Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Back to real life... and contraceptive choices

There's very little to beat the great feeling when you press "send" on a piece of work - well, very little you can do with your clothes on, anyway. Today I got my high from submitting my latest manuscript - Weekend Lover, you may remember - and winging it off to the publishers. I'm still amazed at how many different activities one can do in the course of an erotic weekend - and all of them legal!

In the meantime, in among the final mansucript checks of a sex book I've been keeping an eye on the 'real life' elements of sex and following today's "pill scare". No, not a horror story of hormonal side-effects, but a panic in some quarters that now women will be able to get the contraceptive pill from their local pharmacist, the country is going to go to rack and ruin.

Stepping aside from that particular argument as being intractable - the sex education lobby and the abstinence lobby come from such totally different moral viewpoints that it often feels like reversing through porridge to even try to reconcile - I'd like to comment instead on whether having easier access to the pill will help the pregnancy rates.

I can't fault the arguments that easier (and just as safe) access to the pill is going to help women take greater charge of their contraception. Of course if something is more widely available it will be more widely used. And all the practicalities affecting contraceptive choice are clear - women use it more if it's easier, less intrusive, more effective, safe, spontaneous, reversible.

But I don't think those are the only elements in play here. What I'm seeing in my postbag are much more subtle influences that affect choice - particularly female choice. In short, I think we underestimate the role of values in creating this problem.

Because it's not just whether a woman can get to the GP surgery that dictates whether she uses contraception or not. It's far more complicated than that. Under the practicalities are a whole slew of emotionally laden reasons why women choose to protect - or not - against conception.

Is contraception feminine ? (if she believes that a woman's main role in life is baby-making, the answer may be no).

Does it negatively influence the way she looks (if the pill makes her put on weight, the answer could be yes)

Does it reflect her friends' choices? (if all her friends are getting pregnant, she'll want to as well)

Does it please her partner? (if he wants condom free, or hates her taking the pill, what is she to do) ?

Does it allow for passion? (the pill and the coil do, the condom and the cap don't)

Does it make her feel good about herself - and make other people feel good about her? (if she believes that having a baby will make her worthwhile, where's her motivation to use contraception?)

All these are amorphous elements... but I believe they are crucial in forming women's choices. Bottom line, the vast majority of sex education today presupposes that women who say they don't want to have children will therefore want to use contraception - and the only issue is making that contraception available.

I disagree - I think many women out there are incongruent about the whole issue. They don't use contraception because it cuts across their core values.

And until we truly take that into account in sex education, in sexual health programmes and in contraceptive consultations, then all the open pharmacies in the world won't dent those pregnancy figures...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cheap. And cheerful.

I was delighted today to read the survey - published on World Aids Day - by the Terence Higgins Trust that suggests that sex is the most popular free activity, and that given the credit crunch people are doing it more and more.

You might think my delight is simply because I write books like the Joy of Sex and want people to buy them. But though yes, the thought did cross my mind that one man's credit crunch might mean my expanded royalty cheque, nevertheless that wasn't my main reason for celebration.

I celebrate because - given safe sex, which of course was the Terence Higgins Trust message - I see little else to beat the activity of getting and giving pleasure. More cholesterol reducing than food, less likely to cause vomiting than alcohol, and much less likely to cause death than smoking. And that's beside the fact that regular sex keeps you trim, boosts your immune system, helps beat depression and raises self esteem. What's not to like?

Maybe I'm naif, but when it comes to having a joyful time, I think sex should be top of everyone's Christmas list.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Back again...

... so where was I? Oh yes, in my last blog post I was in full flood about the Joy of Sex post-launch publicity and had just started doing the Jim Davis show regularly, with its accompanying challenges of explaining masturbation live on air.

So, a few weeks later - where does the time go when you're enjoying yourself - life has been incredibly busy and even more enjoyable. Wonderfully, the post-launch publicity for JOY is *still* going - last week I was signing books on the Lovehoney stand at the Erotica Show, and yesterday I did an interview about the book for a German magazine.

My copresenting role alongside Jim Davis - our slot is now called "Sex in the City" - is going from strength to strength. This week we're focussing on World Aids Day, interviewing Justin Gaffney from the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, as well as taking all the many, and increasingly fascinating, calls.

Alongside all that, the first and second books in the follow-up series to Joy of Sex have just arrived back from the printers. Entitled The Romantic Lover and The Adventurous Lover, they are gorgeous - tiny hardbacks, pocket-sized, in elegant shades of cream, bronze and gold with stunning erotic photos slipped in to illustrate my text. Yummy! (In the shops in time for Valentine's Day 2009, in case you're interested.)

And, I'm just finishing up the third follow-up book, which is about dirty weekends. Research, collation, draft and editing in eight weeks; this morning's job is to blend into the edited version all the information I gathered from the Erotica Show. Did you know that you can book an entire S&M suite for a weekend including bed, breakfast and dungeon... variations include a four-poster bondage bed with a cage underneath.

What a strange and fascinating job I do...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Explaining masturbation on worldwide radio...

The slight gap in communication, folks, has been down to a wonderful amount of work coming out of the launch of Joy of Sex. But today being Sunday, I thought I'd bring things up to date.

There've been more interviews... of course. And more follow-up features. Plus a rather intriguing possible trip to the US in the offing; more detail on that later.

And an appearance at the Cambridge Union, debating "This house calls for a new sexual revolution.". Great fun, and a real feeling of speaking to the next generation of policy makers and governmental leaders; I only hope that when they get into office in a decade or so, they remember my call for more sex education in schools...

I've also, following my 'Joy of Sex special" for LBC a few weeks ago, been invited to appear weekly from now on, doing a double-hander with the wonderful Jim Davis. We really do work well together, fielding such disparate subjects as "I'm Christian and gay", "My new man's ex fell pregnant just before they split", "I come too soon" (a man) and "I've never come" (a woman).

This last involved me giving the listener an on-air step-by-step guide of how to bring herself to climax; one of those wonderful moments when I find myself thinking "I can't believe they pay me for this." On the other hand, most people who have talked to me about that particular programme segment have said that they couldn't do it even if they were paid...

Flippancy apart, I love doing the Jim Davis show and am utterly delighted that they've asked me to do the weekly slot. The phone calls, texts and emails pile up into their hundreds; the calls come from as far away as New York; we are obviously providing a key service - and my only regret is that we can't cover more in the two hours allotted.

If you want to catch the programme, it's every Friday night from 22:00 until midnight, on 97.3FM. And you can find the accompanying blog - written by me this week - here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Losing my voice...

...thank heavens, literally not metaphorically. I've done an average of three interviews a day for the past ten days - some of them, for the press, lasting over an hour. Add this to the normal communication of the day - and a touch of chest infection - and it's no wonder I'm suffering from slight loss of volume.

But heavens, no loss of interest in what I'm being asked. The thing that amazes me, every time, is how the same topic, Joy of Sex, elicits such very different responses from different journalists. The nice lady from Men's Health US wanted eight tips for modern male lovers - and a blow by blow account of how those tips might differ from what Alex Comfort would have said in 1972 (answer: radically, because not a lot was known about the clitoris then). The charming woman from the Mumbai Daily News wanted to know what I thought of the Kama Sutra (answer: deep respect). The Kiwi Radio reporter was delightfully informal and did, true to the stereotype, sign off with "no worries mate". Bless.

The Irish are the most surprising. Despite their reputation for inhibition, they unfailingly take the most upfront attitude. At 11am in the morning, they're reading graphic accounts direct from the "Venus Butterfly" section or asking me to explain, in detail, the difference between the vulva and the vagina. (Truly. That was yesterday on the Gerry Ryan show, complete with double entendres...)

So now, I'm just off to do the midnight show on ABC 702 Sydney. I presume that given the timing, they'll be pretty up front too. I just hope that they don't mistake my chest-infection triggered spluttering for shock or inhibition...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Post coital wind-down...

The launch on Wednesday evening was absolutely fabulous - a canape and drinks do at our local Borders with speeches, flowers and lots of what one attendee described as 'loving energy'. I did my speech (albeit tearfully) and so did publisher David Lamb and Alex Comfort's son Nick.

I was particularly thrilled that so many representatives of organisations managed to make the trip up from London; thank you in particular to Peter Roach from Durex, Cath Allen from Relate, Natalia and David from Greatvine, Jhanne and Debbie from Sense, and Mishelle and Victoria from the Terence Higgins Trust.

And now, continuing the metaphor of my last blog post on Wednesday morning, following the orgasm, my team and I are in full-blown refractory mode - well at least until Monday morning when all sorts of lovely work arising out of Joy of Sex will begin again.

Watch this space...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Today's the day!

At last, at last... in a flurry of media (Ireland, Scotland, Germany and yes the Australians) the book is launched.

Two years of effort - on my part but just as importantly on the part of my team and the publishers - has at last come to fruition. So... thank you to everyone, absolutely everyone who has been involved in the making, the development and more recently the publicity. I am truly grateful!

It's been occasionally stressful, sometimes frustrating, but largely a pure and increasing pleasure. Bit like sex itself, really...

... therefore I suppose you could say that today is the climax, the peak. The orgasm, so to speak. It certainly feels amazing!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Why Joy of Sex?

Perhaps the most interesting - and at the same time frustrating - question I'm being asked right now is the "why" question. Why, in short, did I bother writing the book?

Don't get me wrong - everyone is being hugely excited and supportive. (That is, apart from the Alan Titchmarsh Show where he and his two guests just giggled like embarrassed schoolkids for five minutes - which was rather endearing seeing as their combined ages were probably more than the number of pages in the book).

But despite their enthusiasm, at some point absolutely everyone asks the 'why' question. Why does the book need a rewrite? And, why does the world need another sex book?

The answer to the first question is that it's a matter of timing. The Joy of Sex itself hasn't lost its essential appeal - telling people that they can take sex further and more pleasurably than they thought they could. But in the 36 years since publication, the science has developed enormously and the presuppositions have shifted completely. We now know about hormones, pheromones, the importance of the clitoris; we now have internet sex, teen pregnancy and the Venus Butterfly. The original was groundbreaking - but even cultural icons occasionally need a makeover.

The answer to the second question, however, is that it's a matter of common sense. My interviewers may have got sex totally sorted, but the majority of the rest of us haven't. With my agony hat on, I still get letters from thirty-something men who don't know where the clitoris is, and thirty-something women who don't realise that they need one. Plus, we have never been under more pressure to achieve in the bedroom: - to have good sex, to have more sex, to have better sex than the Joneses - despite the fact that the Joneses themselves, due to all the pressure, probably aren't having sex at all.

I passionately believe that there is still a need for a good sex book. There is still a need for a book that doesn't trivialise sex, regard it as junk food, see it in fluffy pink - a book that takes sex seriously, as a powerful and important force in our lives.

There is still a need, above all, for a book that encourages us to relax and take pleasure and show love when we make love.

There is still a need for a book that reinspires us with the joy in sex.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Still bubbling...

The big news on Joy of sex for today is that the antipodean campaign has kicked off. The nice lady from Hodder in Australia has started lining up interviews already for the October 1st launch: so Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, today and an increasing number of radio interviews lined up for the near future.

Yesterday, I also did an interview for the Times on the latest piece of research suggesting that men might be genetically programmed to be unfaithful. I have no problem with the research - very respectably done by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

What I got a little heated about was the suggestion put forward in some quarters that a genetic tendency equals an excuse. There may be sound reasons for men (and women, let's not forget) to spread their genes around, but actioning that in today's society is dictated far more by upbringing, personality and personal ethics than by a genetic imperative.

Parallel to this, you may have noticed, has been launched a book by one Gary Neuman who claims that if a man strays, it's the woman's fault. Again, excuse me? Yes, women need to work hard to make sure that relationships are healthy and happy - but so do men. And once again, however miserable a partnership, infidelity is an option not an inevitability. You do have a choice here.

As Alex Comfort originally said in Joy of Sex, and I retained in the update, "we have to find our own fidelities."

Friday, August 29, 2008

What a good week...

I truly don't want to turn this blog into a celebration fest - but this has been such a fun week.

Regular readers will recall that it was The Times last Saturday, then The Sun on Monday. Then I was asked to write a piece for The Express for Wednesday. Then I was on Woman's Hour this morning doing a twohander with Brett Kahr, a lovely therapist from the Tavistock Centre. And that's not counting the Australian interviews and the Indian interviews.

Woman's Hour, unsurprisingly, was eager to look at the issues posed when a woman rewrote JOY. Did I feel that it was necessary to realign the book a female viewpoint (answer: absolutely and according to his son Nick, in 2008 Alex Comfort would have agreed). Did I get irritated at Alex for his lack of feminism (answer: for his time he was actually very pro-feminist).

The Times of India, meanwhile, wanted to know whether I'd included the Kama Sutra in the New Joy of Sex (answer: yes) and whether the western sexual tradition had a manual as old and as explicit as the KS. (answer: no of course not, did you really think we would!).

Next week, the Brazilians are ringing. I wonder what they'll ask about - sex on the beach at Ipanema? Watch this space.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A tale of two features

Interesting how two very different features can reflect such very different, and yet similar views of the same topic. Or to put it another way, The Times and The Sun both do a good job.

The Times coverage of The New Joy of Sex came out on Saturday morning. It majored hugely on the social significance of the project, delved into my own background, and happily reflected the key point about the whole book: that despite the fact that sex is all around - I would argue *because* of the fact that sex is all around - we need an informed sex manual as much now as we did in 1972 when JOY was first published. (I also hugely liked the big picture of me in a punt!)

The Sun coverage came out this morning and on the surface looked utterly different. Screaming headlines, capitalised key words, lots of sexy pictures, and boxouts comparing what is "in" the new book and "out" of the first one. One might think that the points made were going to be both less subtle and less accurate. Actually no. The same message about the necessity for sexual information and resources came across just as strongly.

Aside from being a potentially useful "compare and contrast" lesson for media students, these two articles made me reflect. It's fashionable to accuse the redtops of scandal-mongering. It's almost as fashionable to sneer at the broadsheets as being merely vehicles for the chattering classes. And either paper, when writing up the material they had to work with - research, the book itself, the interview with me - could have dramatised, patronised or generally let themselves be hi-jacked by the temptation to write The Joy of Sex in an irresponsible way. It's a sex book, after all - and could have easily been fair game.

But neither paper into that trap. At the heart of each - expressed very differently but making their point just as accurately - was an extremely effective treatment of the messages I am trying to get across. So thank you to both journalists involved. You've just made a huge contribution to sex education in Britain today.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Check out Body and Soul tomorrow!

Just a quick post to tell you about the very first piece of coverage of The New Joy of Sex - by the London Times.

I had great fun doing it - they sent a very accomplished interviewer up from London to spend an afternoon with me. But even more enjoyably than that, they also got a photographer to take some snaps.

Said photographer decided that it would be a great idea to shoot the whole thing on a punt, so imagine me, the photographer and a rather bemused punt chauffeur taking us round and round in circles on the River Cam just in front of King's College Chapel while the tourists floated by gawping.... Embarrassed? You could say that.

The results will be the lead interview in the Times Body and Soul supplement tomorrow Saturday 23rd August; so please do check it out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Yes!!!! The big day is approaching!

I admit it. For the past six months I have been a positive tease on this blog.

I have been hinting - more than broadly - that I have been involved in a big sexuality project, which I haven't been at liberty to talk about. Now, I can spill the beans.

You may remember, or have heard of, the seminal book Joy of Sex, written by Dr Alex Comfort in 1972. It's been a huge success, selling 8 million copies worldwide, but sadly Alex died in 2000, though his son Nick did a great job of updating in 2002.

Since then, the publishers have been searching for a female sexologist to "reinvent" the book for the twenty-first century. In 2006 they chose me - and for the past two years I've been working on the project. Now, it's all come to fruition - the UK launch date is September 8th, with a US launch in 2009.

I'm very proud of the New Joy of Sex. All of it has been revised and brought up to date. About half of it has been completely rewritten. There are forty three new sections covering everything from the clitoris through to internet sexuality. And there's a total reorientation of approach - from the mores of 1972 through to the new hedonism (and the new puritanism) of 2008.

As you can imagine, I am getting very excited - not just for myself, but because this is such an important book. What I realised in (re)writing it is that Alex Comfort was one of the first people to emphasise not only the joy but also the power of sex; we tend these days to treat the whole thing as a game, but it's an extremely potent force in life. The New Joy of Sex book, hopefully, makes that statement.

So...for the next few weeks, watch out for regular updates on this blog - of what's happening with Joy of Sex, the launch, and all the interesting work that seems to be coming in on the back of it.

Watch this space...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Shades of Salem?

I was surprised when I heard - via an American friend - that a rise in teen pregnancy rates in a small East coast US town had hit Time Magazine. Hardly the stuff that front page covers are made of, I would have thought. This story, however, hinged on the claim that there the girls had agreed to get pregnant en masse.

Now that was interesting. I was intrigued when I read the Time feature - and so, apparently, was every news desk in the world. Within hours, Google had several hundred thousand hits on the story and the reader postings on each of those individual stories were numbering in the millions.

The facts are these. Having had a pregnancy rate of about 4 per year up to 2007, over the past year 17 of the female students of Gloucester High fall pregnant. Then, when interviewed by Time magazine, the school principal reports that the girls have a 'pact' with each other to aim for motherhood, and that the repeated queuing for pregnancy tests - and the high-fives on getting positive results - are part of a planned project. All of a sudden it's mayhem. The school officials are unavailable for comment. The town officials call an emergency meeting excluding the Principal. Gloucester's mayor is quoted as denying a "blood-oath bond".

Excuse me? Blood oath bond? Secret pact? I'm not suggesting it's great that 17 girls are currently having to face the challenges of motherhood far too early in their young lives. I'm not claiming we should approve if they did all dare each other to get pregnant. And I'm not saying that we - and all countries with a high teenage pregnancy rate - shouldn't be doing our best to lower that rate (ironically, Gloucester officials recently opposed attempts by local sexual health projects to issue contraceptives to school students).

But it does seem to me - whether or not the story is true - to be a huge overreaction, an overreaction by a society that seems threatened by any hint that young girls might decide to take their lives into their own hands. The principal's original term 'pact', the mayor's term 'blood-oath bond' and more worryingly, the willingness of the press to pick up and run with those loaded terms seem to me to be out of all proportion to the original 17 pregnancies. Shades of Midwich Cuckoos, Villa of the Damned. and the Salem witch trials - which actually happened only 10 miles from Gloucester.

Let's not get threatened by this. Let's not turn natural disapproval into a witchhunt. Let's not see this as any more than it is - a troupe of insecure, immature teens who want to love and be loved and - instinctively knowing that motherhood is a wonderful thing - decide to go for it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Lust to love - what next?

We like to think we live in an age where sex can be utterly casual, no strings, no commitment. But sex is a powerful bonding mechanism, and so very often - and this goes for the lads as well as for the girls - something that started as pure pleasure turns into something much more significant and much deeper. If you find yourself falling in love with someone with whom you've agreed to have a 'casual' relationship, what should you do?
  • Be honest with yourself; don't keep on pretending you don't care when actually you do.
  • Give it space. Take the time to think things over and find out what you really feel about your partner.
  • Be honest. Tell your partner what you feel - it's only fair. If they back off, then they were a lost cause anyway.
  • If your love isn't returned, don't wobble or pressure: there's no law to say that just because you have fallen in love, your partner should too.
  • You can't make someone else love you - but you can save yourself from heartbreak. Set a time limit of - say - three months, then walk away.
  • Don't rush into more casual sex - after rejection, you'll just be that much more vulnerable to falling in love again.
  • If your love is returned, celebrate hugely. Lust that turns into love is a wonderful thing!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

When losing weight means losing something else...

I admit it - I try to keep slim. But I still worry about the relentless emphasis on calorie counting that fills whole column yards in the media.

That's not only because too much emphasis on diet is counterproductive; time and again it's been proven that simply eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full is the best way to keep weight under control. My worry about the calorie counting brigade is also because I am firmly convinced that most eating problems are underpinned by some sort of emotional element.

Personally, I'm convinced by my own behaviour - quite simply if I'm under stress I mysteriously find myself opening the fridge door... for the seventh time that evening.

Professionally, I'm convinced by the behaviour of my readers - who in letter after letter reveal to me just how closely their weight is linked with their emotional state.

Scenario number one: eating for confidence. Low self-esteem, relationship abuse, under-achievement women in particular fill the low confidence hole in their lives by filling their mouths with food. If they feel good about themselves, the pounds drop off.

Scenario number two: eating for protection. If a woman feels vulnerable around others, particularly around men, she eats to gain weight and make herself feel invisible. If she starts to feel more in control of her relationships and her life, she doesn't need to be weighty.

Scenario number three: eating for anaesthetisation. If a woman is furious - or grief stricken, or afraid - and she doesn't want to show her fury or grief at those she loves, then she may eat to dull the sensations. Resolve the anger or the mourning and she won't need to over-consume.

Lesson here, for all of us. Next time you open the fridge door, ask yourself if it's really food you want. Or is it a confidence boost... an increased sense of control... comfort... a good cry... or permission to protest something bad that is happening in your life. Simply close the fridge door and go for it direct.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fantasy - good idea or bad girl?

I was recently asked to write a few hundred words for a very lovely erotica magazine on the topic of sexual fantasy. Of course I obliged - writing not so much about my own mental exploits (yes, I admit it, I do...) but about the fact that my readers often confide anxiously in me about their fantasies. What they angst about, typically, is whether, in the grand scheme of things, fantasy is normal, whether fantasising is bad, and whether one should worry if one fantasises about someone other than one's partner.

To which the answers are, respectively, yes, no and maybe.

Let's take those answers one by one. Yes, fantasy is normal. Almost 100% of men and nearly the same number of women have had a sexual fantasy - so if you're out there and you are dreaming, you are not alone.

And no, fantasy does not mean you are bad - or mad, or sad. Contrary to the myths, it's those with a healthy sexual appetite and repertoire who do it, not the No-Mates. More, those who fantasise are likely to have more orgasms and a much better sex life than those who don't - so, everything to celebrate. Equally, fantasising about something doesn't mean you're going to action it. Typically we dream about things, places and people that are out of our reach, impractical or just plain unwise; we dream instead of doing not as a prelude to it. So, nothing to fret about.

My only caveat - and it's a tiny one - is about whether fantasising when you're partnered means there's something wrong with your partnership. And here, it all depends on exactly who you're dreaming of... the nearer to home the fantasy, the more you ought to be on full alert. So think of your favourite celeb sweeping you off your feet and there's no problem. Find yourself floating away on a dream of your partner's best friend - who, come to think of it, has hinted pretty strongly that they'd be up for some action - and you may want to stop and decide whether you want to go that route.

But otherwise, to my mind, fantasy is a total gift and allowing your mind to wander in a sensuous direction something to be done with eagerness, application - and absolutely no guilt.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Life saving advice....

Went to (and presented at) a fascinating conference over the weekend courtesy of the Primary Care Sexual Dysfunction Society. In short, medics at the front line of British health care (general practitioners, practice nurses, therapists) often have to deal with sexual issues raised by their patients - PCSDS is an organisation to provide them with information, support and general networking.

Founded by Manchester GP Mike Callender the organisation holds its conference annually in the spring and - more or less annually - calls on me to cover what can only be described as the 'cuddly' side of the business. Perhaps a presentation on how male erectile dysfunction impacts on women partners. Perhaps a few guidelines on how to best support patients who are struggling with emotional issues. Feelings, relationships, counselling... you get the idea.

This year my contribution was twofold. First, a Cook's Tour of the psychological side of women's sexual problems, done as a two-hander with lovely Nottingham-based therapist Angela Gregory. Then - again with Angela - a debate on whether the G spot is important to women's pleasure. In between times, the medics took over, with discussions on cardiac sexology, contraceptive options, and whether one should support - or discourage - patients who want to buy their little blue pill over the Internet.

On one level, of course, all this is deeply strange. Surely everyone can see the slightly weird side of sitting in a Leicestershire business hotel on a sunny Saturday afternoon discussing whether it is advisable to investigate a male patient's sexual problems by sticking a finger up his bum - to check for prostate conditions, I hasten to add.

On the other hand, all this is also deeply important. The passion shown by all present to solving their patient's sexual problems as quickly, efficiently and supportively as possible was wonderful. The commitment displayed to giving the best possible service and generally getting it right was stunning.

Plus, I came away with one literally life-saving nugget - courtesy of Professor Graham Jackson - which I would encourage all readers of this blog to take on board for themselves if they are male (or for their male partners if they are female). It is this. There seems to be a direct link between a man's developing erectile dysfunction and his developing - an average of three years later - the sort of heart condition that results in a quick and fatal heart attack. And - this bit's vital - that link exists whether or not the man has had any worrying cardiac symptoms. Erectile dysfunction is - in the most literal sense of the words - an early warning system.

In other words, if he can't get it up - and that fact isn't linked to a night on the ale or a previously diagnosed medical problem - he should proceed immediately to his GP and get his cardia health checked out. Don't delay. This piece of information, courtesy of the PCSDS, could save a life...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Is my partner going off me?

I get asked this question so often. A reader spots that something is different at home - perhaps their partner is quieter, more withdrawn, or less sexual. And though these signs are often more indicative of an external problem - worries about work, lack of selfconfidence, depression - it could well be that something's wrong.

Here are five key checks if you suspect failing love:

1: Does your partner still remember your first days and weeks together with joy?
A partner who's falling out of love will 're-remember' the early days as being sad or spoiled. If when you talk about when you met there's regret or disillusionment in his (or her) reaction, then there's a problem. If his face still lights up, it's unlikely that there's real difficulty.

2: Does your partner still welcome affectionate physical contact?
Lacking desire or sexual feeling can be down to stress, tiredness or depression - but even when a partner feels like that, a nonsexual hug can still be welcomed. A partner who can't welcome it is usually feeling bad about the relationship.

3: Does your partner talk positively about you to others?
A disillusioned partner often can't express negative feelings directly - it'd be too threatening. Instead, she ( or he) often complains to friends and family - and if he does it in a joking way, there's often an edge behind the joke. If you spot this happening, then it's time to talk.

4: Does your partner still speak enthusiastically about a future together?
If the two of you can look ahead and make plans together - and genuinely welcome those plans - then however stressed you are right now, there's nothing seriously wrong. If when you try to talk about the future, he slides off the point, start worrying.

5: Does your partner still want to please you and make you happy?
If so, there's unlikely to be real problems. But if she blocks your wishes, fights you at every turn, simply doesn't want to give you what you want, then the goodwill has gone from your relationship and something's wrong.

What to do?
First and foremost, think carefully whether any of these bad signs could be otherwise explained. A partner who's lost his job, is recently bereaved or is worried about the children - could well be withdrawn. But when the problem's resolved itself, they'll come back into balance.

Second, talk about it. Simply asking what's wrong - and listening to the answer - can often sort the problem out.

Third, consider counselling. Even if your partner is unwilling to go, you can get support and guidance by seeing a counsellor. If you are in Britain, log on to If elsewhere in the world, ask your physician for a list of recommended counsellors.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Turning us on or putting us off?

Great fun yesterday evening, at the biennial Family Planning Association debate. Two years ago it was on sex education and I bounced up from the floor to make a contribution. This year it was on pornography and I was asked to speak - a really great honour.

The title was "Turning Us On or Putting Us Off". The panel - Mark Limmer the North West Teen Pregnancy Coordinator, Maddy Coy from the Women Abuse Studies Unit and Jamie Maclean of the Erotic Review - was wonderfully facilitated by David Aaronovitch, who seamlessly wove all our statements together then moved it on with substantial audience contributions. I would like to have heard more from "Leanne", a former porn star, and perhaps slightly less from an unamed man in the audience who seemed not to have got the point at all.

Views were wide-ranging - though all agreed on the essential horror of violent porn and the essential wisdom of good sex education. My own approach, though occasionally challenged, hinged on my belief that society is currently in a state of total confusion about many aspects of the porn debate. For a start, what is porn - and what is pleasurable erotica or useful information and knowledge? In my own lifetime I have seen the definition shift - what was reviled thirty years ago is now accepted as natural, normal and helpful.

Above all, though, what I found wonderful was that we were putting issues on the table, talking them through, shining a light on areas that are so often hidden or avoided. Whatever agreements we did or didn't come to, whatever action is or isn't taken, we talked about it sensibly, calmly and usefully.

Hats off - as always - to the Family Planning Association for raising the issue!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Tea with the aunts!

When people hear that I'm an agony aunt, one of the questions I always get asked is... "and do you and all the other agony aunts meet up then, and swap notes". Normally, I say no. We tend to live at opposite ends of the country - and we tend to live very busy lives. "Tea with the aunts" just isn't on the cards.

But recently, thanks to an invitation from The Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, several of us did meet up - and yes, there were tea and cakes served. From the Tavistock's point of view, this was an opportunity to spread the word about the therapy they offer, and - I guess - to debunk a few myths about their being exclusive, traditional and totally out of most people's price bracket. (In fact, much of the work they do is subsidised and you can, theoretically, see one of their highly experienced counsellors completely for free).

There were six of us "aggies" at this meeting and we all listened attentively as the speakers - Susannah Abse and Brett Kahr - outlined the work they do. But then came the surprise. The Tavistock was not just holding an information/publicity session. They were also wanting to swap notes with us as fellow professionals, ask what we did, offer support, identify our daily challenges and compare them with their own.

This was unexpected. I firmly believe that media advisors are just as much trained professionals as anyone else in the field. I would never claim that our job is a counselling job - it's not interactive and it's not longterm. But I would argue that we play just as skilled and demanding a role. We advise not just one but many millions of people. We need to offer wisdom in a few dozen words not over several hundred hours. When we do our job well we disseminate society's best practice. Yes, we are different from counsellors; but we are no less useful or professional.

Some counsellors don't get that. "Agony aunt" can be seen not only as a soft option but as a less skilled one. So it was delightful that the Tavistock were responding to us totally as equals, and initiating a conversation between equals. It turned into an astoundingly useful and insightful occasion, where we discussed mutual problems, offered suggestions and resources, and where both sides learned huge amounts about themselves and about the other.

At the end, it was so successful that we all agreed to meet regularly - for mutual information and support. I am thoroughly looking forward to the next session. And now, if asked whether aggies meet for tea, I can say 'yes'!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Broken hearts are for real

I commented for LBC Radio this morning on a really moving story from the Cass Business School. Apparently one of their lecturers just analysed over 11,000 life insurance policies to track down just how often, following the death of one partner, the other partner died too.

There's already been research about the stress of bereavement causing heart disease. But apparently losing a spouse can actually mean that in the following twelve months it is twice as likely that a woman will die and an astounding six times more likely that a man will.

So yes, you can die of a broken heart. Or - this is my surmise based on my mailbag, not on science - you can die of grief, of loneliness, of a lower quality of life. You can die because you miss your partner so much and simply can't bear the thought of going on without them. Jim Callaghan tried living without his wife of 67 years for just over a week - tried it, didn't like it, followed her to the grave.

Very moving - but also thought-provoking. So often I get letters which, summarised, say something like "my spouse died a few months ago and my family are telling me to cheer up - I should have got over it by now." To which I usually reply "Rubbish - this is serious stuff, you need to grieve!". I give the same reply, actually, to those whose spouses have left; a relationship breakup is not as final as a death, but it too can have devastating effect.

Advice then. If you are mourning a loss of whatever kind, be gentle on yourself and do all you can to look ahead and regain hope. If you are supporting someone who is mourning a loss, keep close - however much of a brave face they put on, they may well be suffering more deeply than you ever could imagine.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

When He Can't Get It Up...

I've done a lot of work around sexual problems - in fact, in May I will be speaking at the Primary Care Sexual Dysfunction conference. One of my particular areas of expertise is erectile difficulty, and I find this particularly rewarding work because so often, the problem's easily cured. Here are some guidelines for both sufferer and their partners.

To him:

1: Relax. Often one occurrence of ED scares the life out of a sufferer - and then performance anxiety kicks in and there's no way forward. If ED has happened after a one-off occurrence, then take the pressure off by concentrating on foreplay for a few weeks. Once you aren't under stress, the problem often resolves itself.

2: If it doesn't resolve itself, don't delay getting help. The average man with ED waits years before consulting a doctor, but that's unwise, if only because ED can be a marker of medical problems such as heart disease or diabetes. See your GP right away; he's seen it all before and won't be embarrassed.

3: Be hopeful. Often it takes only a few minutes' consultation to get a diagnosis and effective treatment. Current medications - yes, the little blue pill and its brothers - can be the answer of choice and if not, then more exploration can often come up with alternative solutions.

To her:

1: Don't add more pressure by blaming yourself or the relationship. ED is rarely caused by partnership problems or infidelity that isn't already clear. Sure, if you are rowing daily then his ED may be a sign that you need to sort things out. But ED in a good relationship is almost always a sign that medical intervention's needed.

2: Offer support not challenge. A man who can't get it up is feeling bad about himself to start with. If you wobble, or do him down, this won't help. Instead explain - he may not know - that most ED is down to a physical problem which can be easily sorted.

3: Suggest he get help. You can give your partner permission and encouragement to go to the doctor, when he may be hesitating. You can also suggest he logs on to SortED in 10 for extra guidance.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Adrenalin junkie!

I really like giving one-off quotes to national newspapers and magazines. There's something incredibly rewarding about being 'flung' a topic at short notice - anything from the McCartney divorce to the efficacy of antidepressants via the Government's latest policy on teen pregnancy. Picking up the phone and instantly being asked to bring all my expertise into play to give insights at the drop of a hat brings with it a rush of pure adrenalin. Can anything beat that?

Well actually, something can. The adrenalin rush of an extended live radio phone-in is, I must admit, even better. My current drug de jour is a monthly co-presenter appearance on Jim Davis' late night Friday show on LBC. I arrive at 9.30. Jim and I enter the studio and pop our headphones on at 9.55. From then until midnight, anything goes. Responding to Jim's sometimes outrageous though always well-thought through questions is the least of my worries. The emails, texts and live calls from our listeners can mean that any topic is fair game.

Last week we began with 'dumping and being dumped' - and the phone lines swiftly started ringing off the hook. Tears, despair, fury - and that was just Jim and I! As to callers, there was the guy who had dumped his one night stand because she wasn't fit enough - and was now asking me to comment on his taking up with her again now she'd lost weight. There was the woman who was agonising over whether to leave her partner of nineteen years. There was the young man who had lost both his girlfriend and his brother at one stroke when he had arrived home early and found them in bed together. All human life was there.

Of course, it's not just the adrenalin rush that keeps me hooked into this kind of work. It's the incredible feeling when someone signs off with the words 'thanks... that's really helped" - or, as happened on my Heart106 programme earlier this year, when a listener emails to tell me that there's been a happy ending and "we took your advice... and the wedding's in June." That, truly, makes everything worthwhile.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Ninety Day Plan

I love spreading the word about good new ideas in personal development. This one's courtesy of my friend Charley Ferrer, a wonderful American therapist whom I met at the World Conference of Sexology in Montreal in 2005. Charley suggests that, rather than wobbling about whether a new partner is The One for you - and particularly if you find yourself either treading on eggshells for fear you'll lose him (or her) - you simply put together a Ninety Day Plan. which is guaranteed to sort the wheat from the chaff, and the viable relationships from the ones that are never going to work.

Here's how to do it.

1: When you get together a new partner, make a judgment first whether they are obviously a 'no'no' - continuing track record of alcoholism, drug abuse, violence or infidelity. If you know they are - or if at any time you discover that they are - end the relationship immediately.

2: If there are no obvious danger signs, then make a commitment that for Ninety Days, you are going to commit to this person as if the relationship was going to work. Let them know that is what you're doing and that you're not going to back out before that period or over. (Also let them know that this doesn't mean you are assuming you will marry them or have their babies, just that you're theirs for three months.)

3: Now relax. Be kind, generous, loving and caring, without worrying whether it's being returned - give and take may even out over time. Don't worry or wobble - again even if there are slight glitches, love takes a while to bed down. Hang on in there, and give it time to develop.

4: But also, be authentic. Be open, honest, the real you without trying to impress or win your partner over. If you think something, say it. If you want something, say so. If you have an impulse to do something, do it. Within reason (no truly bad behaviour) do what you feel like.The Ninety Day Plan gives you the stability to do this.

5: At the end of the ninety days, take audit. Are you disillusioned with your partner? If so, then walk away - but don't reproach yourself; you have absolutely given it your best shot. Is your partner disillusioned with you? If he is, then best for him to walk away now rather than do it years down the line when you're married or pregnant.

But if you are both happy, then this is good. He has seen the real you and he knows who you really are. That means you have a really solid and hopeful basis to go forward - for the next Ninety Days.

If after four sets of Ninety Days, things are getting better and better, you'll probably find that nice things will happen - like you'll move in together or buy a ring!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Teenage pregnancy - always a disaster?

Did you know that teenage birth rates in the UK are no higher than they were in the pre-Pill 1960s? Or that in those Sixties it was seen as normal for women to be married and mothers by the time they were 18?

Both of these stats pop up in a recent Times article covering an upcoming Channel 4 Cutting Edge about teen Mums. Because for all the horror stories about profligate younger Mums, this article, and the documentary, paints a much rosier picture.

Sure, teen pregnancy without the support of a caring partner is hard, much harder than for older and more mature working women. And I'm not saying that all teens step up to the challenge with mature courage and perfect parenting skills.

But I've felt for a while that we catastrophise teen pregnancies unecessarily. Often, having a baby is - in the words of the Channel 4-featured midwives - the 'making' of a girl. They stay with their partners, they grow into fulfilled and supportive parents. And actually, there is not only nothing biologically wrong with a woman giving birth at 14, 15 or 16. We are programmed to produce early; by 30 we are way past our maternity sell by date; the programme even suggests, with reason, that 30-somethings often make more selfish, less dedicated mothers than their younger counterparts.

So no, let's not argue with the Government's 'reduce teen pregnancy' programme. But equally, let's not demonise the teen Mums. On many levels, they do a super job of bearing and bringing up their kids - after which, they go back to education and spent the rest of their lives in productive, fulfilled careers.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Exciting news!

I've hinted more than broadly in this blog on several occasions that I've been working on a new and significant publishing project concerning sexuality. Sadly, I still can't spill the beans too publicly - the publisher concerned has issued a total embargo on coverage until the summer, when books will be available and the publicity campaign can begin in earnest.

But that doesn't mean to say I can't tell you about - make that crow about - all the work that I and my team have been doing to prepare for that campaign. Since our first publicity meeting six weeks ago, we've actually been working flat out.

Laura has been putting together list after list of names that the publishers can approach for coverage, comment and endorsement. Not just contacts in print, radio and television. Not just other agony aunts, media medics and columnists. But academics who might want to put it on their reading lists, academic journals who might want to review it, and counselling organisations who might want to invite me to speak at their conferences. (I"m already speaking about the project in Rome in a few weeks' time, but more about that later.)

In the meantime, Joy has been doing 'projects'. Commissioning a special postcard to be handed out to all and sundry... talking to bookshops and venues to arrange a Cambridge launch... liaising with certain Universities to organise debates on the topic... briefing the publisher's Special Sales department on whom they could approach to get tie ins or merchandising.

My role - along with working on the next stage of the project - has been quite simply to gather as many contacts as I can. If I speak to a journalist, I ask them if they want to be including on the mailing list. If I do a show, I ask the presenter if I can let him know nearer the time. When I talk to anybody and everybody who might have a professional interest, I tell them the bare bones and ask if they want to be kept informed. They all do.

If you're reading this as a journalist, academic or columnist who might be interested in covering the story - without yet, of course, knowing exactly what the story is :) - let me know. I shall put you on the mailing list and, nearer the time, the publishers will send you a press release and, if relevant, a review copy.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Marriage on the rocks?

I am an optimist at the worst of times. But even I was slightly wobbled today by a report published today - albeit by a firm of divorce solicitors - reporting that of the 2000 adults they surveyed, nearly 60% were unhappy in their marriage.

Half of husbands thought their partnership was loveless. 59% of wives would leave tomorrow if they didn't have to worry about the money. Many were holding back from divorce for fear of losing contact with their children. Others were holding back from fear of losing the roof over their heads.

I pay tribute to those who are hanging in there, trying to make it all work. But I do think it is tragic that - for whatever complex reasons - the love that we all see as central to our lives so rarely succeeds in working.

Which is one reason why I liaise so closely with - and support so enthusiastically - the work of Relate, the couples counselling service. If only those 59% of spouses who reported being so unhappy had thought of trying marriage guidance, I bet that statistic would be much lower. If you're among the unhappy majority, log on to

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hats off to the hypnotherapist

I dont' usually do endorsements, but today's news that Paul McKenna has just become Britain's highest paid TV personality has stirred me to one. Because actually I think McKenna is on the right lines when he advises about eating habits.

The ideas he puts forward are by no means new. Back in the Eighties, a book called Diets Don't Work put forward the same, then revolutionary concepts. The theories were then recycled with a feminist slant by Suzie Orbach of Fat is a Feminist Issue fame, under the title On Eating. McKenna has now espoused them in his book I Can Make You Thin - and probably made ten times more money in the first month's publication of that one book than the other two tomes have in their entire history.

But I don't begrudge him, because as I said, the concepts work. They're very simple. Eat only when you are hungry. Eat only what your body wants to eat. Stop eating when you are full. Sounds obvious? It is - naturally slim people do just that - but the advice none the less valuable, particularly when you look at all the other diet guidelines.

Because much of the rest of the slimming industry is based on the presupposition that people need to be told what to eat and how much to eat - and that unless they are, they will not lose weight.

Now, calorie (or carb, or unit) counting can be effective short-term, no doubt. It's the long term I query - the fact that most diets, as the original book suggested, don't work longterm, because they alienate people from their bodies, and train them to override signals both of hunger but also of the kinds of food one needs and doesn't need, and the signals of satiation. The result is that, in the end - given body fascism, media hype and endless amounts of peer pressure - most of us end up eating what we think we should, not what our bodies need. We end up eating foods that we are told are 'good for us' even if we then have bad reactions to them, and avoid foods that are 'bad for us' even if we end up malnourished as a result. Most importantly, we learn to mistrust our bodies, eat through emotion rather than true hunger, and overeat in order to cope with the stress of doing both of those things.

So, unusually for me, an endorsement - not specifically of McKenna, but of the approach he takes. If you want to lose weight, bin the counting charts. Instead, learn to listen to your body signals, eat exactly what you need, in the amounts you need, and simply stop eating when you are full.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Cause and effect... or is it?

Rather hysterical coverage in the press this morning on teenage pregnancy. David Paton of Nottingham University Business School has just analysed Department of Health figures and come up with the statistic that more than 20 girls between 13 and 15 become pregnant every day.

Of course this is sad news. And I totally agree with Professor Paton's analysis that social deprivation and family breakdown are key factors influencing these figures. Where I disagree with Professor Paton is where he claims that because deprivation and breakdown are key causes of teen pregnancy, sex education doesn't figure in the equation - more, that knowing about contraception (here I quote) "leads to an increase in risky sexual behaviour."

I do understand that you've reviewed the figures, Prof Paton. And I do understand that you've drawn conclusions that appeal to the moral majority. But they just don't tie in with what I'm seeing in my postbag from real teenagers who open up to me. Not a single one of these young people reports that knowing about condoms makes it more likely that they will have risky sex. Not a single one says that having available family planning services normalises sexual activity. Why? For the blindingly obvious reason that those who use these services are those who take precautions and don't appear in the statistics you're quoting.

What I read in my postbag are cries from the heart. Yes, these are very often linked with family breakdown and social deprivation; if a young girl feels unloved and insecure - and if her family members are also thus struggling - then it makes every sense in the world that she will cling to whoever will give her love, even if the price of that love is sex, ignorant of protection and contraception.

What everyone seems to miss here is that 14 year olds - like their adult counterparts - don't have sex in order to be irresponsible, rebellious and pregnant. They have sex in order to be accepted, valued and loved. Unless we take that on board then all the statistical analyses and horrified press coverage in the world will never get the teenage pregnancy rate down.

PS: going to Argentina to dance tango for twelve days. I'll be back writing after that.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Happy New Year!

As regular readers of this blog will have noticed, the last few weeks have been marked by a singular absence of entries. Not because of Christmas festivities but because I have been working up to the final deadline for the Classic Sex Book, which I have now - whoopee!!! - handed to the publisher.

Can't be too free with the details yet, as it's still slightly under wraps, but it's due out in September... watch this space.

As for 2008, I thought that for the first column this year, I'd turn my attention to New Year's Resolutions. No, not mine - though I do have a list of about ten which I'm beginning to action - but resolutions for others, resolutions which, if adopted, would make the world a much happier place.

So here goes. For 2008, I wish that..

1: ... "your condom or mine" was as normal a chat up line as "do you come here often?"

2: ... twenty somethings realised that the first few months of a relationship are hormonally fuelled, and therefore not necessarily a sufficient foundation on which to get pregnant.

3: ... fifty-somethings became aware that in terms of sexually transmitted infections, their longer history makes them even more at risk than twenty-somethings

4: ... every engaged couple believed that having pre-marriage preparation isn't unromantic nor a lack of faith but instead a great start to a successful married life. (If you're interested, log on to Relate's website on and search for 'Couples Course')

5: ... every man knew what to do with the clitoris and every woman knew what to do with the frenulum.

6 ... every couple struggling to stay together could realise that counselling really does help and that it's not a sign of weakness to get outside support. (

7: ... everyone recovering from a relationship loss could accept that it takes time to recover - and that rebound relationships may dull the pain short term but long-term are likely to be either a bad choice or doomed to end.

8: ...every parent started taking responsibility for resourcing their children around making confident sexual decisions - information, emotional support and positive role models.

9: ... Ed Balls (British Secretary of State for Education) can carry through on his just-announced promise to drag Britain's sex education teaching into the 21st century (no, that wasn't how he expressed it but you know what I mean.)

10: everyone would back a new campaign just launched that hopes to bring an end to cervical cancer. If you want to add your signature, log on to

Happy New Year!