Sugar in my Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex — Edited by Erica Jong

Sugar in my BowlI can’t really generalize about the pieces in Sugar in my Bowl other than to say that most have a quality of the forbidden about them. Michel Foucault famously argues in The History of Sexuality that we’ve always talked about sex and that the “regressive hypothesis,” which holds sex can’t be discussed, is wrong. But I think he’s wrong, or at least wrong regarding the United States: it’s still difficult for many people, especially women to speak and write of sex, which is why Erica Jong—the editor of Sugar in my Bowl—can cite what amounts to a version of the regressive hypothesis in her introduction. Maybe we’re now collectively allowed to express all kinds of sexual signs, but moving from physical expression of signs like the ones seen in movies and porn to intellectual analysis is or feels forbidden. What happens in the mind is so intimate relative to what you’ve got under your clothes. Anyone can shuck their clothes, and Victoria’s Secret has built a massive business on the promise that most of us will, but relatively few people have the ability to really express what’s happening in their minds. Susan Cheever writes that “A one-night stand is the erotic manifestation of carpe diem—only we are seizing the night instead of the day,” but one has to wonder: how many people have felt precisely that and never found the words to express it?

Without the words to express it, one can’t create the writing that will allow others to feel empathy. I don’t buy the school of thought that holds men and women can’t fundamentally understand each other, or that either sex is incapable of writing characters from the other effectively in fiction. People who want to learn what other people are thinking will find a way to do so, and, if they’re good, they’ll be able to reproduce what other people are thinking. There’s a cultural meme, for example, that women automatically “give up” sex to men who “take” it from women. While that no doubt describes many encounters, especially first encounters, it doesn’t describe all of them. Consider Anne Roiphe describing her first, or what I assume to be her first, time, after playing doctor with a boy as a child:

Years later when Jimmy and I were thirteen we were kissing in the dark at a party. We were sitting on a table in my classmates’ living room. Couples were curled up together in every corner of the floor, despite the fact that the carpet was rough and scratchy. Louis Armstrong was playing softly in the background. Abandoned in a corner was the Coke bottle that had begun it all. It was a game of spin the bottle that had brought Jimmy and I to the moment. ‘Do you remember,’ I said, ‘when we played doctor.’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Do you have hair there now?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I really need to see it,’ he said. We found a closet. I showed him. He showed me his penis, larger, straight penis, full of some mysterious fluid.

This isn’t merely a my-first-time description (although it is that too), which litter memoirs and the Internet like discarded water bottles after a concert. It’s her way of delving into what’s nominally about the development of sex but really feels like the growth of an artist:

The thing about sex is that each act while different from the other even with the same person, even with the same person for forty years, is not a single act. It builds on the sex the night before, the year before, the decade before. Sex is a matter that unfolds like an accordion in the brain, the past is connected to the near past to the present and the future stands there waiting to be attached. So the feeling in the body, the feelings for someone else, the excitement of the new or the welcome of the familiar rises and falls, depends on memory, gains its depth from what happened at the beginning, a while ago, in the imagination, in reality.

You get older, you try things, you realize that, say, writing “is not a single act,” that it “builds on the [writing] the night before, the year before, the decade before.” Experience makes you good, and, although, there’s a sense that experience contrasts with innocence and is somehow bad, Roiphe doesn’t buy it. Neither do many of the writers in Sugar in my Bowl. They’re too heavily thinkers to buy the bullshit, and when thinkers break down their lives, they realize how much more valuable experience is than ignorance. It’s ignorance, and the celebration of it, that they’re really fighting, collectively, through writing, which is a powerful and impressive thing if you take the time to think about it. Maybe even more powerful than sex, which is their putative subject and the one that branches into so many other subjects; as so often happens, writers inevitably write about other things while they nominally write about one. Those “other” things can’t help being present to those who care to look. Susan Cheever writes, for example, “Sex feels like a series of shared secrets, a passage through a maze leading to the most wonderful feelings available to human beings.” But it’s so often hidden, and hidden deliberately, that one might ask why something wonderful must be “a passage through a maze,” unless seeking is part of the finding. Others want it to be religious, like Fay Weldon when she says:

I have been convinced not just of the significance and marvel of sex, but also of its sanctity, and its healing power, and the importance it plays in our lives, and how it is wrong to deny this. And if for a time thereafter, as I fled from bed to bed in search of love, I became a positive priestess of Aphrodite, it was not for long. I had a baby, as I was bound to, and steadied up. The psychoanalyst told me I suffered from low self-esteem, but my version is I was just born to like sex, and inherited the tendency from my father.

Notice the “sanctity,” the way she becomes a “priestess,” and the way she might not be in full control of her sexuality—she’s is “just born to like sex.” So if she did it, she did it, and so what?

There’s a wide and funny drift of self-knowing hypocrisy in these essays, many of which feel like the writer is talking to their younger selves, as when Ariel Levy says: “I smoked pot when I was twelve. I dropped acid when I was thirteen. Losing my virginity was the next logical step. It’s not like these things were necessarily fun. Well, the pot, actually, was great—unless you are reading this and you are twelve, in which case it was awful.” This reminds me of the first weekend I smoked pot, in high school (it wasn’t great: I don’t much care for the feeling, although I understand that many others do). The next week, a friend said she was going to the elementary school a block from my house to talk about D.A.R.E., which is a dumb and ineffective program. She invited me to go with her. Most importantly, this got me out of a couple classes. I went, spouted platitudes, felt like the world’s most terrible hypocrite. When we left, I told my friend about my experience with pot. She said, “I got wasted this weekend.”

So far as I know, we both turned out reasonably okay. So why not admit, unabashedly, “the pot, actually was great,” and leave the qualification out? I can imagine reasons, like the ones Megan McArdle pointed out:

In my experience, the big dividing line [between favoring drug legalization and not favoring it] is having kids. Read this interview with P.J. O’Rourke and discover some shocking things coming out of his mouth about how he doesn’t want his kids to do drugs. Having kids makes you realize how narrowly you escaped killing yourself–and remember all the friends who overdosed, or got arrested on a DUI, or spent their twenties working at a job that would let them smoke up three times a day, only to realize at age 35 that they had pushed themselves into a dead end. [. . ..]

in my experience, as the kids approach the teenage years, a lot of parents do suddenly realize they aren’t that interested in legal marijuana any more, and also, that totally unjust 21-year-old drinking age is probably a very good idea.

That’s not a good intellectual argument, but it is a very persuasive one that explains why we are where we are. (Does Levy have children, I wonder?) Still, Ariel’s line is funny precisely because of the discomfort she experiences at imagining a twelve year old wanting to follow in these particular footsteps.

I like Sugar in my Bowl more than it probably deserves, which may say more about my present preoccupations and less than its absolute merit. But, as I said above, while the anthology has the drawback of anthologies it also has the virtue: any piece that doesn’t resonate is only a few pages from being done and is easily skipped. And if you don’t care for reading a collection primarily about sex, you can also read it for what it says about history, relationships, politics, and writing. Jong thinks it’s also important because it equalizes an unlevel playing field some; she writes about

the fear some potential contributors had that they would not be taken seriously if they wrote for my anthology.

Anaïs Nin had made exactly the same argument in 1971 when I asked her why she allowed her diaries to be bowdlerized for publication: ‘Women who write about sex are never taken seriously as writers,’ she said.

‘But that’s why we must do it, Miss Nin,’ I countered.

And that is why we must do it. We must brave the literary double standard.

I can’t tell if she’s right, though she sounds the same note in the “Acknowledgments” section, where she writes that “Women who write about sex still get no respect—but we don’t give a damn!” Really? I don’t think I’d take someone less serious for writing about sex or not writing about it; Jong sounds certain that it’s true, however, and I wonder: who is giving the respect needed here? And, if someone is giving this respect, is it actually worth having? Isn’t an assumed position on the outside of some presumed literary establishment a necessary precondition for eventually getting in the literary establishment? The questions presume the answers, and, by creating this anthology, Jong does imply that 1) she can probably get more respect with it than without and 2) writing about sex is probably more literarily respectable now than it ever has been.

Snapshot of the new workplace and the symbolic content of Karen Owen’s “horizontal academics”

Penelope Trunk’s “Snapshot of the new workplace: Karen Owen’s PowerPoint” is one of the very few insightful posts about “An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the realm of horizontal academics.” For those of you who haven’t been caught in the media blizzard, Karen Owen turned her sex life at Duke into a PowerPoint narrative. As Trunk says, “She has bullet points, charts, and graphs. How can you not admire a woman who can graph her sex life?”

Trunk is writing about the changing workplace, but the significance of this media event goes beyond that. I mentioned the story to a literary female friend and said that agents had started calling Owen. My friend read the PowerPoint and said that she couldn’t see where agents would go , and I replied that it didn’t matter: Owen is a hilarious (and unusually clear) writer. It’s harder to develop voice than any other trait; if you have voice, structure, plotting, and the like can follow, if the writer wants them bad enough. Owen might.

Notice too Owens’ command of genre: she combines PowerPoint (typically boring), a bloggy style (think Belle de Jour: The Diary of an Unlikely Call Girl) and narrative (which most PowerPoint presentations lack) to make something that defies expectation: PowerPoint is usually stodgy and bad; blogs are nice, but Bell de Jour doesn’t use graphs (to my knowledge); and the Owen’s subject (sex) is of near universal interest, especially when it violates conventional norms, which still exist enough for Owen to capture attention.

Of course, it’s easy to argue that this affair of the moment is trivial, and in the long term it certainly is. But the incident is also emblematic of larger changes. Karen Owen’s story isn’t only interesting because she’s a good writer or because she engages the questions of genre: it’s interesting because it marks an intersection or fault point between ways of living and codes of morality. Despite the sexual revolution, parents still engage in daughter guardian, per the 2008 Perilloux, Fleischman, and Buss journal article I’ve cited before, “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis: Parental Influence on, and Emotional Reactions to, Offspring’s Mating Behavior” (Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 217-233). They use strategies to restrict girls’ sexuality more than boys’, which probably contributes to the kinds of gender standards we see as adults.

Parents—who, by now, almost all came of age after the sexual revolution—still nonetheless attempt to shape the behavior of their offspring along more “traditional” lines than they might have wanted their own shaped. And that’s probably true beyond the sexual domain—consider what Paul Graham says in “Why To Not Not Start a Startup:”

… parents tend to be more conservative for their kids than they would be for themselves. This is actually a rational response to their situation. Parents end up sharing more of their kids’ ill fortune than good fortune. Most parents don’t mind this; it’s part of the job; but it does tend to make them excessively conservative. And erring on the side of conservatism is still erring. In almost everything, reward is proportionate to risk. So by protecting their kids from risk, parents are, without realizing it, also protecting them from rewards. If they saw that, they’d want you to take more risks.

“Parents tend to be more conservative for their kids” because parents will probably experience the ups more than the downs. Karen Owen presumably enjoyed her sex life (based on her description) and enjoyed writing her PowerPoint. Her parents probably derived near-zero pleasure from the former and a lot of grief from the latter, since she’s probably hiding out at home. For the rest of their lives, her parents will be hearing—”Karen Owen? Name rings a bell. Was she on TV for something?” and variations on that. Unless they’re unusually snarky, they’ll probably find it difficult to deal with queries about their offspring’s supposed failings.

Parents become “excessively conservative” for their children relative to themselves, and in protecting kids from the risks of sex, they also work to protect kids from its rewards. The same is probably true of work (as Graham says) and of expression: had Owen’s parents known about their daughter’s PowerPoint, they probably would’ve discouraged her from making it. But The same creative impulse that drove Owen to write her PowerPoint might also drive her in the working world, and that’s what Trunk wants to highlight.

I don’t see any route around these fundamental preference differences between parents and children. A lot of teenagers are, from what everyone has observed in popular culture, outraged at their parents’ seemingly cruel, capricious, and arbitrary rules. But those rules often have reasons behind them, as Perilloux, Fleischman, and Buss point out in the context of sex and Graham points out in the context of career, and when one looks at the cost-benefit analyses parents make, one begins to understand why parent-child conflicts exist: the two have different risk-reward profiles.

Parent-Offspring Conflict over Mating: The Case of Mating Age“, another article from Evolutionary Psychology says that:

Parents and offspring have asymmetrical preferences with respect to mate choice. So far, several areas of disagreement have been identified, including beauty, family background, and sexual strategies. This article proposes that mating age constitutes another area of conflict, as parents desire their children to initiate mating at a different age than the offspring desire it for themselves.

Conflicts are built into the family relationship system and are not incidental to it. This is not especially new; in his famous 1974 paper, “Parent-Offspring Conflict,” Robert Trivers discusses the problem and its implication from the perspective of biology. But realizing that this is a feature, not a bug, was new to me when I started reading more about evolutionary psychology three years ago.

One can re-read many of the various complaints about “youth these days” as ones chiefly about how preferences change as people age: younger people want fun, sex, and freedom; older people with children want their children to successfully reproduce and pass on their genes and culture, but what “successfully reproduce” means is different for younger people than older people. That conflict can sometimes be read along generational lines even when it’s more about preferences of the child versus preferences of the parent. In that light, “The New Dating Game: Back to the New Paleolithic Age” is less about what’s inherently good or bad and more about how time preferences function and how people are afraid of change, especially if they fear that change will hurt their economic or reproductive success.

Still, the social world is changing, and a concrete manifestation of abstract change can often become a major topic because it is really a symbolic repository for large-scale fears, hopes, desires, and conflict. Penelope Trunk says that the Karen Owen incident—notice the fear-mongering phrase I use because I can’t think of a better one—is about changes in the workplace and workplace power dynamics.

And this isn’t the first time female sexuality, writing disseminated online, and the workplace have come together: Heather Armstrong got fired for writing in her blog, Dooce, and the term “Dooced” now means to be fired for something one has written online. That she also sometimes wrote about religion and sex probably didn’t help, but they probably also widened her audience, and people like talking about religion because religious practices often function as control and regulation for sexual ones. Anna Davies addresses similar issues in I’m done writing about my sex life: It was a great way for a young woman like me to get published. But the cost of sharing sordid tales became too high. It got her published because people like reading about it—and it’s got Owen “published,” too, although perhaps not in the manner and forum she would prefer.

In his book Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters, Scott Rosenberg calls the chapter on Heather Armstrong “The Perils of Keeping it Real.” Karen Owen is now being forced to navigate the same perils, and I don’t think it a coincidence that female writers face greater perils than men. Then again, Rosenberg points out that a man named Cameron Barrett might be the first person to lose his job over a blog or proto-blog post, since he “was fired […] in 1997 when colleagues found a mildly off-color piece of short fiction he’d posted to his personal website.” The issue of “mildly off-color” material arises in other circumstances, and Rosenberg cites

[…] Ellen Simonetti, a flight attendant who got sacked by Delta Airlines in 2004, apparently because she’d posted photos of herself in uniform revealing a bit too much leg (though nothing that would put a PG rating at risk). There was senatorial aide Jessica Cutler, whose salacious tales of Capitol Hill liaisons gained notoriety for her anonymous blog, Washingtonienne, but cost her her job once Wonkette named her.

Regarding the blog world, Rosenberg says that “[…] there was plainly something about blogging itself that made it hazardous to employment. Perhaps it lulled people into thinking that words in a post had a uniquely protected status and could be cordoned off from the rest of existence.” But one could remove “blogging” and put “the Internet” in place of it, or one could just acknowledge that it can be harder to maintain separate, authentic selves in a world where the reproduction of data is nearly frictionless for a large proportion of the population. The forward button can put your PowerPoint anywhere and everywhere, assuming people want to read it, and social norms haven’t caught up to that.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the plot revolves around nude pictures of the sexually avaricious Sternwood daughters and whether those pictures will be revealed publicly. Today, we’re moving toward a world in which so many people have already given nude pictures to friends or lovers that real social punishment is becoming increasingly untenable. But those norms aren’t changing so fast that someone like Karen Owen can’t be caught up in the shift. Trunk says that “The rules are all different” and that “[Owen] illustrates why men are afraid of twentysomething women.” She’s right, and it’s probably unfortunate that Owen has unwittingly found herself the catalyst for those shifts. With a blogger, or a writer like Anna Davies, one knows in advance that the act of writing puts one’s self in the public. Owen didn’t consciously realize that the act of writing and e-mailing her PowerPoint could do the same, unwittingly.

In a way, we’re all academics now, in that we’re all judged (and might be fired) for what we’ve written. There’s a flipside to that, however: we might find jobs because of how our writing demonstrates expertise. Karen Owen has probably made some jobs harder to acquire (it’s difficult to imagine her getting past the Google screen of your average high school principal if she wants to be a teacher), but she’s probably also opened up others: hence the calls from editors and agents if she wants to be some kind of writer. If I had a new media company of some kind, I’d be trying to find Karen Owen’s number. Sure, my last sentence sets me up for dirty jokes, but, more importantly, it shows how work and life are changing.

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