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Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man

Dan Anderson and Maggie Berman

In Meryl Streep’s new film, a lonely wife turns to a sex manual for help. Would it really work, asks Alex Hardy.

A buckwheat pillow, a tube of cookie dough, and enough imagination to pretend that a gnarly penis is a Renaissance statue. These tools could help you get your man “cooing like a pigeon”, suggests the book Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man.

It’s just been propelled on to the big screen via a cameo in Hope Springs, the Meryl Streep movie in which her character Kay is a 50-something in a 30-something-year marriage to Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones). Their relationship runs like clockwork — from the egg and bacon she plonks onto his plate every morning, to the light she clicks off each night, as he dozes off to his golf programme. Except for the sex. Decades of life events and creeping insecurities have left them in separate rooms, with a physical gulf far more devastating than a few metres of landing would suggest. “You wouldn’t think it would be so hard just to touch somebody you love,” Kay says, crushed.

So up pops the book, as part of the intensive couples’ counselling that Kay drags Arnold along to. And we see Streep, in a bathroom, tentatively practising new techniques on a banana — like a late-night Julie & Julia.

Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man is bound to get a boost from such an endorsement, especially as it’s being released in eBook form. (Future readers, at least, will be spared the indignities poor Kay suffered courtesy of a shouty bookstore clerk.) But not all customers will be, er, satisfied. While its authors Dan Anderson and Maggie Berman envisaged the book to be empowering, some critics have found the opposite. The Times’s sex and relationships expert, Suzy Godson, could hardly be less complimentary. “Patronising”, “gender stereotyping” and “incredibly dated” are among the adjectives she uses. “It’s a horrid little book. It’s socially based on the idea that women should subjugate themselves to pleasure their man. It’s just horrible.” This echoes criticism from when it first came out in 1997: back then, an Independent on Sunday review called it “crashingly politically incorrect” and “revoltingly unsexy”; with its tips such as worshiping an erection as if you’re “saluting a flag”.

As the book hits the big screen, Anderson — the titular Gay Man — insists that such references were tongue-in-cheek and that it is as much a “humour” book as a sex manual. Jokes aside, Anderson is confident that the key premise still stands. From his home in LA, he explains: “Women are always told to be demure and all these things and it’s just — if you want it, just go for it. Try to act like a gay man, be a bit more straightforward.”

The book is certainly direct, with advice as black and white as its cheeky illustrations. As it moves through insights into the ABCs of erections and men’s pride in their ejaculations, the tips range from practical to amusing, from icky to actually pretty repressive. Its practical missives include the aforementioned buckwheat pillows (for support) and that cookie dough (for perfecting your penis-handling technique: “stroke the tube hard enough to leave a slight impression, but not hard enough to leave a dent.”).

Then there’s the amusing. What an intriguing premise — that women should imagine an unsightly willy to be a Renaissance statue (David, perhaps?). The book also compares mastering the building blocks of great sex to learning to conjugate French verbs (David va bientôt arriver?). Perhaps my favourite is the astute analogy used for women’s attitude towards testicles. Says a chapter entitled Play Ball: “We believe that balls have always been treated like unwelcome country cousins. You recognise them when they show up at the door, but . . . you have absolutely no idea of what would keep them entertained.”

Then there’s the icky. Its constant use of the names “Mr Stiffy” and “Mr Softee” will be enough to make many readers gag. Often, it feels like all roads lead back to pubic hair. Condition yours, so you don’t scratch him. Don’t wear a bracelet in case it gets stuck in his undergrowth. Don’t wear diamond earrings, for the same reason. (Although learn fast enough and your cooing husband might reward you with diamond studs, “just for the heck of it” — as happened to one fast learner.) Anderson says that the book has helped to empower people within relationships, “which made the sex better for both of them,” or, conversely, to leave if a partner refuses to shape up. He also thinks it can help people to avoid devastatingly intimate conversations about sex. “It doesn’t have to be that awkward face-to-face conversation where it feels really like you’re being hard on the other person. You can communicate through different ways, including through sex, that can lead to a better outcome.”

For Godson, it’s a shame that such a “horrible” book will get a boost from a movie that for the most part so powerfully tackles the taboo of sexless marriages. “I love the part of the film when she says, ‘When did you last touch me when it wasn’t for a photograph?’. That’s absolutely classic. The only time he ever put his arm around her was when someone else was taking a photo, because it’s all about keeping up appearances.”

In particular, Godson found Hope Springs a strong demonstration of “the difficulties that people have in talking about sex and just being honest about their relationship”. In such situations, she says, no one person is generally at fault; rather there are “cumulative failures on both sides that add up to this kind of great big emptiness”.

Godson acknowledges that books can bolster things up, even if they’re not the greatest quality. Of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon she says: “I don’t think it’s a great book, but I don’t really think it matters. If it gives women permission to fantasise and to become more interested in sex rather than turning away from it, I think that’s a good thing.”

Clinical psychologist Linda Blair thinks that with “bibliotherapy” — neat phrase — “it’s not the tool, not the book itself, but the timing that’s key. It needs both people to be engaged for it to work. That often takes time because initially it’s often one person that is keener than the other.”

If the timing is right, Blair’s book of choice would be Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel. Blair is also emphatic about the benefits of striving for a better sex life. “It can really change the energy you feel about life generally. You can feel a much more balanced energy if you feel you’re intimate with someone.”

Godson’s recommendations include superior quality erotic fiction — for example Anaïs Nin and Pauline Réage — or one of the many better books on sex and technique (see left). Best of all, Godson says, would be a shift in perception, so that couples’ counselling was proactive rather than a last resort. “It would be good it if was looked at positively as marriage maintenance rather than crisis management.” She is working on a map of key milestones (marriage, post-children, retirement and many more) at which couples should look at how their sexual needs are changing. “You can almost predict what the problems are going to be,” she adds. And there shouldn’t be a taboo about the way things change. “We are infused with this idea that sex is a natural act and we shouldn’t have to try, or make an effort, or need any help, but that just isn’t the case as we get older.”

So, maybe, get that buckwheat pillow and cookie dough — but use them as props for an honest chat with your partner, possibly in the presence of a therapist or a good book. Who knows — your man might even buy you a pair of diamond earrings if you make him biscuits in the shape of a Renaissance statue. C’est David, il est arrivé. . . .

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