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.
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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!

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