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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 07-Jul-14 15:07:21

Guest post: Talking about sex on Mumsnet, and why it matters

Following the media furore over penis beaker, Professor Sarah Pedersen decided to research the way women use Mumsnet to continue their sex education. Here, she explains how 'traditional' media has let women down, and argues that the internet offers a new space for women to discuss and celebrate their sexuality.

Do read the post and share your thoughts.

Lead photo
Professor Sarah Pedersen

Robert Gordon University

Posted on

Mon 07-Jul-14 15:07:21

(13 comments)

Where can women find advice on sex after kids?

On the whole, society can get quite upset at the idea of mothers talking or even thinking about sex. Case in point is the infamous Mumsnet penis beaker episode, where media comment ranged from ‘bawdy’ and ‘funny’ to ‘sleazy’ and ‘obscene’. Even Jenni Murray - herself a campaigner on issues relating to women’s health - wrote a piece for The Daily Mail detailing her shock and horror at the material she found on the Talk Threads of this site. And let’s not even mention that poor male reporter from The Independent who read through some of the ‘Just Shagging’ threads…

Where does this reaction come from? The portrayal of women in the media suggests that they can be mothers or they can be sexy, but they can rarely be both. Indeed, there are even suggestions that a highly sexualised woman cannot be a good mother. A woman who has been pregnant and given birth will have experienced changes in her body. She – and her partner – can no longer ignore its reproductive function. Pregnancy, childbirth and family life will change women’s bodies, and also the way they perceive themselves, and yet women are bombarded with images in the media of celebrity yummy mummies who are applauded for returning to their pre-baby bodies and lives in a matter of weeks – ‘congratulations to them, for they are ‘sexy’ once more,’ appears to be the message. Back in the real world however, new parents are encouraged to discuss contraception with their midwife at the six-week post-partum check-up, and mothers might even be encouraged to have sex again to see ‘if their bits work’. But after that, there is little long-term support available unless there are real medical problems.

Women's magazines tend to construct their readers as up-for-it, comparatively experienced young woman, not 45-year-old divorcees who haven't had sex for years and are worried about saggy bits and caesarean scars.

So where can women find advice on sex after kids? While some have criticised the sex education given in schools - particularly the absence of a focus on pleasure and the marginalisation of non-coital activities – I would argue that there is even less information available to adults. Once someone has left school, there are actually very few opportunities for formal sex education, despite the fact that women’s sexuality will continue to change as they grow older – and in particular will be impacted by experiences such as pregnancy and parenthood.

While some are comfortable discussing their sex lives with friends, research has found that for many women, this doesn't stretch to any of the ‘serious stuff’ - there is always the fear that bedroom issues may be blurted out at the school gates. Women's magazines tend to construct their readers as up-for-it, comparatively experienced young women, not 45-year-old divorcees who haven’t had sex for years and are worried about saggy bits and caesarean scars. And recent research into parenting magazines found a very limited coverage of issues relating to sex - little discussion of desire, and an assumption that the reader is in a heterosexual marriage.

Enter the internet. Anonymity and the possibility of discussing specific interests with others in the same situation as you - without the worry that they know who you are and where you live - mean the web (and specifically, sites like Mumsnet) is a natural place for women to explore their sexuality and have these conversations.

A post on the talk boards might be the first port of call in establishing whether a health-related problem is serious enough to seek professional help, but it also allows women to ask questions about their sex lives that they may be too embarrassed to discuss in ‘RL’. Lack of sex drive? Erectile dysfunction? Doing it doggy style whilst pregnant? True frankness – and other users prepared to be just as frank in response – can be a lifeline.

Research into sex toy parties has found that the most frequent questions asked at such events focus on establishing ‘what is normal’ - whether that is related to size, duration, intensity or position. Online interaction can satisfy this curiosity, helping women establish whether their experiences are similar to those of others -just think of the number of threads started to find out whether the poster’s sex life is more or less frequent than that of other couples – and it can help them find their ‘norm.’

This need to establish ‘the norm’ also suggests that some posters have limited sexual experience and a small number of partners, and Mumsnet can help them compare experiences with others. One re-occurring subject can be summed up as ‘sex tips for women who have not had sex with anyone apart from their ex-partner for some years’. For example, the poster who stated: ‘[I] feel a bit terrified as have not had sex with anyone new in 11 years. XH was always silent during sex – is that normal? Can anyone give me a few basic reminders?’ Or the poster who explained: ‘I have bought underwear. I have waxed. I have bought new sheets (why? like he cares?). I think I look like a Hogarthian gin whore and I've forgotten how to do it’. The responses this OP got is the sort of sex advice that is missing elsewhere in the media - bracing good sense and emotional support (and she returned the following morning, radiant, to announce that she had got the hang of it by the fourth go).

Discussion of the sex lives of mothers in the mainstream media is rare, and interactive and supportive discussion rarer still. Mothers have sex too. It is normal. And that’s why it is so essential that places like Mumsnet provide a forum for women to discuss and celebrate their sexuality, and that we continue to talk openly about our sexual experiences.

By Professor Sarah Pedersen

Twitter: @RobertGordonUni

settingsitting Mon 07-Jul-14 16:19:50

Have no problem at all with sex being discussed on mumsnet.

Do have a problem though with it being promoted by mumsnet.

And trolls and sex, when the thread takes hours or days to get deleted.

Mintyy Mon 07-Jul-14 16:24:20

Ah, I don't know. The internet is 99% sex already. Can't we have a break from it?

<hoiks>

<buttons up winceyette nightie and nods off>

AnyFucker Mon 07-Jul-14 16:34:29

I have no problem with sex being discussed on Mumsnet

What I do take issue with is the over detailed oversharing that attracts the sort of people for whom "supporting women" is the last thing on their mind

There was a poster who made the mistake of posting almost blow by blow real time experiences of her sex life. She got targeted by a sleazeball who messaged her privately and scared the shit out of her. There sometimes seems to be an almost competitive edge to the "look how liberated I am" grandstanding that smacks of the school playground to me

yes, I enjoy a natter about sex as much as the next woman but if you disapprove of the sorts of conversations that attract the dick-wielding knuckledraggers of this world then you are accused of hating men and hating sex which I can't even be arsed to defend any more

I'd like to see a middle ground where it isn't necessary to share every single salacious detail but that women can still get support from each other

PenelopeGarciasCrazyHair Mon 07-Jul-14 16:47:11

Where women are discussing relationships, sex is bound to enter too. So many issues we have with partners relate to our sexual interaction with them, so it's inevitable that there's going to be some overlap.

How can you talk about an emotionally abusive marriage or a demanding other half without addressing issues in the bedroom?

How can you discuss feminist theory without having some discussions about PIV and porn?

Most of us are not scholars, well versed in theory, we are coming to the discussion armed with only our personal experiences. Personally I find it liberating to be able to mention anonymously (I hope) some of the things that my DP and I get up to, when discussing what other people find normal or acceptable.

I think it's important for people to accept that everyone has different tastes and ideas and the only way to find this out is to discuss it with others. Deciding that certain acts are 'wrong' or inspired by porn and therefore misogynistic could taint someone's view of their partner or limit their openness to try new things.

By hearing that actually other people quite enjoy something within the confines of a loving relationship they may be able to 'normalise' something which was previously considered taboo. Conversely some posters realise that something they've been coerced into doing is actually against their better judgment or sadly even constitutes rape.

Without this open discussion I honestly believe that many MNers' relationships would be worse off. Even solo sex can be improved with the input of more experienced posters and I can think of more than one thread where a poster had her first ever orgasm and how heart-warming it was for those supporting her to share the emotion of that experience. What an amazing gift for women to be able to share with each other.

Yes, there will always be trolls, but tbh I think that a lot of the problems with that come from MN's wish to promote itself outside of the forum via FB & Twitter etc, which highlights the most talked about threads to those who are not genuinely interested in what MN really stands for. Inviting those types into this hallowed space where we open ourselves up for advice seems ill-advised. While I accept that MRAs and the like will always force their way in for kicks, the media interest seems to swell when MN travels outside of these walls.

inraolyn Mon 07-Jul-14 18:15:44

I'm slightly biased about this one. For all the ups and downs of MN, and the fact that I am not the sort of person at all who actively discusses sex here, I have enormously benefited from the conversations on the subject here.

I will admit that sometimes, it feels as though people glorify those discussions as though it's the sole purpose of Mumsnet to be loud, proud, crude and in-your-face about the fact that there's no swear filter and hey, look, we're talking about Sex! That side of things can get a little tiresome, particularly when the mainstream media focus on it and attempt to paint the whole site as being uniform in that regard.

It's very much the loud minority who seem to cause that though, and, naturally, the scandal-hungry side of the media.

To be blunt (and to touch on some more sensitive topics) reading and lurking here on mumsnet helped me realise that my XH was abusive, emotionally and sexually, and that, as a result of my general ignorance of what was and was not acceptable, was, well. It was coercive rape, enough said. And as a result of realising this, after the initial horror at my situation had passed, also using advice I picked up here on the forums, I left him (the bastard). Here I am now, out, and living my own life, doing things my own way, informed and far more confident.

I never would have thought to look up whether what he was doing was acceptable or not. I grew up with a minimum of sex ed (and I am only 27, so my schooling days are only a decade or so gone), and was horrendously naive. The idea of googling anything to do with sex would have mortified me. But joining a parenting forum, and talking to (or lurking around) other women gave me a chance to be "exposed" to the topic. You don't have to click the sex threads if you don't want to, but the fact that they exist, and the down-to-earth nature of the conversations here helps it become less of a taboo. After all, the general premise, that, being mothers, we've all done it, is an amazingly grounding message. It was the parenting advice which brought me here, but the sex and relationships advice was far and away the most important and life-changing.

Whether Mumsnet should have to fill this role is an entirely different question, and I think most people would agree that if the general stigma about women having and enjoying sex (and demanding that they enjoy it should they have it!) were gone then it wouldn't have to. I for one would certainly prefer that sex education be better than it is, and I will ensure that my own children (a boy and a girl) are never in the position I was, without the information to keep them safe. But we don't live in that perfect world, or even that "better than this one" world. Until we do, we have to carve out our own spaces to talk and learn, to find and share answers. Right now, Mumsnet is one of the few which is well-known enough to attract and help even those women who don't go looking for help of that kind.

LoveBeingInTheSun Mon 07-Jul-14 19:17:16

I just don't understand the shock horror of mothers having sex, don't they know where babies come from?

DrankSangriaInThePark Mon 07-Jul-14 22:25:43

Big difference between MN being "a place where women can talk freely about sex" and MN being a place where sadfuck sleazeballs whack themselves off whilst simultaneously laughing at those same women.

And every time a "hilarious" sex thread is tweeted and facebooked just goes to show that HQ haven't quite got that difference yet.

And no amount of "research" into how the "media lets women down" will eclipse the sad fact that HQ itself, every time it tweets and facebooks a wank fodder thread, or simply lets one stand because "it's a laugh innit" lets us all down, and gets it so spectacularly wrong.

usualsuspectt Mon 07-Jul-14 22:43:43

Some pervs posters seemed to enjoy the sex threads a little too much.

Mintyy Mon 07-Jul-14 22:49:11

There is no shock horror at mothers having sex on Mumsnet ffs.

(Although it would be good to remember that some Mumsnetters will be mothers thanks to donor sperm, adoption, surrogacy or marriage - so we shouldn't assume that all mothers have had piv sex)

MostWicked Tue 08-Jul-14 09:39:57

I think it is great that real mums have somewhere that they can talk about sex. It's often very difficult to get honest opinions from friends.
Some threads do get very judgy (I don't like the idea of that so it must be disgusting). There's still a lot of slut shaming. There's also a lot of sexism, men and women posting the same problem will often get very different responses. A dedicated sex forum has been suggested before, that could be a little more private than the rest of the boards, so it would reduce the trolls, but nothing can prevent them completely.
Women do get such mixed messages about sex, there's a lot of pressures pulling them in different directions.

RowanMumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 08-Jul-14 11:20:46

DrankSangriaInThePark

Big difference between MN being "a place where women can talk freely about sex" and MN being a place where sadfuck sleazeballs whack themselves off whilst simultaneously laughing at those same women.

And every time a "hilarious" sex thread is tweeted and facebooked just goes to show that HQ haven't quite got that difference yet.

And no amount of "research" into how the "media lets women down" will eclipse the sad fact that HQ itself, every time it tweets and facebooks a wank fodder thread, or simply lets one stand because "it's a laugh innit" lets us all down, and gets it so spectacularly wrong.

Tbh Sangria, since MNers reacted very strongly to us Tweeting the trollish online dating attempt (over six months ago?) we haven't (we think) Tweeted or Facebooked any sex threads, because MNers felt so strongly that it was bringing an unwanted hairy-handed contingent on to the boards. (And please remember that we only put Penis Beaker on Facebook when it had already gone a bit wild on external sites - we didn't start that ball <no pun intended> rolling.)

We fully appreciate that lots of MNers don't like us putting sex threads on social media and that's why we very, very rarely do it.

Darkesteyes Wed 09-Jul-14 18:39:17

MN and many of its members have been an incredible support to me in the last 3 years since I joined.

My partner has had no interest in sex or affection since the 90s. I did have a LT affair and while I know this isn't right most MNers on here have been very understanding and supportive. Something I haven't found in RL to the same extent.
Thankyou to all the members AF Solid and many others who have given me support when I needed it.

Darkesteyes Wed 09-Jul-14 18:41:11

YY Most Wicked.

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