Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex
Edited by Erica Jong
HarperCollins, June 2011
This book is a Thanksgiving dinner in which each story is a dish more scrumptious, more touchingly homemade than the last. All are so very different, but together they comprise a joyous feast: a bald examination-cum-celebration of female sex and sexuality. It’s a collection of 29 works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, spun by writers as diverse as Susie Bright, Gail Collins, Arial Levy, and Min Jin Lee.
This is a must-read, not least because of the rarity of having such a women’s experiences of and thoughts on sex recorded in writing. For so long, sex in literature has (and continues to be) censored. For a woman to write about sex is to potentially forfeit the gravity and respect of her career, whether she’s a writer or not. For a woman to write about sex is unseemly, and unseating of patriarchy. It bursts the constructed bubble of what a woman and her sex should be.
It’s both in spite of and because of this that Erica Jong gathered her peers, colleagues, friends and families to create this volume. As contributor Daphne Merkin told Jong, “Anything that prods us into greater awareness, especially of subjects that are blanketed in silence or parody, seems to me to be of use. The sexual arena is so often treated as laughable or minor when in truth it is often serious and major.”
This book encompasses all of the diverse extremes that define sexuality. Some women write as self-proclaimed “prudes,” while others explore their sluttiness. We get to know the innocent sexual inklings of a four-year old, and soon after the wizened sexuality of a ninety-year old. We witness revolutionary sex, queer sex, secretive sex, and pre-double mastectomy and hysterectomy sex. All of it is to reflect how very, very complicated sexuality is, and that it simply cannot be unwound from the violence, obsession, loss, and ecstasy of our daily lives.
There are common themes to emerge. One is the tension between practical and impractical vis-à-vis sexuality…or the tension between love and sex. Several women write about men they’ve married, in contrast to men with whom they’ve had otherworldly sexual connections, and/or continue to love deeply, from afar. It’s as if the two cannot co-exist. Can they? Can’t they? This is loose end we are left to ponder: love functioning on one frequency, and sex on another. Troughs and crests converge, but perhaps just fleetingly.
Another revelation is the inconstancy of human love. People seem to rarely meet, match, mate, and stick together forever from that point on. It isn’t some doomsday harbinger for monogamy (although could be), but rather a delicate reminder that human love, and the role of sex within and alongside that, is a meandering, twisting, inconstant, and unpredictable thread. Our love stories are never simple, and sex and sexuality contributes to this.
Perhaps the most (surprisingly) poignant piece for me was by Liz Smith, the octogenarian “Dame of the Dish.” She writes about falling in love with and losing her virginity to a first cousin, and then sustaining that love throughout their entire lives. They know they can never be together, and they never attempt to be, but, she writes, “I stayed half in love with him for years and years.” Never has incest been so palatable, mostly because she highlights that tragic and universal element of separation, with which love and sex seem to go hand in hand too often.
Many of the themes to emerge are hard-learned truths only uncovered in sweeping retrospectives by women who have lived many more decades than my two-and-change. To read this as a young woman is an entirely different experience. It’s reassuring to read the accounts of women whom I admire – successful, powerful, acclaimed women – and know that as weird, messy, perfect or uncertain as things may seem in the moment, there is always a larger story arc at play.
Of course the danger in writing about love and sex is that the very act of trying to commit “it” to words, on a static page, is doomed to fall short. To attempt to distill the extract, and pinpoint the essence, is to miss the point entirely of understanding such a prism-like reality. Sugar in My Bowl skirts, but does not, commit this crime. There is much said, but much more left unsaid, and reading gives way to personal reflection and remembering.
In the introduction, Jong writes, “So the blues have this in common with desire. The blues sing of life in all its rawness and energy. Painful, beautiful, and sad, the blues embrace our humanity without shame. I hope these fictions, memoirs, and dramatic monologues do the same. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being fully human.” This is the overwhelming message that resonates. Where women’s sexuality has long been scrutinized and shuttered, here instead is an artful reprieve – room to dwell and reflect.