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
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book cover

I'd Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido
[Click the title
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by Joan Sewell
Broadway
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.

I’m also curious about how the storytelling influenced your experience. Did you take notes in bed?

Oh, no. That would have been good, huh? “Just a moment…” But no, I didn’t. And it wasn’t right afterwards, either, like, “Okay, I’m getting dressed and sitting down to write.” It would usually happen the next day. I had this big calendar with huge boxes where I could write a lot on each day. And so I would jot things down as we went along. And I’d ask Kip what he thought. I’d say, “You know, this is how I remember it,” and he’d say, “Well, no, actually I think it was more like this.” And it wasn’t so much that we came to a compromise, but he did fill in a lot of spots.

You do acknowledge that there are some women with high sex drives, but you seem to resent them.

It’s not resentment—it’s envy. I feel envy for genuinely lusty women. I met one who described herself as a juicy tomato. She said, “If you were a vegetable, what would you be?” I said, “I don’t know, maybe a celery stalk, or a rutabaga.” It sure wasn’t a juicy tomato.

What I resent, though, in the media, like with Samantha in Sex and the City, is a kind of sexuality that simulates lust. I think a lot of this is pandering to men. Like Girls Gone Wild—you see women in bars making out with each other and they’re not lesbians. They’re twisting their sexuality, and it’s a trickle-down from porn. In so many TV shows and movies, the woman can’t wait to tear off the man’s clothes just as the elevator doors close, you know what I mean? They’re that voracious. And it becomes an affectation. It’s an attempt to show that women can be just as powerful, that they can leer at men. I think feminists—there are so many waves, I’m sorry, I can’t keep them straight, the waves of feminists, but the pro-sex feminists—buy into the idea that a robust sex drive means we have broken through a barrier.

Meaning women who want to be seen as powerful try to flaunt their robust sex drives?

Yeah, that’s part of it, a strong part of it. When you make a guy into a sex object, implying that you like him physically more than for any other quality, you’re seen as more powerful. If you go to a male strip club, the women get out of control! But are they getting out of control because they really want to leap on stage and get screwed by some guy? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a kind of revenge.

So the lust women think they feel…

It all seems to look like male pornography. We’re just simulating lust. Instead of feeling it, we’re putting it on like it’s a costume. We project it into looks—makeup, breasts; all that kind of stuff. Like Pam Anderson. If you’re going under the knife, you’re not really doing it for you. Admit that it’s for getting men—keeping men, making yourself a sex object. That’s what it is.

It’s all an act, then, and the truth is that men are fundamentally lustful and women are not?

Men are far more interested in sex, and if they can get as much sex as they want, they’re going to try. They do tailor their sex drive, at least the gentlemen do, to women. Sometimes they have to, just to get them into bed, and sometimes they genuinely want to. But men had harems in the past. Women’s lib has made monogamy more of a standard, but if it were left up to men, would that be a standard? You know, I don’t think so. I think they like having a main squeeze, a woman they can be emotional with, but they also like the idea of having sex on the side. Are women completely monogamous? No. But it tends to go the other way far more.

You talk about evolutionary influences on libido, and I wonder how real you think they are, how acutely you think we feel them.

Well, across so many cultures, men are more promiscuous, men want more variety, men want more women. And for women, security overrides the sexual urge. That happens because, well, the woman’s sexual urge is weaker. Maybe it is because of biology.

Would there be so many sexual compatibility issues if we were all gay?

No! I don’t think there would be. There are times I wish I were a lesbian. Lesbian women have been noted to have decreasing and decreasing sex drives within their relationships.

And yet the straight, married women keep having sex out of generosity, you say, and that is submissive in the most personal way possible. What do you mean by that?

Compromise is something all counselors and sexperts and most people say is part and parcel of a marriage. But there’s something about compromising your body—it’s a different category. If you have sex when you don’t desire it, physically desire it, you are going to feel used. Now, you can trick yourself for a while into thinking, “Well, I’m giving this to him as a gift from me. This is my loving gift to him.” But it’s like my friend Holly says, do it enough times, just do it enough times, and you’re going to build a resentment that’s slowly going to take over the relationship, no matter how much you smile during it.

Do you think many women are having sex out of guilt, or fear of being abandoned?

Yes, yes I do. Well, of course guilt, because you’re supposed to have sex so many times per week. There’s more guilt now, because we’re supposed to have been liberated sexually. It’s twofold: if you’re not having sex, you’re not taking care of your husband, and at the same time you’re failing yourself as a sexual creature, which you are supposed to be. So there’s that. There’s also keeping the marriage together. There are a lot of sexperts out there who say, “Do all sorts of things, go get a lap dance, do this, do that,” and they sound very progressive. But it’s all to keep the marriage together no matter what. Sex is the glue of marriage, so whatever it takes to keep it together.

And there’s the euphemism “making love,” which you say was invented to make sex more appealing to women.

Oh, it’s directed almost only at women. I’ve researched this. And everything I’ve read and looked at didn't use the term for men. Men don’t have to be enticed into sex by the “making love” thing. But if you look at a lot of the books that are trying to keep marriages together, they use the expression all the time. So the message seems to be, if you don’t want sex itself, if the physical desire isn’t there, think of it as making love.

I also wanted to talk about masturbation.

My favorite subject! See, I do get horny, but I’m not so horny that I’m confident it’s going to take me through all the stages of a sex act. And if I fall out of the horniness in the middle, because I’m distracted, then it’s just a slog. The rest of it is just a slog. I want maybe sexual release or relief from anxiety, but involving another person, my libido isn’t strong enough where I can take all the variances. He starts doing this he starts doing that, and it’s like instantly, Okay, I’m out of it.

I read an article about a guy who said sometimes he just wanted to masturbate, because he didn’t want to turn to his wife, see what mood she was in, get all washed up, and so forth. Because by that time, it’s just like, “Never mind, I’ll do it myself.”

And cunnilingus—you're not into that, either?

I just don’t like to see someone’s head between my legs. Now some people would say that’s because I think it’s dirty down there, or something like that. But it’s the image. I actually think a person’s mouth is a lot germier than my vagina. And they’re lapping around. I think of all the effort my husband is putting into it, and that just kills me.

What about the relationship between body image and female libido?

Well, Naomi Wolf says just because you get skinnier doesn’t mean you get more nerves in your clitoris. And she’s right. But to my dismay it is true that if I gain seven pounds, eight pounds, and I’ve got cellulite, I feel less sexual. It’s not so much a difference in lust as it is in that reflexive sexuality, the desire to be desired, which is really the main sexuality I feel, unless I’m masturbating. And it has a big effect on me. I don’t want to admit that I can be that shallow, but it’s true.

Once women feel like they don’t look good, they don’t feel sexual in any way. For men that’s not the case. They may feel self-conscious, but they’re still going to be aroused. And that just shows that they have a much more resilient sex drive.

Do you worry people will read your book and think, poor Kip?

Oh, I worried that from the beginning. Kip was so freaked out about coming off bad. I said, “If anybody’s going to be coming off bad, it’s me, okay?” And when my editors said, “Oh, he is so sweet” and everything like that, I thought, “Okay, hero time.”

But Kip does okay. He does get oral sex—I’m happy with that. And he gets intercourse, but it is on my terms. Yeah, I guess there’s no better way of saying that. Everybody’s like, “Ew, on her terms?” because they feel that emasculates Kip. But he’s got a brown belt in tae kwan do. He’s not a wimp. He just understands that this is the only way I’m going to be happy sexually. And I don’t apologize that in the book, the bias is more toward women. That’s going against a lot of what’s out there.

Sara Lipka is a staff reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education.
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Sara Lipka is a journalist with a local food habit. Since 2003 she has written about college students for The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. Last year she lived and worked on a farm in Virginia, and this year she is starting a school garden in Maryland. 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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