'Strangers Tell Me Their Deepest, Darkest Sex Secrets'

It's not often you get an email from a nun asking you to help her have sex with someone.

As the author of a best-selling sex manual, I'd grown used to people cornering me at dinner parties, drunk and blurting out all sorts. But this was different.

"I was a nun and a virgin until six months ago," she wrote. "I left the order to be with a man I met and fell in love with. I'm 38. We have tried to have sex since then but it's not happening—it's like my body won't let him in. Can you help me?"

I'm not an overly religious person, but I do suspect I won't be on the list at the pearly gates for saying yes.

Even before I started writing sex books, people used to tell me their deepest, darkest secrets. It started at school. I was 14 and the other kids quickly discovered my big sister worked at Family Planning as a nurse, dealing with contraception and diagnosing STIs. "Can you get pregnant from oral sex?", "Am I a still a virgin if a boy felt my breasts?, "Can you ask your sister this and that?". I'd go home after school, dutifully write down her answers, then relay them back the following day. Eventually, I grew so knowledgeable about sex, I didn't need to ask. I knew the answer. Sex Education, the TV show, wasn't even a glimmer in someone's eye back then but I was the original Otis (except not getting paid.)

Other kids were reading teen magazines and watching Top of the Pops. I was reading pamphlets my sister gave me about "How to tell if you have herpes" and "How to put on a condom."

I'm convinced this early training was what made me successful as a sex educator: the ability to talk about sex in a matter-of-fact way, with zero embarrassment. It helps. If you're not embarrassed, the person talking about sex to you isn't either.

I didn't set out to become an expert in sex but I've always been fascinated by the primal forces of love and sex. As well as being the school sex expert, when I was 15, my Dad left to be with a woman he'd had an affair with for the past ten years. It hurt—a lot—and made me even more determined to find out all I could about these immensely powerful human drives.

Some people are fascinated, others are threatened

My academic background is in journalism and psychology. I studied sex therapy as part of my course and, when I later got a job as a journalist, I specialized in writing about sex and relationships. It all grew organically from there. I went freelance and decided to write a book about sex because none of the sex books I used for reference were what I wanted to read myself: they were either too sleazy or too medical.

My first book became a global success story because it was the first of its kind: a practical sex guide with a sense of humor that wasn't cringy to read. Next thing, I'm traveling the world to promote it and being called a "sexpert." After writing 17 books about sex, I certainly am one now. But back then, there weren't too many "sexperts" out there and it felt weird being described that way.

When you're a sex expert, people either fight to sit next to you at a dinner party or insist on being seated at the opposite end. Some people are fascinated by sex, others are threatened. When I did a popular TV show and people knew my face as well as name, I got used to being followed into the loo at pubs or restaurants by women desperate for me to solve their love life problems. Men would hover outside, waiting for me to emerge before backing me in a corner to confide.

Men had always been intimidated by me romantically, now they were plain terrified. "Are you going to write about me in your books?", they'd ask nervously, at the start of the relationship. "Only if I do something amazing in bed," I'd answer. Truth is, although there are a lot of personal anecdotes in my books about my sex life, they're nearly always a combination of experiences. I've never once had someone recognize themselves.

Thank God, I'm happily married now because being single and one of the world's leading sex experts was stressful. It's a big thing to have to live up to—if my lovers had performance anxiety, I had it tenfold. I know I'd expect a lot if I slept with me! I have no idea whether I lived up to expectations or not. For my part, I've certainly been tempted to say, "Go and read chapter five of my book 'Hot Sex' and then come back to bed." (But, of course, never did.)

Sex and relationships expert Tracey Cox poses at her home in Notting Hill, 2017. (Photo: John Scott) Courtesy

My job varies from day to day. I'm a columnist, I have two product ranges with Lovehoney, I write books and contribute to lots of media. One day I'm researching whether menopause is influenced by culture, the next I'm writing the packaging instructions for a new sex toy in my range. I'm interviewed a lot for podcasts on anything from the meaning of life to the best way to pleasure a woman orally.
I often ask my Twitter followers for input into my columns and consequently, get a lot of personal questions. It gives me valuable insight on what gets to people: jokes about penis size hurt so many men, for instance. We're all so sensitive about sex.

I have regular chats with people in poly relationships, "cuckold" men (who enjoy watching their wife sleep with others,) professional dominatrix, swingers, people with all kinds of fetishes and predilections. For my last book, I interviewed hundreds of women over 50 about their sex lives. Some I knew, most I didn't. That complete strangers trust me enough to be astonishingly honest and open about their experiences is something I am forever grateful for.

A huge responsibility

I am never, ever bored with my job. How could I be? It's hugely fascinating, listening to people's innermost, intimate desires. Just when I think I've heard it all, someone comes out with something completely left field that surprises me. A fetish I've never heard of or something very ordinary—like a problem with climaxing—from someone I know well but never suspected had issues.

My main motivation for my job is to help people. If someone needs help to either fix a problem or to come to terms with their desires, there's nothing I want more than to be the person who gives them the solution or peace. There's no better feeling in the world than when someone tells me my books have changed their life or the advice I gave really worked.

I feel both flattered and honored that people choose me as the person to confess all to. But there's a huge responsibility that comes with that.

Sometimes, I take on too many people's problems and get overwhelmed. More than one of my exes told me I was so busy solving the problems of strangers, I had no time left for them. I have no doubt they were right.

My big sister, who also heard lots of sex confessions in her job at Family Planning, gave me some excellent advice very early on. She said: Remember what you're hearing may be the first time that person has said it out loud or even admitted it to themselves. It might be the first time someone's accepted they were gay. The first time they've shared the trauma of sexual abuse. That they have a fetish they're deeply ashamed of.

She was right.

I've had many "This is the first time I've ever told anyone" moments and I've tried very hard to treat each one of them with respect, sensitivity and compassion.

Most of the time this is easy, other times not so much.

I was on a second date with one guy, when I was in my 20s, more than a few bottles of wine into the evening, when he disappeared upstairs to his room. He returned naked, walking down the stairs towards me in nothing but lipstick, high heels, fishnets and a feather boa. "I've never told a soul that I'm a cross-dresser," he said. "But I knew you'd understand."

I did—but a little forewarning wouldn't have gone astray!

The biggest lesson I've learnt about sex from nearly four decades of listening to people's sex secrets?

No matter how much you think you know someone, you never really know what they're secretly sexually hankering for. As the Belgium psychotherapist Esther Perel says: the things that turn us on at night are often the very things we protest about during the day.

Tracey Cox is one of the world's foremost writers on sex and relationships and toured the world as an international sex, body language and relationship expert. She's written 17 books. Her latest is Great Sex Starts at 50: Age-Proof Your Libido and Transform Your Sex Life. Her product ranges are with lovehoney.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.