No, Erica Jong, Sex Is Not Passé

No, Erica Jong, Sex Is Not Passé

A shaky trend story gets it very wrong about young women and sex.


Will somebody please make older women stop fussing about young women and sex? Usually older women worry that the girls are seeing too much action. Now comes Erica Jong, editor of Sugar in My Bowl, a new anthology of personal essays by women about sex, who complains in the New York Times (“Is Sex Passé?”) that young women are rejecting sex, have a “nostalgia for ‘50s-era attitudes toward sexuality” and a “lust for propriety” instead of seeking zipless fucks like Isadora Wing in Jong’s iconic 1973 novel Fear of Flying. Imagine, wanting to be monogamous! What will the young get up to next? (Full disclosure: Erica invited me to contribute to Sugar in My Bowl when it was going to be an anthology of pieces about one’s best sexual experience. I said no thanks.)

What is Jong’s evidence for this supposed outbreak of chastity? Well, there’s her daughter, who’s in her mid-thirties and contributed an essay called “They Had Sex So I Didn’t Have To,” about her parents’ child-embarrassing shenanigans, and a handful of other anthology participants. Oh, and cybersex (quick someone, tell Anthony Weiner’s pen pals they should claim they were driven by a “lust for propriety” rather than, well, lust). And babies—“our current orgy of multiple maternity” with family beds and breastfeeding “at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him.” (Well, they don’t belong to him, do they? I thought Isadora Wing’s revolutionary point was that a woman’s breasts, and all the rest of her, belong to herself. )

Even for a trend story, “Is Sex Passé?” is pretty shaky. Molly Jong-Fast is just one person. A handful of New York writers is just one handful. In fact, there is really no evidence that young women, of whatever class, educational level or ethnicity, married or single, mothers or not, are less interested in sex than comparable women were in 1973, let alone in the 1950s. There is only the evidence that Erica Jong and Molly Jong-Fast see things differently and Jong is not happy about that. I could easily write a my-friends-are-a-trend story from the opposite direction: I know plenty of young women now who are far more sexually experienced, experimental, and curious than anyone I knew in 1973, including myself. So there.

I myself resist the notion that sexual freedom is the same as promiscuity. What about the kind of sexual freedom that can grow within a monogamous relationship with a partner you really know and trust? Be that as it may, you can make a good case that young women today are busier in bed than their 1973 counterparts. Isadora Wing’s “zipless fuck” is today’s hookup culture—utterly routine on a thousand campuses. I’d argue sex is better now, too: better birth control and legal abortion means less fear of pregnancy, there’s more information out there, more men give oral sex, people have fewer inhibitions about masturbation, sex toys and other pleasure-enhancers (half of US women own vibrators, so at least they know what an orgasm is and are not too guilty to go after them), women are better able to ask for what they want. Since they are marrying later—26.1 was the median age for women at first marriage in 2010 versus a cradle-robbing 20.8 in 1970—they come to marriage with more experience, including, for a growing number, lesbian experience. Jong worries that young women are too stuck on monogamy, but not to worry: There’s plenty of infidelity, and rising rates of it among younger women. Cheating on your spouse is one thing that is never going out of style.

As for babies, the birthrate was higher in 1973, and almost twice as many women in their 40s today than in 1973—almost one in five—have had no children at all. That doesn’t tell us anything about women’s sex lives—no kids because no partner? No interest? No working-order plumbing?—but it does make one wonder where this “current orgy of maternity” is taking place outside of Park Slope and the Quiverfull movement.

One final point: I really doubt married couples with small children were having tons of hot spontaneous sex in 1973,1950, or indeed ever.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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