This book. Arrrrgh. This book.
I was initially intrigued by Sugar in My Bowl, a collection of essays edited by Erica Jong, because of its premise. In her introduction, Jong raises a lot of great points about the gender-based double standards when it comes to writing about sex. When Miller, Lawrence, and Nabokov wrote about sex, they were subversive and daring. They were breaking down barriers. When women wrote about sex, conventional wisdom said that they may as well have sounded the death knell for their writing careers. Jong was surprised that even now, women were hesitant to write about the subject; she was even more surprised at how many contributors felt the need to consult their significant others before agreeing to participate in this project. Still, it sounded like her main goal was to have an honest discussion about female desire. Sounds awesome, right?
Unfortunately, that wasn’t entirely the case. As with most collections, some essays were stronger than others. The subtitle is also a misnomer: while most of the essays were about “real sex,” there was also quite a bit of erotica. This wouldn’t be a problem had the book been marketed differently–I have nothing against erotica–but I do feel that the inclusion of fiction altered the intended purpose of the book.
Sugar in My Bowl started out strong, and I was really enjoying myself for a while. I loved almost all of the essays by older women who grew up in a different sexual era. For instance, Gail Collins’ essay, “Worst Sex,” focus on her education at a Catholic school in the early 1960s. Although her mother was open about any questions she and her friends had about sex, her teachers were the exact opposite. It’s a humorous reflection about her sex (non-)education:
[Our teachers staged a long, ferocious campaign] to keep girls from ever having carnal relations with anyone except our future husbands. Unless of course we chose to join the convent and dedicate ourselves to perpetual chastity. Really, it’s a wonder that we are even functioning, let alone talking about orgasms.
Another essay I loved was Min Jin Lee’s “Reticence and Fieldwork,” in which she talks about sexuality and racism. Lee, a Korean woman, was shocked in the late 1980s to learn firsthand about the sexual stereotypes of Asian women; an acquaintance’s husband drunkenly approached her and said, “You know Korean girls are wild in bed.” Later, she struggled to come to terms with the sexual expectations within her own culture: virginity was one of the most important factors in snagging a Korean husband. She dissects these stereotypes with honesty and even discusses the effect that these expectations had on her writing. It’s one of the strongest essays in the collection.
There were a few other standouts: Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s cartoon, “Cock of My Dreams” certainly elicited a chuckle. In her essay, “Prude,” Jean Hanff Korelitz admits that although she seems like the unlikeliest person to have done so, she wrote an sex novel a couple of decades ago (she won’t divulge the title) that still brings in royalties. And who can forget J. A. K. Andres’s essay, “The Diddler,” in which she does a lot of hand-wringing over her six-year-old daughter’s “diddling;” she agonizes over how to approach the subject without making her daughter feel ashamed of expressing her blooming sexuality.
But then there’s Linda Gray Sexton’s “Absolutely Dangerous,” which basically made me want to throw my book at the nearest wall. It actually started out great: she wrote about dangerous sex she had–the best sex of her life. She fictionalized the experience in her writing, and because of its violent nature, was forced to water it down. The years went by, the sex she had mellowed some, but her thoughts always came back to that one intense sexual experience she had with that lover, Steven. Fair enough. Until we get to the end of the essay: her former lover found her information, called her, and informed her that she’d had a sex reassignment surgery and now went by Stephanie. She was in town and wanted to meet with Sexton to catch up and go shopping. At which point, Sexton blows her off, moves to another city, and purposely doesn’t leave a forwarding address or phone number in case Stephanie tries to contact her again. Sexton writes:
What upset me most? The fact that he was now a woman? Or the fact that though he’d once again come within reach, I’d never ever have that indescribable sex again?
Sexton then spent the final two paragraphs referring to Stephanie as “he” and acting like a selfish ass. It was disgustingly transphobic.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Molly Jong-Fast made ableist remarks in her essay, “They Had Sex So I Didn’t Have To,” in which she talks about growing up in a hypersexual environment. Toward the end of the essay, she recalls how her teachers tried to be proactive about sex education in response to the AIDS crisis: their eighth grade class had to walk to CVS to buy condoms, then come back to class and learn to put them on bananas (the teachers figured that if the students could buy condoms, they wouldn’t be ashamed to buy them later when they actually needed them). Could’ve been a great essay. Except then she writes:
Even at the tender age of twelve we understood how profoundly misguided our teachers were. We weren’t stupid idiots. We knew how to go into a store and buy things. Most of us smoked at least a few cigarettes a day by twelve years old. We weren’t short bus riders.
Short bus riders. I think I had to read that about three times because when I first came across it, I went, “Did she just…?” I mean, really. WHAT THE HELL, Erica Jong?! How could you allow that? It’s so unbelievably offensive.
I want to like Sugar in My Bowl because it has some truly fantastic essays. But when you mix transphobia and ableism into an already uneven collection, there’s really no recovering from it. Those two essays single-handedly sunk the book for me.
Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex was released by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, on June 14, 2011.