‘About a year ago, I was out with a girlfriend and some friends of hers. We were really partying, drinking a little too much, and there was a guy there who made it quite obvious that he wanted me. Anyway, we flirted and chatted and I found out that he liked the same music as me and read the same books – he wasn’t an axe murderer, in other words – so when he suggested going somewhere for another drink, I surprised myself by suggesting we go straight to his apartmen around the corner. When we got there, I started kissing him and initiated full-on sex, and it was good sex, urgent and passionate.’
Afterwards, Kate, 31, surprised herself further. ‘I found I just wanted to leave; I’d got what I wanted, but he got all cuddly and wanted to hold me, while I just wanted to get dressed and go. As I was leaving, he asked if he could see me again. I said, “Yes” and took his number, but I knew I’d never call him. On the way home, I was actually a bit taken aback by what I’d done, but also rather pleased with myself. For the first time ever, I’d picked someone up, done the whole role-reversal thing – and I enjoyed it. So if the mood takes me, I’ll do it again.’
That nice girls do is nothing new, but still some are rather slow to get their heads around the new woman who openly admits a pragmatic approach towards answering her sexual needs. When Kate told a close girlfriend about this episode, she was shocked to hear her experience disapprovingly likened to ‘a lunch-time abortion’. A response, psychologist Penny Rennie-Peyton says, echoes ‘a mistake that has long been made that women only want “approved-of” sex, within a relationship or marriage’. It’s precisely because attitudes like this still prevail that, even in the year 2009, it doesn’t actually go without saying that somewhere between new wave virginity and stiletto feminism lies a genuine shift in real women’s sexual behavior. As increasing numbers of women delay, or even forgo, traditional concepts of commitment, they are articulating and answering their sexual needs in ways that are more usually associated with men.
Jessica, 24, is between partners at the moment, and quite prepared to approach men specifically with sex in mind. ‘Never strangers, though; I always know them somehow, through a friend or whatever. I tend to just say, “Do you want to come home with me”, and generally they do. I find myself less inhibited sexually in these casual encounters, because there’s no pressure, and so some of the sex is great. It really is a myth that you have to be in love to have great sex, although love does make the morning after nicer. Sometimes I feel bad about it, though – one guy keeps calling me but I don’t want to see him, and I do feel a little bad about that.’
A lot of the impetus for women having sex on their own terms – whatever they may be – comes from the fact that, as Dr Terri Apter, a social psychologist at Cambridge University, puts it, ‘Women have a wider area of feedback for identity satisfaction nowadays. They have a greater sense of being in control of their lives, both at home and in the workplace, so they don’t feel that so much is invested in a man’s approval, affection or bond.’ She suggests, though, that we interpret this new mood with care. ‘When women now say that no-strings sex makes them happy, there is no reason to disbelieve them. But I think the truth is that women do tire of this behaviour more quickly than men. So while it is true that women are now more able to separate physical and emotional needs – which is making them less exclusive and more mobile in their partnerships – that this separation is clear and unproblematic is usually not the case long term. We simply are not as good at separating our feelings as men are. Men are better at compartmentalising feelings, or perhaps they’re better at denial.’
Similarly, Dr Janet Reibstein, a psychologist at Exeter University, feels it would be an error to mistake these women for men. Yes, she says, more women are having relationships that are casual, ‘ie they include sex but are not necessarily about marriage or staying together’, and yes, they are playing the field and delaying commitment in a way that men have always done. But she believes that, essentially, women do feel differently about sex to men. ‘I think women think, “I can have friendship with sex because it’s a different kind of love”, or “It’s all right to have sex without love, but I’m still looking for the right person” – patterns of thinking that are really quite different from the way men think about sex and relationships.’ Co-author of a study of women in affairs, she suggests there is a correlation. ‘I discovered that there has been a rise in the number of women having affairs, which goes along with a general change in the way women view sex without love.’
Ultimately, she feels the fact that women are capable of having children will always be an issue. In other words, we are almost pre-programmed to eventually seek out a relationship with a man who will care for our child. ‘And that makes women different. Although it’s also true to say that our increasing ability to postpone the biological clock is certainly giving women a longer lead time.’
But what about women for whom children aren’t an issue? Who either never wanted them, or who have them already? Jane is 33 and has two children of eight and five. She lived with their father up until four years ago and, despite being basically single ever since, has a healthy and ongoing sex life.
‘I don’t do relationships because of the children… I don’t want anyone “moving in on them”, so to speak. I also feel a certain amount of “been there, done that”… But I definitely want a sex life, I need one; I get uptight if I don’t have sex, so I have sex casually. If the men I see do want more, they get told they can’t have it, and they don’t seem to mind, maybe because I choose them quite carefully. I tend to steer clear of intellectual men – too much baggage. The men I sleep with don’t tend to have much to say, but that’s fine. I certainly wouldn’t want to take on the guy I’m seeing at the moment. I met him when he came to do odd jobs for me, and he really is just a fuck, which is perfect… I call it fucking without ironing.’
Terri Apter believes that it is single women like Jane, in their thirties and forties, who are particularly comfortable with the idea of sex for its own sake. ‘I think these women are able to be stronger about their sexual needs. They’re very comfortable with them.’ And you can see her logic – older women are quicker to identify what it is they really want generally and to think that what they want really matters. ‘This is very marked in women in their mid-forties on, and this applies to not having sex as much as having sex; they have sex on their own terms, and equally they are celibate on their own terms.’
Ex-Cosmo editor Marcelle D’Argy Smith is far from celibate and says that she really came into her own as a single woman in her thirties. ‘Even though I never saw marriage as a pressure – I mean, how do people stagger on in some of them? – and I was lucky in that I knew I didn’t want children, my thirties were awful. It wasn’t until I got to 40 that I knew I was going to be OK. I love being single – let me tell you, I know where to locate great sex in this town. I have sex with friends; that is, we have friendships and we have great sex, but nothing more. The thing about being single is that I’ve never had bad sex… I’ve had long periods of no sex, but when I’m up for it, when I choose to, I have great sex. No one has ever shoved their elbow into my ribs in the middle of the night and said, “Come on.” D’Argy Smith’s comments mark another change in attitude: we are fast approaching a point where there is almost less stigma attached to being a spinster than there is to being married. Or to being in a bad marriage, at least. As one expert put it: ‘Women now feel the same as men – that they don’t have to buy the cow, so to speak, they can just take the milk, which might mean sex and not committing.’
Eleanor, 40, was in a bad marriage but separated from her husband two years ago. She has been single ever since and says she has never been happier. ‘I’m a young 40… I drink too much, smoke too much and, when I feel like it, I fuck too much.’ For her, freedom has meant resigning herself to the fact that she won’t have children. ‘I had a miscarriage during my marriage, which was devastating, but I believe it just wasn’t meant to be. Nowadays, I try to do exactly what I want to do when I want to, and obviously it’s a bloody bore if I’m financially restrained, but I don’t feel restrained in any other way. There will always be sex in my life; I can’t imagine not being sexually active, but I don’t want a relationship.’ It took her a long time to get over the last one. ‘Obviously they’re great when they’re good, but when they’re bad, they’re draining, you’re in turmoil and it’s hideous.’ She has had two sexual relationships since her marriage ended. Both with friends. Or ‘fuck buddies’, as Penny Rennie-Peyton quaintly calls them. ‘Neither is with a view to anything permanent, which is fine by me,’ she says. ‘One is younger and bisexual, so no commitment there. We were friends and then sex came in to it, and it’s a lot of fun. The other one is a friend who’s married, so we have sex as and when.’
It seems appropriate to end on what men might be making of all this. Surely this balancing of the sexual scales is contributing to their much-discussed vulnerability and confusion? Maybe I talk to the wrong ones. Richard Parry, 28, was in a bar in Atlant one night when ‘a woman came up to me at closing time and said, “Get your coat, we’re going.” I asked if she was serious, and she was.’ He didn’t find it confusing at all. ‘I was quite surprised by the whole thing, but pleasantly so. As we walked down the street together, she then assured me that she was going to take me home and fuck me, which she did.’
Richard took her number the next morning but never called. ‘I got the distinct impression that she didn’t care whether I called her or not!’