This was first published in 1918 and, as she says, it electrified the country. She talked about the hidden unhappiness in marriage and in particular women’s sexual frustration.
It was really the first book ever to talk about women’s sexuality. She talked about women’s need to be seduced – not just the first time but every time. It’s a very explicit book about how to arouse a woman and about a woman’s orgasm and how different it is from a man’s. She said 70 to 80 per cent of married women were deprived of a full orgasm by their husband’s speed. She talks about sexual anaesthesia when sex is unsatisfying and says it’s up to the man to give a woman pleasure. Women themselves are not good at asking for pleasure, and perhaps when people feel they can’t make each other happy sexually they withdraw into perversion or find pleasure somewhere else.
But this is also a book about romantic love and how important married love is, how it’s the most satisfying thing one could wish for. It’s not a book that’s hostile to men or women – it encourages people to work at marriage. I mean, she’s batty in other ways – her own first marriage was supposedly unconsummated.
Is that necessarily bad?
Well it depends why people aren’t having sex, I suppose. It always reflects how a couple feel about each other at a particular time, but if you find ways to talk about it and are intimate in other ways, of course it might not matter. If you can’t stand to be touched by someone, then something is really wrong, obviously.
“We can no longer trust our relationships to provide that sense of endless love.”
You have to sit down and talk about it. People are too often dishonest or they try to walk around it, hedge it, scared of what it might open up, scared of the dark corners. You have to talk for a whole day with nothing to distract you and if you come out thinking that maybe there isn’t anything there for you any more that’s better than waiting and hoping. But if it’s just that things have got boring, and it’s easy to get into a sexual rut, then you need to do some spicing up.
There is an assumption in society at the moment that sex has to be constant and constantly fulfilling in a sort of vigorous, youthful model. But in a relationship there are all different types of sex that might just reflect how your week’s been – quick, slow, good, bad. This doesn’t mean you’re failing in any way. Sex is still a very shameful subject for a lot of people and is still a huge taboo subject. Society seems so sexually permissive but how many people actually talk to each other within their relationship about what turns them on? Very few. And it’s only with a lot of confidence and trust over time that sex gets good, that intimacy is more profound and better than anything you might encounter in single life.
The advantage of married sex in a cosy relationship is that you can be yourself and you don’t have to worry about being perfect, about what you look like. He’s seen it all before.
What if he’d rather be with a topless model, though?
Well, he’s got to get over that. I interviewed someone who said she’s so short-sighted she just takes her glasses off so she doesn’t have to look and she gets him to take his off too! He may have fantasies about pulling a 22-year-old, but there’s something cosy…
Well, it’s more liberating. Research shows that middle-aged sex is the best of people’s lives. You can just be yourself.
Someone once told me he thought married sex was like watching someone die slowly.
Yes, but that’s part of the point. You come to terms with things in yourself and in them, and if you can accept it, accept life, then you can live it to the full rather than hoping for unattainable perfection.
The Joy of Sex by Alex Comfort.
This is important in that, like the Marie Stopes, it was the first book of its kind. It describes itself as a ‘gourmet guide’ to sex and it was written 50 years after Stopes and takes thing on a stage. It has those wonderful line drawings and I remember demolishing it as a guide on how to do it. The 60s were supposed to be swinging but it didn’t really start until The Joy of Sex in 1972. It seems so innocent really now, all those daring explanations of S and M and positions, but it was before Aids and people were so optimistic. It was as though we’d discovered sex and free love. It was only 40 years ago, but since then Aids and all the implications of free love makes it look dated and innocent. Marie Stopes still has more to offer contemporary couples in terms of strong, punchy sex advice for men and women. Of course there’s more to sex than just getting into positions. It’s about what’s going on in your head space, and sex changes as you change.
Sex and Psyche by Brett Kahr.
Well, Kahr is a psychotherapist and he conducted the largest ever survey of men and women’s sexual fantasies in Britain. On the one hand it tells us that it’s OK that the best sex is in our heads and the originality and imagination of people is amazing – the creativity that exists in the sexual hinterland! Ninety per cent of us have regular sexual fantasies that we never reveal, and that tells us that it’s not how long you can manipulate a clitoris for but it’s about your whole upbringing and your psychopathology. He shows how sexual behaviour and your attitude to sex and relationships with someone else can be so deeply influenced in ways you’re never aware of. Of course, once you have an element of self-awareness you can unlock these sexual taboos.
It’s also a really raunchy read. It’s unbelievable what people come up with. It makes me feel so boring.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Well, this is about love as opposed to sex. He’s talking about love in all its forms, including unrequited love that goes on for 50 years. He shows the couple as teenagers in a passionate love affair, but then she’s forced to marry someone else and she forgets her first love and becomes a good wife – she loves her husband and they have a good relationship.
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But he can’t forget, can’t get rid of the early passion, and he has hundreds of erotic adventures but never commits because he holds a torch for his first love. Anyway, he turns up after 50 years at her husband’s funeral and says: Let’s start again. She, of course, sends him packing, saying: Don’t be ridiculous. Because her love for her husband is a different kind of love. It’s partly such a passionate book because of the beauty of the prose, describing love through time and how she found contentment – love, passion and sex all in one. The prose just drips sexuality and sensuality. It’s sexy enough without having to read about deep positions or anything.
And Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Well, this is an astonishing novel about the history of marriage and love, the high society woman falling from grace because of her deep passion for Vronsky, even though she has a respect for Karenin and he for her, within the confines of the time. She gives up her position, her child for this powerful passion. Tolstoy describes the sexual repression and her need for passion but never passes judgment.
He kills her!
But that’s because there was no other way out for her. Tolstoy actually witnessed the death of an adulteress at a train station. I mean, he was a cruel, ruthless and difficult man in many ways, serially unfaithful, but devoted to his wife and children at the same time. The important thing about Anna Karenina as a novel though is how powerful it is about the constraints of marriage and her need for passion, sacrificing everything for the sake of passion and love. There is not a single woman who doesn’t identify with her.
I don’t. I hate her for leaving her son. She loses me instantly when she leaves her son.
That’s an interesting question about how love has changed. Love and dedication used to be directed at your husband, not your children. Now you can openly love your children more than your husband – that passion is now reserved for children, maybe because it’s permanent. We can no longer trust our relationships to provide that sense of endless love.
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Journalist and author Kate Figes has written seven books, all of them concerned in some way with exposing the inner workings of family life. Her latest book, Couples, deals with sex within marriage.
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