Review | Book review: probing The Sex Lives of English Women, for no obvious reason
Wendy Jones deploys the same self-effacing technique she used in her Grayson Perry book to reveal what a range of women think and feel about sex, but the results make you wonder what the point of the exercise was
by Wendy Jones
What do women really want? Many have wondered, and now, finally, thanks to Wendy Jones’s collection of “intimate interviews”, we have some answers.
One wants to swim in a pool with no edges filled with molten chocolate; another wants to re-enact a porno version of a 1970s Fry’s Turkish Delight advert; another to have a sexual encounter while participating in the political discussion TV show Question Time. Some women want to have sex every day; some don’t want to have it at all. Some like whipping, others like vampires. The shocking news seems to be that women are individuals, with desires and fantasies peculiar to themselves.
If there are any more general conclusions to be drawn from what was originally half a million words of material, Jones isn’t telling, which makes one wonder what the point of her project was. “When I began, I had no agenda,” she writes in her introduction. “I wanted to listen to women, to give women space to speak.”
She found her subjects seemingly at random, through sitting next to them on the train, through friends, or on social media. “Every woman has a unique sexuality and a unique story to tell about her sexuality,” she writes – and yet she also seems to want these individuals to tell us a bigger story. Each of the 24 interviewees is given her own chapter with a bossy, generalising label – “Muslim”, “Mother”, “Lesbian”, “Nun”, “Feminist” and so on – as though each woman were not simply herself but representative of a whole demographic. Sometimes the interviewee obligingly conforms to expectations (“Muslim” tells us that “society is too sexualised” and that the main thing is to ask “how do I please the Lord?”, while “Mother” describes sex as her “marital duty”), and other times she comically doesn’t (“Nun” wants a threesome). Either way, what Jones’ subjects say is coloured by her one-word characterisation.
She never explains why she pigeonholes her subjects in this way, just as she never explains how the interviews were conducted. There is no description of the subjects beyond a (presumably false) name, an age and a location; each one tells her story in the first person, in one long uninterrupted stream, as though she were not responding to an interviewer at all.
As a result, you never quite know where you are: a chapter will start with a tale of a pervy ex-boyfriend, then touch on horrific childhood sexual abuse, and end with a silly fantasy about chocolate. Funnily enough, it’s quite difficult for anybody to communicate the essence of their sexuality in 2,000 words. Although these women are talking about the most bodily of subjects, they never come across as living, breathing people. Their most intimate secrets are being filtered through a writer who is pretending she isn’t there.
This self-effacing technique may have worked well for Jones’ best-known project, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, a collaborative (auto-)biography she wrote with Grayson Perry. But in that case she had an entire book to develop one compelling character through his own words, and besides, Perry is uncannily insightful about himself and others. That is not the case for the women featured here, many of whom seem not to have thought about their sexual lives much at all before the interview.
That is not to say that the book doesn’t yield the occasional treasure. My personal favourite is Jackie, 47, who at one point owned a pub fitted with a special bondage room, complete with chains and manacles. She would seduce the customers and take them to the bondage room to have sex while her boyfriend, Gary, was chained up beside them. Everyone was happy with this arrangement until one night Gary pushed things too far. “I came up from the bar and he was dressed as a woman and wanted to have a curry. That wasn’t my fantasy. That was just weird.”
As long as you’re not after any kind of higher purpose, there is no lack of colour in this book; let’s face it, eavesdropping on other people talking openly about sex is never going to be boring.