A Bumpy Flight
Sugar in My Bowl: Real
Women Write About Real Sex
Edited by Erica Jong
Ecco, 256 pages
When Erica Jong’s autobiographical novel Fear of Flying was published in 1973, women around the globe ravenously consumed this “manifesto of liberation,” one that helped initiate a new cultural conversation about sexuality, especially female eroticism.
For many women, the novel’s portrayal of “zipless” sex—an encounter “free of ulterior motives,” with “no power game,” no one trying to “prove anything” or “get anything”—represented a paradigm shift. Even though Jong’s protagonist, Isadora Wing, acknowledges that zipless sex is a fantasy, something “rarer than the unicorn,” the notion that it was the ideal kind of sex integrated itself into the mainstream of American culture with amazing rapidity.
Fear of Flying made a signal contribution to a new way of looking at intimacy and love—one in which marriage and children, monogamy, stability, and traditional values were superseded by the notion that there was actual emotional and psychological value to casual sex.
Now, almost four decades after Fear of Flying, Jong has assembled Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex, a collection of essays, memoirs, and short fiction. Jong’s literary, ideological, and literal progeny romp through these pages, inadvertently revealing just how hollow and, at times, destructive the four-decade-old cultural shift was.
A more open discussion of female sexuality and gender roles was warranted nearly a half century ago, but this volume highlights how far our culture has veered to the other extreme. Many of these essayists seem obsessed with sex and gender rather than liberated from it, confused and tormented rather than clear and confident.
Not surprisingly, an anti-marriage refrain plays steadily throughout the book. “Somehow, I never fantasize about sex with my husband,” the novelist and memoirist Susan Cheever writes in an essay entitled “Sex with a Stranger.” She continues: “I think this is nature’s way of telling us that sexual intimacy is distinct from emotional and financial and domestic intimacy.” A short story by the chick-lit novelist Jennifer Weiner concerns a woman who uses her breast cancer diagnosis as an excuse to have an affair and briefly escape her boring married sex life.
In place of the quotidian pleasures of wedlock, there are endless graphic discussions about orgasms and an endless quest for the “best sex ever,” as when the 77-year-old writing teacher Rosemary Daniell writes, “Call me a slut—and I’m sure many have, but I’m one of those women who literally can’t remember all the men I’ve slept with (and barely all the women).” A short story by a young television producer named Jann Turner is about a young television producer who concludes an all-nighter in the office by having emotionally numb sex with a boss she hardly knows and doing a little coke-snorting. “That’s not the kind of sex I want to remember,” she admits. “Though it’s certainly not the worst sex I’ve ever had.”
At times, the sexual adventurousness gets very dark. Linda Gray Sexton, who recently published a memoir about her mother, the poet-suicide Anne Sexton, describes the excitement of “erotic asphyxiation”—being choked during sex—that has also been a feature of a slew of failed relationships.
In the midst of all this, halfway through the book, a single line at the end of Turner’s essay hits with strange force: “It’s hard to describe great sex; it’s so sacred, so private when it’s good.” The line stands out because it is an explicit criticism of the premise of Sugar in My Bowl—that only by sharing publicly, explicitly, sexual thoughts and experiences can women finally win the last battle in the war on sexual freedom. But the only real victory achieved by most of the writers in the book is a victory over reticence.
At their best, the pieces provide amuse-bouches of American cultural history, like the New York Times columnist Gail Collins’s essay “Worst Sex.” She offers a wry glimpse into the repressed world of a Cincinnati Catholic school in the 1960s. “When Clark Gable died,” Collins writes:
our English teacher explained that the reason he had been so successful as an actor was that God, who could see the future, knew Clark would be going to hell for having been married five times…. But he had done some good things in his life, too, and so God in his mercy had given him happiness on this mortal coil to make up for the eternity of torment that was to come. This was my own particular crazy-making moment, and for years afterward every time I got an undeserved A or some other windfall, I fell into a fit of despair over my prospects for eternal damnation.
Similarly, the Korean-American writer Min Jin Lee’s essay explores her discovery of and struggle with the “pervasive and condescending notion that an Asian woman was either a victimized sex worker…or you were a docile sexual partner of a white male loser who could never get an attractive white woman.”
The book is fortunately punctuated by a handful of “prudes.” Contrary to what one might expect, these contributions add depth and interest to the pages. Julie Klam, author of the bestselling You Had Me at Woof, describes her difficulty in discussing even the rudiments of sexuality with her seven-year-old daughter—and tells the girl to refer to her most private part as her “front.”
The most telling prudery comes from Jong’s own daughter, Molly Jong-Fast. The product of childhood exposure to “free love” and an environment saturated with “sexual expression,” Jong-Fast has chosen a much more conventional path for herself. As she notes, “I have a closed marriage (that’s where you only sleep with the person you are married to).”
Although Jong-Fast insists she has great respect for her mother, grandmother, aunt, and a host of other sexually adventurous relatives, she embraces a traditional role:
The truth is, my mother and I grew up in different worlds. My mom was born in 1942, in the middle of World War II. My mother grew up in a world where no one talked about sex. Where sex was secretive and sex was racy. She grew up in a world where sex meant marriage. Where women waited to kiss a boy until they were going steady. My mother grew up in a world where a woman couldn’t eat dinner alone in a restaurant, lest she look like a prostitute. She came of age in a universe without easily available birth control, without abortion, without options. My mother wore poodle skirts and twinsets, and had a black-and-white TV. She never witnessed a young Britney Spears pulsating in a bikini musing on her virginity (or lack of)…. I grew up in a world that was just the opposite. I grew up in a culture obsessed with sex.
Jong insists that Fear of Flying was ultimately less about sex than freedom. But her daughter’s own thoughtful essay suggests that the new freedoms for which her mother evangelized were not always as freeing as promised. And most of the other writers featured in Sugar in My Bowl demonstrate that the “culture obsessed with sex” Erica Jong helped to midwife is one in which love—and sex with someone you love—is barely even mentioned.