When it comes to sex, why do we love being told what we already know? 

Another sex study – yes, another one – has made Caroline O’Donoghue reflect on why we’re so insatiably curious about sex

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Here are some stray observations about sex that I have picked up over the last decade: 

Sex feels good with someone you fancy, and best with someone you love. 

Occasionally, you will have sex with someone you don’t love or fancy as a way to pass the time. This will feel less good, but might result in a fun anecdote you can tell your friends later. 

There are some things that you will enjoy about sex that will confuse you, and will make you wonder whether you’re a bad feminist for enjoying them. Usually, you are not being a bad feminist if you are enjoying yourself. 

Men who won’t give oral sex but expect to receive it are usually as selfish in their daily lives as they are in their sexual ones. 

There is nothing – nothing – in this world more mood-breaking than the trumpeting sound of air rapidly leaving your vagina. 

But you know all this, don’t you? You know all this and much, much more. Because, ultimately, despite how hard sex articles from the 90s worked to make us think that there were 99 ways to please our lovers, for most people there are fairly few. Even if you showed me the kinkiest, most liberal-minded couple in the world, I’m willing to bet that it almost always ends the same way: with two people sweating, their heads on their pillows, exchanging small, tinkling laughs about the thing they just did. Gay sex, straight sex, sexy sex, good sex, bad sex – it’s all coming from the same buffet table of carnal desire. Desire is the same, regardless of who that desire is pointed at. Orgasming is the same, regardless of who you’re orgasming with. 

I bring this up – the obvious and most universal qualities of sex – because, every week, I am sent another sex study. Last week, it was about how couples enjoy physical intimacy more than they enjoy the physical act of sex itself. The week before, it was about how straight women orgasm less than any other group. And, today, sitting in my email inbox is a story about how sex makes you a better and more productive worker.

People who are having sex are usually happy; people who are happy are more inclined to do a good job. The whole feel thing feels so obvious as to not even be worthy of comment. It’s like saying, “People who work near a Pret A Manger are more likely to get a Pret A Manger for lunch.” But, according to many, many publications, the story is very much worthy of comment. Forbes covered it; Gizmodo covered it; New York Magazine covered it. This isn’t a judgement on any of those publications or their editors – I just find it curious that so many places would rush to cover a piece of information that doesn’t feel like information at all, and amazing how regularly this seems to happen. 

Because that’s what sex is, at its best: something that punctures our daily game of dress-up

So, why? Why is it that startlingly obvious statements about human sexuality are still treated like they’re groundbreaking? 

Well, I have a theory. 

I think that, for all the high-street Ann Summers shops, and however pro-kink we are in our private lives, the majority of us are incredibly conservative when it actually comes to talking about sex. It’s funny, isn’t it? We glide past one another as perfect poster people – people who have correct, measured opinions that they share on social media, and clean, smiling photographs, and regularly attended gym memberships, and twice-weekly yoga classes – all with the dual knowledge that we are clawing, sweating, senseless animals. Because that’s what sex is, at its best: something that punctures our daily game of dress-up – the endless appointments and meetings and pleases and thank yous – and reminds us that we’re mammals. It’s human expression at its most vulnerable and most honest. And that’s why obvious sex studies have such an odd place in our culture, and why every news outlet seems to have a daily story on which percentage of the population does what sexual act on their partners. It’s a little opportunity for people to talk and think and wonder out loud about something they still don’t have the language for. Something that’s imperfect and messy and illogical. 

I think that’s why we like being told things about sex that we already know. It’s a way of saying: “Me! Yes! I do it, too! Don’t you love it? Isn’t it divine?” 

When what you’re actually saying is: “Hmm, yes, interesting.” 


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