Interviews March 2007

Not Tonight, Dear

Joan Sewell talks about her new book, I'd Rather Eat Chocolate, and the politically incorrect reality that most married women just aren't that into sex
book cover

I'd Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Joan Sewell
224 pages

Joan Sewell is not in the mood. In fact, she is never—or hardly ever—in the mood. And it’s not that she hasn’t tried.

She slathers her husband, Kip, in chocolate frosting. She whispers naughty nothings in his ear. She lights candles, dons a bustier and fishnets, and massages him with scented oil. Ho-hum. She would still prefer a brownie, a book—anything to sex. And she says most women, unless they’re fooling themselves, consider the deed a chore.

The idea that women’s sex drive can match men’s is politically correct piffle, says Sewell, who is 45. Her memoir, I’d Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido, recounts one frustration after another in a buildup to an anticlimactic conclusion: she’s just not that into sex. Such a pronouncement may not be titillating, but it’s groundbreaking, says Sandra Tsing Loh in the March issue of the Atlantic.

Libidinous ladies parade across our television screens—in Sex and the City, for example, or Desperate Housewives—but Sewell thinks they’re faking it. Like many real women, they are conforming to an image of supposed sexual liberation as they throw down their men and play rough. Poor Sewell, then, is the deviant. She is pathologized and pitied and subjected to various futile therapies:

I will be treated with drugs, psychoanalysis, spa-based encounter groups, warm rocks placed on my back, thong therapy, sex-toy parties, empowerment rituals, aromatherapy.... As I end up in a straitjacket in a psych ward hopping about madly, I simply can’t help noting the obvious. No one is trying to lower men’s sex drives.

Our brave heroine has had enough. She imagines a talk show on the “problem of male sexual overdrive” in which Oprah and Dr. Phil counsel a revved-up man, Rod. Six months later he returns to the show cured. “I can’t believe that I used to cuddle with my wife and think it was not enough,” he mumbles, misty-eyed. Sewell’s husband, Kip, does not suffer quite the same fate, but the two work out a compromise, a sort of sexual contract that involves stripteases, masturbation, and, on occasion, sex. They are both satisfied. Well, sort of. Mostly they are relieved. 

Sewell worked as a punch-press operator in Cleveland before getting a master’s degree in philosophy. I’d Rather Eat Chocolate is her first book. She and Kip, who have been together for 10 years and married for eight, now live in Seattle. We spoke by phone one evening last month while Kip was at the local diner.

—Sara Lipka

Joan Sewell
Joan Sewell

So you'd really rather have a brownie than an orgasm?

You know, that’s actually a tough one, and I’ll tell you why. When I reach an orgasm, I’m so proud of myself that it kind of overcomes the brownie. But as far as gratification, the brownie is always there. I have to work for my orgasms.

And the brownie you can just pick up at the bakery?

Oh, yeah. I mean I don’t have to say, “Was that brownie as good for you as it was for me?” And I don’t have to think, I’m almost near the brownie, I’m almost near it, oop, here it is! I got the brownie. And that type of thing. Having an orgasm—I do have orgasms—is more like an award. I’ve planted the flag on Everest. But as far as the effort to get there, a lot of times it’s not worth it.

Have you ever liked sex, or thought you did?

Yeah. But the problem with it was that even when I was dating, as a teenager and older, it was difficult. Even if I liked sex, the guy I was with always liked it more. I always felt like I was playing defense.

At what point did you decide to write a book about it?

Well, it wasn’t until Oprah. I saw a show, in 2000 or so, and she was saying millions and millions of women are having problems with sexual dysfunction, and they’re all ashamed to say anything about it. It was brought up by her gynecologist, who said the most prevalent problem she heard was women with low libidos. And this study had just come out from the University of Chicago. I looked at the study, I actually went to the library and looked at it, and then I looked at a Kinsey study, and I was thinking, well, if so many tens of millions of women—estimated—are having problems, and they’re saying that’s nearly half, what is the basis for normality? What is the definition of dysfunction? And what standards are we using?

What did Kip think?

He encouraged me. He encouraged me a lot. Because I was always spouting off this crap, you know. What I’d learned and everything. And he goes, “Why don’t you just sit down and write about it?” But at that point he didn’t know that everything we were going to go through would be part of it. And then he got a little squeamish about it. He still encouraged it, but there were times he was like, “This is a lot for me. This is very personal. I don’t know if I want people reading about this.”

How did you convince him?

Well, I understood it, too. I had my own problems with it. But it was kind of at that point a driving force. And he said, “Go ahead, but let me read it. And if there’s something I truly object to, will you respect that?” And that was hard, because I wanted to tell the truth, and yet I didn’t want him upset. So it was a very fine line. But he was a lot more accepting than I thought. He saw it as a project of passion for me, and he always wanted me to get some passion in my life. Partly sexually, but also vocationally. So I think he let me go ahead with a lot of stuff. Still, sometimes he would say, “Oh, do we have to put that in there?”

What in particular?

Well, our fantasies were a big thing, you know, our sex fantasies. And he also had a very hard time with masturbation being in the book. And I was like, “Kip, just about everybody masturbates!” He goes, “But I don’t want people to know that I masturbate. And to porn, too!” And I said, “Well, that’s what guys usually do.” That was a tough one for him.

Presented by

Sara Lipka is a staff reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education. More

Sara Lipka is a journalist with a local food habit. Since 2003 she has written about college students as a staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. Last year she was an intern for The Farm at Sunnyside, in Washington, Virginia, and this year she is starting a vegetable garden at the Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland.

Sara formerly interned at The Atlantic and has since interviewed authors about Roe v. Wade, libido, and settling. She graduated from Duke University summa cum laude in 2001, then spent a year in Chile as a Fulbright fellow, researching political theater.

An avid cook, Sara usually travels with a tiny bottle of truffle salt and keeps trying to concoct new combinations of ingredients. She has worked as a papergirl, camp counselor, umpire, and cashier at the Cosmic Cantina, in Durham, North Carolina, where she never got sick of the guacamole.

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