The Lust Hurrah

Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution BY Nona Willis Aronowitz. New York: Plume. 336 pages. $28.
The cover of Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution

“These days ecstasy is indeed out of fashion,” the late critic Ellen Willis wrote, despairingly, in 1992. The quest for an ecstatic existence had once inspired Willis to seek a new life; to leave her first husband, move to the East Village, and, eventually, form the radical feminist group Redstockings. Her brand of feminism (often called “pro-sex”) bristled against the division of sexual expression into categories of good and bad, and rejected the anti-porn movement’s moralism, which Willis saw as essentially conservative. Willis envisioned a world in which women embraced bolder, trickier desires—including those that challenged traditional structures like the nuclear family. 

But the pro-sex position, for Willis, offered an opening, not an end—it meant to afford women the space, freed from sexual shame, to ask difficult questions about desire. Questions like: Why do sex and violence so often go hand in hand? How do notions of good and bad sex enforce structures of power? Why do I like what I like? “Unless radicals engage such questions,” Willis wrote, “they can't effectively refute the conservative answer . . . that sexual liberation is a male-supremacist plot.” The pro-sex movement, as we know it today, deferred answers to these questions—instead, it pedaled a cheery vision of no-strings-attached intercourse. In place of liberatory experimentation and play, the movement Willis pioneered may be best known for its proliferation of slogans and sex toys.  

Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution, Nona Willis Aronowitz’s new book of essays, presents an impassioned defense of her mother’s utopic vision. Aronowitz, the daughter of Willis and the labor scholar Stanley Aronowitz, has played an attentive and keen role preserving her mother’s legacy, editing two anthologies of Willis’s criticism. Part dishy sex diary, part feminist SparkNotes, and part polemic for a sex-positive future, Bad Sex chronicles a series of Aronowitz’s sexual escapades after she ends her marriage. For Aronowitz, pleasure is a worthy, if elusive, goal. 

Bad Sex opens in a cottage in the Cévennes, where Aronowitz eats cheese, fantasizes about the hunky inn keeper, and wonders if she should get divorced. At one point, she makes a pros-and-cons list: her husband is “generous,” “sensitive,” and “affectionate,” but they occasionally have nothing to talk about and he “doesn’t read.” Also, their sex is bad. “It was bad in 2008, when it mostly took place drunk at six in the morning or hungover at noon. . . . It was bad up until the last time we fucked, August 19, 2016, two weeks before I moved out.” It’s not bad for reasons you might imagine—awkward jostling, body odor. “If you saw a video of us doing it, you’d be like ‘hot,’”Aronowitz assures us. It has more to do with the absence of an illusory spark; in the act, instead of feeling alive, alert, and in her body, she feels “some putrid combination of bored, irritable, and dissociated.” 

Thus begins her quest for good sex—even though much of the sex remains patently bad. She has bad sex with a nineteen-year-old she meets on a dating app; bad sex with an erotic masseuse; bad, pressured, almost-sex with a Brooklyn feminist. There’s also a (brief) period of no sex. After each of these episodes, Aronowitz steers us through a prickly self-interrogation: Why is she so preoccupied with her partner’s pleasure? Why is she secretly “petrified” of being single? Why are her personal fantasies at odds with her political convictions?

Nona Willis Aronowitz. Photo: © Emily Shechtman
Nona Willis Aronowitz. Photo: © Emily Shechtman

This line of questioning recalls a vein of second-wave feminism that saw desire as a manifestation of broader political, social, and economic forces. Because desire was forced on us by sexy billboards and porn sites and (mostly male) Hollywood executives, feminists from Catharine MacKinnon to Rita Mae Brown believed it could be interrogated, and even, possibly, altered. Willis was skeptical of this position. “How do we distinguish between real and inauthentic feelings?” she wondered in her famous essay “Lust Horizons.” And yet, she still believed a radical movement ought to ask, “Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?” For Aronowitz, too, the journey to good sex begins in examining what we find good in the first place. 

Even with its impressive range of writers, scholars, and activists, (Aronowitz cites everyone from Andrea Dworkin to Michele Wallace to Warren Farrell), Bad Sex is breezy and fast-paced. Aronowitz has a knack for summarizing ideas with deceptive simplicity; whether recapping scholarly debate or viral Medium posts, she cuts to the crux of an argument with remarkable efficiency. But in the sections that recall her personal life, this skill wanes; she chronicles her sexual conquests with more attention to plot (think: body types, text message exchanges) than to an energetic argument. She spins in circles worrying that what she wants makes her a bad feminist, and the verve of a fresh thesis gets lost in self-flagellation. 

Feminism, for Aronowitz, is often the source of guilt, anxiety, and shame—it’s a model whose high expectations are nearly impossible to meet. In one essay, she decides to visit a massage parlor that offers “happy endings.” Although her masseuse’s “pussy-rubbing skills were legitimately advanced,” she’s not able to have an orgasm. She’s too nervous, too self-conscious, and too worried about hurting his feelings; the only time she’s truly turned on is when she notices he’s erect. But what makes this experience so distressing, we learn, is that she sees it as a failure to live up to her feminist principles: “What did it say about me that my pleasure was tied to whether the man was having a good time?” Later, she wonders: “Couldn’t I just have the sex I wanted to have, without feeling bad or guilty or like a shitty feminist?”

For Ellen Willis, feminism represented the possibility of being defiantly, boldly herself. Willis wasn’t so concerned with fitting into a single political camp; she loved, for example, rock and roll, even songs that had outrageously misogynistic lyrics. “Music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated,” she wrote in an essay about bands such as the Sex Pistols and Ramones, “challenged me to do the same.” Meanwhile, she was bored by the “wimpiness” of milder, mellower, bands, including those that were explicitly feminist. Feminism allowed her to sort through these messy and incongruous pleasures freed from shame; to relish when her unruly feelings revealed a peculiar, unique kernel of self. 

But Aronowitz’s feminism, on the other hand, demands adherence—apparently to sexual adventurousness and disdain for all things vanilla. Watching her try to fit this bizarre standard can be tedious. In one chapter, a lesbian friend’s criticism of straight couples makes Aronowitz feel “exposed and uncool.” She has just had a series of disappointing flings with men who are, to varying degrees, dishonest, unavailable, and selfish. Is she definitely, 100 percent straight? She reads about the generation of women who believed it was a political imperative to sever romantic relations with men; she wonders if she might, following their example, treat her sexuality as something malleable. But after a tryst with a particularly sexy, erudite, eligible woman, Aronowitz has her answer: she likes men. 

It’s here that this essay gets interesting. If Aronowitz likes men, what, exactly, does she like about them? She ventures a few answers (with typically explicit aplomb): “narrow, smaller bodies with dicks”; “cum: looking at it, tasting it, watching it spurt out”; “spooning a cute, muscular, hairy butt”; and “the aching desire an erection exposes.”

In these moments of genuine excitement, Aronowitz is at her best—even if they involve (gasp) straight, monogamous desire. Her delight is an antidote to a nihilistically glum attitude that’s fashionable today—the belief that heterosexual romance is horrible, doomed, and destined to repeat a tired old script. Asa Seresin has called this “heteropessimism”; it involves, as Seresin writes in the New Inquiry, “regret, embarrassment, or hopelessness about the straight experience,” that is “rarely accompanied by the actual abandonment of heterosexuality.” Heteropessimism may feel like a cathartic release of frustration with the straight experience, like insidious power dynamics that lead to pressured sex, or the unequal division of domestic labor. But heteropessimism is ultimately a conservative stance; it contends that there has always and will always be an unbreachable divide between the genders. It precludes the possibility of imagining unconventional family arrangements, creating more equitable gender roles, and transforming heterosexual love into a force for liberation.

When faced with pessimism, ecstasy presents a radical alternative. It offers, as Willis once put it, “precisely the power to reimagine the world.” Where else to start if not with the promise and potential of some better, freer, sexier future? It’s no ending, but perhaps a rigorous feminism can still begin where Aronowitz does: I want this.

Julia Case-Levine is a writer living in Brooklyn.