A book review from the UK. The Rantmeister has competition. But as with these things, women get the impression that all men think the same way, no matter how much we point to our differences. More myths than Aesop get an airing.http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2092-2168324,00.html
The Sunday Times - Review Sex, lust, fantasy and the truth about men
Sean Thomas's candid memoir about his sexual adventures does women a service -- by revealing what it is to be a 21st-century man, writes India Knight
A few months ago a proof copy of Sean Thomas's new book, Millions of Women are Waiting to Meet You, landed on my doormat. I flicked through it over breakfast. A few pages in, I cancelled my entire working day to read it in one go. I had just come to this bit about his first sexual experience as a child: "The first thing I had an orgasm over was the cleaning woman . . . I am weird, terminally peculiar."
The book is ostensibly about that revolutionary and now ubiquitous phenomenon of online dating, but it is also a sexual memoir, a deft first-person account of 42-year-old Thomas's entire sex life, warts and all. Thomas loses himself in online porn for days on end: "This is compelling stuff. So compelling I think I'm going to do exactly the same tomorrow. And maybe the day after that I'll do the same. And the week after that. Indeed the next time I do this, I might stay up for 24 hours at a stretch; after all, who needs sleep when there are people having live group sex in Ontario?"
He is fairly brutal in his assessments of the women he meets: "Her life seems slightly tragic and she appears to be a little mixed-up, but she's got a Pulitzer prize-winning bottom." His opinions about women and sex generally verge on the outré: "To this day I find short skirts and gingham dresses very exciting. I also like girls with bare legs." And he is alarmingly frank on the question of not having sex for a while: "Once, during my schlep across the Sinai of celibacy, I caught myself looking at a 'naked' mannequin in a shop window. With lust."
All of this makes his book compulsive; it is eye-poppingly candid about both sexual successes and crushing failures (Thomas is not of the delusional "I'm so hot it hurts" school), and it is also very funny, even if the laughter is often of the horrified variety. Here, for instance, describing a date who is having difficulty understanding Queen, The Musical:
"The woman is a moron. She is a cretin. She is, I fear, emblematic; in other words, she is crystallising a question that has been locked in the attic of my mind for some time. Just why are so many women so thick?"
I doubt my laughter would be appalled if I were a man -- I'd probably be whooping with recognition. But I suppose I find all this rather grim because I am a woman who likes to imagine that men are evolved, sensitive creatures who don't have sex on the brain 24 hours a day; and I am horrified because I also recognise that Thomas is a kind of Everyman, and that a lot of what he says about women -- or rather about what men think about women -- is probably true, particularly the bit about sex on the brain or about the way men judge women instantly (of yet another date, who doesn't look much like her online picture and who puts this down to changing her hairstyle: "I felt like replying: and your dress size? And your beard-shaving regime?")
His book won't delight the sisterhood but as a portrait of modern masculinity in a time of crisis, it is hard to fault.
If I were a man, I'd be delighted that someone has finally had the courage to say, "This is how we are. You don't have to like it, but it's true and we're okay with it." As a woman, I am agog: reading Thomas's book is like rootling around the brain of some random nice-seeming bloke: it's fascinating, startling and not entirely comfortable. "I have often found that the most successful, affluent and dominant women (in terms of career) often turn out to be the most feminine and yielding when they get the chance."
The book is also oddly moving. Thomas writes from the heart as well as from the groin and, crucially, his voice is likable.
So I'm sitting in a London club waiting for him, thinking how weird it is that I know so much about his intimate life. I know, for instance, that if -- God forbid -- this were a date that we had arranged on the internet, I would be automatically disqualified on grounds of my height, because he likes only short girls ("I prefer short girls. I just do. Short, petite, feminine, sit-on-my-lap girls").
I know he likes spanking and mild bondage. I know how many threesomes he's had. I know he's spent so much time looking at internet porn that he eventually had to wean himself off, like an addict -- and I know that when he confesses to this, which he jauntily does, he is speaking for millions of men, one of whom may be living in your house. Of women's online profiles when they do internet dating, I know that Thomas believes that "curvy" means " tubby", "cuddly" means "huge", "a cat lover" means "desperate for kids" and "scatty" means "bonkers". Not PC, indeed, but probably true.
I start by asking him what possessed him to be quite so candid. For writers of confessional journalism -- Thomas has written a great deal of it, as well as three novels -- the trick has always been to conceal as much as you appear to be giving away. Was he concerned about exposing himself so fearlessly? "Um . . . slightly. I wanted to be as truthful as it's possible to be." (There is one glaring omission in Thomas's ultra-honest book: he makes no mention of the fact that he was acquitted of date rape in 1988. "I thought very hard about whether to include that. But I'd written about it ad nauseam and I thought it would really unbalance the book, like putting a brick on a silver tea-tray.")
Aside from this considered omission, Thomas is not shy about chronicling the minutiae of his sex life. "I read The Sexual Life of Catherine M a couple of years ago and thought it was a very impressive book. I was inspired by it." But it was written by a woman, I say: explicit sex is a subject on which male writers of non-fiction have traditionally been quite coy (unlike their novelist counterparts). "We're getting less coy. There's been a huge change in male sensibility over the past 30 years. And there's feminism: women have required more emotional input from men and that's a good thing."
But feminism assumes that men might become tamed, doesn't it, or at least gentler, more attuned, less crazily macho? Thomas laughs: "Yes. But we don't. Some men become kind of neutered, that's true, but not many. They do exist. I've met . . . two. And women don't fancy them, so what's the point? I think men have twigged onto that. And then there's been the influence of lad magazines. I was on both FHM and Maxim when they were launched and worked on them for 10 years. They're often accused of coarsening the culture, but one of the good things they did was encourage men to open up. You tell stories and jokes in the pub about your sex life -- why keep them to the pub?
My male friends talk to each other about sex and relationships in a way that my father (the novelist DM Thomas) would never do."
Are men becoming more tender, and if so how does that reconcile with the fact that I found so much in the book shockingly full-on? "It's how men are," he says. "A woman today told me she'd enjoyed the book, but then she said, 'Is that really how men think?' I didn't have the heart to tell her the truth, which is that yes, in my experience, it is. They might not necessarily share these particular thoughts with the women they know, but we all present a persona to the world."
We move on to internet porn. In his book Thomas is at first an enthusiastic frequenter of the more baroque sites, and makes the point that the internet has allowed people to be almost unimaginably specific with regard to their sexual fetishes. Whereas a man might have thought "I quite like the idea of lesbianism" 10 years ago, he can now, by going online, narrow his preference down, and then down again, to the point where he can say: "What I especially like are lesbians performing dentistry."
Is this helpful? "It's quite dangerous. It becomes obsessive. These things can genuinely lie dormant in your mind for your whole life. You come across lesbian dentistry, and you end up thinking 'that's strangely erotic'. And then you Google some more, and there it is, and suddenly you've got a serious hobby on the go.
"And men are designed by evolution to be almost insatiable. So it's a dangerous combination -- insatiability and the enormousness of the net. The happy thing is that there is probably a saturation point -- you just get full up, in my case after about a couple of weeks. My friends have had similar experiences -- they've known they were out of control and they've had to come offline or block their own access to certain websites, go cold turkey."
Is the ubiquity of explicit sex on the net a good thing? "Probably not. We're not equipped to withstand this amount of porn and sexual imagery. I rarely take a puritanical view of things, but I'm suspicious now of the internet."
Is he concerned about what such images do to men's idea of "normal" women? "Men always objectify women as bodies. That's what they do. They've always been visual and they always will be." Do men who look at a lot of porn find women's sexual performances boringly ploddy? "Men are easily pleased sexually. As long as they get their rocks off, they're happy. And there's an argument for saying that you can indulge in your more unusual desires on the net -- I mean, it's going to be pretty hard to organise a lesbian dentistry scenario in your house."
As well as exhausting himself with online porn, Thomas spent some time in internet sex chatrooms, going by the magnificent moniker "Marmaduke Skewes". They get boring after a couple of hours, he says, although he mentions a married friend who had an entire online affair, "from the first flirtation in a chatroom to serious cybersex. He was discovered in flagrante by his wife." Does this constitute infidelity? "It's a new kind of infidelity. It's damaging to proper relationships."
Was Thomas tempted to try anything else? Did he go dogging? "No," he laughs. But was he tempted? "Yes, because it sounds so weird. Like the place in Baker Street Tube station where you go and look up the skirts of knickerless women."
The ironic thing about all of this -- about the detailed carnal reminiscences, about the intimate, sometimes crushing descriptions of all the women he met online and of his exes -- "I had this one girlfriend who was a very successful thirtysomething TV executive . . . She liked nothing better than ironing shirts" -- is that Thomas did, in fact, meet The One on the internet. Shoulder-deep in sex, he found true love.
Claire is 30 and expecting their first child at the end of the month. What does she think of the book in which she features? "She's very nervous. I think me writing it was tough for her. I'd been honest about my past with her before I started writing, but I think what was difficult for her was the fact that I was talking about other women I'd loved. That's difficult. She got a little bit upset. But she knows I'm a writer, so . . . And I'd never have met Claire if I hadn't been on the internet. Never. Our lives would not have overlapped. We had no social connections, we were unlikely to meet in a bar -- there'd be a million-to-one chance. That's what's amazing -- you meet people you would never normally meet."
I ask Thomas if he misses his time online -- his flirting and his messaging and his setting up of promising dates with complete strangers, all of which must get addictive. Yes, he misses it sometimes. And does Claire worry whenever he goes online now that the book is done and there is no longer the "research" excuse? "Maybe slightly, yes, but it's done jokily. You do get addicted to the out-of-the-blue messages that arrive from people who've spotted you online. They're interested in you and they're e-mailing you (Thomas's profile is still up on a couple of sites). Claire was still doing it too -- not e-mailing people, but just looking. So then we both logged off."
Is there an element, I ask, of being tormented that there are, as his book points out, still "millions of women" dying to meet him out there? After all, Thomas was immersed in this world for months on end on a daily basis. "You have to stop yourself, as you do in life. You get a partner and you might think 'perhaps I could get somebody a little bit nicer', but then eventually you realise that it's cleverer to stay with what you have. You think, ' This person isn't perfect, but then neither am I'. You teach yourself to stop looking. Falling in love helps."
To me, this strange modern mixture of porn and chatrooms and actively wanting to fall in love ("Men have biological clocks, too," Thomas says) sums up the way many men are today: they're laddish, for want of a better word, but also intelligent and more emotionally literate than their appetite for laddishness might suggest. They are happy to speak about their emotional literacy, but have become concerned about voicing their more traditionally blokey passions. It is this reticence that creates a gap and makes them so alien-seeming to many women.
Thomas has, I think, done his generation of men a service by telling it like it is, not just on the subjects of pornography and sex, but by mapping out a guide to men's emotional landscape, and in doing so telling men that being themselves is okay. They will thank him for articulating what they think but are too scared to voice. Women should thank him too -- not just for the timely lesson in social anthropology, but also for giving them a genuine insight into what it means to be a man in 2006. If you've ever wondered why the date you thought you'd got on with wonderfully never called, you need to read this book.
Oh, and for those thinking of emulating Thomas, he particularly recommends datingdirect.com