NEW YORK / The New York Times / Cultural Studies / April 17, 2011
The Sex Drive, Idling in Neutral
By MEG WOLITZER
THIS is the story a friend told me: One night at a gathering at an apartment in New York City, a woman blithely announced, “I would pay someone to have sex with my husband.” There were snorts and yips of laughter. I believe one woman even clapped. “What did they mean?” I asked my friend. “ ‘Here’s to no sex with our husbands ever again?’ ‘Here’s to the end of sex?’ ”
I began to imagine that a kind of sex-themed Andromeda Strain had fallen upon the post-30s female population of Earth, causing them to turn away from men. But no, said another friend; sexual disengagement was an equal-opportunity employer when it came to gender, not to mention age. She pointed me to a recent article in The New York Observer that featured young hipsters who leave parties at dawn uncoupled but sated; and another one in New York magazine about guys who’ve been gorging on Internet pornography suddenly finding that they no longer have much appetite for the nonvirtual. After all that passive watching, a real breast rising up in the dim light of a bedroom might seem as cold and surreal as a moonscape. A male friend told me he thought he understood why pornography could be preferable to some people; watching pornography, he said, is like going to a Wikipedia page. You search for a specific thing, a specific feeling, a specific result, and that’s exactly what you find.
Yet even as saying no to sex with actual partners is being acknowledged more openly, I think the culture is still weirdly prurient about the idea of other people — particularly women — not having sex. There’s a peculiar interest in certain female public figures, who, at least as far as we think we know (and God knows we might be very, very wrong), appear unattached and less than active. Think of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor or the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I can picture either woman in a big, beautiful bed with great sheets, the duvet scattered with legal briefs or policy papers. The bedside lamp burns a peachy, erotic glow all night as she works.
But look at the way Bill Clinton’s and John F. Kennedy’s brains seemed fueled by sex; maybe sex is what got the Family and Medical Leave Act passed, or finessed the Cuban Missile Crisis. Why, a powerful woman who is sexually unengaged cannot be allowed to make vital decisions about the security of the United States!
This kind of thinking is offensive and, actually, insane; sex isn’t the anti-kryptonite. But because we’re all post-Freudians, it’s as if we still believe sex equals strength, health and life; and therefore, not-sex equals weakness, illness and death.
I have no idea of what goes on inside the marriage of the woman who made the crack about her husband. All relationships are mysteries. When no one else is there to watch, a couple might put on wigs and prance around, or engage in Santeria rituals. The woman’s husband might have been a lout. She might have been one, too. Perhaps they had never been well matched. Or maybe it was the fatigue of familiarity, and she was simply bored. Regardless, it seems to me that the woman who made the comment about her husband was most likely taking a defeatist position that degrades both of them.
But there are enviable noes, too, and these include the ones you utter when you just want privacy. No can mean: not right now. The desire to be left alone can lead to solitude, which in turn leads to great work ideas and, ultimately, freedom.
My first experience with an enviable no took place back in the 1970s, when I was around 14, and fell in love with a soulful boy who lived in a nearby suburb. Around that time, everyone was talking about the “bases,” that crude system for organizing sexual activity, and my boyfriend became absorbed with the idea that we would “go to third,” which embarrassed and thrilled me. During our phone conversations, we’d talk about mutual friends, TV shows and Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd,” which we were both reading for English, and suddenly he would say, “So, will you go to third?” Often, I pretended I hadn’t heard him; other times I cryptically said, “We’ll see.”
One day, I seem to recall, a letter arrived on heavy stationery, written with the calligraphy set he’d received as a present for his bar mitzvah. In Magna Carta handwriting, my boyfriend wrote something like, “Willst thou go to third with me ... milady?” He was unrelenting in his quest, and finally a plan was made. The following weekend there was to be a party at his house, and afterward I would spend the night in his family’s rec room.
On Saturday night, I lay down on the Castro convertible beneath a framed poster of “Christina’s World,” until my boyfriend appeared at the top of the stairs in a belted velour bathrobe, looking like a miniature Hugh Hefner; he should have been swirling a brandy snifter. “So, Meg,” he said. “Are you ready to go to third?” After a beat, I said to him, “No.”
He tied the belt of his robe tighter and said, “But it’s what we agreed.” Still I said no, sorry, I wasn’t ready after all. We broke up the next morning, and then got back together again days later, and then broke up a few more times. I eventually did go to third; yes, I did. I grew up; I got married; I had children; decades passed, and I lived through personal happiness and disappointment, and I barely thought about this little moment again until recently. What I had given myself, in saying no back then, was the luxury of time — time to figure out what I wanted, what felt best. No is like being in graduate school; you’re allowed to think for a while, and not be in the world.
While some noes are event-specific and others are more of a general position, loss of interest in sex has become, paradoxically, a hot topic. Though no may now be more co-ed than ever, and may have a particularly contemporary, techno-sheen to it, I don’t think the situation is radically different from how it ever was. Once, women were told they had to say no; then they were told they had to say yes. And now women (and men, too) are allowed to think about the implications of yes or no, and talk about them in ironic, defensive voices, or else more thoughtfully. But perhaps the hardest part of all this has to do with aging. As you get older, you do tend to live more narrowly, and that can be sad.
Lately, when I hear people speak about lack of desire, I think they may really be speaking about energy. There are just so many seductions — Facebook! Wikipedia! Pornography! “Far From the Madding Crowd”! Love! Pepperidge Farm! Hulu! Curriculum Night! Art! — and we are human, and mortal, and inevitably we have to choose. Is this really the end of sex? Just when I think maybe it is, someone breaks out the Love Pollen, and what do you know, there’s still something in the bottle.
Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, “The Uncoupling” (Riverhead Books), was just published.
© 2011 The New York Times Company