We are obsessed with sex. Through printed and online media, fiction, documentary and pornography, almost every taboo has been broken. The message is clear, in order to fully understand the act and subsequently to perform to the best of our abilities we must see, touch and shag everything as frequently as our busy lives will allow.
Whoever should dare to suggest an alternative curriculum to learning about sex beyond immersing ourselves in every aspect of it will be laughed out of the room. Sophie Fontanel's self-taught method of understanding sex is even more shocking than bondage, asphyxiation or anything that can be conceivably performed by feet.
The final taboo is abstinence. And Sophie practised it for 12 years.
At the age of 27, the editor-at-large of ELLE France came to the conclusion that she was tired of being, as she phrases it, "taken and shaken". The Art of Sleeping Alone is the novella that documents the next 12 years which were to follow. Fontanel summarises: "It's the story of a woman who realised that her sexual life was absurd. She decides to give up sex and wait for a real miracle."
Fontanel, like many others, is fascinated by sex. It was this inborn curiosity, she claims, that led her early adolescent self to the hotel room of a 27-year-old "honey-tongued" tourist from Mexico. "I began very young, too young, just because I was so interested by THE THING. I was 13 years old, with boobs and a beautiful body. I used to wear mini-shorts and Santiags, whilst lying about my age to get into nightclubs. I'd met a man in Paris, a tourist, a handsome and green-eyed Mexican. I asked to visit his hotel room, which I did. I wanted to fully understand what THE THING was. He pulled off his pants. I was fascinated by the details of his body..."
Thus Sophie began her sex life and continued to explore the secrets of what she had once referred to as "the hidden part of life". At 20, she had her first serious boyfriend. "He glorified in putting me through my paces: it fed his pride. He had taken to striding around his apartment like a king." She recalls another sexual encounter: "I was in a bed with a man, who was telling me how together, we were such erotic lovers. I was thinking, "He's a fool!" I was not so happy with what we were doing. But I kept silent. I kept the silence for God's sake!"
It was not long before Sophie began to question what she was getting out of her sex I wanted to know what prompted her drastic decision. "I was disappointed", she told me "not because of a lack of desire on my part, nor a lack of pleasure, but I was disappointed with all the boring aspects of the routine. I wanted to recover a true freedom."
Fontanel's new lifestyle was something that her friends found very difficult to comprehend. For them, Sophie had given up something quantifiable, and they frequently used the phrase "having nothing" to describe her abstinence. "Nobody understood. For them, it was like a waste of time. I was losing my youth and very soon I would be an old woman with NOTHING. They tried to organise some dates for me, they even tried to convince me that I was a lesbian. One even asked me, 'Why don't you marry God, if you don't make love?'"
As Sophie distanced herself from the sexual world, she began to consider the privileged view of the outsider. Sex, for her, is not simply a physical act, "improved" by repetitive and devoted "practice". "Our society has made a too huge simplification," she explains, "if sex is everywhere, it doesn't mean we have to practise the act itself so often. Sometimes sex is just a dream, and it's a good thing. Sometimes sex is just a neck, a smile, a song. Sex is not only a sport!"
But what Fontanel was referring to at this point, were the connotations and unbreakable bonds which the physical act has with the non-physical. For many of us, sex is not simply a pastime, but a way of bonding and connecting with someone that no other act can surpass. I speak in clichés, of course, but so many words have been written on the subject that it is hard to come up with anything original. But for Fontanel, giving too much to someone else, can sometimes cause us to inadvertently forget ourselves in the act.
"You know, I have spent so much time alone, with no sexual activity, I can tell you that without sexual activity you forget something about how the Other is important, his presence and his body. But when you're alone, you never forget yourself, you never lose your head or your mind. Only good sex can free your mind like that. That's a treasure. But it is so rare." As she wakes from something of a reverie, urgent advice bursts forth. "You young people need to learn to listen to your bodies. You must do that even before you listen to your best friends."
But what does Sophie think about the sex lives of students? Each year Studentbeans.com relies entirely on the honesty of a sample of students from each institution across the country, in order to rank the UK's universities by the average number of sexual partners a student can expect to have throughout their course. Here, is one league table where Oxford fails to make the top 10, coming in at 33. The stats for your institution will probably come out in decimals. As a student at York I can expect 3.88 partners on average - whether to round that figure up or down is a decision I shall leave to the individual.
I asked Sophie why she thought, aside from the obvious hormonal urges, we viewed sex as such a crucial part of our education, alongside our bachelor honours. "You're so used to learning things, that it's easy for you to think that sex can be learnt. You are in a scholarly mind set. But sex is not something to be learned in the same way. It's a softness and a wildness we all have inside of us. We have to learn how to trust and be honest with ourselves, while of course, respecting the Other."
For Sophie, our culture places too much emphasis on the physical "losing of virginity" as a rite of passage into adulthood. "But if we just say that sex is a step, it is stupid," she retaliates, "We are sexual from our childhood. We contain the whole thing." Sophie tells me that many of her early sexual experiences lacked the fulfilment she would gain in her later years, arguing that doing does not equate to fully understanding and having the best sex.
"I went to university for four years. History of language, sex and love were my obsessions. But many other things such as film, dance, philosophy, soul, clothes, and friendship were all leading to the same hope - to feel the GREAT DAMNED THING. It's the same everywhere. I understand perfectly that sex is often the main thing on a young person's mind. But because it is so important, we have to treat ourselves well. I remember several occasions, when I was a teenager, making love without really being there, just because everybody else was doing the same."
I am conscious of one obvious factor which may cause our conversation to be less credible. We are both women. Yes, there are numerous women across the world who would report a sex drive to rival, and furthermore put to shame, the desires of their male friends. However, on average the majority of scientific experiments and social surveys point to the female as the less sexually driven sex. Did this alleged gender difference show itself in the response to her book?
"After my book was published in France, a lot of men began to write to me, and tell me that sex was not an obvious and regular thing for them. There is a real taboo concerning this question, no?"
What this all seems to suggest, is that the decision to abstain from sex should not concern gender, age, exposure to a sexualised media or even the people you might sleep with. As long we have consenting partners, we must remember that the final say lies with ourselves and not with the society which we may feel demands us to jump into bed. Fontanel felt she had to abstain from sex in order to find the strength to be this honest with herself.
Desire, for Sophie, is 'natural', "But is it natural to be taken and shaken while all that you want is to be charmed by an inexplicable mystery? Good sex is good for health, oh yes. Bad or boring sex is not." But this doesn't mean that we can't learn to satisfy these desires ourselves. Sophie tells me that masturbation is, in her opinion, "universal", but she was purposefully discrete about the subject in her book. It is a very personal matter. "The pleasure you give to yourself is important," she declares.
So if we like having sex and if we find it fulfilling and life-enhancing, should we stop? "If you receive pleasure, if it makes you happy, well, enjoy, you lucky people! But if you feel that there is something wrong or untrue in your attitude, you must know that you have the possibility, among all the possibilities, to make a break. Of course, sex is not the same thing for you and me. For me, due to my beginnings in sexual life, sex was the place where I was telling lies. For other people, sex is the only place where they are truly themselves."
The Art of Sleeping Alone is an important read for anyone, because in one way or another, most of us have a relationship with sex which few of us have taken an outsider's perspective on. Sophie often asks herself whether she was ever happier than during her first few months of abstinence. In an attempt to "treat" her body after the "rough treatment" she had put it through by "forgetting about herself". She took lavender milk baths and felt "some divinity rejoicing" for her. Her ex-lover remarked on her radiant skin, confident posture and was prompted to tempt her into confessing the only possible explanation - that she was in love. "If sex liberates you if it's an amazing thing," she pauses, "if not, it's just another jail."
Photo credit: Marianne.d, Sophie Fontanel.