Regarding movie stars, again, political idealism, earnestness, and altruism have become drawbacks. I’ve never once had a fantasy involving Richard Gere and Tibet. Brad Pitt these days seems completely desexed, what with the close-cropped hair and the relentless pussy-whipping by Angelina Jolie. He is always trooping somewhere, saving Africa or something, hamstrung every which way by multiple BabyBjörns. Many women my age admit to feeling little for Ralph Fiennes now, or even back in The English Patient. Oh no. Only in Schindler’s List—some thirty pounds heavier, the fleshy Nazi captain, harassing young Jewish women in his basement. Hot!
Sewell is partial to Mel Gibson in Mad Max. But forget Young Mel. How about Old Mel, anti-Semitically ranting by the side of the highway, mad-dog-drunk on tequila, his career in ruins? We are Cop Lady, and Gibson is taking us right there in the squad car, oddly gleeful, pretending to flay us as in The Passion of the Christ. “Sugar Tits! Go! Fetch my coffee!” Hot hot hot!
No wonder no one wants to talk much about real sex, dirty sex, hot sex—because the true nuts and bolts can’t be made to suit any forward- looking social agenda. Maybe, in this sense, female sexuality really is a culturally subversive little beastie. Not only do many women enjoy it best alone, but of their fantasies, perhaps the less said the better (in terms of humanity’s social progress). For women, though, the bizarre and the irregular might just be “normal.” And if so, as Sewell suggests, widespread pressure—from both the left and the right—for women to have a “normal,” at-least-two-times-a-week sex life may ultimately be geared to serve not women’s natural tendencies but men’s. Who sets the pace anyway? As Sewell notes, about the husband/wife divide:
No one is trying to lower men’s sex drives. I don’t hear, “Doctor, my sex drive is too high. Please, do something about it. I feel guilty and ashamed that I don’t want less sex. It’s killing my marriage.”
No one suggests, continues Sewell, that men take estrogen supplements to mellow out so they better complement the moods of women. Although that could have measurable benefits. After all, elevated testosterone levels in males have been linked to such social ills as murder and rape. And I have to admit, the urge to slap my own husband and vomit in a ditch comes not from sex but from what I feel is his kamikaze driving. When he’s at the wheel (i.e., always), I white-knuckle it, I close my eyes, I can barely restrain a scream. (Many wives feel this way. As a girlfriend said recently about her husband, “If any woman drove as ragefully as Ron, she’d be hospitalized!”)
Nor is heightened female sexuality always about true spiritual liberation. The given orthodoxy, which I recall first learning in my early-1980s college years, was that for a woman, to appear “sex- positive” was to be labeled a whore—this was our repressive history. Socially she would be sidelined. But how the pendulum has swung. Consider the current proto-cultural-Hollywood-liberal-mediavor- blogosphere-feminist-ish woman of this year, and next, Arianna Huffington. A few months ago, I looked up at the Colbert Report episode my husband had on, and I let out a little yelp. There was Arianna, chatting articulately with Stephen about her latest publication, On Becoming Fearless … in Love, Work, and Life (which, with all of its generous quotations, I found less a book than a literary breezeway; but no matter). “She really is fearless!” I exclaimed. Because—no Nancy Pelosi-pearls-and-jacket-wearer, she—there sat tousle-haired Huffington in a frilly, sleeveless, plunging-V-neck blouse, complete with visibly erect nipples. (I thought immediately of that Sex and the City episode in which Samantha shows her girlfriends handy nipple caps one can wear to render a similar effect.)
I want to give credit where credit is due. La Huff looks good. Every time you see her, she looks younger and hotter (like she’s drinking the blood of Mary Matalin and James Carville, who seem to become more and more desiccated by the day). But do the erect nipples signal she’s ready for sex? We remind you that, unlike the hapless Joan Sewell, who faces the daunting specter of her husband’s naughty luscious buttocks every night, Huffington is glamorously single, has a busy media schedule, and in a former life was actually married to a gay man. So what Huffington’s Colbert Report twinlets are saying is less “Come and do me!” than “I am very, very excited … about selling books!”
And so it is, for a certain influential ilk of modern, high-achieving women, particularly those in the camera’s eye. The ability to signal sexual readiness—regardless of whether you actually put out for some poor chap waiting at home—is not disempowering but empowering. As is being thin. As is the latest hoop to jump through for women over forty: having impossibly-toned-for-your-age upper arms. (I think of the cover of author/law professor Susan Estrich’s recent political book, Soulless. A bite back at Ann Coulter’s Godless, it shows Estrich with long blond hair and wearing a tight black tank top, in Coulter’s same provocative stance. At my local public-radio station, we women crowded around the book. Not only were Estrich’s breasts perky, but—as one fiftysomething editor breathed in awe—“Look at her arms!”) Then again, I suppose you can’t totally blame our media for favoring catlike, frisky women. Four hundred pounds of lesbian bed death may be yet another all-too-common human reality that’s just not ready for prime time.
You know? If it were really about sensual female pleasure, everyone would stop waving the dildos already and let us eat. Sewell herself would “rather eat chocolate.” But even here a Puritan ethic crashes the would-be sybaritic fun. Yes, by all means, eat chocolate—not more than half an ounce, or approximately three-quarters of a teaspoon if you do not own a food scale, per week. And dark chocolate only—it wards off hypertension, is full of antioxidants. As for sex, just think of it as another cardiovascular workout, a self-improvement regimen not unlike aerobics (“sweating to the oldies,” we call it, at my age). That’s right. Sex—your sexologist/cardiologist commands it. Two to three times a week. Hop on that sex treadmill. Get your heart rate up, to at least 160 beats per minute. And drink plenty of water (avoid alcohol at all costs). It’s good for ya!
Look, you don’t have to camp out between a woman’s legs for twenty minutes of cunnilingus to know that sex—like life itself—involves a fair amount of tedium. With sudden shooting moments of pleasure. Because Sewell loves her husband and knows that he, like her, craves physical contact (never mind that for her it’s cuddling and for him it involves his penis), they eventually work out a contract both can live with. It involves hand jobs, lube jobs, and—when she doesn’t feel like being touched—her dressing up like a Playmate and letting him watch … so he can finish himself off by himself. For a woman who doesn’t crave sex, our brave protagonist has, by the end, actually had a fair amount of action—with her husband, no less—and one can’t help but applaud the warty and ungainly thing long-term love really is. (For more on the intricacies of nuptial whoopee, see Cristina Nehring’s “Of Sex and Marriage,” in the December 2006 Atlantic, and Caitlin Flanagan’s “The Wifely Duty,” in the January/February 2003 Atlantic.)
Even with all the massage oil and E-Zone handbooks in the world, sex is much too mysteriously volatile an activity for even loving men and women to have to have together, all the time. Or perhaps they can have it, at the same time, but in different rooms.