The nasty. Canoodling. Frottage. Bonking. Doing it. There's plenty of ways to describe it, but how do you know you're having great sex? Isadora Wing, heroine of Erica Jong's 1973 Fear of Flying, struggled mightily with this question, and the novel became a feminist classic for its high-brow take on female desire. Talking about sex isn't easy — and not just because half of the terms one might use to situate the conversation are generally not for the delicate-minded.
Just shy of 40 years after her triumph, Jong is back with more frank talk about what women think, struggle with, remember and yearn for when it comes to sex. And this time, she has recruited 28 fellow writers to help her out. The result is her new anthology, Sugar in My Bowl, which takes its title from the Bessie Smith blues classic.
Embrace your sexuality, counsels novelist Min Jin Lee (Free Food For Millionaires), even if — particularly if — you've felt constrained by stereotypes. Angered by the cliched image of Asian women as "slutty," Lee refused to include sex in her early fiction, only to realize that her indignation was preventing her from giving voice to "the defining subject for Asian women around the globe."
Liz Smith, of gossip column fame, contributes a tale of losing her virginity to her cousin. (Intriguingly, the family connection didn't seem to faze her.) On the delicate question of orgasm, Smith writes, "I was so ecstatically having 'something' special happen that I didn't know if I was missing something else." The memory of her forbidden flame remains an oft-consulted fantasy for Smith — she still wonders if she should have retired with him to Arizona.
Feminist author Rebecca Walker recalls herself as a well-off 20-something with more lovers than she knows what to do with, who walks away from what seems to be an ideal partner. "Was it again my fear of it being too good, of this man actually being the right fit in bed, in my body, even though he might not be in my life?" The best sex she's ever had, she concludes, is the sex she didn't have.
In other passages, poet Honor Moore reflects on the scandalous 1954 erotic fantasy Story of O, Fay Weldon sleeps with her roommate's boyfriend in 1940s Scotland, and novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz celebrates being a prude who happens to write about sex. Fiction writer Elisa Albert ponders sex after childbearing. It's "new, and scary, and different, and interesting, and strange," she asserts. "My body has been ... reorganized."
It would have been welcome had Jong brought in some voices that weren't quite so safe. Cartoonist and graphic novelist Marisa Acocella Marchetto comes the closest with a strip in which she dreams of being equipped with the organ that got Anthony Weiner into so much trouble. And Rosemary Daniell's essay about spending life with the man who was supposed to be just a bad-boy fling is wrenching in its exploration of the dark corners of a marriage.
Lest we forget that sex is sometimes just a proxy for other emotions, Slate culture critic and poet Meghan O'Rourke writes of reconnecting with her first lover after the death of her mother. She recalls "the nervy, jangling feeling" of teenage desire, how it allowed her to see "the world through parallel eyes for the first time." Intellectually, she understands why she has turned to the comfort of this particular lover in the wake of her mother's death, but that doesn't ease her ambivalence about regressing.
Coming up with a name for the collection was a negotiation. Jong writes in the introduction that the original title was Best Sex I Ever Had, until she realized that "books with Best Sex in the title were thick on the ground." The change of heart only makes Sugar in the Bowl that much more faithful to the complexity of the subject: The women of this collection make the case that good sex is never exclusively about the act, but also about how you approach it.