Freud once confessed that, after 30 years of research into the feminine soul, he was no nearer answering the question: "What does a woman want?" It is, if you're a woman or the man who loves her, an eternally interesting question.
Now a San Franciscan sex therapist called Nicole Daedone has suggested a provocative new answer. What contemporary womanhood requires to nourish, sustain and detoxify it, says Daedone, is "orgasmic living", and her manifesto, as detailed in a book, Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm, and a website, turnedonwoman.com, is currently sweeping the US.
After enthusiastic coverage in The New York Times, New York Magazine and the influential Huffington Post, Daedone's book, published this summer, is now one of Amazon's top 10 bestsellers on human sexuality – and the author is to be found giving talks to whooping audiences of excited women and their supportive men. Meanwhile, the technique has been described as "required education for every man on the planet" by no less than Tim Ferris, perhaps America's leading self-help author of the moment.
"Slow sex", as taught at Daedone's OneTaste retreats in San Francisco and New York, promises to deliver reliable orgasms for women frustrated, blocked or bored by sex. But more profoundly, and for both sexes, it attempts to meet our "fundamental hunger to connect with another human being", a need frequently left unsatisfied, Daedone says, in our time-poor and intimacy-averse culture.
Daedone can't claim to have invented the slow-sex movement; as you might expect, Italy's slow-food movement produced its own offshoot back in the mid-Noughties. Teachers of tantra, who have been turning Westerners on to the benefits of ritual and massage since the 1960s, might also claim that they pioneered a form of intercourse which supplies what Daedone calls "sustainability, nourishment and connection".
Yet as a cultural phenomenon, Daedone's success is fascinating and significant. There may be nothing new under the sun when it comes to our sex lives, but that doesn't mean we don't delight in rebranding them for a new decade. In an era in which authenticity, quality, natural, organic, local and artisan-made are buzzwords across food, shopping, travel and interiors, it should be no surprise that love-making too becomes a little more homespun. Sexually evolved women, some predict, will soon be retiring their comically hideous Rampant Rabbits in favour of massage oil, scented candles and rose petals. For proof of the explosion of interest in "spiritual" sex, just look at Amazon, where nearly 40 books on the subject will have been published by the end of this year alone.
Daedone, of course, argues that she's not surfing a trend, but meeting a genuine need, something on which many women may find themselves agreeing. These days, our sexualised culture seems to offer a synthetic, commodified and ostentatiously visual model for sexual relations, when what most of us secretly crave is connection, intimacy and the capacity to simply be in the moment. No wonder there's an appetite for a different approach. Just as childrearing manuals bespeak their times, so too do sex guides, a point made by sex educator and academic Dr Petra Boynton. "Twenty years ago when sex shops began to open on the high street and sex advice became much more frank, that felt like a good thing because it was putting information out there that was useful for people. But the tone rapidly became very aspirational, performative and commercialised. The emphasis was exclusively on penis-in-vagina sex and [things such as] vejazzling and buying an expensive kvibrator because you're boring if you don't have one. So on the one hand anything that promotes communication and a more holistic view of your relationship, like Daedone's book, is probably a positive," says Boynton.
"But," she warns, "there's a danger that it can become equally prescriptive, just in a different way. In fact we are incredibly diverse in the way we experience sex, which is why I'm also wary of anything that assumes that women need time and nurturing because they are somehow more complicated and less sexual than men. There are, of course, women who are just as keen as men to do something graphic and quick."
Female sexuality is certainly contested terrain. The notion that women are somehow asexual was overturned in the utopian, experimental 1970s of my own childhood, when we came to believe that "free love" was something in which the sexes could take equal delight. The experiment ended badly, however, and relations became predatory again, except that this time, women were regarded as being just as capable as men of brutally taking their pleasure and leaving. When it turned out that relatively few women really enjoyed casual sex, an older paradigm was rediscovered, of a woman who revelled in her sexual power over men. So-called raunch culture was born, accompanied by pole-dancing classes and Agent Provocateur underwear intended to maximise desirability. But this model presents problems too, not least because it traps women in a chilly hall of mirrors in which they are forever the objects of their own critical gaze and never the subjects of their own erotic experience. After all, being desired is fun, but desiring is even better.
On top of this, our modern raunch culture humiliatingly excludes women who don't conform to a certain depilated, spray-tanned, Barbie/Jordan/porn-star aesthetic. But it relies on consumption, not experience. We seem to want so much to be able to pull instant gratification off the shelf in the form of an outfit, a sex toy or an erotic DVD, but the result is a sugary high, so to speak, which ultimately fails to satisfy. Could it be that, like home-baking and growing your own veg, the quality of the sex you have increases in proportion to your investment of time, effort and commitment?
Pornography, the most plastic and artificial of all our passions, is booming on the web, and while we're now accustomed to the horrifying idea of men so addicted to porn that they prefer it to sex with a real-life lover, I was bemused to discover that at UK porn-counselling service Quit Porn Addiction, almost one in three clients are women worried about their own use of porn. It seems to suggest that sex with your home computer, where you get to be in total control and there's no possibility of being hurt by a partner who rejects you, offers an all- too-easy oxytocin fix to the busy gal about town, and epitomises a culture in which genuine intimacy is regarded as time-consuming, high-risk and effortful.
However, even if you're not using porn, it's increasingly likely that you won't escape its effects. Jane (not her real name), is 30, and says, "I've definitely become aware of certain new expectations that guys are bringing to the bedroom, which I believe stem directly from porn. One guy I dated really wanted to ejaculate on my face, which I refused to let him do. I've seen porn videos where this happens and those scenes are so deliberately intended to make the women look stupid, vulnerable and defenceless."
In that sentence, "look" is the operative word. It's as if the way things appear have supplanted how they feel; and the more intensely, ubiquitously sexualised our culture has become, the less confident we've become about the private, individual act itself. However, while the contemporary sexual landscape gets the rap for vulgar excess and the depressing revival of sexist attitudes that women of my generation had thought gone for good, there's another sense in which the gigantic market in erotic images, words, objects and dress-up is testimony to our hope and intuition that sex should be deeper, better, stronger. According to the "core shamanic practitioner and writer" Dr Zoe Bran, we're preoccupied with sex because it is the closest most of us ever get to a spiritual experience, when we feel not just as physically and emotionally close to our lover as we can possibly get, but also, it's not too fanciful to say, connected to a benign universal life force.
Using sex to meet a spiritual hunger might sound counter-intuitive, but it's at the heart of the slow-sex movement and may also explain our burgeoning interest in tantric sex. All the same, I was surprised to find an account of a tantric-sex couples workshop in the pages of GQ, since I'd assumed that for the majority of men's mag readers yoni massage (look it up) would be, to put it mildly, a distraction from the main event. Not necessarily, it seems.
When I spoke to Hanna, who runs the workshop (details at tantra.uk.com) with her husband Martin, she explained that men, too, come to her "unfulfilled" by one-night stands and internet porn. "It's like eating a Mars bar," she says. "They're dissatisfied, they feel a lack of spiritual connection." Women, meanwhile, "are frightened of real intimacy. They may have been hurt or abused in the past when they've been penetrated without honour or respect, and they don't know how to pleasure themselves."
Other alternative therapists, among them charismatic five-element acupuncturist Gerad Kite, report related symptoms. "The goal of treatment is to slow things down so that people can come back to themselves and be in the moment. People enter into this intensely physical engagement from the head; but you can't think yourself into sex and orgasm. It's about being present to the experience, so that you can lose yourself in it," says Kite.
So little is known about our intimate lives that there's always a danger, when writing about issues such as dysfunction, "pornification" and anomie, that one ignores the vast majority of British people quietly getting on with sex that may be bed-shakingly brilliant, or may just be "good enough" for their purposes. Scientific research, such as that done by Petra Boynton and colleagues at London's UCL in 2003, tends to focus on specific clinical problems as opposed to general satisfaction (they discovered that 39.6 per cent of women and 21.7 per cent of men reported at least one sexual dysfunction, which ranged from lack of desire to premature ejaculation and non-organic dyspareunia, or pain during sex).
What's undeniably true, however, is that there has been a market for sex-advice manuals since the 19th century, as Feona Attwood, a professor of sex, communication and culture at Sheffield Hallam University, points out. "People are wary of things that tell you how to have sex, because they feel it should be very individual and personal. But no one would suggest you started trying to cook without referring to a recipe book."
Which brings us back to Nicole Daedone, and a sex book that disdains the over-iced cupcake in favour of the complex-carb slow release of the artisanal loaf: "A turned-on woman," she writes, "wants sex that creates energy rather than depletes it. She seeks the slow burn, the kind of sex that heats her up from the inside out, stoking her fire and powering her journey."
An academic in the study of gender and language, Daedone was teaching a class in sexual semantics when she began to be struck by how many students came to her asking questions such as: How can I get the love I want?; How can I orgasm, or maintain an erection? and What is wrong with me? "There was so much shame around," she remembers.
Then Daedone, already influenced by the work of Zen Buddhist teacher Alan Watts, stumbled upon an approach she calls "orgasmic meditation". This technique involves one partner (usually the man) spending exactly 15 minutes stroking the intimate parts of the other (usually the woman), while she focuses on her breathing. Not only, claims Daedone, does this practice "bring attention to a place that it's very difficult to stay conscious in", but it also fosters a wider sense of connection and aliveness in those who have previously felt "disconnected and frozen", languishing in what she calls "a deferred life".
Her "Turned-On Woman" manifesto is, frankly, full of platitudes to which one couldn't possibly object, from "Don't believe what society says about women" to "Don't buy off the rack. Customise". But the up-the-sisterhood vibe does tap into a genuine phenomenon, that of the feminist revival being driven in this country by young women such as the journalist Rosamund Urwin. "I think the proliferation of strip clubs and pornography have been damaging to relations between the sexes," she says. "They are depressing and tawdry and also they promote a very narrow idea of what is beautiful and sexual. Funnily enough, I wonder if it is their ubiquity which has encouraged some people to look for something more meaningful. When so much can be bought cheaply, perhaps that makes things that can't be bought even more special?"
According to Reclaiming the F Word, a recent handbook to feminism written by Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune, "there's evidence that being a feminist improves your own sex life too – researchers found that feminist women are generally more sexually assertive, better able to negotiate pleasurable and safe sex, and experience more equality in their personal relationships. Conversely, women with more traditional attitudes, who associate sex with submission to a male partner, have more difficulty in reaching orgasm."
Hand-reared orgasms, feminism, men willing to describe their penis as "a wand of light" without falling about laughing, heirloom plums ripening coyly in allotments all over Britain, it can all only mean one thing: the revival of the untamed 1970s lady garden! Yes, it seems the natural look in pubic hair is also back in vogue. And who can afford all that depilatory upkeep these days anyway? So when a beauty column in Asos magazine recently referred to Kate Moss, photographed by Terry Richardson, "rocking a full-on bush" and looking "cool and sexy", it was clear the tide had turned. The contemporary obsession of some men with the hairless "Hollywood" has always reminded me of Ruskin on his wedding night, famously unable to get it up because his wife was, evidently, a fully grown woman.
Waxing may seem trivial. But the extremes of depilation to which women have been prepared to go in the past decade epitomise a performative, role-playing, self-consciously constructed sexuality which, for many, symbolises a sort of debased postmodernism. How appropriate then, that with the opening of its big autumn show, Style and Subversion 1970-1990, the Victoria & Albert museum is currently drawing a line under that influential movement. Instead, a new age of authenticism, as the novelist Edward Docx calls it, is taking shape, and it will apply to sex, as slow and real as you can make it, as much as everything else.
I'll leave the last word to Dr Laura Berman, America's queen of sex manuals. In the mid-Noughties, her book The Passion Prescription: Ten Weeks to Your Best Sex Ever! tapped into the contemporary obsession with speed, results and personal bests. Her new book, Loving Sex, has a quite different emphasis. "Sex in a loving relationship can be the deepest experience a couple can share," says the blurb. "Yet in today's time-starved and intimacy-shy society, many couples find themselves stuck in a rut and unable to enjoy it to the full."
When I ask Berman how slowing down might help, she says: "Many people believe great sex shouldn't take work. They think it should happen organically and if it doesn't, they assume it is time to throw in the towel. That's not the case. Any couple can have amazing sex. But it takes effort, commitment, communication... and time."
'Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm' by Nicole Daedone is out now (Grand Central, £18.99)