I think about a lot of stuff during sex.
Typical lines of thought are: “This is fun”. Or: “My arse hurts, we should change positions.” Occasionally, it’s a rarer, more wandering, “do we have milk in the house? I should get some when this is finally over.”
(The latter is obviously reversed for bottom-tier shaggers.)
What I can guarantee I’m never thinking about during sex, though, is the free dinners I got at school, the council flat I lived in as a kid, or whether or not I had a nuclear family with savings while growing up (I didn’t). And yet, it turns out that all of those things directly affect the sex I’m having, certainly more so than post-sex Tesco shops.
Like all other aspects of life, there are class disparities in sex, too. How we think about and participate in sex is firmly rooted in our social class backgrounds, with our financial privilege (or lack thereof) and class biases quietly influencing our sex lives. And vice versa.
One person who has slowly started to notice the class gap in her own sex life is 23-year-old HR assistant Courtney*. She’s from a working class background, and began dating a middle class man last year. “I’m not even 100 per cent sure what [my boyfriend] does, but he’s super high up in researching sociology at a top university I can’t name,” she says.
“The first time me and my boyfriend talked about sex, it was clearer than ever that we were from different worlds. Yeah, stuff like the fundraisers, our families and salaries were obviously different. But it was how he viewed sex that made me think: ‘Holy shit, are we completely different people?’”
“I told him that I [first had sex] at 15 years old, and he visibly cringed. He was horrified. Even more horrified to hear it was with my mate, not a boyfriend, and we’d done it in a field.” It turned out that his experiences – at a much older age and in a bed in his own home – “were so different”.
Dr. Hannah Charnock is a lecturer in British History at the University of Bristol who researches the historical context behind sexual behaviours. She explains that people from different social classes are often motivated to have sex for contrasting reasons, especially in our formative years.
“In a lot of working class communities, a formed sexuality at a young age can be seen as a marker of status, even if that sex happens outside of a relationship. Working class women can essentially use sex to climb socially,” she tells THE FACE. “In a lot of middle class communities, however, young people who have what’s viewed as ‘promiscuous sex’ can lose status. Sex is something scandalous, rather than powerful, in those circles.” And that’s a conception “which has roots in aristocracy and sex scandals”.
Equally, the age at which people have sex (and where they have it) differs hugely amongst the social classes. How and where we grow up – and how much money is floating around while we do that – also influences our sexual moral code, as well as our reasons for shagging at all.
Dr. Charnock says that “although there’s this idea that working class teenagers have more sex and experience less sexual shame, their family dynamic and home life plays a huge part in the availability of sex”. If you’re in a small council flat sharing a bedroom with a couple of siblings, for example, or if your parents are unemployed and therefore at home a lot.
“For this reason, a lot of working class people who have their first sex young, tend to have sex outside or in someone else’s [more privileged] home, rather than their own beds,” she continues. “Middle class young people, however, often have cars, or double beds in private rooms, or whole areas of the house to themselves which they can have sex in.”
They’re just more likely to face shame from a parent if they’re caught – especially if they’re bonking a commoner.
But unlike most areas where class inequality crops up, there are negative influences on sex on the richer side of the class divide, too. Rose*, 26, a PHD psychology student, says she realised how sexually repressed her middle class upbringing had truly been when she did her bachelor’s degree in Newcastle at 18 years old. “Girls who were my age were so sex-positive already. They had one night stands with confidence and discussed sex in insightful ways and I was yet to have sex at all.”
None of us want to conflate familial relationships with sex. We get it. But that is, unfortunately, where this weirdness begins. Middle class parents typically, according to some studies, turn their nose up at interclass sexual relationships, sex before marriage, teenage sex and infidelity much more than the working classes. Working class parents also tend to talk to their children about sex more than middle class parents, but will have varying degrees of sound knowledge on the stuff.
When a middle class person starts having sex, its hard not to approach it with some level of shame, due to repressed attitudes gleaned from their parents, and strict ideas about what sex should be and who it should be done with. That might explain why 45 per cent of upper class participants in this survey said they would never have a long-term relationship with someone from a different social class – and why Marie Bergström found, in her book The New Laws of Love, that dating app users often unconsciously filter out users from different social classes to their own.
Trying to fit in with her friendship group’s frequent sex talk, Rose told her new friends she wanted to have her first sex experience with a man, and to have an orgasm. “One of them said: ‘You know you could just give yourself an orgasm, right?’ But I didn’t know that. I was so embarrassed.”
Rose grew to feel resentful towards the closed-mindedness she realised she’d been raised on.
“It was a bit weird watching my working class flatmates call their mums to cry when boys ghosted them, or calling for money for the morning after pill when they needed it. I would never dream of admitting I had sex to my mum, let alone telling her I’d slipped up and needed emergency contraception, or seeking her advice. I don’t think that conversation would go down well at all.”
Experts including author Kristen Ghodsee believe women’s sexual value is still conflated with their position in society today. In Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism she analyses a global sex study that showed that countries with more equal economic opportunities (i.e. ones adopting more socialist systems) resulted in what they described as ‘freer sex’. That is, presumably positive experiences of sex made by choice.
In countries where the class system is less rigid than Britain (which isn’t exactly hard, we’ve set the bar very low there) we see more casual sex, more sexual partners per capita, and greater tolerance and approval of non-traditional sex (such as pre-marital sex).
Basically, socialism = more sex positivity weaved into society’s fabric.
While all this might seem like working class people are more liberated – and sometimes that’s the case – this can also affect working class women’s sexual safety. Many young working class women have sex before reaching the legal age of consent, and are less likely than middle class people to have the resources, information or sex education to ask for what they want, and protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy.
Working class women are, unfortunately, more likely to be sexually assaulted than other social class groups, which is a strong case for why more sex education, and conversations about class and its impact on sex, are so important.
But, much like sex, class is messy, nuanced, and difficult to sort into rigid categories. We can’t really trust people to be honest about their class background, or expect them to know what their idea of ‘free’ sex is. And judging free sex based on the number of sexual partners per capita is, of course, problematic in some circles. So it’s hard to determine who is having free, positive sex, and who isn’t.
And it should probably stay that way – we don’t really need our sex lives surveilling that closely, do we?
That isn’t to say that posh people are doomed to unexciting sex lives, or that working class women’s sex safety will always be compromised. Someone’s social background, of course, doesn’t speak for everything.
But conversations with friends about sex that include class are important. It might be awkward to bring up our class privileges, but it might mean we’re having better, safer sex. To quote Brené Brown’s infamous TED Talk, “vulnerability is the birthplace of empathy” and we need buckets of that to start combating inequality. Shame isn’t always something to back away from – challenging class inequality is always going to be more important than reinforcing your own place in privilege.
So next time you’re talking about shagging (which we seem to be doing constantly) and your mate drops a sex story that shakes you to your very core, consider the social background factors at play before you judge. That would be class.
*Names have been changed