Wendy Jones’s recently published work, The Sex Lives of English Women, showcases a collection of 24 interviews that aim to transcend age, class, upbringing and religion, and focus on what women actually want. It’s an incredibly ambitious project, the initial script of which ran to half a million words.
Jones is best known for her biography of Grayson Perry, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, and for being the first person to take a Life Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. With some judicious editing, she presents these women’s stories matter-of-factly. “There is so much telling women how they should be, and so little asking them who they are and what they want,” she says in her introduction. “I had thought some women would know a lot about sex and some wouldn’t. But it was more complex than that… I saw it again and again in the interviews, that slice of rich experience and that space of innocence… The sharp distinction between the virgin and the whore came to seem wholly artificial – another false construct to try to shove women into, like poorly fitted and contorting shoes.”
Samantha, a burlesque dancer from Newcastle, describes how her grandmother made her costumes without realising quite what it was she did for a living. She talks about the pressures on young women in the industry to lose weight, and how on succumbing to this pressure herself, “I couldn’t dance like I wanted to dance; I had no energy.” She describes the diversity within burlesque, and the way it “challenges people’s idea of what is aesthetically pleasing.” Samantha discusses prostitution: “I wouldn’t be able to do [it] but I sympathise with the sex industry a lot”, and explains how she feels modern feminism has become fixated on women policing women; she uses the No More Page 3 campaign as an example. It’s great to see discussions of these issues outlined in Jones’ interviews, whether one agrees or not.
Sigourney, 38, a half-Jamaican shop assistant, says: “I’ve slept with two white guys. They’re different. Yes. Oh my god, in sex style, yes. A lot of black guys have this thing, ‘Black men, they don’t go down.’ Some do oral sex but I’ve never been with one, whereas white guys say it’s their speciality; they go down without any question. With black guys, everything that you do is a secret. If he goes down on you, you wouldn’t tell nobody. If you do anal, you wouldn’t tell nobody. It’s a secret.”
Margery is 71, is from London and is transgender. “At five I wanted to be a girl,” she says. “I saw my mother’s bra in a cupboard and something in me snapped. I can still see it: salmon pink, shiny.” The pain of trying to remedy this desire to be female with heterosexual marriage is described with heartbreaking frankness: “I thought it would just wear off and I’d be normal like everyone else.” Margery describes her surgery in stark detail – “I couldn’t wee because I was so swollen. I had a catheter stuck to me leg. After five days the bandages came off” – and says, of her vagina, that “a man couldn’t tell the difference. A man wouldn’t know unless I told him. I’m told a lesbian could, but not a normal guy.”
We also hear from a Buddhist nun, a mother, a nurse, a Girl Guide leader, a Muslim student, a genital masseuse and – my personal favourite – a 94-year-old ex-Land Girl, Mary from Norfolk, who describes herself as “an absolute trollop” at the invasion of Dunkirk, when the American soldiers camped nearby. “I wasn’t sleeping the night with them,” she says, “it was more roadside sex… I straightforwardly enjoyed it.”
The book, therefore, sets out to present as diverse a range of voices as possible, and all are engaging, all are different, some are hilarious, some tragic. Visibility is crucial, and there is a large part of me ready to commend any text, academic or fictional, for attempting to bring stories which aren’t often heard into the spotlight. I do not doubt the good intentions of this study. However, the premise of Wendy Jones’s book is this: that sex is as subjective, as individual as the double-pronged helix of DNA, as personal as a fingerprint. That for each of us, whatever our background, education, gender or sexual identity, the fantasies and desires we experience are unique. And, unfortunately, this is hardly a revelation. We know that, regardless of gender certainly, people desire different things. The coverline of the book promises “Intimate Questions and Unexpected Answers”, but where sex is concerned, aren’t most answers to intimate questions necessarily “unexpected”? I myself realised this at the age of about 12, when I overheard my mum’s friend recounting a sex dream she’d had about Aslan, the king of Narnia and also, more to the point, a lion.
Jones’ writing itself is pacy and lilting, with a lovely turn of phrase – there just isn’t enough of it. For an examination purporting to be as large and sprawling as this, further comment, analysis and input from its originator would have been a worthwhile addition. What does this attitude reveal? she could have asked, but didn’t, what does this mode of self-expression suggest? Are we progressing in our understanding of the traditionally obscure subject of women’s sexuality? While I understand Jones’ probable need to place her own voice behind those of her interviewees, more input would still have been preferable – she feels largely absent from the work. The interviews themselves are also strangely presented, seemingly more Eve Ensler-style monologue that Q&A: I was left wondering which questions had been asked of whom, and how these were chosen, and why they weren’t included in a book of apparent interviews.
Reductive, often inexplicable one-word chapter headings separate the 24 sections: I understood “Nurse; “Shop assistant” and “Mother”, but was bewildered by “Explode” and “Womb”. I sympathised with 32 year-old “Lois” from London, who had loads of sex with men, loved it, met a woman, fell in love and now has sex with her. But does that, or the fact that she started masturbating when she was 12, or the fact she used to watch a lot of porn, make Lois, as her chapter heading suggests, an “Addict”? Baffling.
Finally, for a study set in and revolving around the sexual mores of specifically English women, any wider national implications are largely ignored. “There is a sadism in our society towards female sexuality,” writes Jones, with which I wholeheartedly agree. “Sometimes a woman’s sexuality is a decimated landscape. Yet women survive and are full of power and life force. English women don’t lie back. They don’t think of England.” This is all very raring-to-go, but aside from a brief comment from the section simply entitled “Muslim” – “I think of myself as English. Yeah, why not? I was born here” – any discussions into how we in England have viewed sex historically, or comparisons with other countries, any recent legislation passed within the UK, any thoughts as to whether we have a national sexual identity are largely ignored. And there’s a tendency towards cliché in the answers given, too, cliché that really ought to have been edited out: my vagina is not a geranium, and if one more person talks about female genitals in the same sentence as flowers I am going to lose it. I’ve worn my nib blunt on this, but the study fails to deliver what it advertises, and is such a dissatisfying read. I wanted the nitty gritty, tough questions and tougher answers, more women, more analysis, just more.
The Sex Lives of English Women, by Wendy Jones, £9.99, Serpent’s Tail, 222pp.