This is the post where I talk about sex. You’ve been waiting for it, right? On my Home page I said I would, principally because sex and sexuality are themes in my book, My Heart is a Wilderness. You might think that in a book about Saudi Arabia, sex may be something you could skip. Not so. Because it is such a repressive place, everything becomes about sex. Or, in many cases, sexual violence. There’s plenty of that in Saudi Arabia. But this post is mostly about sex, or rather, not having sex. In such a fiendishly sexed-up society – a society where applying the adjective “sexy” may be more important than the adjective “smart” – it’s easy to forget that some of us are not having sex. It’s easy to forget that some people are having sex, not having sex, having miserable sex, having good sex and everything in between. It’s easy to forget that “great sex” is definitely in the eye of the beholder, and not some static, pre-defined activity. It is easy to forget how diverse, how differently people live, and that there is nothing wrong with that. I, for example, would much rather do without sex than be in a love-less relationship.
I knew I couldn’t be alone in this, so I read two books: The Art of Sleeping Alone by the French writer Sophie Fontanel, and Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year without Sex by the British writer Hephzibah Anderson. Fontanel went 12 years without sex, from her late 20s to her early 40s. Unlike Anderson, she didn’t set out to do it for that long, it just happened that way. Anderson, on the other hand, purposefully decided to go without “penile penetrative” sex for a year. My initial reaction to Anderson’s experiment was “big deal – a year without sex. Who hasn’t been there?” To write about this topic in the first place might be a little self-important. Clearly she has led a pretty privileged life, as when she says, in her early 20s “When I was an art critic. . .” No one should be an art critic in their 20s. But through this memoir, you feel a little something for Anderson, who has good insights but has made poor choices. She writes, “In a culture in which we’re all supposed to be wanting and wanted – in which fashion, in particular, is advertised by models whose poses mime constant desire – I feel like I’ve lost some crucial part of myself.” Very early on, Anderson knows that it’s love she’s looking for, and her experiment is a welcome respite from the ups and downs of tepid, as well as noncommittal, relationships. “I can see that sex was a distraction that allowed me to ignore pretty much everything else in my life that wasn’t quite what is should or could have been. I became fixated on relationships to the exclusion of friendships, family or any sense of where I was headed.”
Anderson may be misguided in her condemnation of feminism that has “made over female sexuality using all the worst tropes of masculine sexuality; it’s depicted as predatory, unscrupulous, heartless” (I think the key word here is “depicted” – yes, that is how female sexuality is often depicted, but that doesn’t mean that was the goal of feminism) However, Fontanel’s book may be more disturbing. She, too, decided early on that she would wait for love, that it was love she wanted, not love-less sex. She writes that her first encounter with sex was at 13, with a man 20 years her senior. “She started to get out of bed. The guy grabbed her wrist. She said she wanted to leave. He laughed in a stupid, bad-boy way. . . ‘I’m really thirteen’ she protested.” That’s statutory rape, but it is also rape. And yet Fontanel doesn’t ever say that. She goes on to brag about it to a friend. It’s hard to know how she feels about it now. Perhaps she feels like it was wrong, as she writes about herself in the third person: “. . .she was ridiculously naïve. Because – what was she thinking? That a man at such a pitch of desire, a stranger . . .would pause for a discussion?” But that suggests she blames herself (which commonly happens with victims) and has never looked at the incident’s criminality. She describes a male friend’s theory: “Carlos had a theory that heels were the decisive index of a woman’s accessibility, since no woman perched on them can take off at a run.” That’s disturbing, too, and yet she presents it as if it were a little funny, or an interesting thing to say. It made me wonder how people talk about rape in France.
I didn’t want to talk about rape in this post, because I view it as entirely separate from sex. It is a violent crime. But I found Fontanel’s blitheness about her own experiences and those of others too awful not to comment on it.
In spite of my problems with these books, I commend Anderson and Fontanel for going against the stream and looking for love. Not an easy thing to find, as most people can attest to. In the process, I think they came to value themselves a little more. As we all should. Anderson very pointedly did not have a happy ending – after a disastrous re-introduction to sex with a slick financier in the East Hamptons, she was still single at the end of her book. Fontanel ends her book with the titillation of the beginning of a sex scene, and long explanations to her new-found paramour that she might have forgotten how. He is undeterred, and so is she.
As for me, I will never stop looking for romantic love. Next time, if there is a next time (which is looking bleak. A friend recently said to me, “You know, Molly, you might have to leave your house one of these days. They’re not going to come knocking on your door.” She has a point. Alas.), I want to get it right. I only get pickier in my old age, but it’s not a gratuitous pickiness – it’s just knowing what I’m willing to put up with and what I’m not. I’m sure everyone has deal-breakers. And if I’m alone the rest of my life, and I think about this a lot, I know I’ll be ok. I have my family. I have my friends. I have my work. Wasn’t it the Dalai Lama who said we should live for other people, anyway? I just need to keep that in mind. . .