Sex is both alluring and terrifying...sex is life" writes Erica Jong in her introduction to Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex. This anthology brings together a series of 29 short pieces by highly skilled women writers, written in various forms - fiction, memoir, dialogue and drawings. This weaving of fact with fiction expresses the way sexuality thrives on the cusp between body and imagination.
The collection includes writing on childhood games and fumblings in wardrobes, on losing virginity, growing up in Catholic boarding schools, the discomfort of sex after childbirth, those ecstatic, self-exploding sexual encounters and the disappointingly memorable ones, sex with strangers, the deep lust for a husband of many years and surprising intimate encounters with old friends. The book reveals the complex chemistry of emotions that are sex, including the sometimes explosive interlacing of anger with desire.
Sex is notoriously difficult to write about well and these writers do a very good job but even they rub up against the inherent problem of putting into words something that is so beyond language, and which makes us so uniquely vulnerable. How to express the tangled web that interconnects fantasy, memory, cultural conditioning, upbringing, heart, stomach, genitals and the electricity that pulses between them all?
The choice of words is difficult; some seem so vulgar (cunt, cock, fuck), the alternatives so scientific (penis, vagina, coitus). Few words can capture both the soft intimacy and sharp urgency of sex. The guttural, animal voice that is part of women's sexuality is not easily translated into neat and proper sentences. Sugar in My Bowl includes a heady mix of sexuality but much of it's fascinatingly ordinary. I wanted a deeper exploration of how the clitoris and the heart are connected. In With the Kisses of His Mouth, Monique Roffey's explicit and intrepid memoir, I was given the details I wanted. Roffey charts her quest to heal a shattered heart through moving onto the cliff's edge of her sexuality.
Her relationship is traumatically ended when she discovers that her man has had an affair. She knew the relationship was doomed because she didn't desire him, though she loved him. She's psychically torn apart by this break up and launches into an odyssey of sexual self-discovery.
She trawls Craig's List for casual encounters, the "zipless fuck" that Jong brought into the light in her 1973 classic Fear of Flying. But in an age when it's so easy to have a zipless fuck, the appeal soon palls. Roffey heads off into new territory, exploring her sexuality and ultimately her humanity in a series of tantric workshops and therapies. She quite rightly points out that we are willing to develop our skills in most aspects of our lives except sex and love. She describes her experiences at workshops, in therapy, massage classes and sex parties in a skeptical and humorous way; much of this book is very funny. Roffey bravely stretches the boundaries of what she's comfortable with and gradually becomes profoundly sexually self-aware and, she hopes, will be better at loving in the future.
Both of these books are a thrill. I read women writing honestly about vital sex in ways that satisfy beyond the crude, glossy, silicone sexuality that we're sold by consumerism. The shallow, shiny surface of this sexuality is pumped out in call girl blogs and sex worker memoirs that perpetuate the Madonna-Whore complex. Our so-called highly sexualized culture is often more of a turn off than an atmosphere in which we can fuck freely with our bodies and souls intact. These books are thankfully free of the pornographic pseudo-sexuality that saturates our culture. They also offer far more than the dry spiritual bankruptcy and emotionless dead fish eye of The Sexual Life of Catherine M.
These two books, both blasts of a read, also suggest that no matter how much we explore it, sex, like astrophysics, will never be fully known to us; it will always remain mysterious, thank goodness. Both books show how sex floods through our mortal bodies and our imperfect, spiritually charged lives in ways we will never fully understand no matter how liberated we become and how willing we are to talk about it.
Rebecca Loncraine is the author of 'The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum' (Gotham Books)