There are few disappointments in life as reliable as the New York Times' Modern Love. If there's a point to publishing the dull, self-conscious relationship redux essays of anti-social nincompoops, I have yet to discover it. When it's not about how mommy used to be slutty and had a lot of tattoos before lasering them off in marriage, it's an outline of how rape (by a man) engendered a lifelong hatred of women, or an elegy for that simpler time when a dashing Australian cyberstalker paid you all his attention.
I suppose it's telling that Modern Love's best-known piece was by a woman who found a way to train "the American husband" as one would any dolphin, killer whale, or baboon. (It became a book.) So perhaps it's unsurprising that this week's essay—which might be headlined "I Hate Sex And Told My Husband To Eat It"—boils over with unusually dunderheaded self-justification and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about women's sexuality. (As in, that most of us would be happier making stained glass than makin' it.)
The unhappy marriage is Modern Love's richest vein for material, a thick, gristly sinew that holds the feature together even as it sticks in the reader's craw. Why was reading Lauren Slater's non-apologia for her intimacy-avoiding ways such an unpleasant interruption to my Sunday brunch? Let's see:
I met and fell in love with my husband for his beautifully colored hair, his gentle ways, his humor. We were together many years, and so sex faded. Then we decided to marry.
I'm distrustful of people—especially writers—who can't seem to find any way of expressing their love aside from the usual lazy clichés about appearance and that old stand-by, the sense of humor. And don't you love the way Slater works in that bit about how the union was sexually threadbare before marriage was in the offing—a subtle way to reframe her low libido as an issue of hubby's due diligence.
Predictably, almost as soon as the engagement ring slid onto my finger, I fell in love with someone else. I fell madly, insanely, obsessively in love with a conservative Christian man who believed that I, as a Jew, was going to hell. We fought long and hard about that, and then had sex. This is so stupid, it pains me to write about it.
Not as much as it pains me to read about it! In another, humbler essay, this might be the moment where the writer explains how a series of errors in her judgment led her to reflect, re-evaluate, and change. Not so Slater, whose breathtaking entitlement spawns only the following self-justification: "This affair, I sensed, was necessary for me to move forward with my marriage. It was a test." Fooling around on her fiancé—Slater feels the need to point out she and the other man never technically had intercourse, "though we did just about everything else"—was only going to help her relationship, silly! Because as soon as the passion faded with the fundamentalist fuckbuddy, Slater would be free to run home to her waiting partner, secure in the knowledge that for her, exciting sex past the six-month mark of a relationship was an impossibility, so she might as well get hitched to the dude with the pretty hair.
The parts of the essay where she writes about some of the times she has had real desire—for the Christian, and for the man she lost her virginity with, who is described, many times more evocatively than is the father of Slater's children, as "a broody bad boy who had a muscular chest and a head roiling with glossy curls"—must be infuriating for her long-suffering husband to read. Who wants to know their spouse can still summon a tactile memory of their first sex partner's (roiling!) curls, while loudly claiming perfect and permanent marital frigidity in the pages of a national newspaper?
Slater acknowledges the pain having mismatched sex drives has caused. "It makes my husband miserable and cold and withdrawn, and it is so unhappy, living this way," she writes. But at the same time, she is unwilling to admit her lack of desire is any kind of problem. Throughout the essay, she casually denigrates the physical act of love: "I have never much liked sex because, when all is said and done, there's not much to like." She even asks, "What is the big deal?" before concluding that, "For me, sex does not even come close to the thrill of scoring gorgeous glass for a window I will use, of hearing the grit as the grains separate and the cut comes clean and perfect."
Curiously, she admits to the stereotypical cocktail of bodily shame and simple irrationality that men have always alleged of "frigid" women, but Slater doesn't seem to sense how deeply sad that is. She writes of her first orgasm, which came courtesy of the guy with the Botticelli hair, "This was softer, gentler, full of a wide-open love, a deep falling-down love. When it was over, I hated him. I hated that man (that boy, really). The intimacy was too much, too wrenching and shameful." (Emphasis added.) What's pathetic is she doesn't seem to realize how downright sad—not to mention self-defeating—that misdirected hatred is. There is absolutely nothing shameful about pleasure. There is nothing shameful about love. And there is definitely nothing shameful about our capacity for intimacy: the ability to share the spectrum of desire with another person, without guile or gamesmanship or internalized shame, is part of what makes us human. Cloaking personal problems in obfuscatory reminiscences about other men and the rhetoric of rights seems childish in comparison.
Slater seems to want badly to convince us of this idea that never wanting to be sexual with her husband is not a pathology, but a legitimate part of her identity. That it's "fair" for her to withhold sex within her marriage, to make a point of not enjoying it, to be as close to asexual as someone who admits to occasional blinding bouts of desire can be. But it reads like one big cop-out; the idea that one partner's low libido is something the other must simply grin and bear might have more merit if that partner didn't simultaneously confess to a much more garden-variety personal problem: wanting to fuck other people instead.