dissatisfaction that women experience in casual encounters is palpable and ruinous. Lillian, 28, told me she actually weeps during casual sex, such is her feeling of disconnect.
‘The amount of times I’ve had sex and cried and the person hasn’t noticed … I’m so detached it’s bananas. I’ll cry, waiting for him to notice. The callousness and detachment you feel is astounding. Sometimes I feel that I have no other option to express myself.’
What NSA sex does is just that: clamps down on your options to express yourself. Things got so bad that Lillian had started on a sort of Man Diet of her own. When I had a coffee with her a few weeks after the crying confession, she said she was now asking herself, ‘Why should I sleep with someone?’ rather than ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ I shared the Man Diet’s ‘say no to NSA sex’ rule, suggesting that she should not be embarrassed to send NSA wannabes packing. And that if she chose only to have sex with men that were offering her what she clearly needed emotionally (i.e., some degree of familiarity and affection), she’d feel infinitely better overall. Nor would she be missing out on anything apart from the odd bout of cystitis. Whereas previously she’d been having sad sex to prove something – that she is desirable – she found that not having sex (for the moment) was the thing that actually made her feel desirable. After giving the Man Diet a go (she did ‘Refuse to Have NSA Sex alongside ‘Do Something Lofty’ and ‘Dwell on Your Sense of Self’), I’m proud to report that her days of sobbing mid-sex are over. She still hooks up with men she’s not attached to and vice-versa, but having recognised that for her there is something uniquely alienating in intercourse, she stops at your trusty old foreplay. She now seems so much more relaxed and happy. Go Man Diet!
Just as Lillian did, many women feel numb or detached during non-intimate sex. But luckily, her story shows that you can work on it and improve your emotional experience of sexual contact pretty quickly.
Like Lillian, Lisa, 31, is in dire need of the Man Diet. I include her story because it so perfectly – and woefully – captures that detachment the modern sexual woman needs to combat. Lisa told me that she has sex with her eyes closed because not being face to face with an actual person helps her remain thoroughly detached and tough throughout. The one time she did open her eyes – with a boyfriend – she saw him looking everywhere but at her, and promptly closed them again.
Lisa’s a lovely girl, very warm, clearly sensitive, and open. And yet, she says defiantly, as though having subconsciously taken on the male preference for ‘wham bam’ sex: ‘I’m not a big cuddler – especially if I don’t like the guy.’ Also she says she ‘loves’ rough sex. ‘Doggy style is my favourite position,’ she says, obedient again to male preferences. Why does she close her eyes, why doesn’t she like to cuddle? ‘Because it’s all about me. It’s my moment.’ If that was the case, you’d think she’d at least be getting some serious ‘me-time’ pleasure out of it, but Lisa has never orgasmed with a man. ‘The truth is, we’re playing the men’s game,’ she says. ‘They’ve got all the rules set up to suit them. We can fight it or match it – so I match it. I’m a postmodern feminist – I don’t think we need to be like men, we’re good as we are etc etc, but … with sex it’s different.’ And clearly, as women like Lisa and Lillian make abundantly clear, the man’s game of strings-free sex isn’t exactly a non-stop jig of healthy fun.
What they show, too, is how far women have internalised masculine sexual stereotypes, making them their own with a flick of the pseudo-feminist whip (and then, in the case of the more emotionally tuned-in, feeling lousy about it). As Germaine Greer puts it so well in The Female Eunuch: ‘Love-making has become another male skill, of which women are the judges.’
Natasha Walter’s excellent survey of contemporary female sexual culture, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, takes a searing look at women’s sexual mores and their context. One group of well-off, late-teen female students she interviewed spoke in hostile, competitive, mercenary and utterly soulless ways about sex:
‘I’m much more attracted to the guys who don’t give a shit,’
‘We were saying that one week we should go out and try to notch up as many lovers as we can, with the most variety possible – age, gender, jobs, backgrounds …’
They go on to cite their feeling of solidarity with Miranda in Sex and the City when she has to call her long list of past lovers after contracting an STD; they also admire Belle de Jour, the call girl, and other sex diarists as glamorous examples of non-committal, pornographically adventurous sex. Walter concludes: ‘Because they had so successfully subtracted emotion from their sex lives, these young women were perfectly in tune with the culture around them.’
These girls are probably a good deal younger than you and me – after all, they’re not even 20 yet. Perhaps their aggressive ‘I’m a shagger’ standpoint stems from the fact they’re not yet worried about settling down. But equally, I think it’s even more poignant that while they could be starry eyed and dreaming of ‘the one’, they’re setting themselves up as sexually liberated toughs for whom ‘no strings’ sex is the only sex. They’re the women of tomorrow.
The wrong kind of fun
The sex-mad, attachment-loathing students in Walter’s book seem more directly influenced by sexual imagery and sexual pressure than most of the professional women between 23 and 35 that I know (including myself). All the same, I have felt very driven by a particular notion of ‘fun’ attributed to and expected of the single woman. In fact, the word fun crops up a hell of a lot in relation to the no-strings sex single women are meant to be having lots and lots of. I remember in the early days of my current single spell somewhat shakily telling my friend Carol about an alcohol-drenched encounter with someone wholly inappropriate, and her replying: ‘Ah well, it’s just fun.’ Says Wendy, 31: ‘All my friends are pairing up so I do want to meet someone special. In the meantime … why not have fun?’ Or, as Ruth says: ‘People will constantly ask: “Why are you single?” You’re supposed to say: “I enjoy being single. I enjoy having unencumbered sex with strangers.”’
But all that pressure to have fun stops being fun and becomes more like an exhausting task. ‘[Sexual encounters with men] feel very achievement based,’ says my friend Molly, 27. Almost every woman I interviewed for this book used the words ‘tiring’ or ‘exhausting’ in relation to fun – whether it was in dating to the max, going out non-stop, or making the effort to appear fancy-free. ‘It’s exhausting being empowered,’ as my friend Michelle, 27, put it.
Bringing home the bacon
That mercenary, bedpost notch approach to men isn’t healthy and it doesn’t make most women particularly happy. But neither do a lot of things that seem (or are) fun at the time. Which is why, despite its seemingly obvious badness, I can relate perfectly well to the urge to ‘get the numbers up’. There’s something that seems empowering about it, like you’ve gone out hunting and have brought in several good pheasants that you can cook and share with your friends (what else is the post-shag narrative breakdown with your mates if not a triumphal communal meal, hosted by you?). There’s also the vague sense that you’re delivering one in the eye to those guys that think women always get all attached, needy and psychotic after sex. Needless to say, that’s a terrible reason to do something, not least because the only eye that’s getting something in it is yours, when you’ve slept with someone rubbish and he doesn’t even call. Delving deeper, I think some of us think that the more men you sleep with, the more attractive you must be. Enjoying the intense but often false intimacy that a sexual encounter provides is also a reason for accepting loads of NSA sex.
Note the bragging, bravado twang to the way I used to refer to hook-ups, before the Man Diet put me off that notchy approach: ‘bringing home the bacon’. It was tongue-in-cheek, but telling. With or without pork metaphors, friends often congratulate each other on numbers of men shagged or bagged. The presence of an alien pair of male shoes outside a flatmate’s bedroom door elicits back slapping the next day. A good friend of mine used to check in with me: ‘What’s your number [of sexual partners to date]?’ Still another would say: ‘I want to get to 35 before Christmas.’
I’m not just moaning here, or being holier than thou. This attitude towards sex was making me feel fragmented, anxious and doubtful about my worth. I’ve seen it have the same effect on other women. And because something as simple as swearing off no-strings sex made me feel about a thousand times better – even though I’ve slipped once or twice – I’m hoping it’ll do the same for you, via the Man Diet.
Sex and the single girl
The neon pink link between fun and the single woman was drawn with powerful clarity by Helen Gurley Brown, former editor of Cosmo, in her 1962 classic: Sex and the Single Girl. No social theory here – oh no. Just jaunty tips and the dos and don’ts of having affairs with married men; decorating your apartment in a man-friendly way; and workplaces where you’re more likely to meet men. Reprinted in 2003, Gurley Brown jauntily speaks of not needing a husband in your prime years (read: prettiest). Indeed, she says that men are more fun taken in large quantities than on their own.
To be fair, it’s a hilarious book, and very frank. It’s just not particularly helpful to imagine us all as this ‘glamour girl’ troupe of burnished affair-havers with cute apartments in Greenwich Village.
Today’s single woman and Sex and the City
Have single ladies changed much since the 1960s? Of course – back then, Germaine Greer and the other feminists of the 1970s hadn’t made their mark yet. Crucially, we are also more economically successful. And with more cash comes more consumption, and with more consumption, more devouring. Not just of shoes and houses, but of sex, too.
Thirty-plus years after Gurley Brown showed us how a single girl can live – in a little apartment in the Village, having the odd affair, going out to dances with her girlfriends and working as a secretary at a man-tastic barge company – Sex and the City came along. It far more powerfully stamped an idea on our brains and an image on our retinas of how the single life should look – it should revolve around sex and men, a powerful, glamorous professional life, and lots of fun like shopping and drinking. New York writer Ariel Levy, a lover of the show just like I am, calls it a consumerist vision of ‘vertiginous gobbling’ that shows sex as something to be eaten up just like Manolos, cocktails and handbags. So seductive is its twinkling montage of intelligent girl chat, cosmopolitans, sanitised sex, wonderful clothes, great bodies, clinking glasses, hot restaurants and – most importantly – happy endings, that it was hard not to desperately want all that.
‘I’ll have an order of sex with that cocktail, please.’
‘Gobbling’ is indeed a good word for the SATC vision of sex. Meg Daly, a so-called ‘third wave’ feminist and author, has talked about Samantha-style sex in terms of the ‘swaggering pleasure’ that comes from counting the bed-post notches, and the joy of boasting about sexual techniques. Daly seems just as drawn to sex for the bragging rights as the pleasure of the act itself.
Recall the back slaps, bedpost notching and ‘bringing home the bacon’ attitude among my friends – are we merely gobbling men and sex, too? Sometimes it feels like it. Which is why, before I started the Man Diet, I felt like I was carrying around so much extra empty emotional weight. Gobbling will do that to a girl.
Mr Big: the ultimate NSA male
It’s also worth mentioning how the concept of closure is vilified in SATC – turning all sex, ultimately, into the strings-free variety. Yes, the Mr Right idea is the forceful, steady line drawn through the entire series – dangled, played with, and ultimately accepted. But as Joanna Di Mattia put it in her essay, ‘What’s the Harm in Believing?’: ‘It is a deconstruction of the Mr Right myth that enables romance to continue without closure.’ Ultimately, Carrie can’t deal with the closure Aidan offers – before she breaks away entirely, she tries to rebel, albeit feebly, by wearing the engagement ring around her neck. And, of course, she breaks into hives when trying on a white, frilly wedding dress. Mr Big, on the other hand, is constantly and obviously Mr Right waiting to happen. His defining characteristic, of course, is that he never offers real commitment. He’s so evasive, so no-strings that he doesn’t even have a name. Of course, Carrie’s resistance to romantic closure serves an important structural purpose: it makes way for years of single gal fun that we get to ogle. The impression is that closure and commitment get in the way of having fun and being wild.
And his female equivalent: the impossible Samantha
Carrie was never my favourite. Samantha was (and is). For years I cited her as the torch-holding feminist on TV. She was the only woman on TV who didn’t fall for slushy romance, ever reveal a true needy nature, nor desire the typical fairy tale marriage story. All this while exhibiting gobsmacking sexual appetite, without ever feeling low, used or at sea. In more recent times, I still adore Samantha, but I don’t try to emulate her now, because I realise she’s too good to be true. Or rather, she’s just not true and trying to be her was really not good for me.
‘Some have explained Samantha as basically a gay man in women’s Versace.’
Almost unsurprisingly, there is an academic course offered as a tie-in to the show, called ‘Sex and the City and the Contemporary Woman’. In the Samantha section of the syllabus, billed as ‘the sexual woman’, the first question posed is: ‘Is Samantha a liberated woman or a slut?’ What a wrong-headed binary to strap her into. The implication of this question is that, indeed, sexual profligacy alone will make you either a slut (I had hoped this old woman-hating notion was dying out) or ‘liberated’ (the point is that nowadays, liberation shouldn’t really have to do with how many penises enter your vagina – but, as per Walter and Levy, it has become an essential part of the definition). It gives a hell of a lot of credence – moral, social and political judgements are squeezed in between ‘slut’ and ‘liberated’ – to the act of sex. And to pop good old Sam in either category with any degree of earnestness is silly, once again betraying confusion about how to interpret the reality peddled by the show. Some have explained Samantha as the product of gay scriptwriters and producers on Sex and the City – that she is basically a gay man in woman’s Versace. Whatever – there are women writers too on the show, and she’s a fabulous character. It’s just that to see hers as an achievable type of lifestyle, parcelled in a box of imperturbable self-sufficiency, is to be deluded.
SATC: influential, or what?
Many of the women I spoke to said Sex and the City hadn’t influenced their actual way of behaving – and if they did identify with a character, few admitted it was Samantha (although one said ruefully she wanted to see herself as Carrie, but in reality she was probably more Samantha). But without doubt, SATC infiltrated female culture and its ideas of sex, fashion and urban lifestyle since it hit the air in 1998. One strong bit of research that explains why a mere TV show like SATC could actually impact the decisions women make – whether they admit it or not – was done by Albert Bandura, in 1977. He proposed Social Learning Theory, the idea that if you watch someone else do something, you can learn what rewards/consequences are attached to that behaviour (and thus if you should do it, how to do it). This research was innovative because Bandura found that watching a real person or a person on TV (as a character) doing something could be equally effective in observational learning. The different components of this ‘watch-and-learn’ model are Attention, Retention, Reproduction, Motivation. Your motivation reaches you through the rewards presented when you watched someone else do whatever behaviour.
According to Janet Kwok, who studies human development and education at Harvard, ‘Watching the ladies on Sex and the City find their happy endings despite participating in problematic behaviours was a large-scale social learning theory crisis, if we want to be dramatic. Their behaviour was easy to remember (Retention) and there were attractive rewards depicted (Motivation) without the potential consequences that might have been more representative of the viewers’ experiences.’
I’d add to Bandura’s theory and say that the fun of watching Sex and the City can be confused with the fun of actually doing what they do – i.e., have lots of no-strings, fun (if problematic, but ultimately brunch-analysed) sex. The problem is, while the SATC ladies proved to some extent that sex could result in the outcome most women desire (husband, kids, riches, happiness, success), we cannot always be assured of the same outcome. And our path to getting there will be all the rockier until we realise it’s not possible to be Samantha, either in numbers or approach. Or, for that matter, while we deny ourselves the right to bear strings.
The sex diarist: seductive mistresses of the strings-free shagathon
There’s another thing confusing our notion of ‘fun’ that is closer to home, perhaps, than the bars and bedrooms of Upper Manhattan. And that is the sex diarist, who romps the streets and clubs of London, and inhabits the pages of UK newspapers and the shelves of UK bookstores. I knew this culture of do-and-share a bit from the inside, since for one and a half years I was the Girl About Town dating columnist for thelondonpaper, a now-defunct but wildly popular evening freesheet. I was a novice, and at first I shared too much. People loved it when I did; all the same, I pulled back, feeling deeply awkward at the idea that everyone, from the Islamic extremist who threatened to kill me to my 12-year-old cousin, was reading about my exploits.
When I wasn’t enthralling the world with my numerous dates and hook-ups (of which a good few were, ahem, embellished), it was my job to depict a sort of glamorous lifestyle, a bit like Carrie. I was encouraged to namedrop cool bars and locations around town that made it sound like I had a big night out every night, never got tired, and was always getting into exciting scrapes. I created a world in which sexual adventure, romantic mishap and great nightlife flowed seamlessly together. I assume it was seductive – I stuck to it for a year and a half, after all, and people still fondly remember the column today.
But I was only a dating columnist. I was completely vanilla – even alongside the others on the same paper. My rivals were a different story. They were properly telling all – Catherine Townsend of the Independent was spilling the beans about the length and strength of her orgasms; Belle de Jour (real name: Brooke Magnanti, scientist) was setting the world alight with her stories of sex as a call girl.
Zoe Margolis’s book Girl with a One Track Mind, published under the pseudonym Abby Lee, set out to address the problem of prudishness. ‘My own friends appear quite happy to sit in a pub, swapping Sex and the City anecdotes and joking about rabbit vibrators. But, the thing is, if I want to get into more detail and mention something like, say, wanting to try out a cock ring on a guy, whole fingering his arse, they all suddenly become rather quiet … And I’d be left sitting there staring at the bartender’s trouser bulge …’ And in case you were unclear about the kind of sex she likes to have, and its exact definition, she’s included a handy list: The Girl’s Guide to Fuck-Buddies: Definitions. ‘A fuck-buddy is someone with whom you are sexually involved, but with no romantic or emotional strings attached. They are NOT a friend that you fuck … the fuck-buddy relationship is purely sexual.’ Or, lest you foolishly still thought that you might be allowed to squeeze a bit of humanity into the transaction: ‘With a fuck-buddy, there is no real intimacy beyond nudity and mutual hotness … It’s not like meeting up with a mate to watch a movie and talking about the plot afterwards over dinner. By definition a fuck-buddy relationship happens on a physical level only.’
A far cry from the words of early 20th-century anarchist Emma Goldman in Living My Life, who was put in prison for her defence of women’s rights to contraception: ‘I have propagated freedom in sex. I have had many men myself. But I have loved them; I have never been able to go indiscriminately with men.’
Ricky Emanuel, the psychotherapist, is despairing at the One Track Mind culture. He told me in the canteen of the Royal Free Hospital: “This is the commodification of sex and it’s extremely damaging to girls. I have some patients having sex with five people at the same time, described as “friends that I do stuff with”. This is infantile sexuality; it’s about excitement, fizziness, completely devoid of emotional depth or benefit. Young women feel they have to do it – but the lack of meaning makes them depressed. I have to ask: what’s happened to courting? Getting to know someone? It’s not by chance that biblically they used “know” as a meaning for deep and emotional sexual contact. These days much casual sex has nothing to do with knowing.’
Catherine Townsend’s well-written book, Sleeping Around: Secrets of a Sexual Adventuress, is about: ‘Threesomes, sorbet sex, drunk dialling, multiple orgasms, girly gossip-swaps, buying silk underwear – welcome to dating the modern girl’s way.’ Wait, so if I have sex with (or is it while eating?) sorbet and buy silk underwear and cosmos, I’ll have multiple orgasms? This is similar to the picture presented in Sex and the City, the seductive mixture of lifestyle and sex – but even in SATC you’re not guaranteed a multiple orgasm. That’s because even having one orgasm during sex isn’t easy for a lot of women – it’s thought that 20 to 30 per cent of women can do it through vaginal penetration; the rest require a degree of confidence to ask for other stimulation in a particular fashion, which takes time and a bit of trust.
The sex itself
Have you noticed that the sex you have when you don’t know or like the person you’re sleeping with is sort of actually not that great, when you think about it? What happens is that you do it, you get excited by this fact, tell all your friends, then forget the actual moments of alienation in the sex itself.
We saw earlier how Lisa and Lucy talked about their casual sex experiences – one cries during sex, hoping to be noticed, the other keeps her eyes closed. A friend of mine, Melissa, was devastated by a one-night stand she had with a much older man she met in a bar; weeks later, the lack of intimacy and the repulsion she realised she’d felt for him when she sobered up still made her depressed. She mainly remembered just praying he’d hurry up and come – an experience common to many a casual sex encounter, when you’re just guessing what’s going to work. I am not writing off all casual sex for women in a Protestant fury, but this rule stems from the observation that while we think it’s great and fun at the time, it’s often damaging later.
‘You have to act ridiculously into it’
Junk-food sex ranges from the dangerous – unprotected – to the callous and insultingly selfish, to the pseudo-intimate, whereby it’s good and you wish strings were allowed. More and more, though, you’re expected to do whatever it takes to be sexy. Ruth, 31, says:
‘I told a guy I wasn’t going to sleep with him, and he said, “At least, let me put it in your ass.”’
Indeed, a desirable male acquaintance told me that women compete to sleep with him, offering him anal sex immediately ‘to distinguish themselves from the other girls.’ Holly, 32, a successful fashion journalist says:
‘There’s massive pressure to be good in bed – having to act ridiculously into it and up for everything; giving the “knowing” blow job etc – it’s not enough to just do your basic missionary. Which is ironic, because mostly boys are shit in bed.’
Another lethal junk-food sex trend is men saying they can’t possibly perform while wearing a condom, thus making the woman feel guilty if she insists on safe sex. Ruth says: ‘I can’t believe that would influence me – but it does. All you’re supposed to be is sexy and make them come, that is the most important thing. I never think about my own pleasure – the only time I will ever orgasm is in a serious relationship.’ Statistics about women and anal sex are telling – anal sex, for most women, is not a pleasant experience (anal beads can apparently help) and is not usually one that women will proffer. It’s more something they do because men want it. In a 1992 study that surveyed sexual behaviours, published by the University of Chicago, 20 per cent of women aged 25 to 29 reported having anal sex. In a study published in October 2010 by the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University, the instances of anal sex reported by women in the same age group had more than doubled, to 46 per cent.
Even loving, relationship sex often has a whiff of the casual encounter’s anxiety about it – one friend of mine said she’s so paranoid about her boyfriend of four years seeing her in an unbecoming position that she never had sex without a camisole covering her torso (she lets the straps down). Indeed, Company magazine commissioned me to write an article for them revealing seven sex positions that not only achieved G-spot access (which is still not properly understood) but were flattering, too. For example, anything where your stomach is stretched out and your head thrown back. Try fitting that in with remembering your G-spot, and then the fact that there is another real live person participating, too.
That self-consciousness – whereby a woman is fully occupied in trying to make her body appealing – is nothing new. Naomi Wolf, author of the essential feminist manifesto The Beauty Myth, explains with typical ingenuity the way in which the female experience of her own body is fragmented. She notes that since the 14th century, masculine culture has revelled in deconstructing women’s bodies. Troubadors specialised in listing the feminine ‘catalogue of features’, while poet Edward Spencer took this catalogue to a new level in his hymn Epithalamion. This fragmented approach to female features, says Wolf, continues today in ‘list-your-good-points’ features in women’s magazines, and in collective fantasies about female perfection fuelled by heavy marketing. She’s right: whether you are selling watches or yoghurt, it seems that images evoking the perfect, milky-skinned package is essential.
‘I trotted out every parlour trick and sexual persona I knew.’
Commercial culture’s jamboree of female torsos, lips and legs aside, I believe that much of the self-doubt in the sex experience for women is the awareness and ubiquity of the porn standard. I don’t watch porn, it feels like a pollutant to me, but many people do, women included (about a third of porn is viewed by women). I’ve seen it, though, and I know how extreme (to me) even its most savoury acts seem. I also know that most men, including those I’m likely to end up in the sack with, will be porn consumers. They may not require the porn standard – I interviewed dozens of men for my last book and most of them were far more generous about our bodies than we believe. But we know porn’s there, a click away, which is almost as bad.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper, a prominent American writer, has captured very well the jig the single woman plays in bed, as well as the discomfort she’ll happily accept to make the man come – that is, to get past Go and collect $100. She talks about a one-night stand with a well-heeled, polite old acquaintance of hers in which the sex failed miserably. He couldn’t stay aroused, despite her trying every trick she knew, from playing the coquette to acting submissively; from yelling with (fake) excitement to going silent. In the end, he requested anal sex. Vargas-Cooper asked why that – of all things – would arouse him. The reason he gave was that it was the only thing that would make her uncomfortable. Instead of walking out, Vargas-Cooper instantly complied. Looking back, she notes how this encounter does not exactly fit the feminist template of sexuality. The reality is that pleasure and displeasure are two sides of the same sexual coin, a contradiction ‘neatly’ resolved through porn, and thus, she notes, very much in favour of men.
Clearly, the issue of porn is an absolutely huge one, and not what this book is about. But I think it’s helpful to acknowledge that its presence, all those ubiquitous, easily-activated pixels behind a billion clicks, only adds to the complexity of sex for women today. In a non-supportive, no-strings shagathon, that complexity is simply too jagged and unwieldy to be processed; and, like a piece of silk shoved in the washing machine, it turns out very badly.
Orgasm machines: women and a brave new (hypersexual) world
‘We have this thing that’s been superimposed on female sexuality, basically this orgasm-hunting tiger.’
What makes Lucy cry and Lisa close her eyes during sex is alienating detachment – the loneliness of an exposed female body being pounded by a male one. But this purely anatomic, male-orgasm-driving experience of sex sits very neatly with contemporary depictions of the act. Take London Amora, the European touring show that parked for a year in Piccadilly Circus, excitedly billed as ‘the world’s first attraction about relationships, seduction and wellness’. Its goal: ‘to make your world a sexier place’. This means more orgasms for women as well as men, of course. To look at the Amora website was to be confronted with numbers, exclamation marks, commands and bright colours. ‘Ten secrets women wished you knew’; ‘The silent clue men give off when they’re in love’; ‘250 tips and hints for a healthy sex life and wellbeing’, PLUS aphrodisiac lounge, Amora boutique, How-To workshops and – wait for it! – ‘Over 80 interactive and engaging experiences to enhance relationships and spice up your love life’. Yet there was something bordering on the depressing about the erogenous zones finder; the squeezing of various-sized dildos and designing your perfect partner on an interactive screen. Katherine Angel, a historian of sexual science at Exeter University observed in Prospect magazine that Amora was governed by the porn aesthetic; proof of how far pornography and everyday ideas of the erotic now overlap. Noting the predictable presence of numerous ‘ecstatic’ female bodies (far more than male), Angel concluded that the exhibit was ‘yet another’ place that invited women to self-scrutinise their bodies and sexual performance according to an ideal.
Along with linking images of hot female bodies with sexual ecstasy, Amora drives home the point that one orgasm isn’t enough to satisfy your average lusty woman. This is the general message on the airwaves. For example, CAKE (cakenyc), an ‘internationally recognised brand promoting female sexual pleasure’, is all about the new hypersexual woman. Reads the website: ‘In September of 2000, CAKE hosted the first of what would become the infamous CAKE parties at club FUN, under the Manhattan Bridge. Billed as a Porn Party, the hosts showed clips of explicit videos edited together and displayed on floor to ceiling screens.’
Yet the pressure to be an orgasm machine has reached what Melissa Goldman, the maker of a documentary called Subjectified: Nine Young Women Talk About Sex, calls ‘hysteria’. In the US, she says, ‘it’s got so bad that women think they have a pathology if they can’t orgasm through penetration. We have this thing – this Samantha from SATC thing – that’s been superimposed on female sexuality, basically this orgasm-hunting tiger.’ Indeed: the pressure exerted by contemporary ideas of sexiness, sex, and sexual pleasure as a measure of personal success exerts a hard, cold pressure on women. And nobody feels it more than the single woman, who is most open to accusations of not being sexy or attractive enough – if she was, wouldn’t she have a partner?
By refusing no-strings sex for a while, we might avoid Greer’s proclamation that ‘Sex for many has become a sorry business, a mechanical release involving neither discovery nor triumph, stressing human isolation more dishearteningly than ever before.’ We might also avoid the following image of the man who ‘politely lets himself into the vagina … laborious and inhumanly computerized’. Indeed, Greer speaks to the daters of 2012 with important prescience: ‘The implication that there is a statistically ideal fuck which will always result in satisfaction if the right procedures are followed is depressing and misleading. There is no substitute for excitement: not all the massage in the world will ensure satisfaction, for it is a matter of psychosexual release. Real gratification is not enshrined in a tiny cluster of nerves but in the sexual involvement of the whole person.’ Amen.
Giving up NSA sex: actually doing it (well, not doing it …)
A lot has been covered in this chapter. Hopefully you found some of it useful/interesting for adding context to the way you (or your friends) operate. I for one find it very helpful to see where I got some of my strongest and least helpful notions about sex. Having some idea of where I fit into the sexual culture around me enables me to challenge these notions more directly.
I am aware that some of you reading this chapter will be saying to yourselves: all this NSA sex sounds great – at least it’s sex! For those of you in, or familiar with, an interminable drought, I feel your pain. I’ve been there many times, and have ridden out barren stretches with a mixture of anger, frustration, acceptance and ‘get-it-where-you-can’ promiscuity, followed by remorse.
To the drought lady: putting this rule into play will improve your state of mind too. I promise. Here are some pointers to get you going, as it were.
1.Recognise your state of mind
Are you feeling like you’ll never meet someone, that nobody ever fancies you, and that you may well be re-virginising? If so, be extra careful because right now you’re most prone to self-destructive sexual behaviour. It’s been at my most ‘dry’ that I’ve been taken in by the false promise of sexual servitude, thinking ‘at least it’s sex’. But that idea proves misleading when you feel not only left by the wayside afterwards, but tarnished by having sex with someone ranging from the unavailable to the disinterested to the downright awful. That’s if you do have sex with them. You can equally get drunk and try – and fail, even when you’ve relaxed your standards, which is awful too.
2.Challenge the belief ‘At least it’s sex’
Thinking that you better take it because, like money, you should grab as much of it as possible, is a surprisingly common belief. When I went on the Man Diet, I was fully on board with it – that is, taking far too seriously my ‘job’ as a single woman to be wild, crazy and report lots of great stories. Dry patches tortured me.
I was genuinely happy to be uncommitted – I’d recently come out of a relationship, and my personality had gone a bit wonky under the strain of being a ‘cool’ (i.e., permissive, generous, not-needy, relaxed) girlfriend. But I assumed that the alternative to ‘I’m not ready for a relationship’ was ‘I am going to get out there and bed as many people as possible’ and ‘if I’m not seeing someone or some people, I’m wasting valuable time as a young, single woman, panic, panic, what is wrong with me’. Stopping, staying still, and allowing the borders of myself to extend to other spheres than my sexuality was balm to my soul.
3.Gotta be cruel to be kind: go cold turkey
If there’s a lot of NSA on offer, just stop it abruptly. Turn them down, defriend them on Facebook, block their number. (I did a lot of the Facebook defriending to prevent sudden chat popping up, taking me where I didn’t want to go.) After that cruelty, kindness dawns fast: as soon as I brutally sloughed the NSA types out, I felt clean, clear and energised, and acutely aware that I’d been dragging myself down before. Relationship counsellor Val Sampson says:
‘It’s not that being Victorian prim gives you high self-esteem. But sleeping with the guy that doesn’t want to go on a date, or who doesn’t find you particularly interesting as a person, is bad for self-esteem.’
4.Extract yourself from a friend
This is a different story from getting rid of the one-, two- or five-night-stand guy. Certainly you two will have a deeper or different intimacy than with someone you don’t know. You may well be in love with him. It’s the hardest thing in the world to pull away because so much is mixed up in it. But the bottom line still applies: he’s getting the milk without the cow and sees no need to change that fact. So, if you can summon all your strength, you just need to come clean. It shouldn’t be hard. He’ll run a mile – thereby making the job easy for you – if you say: ‘Next time you initiate something, I’ll assume it’s because you want to date.’ Or if it’s you who booty calls him, make it plain you’re going to want more – and he’ll probably stop encouraging or even allowing your late-night visits.
5.Think about what you want
Women seeking a serious relationship need the sex (or sex-on-mind) hiatus time for gathering thoughts about the correct approach going forward. Janet Reibstein believes one of the biggest issues facing women who self-define as being non-committal, or who proceed by default with no-strings sex, is habit that will stitch them up later. ‘If you want children, we don’t have the freedom to put things off the way men do,’ she says. ‘Women have to be more honest with themselves about what kind of relationships they’re getting themselves into – if you’re saying “this is NSA” and you’re 28, and you’re still doing it at 30, and that’s the modal way you’re doing your relationships, you’re dwindling your chances of meeting someone to reproduce within a committed relationship.’
I’m not sure about children yet. But I take to heart something else Reibstein says: ‘Until you figure out your own terms, you are likely to be pleasing the man on his own terms.’ This part of the Man Diet is there to help us figure out those terms, which is no easy task in a (still predominantly) male value society. But giving yourself time off the biting, stinging sex jungle is the best way to start.
How I followed this rule:
I had no ‘say no to NSA’ policy in place at all. I knew it didn’t make me particularly happy, but I thought it was an essential part of my single-woman persona – that of the liberal, adventurous, sexual singleton. My romps made for great stories but too often they smacked of adventure for adventure’s sake. This, I think, is because my view on sex was: ‘Why not?’ rather than ‘Why?’
How I did it
All I did was think about it more. I reflected on the simple idea that going through the motions – albeit often pleasurably, or at least excitingly – wasn’t really how sex was meant to be. That disconnecting real intimacy from physical intimacy probably wasn’t the best I could do. It’s amazing how much just thinking can achieve – in merely reflecting on this topic I began to be far more choosy. Not because I was depriving myself of anything – just because I stopped feeling like having such a simplistic approach to sex, since I am not a simple person. Nor are you.
The other thing that kept and still keeps me in check is this question: ‘Do I want to be exhausted tomorrow?’ Let’s be honest – NSA sex often involves unplanned sleepovers with next to no sleep involved. On weeknights they’re lethal. On weekends, pretty sad if you had any plans to do things the next day.
Specifically, if a guy came along and it was on the cards, I would …
• Just leave. If he wanted my number, great. If not – had I lost anything? Probably not, apart from a notch.
• If something was happening, like a smooch, I’d just extricate myself. ‘It’s getting late’ or ‘I need to take the Tube’.
• I considered very carefully how I wanted to feel the next day. Usually, the desire to be alert and well rather than wrecked and pointlessly buzzed triumphed.
How it felt
Good. Very good in fact. I felt in control, and very clearly that I was respecting myself. And, banal as it sounds, I also felt smug at saving myself a lot of trouble (attachment to guys who were far from appropriate; potential worries over STDs and so on). Did I feel deprived of lots of wild no-strings sex? Not for a good while. Which brings me to …
What I let through the cracks
I find going for very long periods without any physical intimacy rather tricky – many women do. And so, every now and then, I let situations take their course – or even, in (usually intoxicated) extremis create the situations. I’m not sure I feel better after, but I feel different. It shifts my energy. But allowing for NSA is a last resort.
I try not to partake in NSA sex. It seems unsatisfying. And upsetting in subtle ways if it goes nowhere or is with someone below par. I used to call this kind of thing ‘fun’ – now I’m more careful with my definition of fun. When desire for something to happen takes over, I go into it with eyes wide open, but even being realistic doesn’t necessarily help – a little part of you always either wants sex to be meaningful or thinks it will go somewhere.
If you’ve had one NSA sex experience after an empowered run of dieting, you’re either feeling a) sated or b) remarkably shitty. Well, take hope from the fact that if it’s the first, you were able to enjoy it exactly because of a period of declining it (the Man Diet) and your strength and self-esteem has risen. If b) you now know you’re not missing anything even remotely great by saying no to NSA sex and you’re very much on the right track with this rule. Here’s what else:
• Don’t beat yourself up about it. You haven’t done anything wrong – you’ve just given yourself a bit of short shrift. You will either be feeling a naturally negative reaction, which is punishment enough – or you’ll be moving on with your life. Do the latter, but don’t think, ‘That didn’t fuck me up, I’m going to do it all the time!’ Because that would be a pointless back step. And a sure-fire way to feel fucked up (possibly again, depending on your past).
• If you feel post-sex strings, acknowledge them to your heart’s content but there’s no point making the whole thing worse by prostrating yourself at the man’s feet. If it was NSA going into it, it was almost certainly NSA to him and will remain so.
• If, by chance, the no-strings part of the sex came with heavy boozing and lax protection, don’t brush it under the carpet. Go along to the clinic in three months (the HIV incubation period – yes, sex can have a long afterlife), and make sure you’re good to go.
You need this rule if …
• Once you start, you can’t stop.
• The bulk of your sexual encounters as a single woman follow excessive drinking.
• You can’t imagine not drinking on a date.
• You worry about being boring when sober.
• You think you only come alive sexually after a bottle.
• You frequently do things with men when inebriated that you later regret.
• Your big nights out involve necessary consumption of ten times the government’s recommended weekly number of units.
• Your hangovers trouble you far more than ‘my head hurts’.
• You worry that your boozing is affecting your overall health and mental alertness.
Goes well with …
• Refuse to Have NSA Sex
• Dwell on Your Sense of Self
• Do Something Lofty
• Do Not Pursue
• Know Your Obstacles
Sarah’s alarm went off. She couldn’t bear the task in hand: getting up and going to work. She prolonged the agony of getting out of bed by trying to decide what was most horrible about her current situation. Was it her physical state – pounding heart, vile aftertaste of red wine sharpened with gin from the G&Ts she’d thought were a good nightcap, inflamed eye sockets and sharp head pain? Or was it the inevitable mental distress that would descend when events from the night before came creeping back?
Her eyes are still closed, her alarm still beeping. Sarah’s normally a cheerful, emotionally stable woman. But when she wakes up like this, which she does no more than any of her friends or the other millions of women in the UK who occasionally binge drink, she’s not cheerful, or even okay. She feels an intense horror at herself; dread at what she might have done. Or has done. She pictures a massive black well out of which she must pull herself in order to regain her hold on life.
What happened the night before …
In this case, what Sarah had done wasn’t particularly bad, but it was the fact that she’d been making a habit of it. The night before had started out as work drinks; some lawyer contacts had hired a space at a bar for a group of her colleagues. A bottle of wine per person was already waiting for them on the table, along with some nibbles. It went fairly rapidly; and suddenly it was closing time. Feeling a naughty pulse rise in her – the desire to make some kind of trouble for herself involving men – she decided to see what she could rustle up. She wanted sex; she felt reckless, wild, her romantic dissatisfaction and fragile ego about to be pummelled under a wave of alcoholic courage.
It was a multi-pronged attack: first, she dispatched a few texts to men she’d either had something with before, or thought she could have something with now. She didn’t like any of them enough to see them when sober. Then, she started homing in on the seemingly interesting candidates that were out with her. Keeping up this dual-pronged attack, she eventually made headway. None of her textees replied – something that bothered her but that she could deal with in the morning. But thank God, one of the guys that turned up at the after-hours place they went on to seemed up for it. As soon as he showed unmistakeable interest, she suggested they go back to hers.
What happened when they got back hadn’t been all that great; it was certainly not the intoxicating orgasm fest suggested in some representations of unfettered, big-city casual sex. Rather, it had been made plain how little regard they had for each other, and while Sarah enjoyed faking intimacy, the guy didn’t have the slightest inclination to do so. He banged her (two seconds before condom; 20 minutes post-condom), he came, he suggested anal, she said no, they napped for an hour, and then he said, ‘Shit, I have to go’, got his stuff and left, only just remembering on his way out to ask for her number. It was just a vague politeness reflex; anyone could see that.
Now she felt horror – why did she always have that impulse to take someone home with her when drunk, even though she was too old for these completely unrewarding encounters? Why did she give herself to some random who couldn’t even pretend to be polite in bed? And, worst of all, what of those seconds of sex before the condom went on? Was she willing to even risk her health when drunk? And for what? Through the cloudy pain of these reflections, she haltingly pulled on her clothes and made it to the Tube without being sick. The day was not pretty.
The regret had largely faded by night, though, and the next day she was ready to go again, the dark hole of the previous morning forgotten, and the sex of the night before already related to her friends as a highly amusing story.
It was Saturday night, and Sarah and her flatmate Lynn had a birthday party to attend. They got ready to the sound of their favourite tune, also Lynn’s BlackBerry ring tone: Jamie Foxx featuring T-Pain’s ‘Blame It [on the Alcohol]’.
Flash forward to midnight. Lynn’s snogging a good-looking guy. Sarah has drunk more than she should have, though less than the other night, and is now in guy-searching mode. Nobody bites, though, and she’s starting to feel like she has no vibe. When a cutie hoves into view and offers to get her another drink, she gratefully accepts, even though she doesn’t really feel like it. But in the presence of her potential ticket out of here tonight, she sucks the double Absolut through a straw and makes flirtatious conversation. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom, and when she comes back, the guy’s gone. She looks for him everywhere, but can’t find him. Now her buzz is gone, she’s drunk, and she’s got nobody. She starts talking to other guys, but it’s a no-go. Eventually she gets a cab home – it’s 3.30am and Lynn has gone off with that guy she’s been wrapped around for the last three hours.
The next day’s hangover is both better and worse than the one before. It’s worse in that, when the pain of it dries up, she’s got nothing concrete to show for it. No hook-ups. She feels like a failure of a single girl; she’s meant to be able to hook up whenever she wants when out on the razz, and last night was a reminder that she clearly can’t. But the hangover’s better in that she’s woken up guilt- and loathing-free, hasn’t put herself at risk in the sack or given her body to someone undeserving. Oh, and crucially, she doesn’t have to go to work. Still, her body is in a bad way and the calories she consumed last night were ungodly. She’ll have to write off the day.
So I say …
Take a break from the booze. Giving your body a rest – and showing it some love – will give you a fresh perspective.
The single woman and her tumultuous love affair with booze
This is not an unusual or crazy snapshot in the life of a single, fun-loving woman. It’s not typical, perhaps, but it’s a scenario that most British women aged 18–35 will relate to. When researching this book, I asked women in their twenties and thirties if they drink more when single. Here’s what they said:
‘Defo, drank a hell of a lot more when I was single.’
‘Yes, definitely – I got wasted all the time, it was the only way to get over my shyness with men. I lacked confidence and was massively body shy. So needed to be pretty out of it to disrobe.’
‘Definitely. And there’s a lot of alcohol consumption when you’ve just started seeing someone – you know, lots of going out, getting pissed, eating crap, staying out late.’
Another woman, a good friend of mine called Mary, frequently blacks out when drunk. ‘I have missed lots from blacking out – I don’t remember meeting half the people I’ve dated; and sometimes I’ll wake up next to someone and not remember how we ended up in bed.’ She’s no basket case; Mary is a successful, grounded person who does not have an alcohol problem – it’s just that a few drinks, even as few as three, can make her forget what happens to her. But instead of being terrified by the experience and its implications, she just accepts that it happens on big nights out. Such is the single woman’s cross to bear.
Rising alcohol consumption among women is a horn that is tooted with great insistence by the media, and rightly so: the numbers suggest that we’re the fastest growing demographic of boozers in the UK, with the image of the hard-partying single gal right up there. After all, women aged between 18 and 24 in the UK drink more than in any European country (Datamonitor, 2005). Across the pond, CBS news in the US did a shock-horror ‘Sex and the City syndrome’ story, inspired by a rise in DUI (driving under the influence) accidents among young women. They worried about the ‘girls’ nights out and those pink drinks’ SATC popularised. And well they should.
Reality check: do we really need to give up the booze?
This Man Diet rule is not about lecturing and tut-tutting; it’s about giving you a respite from habits that might be dragging you down. Alcohol is not a simple topic – i.e., ‘bad for you’ – and it plays an enormous, complex role in most of our lives. Kate Spicer, a journalist, wrote a courageous ‘life’s too short not to drink up’ piece for The Sunday Times. In it, she confessed to ticking a good handful of what the government might call ‘alcoholic’ boxes, but argued that when used appropriately, excess alcohol can be a source of pleasure and relaxation without necessary punishment. It’s not alcohol that creates a mess, she concludes; it’s people.
Spicer’s view is appealing, and there’s no chance I’ll be giving up social drinking and occasional drunkenness for government-guideline-style imbibing any time soon. But when the single woman – under pressure to have more fun than everyone else (see NSA and No Talking chapters) – ends up in a run of alcohol-fuelled promiscuity followed by self-loathing hangovers, it’s time to take a breather. In the same Sunday Times feature, I felt that student Ruth Gilligan more accurately captured the mania of acquiring the experience, stories and gossip that alcohol often facilitates. She describes the experience of sitting in her college room, whilst next door, thumping music starts up, heralding the arrival of the girls invited over by the lads in the house. She listens as the word ‘stawpedo’ is bellowed en masse, then sighs with relief when the music stops – the group have headed out into the night. It’s only Part One of the evening, though: she’s certain at least three of the girls will be back later and that a sizzling stew of gossip will be ripe for the stirring in the morning.
Every woman has a pronounced relationship with alcohol. Some get trashed on weekends; others like a glass or a bottle of wine of an evening. Some use it as a massive social crutch, and morph from shy wallflowers into sexual predators on a few wines. Some women use it to show they’re as hard/good/fun/wild as their male peers. Others don’t get what the fuss is about – and get snippy when asked questions like, ‘Do you binge drink?’ Still others don’t drink at all and face relentless social pressure to do so. Many of us worry a huge deal that we drink too much but make little attempt to cut down.
Clearly, women’s relationship with alcohol is more complex than the oft-alarm-bell-ringing Daily Mail would have it – yes we drink too much but we’re not all bingeing terrors of the night, constantly in hospital having our stomachs pumped. This complexity also applies to the connection between boozing and unwise sexual behaviour. As a Man Dieter, the concern is to minimise the psychological effects of uncomfortable run-ins with men – which chip away at self-esteem, as per Sarah’s really rough mornings described above. So when I advise laying off the booze for a bit, I’m hoping for a double-pronged attack on:
a)low-quality sex with a low-quality person in a low-quality environment
b)the vile, self-attacking hangover, which is bad enough once in a while, but over time makes you feel really out of control and thus rotten overall
I maintain, once more, that the single woman is more prone to the stabbings of regret and self-loathing than the one who wakes up hungover next to her boyfriend, regardless of what she’s done the night before.
So what exactly is the link between drinking and the ensuing horror at what seemed perfectly reasonable the night before? Does getting drunk actually make us prostrate ourselves unwisely on the loins of any available man? Possibly. One study found alcohol use to be a stronger predictor of ‘engaging in hooking up’ for women than men, possibly because women feel pressure not to hook up due to societal constraints, so alcohol makes it easier to lower the barrier (Owen, Fincham & Moore, 2011). But the connection between booze and sex is, predictably, a more complex one for women than men.
‘Does getting drunk actually make us prostrate ourselves unwisely on the loins of any available man?’
Does booze turn you on?
In one study, published in the academic journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, it appeared that booze does not in itself make women more horny or aroused. It’s just that we think it does. A 2011 survey got 44 men and women to watch erotic/neutral films while consuming either alcohol or juice. After drinking alcohol, more sexual arousal was reported even when watching neutral films than with no alcohol. However, women’s genital response didn’t increase with greater amounts of alcohol consumed. So, it looks like perceived sexual arousal increases even if actual arousal (that is, genital sexual arousal that was measured by a device) doesn’t change. The researchers found that the best predictor of post-drinking sex was the intention to have sex before you went out.
Another theory of sex and booze linkage sounds more familiar. This is that it’s the effects of booze that causes us to take sexual risks we wouldn’t otherwise take – be it unprotected sex or sex with someone dodgy, or sex that is likely to have a negative emotional impact. This one is about the cues you respond to or ignore when pissed: according to the pleasingly named cognitive theory ‘alcohol myopia’, alcohol has a disinhibiting effect because it makes you less able to process information. Cues that instigate sexual behaviour continue to get processed, while more complex ones that would normally cause you to think twice get sidelined. The drunk brain can’t deal with both and chooses the simpler path.
Here’s a typical drunken ‘horror’ story from a friend of mine that illustrates this point:
Chloe, 28, had been sleeping with a man every weekend while single and had been using a dating website too. One night we were at a friend’s house party together and she was getting nice and pissed. There were no good male options there, so she started rifling through the guys on the dating website on her phone, finding one, Mark, who happened to be online at 11.30pm on a Saturday night. She summoned him to the party – he clearly worked out but also pulled his trousers up way too far and fastened them with a pernickety little belt. He was balding. He was loud. He was … not ideal. By now reeling from her numerous vodkas, Chloe and Mark headed out into the back garden where they appeared to be doing a mixture of feeling each other up and arguing. Suddenly they were gone.
Chloe told me the next day that she’d taken him home with her only to find out, just as she was sobering up, that he was a complete sex fiend (not in a good way) who wanted to re-enact degradation porn scenes and began addressing her as ‘bitch’ as soon as they got near her bedroom. After he pushed her head down for a blow job, she ordered him out. At first he refused – then she got violent with him and he left. She didn’t tell me all those details that day – she was so horrified by the experience that it wasn’t for another two or three weeks that she actually came clean about it. That was the last time she went online drunk – and the last time she went out of her way for sex.
From sober to sex kitten: drinking till we’re drunk
‘On a big night out I always end up going for it in some way or another, even if I secretly want a quiet one. It’s just the format.’ Jane, 31
We act crazier and more sexually regrettably when we’re drunk because that’s the expectation – that’s the image. A classic study found that post-drinking behaviour is driven by pre-drinking beliefs ‘in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy’ (Journal of Drug Issues). The idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy hits home. After all, how many times have you headed out on a ‘big night out’ and not at least made a good attempt at acting like someone on a ‘big night out’? When you’re ‘larging’ it, you can’t very well ‘small it’ at the last minute without being a party pooper.
The expectation to act like you’re drunk is a double-edged sword. Not only do women expect themselves to be more sexually up-for-it, but men expect us to be so when we’ve been drinking. ‘Drinking women are perceived by men as being more sexually available, and coerced sex with a drinking woman is less likely to be viewed as rape,’ said Maria Testa and R. Lorraine Collins in a 1997 survey. These perceptions, say the authors, lead to women being fed more booze by sexually hopeful men. But they also make us feel like we have less of a right to say no to sex because we’re aware of the impression we’ve given by drinking heavily. In short, we’re afraid of appearing to be teases.
More evidence suggests that boozing makes us seem like wanton sex machines even if, as per the study carried out by Prause, Staley & Finn, we’re not actually more aroused. Other studies have found that when we drink more we’re significantly more aggressive and ready to engage in foreplay. It’s also interesting – though hardly surprising – that perceptions of female sexual disinhibition were significantly enhanced if the man bought her the drinks. Working with Substance Misusers: a guide to theory and practice, a compilation of essays from experts, argues that ‘alcohol does not “make” you behave in a way that is alien. However, it is certainly the case that alcohol is often used as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour.’ In other words, the blame – contrary to what Jamie Foxx and T-Pain say in their anthem ‘Blame It’ – is on us, not the alcohol.
Beer goggles: fact or fiction?
Fact. One thing that studies show for certain is that the more you drink, the better looking people of the opposite gender appear, but you don’t need me to tell you that. What is interesting is that despite being studied, ‘the mechanism [that makes us find people more attractive when drunk] remains unclear’. One possibility suggested by other experts is that being trashed makes it hard to assess facial symmetry and other attractiveness cues. Other studies suggest that as the night wears on, people look more frantically to find someone to go home with, thus lowering their standards. The role of ‘beer goggles’ is obvious in the regret-causing antics we get up to when drunk, but whether we fall under their sway because we literally can’t see properly, or because of a more complex cocktail of factors involving suppressed needs and desires for intimacy (my money’s on this), has not been determined yet by our friends in social science.
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