The real C-word

Ladies and gentlemen, a new sex manual has sauntered into town. Punning title, check; cover image of sliced fruit, check; sexologist author with PhD, check. So far, so standard, but Dr Ian Kerner’s She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman is beginning to have an impact beyond the usual scope of a glossy paperback sex manual. It is rising steadily up the United States bestseller lists, having been named a book of 2004 by and the book superstore Borders. The author is getting kudos from The New York Times, and the book is recommended by both feminist websites and swingers’ clubs.

Its message is simple: the clitoris is an astonishing piece of anatomy, dedicated to pleasure, and therefore cunnilingus is the best way to please women, and pleased women mean good relationships. Kerner is evangelical about the good practice and ‘coreplay” of skilled oral sex, which he believes can revolutionise relationships, as ‘the number-two reason for divorce in the US is sexual dissatisfaction”. He jokingly quotes Lorena Bobbitt, who, after lopping off her husband’s penis, told police: ‘He always has an orgasm and doesn’t wait for me. It’s unfair.”

But Bobbitt was not alone — Kerner pins his theory on two sets of figures: first, less than one-third of US women achieve a climax on a regular basis when making love to a partner; and, second, if that partner spent just 21 minutes on foreplay, 92,3% of the women were guaranteed an orgasm.

Perhaps Mr Bobbitt thought it would be ‘unmanly” to stoop to cunnilingus — the taboo on the practice has had a powerful hold on some. It has, however, progressively re-emerged, and now Kerner’s book is just one sign that times have changed. Hollywood megastar Meg Ryan was shown receiving ‘oral pleasure” in the 2003 film In the Cut, while conscientious young men can invest in a T-shirt declaring ‘M.U.F.F. Diving School” from the upmarket menswear chain, the Duffer of St George.

Those 20 extra minutes of foreplay nigh-on guarantee a woman an orgasm that Kerner describes as a ‘bird in the hand” for her male lover — any further orgasm she has through penetrative sex is a bonus. His theory is based partly on a small survey group and partly on personal experience: Kerner admits that as a young man he suffered from premature ejaculation. He saved his sex life by becoming skilled at cunnilingus.

The book is his passionate polemic on oral sex, a dense 200-plus pages of instruction with clear line drawings to illustrate. It is full of slogans and puns (‘The tongue is mightier than the sword”) and incorporates his Cunnilinguist Manifesto: ‘To her according to your abilities, from you according to her needs.” Sometimes the ‘thinking man’s” angle feels a little overdone — do you really want your significant other to perform Hamlet’s soliloquy on your clitoris? — but the book is readable and friendly, and resolutely womancentric.

Kerner says his aim was to produce a ‘manifesto of sexual contentment”, as men and women display a reticence about communicating their sexual needs that would put a Cistercian monk to shame. This is the crux of the matter. Kerner receives most letters and e-mails from women who want to buy the book for their partners, but who need advice on how to make a gift of it without upsetting them.

And why this supersensitivity on the part of men? Kerner thinks men, particularly those in their 30s and 40s, think they know it all.

‘I’ve been at cocktail parties where a woman has edged up to me to ask how she can get her husband to read the book, only to have him bowl up and tell me that he could have written it himself.” It’s not their fault, says Kerner, who blames lack of education and distorted ideas about ‘normal sex” derived from pornography, where cunnilingus resembles a bull attacking a salt lick, and couples have spontaneous orgasms after marathon sessions of coitus.

Jonathan Margolis, author of O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm, agrees that porn and ‘locker-room boasting” have created a ‘conspiracy of nonsense in which we are all complicit”. Margolis says Kerner’s approach is timely and well targeted. ‘I think it’s a huge breakthrough that he has made cunnilingus into a macho act.”

Kerner reckons that American men live in a state of permanent sexual anxiety, fuelled by what he calls the ‘cult of Viagra”. ‘Ten million men in America use it. It is advertised on television constantly, showing a happy man and woman wandering hand in hand ... It’s as though your whole relationship hung on your erection. We almost need to liberate men from their penises.” I don’t think he had Lorena Bobbitt’s method in mind. ‘They can use hands, tongues, bodies, their minds and souls. It’s not just technique, they have no understanding of female sexuality, because there isn’t a true depiction of it in the mass culture surrounding them.”

London-based sex psychologist Dr Petra Boynton is more sceptical about the book’s message. ‘It is placing even more pressure on men. It is still advocating a sort of ‘procession’: he gives head, she has an orgasm, intercourse happens, and the man’s orgasm crowns it all.” She also points out that oral sex is just not culturally acceptable for some, and that it is pretty dogmatic to prescribe it as a cure-all.

So 21st-century men and women are just as tongue-tied, bashful and troubled as ever; maybe we haven’t made that much progress after all. It’s time we paid more than lip service to the idea of true sexual liberation, and She Comes First is just the sort of talking point we need to get us started. —

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