Chastened, Hephzibah Anderson's memoir about her year of celibacy, reveals a deep confusion about how to live and love in a (sort of) sexually liberated world. It left us wondering: how come dudes never write books like this?
As Tracy Clark-Flory points out on Broadsheet, Anderson's book — subtitled The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex — could be way more annoying. She's not trying to get slutty women to give up their hookup-culture ways, and (spoiler) she does go back to sex when experiment is over. Anderson's no member, in short, of generation scold. She is, however, a member of Generation "I Feel Bad About My Sex." Here's how she describes her post-college years:
We graduated into the era of the ladette. Boozy, brawling and out of control, the ladette was at least honest about who she was: one of the boys. And that, it seemed, was the net victory of all those burned bras — they had won us the right to behave exactly like men. Or as men were perceived to behave, because it wasn't clear that they had much more of an idea of their role in life than we did. Still, when it came to relationships, I followed the boys' lead. Neediness was the biggest crime, and so I got angry and sad on my own. We may have been sexually empowered, but we were also emotionally frustrated.
It's a familiar refrain — social conservatives have been complaining for years now that girls are trying to act like boys and getting hurt in the process. But Anderson's argument is a bit more nuanced than that, and she's speaking mostly for herself. She laments, "unfortunately, the moment I fell into bed with a man, I'd fall at least a little in love." After spending most of her twenties "a little in love" with a variety of unavailable men, she decided to take a yearlong break — from sex, though not from dating, making out, or texting, which she does quite a bit.
The results are sometimes irritating, but often interesting. After her experiment was over, Anderson remained more reluctant to hop in the sack — with, she says, these results:
What there is infinitely more of these days is romance. Men have bought me dinner and flowers and silly, sweet gifts. They've strolled with me along beaches, met me at train stations, and paused for kisses beneath the dappled canopy of a towering oak. One even sent an old-fashioned love letter. Failing all else, they've called.
On the one hand, the idea that guys will only do cute things if you dangle sex just out of reach is both clichéd and depressing — what does romance really mean if it's just an extended ploy to get laid? But on the other, maybe Anderson's year of chastity helped her focus on men who would give her what she wanted, who wouldn't leave her "emotionally frustrated." She talks about finding "a fresh way of looking for love," one based on being honest about her needs, not avoiding the appearance of neediness. She writes,
When a man who has been seductively whispering sweet nothings pauses tell you that, by the way, he has no wish to get married again and the children he already has are enough for him — well, it's hard to recapture the mood. If those are things you truly desire, your only option is to turn his embrace into a friendly farewell.
Anderson leans a little hard on the notion that women want more commitment and less casual sex than men do — there are lots of women who don't want marriage or babies, who don't fall in love when they have sex, and who have only benefited from the (as yet incomplete) sexual liberation of modern life. But Anderson's right that women and girls are often encouraged not to be "clingy," and to act, at least with guys they're seeing, like they don't want a relationship — even if that's exactly what they want. And what they do want, whether it's love, sex, or a combination of the two, often gets lost amid what they're supposed to want — an ever-shifting standard that usually has something to do with guys wanting them.
Women have been writing about these problems — about the meaning of sex and commitment in a world where women are supposed to be sexy but not slutty, and to act carefree about relationships while still managing to get married before they're over the hill — for long enough that they've come to seem like exclusively female issues. But since the women involved are usually hetero, there are dudes in the picture too — and we rarely hear what they have to say. The assumption seems to be that they all just want as much casual sex as possible, and that any system that encourages women to bury their desire for commitment under a desire to please is an awesome system for dudes. This may not actually be the case, and I have to wonder if what seems like growing female anxiety about sex, love, and relationships has a shadow counterpart in the male sphere, where anxiety of any kind is less acceptable to talk about. Imagine a male author writing about taking a break from sex to retool his approach to dating and love — now that would be unexpected.