Behind Closed Doors

In W.H.Smiths in Marylebone Station I recently spotted a new novel by Lucy Kellaway, the FT’s management correspondent, whose debunking of management theory codswallop is always entertaining. Her last novel ‘Martin Lukes: Who Moved My Blackberry’ was my holiday reading a few years ago (if you don’t understand the joke in the title then you’re happily innocent of one of the more ludicrous management bestsellers of the past few years).

However, it was in the ‘Buy 1 Get 1 Half Price’ offer and, of course, the fallibility of my mind to marketing psychology meant I scanned around for the ‘bargain’ book to accompany ”In Office Hours‘ and succumbed to the temptation of a book I’d seen partially serialised in The Times a few weeks ago: ‘The Sex Diaries Project’ edited by Arianne Cohen.

(Curiously, this book has a relatively high sales ranking on Amazon and is number one in its niche category in the health, family and lifestyle section but no-one has posted a review so far — which is odd.)

The book is formed of around fifty diaries kept by British people in which the diarists recorded their sexual activities and thoughts — although most diaries spend more time reflecting on relationships than recording the mechanics of sex. Perhaps calling the book ‘The Relationships Diaries Project’ would have been less commercial but a third of the diarists record no sex at all (for various reasons) during their week. The diaries aren’t, of course, a representative survey of the population — there are probably a few too many ‘unusual’ diaries for that — but there’s a very varied spread of gender, age and sexual orientation.

It’s not particularly salacious or erotic — it’s tame enough to have been discussed on ‘Woman’s Hour’ on Radio 4 — I found an interview with Arianne Cohen on the BBC website. (It was quite amusing to hear Jenni Murray finely navigate the line between being over-euphemistic and speaking too frankly.)

I’d argue (honestly!) that this book is a very valuable resource for anyone writing a novel which emphasises the development of any intimate relationship between its characters. These are frank accounts of behaviour between real people written in the language they genuinely use. Almost by definition these activities are private — they’re not the kind of things a novelist can sit and wryly observe from a coffee shop. The diaries are published anonymously (although Cohen does a lot of checking to ensure they are not hoaxes) and, like diaries of the more conventional sort, the writers commit to paper much that they would never speak out loud to anyone else.

One assertion that Arianne Cohen makes in the interview, which is re-assuring to writers but also perhaps surprising given the tone of much of the debate on gender, is she believes that the male and female diarists ‘experience relationships in a very similar way’ and in terms of ‘minute-by-minute thoughts men and women are quite similar’.

Where the difference lies is that men express this experience somewhat differently — usually in a more explicitly sexual way. However, the female diarists are certainly just as capable of commenting explicitly on the sexual attractiveness of others. Maybe to emphasise the point, the gender of each diarist is printed in very small type. It’s sometimes easy to forget whether it’s a man or woman writing the diary.

Jenni Murray said she detected an undercurrent of misogyny in some of the male entries and Arianne Cohen agreed that around 15% of the male diaries showed a disturbing objectification of women. This might be summed up by the serial adulterer who also visited a prostitute almost every week and who seemed to believe his attitude to women was shared by most men. (It isn’t.)

On the other hand, it’s misleading and self-deluding to assume (as was possibly implied in the Woman’s Hour discussion) that infidelity is automatically linked to misogyny. In anything but the shortest flings, there are usually two people involved in the deception — in the case of (straight) male  infidelity it’s the despised ‘other woman’.  While the man may indeed be objectifying and using both women in a shallow way, it’s also equally true that his actions may be driven by passion and emotion — not a dislike of women at all.

This leads to the question of whether women can easily be categorised, as maybe they are in soap operas,  into the likes of predatory husband-snatchers or faithful home-makers. I’d guess it’s not so simple and there’s a continuum of behaviour that suggests, depending on circumstances and many other factors, that the majority of people could end up being either the ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ party in an episode of unfaithfulness.  I hope so as this is one of the main dilemmas for the characters in my novel.

The honesty and accuracy of the diary entries is perhaps vouched for by the frequency of the occasions where the diarists record masturbation. There really isn’t much kudos to be gained by an individual to record that they’ve masturbated — the nature of the activity itself means that anyone can do it and independently of any relationship. That people masturbate such a lot might be simultaneously the most enlightening and least surprising finding in the whole book — precisely because it’s an activity that is very rarely discussed or written about and only often in abstract, de-personalised, self-help terms.

But it’s the near ubiquity of the activity which is quite striking: it’s recorded at a similar sort of intensity by men and women, people who are single or in relationships, young or old (although not the very oldest). There are a couple of oddly touching anecdotes on the subject — one the man in his 60s who is unhappily resigned to the physiological challenges involved at his age and the pregnant woman who debates whether her unborn baby is technically a witness — and, if so, what does this mean ethically (she decides it’s OK).

The last point also stresses the privacy (usually) required. If the diarist is in a relationship, almost every incidence of what  is euphemistically called ‘self-love’ is kept hidden: people are aware that their partners probably do masturbate but the where and the when aren’t really considered, apart from one particular entry that stood out as the exception that proved the rule. (I was startled to read of some of the diarists nipping away from their work desks for the purpose.)

This revelation of the inevitable must be interesting to fiction writers — this is something your characters are pretty likely to do and it may reveal something of their inner-lives, unlike involuntary bodily functions that everyone does but don’t normally appear in novels. On the other hand, a solitary act of (another euphemism coming up — no pun intended) self-relief is almost, by definition, lacking in the drama that occurs when a sexual act is part of a relationship. I can see why masturbation is not a common event in fiction but the candour with which these diarists record it makes me wonder whether writers tend to shying away from using a fairly universal experience.

If every aspect of the book that’s fascinating to writers was discussed in detail  then this would be an even longer post than it already is (and I think it’s already the longest one on the blog — more of an essay than a posting). There follows a list of a few points that were particularly thought-provoking. Some are seemingly obvious and intuitive but that may lend credibility to the implication that the more apparently deviant attitudes are more common than might be generally supposed. Again, there’s no science to this list — it’s what struck me while reading the selection of  diaries.

  1. Ex-lovers feature a lot — both in people’s thoughts and in physical encounters. Many, many diarists long for a previous partner — and sadly many of these people are in other relationships with people they prefer less. This is often in spite (or because) of a recognition that any lasting relationship with that person is emotionally impossible (such as the newly-divorced woman pining for her ex-husband). Many report that sexual encounters with ex-partners continued on a sporadic basis long after the relationship finished. The ability to impulsively hook up with an ex has become much easier with new technology: mobile phone ‘sexting’ is another example of the greater intimacy and audacity people use with the written word. (I’m convinced that people tend to favour texting due to its privacy and asynchronous nature. There are a number of examples of where the utter simplicity of a text saying something like ‘Come over — I want to fuck you’ works very effectively for all parties and this brevity and directness is a lesson to writers.) The internet is another obvious tool (and Facebook is mentioned a lot in the book) for ex-partners to keep in casual contact. People tend not to talk about exes to their current partner — so again this is good, private, fertile ground for the writer.
  2. Many of the straight women describe an aspiration for sexual experimentation with another woman. This seems to be borne out of inquisitiveness and curiosity about whether this would be a different, maybe more sympathetic, sort of sensual experience than with a man. This was often acknowledged to be something that would remain in the realm of private fantasy although some expressed regret at having lost the opportunity to try it.  Straight male diarists seemed to have no interest in other men (except perhaps as an unavoidable consequence of group sex).
  3. When the respondents were interested in sex then there was little gender difference in the levels of desire recorded. However, it seemed in committed relationships that men were more likely view other people in terms of sexual attraction. Women, by contrast, tended to comment on others mainly when they were dissatisfied with their current partner.
  4. Traditional (or even stereotypical) roles seem to be preferred. To use a parallel from the dancing world (is it just tango?): it’s expected that the man takes the lead. This shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a green light for blatant sexism. It’s not — women want caring relationships with people who pull their weight domestically. However, effete ‘metrosexuals’ aren’t popular (there are various approving references to men behaving ‘like men’). Passive, indecisive, wimpy men appear to be held in almost universal contempt. (One woman complains she always ends up with docile partners which means that she ‘always seems to be the man’ in relationships.)
  5. Self-esteem is very closely linked to behaviour in relationships — sometimes directly when a person is suspicious of anyone treating him or her well because they don’t feel they have earned it or deserve it and sometimes people enjoy an inversion of status and control during which all their choice and self-determination is denied — something they curiously find empowering. The most bizarre entries are ‘dom/subs’ where the word ‘I’ is symbolically written in lower case by the submissives with their ‘Masters’ or ‘Mistresses’ referred to as He or She.
  6. Physical intimacy (feelings being safe, wanted, cared for) is perhaps more valuable to people than sex — particularly to those who have lost a partner through death or a traumatic split. However, there is powerful evidence of the beneficial effects to relationships of hormones like oxytoxcin or dopamine released during sex. Some diarists report deep frustration at their partner’s perceived withholding of sex over periods of days which ultimately comes across as near-loathing. Yet when they’re put out of their misery and have sex it’s a joyous experience and suddenly they record they love their partner very much. How long this effect lasts is questionable — I’d guess that anyone who internalises that their partner is using the restriction of affection perhaps as a power game is going to remain unhappy most of the time and that the humiliation of sexual rejection, whether deliberately or accidentally inflicted, probably contributes more to infidelity than any inherent predisposition.
  7. Availability often outweighs attractiveness: as the diarists are anonymous and there are no photos there’s no way of gaining an impression of their physical attractiveness but people’s own perceptions are hinted at widely, unsurprisingly women being self-critical about their weight and so on. While stunningly attractive people are often remarked on, sometimes people are far less selective about the choice of  the level of attractiveness of a potential partner than might be imagined — and this is not just men wearing ‘beer goggles’. One young woman, who would appear to consider herself attractive, describes her frustration that men appear to be wary of approaching her for fear of rejection. She correlates the increasing acceptability of potential partners with the length of time it was since she was last in a relationship and even makes an explicit plea via the diary for men to to be less reticent — saying that they would be shocked at the extent that ‘we can sometimes lower our standards’. This relates back to the point about exes and there are also plenty of examples where diarists describe incidents in their past when sex has often occurred spontaneously with an unexpected person.
  8. Volatility: people’s attitudes towards their partners are incredibly volatile. Two diary entries a few minutes apart can swing between radiant optimism and black despair or switch between profound love and vituperation — often as a result of a text, e-mail, casual remark or, sometimes, just personal contemplation. I’m not sure this comes across in a lot of fiction. Much creative writing workshop discussion focuses on rationally trying to examine the credibility of characters’ motives and actions — almost as if constructing some sort of probability decision tree. In reality people do not act impassively and deliberately — particularly not in emotional matters.
  9. There are more instances of  agreed ‘open’ relationships than I’d expected — both in the traditional ‘swinger’ style and those where partners were happy to allow each other to have independent sexual relationships (both casual and regular) with other people. Sometimes these were to accommodate bisexuality. This is the area where the editor says she was most surprised — and is happy to say she has reflected her discoveries in her own private life. However, I do suspect whether this is an area where the selection of the diarists has been a little skewed — but then I might be viewing this through my own moral conditioning?

The diaries encourage people to reflect on their lives in ways that are sometimes quite self-revelatory — re-appraising relationships. There’s also some speculation that’s quite thought-provoking about how one’s sexual experiences may affects one’s wider perception of the world.  A woman in her 20s who describes herself as bisexual and a masochist says: ‘I have a pet theory that much of the way men and women relate to each other, and hence how society is structured, comes from the psychological difference between penetrating and being penetrated.’ It might be physically fundamental but this may be at the root of many attitudes: I’d suggest that the vast majority of straight men aren’t able to even imagine the physical or psychological experience of being penetrated. This might make the fact that the experience can be extremely pleasurable for women quite mysterious and fascinating.

This relates, albeit anatomically rather than psychologically, back to an earlier post I wrote based on Graeme A. Thomson’s perceptive interpretation of Kate Bush’s work — the perhaps impossible desire to understand and experience what it is to be the other person in a relationship. Maybe a way for a woman to appreciate what her partner feels in being with her is to imagine how she herself might be touched by another woman?  Maybe? Who knows what goes on in other people’s heads and it’s why this book is so illuminating — revealing a few glimpses, albeit perhaps unrepresentative ones.

From a practical writing perspective, fiction writers would do well to study the diction used in the diaries. These are real people choosing their own words to describe their sexual experience. The editor believes that her British diarists are far more creatively verbose than their US equivalents — something that any reader would pick up from the styles of two publications I regularly read: Time and The Economist. (It’s also another reason why Stephen King’s views on brevity and adverbs don’t necessarily transfer without some refinement across the Atlantic.)

Nevertheless, there’s a refreshing absence of the sort of convoluted, obfuscatory prose that many writers might be tempted to use. People overwhelmingly describe their experiences as ‘we had sex’ (naughty passive voice there) or simply ‘we fucked’. Again, this is instructive for a novelist because, while people in polite conversation (for example at creative writing workshops) don’t generally talk in terms of ‘fucking’, these diaries show that’s the term that people most frequently commit to the page and, by extension, it probably indicates way that most people use in the privacy of their own minds. And, after all, filled also with all its hidden lusts and insecurities, one’s mind and imagination are the places where readers also engage with novels.

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3 Responses to Behind Closed Doors

  1. Bren Gosling says:

    Hi Mike ..sounds like this might be a useful reference read for me. Is it purely heterosexual??

    And by the way – in tango I like to lead AND follow – thats what the Queer tango movement is all about – fluidity between roles.Unlike the strict hetero tango world. And – oh dear – I had a shitty lesson today for some reason I just completely lost any self confidence – which was a shame as it was the last one with these particular teachers.

    regards
    Bren Gosling

  2. Mike says:

    Oh no. There are maybe 20-25% of the diarists who are gay, lesbian or bisexual (can’t remember any transgender). They’re not labelled as such, though: the diarists are given genders, ages and locations — that’s all. So occasionally, if you fail to read the tiny caption giving the gender, you don’t realise that the diary is written from a gay perspective until you’ve got quite a way through it.

    It’s a very useful source but it’s a bit infuriating as there isn’t any index as there would be in a reference book so I was thinking several times, I wish I could find the person who talked about x, y or z and sometimes I failed to locate the quotation.

    I guess there are quite a few parallels with tango. It did actually shock me when I watched Strictly Come Dancing for the first few times when I heard them talking about how the man always leads — isn’t this incredibly sexist, I thought, but really it’s all about assuming a role.

    Perhaps one of the most difficult things in life, and hence one of the most interesting to write about, is to separate one’s intellectual role from the deeper-seated drives. In certain situations, certain people find physically dominant, alpha-male behaviour to be very attractive but that’s only in one compartment of life — that behaviour can be intolerable in other aspects of a relationship.

    I did comment on your latest post, which is on a related subject, but after I’d typed away for 15 minutes there was some system error when I submitted it and it all disappeared without trace. Perhaps I’ll try and remember what I wrote for tomorrow.

  3. Bren Gosling says:

    ah Mike – I was wondering why you hadnt made a comment on my latest posting since our postings are very much related. I wrote mine in response to Emma Darwins latest on this subject actually and just copied over to my blog as I thought it was quite a useful reflection.
    regards
    Bren Gosling

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