My girlfriends screamed when I told them I hadn’t had sex in months. It was a pterodactylpitched screech of pain, pity and a by-proxy predatory hunger that silenced diners at other tables in the restaurant, made the waiter hurry over with a fresh bottle of wine, echoed over hills and valleys, and somewhere, kilometres away, made a lone man grope at his junk for reassurance without exactly understanding why. “No, man!” I shushed them.

Of course, if the definition of having a sex life is engaging in semi-regular penis-in-vagina intercourse – along with the scattering of dinner dates and “Where is this going?” conversations that seem part and parcel of a consistent carnal routine – I’m screwed. Or not.

Indeed, I would’ve been close to flatlining and the handwringing and pitiful clucks might have been appropriate, but the year is 2016 and surely no one thinks about sex in such biological, hard and- fast terms anymore? (Not that I have anything against hard and fast, mind you.)

TAKE THE WOMAN I’VE BEEN sleeping with for the last four months – and I use the word “sleeping” incredibly broadly because she frequently wakes me up at 4am, or sometimes 5am if I’m lucky, with gentle kisses whose motive is always betrayed by the more insistent grinding of her hips, and our moans and whimpers escalate with the birdsong before sunrise brings a sweaty, satisfied slipping back into slumber.

Or there’s my friend-with benefits who every few weeks will invite me over to watch series, yet more often than not I’ll leave his place hours later with a peck on the cheek, his taste still in my mouth, my underwear bunched up in my handbag and hickeys in secret places, with everything but the TV having been turned on.

And of course there’s the man on the other side of the planet – the one who first let me answer to his demands with “Yes, sir” and now lets me call him “Daddy” – who I’ve never shared bodily fluids with, but with whom I exchange such graphic and detailed sexts that I frequently shudder to orgasm in the quiet moments between chores, social engagements and time zones, one hand wrapped around my smartphone and the other jammed down my panties. As I’ve counted the months on my fingers without a penis in my vagina, I’ve learnt more about sex than I would’ve thought possible.

I’m only a “good girl” when being bad has earned me a spanking.

Our bedroom narratives are changing along with our relationship ones – and just as we’re realising the only options for intimacy don’t have to involve diamond rings and white picket fences, so we’re learning the only act of intimacy is not just what the dictionary defines as sex. The first part of understanding these new narratives is recognising the one dimensionality of what’s left behind.

In a story where women are good girls (i.e. passive, demure, more emotionally driven than men and less libidinous) and those who are not are broken, deviant – sluts – there’s little room in the plot for our needs to converge, for that coming together of all the factors necessary for a climax. But in case my friends’ genuine concern at the intimation of a dry spell or my Sapphic sweetheart’s nocturnal nudges aren’t evidence enough, let me spell out one of the greatest misconceptions about women. We don’t like or desire sex as much as men do. Bullshit.

What oils our gears? What gets our engines purring?

A male friend laughed when we were discussing this. “Anecdotal evidence,” he said. “It’s way more. Women are a bunch of remorseless orgasm machines.” And it’s not just anecdotal either: books like Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan’s Sex at Dawn (2010) and Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire (2013) argue that conventional wisdom concerning human sexuality – particularly female sexuality – couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Science Proves That Women Want Sex Just As Much As Men Do”, “The Truth About Female Desire: It’s Base, Animalistic And Ravenous”, “Turns Out Women Have Really, Really Strong Sex Drives. Can Men Handle It?” These headlines are hardly breaking news anymore, and while dudes in lab coats might still be debating the matter, I know for a fact that I’m only a “good girl” when being bad has earned me a spanking.

So if we are indeed “remorseless orgasm machines” (I kinda love this description because it removes that perceived emotionality that makes most women roll their eyes and cringe) – what oils our gears? What gets our engines purring? If we’re that into it, why isn’t everyone getting laid way more often?

We’re not aroused by the sight of a flaccid penis, no matter how many other muscles it’s attached to (a mental note to make for any future dick pics you plan on sending)

THERE WAS A COOL STUDY BACK IN THE EARLY 2000s by psychologist Meredith Chivers, now director of the Queen’s University Sexuality and Gender Lab, which looked at the differences in the ways in which men and women get turned on. The things that turned hetero dudes on were pretty predictable: put a naked woman on screen and their
arousal levels soared. Only naked men and suddenly not so much. And the things that turned women on? Everything. Well, almost. When shown a selection of porn clips, including sex between men and women, women and women, and men and men, as well as clips of a muscle-bound naked man walking along a beach and a pair of bonobo chimpanzees mating, increased vaginal wetness and blood flow were measured in almost every case across women both straight and lesbian, bar the scene of the limp-dicked Chippendale going for a languid stroll.

There are two noteworthy impressions here: we’re not aroused by the sight of a flaccid penis, no matter how many other muscles it’s attached to (a mental note to make for any future dick pics you plan on sending); and even so, the scope of sexual stimuli that women respond to, regardless of our sexual preferences, is far beyond that of men and beyond what we are even consciously aware of. The takeaway of that second point is particularly important: women are not “built” to attach sex to emotion, and it’s not only in response to romance that we get a warm tingling between our thighs. We don’t need to fall in love with you to want to bang your brains out on a fierce and primal level.

But if it’s not love and emotional intimacy we’re looking for in sexual partners, and it’s not necessarily the visceral pleasure of an erect dick sliding into us, what is it? The
confusing part is that it’s not not those. Not always. We’re not just “remorseless orgasm machines” and sex is not simply a means to an end – certainly not just one end anyway. It’s not an equation where one thing must surely lead to another or some sort of trade exchange of “I’ll lick yours if you lick mine”.

This is what I love about my lovers, I told my placated girlfriends. The other diners continued with their conversations, the waiter no longer hovered so close that I felt the need to pay his therapy bills, crickets chirped under the stars and that lone man somewhere kilometres away scratched his balls in idle contentment.

EACH PERSON THAT I’VE NOT-BEEN-HAVING-SEX-WITH– if-you-want-to-get-technical-about-it is fulfilling a need or desire of their own by fulfilling one of mine, and there’s something profoundly gratifying about that. Naturally they agreed. (“I love when a dude just friggin’ worships my pussy, like it’s some sort of honour I’ve bestowed upon him. Once a guy said, ‘Oh my God, your pussy is beautiful,’ and then was basically super stoked to eat it. It stands out as one of my hottest moments ever.”) It all points to the fact that like stimulation, satisfaction is not a simple formula: it’s an extensive experience that can expand far beyond the spaces between our legs and that’s something worth exploring and – as importantly – worth communicating, whether it’s with a one-night-stand or a long-term lover. It’s the man who spends hours with his tongue between my legs not because he expects me to return the favour but because this, he tells me, is where he could “die happy”. It’s the smile we exchange when I get up to rinse the mascara off my cheeks and fix my hair so that the doorman downstairs doesn’t think that I’ve been crying. It’s the woman who will sleepily open her eyes and pull me closer in the dark when I nuzzle into her neck, whisper her name and run my hands over her bed-warmed breasts and tummy and hips and ohhh…

And the distant dude who in carefully chosen words can get me panting without so much as touching me. And if you needed any more incentive to share your turn-ons, as my friend then
succinctly put it: “I love being with guys who appreciate me. My sense of humour, my personality, my body – being effusive in your appreciation for me doesn’t make you a wuss, it makes me want to fuck you senseless.” There’s a new frankness in the ways we talk about sex, whether with our friends, our lovers or even our potential conquests. We’re emboldened by instant messaging, dating apps, and the ubiquity of sex in mainstream media. The message that we can have everything is constantly being reinforced; “settle for nothing less”.

But there’s a difference between knowing and communicating what’s good for you and gets you turned on, and being attached to a particular outcome. One thing has struck me about almost every dysfunctional relationship I’ve ever been involved in (and this includes even the most casual no-strings encounters, because you are nothing if not relating on some level even as you’re fumbling with zips and buttons, reaching for condoms and mentally reminding yourself not to call out the wrong name) and that is the disparity between what we expect and the sometimes very different reality.

Ravenous sexual beings we might be, it’s easy to forget that even though most of us now laugh at the notion of holding out until marriage or anything quite so old-fashioned, sex
still carries the weight of social conditioning, our upbringings our previous histories and our future hopes. As we attempt to steer our sexual narratives on courses more conscious, trying to sort real desire from what we think we ought to desire, we are often exploring uncharted territory – be it emotionally or just physically. We’re hungry to discover what pushes our buttons; sometimes it’s cautiously, slowly, and sometimes it’s with a reckless mash of the remote control.