Wendy Jones: The Sex Lives of English Women
11th November, Galleries of Justice Museum
As an amorphous grey blob, my attitude towards sex has always been largely one of apathy, at least on a personal level. But when it comes to other people talking about it and their experiences, it can be eminently fascinating. Hearing from other people being open and honest and free will always be a uniquely healing experience, after all, if for no other reason than it makes the rest of us feel a little less weird.
With that said, if I’m being honest, my attention was largely caught by the synopsis for this event which boldly stated that ‘In the 700 years that books have been published in England, there has not been one that invites women to talk about what they want from sex.’
“That can’t be right!” I thought, “There has to be at least one.” So I sat and thought about it for a while.
You know that feeling you got when you first heard of the Bechdel test, and you realised how insultingly few mainstream works actually beat it? This was a lot like that.
Still, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the event. My initial concern was that it would be like my secondary school sex education, where a deeply unqualified biology teacher unveiled a diagram of the womb and squeaked ‘just say no’ at us for five minutes.
I needn’t have worried.
When asked why she wrote the book, Wendy Jones simply smiled and gave a deeply cogent statement. ‘Every inch of a woman’s body has so many rules…I say bugger that.’ At this point, I am completely on board.
The book is a non-fiction piece covering 24 separate women, all of whom identify as English. Each one was interviewed by Jones, in one session and for around three or so hours. Each one speaks about what it personally means to them to be a woman. It’s not, by Jones’ own admission, a statistical book. She chose the interviewees from a broad spectrum, but there was no mathematical formula to it.
Uniquely, Jones does not force any kind of narrative or point into the book. The interviews are all written from the first person perspective of the subject, at no point does Jones step in and add her own thoughts or judgement, she allows the words of the interviewee to sit, and the reader to interpret. Add to this that Jones takes everything said during the interviews at face value, and explicitly did not attempt to verify the women’s stories, the whole thing feels very conversational.
It’s like talk therapy in paperback form.
That’s not a joke. The interviews are frank and honest. They can be titillating, funny and deeply upsetting, sometimes shifting very quickly between the three.
For example, the section Jones read at the event was about a woman, whom Jones named Lois, who had recently come to realise that she was not straight. But it goes deeper than that, into the realm of compulsive fantasizing, and the lines between that and reality, as well as how pornography affected her psyche. I think it perhaps says a lot that the idea of a woman freely admitting to watching pornography, and a genre of pornography stereotypically consumed by heterosexual men at that, felt surprising. In short, it’s as much a piece on addiction as it is on sex.
This was then followed by a short section about a ninety-four year old woman, Mary, and her experiences as a land girl in the Second World War, ‘I was in the woods…and all the assembled troops were encamped overnight nearby. Americans and Canadians. Say no more.’ Her openness and frank way of speaking had us all in giggles, like everyone in the room was suddenly twelve years old again and listening to their grandmother’s inappropriate anecdotes.
Do you see what I mean about the mood shifts?
The rest of the event was taken up by Q&A. Jones chatted about some of the other women covered in the book, from a Buddhist nun to a sex healer. She’s writing a follow up book, about men this time. Apparently that’s been even heavier, to the point where’s she taken some time off from it.
All through this, I wonder if the book might have benefited from having input from Jones. She speaks with a sparkling wit and a delightful honesty. But then that might have taken away from that wonderful therapeutic feeling the book has, and it’s clear that that is her mission statement, so to speak. Every so often she mentions the importance of an open dialogue, of the healing power of sharing experiences.
Something that shines through all of her answers is Jones’ deep admiration for other women, calling each one unique, and her clear sense of empathy and compassion. It was at that point that I knew I had to buy the book. So I did.
No one book will ever get all of us exactly right. But this will more than suffice.