An Open Letter to Cosmo

Dear Cosmo,

I’m writing to tell you that I watched Channel 4’s Sex in Class last night, and I kind of hoped that the teenage boys who said the kinds of things in the tweets below would grow up as they, well, grow up.

Having read your article, I’m not so sure. I haven’t bought you for a while, to be honest. I read you in the hairdresser, if it’s a choice between you and Hello, but if Red or Marie Claire, or even Good Housekeeping, are available instead, then that’s what I’ll pick up.

But let’s be honest, The Last Sexual Taboo (…or is it?) is a good strapline. I’ve been walking past you a lot this month wondering what *is* the last sexual taboo. I still wouldn’t have bought you, but I probably would’ve flicked through you in M&S to find out the answer. And then, as luck would have it, you turned up in the seat pocket of the flight I was on last night.

And I thought ‘Surely it’s not anal?’

Spoiler alert: It’s anal.

I could start by saying, Cosmo, that I don’t think anal is the last taboo. I seem to remember years ago reading that 1 in 3 couples had tried it. I like it. I fantasise about it probably more than I fantasise about anything else. The first time I tried it was fucking amazing. It still scares me a bit, sometimes it hurts, and I worry about it being messy/dirty. But I *do* like it, and although it was a guy who proposed it the first time I tried it, it’s been my suggestion nearly every other time since.

Anyway, let’s talk about the article. Shall we start with the subheadings? Here we go:

  1. Pressure to perform
  2. ‘Dick slips’
  3. Remember the vagina?
  4. Why does he want it?
  5. An erogenous zone?

Two things strike me about these subheads, Cosmo. They’re very negative, and they’re very male-focused. And the problem with the article is evident from the very start:

“I was never interested,” says Jill. “I didn’t want to do it, and I didn’t want to talk about it. But during sex, he would say “Can I put it in your bum?” every time. It seemed really important to this guy, so Jill finally agreed. […]

“It was not enjoyable at all,” she says. “We used lube and a condom and we tried foreplay. But I could hold on for only two or three minutes before I said “I can’t do it!'”

Prince Charming finished up with some vaginal sex that night, and Jill spoke loudly and often about how awful it had been for her. “But he kept on asking.” Eventually he cheated on her, citing her unwillingness to have anal as one of the reasons. Would it shock you to know they broke up?

I wonder why you included this cautionary tale? You could have done a lot with it. You could have pointed out that if you’re switching from anal to vaginal, you need to use a new condom. You could’ve pointed out explicitly that the guy behaved like a dick, rather than just sarcastically referring to him as ‘Prince Charming.’ I’d even have been on board with you pointing out that it’s not ideal to go from ‘I didn’t want to talk about it’ to ‘[I] spoke loudly and often about how awful it had been.’ At least, I think that’s what you mean. When your sentence is ‘Prince Charming finished up with some vaginal sex that night, and Jill spoke loudly and often about how awful it had been for her,’ it’s not clear which was awful: the anal or the vaginal.

OK, so in the next paragraph you are explicit about the guys who have ‘dick slips’ being ‘true assholes.’ This paragraph is a bit better, tbh – it actually begins to tackle the issue of consent responsibly. Still not what I was expecting from what you put on the cover, though. And then you really go and ruin it again.

So when did the vagina stop being the holy grail? When I was growing up it was a treasure to be saved for special occasions with special people.

Honestly, you make a mockery of the newsagent in the town where I went to school, who wanted proof of age before he’d sell you, Cosmo. You had such an opportunity here to inform women about something that can be really hot. Instead, you slipped the tale of the woman who genuinely likes it under the subheading Why does he want it? You picked a married women who said ‘We love it,’ and you phrased her reasoning thus: ‘Rachel likes it because she likes to please her husband, but also because it feels good to her.’ Because god forbid you pick a woman who does it *just* because it feels good to her.

Finally, two paragraphs from the end, you get to the point I think you should have been making all along (although you could’ve dropped the ‘in relationships’ bit):

Women in relationships who mutually decided with their partner to have anal sex talked about a profound experience.

I see what you did here. You commissioned the article from someone who’s thinking about trying anal for the first time because you thought that would make for a more approachable, less intimidating article, right? I disagree. I think the author’s attitude to anal is fearful enough here to actually be off-putting. And maybe I’m a humourless bitch, but I don’t find the ‘thinking of taking a trip to Brownton Abbey‘ line funny, either, especially in the context of an article that seems to suggest that anal goes hand in hand with problematic, immature communication.

You’re getting a new editor next month. And god, I hope for your sake that she brings a fresh approach to mainstream sex writing.

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Sex and communication

One of the conversations I’ve been involved in on Twitter this morning has been about sex and ‘feedback’ – which everyone involved seems to agree is a terrible word for it. Basically, the question, as I understand it, is: should we be open to talking honestly with our partners about what does/doesn’t work for us in the bedroom?

On paper, I’d say yes, we should. But what works on paper doesn’t work for me in practice.

Let’s take a different example. Ever since a few months back, when Exhibit A wrote on sport, I’ve been meaning to blog my own thoughts on the matter. It seemed more sensible that commenting on the original post: I needed to work through my feelings on the matter and they’re so bloody complex I knew they’d probably run to longer than reasonable comment length.

On an intellectual level, I know that exercise isn’t something you get to opt into or out of in life, although despite that knowledge I still do very little. I asked my parents if they’d consider paying for gym membership as a Christmas gift. Initially, they thought this was a great idea – they’ve been hassling me to be more active for years. But then they had a little chat overnight and decided that they both agreed that a personal trainer (obviously a much more expensive option) would be better.

I’m ashamed, but not particularly surprised, to say the whole conversation collapsed into a tearful row. I cried. I made my mum cry. My dad, normally a staunch ally, took my mum’s side. I’m not interested in a personal trainer: I can’t bear to catch sight of myself in mirrors when I exercise, the thought of *paying* someone to stand there and watch, especially if that someone was male, sends me spiralling into immediate panic.

You’re not listening, I argued. What might be objectively best for me won’t work for me, because there are other factors getting in the way. I’m looking for compromise: you’re telling me it’s your way or the highway.

And that was my experience of sport pretty much all through school, as well. When I was eleven, and had come home from double PE in tears again, my mum lost her temper. ‘*Everybody* has something they’re bad at,’ she argued, ‘What about the kids who can’t read or add up?’

She had a kind of point there, but again, the comparison wasn’t quite fair. I’m young enough that I went to school at a time when humiliating kids with poor reading or maths ability by getting them to read out loud in class or to come up and work out an equation on the board had gone out of fashion. Sadly, the same wasn’t true for sport. The focus of sport was at best on teamwork (I don’t like letting people down), at worst it was ‘Get into groups, design a dance/gymnastics/aerobics routine and perform it in front of the class. High jump was one at a time in front of everybody else. So was rope climbing. Hurdles. My PE teacher ironically ultimately won an MBE for services to sports education – I don’t once remember her asking what she could do to help or make me feel more comfortable.

Her younger colleague on the other hand, obviously came from a different school of thought. She cornered me after a trampolining lesson and asked if I’d consider coming to trampolining club early on Friday, before everyone else arrived. ‘Bring a friend,’ she said ‘And you can have a go while there’s nobody else here. Would that be better?’

There’s a limit to how much of that special treatment – great, and kind and appreciated that it is – that you can expect when you have a disability – you kind of do have to just get on with life the best you can. But I don’t think that’s a reason to make it unnecessarily hard on yourself – to go against what comes naturally.

On the subject of feedback, I had my mid year appraisal at work yesterday. It was, much like the job itself, paper heavy, insular, more like a (endlessly long) cosy chat than an appraisal. It’s another of the things that tells me I’m in the right career: nothing about the pushy, competitive, bullshit-heavy, male-dominated worlds of consultancy or the city, for example, appeal to me. I wouldn’t be good at those jobs. I’m too soft, too emotional. I don’t think that makes me a bad person or a failure: it’s just about recognising that I have a different skill set.

The point I’m trying to make is that although, obviously, we’d communicate with our partners often and sensitively and constructively in the bedroom, in practice I think that’s harder to achieve. Good communication is something to aim for, but I don’t think it comes naturally to many couples, whether they’ve been married for years or are just friends with benefits.

Since I started having sex, men have said all of the following to me:

‘I don’t care if it’s waxed or not as long as it’s tidy.’

‘We’re not friends, we’re just two people who fuck and get on fairly well.’

‘Use your hand as well.’

All of those have stung a little bit, for one reason or another. My body confidence is low – is my bikini line neat? Does it meet his standards? Probably not – it’s not as neat as I’d like it to be, but I don’t know how to do a better job of it. Why aren’t we friends? What’s wrong with me? Are you ashamed of being seen out with me in public? And ‘Use your hand as well?’ To me that translates as ‘You’re shit at giving head.’

A lot of this is fuelled by issues that I have to address. I know that – it’s just one of the many reasons I see a therapist. But as relationships become more complicated – as more and more of us are in friends with benefits arrangements, or just having regular one night stands – what qualifies someone as having the right to give ‘feedback?’ I wouldn’t, for example, be open to receiving comments on my technique from someone I picked up in a night club and wasn’t planning to see again.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the trust necessary for giving constructive feedback on sex, and for it being well received, extends far, far beyond the bedroom. With me, you’ll win that trust by showing that you’ve thought about how things affect me that perhaps don’t affect you – you’ll hold my hand if we’re crossing an icy road for example. Or, if we’re out having dinner, you’ll squeeze my shoulder when you come back from the Gents: little signs of affection that show that you care about me even when we’re not naked.

If you’re not that invested then I’m sorry, I’m not particularly open to hearing what does/doesn’t work for you in the bedroom.

Time is a feminist issue

I’ll begin this by saying that I think a lot of people may disagree with what I’m about to say. Certainly the friend I mentioned it to this evening did. Please do add your thoughts in the comments, whether you agree or not – I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts.

Anyway. In comparison with a lot of women, there are very few claims on my time. I work full-time, sure, and there are a couple of hobby-related regular commitments in the evening, but I’m not raising children, working hours and hours of overtime or caring for someone who’s sick or elderly. I’m a single woman, a free agent, and my diary is relatively uncluttered.

None of that means that my time isn’t valuable. There are lots of things I need/like to do when I have free time – meet friends for drinks, laundry, food shopping, blogging, writing. And I like to know in advance where those things are going to slot into my week. That makes me neither a better nor a worse person than someone who likes to fly a bit more by the seat of their pants.

I should also, in the interests of full disclosure, remind you that time keeping is not one of my strengths. I’m regularly 15-30 minutes late. I’m occasionally guilty of doing that thing where you send a ‘Just leaving now!’ text when you still have wet hair and are wearing only your knickers.

But I don’t bail. Last night I went to someone’s birthday drinks. She’d invited somewhere between 15-20 people. Most had replied to say that they’d be there, but when I turned up, halfway through, the majority had texted some excuse as to why they had to cancel at short notice. This kind of shit drives me crazy. As she said herself, if people had said no in the first place, or the week before, she could have made the decision to cancel. The way it actually worked out, as the night wore on the pub kept moving us to smaller and smaller tables as it became obvious people weren’t going to show. I doubt it ruined her birthday, but it can’t exactly have made it, either.

So yes, both men and women can be lame. But in my experience it’s far more often men who are guilty of suggesting plans, promising to confirm by a certain time/day, and then not bothering, so the woman has to chase, which makes her feel needy, naggy and generally pretty damn unattractive. Once or twice I’ll forgive this, but if it becomes a pattern, not so much. If it becomes a pattern I will nag you, I will become shrill and needy, and I will pick a fight, even though it won’t help.

Why a feminist issue, though? Well. You could (and I’m going to) argue that men call the shots much more in dating than women do, especially in the early days. I see tweets every day from women about men who’ve arranged dates only to cancel at the last minute. And, something which I’ve had more experience of myself, and which I hate even more: men who initiate conversations via dating websites, who want to flirt, who want to sext, who want you to give up a good chunk of your time to interact with them online but who have no intention of meeting up in person, Men who can’t even be bothered to take the time to draft something new when they message you via said sites. Men who clearly haven’t even taken the time to read your profile. Men who, essentially, think their time is *much* more important than yours.

That’s the impression it gives too when, a bit further down the line, a guy suggests meeting up on a Sunday and says he’ll confirm by, let’s say, Friday evening. I generally like to have my weekend plans firmly in place by Friday, but I like him, so, ok, I can wait till Friday. Friday comes and goes. Nothing. Saturday evening comes. Still no word. I text, and ok, by now I probably sound a bit stroppy. I say something like ‘I guess tomorrow’s not happening, then? And the reply, of course, says ‘Sorry! No, couldn’t make tomorrow in the end.’

There are of course other explanations here. That he’s generally flaky. That he just doesn’t give a fuck about me. There’s probably some truth in both of those statements. But I do think it’s partly because he’s a man, and because he’s been socialised to believe that his time, his wants and his needs, take precedence. And even if he doesn’t believe those things, he has *no idea* how often women’s time is at the mercy of the decisions men make. So boys, if you really want to be feminist, start by texting when you say you will.

You took the words right out of my –

I hate women who don’t know how to be on their own. You know the ones – the girls who say, ‘God, I don’t know how you cope with being single!’ when their longest period of being out of a relationship is 2 weeks, or, worse still, the ones who say, ‘Oh, I love being single,’ when really, they never are.

But often I think strong feelings like that towards a particular group of people are born out of something uncomfortable that that group reflects back at you. It’s similar, in a way, to what I was getting at when I wrote this.

I’ve been single literally my whole life. It makes me uneasy when, on shows like ‘Take me out,’ girls say ‘I’ve been single for 3 years,’ and everyone gasps. Because if I talked about being single in terms of years, what would I say? When do you start counting? From birth? Sixteen? After uni?

I’ve been single my whole life, but I’ve never truly been without a man. Since my teens I’ve slipped effortlessly from one infatuation to another. The thought of being truly alone, without even a crush to provide that rush of emotions, that sense of being alive, scares me.

In the past I’ve used the word ‘love’ pretty indiscriminately to describe how I felt about those crushes. I grew up in a family where the word is used freely – I tell my parents and sister that I love them pretty much every time we speak – partly through force of habit, partly because it’s true, and I want them to know it.

It’s not a word I’m afraid of, essentially. But when the boy said, during an argument, something along the lines of ‘I was talking to a friend about this and in her view the problem is … that you’re in love with me and I’m not in love with you,’ it really jarred. It felt like a cheap shot, and I told him so.

The bit that bothers me isn’t the bit you’d perhaps expect. He doesn’t love me, I know that, and so it doesn’t come as a particular surprise to hear him say it. Sure, it stings a bit, because no one likes to hear stuff like that, but that’s all.

Being told that I love him, though? That I’m much less comfortable with. While I’m aware that if you read this blog regularly you might well have come to that conclusion, I’m still uncomfortable with someone else telling him that that’s how I feel. ‘I love you,’ is a pretty powerful phrase and I felt like they were my words to choose to say or not to say, as and when I felt ready.

I don’t feel ready. In this relationship (or whatever you want to call it) I can’t imagine I ever will be. Not that I haven’t conjured up its spirit on occasion: a few weeks back I was having drinks with a friend and she challenged my claim that I’m happy enough with the way things stand.

‘You don’t get it though,’ I countered, ‘I love him.’

She smiled sadly. ‘I don’t think you do,’ she said. ‘You talk about him like he’s the enemy or a battle to be fought and won. That’s not love.’

And you know what? She’s right. If you love someone, there shouldn’t be that much conflict, with yourself or with them. Despite what Hollywood would have us believe, loving someone doesn’t mean having to fight for them, or waging a constant battle against incompatibility. Of course, it is possible to love someone and for it not to come up roses, but if that really is how you feel, what should be coming across is affection, not aggression.

The other thing I think you realise as you get older is that love should be less about you than it is about the other person. Yes, that’s trite. Yes, it’s cliché, but it is essentially true. Most of what I get from him is still about me, selfish though that is – it’s about my sexual confidence, my thrills, my needs. If I’m brutally honest, my attitude to his needs is more often than not that if he doesn’t like what he’s getting from me, he should end it and get it elsewhere. Because I’m compromising so heavily on the open relationship side, I tend to think that all other compromises should be his.

I’ve never been a big fan of the line ‘You have to love yourself before somebody else can love you,’ – hey, we’ve all fallen for people with flaws – but I do think it’s easier to love someone else if you already love yourself. If you believe in what they see in you, it’s easier to look outwards and focus on them. If you don’t, love is just a line you’re feeding yourself to keep fear and loneliness at bay, and that can’t be healthy.

With all that said, I’d be gutted if, when it ends, I, or anyone else who knows about us, writes the whole thing off as pointless because we didn’t love each other. I think society still has a tendency to gloss over situations that don’t fit a standard narrative – especially the media. It’s bullshit. Love isn’t the only thing that can change you; it’s not the only thing you can learn from. It’s just one potential happy ending in amongst a whole heap of others.

My Sassy Mouth

I love the fact that I’m not scared of saying what I think. I wouldn’t change it for the world, even though, as you’ll see here and in a post I’m planning to write later this week, it gets me into shit sometimes. In fact, the only detention I ever got at school was because I just couldn’t resist having the final word.

A week or so ago, just as I was trying to get to grips with the prospect of a new year and going back to work, and maybe beginning to organise something to celebrate my approaching milestone birthday, the boy and I came pretty close to calling it quits.

I’m sure lots of you who read this think that might have been the right thing to do – certainly I can see that the cumulative effect of my posts could give that impression, and in fact that was partly what triggered the whole thing. But I’m not ready to draw it to a close just yet, and so we’ve reached a decision that for now we’ll just take it as it comes.

Except. This time I am scared. Scared of blogging honestly about him because, as I’ve said before, I do understand why he finds that difficult and also because I blog so instinctively – what you see is how I feel right here, right now, and yet it’s up here for the world (and him) to see any time they want to. It’s why I haven’t written about it, and partly why I made the decision to maybe lay off the blogging for a while (except, I know, that hasn’t happened).

One of the things that he very accurately observed is that I have such a tendency to run with my emotions that I often take that to the point where it does more harm than good – both to me and the people around me.

My fear is that honesty for me is like chocolate – I’m an all or nothing girl. I haven’t yet figured out how to reconcile wanting to be honest with not letting that honesty run away with me. Both here and in the stuff I say to him directly. I’m worried that the only solution is to go cold turkey – to not mention the stuff that bothers me, to keep correspondence infrequent and bland.

Any yet, he likes my sassy mouth, so I can’t think of anything that would kill it quicker than anodyne back and forth text messaging. It’s a learning curve, I guess.

Stop blitzing him with calls and texts!

I’d probably have written this post, or one very similar to it, off my own back, given time, but I noticed in the press this week the story about the jury in the phone hacking trial being told about Chelsy Davis ‘blitzing Prince Harry with calls and texts’ while he was at Sandhurst. I also noticed that the Daily Mail removed the ‘jury told’ bit of the headline in their page header, thus presenting Chelsy’s actions as fact. Sigh.

Now I’ll admit, there’s a lot I don’t know about military training (unsurprisingly!). Apparently Harry was only able to field her calls after he’d finished training, which was “sometimes after 10pm.” This bit doesn’t seem that surprising to me – I can see that checking your phone isn’t that compatible with target practice and obstacle courses. Not, incompatible enough though, apparently, that Harry considered just turning his phone off. Instead “He keeps the phone on, but on silent – it buzzes and vibrates so frequently with new M [sic].” How fucking inconvenient that he should have to keep the phone on silent because of silly Chelsy – I mean, if it wasn’t for her he could have kept the sound on – it’s not like messages from other people who aren’t nutjob girlfriends cause the phone to buzz or vibrate.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I can’t help but feel that the story would never have made it out if the roles were reversed and it was Harry doing the bombarding. So I did a bit of an experiment. I googled ‘Should I text him first?’ Total results: 744,000,000. I changed it to ‘Should I text her first?’ Total results: 423,000,000. It seems pretty clear that most of the ‘rules’ around texting are being dished out to women, not to men.

The other reason it bothered me so much is because it’s a constant minefield in my life, too. I’m pretty clear on how often I’d like to see the boy in an ideal world, pretty clear on the fact that I like texts to end with a kiss. But we can’t reach a sensible position on communication because he can’t win – if he gets in touch it makes me stressed, and if he doesn’t get in touch it makes me stressed. The issues aren’t all to do with him – I’m terrible at contacting my friends too because I don’t want to seem needy. It’s not that I don’t care how they are, or that I don’t want to spend time with them, I’m just sure they have much better things to do, like spending time with their boyfriends or closer friends. And of course the irony is that it’s precisely that lack of self-confidence that makes me neediest of all.

I don’t blitz boys with texts, most of the time. Sometimes when I’m drunk, or when I’m angry – when it’s completely the wrong communication medium to use, in short – I’ll send two or three in quick succession without waiting for a response, but normally, I stick to just the one message, and, if I don’t hear from him first, I’ll wait two weeks before I send it. I’m no Chelsy Davis. 

When he and I spoke about this, I couldn’t explain why I’m so cagey about communication. I don’t think he’d ever accuse me of texting him too often, and nor do I think I have to play hard to get – I’m pretty sure he’s not going to go off me because I asked twice in one week what he’s been up to. But having thought about it some more, the problem lies exactly there – the reason I don’t text is because I don’t want to know what he’s been doing, or, more accurately, who he’s been doing. When he texts me it’s extremely unlikely I’ll have been fucking someone else since the last time we spoke: the same can’t be said for him. 

Of course, he’s not so heartless that he’d admit to this, or gloat about it – it’s just that knowing that it is something he does makes me nervous about otherwise innocuous lines like ‘I’ve got friends staying’ or ‘I’ve been away for the weekend.’ I’m sure he’d say I have to get over reading too much into what he says, and working myself up over stuff that I can’t be sure about, but I disagree. If you’re sleeping with someone and it’s exclusive, yes, the above is the kind of paranoid jealousy that will inevitably tear things apart. If you’re not exclusive, and a polygamous relationship isn’t your ideal, it’s not paranoid, just sad. And it’s why I won’t be becoming more proactive about communication any time soon.

I’m not going to go into the reasons here about why I’m still persisting with something that makes me unhappy, because that’s not the point of the post. The point is, you’re an intelligent woman, you can decide how often is too often. Personally, couples who text each other every day scare me a bit, because I can’t imagine someone being that massive a part of my life, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable if that’s what you want. 

So here, in brief, is the point: text him first if you want to or wait for him to text if you’d rather. Because one thing is certain: even if both of you are waiting for the other person to move first, eventually one of you will get drunk and break the deadlock. That’s just how these things work.