January 6th, 2010
Ah, the noughties. Already we’re getting all nostalgic for the past decade. It certainly was an interesting ten years for sex and relationships where a lot happened, and some things didn’t change. What particularly characterises this decade is not things we thought we’d discovered, but how new technologies allowed us to share, organise, enjoy and exploit age-old activities and rebrand them as ‘new’. See how many things you remember as we go through our sex and relationships alphabet.
A is for…
Abstinence – for many countries the concept of sex before marriage is considered taboo, and in many countries abstinence based education was promoted as a form of promoting marriage, and avoiding teenage pregnancy, STIs and homosexuality. This means reporting sex should be for marriage, but not teaching about pleasure, negotiating sex, using contraception or STIs. The noughties saw several high profile campaigns including ‘purity rings’ and ‘purity pledges’ where young people promise not to have sex until they are married. While many teen celebrities and sex education programmes endorsed this approach (particularly in the US) it has not been found to be effective in reducing unplanned pregnancy or STIs. Those who were encouraged to abstain did so, although not all remembered making a ‘virginity pledge’ even a couple of years after, and still continued to have sex before marriage (often without using contraception). International campaigns for reducing HIV included abstinence within the ‘ABC’ approach to sex (abstain or if you can’t do that then be faithful and if you can’t do that then use a condom). None of which accounted for the problem of abstinence messages in gender unequal cultures where it is often difficult to get men to adhere to such approaches and women have no power to say ‘no’. Despite there being no evidence that abstinence only campaigns don’t work, many faith based groups, charities, governments and healthcare practitioners continue to promote them.
Addiction – at the start of the noughties pretty much nobody had heard of sex addiction, and when it was mentioned it was done so with a snigger. But with the efforts of a minority of ‘therapists’ the idea gained popularity – particularly among conservative countries, sex negative organisations/practitioners, and the media. Celebrity indiscretions provided ample case studies for the addiction label to be applied. Rather than sexual problems being down to coercive, abusive, controlling or thoughtless behaviour we reframed sexual behaviour we didn’t like (including masturbation, using sex toys, being unfaithful, or having sex before marriage) as ‘addiction’. We even shifted our view of porn as a cause of violence (the general view in the 80s and 90s) to an indicator of sex addiction. Of course people do experience problems with sex which are distressing, but this is not to say anyone who is unfaithful or looks at porn is a sex addict. For an excellent overview of this issue see Marty Klein’s essay ‘Why there’s no such thing as sexual addiction – and why that really matters’
Anal – we’ve been having anal sex for thousands of years. It’s not particular new, but in this decade anal sex became far less taboo than in the recent past. The porn industry, ever eager to embrace new ideas (and under pressure to provide novel content) made anal sex part of most mainstream movies. While the media eager to seem a teensy bit transgressive (and also in need of novel content) celebrated bum sex. Myths abounded that if you were a straight guy who had anal sex with women you were automatically gay, and the focus of anal sex in the mainstream media was predominantly something men did to women (or gay men did together). We’re still not quite comfortable with straight men who enjoy anal penetration by women (although we know many couples enjoy this). Sex educators were keen to promote anal sex as a form of pleasure for couples, but were also anxious about those in developing countries using it as a form of contraception or maintaining virginity, and where folk were engaging in anal sex without condoms or lubricant. It’s great we’ve celebrated anal sex, but concerns remain about us doing it safely – and having it as a pleasurable option, not a mandatory box to tick on our sexual checklist. (If you’re interested in finding out more check out Jack Morin’s excellent Anal Pleasure and Health).
Asexuals – sex researchers have always known that sexual behaviour falls on a spectrum where most of us have similar sexual desires, and there are a minority who are highly motivated sexually and those who report little or no sexual desires. In such research not wanting sex was not considered problematic unless it distressed a person. But in the noughties the media suddenly ‘discovered’ asexuality and reported it as a ‘new trend’. One they weren’t entirely happy about – surely there was something wrong if you didn’t want sex? In response we saw numerous media reports trying to problematise asexuality and confuse it with celibacy. Followed by asexuals speaking out, networking, using the phrase ‘a-pride’, and showing they did not consider themselves to be abnormal.
Aspirational sex – over the past ten years we’ve seen a major shift within the media reporting of sex where we now see sex as something we can achieve, improve upon and enhance. Combined with changes in the pharmaceutical industry and commercialisation of sex (more on this later in the list) the focus on sex as something we ought to be proficient at became a major part of media and self help messaging. All of which implied sexual liberation, but actual increased sexual anxieties and a sense of dissatisfaction – all the while making sex about performance, positions and products – not pleasure, adventure and exploration.
B is for…
Bisexuals – for a long while bisexuals struggled with recognition. Often mistrusted by straight and gay communities or misjudged as being indecisive or wanting it all, the noughties saw a far greater emphasis on bisexuality as a sexuality rather than the filling between the straight and gay sandwich. Major efforts were undertaken to study, debate, raise awareness, reframe and celebrate being bi. While it hasn’t completely removed the prejudice faced by bis, and we’re still more comfortable sexualising bi women than accepting bi men, being bi is far more widely recognised (and at times in the noughties appeared to be the celebrity sexuality of choice).
Blogging – or more particularly sex blogging, has made a major difference to how we understand our sexual lives. Throughout the past ten years we’ve seen a major development in blogs discussing sex work, education, activism, erotica, sexuality, and the positive and negative aspects of relationships. We’ve gained insights into people’s sex lives and been able to learn from each other. A few folk got very rich off theirs, and there were some very nasty outing situations for anonymous sex bloggers. Not all sex blogs are what they seem, and some are better than others, but we are definitely better off now we can share our sex/relationships with others.
Burlesque – this form of dance isn’t new, indeed it has a long history from music hall to feminist activism. But in the noughties we saw a huge revival of the art of Burlesque. This included dance classes, clubs, and an influence on fashion and music. Most famous of the revival was Dita Von Teese and Immodesty Blaize although many established dancers like Jo King were happily still flying the Burlesque flag. Detractors argued it was just another means of selling sexism, a further form of commercialising sex, or the excuse posh girls needed to strip. Supporters saw it as a means of exercise, empowerment, excitement, activism and fun – and paying homage to past performers like Tempest Storm, Gypsy Rose Lee and Bettie Page.
C is for…
Celebrity – we rediscovered our love for stars in the last decade, and part of that has included speculation about and invitations to view celebrity courtships, engagements, weddings, separations, divorces. Much of our noughties media coverage of sex/relationships revolved around the ‘case study’ of the celebrity of the week who’s getting together or splitting up. We even saw celebrities take on the role of sex expert by virtue of their being, well, famous. Sales of celebrity based media continued to rise and undoubtedly transformed the content of women’s media over the past 10 years. It also influenced our reproductive and healthcare services – with high profile celebrity cancer stories encouraging people to access healthcare – sometimes helpfully, sometimes putting huge strain on already overstretched services.
Consumerism – in previous decades sex educators and activists complained about the lack of access to quality materials to enhance sexual pleasure. Be that erotica, sex toys, lubricants, lingerie, condoms or other gadgets, what was available was either tacky, or overpriced (or both). Over the past decade we’ve seen a major shift in the variety and availability of products aimed to spice up our sex lives. Indeed at the start of the noughties many sex educators (myself included) were thrilled to see the sex product sweetie shops opening. Unfortunately as we’ve moved through the last ten years we’ve found that the consumerist influence on sex has not completely delivered on its promise to sort out our sex lives. As with any industry there are those who are not ethical, underqualified, or unenthusiastic about their work. And this industry is marked by a lack of collaborative working, competition and secrecy. The media, however, heartily embraced this trend – as it allowed them to look like they were talking about sex without really getting too nasty; it provided links to things to buy (candles and bubble bath being a favourite); it fitted sex into a lifestyle enhancing model where designer toys promised even better orgasms; and it came supplied with an ever eager supply of ‘sexperts’ willing to talk to the press – in return for a mention of their products. That’s not to say we’ve not benefitted from more products, but we end the decade with many people not seeing them as an optional extra, but viewing their sex life as deficient if it’s not accompanied by a whole box of tricks.
Cougars – older women have always dated younger men. But in the noughties we not only reinvented this as a ‘new trend’, we gave it a name. Welcome the ‘cougar’ – largely the invention of magazines and newspapers who found it a fantastic opportunity to hang stories on photos of celebrities in their forties and fifties and their younger beaus. It’s also led to dating sites, forums and other paid-for services where women who identify as cougars can congregate. The only downside to the cougar phenomena is you can’t be a sexy older lady and be old. The poster girls for the movement are all in their forties, fifties or older but passing for far, far younger.
Cuckolds – there’s a long a rich history of ‘cuckolds’ across cultures, but in the noughties we saw cuckolding celebrated as a more mainstream fetish for women and men in porn, sex forums and blogs.
D is for…
Disability – throughout the decade we’ve seen efforts by disablity groups and those working with disabled people to put sex firmly onto the agenda. Since sex and relationships has frequently been viewed as taboo within this area it’s been amazing to watch the activism, education and development of aids and enhancers to benefit disabled people and their partners. We’ve still a long way to go, but the noughties was the decade where more and more people noticed that disabled people are sexual too.
Dogging – across the land there’s always been lovers lanes, quiet country spots, and sometimes busier thoroughfares where people have gathered to canoodle – and others have come to watch. In the noughties we saw a major change in our ability to share information about where such locations were – and invite others to join. In the past if you were interested in having sex while others watched, or wanted to look, it was far harder to know where to go and what to look for. The internet, forums, and dogging sites ensured more specific information could be shared. The media also played a role, hyping up the prevalence of dogging and casting a mostly prurient gaze on the subject. I can still remember the first call I had from a journalist working on a breakfast television show who demanded I talk about this ‘disgusting practice happening right now in car parks’. At one point we couldn’t move for radio phone-ins where a dogger, a local resident and a representative from the local council battled it out with arguments over unsafe sex, abuse, public nuisance and disorder. Things have calmed down as the decade draws to a close, and those interested in dogging continue to practice it, with much less media intrusion.
Domestic violence – sadly this has remained an issue throughout the last ten years, although discussions on the topic are often fraught and difficult. During the noughties we did address domestic violence as experienced by women and men, gay and straight. We extended our definitions of violence to include emotional as well as physical abuse. And we accepted how domestic violence has major impacts on psychological and physical wellbeing. Although arguments over who is most affected and gender based arguments have often derailed public opinion, policy and practice. And as we saw with other issues within the decade, the UK government didn’t take an evidence based approach to the problem – while governments in other countries ignored it completely.
E is for…
Emergency Contraception – during this decade we’ve seen changes around how we approach emergency contraception (the morning after pill). With mixed results. In some countries (like the UK) it is available over the counter in pharmacies so if you’ve had unprotected sex or the condom split you can get EC quickly. In other countries (such as the US) the approach has been very different, with efforts made to prevent this approach. Although the evidence base indicates providing EC does not increase promiscuity or sexual risk taking but can reduce unplanned pregnancies, some politicians have still preferred to rely on their opinions or religious views over the decade and resist making EC available.
F is for…
Fuck buddies/friends with benefits – woo hoo! Everyone had a fuck buddy in the noughties – didn’t we? You know, the person you got on great with, and had fun with, and fabulous no strings sex with, but were in no way in a relationship with. Books on how to get and keep a fuck buddy were written and rumours abounded that even young kids in schools talked about a FWB (friend with benefits). In medialand the fuck buddy was constructed in the Samantha from Sex and the City model – the postfeminist, independent woman who needed sex but didn’t want to be tied down to a relationship. Which was the case for some. And for others the fuck buddy was the person you hung out with because you hoped they’d become something more after they met your amazing vagina. Or the person you were with because it was less scary than being alone.
Facebook – can you believe we didn’t have this ten years ago? Over the past few years Facebook (and similar social networking sites) have become the way to share your life with others, make new friends, rediscover old classmates, and fight zombies. It’s been heralded as the means to support friendships and bringing couples together, and decried as a cause of addiction and neurological disorders (both of these unproven allegations), plus the cause of numerous divorces. Research is just catching up with this phenomena and we can expect to see more studies in the next decade looking at what Facebook means for relationships – and whether flirting with someone you snogged when you were eleven really counts as cheating.
Female Ejaculation – over the past decade we’ve seen a shift in how we view female sexual response. It’s no longer good enough for women to orgasm – or even have multiple orgasms. Nope, now you have to squirt as well. Of course this is another one of those things women have known about for a long time, but it has been revisited within porn mainly as a marker to ‘prove’ orgasm has taken place, and has continued to be argued over within sexology about whether it even exists. With the shift in porn and sex toys the expectation for women to ejaculate is now high, and we’re seeing as the decade closes countless women anxious that they don’t measure up. Rather than appreciating that female ejaculation is something that happens to some women, sometimes.
G is for…
Gay marriage – we saw a shift within the noughties with some countries making gay marriage (or civil partnership) legal – and some states reversing this decision almost as soon as they’d made it. Which just leads us neatly on to Prop 8 The Musical (because humour as a weapon against bigotry was alive and well in the noughties)
G-spot – the friend of female ejaculation we saw a real celebration of this little spot in the past 10 years. Yes it had been around before (particularly in the 80s) but back it came in this decade – partly due to the wider availability of sex toys, and partly due to cosmetic surgery procedures promising to enhance the area – all of which the media (particularly women’s magazines) reported uncritically. Educators were quick to point out that for many women the vagina and areas within it are very pleasurable, while some women prefer clitoral, nipple or anal stimulation (and some of ladies are just plain greedy and like all of the above). The worry has been throughout the decade that the g spot was used by the media as the more palatable genital area to mention than the clit, and reinforces the idea that penetrative sex is superior to other forms of pleasure. It also has created anxiety for women who worry they just don’t have one – and a whole slew of bad science.
Join me tomorrow where we’ll be romping through letters H to O. Including hormones, the internet, kidults, metrosexuals, medicalisation and of course orgasms.Tweet