Why today’s youngsters are as ignorant about real intimacy

Why today’s youngsters are as ignorant about real intimacy as their oh-so innocent grandparents

  • Ian McEwan says the knowledge youngsters have about sex could be damaging
  • He claims young boys are exposed to media that warps their expectations 
  • He says girls feel a pressure to look a certain way and wear certain things 
  • Ian believes sex is seen by many as just another recreation, meaning nothing
  • Libby Purves considers the changes in attitudes towards sex since the 1960s

Our sex-savvy younger generation would almost certainly be scornful about the couple at the heart of On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan’s best-selling novel newly released as a film.

It’s 1962 and Florence (played by Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) are 22 and on their honeymoon. The book’s opening sentence sums it up: ‘They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.’

Unfortunately for the fastidious Florence, her only preparation for initiation into the mysteries of sex and physical pleasure is to read biology books, which repel her. Edward just yearns for their wedding night. Predictably, it is a disaster, from the first kiss that disgusts Florence to his ultimate failure to perform. Their subsequent quarrel leads to annulment of the marriage, and a less fulfilled life for both.

Libby Purves investigates how attitudes towards intimacy in sexual relations has changed since the 1960s (Pictured: Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle in On Chesil Beach)

So you could draw a complacent moral, saying how grand it is that modern children are taught sexual mechanics at school, including some practices their parents certainly never learned from teachers.

Their first experiences of sex almost certainly won’t happen on their wedding night or even with someone they seriously love, but with some spotty classmate who will soon be written off as an embarrassing mistake.

Moreover, they’ll have witnessed scenes in TV and films which leave little to the imagination. They read scorching accounts of earth-moving sex in chick-lit novels. Not to mention the all too easily found internet porn.

But as Ian McEwan observed last week, the surfeit of knowledge youngsters now ‘enjoy’ may be as damaging as the lack of knowledge that causes Florence and Edward so much torment.

The author remarked that today’s young have their own kind of ignorance, something hard to imagine 50 years after the sexual revolution and the dawn of reliable contraception. Yet I think he’s right. In a way our teenagers and 20-somethings know even less about real sex than Florence and Edward.

Talking about what constitutes a healthy level of sexual knowledge, he said: ‘Young boys in their teens are seeing unbelievable, athletic, pornographic stuff on the internet which really warps their expectations.

‘There are huge pressures on young girls to be a certain shape, wear certain things . . . without much discussion of the emotional truthfulness or affection or kinds of emotional play that would provide the real peak of sexual experience.’

According to a recent survey from researchers at the Department for Education and University College London, an eighth of young people stay virgins until 26 and speak of the pressure of expectation and the fear of ‘failing at sex’.

 Ian McEwan says young men are been given a purely pornographic notion of what it means to love. He argues we need to consider the relationship between sex and emotions (file image)

Of course, girls have long been exposed to unrealistic ideas of their first sexual experience thanks to romantic fiction — from Barbara Cartland’s maidens ‘carried to heavenly bliss on wings of love’ to Jilly Cooper’s improbable, jodphur-ripping and never-disappointing encounters.

As for the boys, in previous generations they weren’t served much better. In my early teens, because my dad worked at the British Embassy in Berne, Switzerland, I used to help mind the British Council library, which was full of mouldering old classic novels and poetry anthologies.

But it had a small, shameful shelf full of pulp fiction donated by the security men. So I read a lot of Harold Robbins’ racy novels aimed at men, and got the general impression that a chap had to make a million dollars, and probably kill someone, before he could successfully Do It.

Of course the joke is that if I had really wanted to know about sex, I might have done a lot better with those classic novels and poems which explore the emotional landscape of love. McEwan is spot on when he says ‘we need to consider the relationship between sexual experience and emotional bonding . . . it’s such a powerful thing, and I think especially young men are being fed a purely pornographic notion of what it is to love someone.’

Ian argues sex has been turned into another healthy and necessary recreation, meaning nothing (file image)

Sex — sharing your naked body with someone else — is for human beings a bonding thing. It has a powerful tendency to become something more than mere coupling, sometimes disastrously and obsessively so, sometimes forging a lifetime’s partnership.

Of course turning virginity into a bargaining chip, and trading on the disgusting idea that a girl was ‘ruined’ if she lost it, was always wrong. I remember those attitudes well, and good riddance to them.

But as McEwan says, the pendulum has swung too far the other way now, and there is a breezy, insincere pretence around that sex is just another healthy and necessary athletic recreation, meaning nothing.

And worse, that it is a kind of duty for girls to be ‘hot’, and desirable at all times, cheerfully ‘up for it’ and as keen to learn new tricks as any circus artiste.

That doesn’t make for happiness, any more than the Chesil Beach prudery, fear and ignorance. I am not a bit surprised if 12 per cent of young people now rebel against the idea of early sex for the sake of it, and stick to friendship and the odd cuddle until their mid-20s.

The alternative can be seriously depressing: some use unsatisfactory, untrusting sex just to fend off loneliness and low self-worth, or (in the case of young men especially) to rack up notches on the bedpost and prove yourself a powerful stud.

Libby believes English literature teachers will do a better job of teaching the intimacy and bonding in sexual relationships than PSHE educators (file image)

Like many, I was fascinated by the recent short story Cat Person, which went viral online and caused a furore.

Loosely based on a real encounter, the heroine of the story is chatted up by an older man and goes home with him, though she is already going off him. She succumbs to sex without desire, feeling she has to go ahead because it is expected. Her only consolation is vanity. She sees herself reflected in his eyes as pretty, and enjoys imagining how desperate he is for her.

Then she ‘ghosts’ him — cuts off all communication — and he is offended, and finally texts her a single word: ‘Whore!’

That story struck a chord with a lot of young women. There was an honesty about the writing, a portrait of a sexually liberated yet dreadfully muddled generation, struggling to persuade itself that the ultimate physical intimacy can be just a lark. A hobby, at worst a daft mistake, something that doesn’t matter.

Anyone growing up needs to know the other side: the power of murmurs, closeness, utter trust, surrender on both sides, a connection through the skin as powerful as that of mother and newborn baby.

The trouble is, I cannot imagine many PSHE (personal and social health education) teachers in schools expressing all that in a class full of gigglers.

Frankly, the English literature teacher will do a better job, with all the passionate novels and great poems to feed on: what is more erotic, more impassioned than John Donne four centuries ago — ‘Licence my roving hands, and let them go, Before, behind, between, above, below — O my America! my new-found-land, My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d! My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie, How blest am I in this discovering thee!’

There’s just one point where Mr McEwan and I diverge. He says: ‘Comedy is the great undoing of the erotic. If you have sex with someone and they start laughing, it’s all over.’ Hmmm. I’d say that if you can laugh together about it, then there really is a bond of trust . . .

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