I remember the moment when my mother- in- law said, “Anything goes.” We were sitting out on the terrace of her apartment in Bologna, Italy, and she was talking about her lover. “He’s such a good lover,” she told me and grinned. She was smoking a cigarette, a tall, slim woman who had moved to Europe for her health and was living with an Italian count.

I just felt myself blush and looked at her blankly. I was not used to talking about lovers, let alone why they were good ones. It was then that she looked at me and said, “Anything goes. You know what I mean?” and she opened her long slim arms in a gesture of abandon which said as much as her words.

I didn’t know. I had married very young almost straight out of a South African Anglican boarding school where I had learned about duty, diligence, and personal integrity. We were taught to pity the poor, to put your neighbor before yourself , and to turn the other cheek, all, no doubt, laudable aims in life, but not particularly conducive to good sex. Sex was not mentioned, and the closest we came to it was in the nineteenth century novels we read: Jane Austen and Charlotte and Emily Bronte. We were all in love with the Byronic hero, Heathcliff, not exactly a good model for a future husband. Any adolescent sexual urges were combated by lustily singing hymns in chapel, reciting poetry: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink,” and long hours of sport in the splendid South African sunshine . Endlessly we swam up and down the swimming pool; we played rounders, hockey, and tennis most of the year; we bent our heads over our books, and we fell asleep exhausted in our narrow beds. Pleasure came from the beauty of the grounds around us, praise from a teacher, a kind word from a friend.

Married in the sixties, I was aware that sexual pleasure seemed part of my duties as a modern woman: I read ““Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and even “The Well of Loneliness.” I saw movies where women sweated, writhed, and moaned with desire and guiltily I attempted to copy them.

But it took years to understand that what was pleasureable in the sexual act might be freedom, freedom to let go, to express truthfully whatever one wished to express, as it was in the act of writing which became my profession. It was the freedom to forget oneself, to plunge into the unknown ocean of pleasure, to do whatever one wanted to do, to dream dreams that brought pleasure without guilt or shame.

It took the years for me to feel free enough, to have enough confidence, to ask for what gave me pleasure, to allow my mind to wander where it willed, and at the same time to find pleasure above all in the desire of the other.

As Blake says so eloquently:

What is it men in women do require?

The lineaments of gratified Desire.

What is it women do in men require?

The lineaments of gratified Desire.


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