Meet the Hotbed Collective – the realistic love gurus giving hope to frazzled couples desperate to get intimacy back on the menu. Sophie Heawood discovers why your pleasure is their business.
Tell people that you’re a woman who discusses sex for a living, and many of us awkward Brits might find our jaws dropping and our eyes widening while we secretly imagine you to be some kind of nymphomaniac. All right, I might. But that’s not what the work of Hotbed Collective is about.
The Hotbed Collective started life as a podcast in 2018, created by three women in their 30s and 40s: writers Anniki Sommerville and Lisa Williams, and Cherry Healey, the TV presenter who makes irreverent documentaries about the issues we face in modern life. Their modus operandi: to make life better, one orgasm at a time.
Writer and editor. She lives in London with her partner and daughters, aged five and six months. Her novel, Motherwhelmed, is out in September
It is now a book – More Orgasms Please: Why Female Pleasure Matters – and the interesting thing about its writers is how very normal and un-vampish they are. Which is the point – they have all married and had children, one (Cherry) is divorced, and while the book does cover casual sex, sex with yourself (oh, yes) and other such excitements, the subject that really fires us all up when I meet them is actually the least fiery of all: everyday sex. Regular sex. Vanilla sex. What Cherry calls ‘Wednesday-night-when-you’ve-been-together-for-eight-years sex’. That ‘rest of your life’ stuff that, if you’re not careful, turns into your actual life.
Cherry and Anniki first met at a Christmas lunch that had been organised for professional women, and got talking about sex, as you do – or more likely, as you don’t. ‘I thought Cherry looked so attractive and confident that she would surely be having better sex than me,’ remembers Anniki. ‘But when it boiled down to it, neither of us was entirely happy about our sex life at that time.
‘What was hilarious was that all the other women who were sitting on the table next to us started to move their chairs forwards and say, “I’m not having very good sex either – what do I do about it?” Everyone had something to say, such as, “I thought we were going to keep having a lovely time but we haven’t done it in six months…” Nobody really talks about how to have sexy sex when you’re both knackered and have just had an argument about socks.’
‘People talk about “Netflix and chill”,’ says Cherry, ‘but when you’re married, I think it’s just Netflix and Netflix.’
TV presenter, broadcaster and writer. She is divorced and lives in London with her daughter, nine, and son, five
They later met Lisa Williams, who wrote on parenting and sex. She was particularly interested in helping men understand women’s bodies after childbirth, and realised there was a gap in the market for a frank female discussion of it all. (On cue, Lisa enters the room wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Stop Valuing Women Based on Their Sexual History’. ‘It goes down well in Tesco,’ she says. But she is quick to join in with this theme of everyday sex.)
‘I’m not a dominatrix in a dungeon,’ says Lisa. ‘When I say I talk about sex every day, I don’t mean porn, although we do talk about porn in the book, as we’re not against it in itself.’ They are talking about the everyday, human, married with kids, take a round of dirty cups out of the bedroom with you downstairs afterwards sort of lovemaking. The sort of sex that we have never seen in porn, and rarely if ever seen on television. The sort of sex that makes up the backbone of our nation, without anyone really honouring or addressing it.
‘There is a stereotype,’ says Anniki, ‘that men can talk about sex, but I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think they are sitting down in the pub and actually saying, seriously, “You know what, my wife and I haven’t had sex in the two years since we had the baby”, and having a proper conversation about that.’
‘Our [online] traffic showed,’ says Lisa, ‘that although men weren’t passing these articles around Facebook, weren’t sharing them or leaving public comments on them, they were searching for them and reading them in their thousands.’
Journalist and digital consultant. She lives in London with her husband and two young sons
At the same time, this isn’t at all about women not wanting to have sex; quite the opposite. As Cherry is keen to point out, this is also about the fact that ‘quite often it’s the women who want to have more sex, who tell us, when we ask them, that they’d like a different kind of sex, more foreplay’.
There is a statistic in the book asking women, ‘If you didn’t climax last time you had sex, why not?’ A solid 50 per cent of them reply that it comes down to lack of foreplay. The Hotbed Collective are concerned that this isn’t going to improve if a new generation is now taking its sex cues from pornography. The book contains a very funny chapter where Anniki sets herself the task of watching a load of porn so she can write down the common tropes it entails. ‘And it’s all about a woman orgasming in half a second after seeing how big his penis is and him taking a cursory grab at her boobs before penetrating her. That isn’t foreplay. That is not how women climax! And this is really affecting women’s health.’
You might think you know all about sorting out a midlife-relationship slump because you’ve accepted the necessity of ‘date nights’, but Anniki, Lisa and Cherry aren’t convinced by them. First, says Anniki, ‘You’re knackered, you’ve got two kids, and now you’ve got to shave your legs and get into your fancy clothes, which can feel expensive and laborious and just another thing on your list. I don’t think it’s the solution for everyone.’ Cherry joins in, querying how sustainable it can be to keep going through that rigmarole every Friday night. ‘What are you gonna do about the rest of your life – just go on date nights?’
People would do well to pick up the book simply for all of its surprising data and facts, but what I was also pleasantly surprised by is how well written it is. It is readable in the extreme, full of personality and genuinely funny as well as relatable. For instance, the story of how Lisa, soon after having baby number two, goes to see her first child’s Christmas play at nursery, expecting to see the toddlers mess it up and wet themselves – but the kids are fine and it’s Lisa who wets herself. Yes, she has written a heartfelt and impassioned chapter about the real issues of the pelvic floor, even if you’ve had a caesarean and thought you’d escaped that particular challenge, as she wrongly did.
‘I think most women don’t really know what the pelvic floor actually is,’ says Lisa. ‘They just think, “Maybe I should do some squeezing.” Or they will laugh off the incontinence, saying, “Oh, well, I had two big babies, so I’m going to wear my Tena Lady pants and I can’t go on a trampoline.’ But actually, that’s not how it should be. You can visit a women’s health physio and get it sorted.’
Anniki, whose youngest is six months old, joins in. ‘Having just had a baby myself, I’ve realised how many women simply get stuck in giant pants and think that has to be the way forward. Someone who used to be a proper long-distance runner told me that since childbirth she couldn’t run any more because of incontinence. And I said, “But you can do something about that – you don’t have to just live with it”.’
The role of men is not to be underestimated in all this – of course the Hotbed Collective would love it if men picked up this book, too. As an editor, Lisa made the conscious decision to commission a male journalist to write about the changes that can happen to a woman’s body after childbirth, to help new fathers know what their female partner might be going through. ‘There are a lot of straight men who want to understand why their partner doesn’t want to have sex with them.’
At the same time, the book is very much about the fact that most women really do want to have sex, and probably more satisfying sex than they currently have. ‘We’re so repressed, especially women,’ says Cherry. ‘If you say you have desire, there’s this idea that you are a lady of the night. There is a real connection between women having sexual urges and women being bad. There are women saying, “I really love sex and I quite like fun sex, and I’d like it to be more interesting.” I remember the first time I went into a sex shop. It was the most uncomfortable experience. I had just got divorced and now I was single and also kind of wanting to explore different things. I thought, how do you do that? It all feels a bit salacious and grubby. How do you talk about it?’
This is at the heart of the Hotbed Collective – making it normal to talk about sex, without cringeing. ‘We want to provide information for people in a non-grubby way,’ says Cherry. ‘Because if you do look for sex information it can be intimidating. And we do not want to put pressure on people. We’re not saying you should be having it every day – far from it. But we are saying that if you’re in a relationship and you’re not having sex, you can break up unnecessarily. It does end marriages. It’s important.’
‘Sex can be complicated, funny, embarrassing, long, quick,’ adds Lisa. ‘But the point we make is that you do have to put a bit of effort in.’
It’s been a fascinating morning talking to the Hotbed Collective – and I must admit that it has been unsettling, too. Having always thought of myself as modern and frank about all this stuff, their own discoveries have made me realise how little I knew, and what I have settled for. This book really is going to change people’s lives for the better.
More orgasms, please!
When bad sex happens to good people
‘Bad sex’ experiences happen each and every day and are unfortunately the norm for many young women embarking on those first formative sexual forays. 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. Bad sex often shares a few common traits (for us, anyway):
★ No orgasm. Of course you can have a perfectly nice time without an orgasm but if you are physically capable of climaxing, it’s a bit like eating rhubarb crumble without the custard, or not having a bun with your burger.
★ It often hurts. This may be because you’re not lubricated enough or your partner has no clue or has forgotten about foreplay, or because they have watched too much porn.
★ Sometimes it entails something happening which is so humiliating that your face burns whenever you think about it, even 20 years later.
It’s well known that our formative years shape the way we feel about ourselves – for example, taunts about being overweight or the boy who told you that your legs would be ace if you were a rugby player. Most of us have voices in our head that also tell us we’re ugly or not good enough, devaluing ourselves and our right to feel pleasure. Unless women make sure they are educated about what pleases them and have the confidence to show and tell their partner, bad sex can last a lifetime.
So 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 sexual 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 any more? 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 re-create a summer in Spain when you were 22, but there will be certain ingredients you can integrate into your sex life now.
Get over the idea that sex is best when you’re young. The reality is quite often the opposite. 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.
Own your bad sex stories. Talk about them – you did something stupid, your partner was too rough, not rough enough, too fast, too slow, too rude, too arrogant, picked his toenails afterwards. Talk about them and you’ll soon discover that they are pretty much universal. Abad 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. If your bad sex story is abusive or damaging in any way then seek help from a therapist because abuse cannot be brushed under the carpet. But it doesn’t have to be a barrier to improving your sex life either.
Bad sex may be a rite of passage but its influence can continue for decades. You may have moved beyond awkward teenage grapples, 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.
In order to stop the rot, make sure that it’s not happening all the time. Look out for unhelpful patterns. Do you tend to prioritise your partner’s pleasure over your own? Do you feel grateful if your partner makes your orgasm a priority but then worry afterwards that you were being too demanding? Do you cringe when you tell your partner about what turns you on?
It’s also worth remembering that famous quote from writer Nora Ephron 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 we should feel about our bad sex stories – we should ‘own’ those bad boys.
This is an edited extract from More Orgasms Please: Why Female Pleasure Matters by the Hotbed Collective, which will be published by Vintage Publishing on 4 July, price £12.99