Jul 7, 2020 • 18M

Why are you so obsessed with sex?

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Franki Cookney
The Overthinker's Guide To Sex is a sex and relationships newsletter written by freelance journalist Franki Cookney. This is the audio version.
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Last week I tweeted about my latest newsletter and someone replied asking “Why are you so obsessed with sex?”

At first it made me laugh. The idea that talking and thinking about sex might be seen as weird is so far outside of my worldview these days that it almost didn’t register as anything other than funny. But then I remembered what it’s like to exist in a culture that frames sex as something shameful, something we shouldn’t discuss, something that, if we peer too closely at it, could harm us irrevocably. It’s like watching a solar eclipse. We mustn’t stare directly, so instead we stand in its shadow, casting furtive sidelong glances, hoping to make out the vague shape of it.

And then I got angry. Do financial journalists get asked why they’re obsessed with money? Do people who write about food get accused of having one-track minds? My extremely brief inquiry suggests they do not. Meanwhile, friends and colleagues working in sex education and sexual health are also fed up with being asked this question.

“I get asked this in the comments ALL the time!” says sex and relationships superstar YouTuber Hannah Witton. “I'm obsessed with sex because I'm a nosey whatsit and a pervert. Also, if we all thought about sex and examined sexual behaviour and attitudes more critically it would make the world (and your sex life) infinitely better.”

“It's ridiculous you even have to give an answer beyond ‘I am interested in it,’ says Monica Karpinski, founder of women’s health platform The Femedic, which obviously covers a lot of sex and sexual health-related topics. “Would you ask an oncologist why they are so obsessed with tumors?” 

She’s dead right. To me, it’s just another example of people seeing sex as something either sinful or superficial. It’s either something awfully naughty that we Must Not Mention or it’s just a Fact Of Life that we don’t need to dwell too much on because it should just come “naturally”.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that I strongly disagree with both of those viewpoints. But then I thought a bit longer and… well, hang on a minute, why am I so obsessed with sex? While I obviously don’t think that there’s anything particularly worrying about my fascination with this subject, I can’t deny that it is a bit different to writing about business, or fashion.

After all, sex is something we all have an intensely personal - and often quite unexamined - relationship with. A TV or film critic might talk about their childhood experiences of these media as an influence on their career. A beauty writer might recall the first time they tried on lipstick and the power it had on their emotions. A political journalist might talk of a strong desire to hold power to account. But none of it is quite like the relationship we have with sex. So in a way I have to admit it is a legitimate question. Perhaps not for the reasons the person who asked it intended. But as a line of inquiry into myself and my motives, certainly. 

And I realised that I don’t have a radical origin story that I can trot out to explain how I got into this field. But I do think there were one or two signposts, from quite an early age, that make a lot of sense now, looking back. I thought I’d share them with you.

Obsessed with sex

I can still remember the feel and smell of the desks in Mrs Smith’s classroom. The wood, ink-darkened in patches, ridged and dented from the many hundreds of pens, pencils and compasses that had passed across its surface (both the incidental and the wholly deliberate). I sat next to Tracey Davis, near to Mrs Smith’s stock cupboard, facing the window which looked out onto the car park of the adjacent village hall. I was eight, possibly just turned nine. That day Tracey and I were entertaining each other by drawing daft cartoons. I drew a long slug and coloured it in with a brown pencil. Poo, I wrote and she giggled. She drew a puddle and coloured it yellow. Wee. I turned the paper and we added a few more. Toilet, willy, boobies: all the naughty things we knew. Then I had an idea. I folded the paper into a book and took another sheet from my exercise book to make some more pages. I scribbled out some rudimentary figures, locked in an awkward embrace. Sex, I wrote. Penis, vagina. I was showing off now. Not everybody knew these words but I did and by writing them down I could tell other people about them. Wouldn’t they be pleased and impressed? Turns out not so much.

The giggling between me and Tracey was starting to attract attention. Someone on the table next to us grabbed The Toilet Book and began to pass it around. At first I was exhilarated, seeing the delighted expressions on my friends’ faces as they turned the pages. But as it moved around the room, handed to people whose reactions I couldn’t predict, whose loyalty I couldn’t be certain of, I began to grow uneasy. Someone passed it to Ben Hougham and without batting an eyelid he stood up, walked up to the front of the classroom and handed it directly to Mrs Smith. My chest contracted in dry fear as she leafed through it. “Who’s is this?” she asked the class. “Franki made it,” said Ben. (I looked him up on Facebook after I wrote this. He does those kind of Epic Intense Endurance #ManTough Power triathlons, you know the type where they ship in extra mud to make them feel even less like exercise and even more like you’re trapped in the third circle of hell.)

Obviously my parents got called in but you know what? It was actually fine. No one in that meeting - my mum, dad, or Mrs Smith - thought I was a degenerate. Mrs Smith liked me. (She even had my back after the class hamster, Anoushka, bit me and I dropped her leading - directly or indirectly - to her death a few days later. The Toilet Book girl who killed a hamster. What a legacy.)

Anyway, the point is, no one involved overtly shamed me, they were just concerned that I was taking on the role of sex educator in a class of kids whose parents maybe hadn’t yet told them The Facts Of Life and it really wasn’t my place to do that. But I still felt shame. I still felt the tight, airless clench of social humiliation and wrongness. Yet, at the same time, I knew it was OK to know these things and talk about them and for grown ups to do them - gross, but OK. The excellent, age-appropriate books my mum bought me made that clear. There was nothing wrong with sex. But it was still somehow wrong.

The year after I wrote The Toilet Book, I took a condom into school to show my friends. I’d spotted the packet in my dad’s sock drawer some weeks or months back and had been curiously scandalised by the discovery. It wasn’t the suggestion of sex that appalled me, so much as the suggestion of my parents’ having sex. But more than that, I was interested. What did a condom look like? What did it feel like? What shape was it? Did it smell a certain way? All this incredible knowledge was literally at my fingertips and it didn’t take very long before I caved to temptation. I carefully removed a foil-wrapped johnny from the box, making sure to replace the socks around it exactly as I’d found them, and stashed it in my school bag. My friends would be sure to be just as fascinated as I was. Once again, this turned out to be not quite the case.

I don’t quite remember how it came to be that I was standing by the bins, between a prefab classroom hut and the canteen, watching the Year 6 boys flick this slimy scrap of latex around with a stick, shrieking with horror and laughter.

Needless to say my heart had long since shrunk deep into my ribcage and the prickling heat making its way up my neck to my temples, to my sinuses, to my eyes, warned me I was about to embarrass myself even further. But I’d been here before. And this time, I decided to take control of the situation. Instead of waiting around to see who would dob me in, I took myself to my Year 5 teacher Mr Strudwick and told him, tearfully, what had happened. 

I got properly told off that time. Not by Mr Strudwick, who dealt with the incident like a champ and was extremely kind to me, but by my parents who were mortified and perplexed by my behaviour. Curiosity was fine, it was to be encouraged. But why did I keep trying to force that same curiosity on my peers? Once again sex was normal, it was natural, there was nothing wrong with it. But what I had done was still wrong.

[Side note: In that same school year we had a “Come As What You Want To Be When You Grow Up” mufti day. I went as a journalist.]

The final incident happened many years later, at university. It’s not that nothing sexually relevant happened in my teenage years, it certainly did. It’s more than these are the incidents that stand out, perhaps because of the dilemma contained within them, the doublethink: It’s OK, but it’s not OK.

It wasn’t a particularly good party, nor a particularly significant one. It was 2004, Franz Ferdinand were playing via someone’s iPod, and I was talking to a boy I knew. We were flirting or at least I had just realised we were. It was that moment when you make a joke that’s also a slight dig, they pick up your lead and as you spar you make eye contact, smiling but still holding something back, poised for the next round, and you think “Ohhh… OK.” But in almost that same moment I realised nothing was going to happen between us. Not because I didn’t want it to, but because I knew I wouldn’t come out of it well. The boy in question was known for being a flirt, a “player”. He’d slept with other people I knew, other people at the party, quite probably. If I hooked up with him, I realised, I would just be yet another one of his conquests. My desire, my agency, wouldn’t come into it. Nobody would ever say that I seduced him. It would all come down to what he’d done. And if I disputed that, if I claimed the notch on the bedpost as my own, what a slut that would make me. Because of course, it was completely normal to want sex. But you weren’t supposed to actually want it. 

I stayed and flirted for about five more minutes and then, when he went to get another drink, wound my back towards my friends, irritated and confused.

Looking back, the conflicting messages I received about sex and the indignance I felt about that are surely a large part of why it’s become my specialist subject today. We are all, regardless of gender, let down by the stigma, shame, double standards, mixed messages, and misinformation around sex.

Why is it one of the only parts of human life where curiosity is discouraged? If it’s normal and natural, surely it’s also normal and natural to ask questions about it, to seek information, to discuss it and share those findings? And if wanting it is normal and natural, why is there still so much shame around that? Why are the terms on which we choose to have it not ours to set? All questions and more are what make up my “obsession” with sex.

What do YOU think?

Thinking about why I made sex my specialism and what drew me to this subject has proved more interesting than I first thought. So I encourage you to do the same. What is it that draws you to this subject? What made you sign up to a newsletter like this? Are we all obsessed with sex? In a world that tells us spending this much time thinking and discussing sex is weird or wrong, how did we get to this point of saying “actually I disagree”. As ever, if you’re up for sharing your answers, I’d obviously love to hear them! Hit reply on this email or click the link below to join the discussion.

Let's chat!

What’s on my mind this month…

Love after lockdown

With social distancing guidelines relaxing and people finally able to spend time together indoors (and form “support bubbles”) I’ve been thinking a lot about what it’s like to come back together after this enforced and extremely stressful separation. I know from talking to friends that in a lot of cases “picking up where we left off” isn’t really an option. We’ve been through a lot. Even the joy of being able to touch each other again is loaded with how much danger has been attached to it for so long. So I was pleased to see people touching on that in this photo story for VICE, talking about the awkwardness of suddenly being allowed to kiss again. One guy even described the first meeting as being a bit like a first date all over again and I relate to that too. We are not the same as we were when we went into lockdown. We have to get to know each other again.

I think many people felt like they could just put their relationships “on ice” during quarantine but actually life never stopped and neither did the relationships. They’ve continued to evolve and what you have now is different to what you had three and a half months ago. Whether that ends up being a good thing or a bad thing for your relationship will depend a lot on you and your partner, I guess. What’s been your experience?


This response to fellow journalist and sex writer Suzannah Weiss’s tweet about how we should stop sexualising breasts made me pause. I definitely see what she’s saying. The idea that people “shouldn’t” find breasts sexy is pretty pointless and also kind of joyless because, well, boobs are great!

I kind of see it from both sides. As someone who breastfed a baby, and also generally enjoys being naked in a non-sexual way, I feel quite strongly that breasts are not *inherently* sexual but also… I am fine with the fact that people sexualise boobs because I do too! My own and other people’s!

I think what Suzannah is getting at is the fact that body positivity needs to move away from telling people “all bodies are sexy” to a more neutral space of “all bodies are valid as bodies”. Focussing on “sexiness” cements the idea that being sexually appealing is what matters, rather than being comfortable in your skin. What do you reckon?


Anyone working in the field of sex and relationships has to be familiar with Freud’s work, right? Well, yes and no. Obviously I was aware of his theories of sexuality and how they influenced the study of sex over the 20th century but despite having a degree in psychology (Well, half a degree. I did English Literature and Psychology which… god, the whole “why are you so obsessed with sex” thing is starting to make a lot more sense!) it occurred to me that I’d never actually read the words Freud himself wrote. I was writing a feature last week in which part of the brief was to address the myth that cisgendered women should be able to orgasm through penetration alone. Well, I knew off the top of my head that that was an idea expounded by Freud but I thought I should probably go and check what he actually said about it. So I did and it’s even more astounding that I thought. In “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” he talks about how female sexuality only emerges in full force when a woman “holds herself back and denies her sexuality” (he later describes this process as “intimately related to the essence of femininity” so… yeah.). If she does this properly then the excitement she feels in her clitoris will transfer to her “adjacent female sexual parts” (VAGINA, GUYS, HE MEANS THE VAGINA). If this transfer doesn’t happen as it is supposed to then the woman may never experience pleasure in her vagina and will be stuck with her “childish” (yes, he really calls it “childish”) clitoral excitability forever. Sounds awful.

Anyway, I realise this is pretty basic stuff but I thought it was funny that in all these years I’d never actually gone back and read the actual theory and yikes! What a ride.

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A couple more things to (over)think about…

  • This piece in the Sunday Times Style about the cultural phenomenon that is Reddit’s, r/relationships is interesting.

  • The world has learned yet again that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith are in an open relationship. As journalist Gabrielle Alexa pointed out, this seems to be a news “story” pretty much every year because a lot of mainstream media just can’t get their heads around the idea of ethical non-monogamy. Once more for the folks in the back: It’s not an “affair” if it’s done honestly and consensually!

  • A sexual health team in Cumbria is helping out with coronavirus contact tracing. This is so cool. I have been saying for weeks to anyone who’ll listen that “test and trace” already exists in sexual health so it’s mad that this hasn’t been tapped into.

  • Do you know what a himbo is? You do now!

  • Have you been watching I May Destroy You on iPlayer? And if not, why not? I’m only about halfway through but it’s really unlike anything I’ve seen before on mainstream telly. The fact that two episodes in Rob said to me “So is it just about her figuring out what happened to her?” shows how infrequently these kinds of stories are told. Very often women’s trauma (and particularly BIPOC women) serves as a mere backdrop or device for male character development, with something else up front as the “real story”.

  • This piece about whether having sex without using toys is “old-fashioned” struck a chord. Good sex is whatever you want it to be - and tbh this kind of attitude is a great example of how capitalism has co-opted sex positivity (but that’s a rant for another time!)

  • Esther Perel has a new series of Where Should We Begin, which started last week. There are two episodes up so far, I’ve only listened to the first one which is about a couple exploring an open marriage and it is characteristically great.

  • These online workshops look cool. Run by The Candid Collective in collaboration with sex and relationships writer Almaz Ohene, they cover subjects like consent culture and improving intimacy. We’ve missed the first one but the second one (of four) is this Thursday.

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The Overthinkers Guide To Sex is written by freelance journalist Franki Cookney.

To read more of my work, or to get in touch with me go to frankicookney.com. You can also find me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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