I’m shy about having sex but would like more experience

A young man wishes he’d had more sexual experiences, and worries he is held back by shyness. Mariella Frostrup says the important thing is quality, not quantity. Email your dilemmas to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk

The dilemma I am a 20-year-old man, but I still get terribly insecure about my sexual experience. I’ve not been with many women and I often get jealous of partners whose number is higher than mine (in some cases much higher). I’d like more experience, but I feel I’m held back by my shyness in public situations or my feeling that women generally won’t be interested in me. I listened to someone the other day complaining about the burden of having had too much sex too easily. While I don’t want to become that, I wouldn’t mind somewhere in between.

Mariella replies Ah, the much-lauded middle ground. It’s not an agony aunt you need to find but a Google map. Forget the Amazon or Antarctica, the steppes of Siberia or the wilds of Namibia, the sort of places that promise exotic or individual adventures, you are asking me to point you in the same direction as everyone else: Ibiza, perhaps, or southern Spain. When it comes to sexual excitement you are looking no further than the home counties, where just over your picket fence the neighbours are keeping up appearances.

Your letter isn’t focused on the complications of your relationships, or the pleasure of them – it’s all about maths. But your ambitions appear to be based on an average that doesn’t exist. How much sex you have depends on everything from your religion to your location, your age to your libido, the length of your relationship, the stress in your life, the number of available partners in your vicinity. Looking for common ground on lovers accrued is a particularly unrewarding pursuit. I’ve got girlfriends who’ve been married for 30 years and girlfriends who’ve been having casual sex for almost that long. You certainly can’t tell which is which when you’re pressed up against them in a nightclub!

Why do you care about the sex levels of strangers? Physical attraction is such a primal instinct that reducing it to basic accounting seems entirely to miss the point. Sex is textured terrain – not a croquet lawn, but a wildflower wilderness where taste, smell, touch and other exciting sensations are out to play. When you’re in the throes of passion, it’s pheromones and bacchanalian instincts, barely remembered but instantly recognisable, that rule the day.

Instead of celebrating the experience you’ve already shared with a few individuals, and no doubt hope to carry on enjoying through life, you’re looking at it mathematically. You want to elevate your seduction score. But if more sex makes better sex, we’d all be trying to date porn stars. The old-fashioned truth is that really great sex normally occurs with people we consider equally inspiring before and afterwards.

I’ve been asked how to spice up sex lives, not really my area of expertise (any suggestions from readers gratefully received…), but I don’t think I’ve ever been asked how to keep up with Casanova in conquest terms. Sex is definitely an area where you want to retain your own unique appeal rather than inhabit a no man’s land between the great and the bland.

Your letter is fascinating because it doesn’t for a moment mention the quality of the sex you are having, the characteristics of the individuals with whom you have sex or the ups and downs of your sexual adventures to date. All you tell me is that, compared to your contemporaries, your numbers are down. It’s curious that as members of a species unique for idiosyncratic and individual achievements, so many of us hanker for the humdrum. Children are particularly consumed by this desire to follow the crowd, and (until we bankrupted them) it’s what made teenagers such fertile quarry for advertisers in their catch-one-and-they’ll-all-want-one philosophy.

Confronted with the absolute certainty of our mortality, it’s senseless that so many of us spend our lives trying to slip through our allotted time without standing out. As you get to my age and the people you love start falling like flies, it’s easy to become melancholy about missed opportunities. With only one shot at the art of living why are we so timid when it comes to exploiting it? For many of us, the sum of our ambition is not to stand out from the crowd while we draw breath! You are apparently seeking, not better sex, or sexier sex or naughtier sex but just more of it. I suggest you focus on the quality of your engagements and let others boast about the quantity. You would definitely be the more appealing partner amid the chorus of sexual bravado that rumbles on around us.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk. Follow Mariella on Twitter @mariellaf1

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Tom and Beth Kerridge on a feisty, foodie marriage

A Michelin-starred chef and a sculptor admit that they’re not afraid to speak their minds. To appear in this column, email meandyou@observer.co.uk

HIS STORY Tom Kerridge, 40, chef-owner at the Michelin-starred Hand & Flowers

Beth’s first sentence to me was: “Will you give me £3 for the stripper, please?” We were at a club in north London and I thought: “This girl’s pretty cool.” We’d only known each other a few days, but she went to work and left me asleep in her flat. She had worried all day I was going to rob her. Instead she came home and I’d cooked her tea – a simple chicken dish. I’m not sure if she was more pleased with the tea or the fact that her telly was still there.

After that, Beth would come and meet me after work, we’d go out and party until six in the morning, go for breakfast somewhere and then go home. It was all pretty rock’n'roll. I like to think we still are a bit. I’ve just turned 40 and we’ve had the biggest party the world has ever seen. It was in a big converted barn up the road, just like a massive illegal rave from 1991, but with loads of 40-year-old chefs and our mates.

When we opened the Hand & Flowers, the idea was for me to be able to cook and for us to make enough money for Beth to afford to be a full-time sculptor. Three years turned into five, and now, after nearly nine years, the pub is hugely successful and Beth is now much more of an artist than a restaurateur. Which is just as well because, in the first year of running the pub, she left me three times! We both are passionate and outspoken – neither of us is afraid of saying what we believe in. Beth certainly isn’t a “yes” woman, which is great.

We both respect each other’s skills. I’m a huge fan of art. I like to buy it and I love visiting galleries. But to see Beth making art is one of the best things ever. I sent her to Carrara in Italy for three weeks, where they have the marble Michelangelo used for his sculptures. She made a fantastic piece – a serpent as a collar and tie – which is my favourite as it represents that she does what she loves now.

HER STORY Beth Kerridge, 43, sculptor and co-owner of the Hand & Flowers

I realised Tom was the one about three days after we met. And then it took me six weeks to ask him to marry me. When you find the one that’s it, isn’t it? I was in awe of him – he’s a hugely dynamic guy. I went and bought a ring with my sister, and then met Tom after work, late on a Saturday night. He said yes before I finished my sentence. We sat in Leicester Square with a bottle of champagne. It must’ve been about two o’clock in the morning because the guy that was sweeping the road came over and said: “I don’t know what you’re celebrating, but congratulations anyway.”

We’re like best friends, really. Our secret is just being honest. There aren’t many people whose opinions I respect when they’re saying something about my sculpture, but Tom is one of them. He’s the same with me about his food. There was one instance where he’d bought these beautiful plates, and he was very proud of the meal that was going on them. And I told him: “It’s great food, but I hate the plates.” I didn’t want him to put food out where the plate was more dominant than the food. He went in a proper strop about it, but the next day the plate had disappeared.

He’s the same: he’s very good at seeing the obvious stuff that I overlook sometimes with my sculpture. We’ve got a great understanding of each other – we’re not takers, as far as our relationship is concerned. Although I still do owe him that £3.

Proper Pub Food by Tom Kerridge is published by Absolute Press, £20. To order a copy for £15, with free UK p&p, go to theguardian.com/bookshop. Tom Kerridge’s Proper Pub Food is on BBC2 later this summer. For information, go to thehandandflowers.co.uk

If you’d like to appear in this column, email meandyou@observer.co.uk

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Should you offer your lover a wad of £10 notes instead of a worthless kiss? | AL Kennedy

The application of ‘commonsense’ capitalism in your personal life will demonstrate just how sane and workable it is

As a human being, I have noticed that human beings believe odd things. Taking myself as an example, if I’m having a bad day and my gentleman of choice hasn’t replied to a text within a nanosecond, he is undoubtedly (in my head) down a well with broken, non-texting arms, dead, or has decided to never contact me again. I know this is crazy and therefore work round it. On good days, I can realise he’s busy, in the shower, or otherwise unable to placate my desperately needy mindset.

To take another example, on Monday dozens of people who were in love and gay got married in New Zealand. I believe that probably no one should have to be married to me. But I also believe the multiple ceremonies were a beautiful thing and not, as the Family First lobby group believes, “an arrogant act of cultural vandalism“. As a progressive and Guardian reader, I respect other people’s beliefs. But I also believe that, when other people’s beliefs harm others or themselves and aren’t based on fact, I’m allowed to point this out. It’s not an expression of disrespect, it’s more that I want reality to stay as real as possible, because without it I end up inside my own delusions and we know how unpleasant that can be.

Quite a while ago, politicians noticed that in our drive to produce more enlightened times we do try to respect each other and our beliefs. Because politicians can be very bright in dark kinds of ways, they worked out that, if they based their policies on belief, rather than statistics or observable, repeatable phenomena, we would have to respect them as men and women of conviction. Even if their convictions were wrong and dangerous and took us into unlawful conflicts, or unwise and cruel fiscal policy decisions. (Some politicians even came to believe it was OK to torture someone to death, if the torturer didn’t believe their actions were going to be fatal.) Many politicians are now the political and intellectual equivalent of homeopathic remedies – they do us no good, and may even keep us from the help we need. I believe this is not a good thing.

Most of our politicians also embrace the faith-based economic system we call capitalism. Those of you who have actually read Adam Smith, rather than what the Adam Smith Institute said about Adam Smith, will know that, yes, he did believe competition was a good thing that could reduce prices. But he also believed manufacturers could fix prices artificially and harm consumers and so would require regulation. He also believed an individual (he was big on the individual) could be “led by an invisible hand” to make as much money as possible for his good alone and still benefit society. So someone behaving like a sociopath could accidentally do good. (In Smith’s day, he was bound to be a he, rather than a she.) He stated that he believed someone can sometimes inadvertently help society by pursuing self-interest and sometimes inadvertently harm society when he’s not. So he made a name for himself by stating the blindingly obvious. Sadly, the invisible-hand thing sounded really cool and inadvertently led to the foundation of a cult. Smith’s invisible hand has inappropriately touched hospitals so they’re not about healthcare, transport companies so they’re not about transport, the BBC so that it’s not about broadcasting, schools so they’re not about education and so on.

Aid to the starving or any manifestations of love can be reframed as doing inadvertent harm to the feckless or the inhabitants of Bongo Bongo Land. And I mention love, not because I’m a doe-eyed Guardian reader, but because it’s a worthwhile and beneficial emotion and just try applying “commonsense” capitalism in your personal life if you want to see how sane and workable it is. After your next night of love, try rolling over and offering your partner a wad of valuable £10 notes, instead of your worthless kiss. Yeah… There are other value systems. They get other things done. Good things.

Since Thatcher, we are supposed to believe that only the profit motive will make things work – always, in all circumstances. Because of the invisible hand. In our current form of capitalist faith, this belief is firmly wedded to the belief that human need is unlimited and will drive everything along just fine. If the invisible hand of unlimited need holds the invisible hand of unlimited greed firmly enough, all will be well. Which is just bizarre.

We know the market is a huge casino with subsidiary interests in tax evasion, law evasion and the concentration of profit into increasingly unwieldy and undemocratic, semi-visible hands. And yet we’re expected to believe it can cure all ills and the word of people devoted to being as wealthy as possible and outrunning the odds. And when the risks go toxic everyone else has to help out the true believers, otherwise it will look as if the invisible hand doesn’t work.

We also know that pinning our progress to unlimited human need is in every way unhealthy. My gentleman of choice should not, for example, be forced to soothe my insecurities at all hours. I may be massively needy, but even I don’t need a slave – which is what someone who served my unlimited need would have to be. In fact, he’d have to be an army of slaves. All manner of research shows that human beings tend to be happy when they have enough. Too little, they’re unhappy. Too much, they’re differently unhappy. Enough is – wild coincidence – enough. Advertising, planned obsolescence and marketing on the addiction model all foster our unhappy need in the hope that our consumption can become unlimited and support the insupportable market. Whenever there are job losses, or attacks on unionisation, or workplace safety, or pay reductions, or the flat-out removal of pay, we are told – by the true believers – that unlimited need will bring forth more industries and jobs and more consumption. The invisible hands will meet and shake and do magic.

Except that is, of course, deeply crazy and too big to work round. Without change, we will continue to live inside interconnected delusions to our great harm. Unlimited need will inevitably exhaust limited resources, while more and more de facto slaves work harder and harder for fewer and fewer bloated consumers. And the invisible hands will meet and shake over a wasteland then disappear. That’s what I believe.

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How can I persuade my father and brother to treat my mother better?

A woman is upset that her father and brother treat her mother disrespectfully, but is it up to the mum to change her life?

The Dilemma For years my mum has confided in my brother and me about the troubles of her marriage to our dad, and it is worse now that we are in our 20s. My dad took early retirement and spends his days following his own interests: running, cycling or obsessively doing crosswords. Just as when he worked, he leaves my mum to do all the housework and upkeep for him and my brother. When I visit what used to be home, it feels loveless and hollow, and my mum is becoming increasingly distressed at the life she has been left with. My dad is inflexible and emotionally barren, with no kind of physical intimacy with her. Sadly, my brother is seeing callous relationships as the norm.

I don’t know what I can do to show my brother and dad that their treatment of my mum is outdated, sexist and cruel. She is mocked for her opinions or for being “melodramatic”. Leaving home and seeing the reality of relationships that normal people share illustrates their lack of compassion verges on the sociopathic to me. I don’t know how to make my father and brother see themselves in a different light and act more like a family, or how to rescue my mum from growing lonely.

Mariella replies You’ve set yourself quite a challenge. Much as the adults who raise us can only look on, aghast at our more outlandish life choices, so we can only gently nudge our parents toward other lifestyles. Your mum is living like many of her generation, and more distressingly a high percentage of subsequent generations, still trying to work out how feminist triumph turned into an unmanageable to-do list featuring career, family, domestic life and partnership. Behind many front doors the advances of the last 70 years are still not in evidence. Whether it’s as simple as the division of domestic chores or childcare, or the dark despair of domestic abuse, the chasm between the haves and have nots is surprisingly large. Visiting a friend the other day I admired a display of orchids in a neighbouring cottage window. She told me that the woman who lived there, when she wasn’t being beaten and abused by her husband, lovingly nurtured them. The orchids clearly were the repositories for her dreams.

The shocking truth is that your mother, merely disparaged and undervalued, actually has it easy. For one in five women in this modern, emancipated, forward-looking country, daily life is a ritual of misery. I’m not saying that the extremity of the crimes against women mean that you shouldn’t highlight your mum’s unhappy circumstances, but it’s important that none of us assume that all women are free of such tyranny. Your observations about your mum’s life are reflected in homes up and down the country to a greater or lesser extent.

The domestic servitude seems less of an issue than your father’s disconnection from the barest minimum of relationship requirements. Her circumstances will only change when she develops an active interest in leading a life of her own, not passively replacing her husband’s expectations with her daughter’s. There are women (and men) who choose to keep their lives small, tucked under the radar and safely ritualised in the monotony of a daily routine. We fought for the right to choose, not to dictate, and your mother’s choice is as valid as any other, if presently unfashionable.

Your father and brother will only change when their needs are no longer being serviced, and you gusting in on a breeze of liberation from time to time is unlikely to have much effect. Ultimately it’s not your battle. If your mum doesn’t feel her life is of greater value, then all you can do is try to raise her expectations. It always struck me as ironic that so many of the earliest feminists waved their banners like Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins and then rushed home to rustle up the tea. In a liberal society, women’s rights can’t be foisted on their subjects any more than domestic drudgery.

We all have choices, no matter how difficult. If your mum is to reinvent her maturity, she needs to taste the possibilities that freedom can bring. Whether she develops an interest in gardening, joins the National Trust or the WI, watches the entire Nora Ephron canon, joins a walking group or takes a once-in-a-lifetime trip, she needs a transporting activity that overrides her inbuilt domestic impulse. None of us has the capacity to see over the rainbow, but a taste of what might lie there is usually enough to set us on a journey of discovery.

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