The Atlantic asks, ‘Why Is It So Hard for Women to Write About Sex?’

The Atlantic Monthly (March 2014)
The Atlantic Monthly (March 2014)

Don’t hold that desperate click-me headline against Claire Dederer. Her essay in the March issue of the Atlantic is witty, smart and nuanced. The author of a 2010 memoir called “Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses” (FSG), Dederer brings the same limber style to this reflection on women writers. Moving from Anaïs Nin, the diarist who got around, to Sophie Fontanel, the editor of French Elle who gave up sex, she offers a critical overview of the undulating course of lustful confession.

She begins by acknowledging that female desire has been endlessly and elaborately documented in novels, memoirs, popular science and films: “The cultural speculum has been firmly inserted for a good look around.” But has all that investigation really clarified anything for women, she wonders. Working on a new memoir about her sexual experience, Dederer finds that the territory is still fraught.

“My desire is always guessing, often second-guessing,” she writes. “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?

While earlier feminist writers boldly cast off inhibitions to challenge the culture’s prim sensibilities, Dederer has discovered that she’s part of a new wave of memoirists who are willing — and able — to be more candid about the complications of desire. But sometimes that can feel like a betrayal of the battle their mothers and grandmothers fought.

“The consensus that female lust is normal and real has been a long time coming,” Dederer writes, “so long that any acknowledgment that our desire is adulterated by doubt can still seem anti-woman, or anti-sex, or anti-sexual-woman (or just a downer). The challenge that the new group of memoirs converges on is to show otherwise: to get at what feels true, which is that the endless internal oscillation that happens during sex needn’t sabotage our sexual experience, much less our autonomy. If questioning can’t be part of expressing female desire, that is a diminishment.”

The distance between the thoughtful women discussed in this essay and the drunken frat boys depicted in Caitlin Flanagan’s sometimes hilarious, often shocking and ultimately depressing cover story is so vast that they might as well be on different planets. (Mars and Venus aren’t far apart enough. How about Earth and Uranus? — a bad joke you’ll get when you read Flanagan’s introduction.) This is the most engaging issue of the Atlantic that I’ve read in years.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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