Monday, 20 December 2010

Something for the weak end?

I was deleting some spam the other day, when I came across something a bit retro. Some obscure on-line pill vendor was touting allegedly genuine Viagra in an e-mail with the subject line "for the holidays you need it!" I was amused by the quaintly comic notion that people who are getting it together have scheduled a specific time slot, in the same way you'd plan your shopping to accommodate Sunday lunch, or your great aunt would let her hair down and open that sherry bottle at the back of the cupboard, but only at Christmas.* I'm guessing that such regularity of habit is very much the exception and most people just go for it at those random moments when mood and opportunity coincide.

In the less explicit days of my youth, I'm told that men's barbers used to ask customers whether sir needed "something for the weekend?" which was apparently a discreet way of enquiring whether "sir" wanted to buy some condoms. I was never asked whether I needed anything for the weekend, so maybe this form of words was already dying out when I was young, or perhaps the phrase was just an apocryphal popular cliché that nobody said for real. Or maybe they just took one look at me and decided I clearly wasn't having sex with anybody (to be fair, they were probably right for quite a lot of the time).

It's interesting to witness the recalibration of the British embarrassment threshold over the years, from the days when buying a condom was an oblique and furtive matter (which it surely was, whether or not anybody used the exact phrase "something for the weekend"), to a world where unembarrassed teenagers routinely share their sexploits with their mates by text and with a few hundred on-line "friends" via Facebook. Although the threshold has been re-set, embarrassment hasn't been abolished completely, otherwise people's e-mails wouldn't be clogged with spam advertising bogus Viagra and the like to be purchased in the privacy of your own computer, a market that only exists because openness about potency problems is clearly a step too far for many men.

For the consumer, there's danger in embarrassment and furtiveness - nearly all the libido-boosting money-spinners on sale on the net are probably at best ineffective and at worst harmful, but if you're too embarrassed to see your GP and your knock-off little blue pill doesn't deliver, who you gonna call? Probably no-one, which is why they get away with it.

The embarrassment threshold may have changed, but people are still probably much the same. When young men were being asked whether they needed anything for the weekend, I'll bet there were quite a few who bought rubber goods with no expectation that they'd be needed that weekend, or on any weekend in the foreseeable future, just to avoid admitting to the barber that they weren't getting any. Although the baseline of sexual activity is undoubtedly higher, I also expect that a proportion of the 21st Century bedroom antics being texted and Facebooked to all and sundry are face-saving fictions, produced by over-heated competitive, young - mainly male - imaginations. Boys will still be boys.

*See the opening of Lawrence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:

As a small specimen of this extreme exactness of his, to which he was in truth a slave, he had made it a rule for many years of his life,--on the first Sunday-night of every month throughout the whole year,--as certain as ever the Sunday-night came,--to wind up a large house-clock, which we had standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands:--And being somewhere between fifty and sixty years of age at the time I have been speaking of,--he had likewise gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month.

or for that matter Ivor Cutler's monologues - I can't remember the exact quote, but I'm sure that one of them started 'it was a Thursday, which was our night for sex'.