The Hotbed Collective started out as a podcast with a mission: "To make life better, one orgasm at a time."
Now, the team behind the raved-about podcast, led by Lisa Williams and Anniki Sommerville, are putting their considerable expertise down on paper with their debut book, More Orgasms Please: Why Female Pleasure Matters. In the book, the collective, who firmly believe that sex, relationships and body confidence are feminist issues that can no longer be ignored, take on everything from feminist porn to body image and the menopause.
Like the podcast that inspired it, More Orgasms Please is like a great conversation with friends: at once punchy and playful, normalising and educational. Featuring insight from doctors, bloggers, politicians, therapists and celebrities, it's an eye-opening read that puts women's pleasure firmly on the map at a time when it couldn’t be more crucial.
In the extract below, Anniki recounts a bad sexual experience she had as a teenager, which left her feeling anxious about her future sex life. If, like so many of us, you too have had a less-than-brilliant encounter between the sheets, you'll want to read on for The Hotbed Collective's straight-talking advice...
ANNIKI: It’s the late Eighties. I’m fifteen. I’ve been out at a nightclub with a bunch of friends. We’ve drunk Grolsch, and been chatted up by some students from St Martin’s School of Art. They are channelling the Levi’s 501 ads and wear white T-shirts and baggy jeans.
One of them asks if I want to go back to his room. My best friend Hannah accompanies me. He lives in a hall of residence in Battersea. To cut a long story short, the boy and I snog while Hannah sleeps in the same bed. This is not unusual as beds are often at a premium and we’ve become used to sharing this way. Without warning the boy clambers on top of me and starts thrusting. Hannah mumbles, 'Can you please stop?' but the boy continues. Eventually after three minutes he groans. I am still wearing my thick Wolford tights. They must be at least 200 denier.
'You are completely gross,' Hannah says waking up. 'I’m getting out of here.'
I don’t want to stay without her so we leave. On the early-morning bus up the King's Road, I look down at my tights. There is a white sticky substance. 'I can’t believe you had sex in the bed next to me,' Hannah says.
The conversation ended right there. Had I had sex? Was that it? The problem was I lacked the necessary vocabulary to explain what had happened. My sex ed lessons hadn’t included a session on 'dry humping'. 'Could I be pregnant?' I wondered. There were rumours that sperm was so powerful that it could survive outside your body and crawl up your leg if it was determined enough. I never talked about this experience with anyone – not even my best mate.
I also felt ashamed but wasn’t quite sure why. There was no one I could talk to about it. I spent many hours fretting that my future sex life would be one where I always had sex through a pair of tights because I didn’t know any better.
'Bad sex' experiences such as the one Anniki describes above unfortunately are the norm for many young women embarking on those first few formative sexual experiences. Without a meaningful, realistic idea of what to expect or useful education about how sex is supposed to be pleasurable, then it's a miracle that we ever end up enjoying it at all.
If you don't know your own anatomy, what a clitoris is, or the difference between foreplay and penetration, then having sex through a pair of tights can be the unfortunate outcome. Sex education lays the groundwork. It also encourages us to talk about our experiences so we don't think we're abnormal. It gives us the information we need to make the right choices (and these will hopefully lead to more orgasms and less worry, anxiety and ignorance).
Bad sex probably shares a few common traits (for us anyway).
FIRSTLY: no orgasm. Of course, you can have nice sex without an orgasm but if you are physically capable of an orgasm, it's a bit like eating rhubarb crumble without custard. Or not having a bun with your burger. Or going out with trainers and no socks so your feet get blisters (come up with your own analogy here). You can fake an orgasm (and sometimes it's just simply the easiest thing to do: if it's someone you haven't had sex with much yet and you like them but you haven't finished this book yet and are therefore still mid-journey to becoming a fully qualified sex goddess who can ask for what she likes) but this isn't a sustainable way forward and the sooner you can put things right, the better.
SECONDLY: bad sex often hurts. This may be because you're not lubricated enough and your sexual partner has no clue or has forgotten about foreplay, or because they've watched too much porn, and think frantic, crazy, Jack Russell-style action is what turns you on (maybe it does, in which case: thumbs up).
THIRDLY: bad sex sometimes entails something happening which is so humiliating that your face burns whenever you think about it, even when it's twenty-odd years later.
We know from our own conversations and from feedback from The Hotbed that plenty of bad sex is happening each and every day. Here are some quickfire stories about bad encounters, shared with us by our listeners:
The time I tried to give a blow job but thought you had to blow instead of suck...
The time toilet paper was still stuck to my bum and I was really into a guy and he discovered it there...
I had to pee really bad and ended up weeing all over our sleeping bag...
My entire first relationship involved sex which was OK but which never made me have an orgasm...
His mum rang him while we were at it, and he answered and had a full conversation with her before carrying on again...
In Not That Kind of Girl Lena Dunham describes a bad experience of cunnilingus, 'I felt like I was being chewed on by a child that wasn't mine.'
Author and columnist Caitlin Moran refers to bad sex as 'the straight-up awful hump – a tale you will tell for the rest of time'. She tells a story of going back to a famous comedian's house in the Nineties: 'As we began the "opening monologue" on the sofa, he reached around for the remote control – and put on his own TV show.'
Perhaps you too have your own bad sex story to tell. Often the accounts of these experiences share certain commonalities: we're disempowered, passive, naïve and insecure. We do something stupid and embarrassing and we don't have the guts to ride it out.
Our partner is too rough, not rough enough, too fast, too slow, rude, arrogant, or picks his toenails afterwards.
Samantha from Sex and the City famously declared, 'Fuck me badly once, shame on you. Fuck me badly twice, shame on me.' You will have noticed that we're not blaming our sexual partners exclusively for our bad sex. Of course, they should get clued up: read about some techniques; buy lube; ask you what you like and dislike; and know that women don't tend to get turned on by having their head forced down into the crotch area. But while they should be able to read your body language, they can't be expected to read your mind.
Bad sex can happen when expectations are running very high. It can happen when you're fifteen and it can happen when you're eighty-five. Unless women take responsibility for their own pleasure and get educated about what pleases them, and have the confidence to tell or show their partners, bad sex can last an entire lifetime.
Here's our Hotbed advice:
REMEMBER IT'S NEVER TOO LATE TO REWRITE YOUR SEXUAL STORY. Just as we can change jobs and have multiple identities, so we can change the course of our sexual history. Have a frank look at your own sex life – look at the overarching narrative from teen to now. What percentage has been bad? Are there any patterns in terms of things you’ve put up with but would rather not anymore? How can you build on the stuff you love?
THINK ABOUT THE BEST SEX YOU'VE HAD AND WHAT SHAPED THOSE EXPERIENCES. Was it a specific technique? A mood? Location? It might not be possible to recreate a summer in Spain when you were twenty-two, but there will be certain ingredients that you can integrate into your sex life now…
GET OVER THE IDEA THAT SEX IS BEST WHEN YOU'RE YOUNG. The reality is often quite the opposite. The Public Health England survey that we referred to earlier found that forty-two per cent of women aged between twenty-five and thirty-four complained of 'a lack of sexual enjoyment', but in the fifty-five to sixty-four age group this percentage falls to twenty-eight per cent. Bad sex can be edifying in that it teaches you what you don’t want from a sexual encounter, meaning you can learn and improve as you grow older (despite the media’s failure to portray any woman past thirty as fuckable).
TAP INTO FANTASY. When we’re younger we have rich fantasy lives. Usually these take the shape of imagining sex with pop stars and actors. How can fantasy help now? How can you tap into that teen mindset where sex lived in your imagination?
OF COURSE IT MAY BE EASIER TO FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT, ESPECIALLY DURING NEW ENCOUNTERS, BUT THERE'S NO REASON WHY YOU CAN'T HAVE GREAT SEX WHILE DATING HOT STRANGERS. Showing someone where and how you liked to be touched, bringing along a tube of lube, and saying 'softer', 'this is amazing,' or 'ooh, that hurts a bit', are all completely acceptable from the first bonk, and could spare you both some embarrassment and wasted time.
OWN YOUR BAD SEX STORIES. Talk about them. You’ll soon discover that they’re pretty much universal. A bad sex story shared is a bad sex story out in the open and you can have a good old hoot about it and relieve yourself of any shame. We’re talking about the sex-through-tights stories here, of course. If they’re about anything abusive or damaging in any shape or form then seek help from a counsellor or therapist. The experience of abuse can’t be brushed under the carpet and will oftentimes leave heavy imprints in your memory, but with proper support and therapy they don’t have to be a barrier to improving your sex life either.
Bad sex may be a rite of passage but as we've explained, it can also continue from our teens into our twenties, thirties and beyond. There may no longer be Wolford tights involved, but there will certainly be times when your partner can't perform, or you lose interest, or the baby cries, or you're too tired, or the quality of sex is just not there for you.
In order to stop the rot and make sure that it's not happening all the time, look out for unhelpful patterns that emerge. Do you always tend to prioritise your partner's pleasure more than your own? Do you feel grateful if your partner makes your orgasm a priority but then worry afterwards that you were being too demanding and pushy? Do you cringe when you tell your partner about what turns you on?
It's also worth remembering that famous Nora Ephron quote about how you can turn embarrassing stories around so you become the heroine: 'When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh.' That's how Anniki feels about the whole tights story anyway. She's 'owning' that bad boy.
More Orgasms Please: Why Female Pleasure Matters by The Hotbed Collective is available on 4th July 2019, published by Square Peg, £12.99