(Top photo: Chris Bethell)
If a quirky sex therapist sat me down and asked me to paint my sex life thus far, it would look like the childhood drawings of a serial killer. There'd be some red "blood" for all the relationships that managed to crawl their way to the one-year finish line; some angry biro scribbles for the people I've fucked until they ghosted me; and a violent spattering of paint for the many one-night-stands with friends, colleagues and people I met in toilet queues. Finally, I would pour lighter fluid on the whole thing and set it alight.
Can anyone blame us for having such messy sex lives? Combine a proliferation of dating apps with a stubborn refusal to grow out of the straight-thru cru mentality, and it's no surprise you have a generation of young women whose lives look more like Fleabag's than Kate Middleton's. Which would be absolutely fine if the enjoyment of sex wasn't still so skewed towards men. Mind you, with teenagers reportedly "learning" how to fuck via porn, it's no surprise many heterosexual women say they don't feel any pleasure during sex.
The accepted wisdom is that, for heterosexual women, sex is pretty meh until you reach your forties, when suddenly every single sexual encounter you have ends in an orgasm. But that, clearly, is criminally ageist; there's no reason women in their twenties shouldn't be able to do the same. Look: here are some experts agreeing with me and offering up some helpful tips.
FORGET WHAT YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW
Okay, not everything. If that figure-of-eight thing you do with your tongue is working for you, hang on to it. But the experts confirm it: there are so many expectations around sex that it can become overwhelming. Denise Knowles, a sex therapist from the charity Relate, explains that the best way to sum up her client's sexual difficulties is under the banner of "performance anxiety" – in other words, getting into a panic about doing it right.
This can come from concerns about knowledge, body image problems, difficult past experiences, emotional issues – basically anything that gets in the way of not being able to relax. "We see a lot of sexual images in the media – in porn and in films – and there's a certain way of behaving," she explains. "If women believe they have to do that and it's counter to how they perceive themselves or want to have sex, then how can they enjoy it?"
STOP WORRYING ABOUT YOUR ORGASM
A big part of performance anxiety, according to Denise, is all about how or whether we orgasm. This hasn't changed since she started her career as a sex therapist 25 years ago; it's just that now, in the post-Sex and the City age, women talk about it more.
"Women say they've never had one," she says. "When I explain what it is, they say, 'Oh, I might have...' People think it's this When Harry Met Sally moment, or expect the earth to shatter. I help people understand what physiologically happens during orgasm so they understand that some orgasms may only register as a one on the Richter scale, and others might be an eight. And that, if you are putting yourself under pressure to reach an eight, you might be sabotaging yourself from getting there at all."
BUT IF YOU ARE WORRIED, TRY ON YOUR OWN FIRST
"The most common question we get people come in with is, 'I've never had an orgasm – is something wrong with me?'" says Renée, who's worked at the female-focused sex shop Sh! in London for ten years. "Women put a lot of pressure on themselves – and their partner can, too, which is how you get into the faking it thing, which snowballs... and then two years later, how are you going say, 'Actually, this isn't working for me'?"
Renée says reaching orgasm is about practice and tuning the voice out in your head that says "you're taking too long" or "it's never gonna happen, mate". It's a bit like meditation, really, and doing it alone is important because, with a partner, it can quickly become about performance. "I'd start with lube and fingers first, then a small vibrator," she says.
You can tell your partner later on that you've been faking it all along; just sort yourself out first.
USE PORN TO YOUR ADVANTAGE, IF YOU'RE GOING TO USE IT AT ALL
So yes: porn might be the masturbatory equivalent of a microwaveable ready meal. But just because sometimes we're a bit lazy, that doesn't mean we wouldn't rather go for dinner at the Ivy if someone offered. In the same way, porn can help us to appreciate real sex, says Louisa Knight, a professional submissive and escort from London. "An expectation of frequency, the misconception that you're at or nearing your sexual peak, and the feeling that your body should look a certain way... I don't think they're all coming primarily from porn," says Louisa. "You see a diverse range of bodies in porn that you don't actually see in women's media."
There is so much different porn, she says, that you can find almost anything you want. So, if anything, it should enlighten us to what we're missing out on, rather than making us feel we're doing everything wrong. "It's like the Pinterest of sex workers," says Louisa. "If clients call me and they don't know what they want, I'll advise them to go and watch porn. 'See what turns you on and what doesn't, then come back to me,' I say.
WATCH: 10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Feminist Sex Worker
GROUP SEX AND SEX PARTIES COULD BE A GOOD IDEA
Feeling bored of your sex life at 25? Why not experiment with group sex? "If you're going to use apps you could look at FEELD, which used to be called Thrinder," says Louisa, who has a lot of group sex both at work and in her personal life. In fact, she's organising a 20-person sex party at her flat the night we speak. Isn't a sex party just organised fun, though, I ask. "In some respects... but everyone's got this myth of the perfect un-negotiated group sex encounter, which doesn't happen as readily as people want it to. Usually you find someone and then you move towards sex after you've done a bit more communicating."
Having been to dozens of sex parties, Louisa says one of the biggest benefits of watching other people have sex is that "you'll see people with different bodies and gender identities and sexualities fucking, which makes you chill out a bit about your own hang-ups because you realise that people have sex in a whole lot of ways". You might meet couples with other relationship models – non-monogamous for, example – and it will let you think about what you might be interested in. "Plus, of course, there's a truism that when you see your partner desired by other people it reminds you of why you're attracted to them. If you want, you can just go together and just have sex with each other while looking at other people."
If you're wondering where to start, ask Google – but in the UK Killing Kittens is a pretty safe bet. And remember: if you go, you don't have to have sex.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE IS FINE, TOO
If the idea of watching a cross section of society have a gangbang isn't doing it for you, fear not – spicing up your bored relationship or lack of one can be kept very simple (and cheap). "With things like kink, so many people are really intimidated by the need for accessories or 'things'," says Louisa. "In reality, there are so many ways of inflecting kink, because BDSM is just about power dynamics. You can do things like play fighting or roughhousing, or creating silly rules that are indicative of power shifts, without necessarily being a slave contract. Make a partner do something subservient for you, like give you a massage, or, you know, just take their phone away."
Sh! sell a bunch of sex toys for kink play in all shapes and sizes – butt plugs, double ended dildos – but for Renée, there's one basic product that she'd recommend to anyone, and that's a £5 bottle of lube. "If you only buy one thing from a sex shop in your whole life then it should be lube," she says excitedly. "There's an idea that women should be wet enough on their own, but there are lots of reasons that could make women a bit dry – you could be dehydrated, on medication, or it could be hormonal reasons. Adding lube makes such a difference. It's so simple, but I wish more women knew this."
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
"We've got so much obsession as a culture with the idea that good sex happens silently and immediately, and that you can just read each other's minds and know instinctively what each other wants," says Louisa. "Then we think that if you can't do that you're not sexually compatible. But that's just not how it works." Louisa gives the basic example of the time she met a couple through an online threesome app, they all started banging and it soon became clear that she was looking for a "dirty, kinky threesome", while they just wanted someone to "dip some strawberries into chocolate and listen to Bruno Mars with". The point being: good communication early on can lay out everyone's expectations.
Renée agrees. Giving the example of a couple who've been together years and finding that their sex life is on the wane, she says: "Go to a local female-friendly sex shop. Explore together, have a giggle. You might find something small like a bottle of lube or cock ring to get you started, but it opens the lines of communication and is a way to talk about desires and things you've never tried. It doesn't have to be out there – buy a guide book and find a different position. When you get together with someone you have a new relationship energy, and over time life takes over and a lot of couples get stuck. Have a date night just for the two of you... talk."
ACCEPT THAT THERE'S NO NORMAL VAGINA
You know the old advice: get a hand mirror and stare into the eye of the beast. It sounds like rubbish, but according to the experts, becoming comfortable with your own vagina helps you along the path the sexual enlightenment (and enjoying people going down on you). On this front, Renée suggests visiting "The Great Wall of Vagina" website, a compendium of 400 vaginas plaster-casted by artist Jamie McCartney.
"We had part of his exhibition in the shop, and every woman who came in and saw them said, 'I can't believe they're so different!'" says Renée. "We have this idea that vaginas should look the same, but they don't. When you see that, you realise your labia lips aren't weird; they're just unique."
REMEMBER: SEX IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN, BUT IT'S NOT A PREREQUISITE FOR FUN
Overall, then, says Louisa, we should always remember why we want to have sex in the first place. She compares sex these days to exercise or clean eating, explaining that we live in an age where there are so many options and myths around these things – and so much social pressure to get on board with them – that they can quickly turn from something that's supposed to be fun to just another stick you use to beat yourself up with. "Not everyone even wants to be having sex," she points out. "There are plenty of people who never have sex, and that's perfect for them. We really need to stop thinking that there's one right way and that everything else is wrong."
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