‘Now he was lifting her right leg, holding back the inside of her thigh so she could see the long length of his cock driving into her. It was like an express train going into a tunnel.’
– Jilly Cooper, Riders
‘How did you learn about sex? About real sex, not biology?’
I was asked this question a few months ago when having a discussion with friends about sex ed and its successes and failures. I immediately responded with a somewhat flippant answer:
‘No idea, it was probably from reading too much Jilly Cooper!’
Now I’m not sure I could say anything else to better prove my privileged, white middle-class upbringing but I haven’t been able to shake this feeling that this throwaway line might actually be the truth! That I really did discover sex through reading Jilly Cooper’s bonkbusters and falling in love with Rupert Campbell-Black. Let me explain…
I think I have a pretty healthy and open attitude towards sex and relationships, but I didn’t learn this from my parents – they belong in a different era. My mother had a coming out party, in the sense that she was presented to society and announced to be ready for marriage, and my father once genuinely expressed surprise that my sister’s gay roommate is a nice man as if it had never occurred to him that someone could be both. They are getting much better now but still maintained very conservative attitudes when I was growing up and more impressionable. I also didn’t learn my attitudes towards sex from school – functional biology lessons and terrifyingly graphic pictures of warty penises didn’t exactly encourage safe exploration, and my elderly male art historian form tutor just didn’t have the skills to talk to teenage girls about sex and pregnancy so, well, didn’t. He would teach us about history of art in these lessons instead.
And I didn’t have anyone to ask about what sex was actually like. My parents’ set line was only that ‘sex is fun but should be with someone you trust and not in this house until you’re married’ – a rule that has literally only been broken in the last 6 months – and I didn’t have the confidence to ask other family members. But I didn’t need to ask; I already knew – I’d already experienced so much vicariously through reading these books!
(Oh, spoiler alert – I’m assuming if you’re reading this that you have either read the books already or have no intention of doing so and there may be spoilers!)
As soon as I discovered the Rutshire Chronicles, I devoured them all and gleefully shared them with my friends. Reading what has been described as the ‘best erotic fiction of all time‘ really opened my eyes! No sex ed covered the mechanics of sex – from the variety of positions to even the possibility of oral sex. No one had told me that women become wet when aroused but reading about Rupert parting his latest girl’s labia to reveal a ‘shiny snail’s trail…trickling down both thighs’ made it pretty clear what to expect. I learned the language of fucking and coming; I learned about desire and horniness and irresistibility; I learned about threesomes and erotic photography and outdoor fucking and lingerie and masturbation and…fuck, it was hot!
Sadly, reading it now doesn’t turn me on like it used to. It’s mainstream erotica and I now know better but aged thirteen or fourteen, it was accessible. It didn’t scare me off. It made sex sound awesome! And more than that, it gave me images to build into my own fantasies when I had no personal experience. I imagined myself as the female characters, fucking these beautiful, awful men. I imagined myself as new characters, seamlessly inserting myself into the stories so that I would get the guy. I actually wrote my earliest erotica as RCB fan fiction…
I also learned about sexual relationships – how sex doesn’t equal love and that good sex doesn’t guarantee a good relationship; that love struggles to survive without an equal sex drive and love alone isn’t always enough. Helen adored Rupert but viewed sex as a chore whereas he could never get enough. They were doomed to fail. I learned that sex can mean nothing or everything or anything in between. As well as breaking hearts all across the world, there were legions of women happy to just fuck Rupert and not become entangled in a relationship. I learned that you can use sex to manipulate or get ahead, but that doesn’t guarantee success. Cameron’s affair with her boss, Tony, was not a well-kept secret and she was resented for all of her own career achievements as her colleagues assumed they were paid for with sexual favours.
And I think that these were good lessons to learn – I entered my own sexual relationships without any misconceptions about what they could be like. Sex was just sex; nothing more than that.
Unfortunately, although I developed healthy expectations about sex, falling for these stories left me with wildly unrealistic ideas about Love, with a capital L. So invested was I in the characters that they became real life examples of success that comforted me when my own love life was falling apart. During a particularly desperate unrequited love affair, I reassured myself that Rupert had been in love with Taggie for ages before acting on his feelings, during which time he dated other people and made her feel completely unwanted. I mustn’t give up hope, I thought, I could be the Taggie of my story. I would cling to tiny crumbs of hope because I’d seen their success on the pages of these books. ‘If this were a Jilly Cooper novel…’ became my lifeline. My story wasn’t finished, I mustn’t stop believing, I mustn’t give up.
Except that this faith could make me incredibly sad – maybe I’m not Taggie or Fenella or Marcus or any of characters who were completely broken before being made whole by love; maybe I’m Cameron, abandoned because her love wasn’t enough and who drifts out of the novel’s focus while still in pain, or maybe I’m any of the other multitudes of women who just didn’t get a happy ending, who weren’t important enough. What if I’m not the heroine of my own story? Now that is a bleak thought…
But in a way, these reactions confirm that this was exactly the right way for me to learn about love and relationships. I read about successes against all the odds that were played out right next to appalling heartbreak. Throughout the course of these novels, Jilly Cooper writes about young love, about long periods of solitude, about finding love when you’d all but given up hope, about divorce and affairs and deceit, about virginity and casual sex and good sex and bad sex and orgies. She doesn’t stop at the happy ending, writing about how hard you have to work at marriage even if you’re Rupert and Taggie! Yes, these novels are all frankly ridiculous but they gave me a framework to support my experiences and allowed me to interpret them in some form of context.
These books aren’t without flaws and they certainly aren’t how I would want my own children to learn about sex. They’re very dated now – for a start, there’s no just diversity; in gender, race or sexual orientation. Also, even though the books are packed with strong female characters, they are still all defined by their relationships and the men who do or don’t want them. They are books that would struggle to pass the Bechdel test if they were made into films!
But I still love them, for sentimental and nostalgic reasons, and thinking about the effect that they had on my sexual development, I do wonder if my mother knew exactly what she was doing when she gently took The Man Who Makes Husbands Jealous, book number four, out of my thirteen year old hands to replace it with Riders, the first, telling me that I should at least read them in order. For a family that doesn’t talk about sex, she’d found a way to teach me everything that I needed to know…