She’s Just Not That Into You

Women prefer food to sex with their husbands—and that’s OK.

Here’s the next wild turn in the female sexual revolution. Goodness! we hear you wondering, half in excitement, half in alarm. Is it some hot new wave of Seattle girl-on-girl action? (Or is that “grrrl-on-grrrl”? Indeed, do we even have grrrls anymore—are they still in bisexual vogue, with their tattoos, piercings, perky magenta pigtails, and combat boots?) Or is the latest sex trend something America’s desperate housewives are doing? One pictures sleek gated communities in Scottsdale, Arizona, where randy Hot Moms—possibly the bored, blonde, ex-model wives of millionaire athletes—are defiantly throwing Chardonnay-soaked house parties involving dildos and Botox, where Botox is actually shot, into the forehead, from a dildo. Or can it be … octogenarian pole dancing? Or perhaps it’s a crunchy-granola California womyn’s thing involving shaving, much gentle shaving—shaving circles, in fact, that are starting in Esalen, during luxurious weekend retreats led by Gail Sheehy, who, unlike Nora Ephron, does not feel bad about her neck but at sixtysomething feels rather more like a delicious peach, laughingly sensual, newly juicy. Never mind the lubrication issues, the vaginal dryness some may experience: There are Vitamin E creams and aloe vera unguents for that. In fact, today’s young men report how surprised they are by how much they prefer older women. The sheer brazen confidence is refreshing; the blithe sensuality, the lack of inhibition, except about the neck, but that’s why there are turtlenecks. Turtlenecks and no pants—that’s the ticket! And lots of Pilates … nude, nude Pilates.

But no. All of these possibilities will pale compared with the corporeal depravity I’m about to describe—a radical self-pleasuring act that may well represent the true frontier of female liberation. Which is to say I speak to you candidly now about some lesbians I know, two lesbians. They live in a suburb of Los Angeles. They’re both a hair north of forty. One is a computer technician; the other, a hospital administrator. Physically, they are much as you might picture them. For the past twelve years, Teri and Pat have had a special Monday-night ritual. They order an extra-large cheese pizza (sixteen slices). While waiting—and I am not making this up—they settle in on the couch with large twin bags of Doritos. Each chip is dipped first in Philadelphia cream cheese and then in salsa. Cream cheese, salsa. Cream cheese, salsa. Cream cheese, salsa. The Doritos are finished to the last crumb, and then, upon arrival, the pizza as well. For Teri and Pat, this night of a million carbs is, by special agreement, guilt-free. Both feel that it is better than sex.

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Interviews: "Not Tonight, Dear"
Joan Sewell talks about the politically incorrect notion that most married women just aren't that into sex

On the one hand, yes, Teri and Pat are poster children for what wags call “lesbian bed death.” Naysayers will look for—and find—yet more evidence to damn this pair, maybe pointing to the fifty pounds Teri and Pat have each gained over a decade, or to Pat’s extensive collection of Beanie Babies, or to Teri’s five cats, all of whom are named after colorful jazz divas who also, coincidentally, happen to be big fatties. On the other hand, Teri and Pat consider themselves happy. They are cheerful and generous with friends and with one another. In twelve years, neither has ever expressed an urge to stray. Or even to swing, to experiment outside the relationship with a new woman, a man, or even—more pertinently, on Monday nights—Chinese food. (Doesn’t a trial foray into popcorn shrimp at least sound tempting?)

And in fact, evidence suggests that a growing number of women in America, if they looked into the deepest recesses of their souls, would admit to feeling that these two pushing-200-pound lesbians may be not so much pathetic as … damn lucky. Because, to judge from the continual roiling crises on Oprah and Dr. Phil, American women are experiencing an epidemic, today, of not wanting to have sex. Or at least not wanting all the sex they “should” be having—i.e., once or twice or even three times a week, depending on which sexpert is confidently throwing out the vague approximations. It is a particularly vexing problem for heterosexual married females, who—now that we and our spouses are living so long, what with all the improved medical care—can expect to face another several decades of domestic union with a man. And clearly we can’t just let the sex fall off like an unused appendage. Unlike Teri and Pat, we don’t have the luxury, as we age, of letting our sex drives die a merciful death, or at least be ecstatically smothered (can’t breathe! can’t breathe! ooh, ooh! getting light-headed!) in Philly cream cheese.

Because first of all, men have needs, and if we don’t service our sex-starved husbands, someone else will! Although I sometimes wonder if my own husband, after eighteen years of cohabitation, has grown, well, too lazy to have an affair. Like me, my soulmate has developed a certain endearing reluctance to change out of his sweatpants and leave the house after 5 p.m., and all of those kittenish young Sex and the City gals seem sharply demanding. They require meals eaten sitting up in restaurants, chilled crantinis, vigorous discoing. If my beloved husband were to embark on an affair with a twenty-six-year-old, I would be hurt, of course, but also impressed: all that showering, the micro-trimming, the grooming, the continual anointing, of all the body parts!

But this—the unhappy husband—this is but collateral damage for twenty-first-century women, because at its core, maintaining a vibrant sex life with one’s man, woman, or even joy-giving appliance (and there’s no shame in that) is, like anything, all about us. And in this marathon run across the veldt that is life, to be true to ourselves (whoever we are) and true to our sex (and our sexiness), we must fight—even at fifty—to keep at bay the woolly macramé projects, the cunningly knit pet sweaters, the comforting vats of vanilla pudding that increasingly beckon.

Or … must we? In these, the sex-frequency wars, an authentically fresh new voice has arrived. Her name, Joan Sewell; her groundbreaking new sex book, I’d Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido.

And just how low is her libido? Writes Sewell, throwing down the gauntlet:

If I had a choice between reading a good book and having sex, the book wins. I notice I put in the adjective “good”—and that leaves me wondering if I’m not trying to put a better face on things.

We know what sort of woman you’re envisioning—and you’re wrong. Sewell is young, hip, slim, urban, and recently married to a man with the boy-band-cute name of Kip. Kip is smart, funny, sensitive, even hot. How hot? Let us look together at Kip’s nude body. In fact, ladies, let’s not rush. Let’s take our own languorous, sweet time about it. Let’s watch now as Sewell gives Kip a full-body massage, in preparation for some hot, hot sex:

I took the scented oil from the dresser and put a good amount into my cupped hand. I let it warm there for a minute, making myself aware of its liquidity, then I massaged the hand-warmed oil … against the rough hair of his chest … I told him to turn over and oiled his back (so smooth!), and then his legs (swimmer’s thighs!), and then I centered mischievously around his buttocks (naughty and luscious), and then tantalizingly onto his testicles (aww, he trimmed the pubic hair on them—so considerate!). I focused on all his swoops and curves and the way my fingers played along them. Was any of this heightening my desire? Sure. I mean it had to be. I was definitely more sensually aware, more sensually aware of Kip’s body. Okay, so it wasn’t exactly making me hot. Was feeling sensual the same as sensual feeling? Let’s not dwell.

Impossible to believe, but true. For this hip, young, urban woman, even rubbing massage oil into her husband’s naughty and luscious buttocks ends up inducing not lust so much as a kind of low-level tedium. So it is with all the other popular “hot monogamy” techniques Sewell attempts—from talking dirty at a museum (which is so uncharacteristic that her husband is confused), to wearing thong underwear in public (cold, uncomfortable, and humiliating; younger women look and laugh), to smearing chocolate frosting on her husband’s penis and then licking it off (resulting, to her horror, in the awful reveal: In the mirror, Sewell sees that her face has become a ghastly, chocolate-smeared reverse of Al Jolson’s).

And understand that all the while, Mr. Naughty Luscious Buttocks is working as hard as he can to be the model postfeminist husband. His top half couldn’t be more open and caring: He listens to all of his wife’s stories, makes a point of buying her favorite ice cream, stands by so ready to deliver gentle back rubs (with oily hands) that she practically shrieks, turns tail, and runs away from him. There’s literally nothing this Sensitive Man won’t do to make his wife relaxed enough so that she might possibly, at some remote point, consider having sex with him. (Even still, Mr. NLB is lucky: Though sexpert John Gray, in Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, says that for a man to arouse his woman, he should be ready to “camp out” between her legs for approximately twenty minutes of cunnilingus, a creeped-out Sewell herself won’t abide it.)

Figuring that there must be some deeper emotional trauma at play, Sewell and Kip seek a sex therapist, who probes Sewell’s sex history. (Or her sexistory. At a certain point, you want to start conflating every word with sex—e.g., what midlife marrieds have is fortysex; a particularly galling episode would be a sextastrophe. To that end, I think of a bookish fiftysomething bachelor friend of mine, who had suffered a four-year-long sexual dry spell. After much arduous typing on eHarmony, he finally met a similarly sex-starved female, and they broke the curse. How was the sex? He admitted: “Over the course of the evening, on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say we hit every number.”)

Anyway, surely, the therapist wonders, Sewell must have some prior upsetting incident? Past relationships must be to blame, including those Sewell had with her parents. And indeed, after digging, Sewell’s therapist points to such sex-inhibiting factors as a distant father, teen feelings of ugliness, failure to trust, and thinking of sex as dirty.

Of course, as Sewell points out, Kip (who we know is also dutifully in therapy) has the exact same psychological markers in his background, and his libido is sky-high. Which brings us to the crux of Sewell’s underlying political argument: Hormonally, it has long been understood that men and women are measurably different. Sewell was reminded of this obvious fact while watching a documentary about a sex-change procedure. With presumably no particular psychological agenda in mind, the doctors informed the female-to-male subject that

she would have a higher sex drive when given that large an amount of testosterone. They simply took it for granted that there was a direct correlation between high testosterone levels and higher libido. They didn’t have to know how Anita felt emotionally, or the status of her personal relationships, or her confidence levels, or trust issues to know that the amount of testosterone she received would increase her sex drive enormously.

But in this day and age, Sewell points out, to admit that a woman’s sex drive tends to be lower than a man’s seems politically incorrect.

Of course—and here’s the para­dox—this is not to say that Sewell finds masturbation either stressful or, in fact, a chore. Demurely shifting to the third person, she admits that “she herself has bowed her own violin, and darned if she can’t get her own strings to sing like Pavarotti.” It is true enough that women who feel tense about keeping up with their marital sex duties often find masturbation to be a stress-buster. Do it constantly, even daily? Why not? And what are we girls thinking about while we bow our own violin strings? Admits Sewell, “When I was an adolescent, I imagined these knights from the Middle Ages would ravish me.” A recent confession that made me howl is in the anthology Mortified, where one of the contributors, Jillian Griffiths, describes her teen sexual fantasies about the members of Duran Duran—John puts on the Rio album and climbs on top of her “like a baby tiger. Gentle but sort of aggressive.”

As one gets older, fantasy quality only worsens. An informal survey among women of a certain age who don’t care anymore reveals the secret: Whatever is politically correct, you imagine its polar opposite, and that’s what’s hot. It’s not fantasizing that you’re Jodie Foster getting drooled over for your Oscar-winning acting—no. It’s fantasizing that you’re the victims Foster has played to get the Oscar, the waitress raped on a pinball machine by a bunch of mooks—yeah!

Or here’s another: You are a nineteen- year-old blonde, a slightly chunky and bored communications major with a defiantly unquenchable taste for amaretto sours. They are a passel of fiftysomething Kuwaiti businessmen (oil?) at some hideous downtown hotel with glass elevators. The oilmen offer money for a private party. Thirty dollars? No. Five hundred? Better. Two thousand seems about right. Five thousand is definitely too much (the high price being too call-girl-professional; proper licensing in the state of Nevada and vaginal health exams somehow become involved). At $5,000 the fantasy loses traction.

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.

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