Why Is It So Hard for Women to Write About Sex?

Because it's easier to titillate, shock, and lie than to get at the messy truth about female desire.

Noma Bar/Dutch Uncle

Maybe you remember the old joke: “Why do dogs lick their balls? Because they can.” Here’s a new one I just made up: “Why do women lie about sex? Because they can.” It’s not really funny, I admit, but it does have the benefit of being true. Women are anatomically secretive. Our stuff is neatly tucked away, and the obvious signs that connote female arousal—arching, gasping, and so on—are secondary and unreliable. They might be genuine, or they might not be.

Men are all evidence. A character in Sophie Fontanel’s new memoir of celibacy, The Art of Sleeping Alone, succinctly describes the male dilemma. Carlos has ended his marriage because he no longer wants to have sex with his wife. Fontanel asks him whether he has told his wife the true reason he left. Carlos replies: “How could I have lied to her? With love, you can always get out of a bind because you can’t see it, but getting a hard-on, or not, you can’t wriggle out of that; might as well be frank about it.” When your hard-ons are invisible, there’s room for lots of wriggling.

By now, of course, it’s difficult to think of female desire as in any way hidden. The cultural speculum has been firmly inserted for a good look around. Women have long since learned all about how our tucked-away stuff works, with pioneers of second-wave feminism as our guides: Our Bodies, Ourselves was practically standard-issue along with the dorm-room furniture when I arrived at my very liberal college in 1985. Meanwhile, female lust has been thoroughly documented (or at any rate, endlessly and theatrically depicted) by the adult-film industry. How would porn get along without horny females? Science, too, has lately been busy substantiating the existence of girl lust. In his recent tour of burgeoning research into female desire, What Do Women Want?, Daniel Bergner reports a current verdict: women are at least as libidinous as men.

There it is. We can finally all agree that women want to have sex. Variously portrayed in the past as tamers of men and tenders of children, we’re now deemed well endowed with horniness. But does that mean we experience desire in the same way that men do? My lust tells me we don’t. Mine, I confess, isn’t blind or monumental or animal. It comes with an endless internal monologue—or maybe dialogue, or maybe babel. My desire is always guessing, often second-guessing. Female lust is a powerful force, but it surges in the form of an interrogation, rather than a statement. Not I want this but Do I want this? What exactly do I want? How about now? And now?

At least that’s how it’s always been for me, and I experienced a sense of relief and recognition while reading a recent crop of memoirs whose authors go to great lengths to get at this double- and triple-think thrumming in female desire—only to discover, as I have, just how hard the quest is. For I am trying to (cough) write a memoir about sex myself, specifically about having an awful lot of it awfully young—too young—as a teenager in the 1980s.

It’s not that I was ever forced. Hell, I wanted to be having sex. I liked sex. Didn’t I? Well, actually, I was never quite sure. Growing up in a world where the adults were busy trying to find themselves and the kids roamed unsupervised, I loved the adventure of sex, and I loved the attention, and sometimes it felt great. But did I want it enough? How good did it truly feel? Was I doing it only because the other person wanted to? My desire was real, I could feel it there at the core of the experience, but if I let myself, I could also feel doubt braided tightly with the desire. As a middle-aged married person, I’m still, you know, very pro-sex, but even now that’s how it is with me. Second thoughts come right on the heels of first thoughts, and am I really supposed to be having thoughts during sex anyway?

As a writer, I find myself compelled to reconcile the blithe sexual picaresque of my youth with the contrasting Sturm und Drang in my heart and brain that accompanied it. Figuring out how to capture the doubts and the questions—never mind the acts themselves—is a challenge I’m glad to discover I have company in tackling. Two accounts in the current round of revelations—Fontanel’s The Art of Sleeping Alone and Nicole Hardy’s Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin, about her luckless love life as a Mormon apostate—involve, perhaps not surprisingly, the not-having of sex. After all, if your project is to lay bare the mental state of desire, does a sexual act even need to occur? Two more—Unmastered, by Katherine Angel, and The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch—are the memoirs of women who really, really like having sex, but whose heads never stop whirring even as their bodies are otherwise occupied.

As if to reassure me that this project of telling the truth about female desire has never been easy, two titanic foremothers, Anaïs Nin and Erica Jong, have also made a well-timed appearance—or rather, reappearance—on the scene. A newly unexpurgated version of Nin’s diaries and a 40th-anniversary edition of Fear of Flying reveal the original taboo-breakers pointing the way to this turning point of ours: a moment when, thanks in no small part to their efforts, memoirists are trying to explore female lust on its own mutable, malleable, mind-steeped terms.

Even lo these many years after the audacious, self-aggrandizing Nin pioneered nonfiction writing by women about sex, her successors must still face down gut shame before even starting to think about anatomizing the complexities of desire. I read Nin in college, and more than a few of you probably sampled her unforgivably arty, but also truly dirty, prose too. There was so little real-life writing about sex when I was young that her diaries automatically claimed a spot next to Our Bodies, Ourselves on the shelves of the curious. Nin tended to preen about her role as demiurge—“At moments I feel that it is the first time that a woman has opened herself up”—but she wasn’t wrong.

To describe sex that actually happened—real sex has a charge you don’t find in erotica (a k a porn for girls)—requires even the boldest of writers to stare down the specter of modesty. If Nin did just a fraction of the things she describes in her diaries, which began appearing almost half a century ago, it would be plenty. With a narcissist’s zeal, she vanquished inhibition, as every sex memoirist must. If you’re in this business, you’ve got to forget about the existence of your mother—or the existence of anyone’s mother. There’s often a poke-in-the-eye savor to Nin’s frankness. Listen to her on her first husband, Hugh Parker Guiler, with whom she shared a rather dismal love life:

What Hugo liked was to get me to lie on the bed with my clothes on, and to raise my legs so that he could look. That was all he wanted.

The hunky Peruvian Gonzalo Moré wanted more:

Kissing my sex, hurting me with the violent caresses with eager fingers, keeping his fingers inside of me, his mouth to the sex, losing his head, trembling, shaking, moaning and pushing his sex into my mouth while I caress him with my two hands.

Take that, propriety!

Mothers aren’t the only obstacles. Female desire and arousal have for so long been represented as a form of incitement to men that it’s hard for a woman to describe lust—even to say something as simple as “I like sex”—without sounding, without perhaps feeling, as though she’s fulfilling a male fantasy. The male gaze—the now dated idea that, Eye of Sauron–like, dominated the feminism of my youth—certainly had Nin in its thrall. Sometimes she’s so focused on Henry Miller, the paramour who towered like a monument over the busy metropolis of her love life, that she seems to be writing directly to him. Mirages, which collects the formerly censored chunks of her diaries from 1939 to 1947, offers a refresher course in her inability to forget, for even a moment, about the existence of the men whom it is her goal to both emulate and entrance.

If you’re writing a sex memoir, you’ve got to forget about the existence of your mother—or the existence of anyone’s mother.

The volume takes us breathlessly, ecstatically, exhaustingly through the demise of her relationship with Miller and beyond. As she recounts several other barn-burning liaisons, including her frustrated (nonphysical) affair with Gore Vidal, Nin reaches for Miller-esque bravado and comes across as sexually liberated, all right—while hoisting herself onto a pedestal, blissfully objectified.

My power for ecstasy and his [Moré again] earthy fire produce this white heat all the poets and all the lovers dream of, this raging fire, heaven and hell.

If you say so, dear. Nin’s portentously lyrical demonstrations of desire, both in the act and in the writing of the act, amount to a performance. How much of the performance is real, and how much is fabricated? Such questions never troubled Nin, but no sex memoirist now can afford to ignore them.

You might mistake Erica Jong for another female writer brandishing her sexuality as an alluring provocation. Fear of Flying, after all, opens with the famous “zipless fuck” sequence, in which the heroine, Isadora Wing, describes her fantasy of a sexual union between two strangers who have absolutely zero expectations of each other. But to reread the book is to discover that Jong wasn’t showboating. Her aim was something far humbler and more important: to get at the slippery, elusive, doubt-ridden I want it—or do I? reality of sex for girls.

Jong’s point of view is intimate and just a little coldly self-assessing—that is, hers is a memoirist’s eye. Yes, Fear of Flying is a novel, which only goes to show what the freedom and relative anonymity of fiction can do: inspire the first great piece of semi-autobiographical sex writing by a woman. (To note that Isadora Wing and Erica Jong have a lot in common is an understatement: husbands, professional status, etc., match up.) Jong’s book was of a piece with feminist consciousness-raising, sharing its faith that telling the truth about sex was a radical act that could set you free. Jong wrote seductively about escape from the narrow confines of traditional marriage. But she wasn’t fooled. Truth and freedom, she knew, were complicated. Liberation wasn’t as easy as deciding to become a wild, lusty animal. Women could, and should, rawr away: they wanted to have sex, wanted it a lot. But for Jong—writing very much for women—lust was prelude. The zipless fuck, the mindless mating, is hard to pull off in reality. That’s what makes it a fantasy.

Jong kept her eye trained on the particulars, messy and even unsexy, without losing sight of sexual desire. In this throwaway passage, Isidora is remembering her early exploits with a high-school boyfriend, which took place right in the family living room:

He would slowly unzip (so as not to snag it?) and with one hand (the other was under my skirt and up my cunt) extract the huge purple thing from between the layers of his shorts, his blue Brooks-Brothers shirttails, and his cold, glittering, metal-zippered fly. Then I would dip one hand into the vase of roses my flower-loving mother always kept on the coffee table, and with a right hand moistened with water and the slime from their stems, I would proceed with my rhythmic jerking off of Steve. How exactly did I do it? Three fingers?

Let me count the ways this scene is excellent. There’s the physicality of the sex act, in all its wonderful, unexpected detail. But there’s also the cold calculation of the girl figuring out how exactly to manage, and there’s her grown-up self trying to recall the precise technique. Not to mention the incessant self-scrutiny—coupled with excitement and a sense of power—that drives the scene. If this were Nin, she and Mr. Brooks Brothers would have traveled to the moon and back by the third sentence. Jong stays firmly planted on the avocado-green couch, Isadora’s brain flying, her hand covered with flower gunk. And she hasn’t forgotten about her mother, either—which doesn’t stop her.

Since Fear of Flying, a confessional tidal wave has washed in all manner of sex memoirs by women. Mary Karr’s Cherry and Kerry Cohen’s Loose Girl have taken up the coming-of-age theme. Others have been ready to map the less visited boroughs of sexuality. But the strange thing is how far we haven’t actually progressed beyond Jong’s first book. Memoirs like Toni Bentley’s The Surrender (an entire volume devoted to the cosmic joys of anal sex) and Melissa Febos’s Whip Smart (tales from her life as a dominatrix) have staked out extremes with an unflinching lack of inhibition. Yet as Nin serves to remind us, flaunting naughty behavior can prove less frankly courageous than it at first appears.

What right now feels daring but also timely, I’m discovering, is this: to forget about trying to prove some sort of risqué bona fides, and to focus instead on all that interior whirring. The consensus that female lust is normal and real has been a long time coming—so long that any acknowledgment that our desire is adulterated by doubt can still seem anti-woman, or anti-sex, or anti-sexual-woman (or just a downer). The challenge that the new group of memoirs converges on is to show otherwise: to get at what feels true, which is that the endless internal oscillation that happens during sex needn’t sabotage our sexual experience, much less our autonomy. If questioning can’t be part of expressing female desire, that is a diminishment.

Television has turned out to be an unlikely proving ground for this kind of subtle, uncomfortable narrative of desire. In Girls, Lena Dunham has dramatized the ambivalence in her Jong-like blurring of the lines between autobiography and fiction. Critics have clucked over the self-abasing love life her character, Hannah, leads with her bossy (yet somehow incredibly hot) on-and-off boyfriend, Adam. But Dunham’s gimlet-eyed tracking of Hannah’s explorations—the horny, flushed confusions; the stumbling, self-conscious attempts at dirty talk—is a real feat of narrative truth-telling. Dunham shares the memoirist’s goal of capturing just how equivocal yet irrepressible female sexuality is.

If the point is to find adventure and plot—and truths about desire—not in what the author did but in what she felt and thought while she did it, outré territory in the realm of sex memoir gets redefined: the memoirist needn’t have sex at all. In The Art of Sleeping Alone, her account of a period of celibacy, Sophie Fontanel, an editor at French Elle, never gets much beyond flaunting her renunciation. She doesn’t merely refuse sex, with all its chaos and pain and glory. She also turns away from detail, sensation, story—her refusal is all that the book offers. But for Nicole Hardy, a Seattle writer raised in the Mormon Church to believe that the man she married would be the only man she would ever sleep with, a life without sex is in no way a stunt. It has been her fate, which she explores with acute curiosity in Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin, a memoir about her sexless years as an unwed Mormon woman, and her quest to lose her cherry after she quits the Church in her mid-30s. She has shut down her responses for so long that every date presents minefields. The simplest touch—her new boyfriend putting his arm around her—disorients yet also animates her senses:

I turned quickly when I felt a hand grazing my bare shoulder, beyond the strap of my tank top—thinking someone was playing that game: touching my right shoulder, hiding to my left. I felt myself blush, realizing it was Scott … How long will it take, I wondered. How long for my body to become unsurprised … ?

In a hypersexualized culture, surprise like Hardy’s works better than even the kinkiest sex could to remind us of how complex our own appetites are, and how incongruous our responses can be. We’ve surely all felt flickers of startled ambivalence, but maybe brushed the moments aside. Hardy brushes no feeling aside; her skin is attuned to every touch it receives, and her brain goes after the words that might begin to pin down the response.

Of course, memoirists needn’t go sex-free to rediscover desire in all its head- and heart-bound complexity, and most of us haven’t. But the terrain that awaits, as I’m not alone in finding, can all too quickly become rarefied—having ideas about sex, it turns out, is easier than describing the experience with accuracy. As I made my way through Katherine Angel’s Unmastered, I wondered whether real feeling could find a home here. This is a book that insists on its own intelligence in the most obvious ways: the drifts of white space surrounding minimalist musings on sex, an activity that Angel (a researcher in the history of psychiatry and sexuality at Queen Mary University of London) generally digs; the quotation-mark-free dialogue (which is okay only if you’re, say, Nadine Gordimer); the repeated invocations of Foucault and Sontag, who back up Angel in a kind of cheerless doo-wop.

And then there is her penchant for putting bold pronouncements in the center of those white-filled pages. Her favorite is “Fuck me. Yes, fuck me!” On first encounter, this is a neat trick. By stating her desire so baldly, Angel exploits but also mocks the whole idea of the shock tactic—and in the process calls attention to the way that women writing about sex automatically become flaunters of their own desire. But soon enough, the ploy just reads like a reprise of early-period Sarah Silverman: I’m a pretty girl saying these filthy things! And Angel doesn’t even bother with the jokes.

But when she simply writes a scene that shows her relentless, slightly sex-crazed mind at work, Angel is terrific. She’s especially good at examining her desire for rough sex with her longtime partner, whom she never names. For Angel, sexual extremity isn’t a narrative end in itself. Instead, it becomes an occasion for slowing down the story and spending time rooting around in her own responses. When her partner “pushes himself deeper” into her, she’s ambushed by a fantasy about him hitting her:

It remains unclear; what do I mean? Being slapped? I don’t think so. Punched? Surely not. Somewhere between the two, perhaps. The content has blurred edges, but the feeling is precise.

I want him to do something like hitting. Something—something—that would stop me in my tracks.

I want to say crazy stuff, I whisper. He says, Tell me.

But I don’t; I hold back.

The writer’s voice doesn’t hold back. Angel has found a way to say discomfiting stuff. “Surely not,” with its scoffing whiff of outrage at her own suggestion, yields to in-the-moment probing of inchoate impulses. Angel manages to convey the rifts that can open when women are having sex, rifts between what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking they might be wanting and what they can imagine or cannot imagine being able to express. “The feeling is precise,” she says, which doesn’t mean it’s simple. She’s having a desire, but she’s not sure she wants to be having that desire, and yet there’s nothing that can be done about it.

We can finally all agree that women want to have sex. But does that mean we experience desire in the same way that men do?

Not having sex, overthinking sex: the memoir’s swerve into unfamiliar interior spaces could be mistaken for the embattled retreat of fierce female desire. But The Chronology of Water, which barely created a ripple when it appeared in 2011, has lately achieved cult status as a testament to the opposite. Lidia Yuknavitch, a writer in Portland, Oregon, imparts a visceral power to the experience of lust, a power unmatched in any recent account I can think of. Hers is a tale from the edge: abusive father, drunk mother, an escape to Texas Tech on a swimming scholarship, which turns out not to be an escape. The dark careening continues on into drinking and drugging, compulsive promiscuity, serial marriages, a stillborn baby.

But it isn’t the grim, extremist momentum that galvanizes the memoir, which eventually finds Yuknavitch anchored, if not quite redeemed, by the rigors of writing, the cleansing intensity of sadomasochistic sex, and finally domestic peace with a husband and son. The boldness of the book lies in the chaotic avidity with which she taps into her sexual core, a source of appetites as confusing as they are compelling. Without resorting to the cerebral, the stylishly glib, or the academic, Yuknavitch manages to anatomize the doubled nature of desire that’s so close to my own experience. In the particular passage that comes up in conversation most often when I find myself talking with a fellow fan of the book, Yuknavitch is a kid, looking at the older swimmers:

Girl swimmers are hairy …

They had pube hair sticking out of their suits up at the top of their thighs and going into their business. Boy. Talk about terrifying.

OK that’s a lie. It wasn’t terrifying. It was mesmerizing. I couldn’t stop staring. It made me into a mouth breather.

When Jo Harshbarger showered in the locker rooms, all I saw was her legs as something I longed to pet, and her stuff as a little furry special place, especially since as a girl I was afraid to look at tits or twats or even faces.

That’s a lie too. I stared at tits and coochie as hard as a drunk eyeballing a fifth of vodka.

Yuknavitch ferrets out untruth (“OK that’s a lie”) as a way of showing the difficulty of knowing exactly how you feel at any given time, and then the added difficulty of traveling back in time to find the words to say what it was really like. But she goes further. Yuknavitch pushes beyond saying what happened, beyond declaring her lust, beyond laying bare her self-doubt. Armed with plain adjectives and nouns—hairy, furry, twat, coochie, even mouth breather—she burrows in to try to represent what wanting really feels like: unpretty and hot, but not a packaged kind of hot, not a hotness evoked with men on the brain as an audience to be aroused, pleased, empowered, flattered, manipulated. Those childish, plain words, so effective at the job of locating the narrator in time, also do the work of subverting any overseriousness or self-congratulation or come-hither sexiness in the writing. There’s a dirty glee to this language that is neither facile nor slick. Every dumb, filthy word she uses feels like the mot juste.

To see a narrator put sex at the center of her life in this way—without making a Chelsea Handler joke or a transgressive drama or a victimized tragedy of it—still feels new. Jong pointed the way, but her mission wasn’t merely to describe: Fear of Flying showed women how to leave, how to be free. Readers got the message. Jong later told of wives showing up at her house, wanting to move in with her. There’s nothing prescriptive about The Chronology of Water. It’s just the story of what happened to Yuknavitch, a girl of enormous appetites. Her vivid odyssey defies us to learn a lesson—unless it’s that we simply carry on and on, and let’s try to describe exactly how it feels along the way. Yuknavitch aims to leave nothing hidden—but she doesn’t let her brashness cattle-stomp all over her complicated emotional life. Her blend of delicacy and intensity delivers a jolt of recognition: my lust is like this, too.

I mentioned at the start that I am trying to write a memoir about sex, and finding it rough going. I don’t know exactly how I’ll pull it off. I get frightened every time I sit down to write about something I did, or had done to me. To be honest, my mother, still very much alive, assumes a ghostly, accusatory form and haunts my desk whenever I start to describe, say, giving a blow job to that creepy hippie Malcolm in the patchouli-smelling van in 1984. But I think of Yuknavitch, blazing through her book with no fear of either the savage or the subtle, and I settle into my work, trying to say precisely how I felt.

Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses.

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