"What proportion of men are really good in bed?" I ask this question whenever I am with a group of women. Alas, the results are not encouraging: I've never had a figure higher than 30 percent. There are, however, good reasons for this. The first and most pernicious is the idea that good lovemaking is instinctive, like eating. This is rubbish. Sex may be a basic instinct, but making love is an art. Both sexes have to learn it, and men more so than women, because women are more sexually complicated and more various.
Young men tend to have their early sexual experiences with girls of their own age or younger. Girls, in other words, who are not sure themselves what pleases them, or are not assertive enough to speak up about it. Even experienced women cannot be relied upon to educate their lovers. Ninety years after feminism became a major force, women today remain annoyingly unassertive in the bedroom: when Harry rubs at Susie's tenderest parts as vigorously as a belt sander, Susie merely grits her teeth, smiles bravely, and makes a mental note to avoid Harry next time.
Then there's the fact that men don't talk usefully to one another about sex; they don't share secrets. The most a man will do is sketch a sort of wiggly shape with both hands to indicate-you-know-what the lovely Tootsie, um, er, looks like underneath that tracksuit she always wears. When someone asks him how Tootsie behaves in private, he only raises his eyes skyward and confides, "Whooaah."
Women, on the other hand, are much more frank about the subject, and learn all sorts of delicious secrets from one another. Because we find sex essentially rather funny, we've no desire to be coy or gruff about it in private. When I lived in London, the women in the neighborhood would get together every two weeks to analyze their latest escapades, swap spicy sex tips, and even give demonstrations using cucumbers and bananas, how to apply the famous Butterfly Flick technique when performing oral sex, or how to roll on a condom while giving "maximum pleasure." Great stuff!
Much of the blame for bad sex must also go to sex manuals. Too many of them concentrate on making sex unusual, rather than ensuring that the quality is good. They push ahead to fancy work that is arousing for men, but not for women. Even the best books make serious mistakes. Most are written by men who cannot understand what sex is really like for women, or by therapists who are too soft-spoken and politically correct to speak the hard truth.
Bernard Zilbergeld's otherwise good book Men and Sex advises that it is "highly improbable" a woman will climax if she hasn't done so after "ten to fifteen minutes." Rubbish! Kim Scapa's Sex Tips for Boys is cunning and inventive, but declares that premature ejaculation (which can be readily cured) should be treated merely as an embarrassment of riches -- tell that to the girls! David Reuben's highly influential Everything you always wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask insists that oral sex will make even the most sexually unresponsive woman fly into wild ecstasies. Nonsense! Oral sex is very pleasant, if done well, but it no more guarantees orgasm than a ten-inch penis does. Such books talk about what is supposed to happen, not what actually does.
In sex manuals there is no embarrassment, no awkwardness, no distaste -- the partners are always strong, supportive, and eloquent about their personal needs. Not so in real life. Helena writes:
I have read a lot of books about sex in my time. I always feel they exist on a different plane to me, sort of in the way poetry exists on a different plane to everyday experience. I can recognize the things the writers are talking about but they've been smoothed down and turned into something remote.
Men today are more willing to please their partners than ever before: a good half of the letters I receive from women speak about "my sweet, caring man" and such endearments. And yet women still find it very difficult to communicate their sexual desires. "I feel too shy to sit my boyfriend down and tell him that there are several things he's doing wrong," writes Shirley. Men must be told about real sex, with all its difficulties and subtleties -- not about ideal, fictional sex.
The power of good sex
How important to a woman is good sex in a relationship? It varies enormously from person to person, but it is almost certainly more important than she lets on.