Mark Mason

Fancy that

For women, sexual desire has a comic edge. And that makes all the difference

Fancy that
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[/audioplayer]Stand by your remotes, girls: the second series of Poldark is under way. Filming has started — yes, he’s out there somewhere, wearing those trousers, not wearing that shirt, swinging that scythe. You’ve only got to wait for someone to edit it all together and then Sunday nights can be special again. You’ll be able to gaze and sigh and imagine. Us blokes, meanwhile, will be considering an anomaly: why is that women can express lust without sounding seedy, but men can’t?

I didn’t watch the first series. About three weeks in, when the Twitter drums had really started beating, I asked a female friend if it was that good. ‘He’s good,’ Catherine replied, so quickly and insistently that she might as well have just said ‘phwoar!’ Later I told my partner what had happened. ‘He is good,’ said Jo, with an excited shiver.

‘Hang on,’ I protested. ‘If I said I fancied a woman on the telly, you’d go spare.’

She denied it, but we both knew this was at least partly untrue: Jo wouldn’t go spare, but she would point out that I sounded like a dirty old man. For a while I mused on the injustice of this. How come Jo was allowed to lust after Aidan Turner and I was expected to laugh about it (which I did — there was something very funny about her response, as there had been about Catherine’s), but were I to convey my keen physical admiration of an actress the conversation would get closed down pretty smartish? (See — I’m not even naming a particular actress. I wouldn’t want the grief next time she was on TV.)

After a bit of thought, however, I realised there was no injustice. Males expressing lust do sound like dirty old men. You’ll note that ‘dirty old woman’ has never become a phrase. Somehow female desire comes out sounding clean. The woman might sound silly — in fact something about the way they lust shows that they know they sound silly. This in itself takes the sting out of proceedings. Down the years, when women have said they fancy Omar Sharif or George Clooney or Benedict Cumberbatch, the ‘shooting for the moon’ element has come as a given. Even when they comment on a guy in the street, women retain a lightness of touch, a sense almost that they don’t really mean it.

But point a bloke in the direction of Raquel Welch or Scarlett Johansson and he sounds sordid. It’s even worse when the woman is a passer-by. There are grunts and growls and muttered phrases ending ‘… the arse on that’ (or indeed ‘… the arse off that’), and all in all you get the impression of something barely out of the Stone Age. Embarrassing at best, and if the age differential is in the wrong direction, downright unpleasant.

Why should this be? How are women able to express their lust in a non-sleazy fashion? They even go to see the Chippendales in mother-daughter pairings — it’s almost as though sex isn’t about sex for them, it’s about comedy. And here, when men stop to think about it, we see that women have a point. When you consider the sexual act itself, you realise just how absurd it is. You put that in there? And do what? Which design team came up with that then? Steve Jobs would have had the lot of them fired on the spot. The mechanics of sex, and the positions you have to get yourself into, and the sounds you make and the faces you pull — all of these explain why pornography is as much a source of amusement as of arousal. The gap between the way sex looks and the way it feels is the widest in nature.

Deep down women never forget this. They remain aware not only that sex itself can make you appear foolish, but so can your statements of who you’d like to do it with. What’s more, women know that sex is fundamentally in the head rather than in the pants. This means that their lusting has a theoretical, almost intellectual quality to it. Of course women must have a sex drive, otherwise none of us would be here. It’s just that they don’t end up letting that drive make them sound obnoxious when they’re talking about Sunday-night TV programmes.

The Greek poet Sophocles is one of several men credited with the statement that the male libido is like living your life chained to an idiot. Over 2,000 years later we’re still making the mistake of introducing that idiot to our friends.