Sex is talked about in the media more than ever before. But 50 years after a landmark report that pushed boundaries in public discourse on sex, what impact has this culture had on relationships? Has it bred a more honest approach between partners?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Modern society loves talking about sex. Newspapers, magazines and television chatshows have ensured public discussion on sex is now a solid fixture in the mainstream.
On BBC Radio 4, a series of programmes devoted to sexuality in modern Britain is under way to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wolfenden report.
The report in 1957 suggested that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offence, but it had a much wider impact by ushering in a new era of openness in discussing sexual behaviour.
Fifty years later, there is a barrage of information. Its impact on young people and premarital sexual relations is often discussed, but what about married and cohabiting partners?
Are they more likely to discuss their sexual preferences with each other, and does that make for a healthier relationship?
"It's a lot easier to talk about sex, particularly as a woman," says broadcaster and Observer agony aunt Mariella Frostrup, who chairs a Radio 4 debate on sex on Wednesday.
"In 50 years we've come from a place where admitting to having a sexual desire was something frowned upon.
"Women can admit they want and like sex and if they are feeling really daring they can describe what they really like and that's a huge sea change."
Has sex changed much over the years?
But there are still obstacles preventing complete honesty, she says, and not just embarrassment. Only a minority of people are confident communicators and then there are questions over having the time, energy and will to speak about it.
And with knowledge comes heightened expectation - and anticlimax. "Even if people are talking about it more - and that's good - their expectation of what it should be is exaggerated and that means disappointment a lot of the time."
Marital honesty is one of the last areas society has yet to come to terms with, says Phillip Hodson of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
"We wouldn't have had such a discussion on Radio 4 when I was young so the public discourse now is different but I don't think that necessarily means more honesty in private relationships," he says.
"A lot of people have vested interests in not telling the truth, whether it's unacceptable desires or saying 'I'm seeing someone I shouldn't be'. The reasons why people find it difficult to be intimate are perennial."
The defined roles within a family can also make it hard, for example a man may be known as "dad" by all family members including his wife, which makes it hard for him to mentally switch to the role of "lover".
"It's a kind of emotional silence that often paralyses people and has done for centuries.
"And even if we are much more forward and we talk about bodily functions, it's very difficult in Britain in 2007 to say 'I'm not interested in sex', 'I am very interested in sex' or 'I'm bored of sex with you' or 'I want to do things that you think are perverted'."
Shame or fear of offending or hurting a partner also holds people back, but breaking this "log-jam of silence" has clear benefits, he says. Not only can good sex be healthy, it is also a wonderful way of expressing love for a partner.
Some secrets take a long time to emerge. Sarah, which is not her real name, was married for 22 years before her husband Simon told her he was attracted to men.
A loving partnership is still the ideal
"It was that statement exactly, not I am gay, or I have met someone else. In some ways it made it easier for me to hear," says Sarah, now in her early 50s.
"Something fell into place then, an end to all my searching for an explanation for his bizarre behaviour. But the sense of relief that I felt was not enough to alleviate the shock and the numbness of the revelation."
He eventually moved out and began a relationship with another man, who died. He says he was never unfaithful to his wife before the disclosure, and they are still trying to work things out.
"It's a consequence of liberation," says Ms Frostrup, "that people are prepared to embrace a style of life that they might have been afraid to admit they desired before not just in this area.
"But 22 years is a long time to live a life that doesn't suit you so maybe we haven't become that liberated."
Perhaps what has not changed over the years is more significant than what has.
The ideal for many people, she says, whatever their views about lifelong monogamy, is that they want a stable, loving relationship.
The Radio 4 debate, The Sex Lives of Us: Recreation Vs Procreation, is on Wednesday 19 September at 2000 BST. Sarah's story is told in the Radio 4 programme, Moving Out (see internet links, right)
Below is a selection of your comments:
After 12 years of marriage I finally told my husband that I was bisexual, something I had kept hidden for the best part of 25 years. I told him of my feelings for a colleague and that I did not want to act on it, just that it was happening. He was amazing and totally understanding and it has lifted a huge weight from me. Our marriage is now better than ever.
Tracey, Leicester, UK
I have been in trouble with my partner several times for trying to open up and talk about our sexual relationship and how it affects our emotional side. I feel it is quite difficult to start the conversation and often write down things I want to say beforehand to make it easier. My advice, as I do, is turning to my female friends to learn how to approach this subject with my partner in the best way. I don't think society had the benefit of on open culture 50yrs ago like it does today so I think it is easier, thanks to modernisation and the media, to talk about these things.
Jamie Taylor, Mill Hill, London
It can be extremely difficult when you've come from an open, liberal background while your partner comes from an uptight, religious background - even if they've largely thrown off most of the moral strictures imposed upon them. My partner, who comes from a very strict Catholic family that believes a woman's place is in the home, has never seen her parents hold hands, hug or kiss in more than 40 years. Talking about sex was taboo apart from one brief conversation with her mum when she was 13. So while my partner is an intelligent, assertive, confident professional woman, she simply cannot talk about emotions, desires or sex without becoming paralysed by fear, discomfort and embarrassment. Even after seeing counsellors, she still finds it hugely difficult and discomforting.
Fifty years might sound a long time, but for many people the effects of the attitudes of the 1940s and 1950s still linger on.
JJ, Aberdeenshire, UK
Married for 10 years, very bad sex life with partner. This year I have gone elsewhere for sex a few times but still come home to my partner as a wife and mother of my children. Guilty? No. Can I talk to the partner about it? No!
It's still difficult to talk about sex with a partner you love. If it's not working for you its hard to say you want it to be different for fear of upsetting them. There is a split between good sex and love and often it's easier to have good sex with someone you do not care for as much as someone you love.
I think it is good that people can be more open about sexual problems they have or alternative orientations but I feel that this openness has led to an abuse of what sex can mean. As stated in the article, sex is much more readily available to watch, read or see. This, however, is not such a good thing as it cheapens an act that should still be special and loving.
I find that the blatancy of sex has somewhat ruined our society, enfeebled family traditions and made the current young adult generation into what I consider sex addicts or even sex maniacs in some cases. We are constantly bombarded day in, day out with ever increasing adult themes, newspaper shops lined with barely edited full frontals of plastic women, it is bordering on depravity and no wonder why rapes and sexual assaults are growing. I think that Britain would do well in relearning some of its traits and values, go back a step, rediscover family values, real love and friendship, not the quickie out the back of a nightclub lifestyle now so encouraged.
Ian Watson, United Kingdom
We've tried really hard with our children to promote an "open minded" attitude towards sex while keeping them informed about the potential pitfalls. On balance I think we're doing really well, they've no issues with homosexuality, and I've watched a number of BBC programmes with a "sexual content" with my 14 year old step-daughter, and neither even blinked an eye. When I was 14 I'd never dared to watch anything with even a 1970s view of sexuality on TV with my parents in the room - both myself and my parents would be frozen with embarrassment.
John Ryan, Cambridge
A man and woman should enjoy fulfilling sex within the boundaries, security, love, commitment and intimacy of marriage. Outside of marriage, there is an unshakeable sense of guilt and shame associated with sex. Sadly people are told that these feelings are "hang-ups" from now unfashionable/outdated religious and moral teaching.
David Pitan, Sutton, Surrey
I agree that total honesty is a good place to start, and sex should always be an honest and enjoyable experience for two people in love. The woman in my first marriage was a very cold person, this is something she admitted to, and stemmed from her parents and upbringing, she was never sexually open and that echoed in the relationship. My wife of now is a truly open person and has helped me find myself again, and we believe to have a truly strong marriage, a healthy sex life is of high importance.
Marc Ali, Cambridge
"It's very difficult in Britain in 2007 to say... 'I'm bored of sex with you'." Not for all the girls I've been out with...sniff...
Graeme, Dundee, Scotland
It's good to see that the double standard that applies to the sexes appears to be steadily being removed. I think that a change in attitudes was all but necessary, but there is a fine line between the talking openly about sex and degenerating into crass discourse that seems to have blighted the youth of today.
James Normington, Leeds
I still think that it is difficult even when you have been with a partner for a number of years - its easier to be open with someone new as they don't have preconceived ideas about you - being in a relationship can sometimes stifle you a bit
I think that not everyone is as open as the media suggests. Many people still hang on to the hang ups developed by their parents and grandparents. This means that many people still have an image of the way that things 'should' be in a relationship, and that leads to inhibitions and lives where a person is unfulfilled both emotionally and sexually.