It’s not really fair to judge a book by its cover, but why does a book called Women on Top of the World: What Women Think About When They’re Having Sex have to come in various shades of Mattel pink, inside and out? Is this subliminally to suggest to any man picking it up that it really isn’t for him? If so, that would be a great shame because this is a book that really should be pressed into the hands of a generation of young men who have learnt everything they wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask from porn.
Women, I suspect, will find the testimonies of the 51 respondents from around the world, selected by Lucy-Anne Holmes (a writer who among other things was responsible for the campaign against Page 3 girls in The Sun and is now training to be a “sacred sexual priestess”), rather depressing. Indeed, if any woman out there is feeling that she has been missing out on a dalliance during lockdown, she would be well advised to avoid this book, because an alarmingly high proportion of the women interviewed are not having any fun in bed at all.
Take Melanie, 19, from the UK, who thought sex was going to be “spectacular . . . but I had no idea how awkward it would actually be”. Or Vi, 25, from India (“I used to think pain was a part of sex”), or Rose, 25, from the US (“I’ve never had an orgasm with a man in my entire life”), or Lisa, 29, from Austria, who echoes many of the interviewees when she says: “I have been with too many men who have watched too much porn, and I used to go ahead with what I thought they liked to do, rather than saying to them, ‘If you do that again, I might throw up.’”
The really tragic theme in this book is how many of the women in it have been scarred by sexual abuse. Usually it has happened in childhood at the hands of an uncle, a family friend, a brother — Zaye, 36, from Malaysia, starts her chapter saying that her guy friends call her a nympho, but then says that the reason she is so sexually active is that she was abused by her brother from the ages of 7 to 12. Generally the more sexually active the interviewee, the more likely it is that she will admit to some history of abuse. There is no introduction to this book, so we don’t know on what basis Holmes selected her subjects, or indeed how she went about questioning them, but even if this sample is possibly skewed towards women who have been abused, it is hard to read the book without feeling not arousal but anger.
Of course, during sex not all women are thinking about whether they have left the gas on; some, especially those who are not heterosexuals, seem to be enjoying themselves just fine. Maria-Libra, 26, from the Philippines, says: “When I was with a guy, I didn’t really experience the highest level of climax I am experiencing now. I feel like with guys it was average, but now (with a woman) it’s so much better.”
Jennifer, 39, US/UK and a trans woman, says that since her testosterone levels have been suppressed with hormones she has “much less sex, but when I do, it’s a really special experience; it takes longer and is sensitive and emotional. I don’t really miss the way I used to have sex.”
The women in this book come from all over the world, but it doesn’t matter whether you are from Iran, Lebanon or Tanzania, everyone wants more kissing and cuddling. Nobody complains about too much foreplay, except for Ling Ling, 38, from China, who “doesn’t like snogging. You see it in the movies, but I don’t understand why they do it . . . I’ve said this to my husband; he hates me saying it and I feel like a terrible person, but kissing is like a tumble dryer going around and around.”
Ling Ling, though, is really the exception — another reason why this would be an ideal Valentine’s present for a man. Even Grace, a 26-year-old sex worker from Australia who enjoys her work, really wants to find someone she can “connect with on a physical and emotional level”. But escort work is better than casual sex. “I didn’t make any money and I didn’t fall in love, what’s the point?”
The most touching story comes from Wambui, 32, from Kenya, who underwent FGM in 2000 and was told: “You no longer have a clitoris now you’re a woman.” She was abused as a teenager, attempted suicide and then married a man who died three months after their wedding, and her first thought was: “Phew, I don’t have to have sex any more.” But after restorative surgery and counselling she feels “like it was a rebirth, an instant shift; like my sexuality was handed back to me in an envelope.”
Holmes has done an admirable job of including women of every sexual preference; there are women who masturbate with 200 other people, women who cuckold over the internet, mothers who find it difficult to be a mother and a lover, tantric sex practitioners, and pensioners who use Tinder but worry about their knees on the kitchen floor. Generally, the older they are the more confident — Vivian, 70, from the US, says: “I thought the idea was to be in love, now I just want what I want when I want it.” Sadly, there are too many in this book just waiting for it to be over.