Let’s not talk about sex


Emma Thompson in her new movie ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ © Nick Wall

Is there anything more terrifying in polite society than an older woman who wants to talk about her changing body? Apparently so: she can show it to you. This week, I’ve heard more about Dame Emma Thompson’s lady bits than I needed in a lifetime as the actress has been doing the press circuit to promote her current role. In Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Thompson plays a fiftysomething widow who books a male escort in order to achieve an orgasm. The part required Thompson, now 63, to do her first nude scenes. Full frontal, with all the trimmings. Ew.

According to Thompson, there remains a shameful stigma around the fact that 15 per cent of woman have never had an orgasm. With this film, she hopes to end the long taboo. “Why do we find sex so difficult to talk about?” she writes in an opinion piece for British Vogue. “Because we have been taught that it is dirty or naughty or beneath us, demeaning, animal, lustful, sinful, dangerous — and beyond the pale of decent normality.”

Maybe I lack the necessary maturity to celebrate Thompson’s openness and candour. But as soon as anyone starts talking about sexual intimacy I have the instinctive reaction to stick my fingers in my ears. “Does anyone know or care if middle-aged women are getting any sexual satisfaction or pleasure?” Thompson asks her readers. Truth be told, I’m not sure I do.

It’s not that I don’t care about your orgasms. I’m just too squeamish for this very public show and tell. Surely the entire purpose of the internet is to google all your icky queries without having to have an actual conversation? I really don’t want to start a national debate about our sex lives or, as was discussed at length on the radio last week, the aesthetics of one’s pubic hair. Again. Ew!

I’m only slightly kidding. I may have assumed the attitude of a Victorian pastor as Thompson has been pulling down her knickers, but deep down I do support the sisters and their efforts to flip the lid on sexual health. Not that the lid needs much in the way of flipping — it seems like everyone is in on the female hormone chat. This week saw British TV presenters Davina McCall, Penny Lancaster and Lisa Snowdon in parliament to promote the Menopause Mandate campaign. They are calling for doctors and nurses to be trained to improve their awareness of the myriad symptoms associated with menopause, and for greater access to hormone replacement therapy.

Meanwhile, a hot flash of female writers are knocking out their self-help guides. And, in the US, the 53-year-old actress Naomi Watts has been sharing details of her “journey” in advance of launching a menopause-focused wellness line. “Let’s conquer the stigma and address the secrecy and shame we’ve felt and help create a healthier foundation for future generations,” she wrote in her note on Instagram, inviting other women to share their tales.

From Gwyneth Paltrow to Oprah Winfrey, celebrities are queueing up to promote all aspects of women’s health. This year is about owning one’s changing body, and there’s nowhere for us prudes to hide.

I’m not seeking advice and consolation — because everywhere I turn it’s being thrown at me for free. I’m at the age where I can barely admit to feeling somewhat toasty without someone demanding if I’m perimenopausal. I daren’t drip a bead of sweat. “You need the patch on your bum,” a female peer bellowed across the table, while at a formal dinner, earlier this week. A magazine editor and self-appointed menopause diagnostician, she insisted that my interrupted sleep habits must be a consequence of my unbalanced hormone health. The fact I have had night terrors since early childhood had no relevance. I would remain a completely unhinged, sweaty nut job, she assured me, until I slapped an HRT patch on my ass.

Was the advice meant kindly? Of course, I’m sure it was. But I wasn’t entirely sure how gratefully I received her instructions as to what I HAD to do. Much as I’m sure some women want to share their hormone stories, like an access point to some advanced sororal club, the conversation can quickly become another forum — such as those focused on parenting, breastfeeding or wearing make-up — in which women lecture other women about what they’re doing wrong. Is it also churlish to point out that the transparency we’re discussing is focused on our failings once again: would we launch into a dinner conversation about erectile dysfunction with such candour? God forbid it’s ever so.

So many features of women’s lives have been unspoken, it’s no surprise there’s been a rush to fill the void. And as women in the public realm become older and more influential, it’s inevitable our priorities will change. Women’s health and access to care have been cruelly underfunded, creating a culture of shame about the menopause, or orgasms for that matter, that sees women ignore their problems and hope they go away. But that doesn’t mean I want a daily update on your hot flashes. We’ve decided to overcome our sexual stigmas. And that’s very well and good. But now that we’ve acknowledged we need to talk about it, I’d be grateful if we could all shut up again.

Email Jo at jo.ellison@ft.com

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