Let’s Shut Up About Sex

Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review is called “Let’s Read About Sex,” and apparently it’s caused a small stir. This is ironic because we’re at a stage in literary debate where the most original thing we could do with sex just might be to shut up about it.

We live at a moment where most lovers would be more ashamed to let on that their sex-style was (gasp!) “vanilla” than that it broke a couple of teeth. Married people are far more likely to feel guilty for not having enough sex than for having too much. “Regular sex is a part of every healthy life-style!” we are told everywhere, often in the same pages that we’re told to eat our vegetables, and by the same parties who instruct us to get cardiovascular exercise. Only the sex advice is more binding than the rest: When we skip out on a gym session or a serving of broccoli we can at least feel a little mischievous, a little naughty. If we skip a serving of sex, we only feel like a big bore, a stick in the mud. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, most people would far rather be considered evil than dull.

So we flog on, like memoirist Toni Bentley, in the NYTBR, playing up our depraved libidos, those “filthy, uncensored fantasies” we share with other “horny women” which “froth forth from [among other places, sex anthologist] Nancy Friday’s collections, like Vesuvius upended, silencing the sentimental soft-core … in a single eruption.”

To prove our insatiability, we twist ourselves—and sometimes our prose—into the most unflattering positions: “Here,” Bentley celebrates, “unconsidered desire slices swiftly to the core of lust and with their—our—trailer-trash orgies of incest, bestiality, rape, pedophilia, domination and submission, whoredom and heterosexual lesbianism we eat our cake before baking it. And leave men reeling in trailer blowback.”

When the NYT is running such sentiments in its weekend edition—when the “Grey Lady” is talking so dirty on a Sunday—we can be sure that sexual perversion has gone mainstream. We can be sure that sexual excess is the expectation and not the escape in our era, the orthodoxy and no longer the rebellion.

And indeed, the rebels are starting to sing a different tune. Briefly and very ambivalently reviewed in the same book pages is a memoir called The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex. Sophie Fontanel, an editor at French Elle, lives (as do I) in one of the more sexually liberated capitals in the world, and she’s tired of her “doleful swinger friends.” She’s tired of her live-in boyfriend waking her up like clockwork at 4 every morning to be liberated. And so she shocks everyone by publicly swearing off sex for the next several years.

Attractive, progressive, and desired, she takes an informal vow of celibacy, and according to her testimony, her world is aghast. She could have told them she was having sex with a monkey, with her brother, or with a dough-kneading machine, and they’d have nodded understandingly. But telling them she was not having sex at all pushed them into a state of panic. Some accused her of reactionary religious fervor; others wanted to medicate her. Others, still, tried furiously to seduce her, or tried to keep her away from their wives lest abstinence become fashionable.

Fontanel may be a little self-regarding about her move (arguably there are people whose celibacy would go unnoticed, even in Paris) but her larger point is not wrong: in a culture of ubiquitous sexuality, “the worst insubordination”—sometimes the only insubordination—may be sexlessness. Fontanel’s own sexlessness came to a close after a decade, but she swears that while it lasted it was not just an act of insubordination but also of beauty: “Want heightens sensuality,” she said to an interviewer. Some readers agree: “Her singularity sounds sexier than most people’s actual sex lives,” according to Slate editor Hanna Rosin.

Which leads me to my larger hunch: As a culture, we are bored with sex. It’s too available, too approved, too obligatory, too emptied of urgent meaning. I recently read a Salon article by a gay writer who submitted himself as a slave to a notorious domination-submission “master.” As he says, he’s not sure why. All he knows as he walks into the master’s Halloween Hall of Horrors is that when sex is “as easy to come by as ordering chicken pad thai from the joint down the block”, one has to “try 50 shades of new.”

To escape our boredom we declare ourselves open to any new fashion, from bondage and blood to electronics and orgies; we turn up the volume any way we can. And yet a better idea could be to turn it down—or even off, for a time. Try to invest every note with meaning, to use sex as a Braille of the body, as the blind use their fingers to read and the deaf their hands to sign; to consider sex not as fun or fitness, not as an activity at all, but as a language in which to say something unsayable when and to whom you need to say it.

That means it may not be every morning at 4 am—or even 9 am. But then, quantity and regularity have never been keys to transcendence, any more than explicitness is. “Let’s Read About Sex?” Fine, but not too much. When asked about her favorite literary sex scenes in this issue, Francine Prose cites the Old Testament: Abraham “went in unto” Hagar.

“Everything was abstract, mysterious,” she explains. The authors of the Old Testament knew something we’ve forgotten: Less is more. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” they wrote, “or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above.” The truly beautiful resists expression and routinization.

Cristina Nehring is the author of A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century (Harper, 2009) and Journey to the Edge of the Light (Kindle Singles, 2011). Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper's, Slate, New York magazine, and Condé Nast Traveler.