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Image: Penguin Random House / Tina Tiller
Image: Penguin Random House / Tina Tiller

BooksNovember 11, 2022

Bad sex from every angle

Image: Penguin Random House / Tina Tiller
Image: Penguin Random House / Tina Tiller

Why do privileged, feminist women still get trapped in unsatisfying relationships? Nona Willis Aronowitz looks to history and her own life for answers in this powerful brew of memoir and cultural critique. 

Anyone who has been through a divorce or major breakup knows that beneath the sorrow and pain lies a steely concern about how the split will be framed for outsiders. Things are usually complex but your wider circle requires a pithy surmise, a who-dumped-who, an elevator pitch. And so in the aftermath, allies are recruited, drinks are poured and exes are portrayed deep into the night as tyrants, sleaze-buckets and/or deadbeats, as both parties strive to control the narrative.

Spare a thought then for Aaron, the ex-husband of feminist writer Nona Willis Aronowitz, whose failings as a lover didn’t just inspire post-split revelations but an entire book called Bad Sex.

Not that Willis Aronowitz was always comfortable with splashing around those two words. When she first wrote them in a private notebook as part of a pros/cons list about the state of her marriage, she came at them obliquely. “Bad place with sex” she scribbled on the cons side of the ledger, before crossing the words out over and over again.

That was lucky because the list was eventually found by Aaron as the pair were packing up their home having finally agreed to separate. He was most blown away by the date on the page.  “‘Twenty thirteen?’ he exclaimed. ‘You stayed with me for three more years after this?’”

This is a book about bad sex — literally and figuratively — and also really really good sex of all flavours. It’s a book about pros and cons, push and pull, hypocrisies, paradoxes, trade-offs and painful choices. Once Willis Aronowitz has made the call to leave her marriage, she embarks on a quest to explore her sexuality, testing its boundaries in every direction, and striving to understand it in both a current and historical feminist context. That’s the crux of Bad Sex and it clearly involved an impressive amount of reading and research — and fucking. 

In the early chapters Willis Aronowitz describes what eventually propelled her from her marriage (bad sex, yes — but that was symptomatic of a deeper disconnect); but more interestingly she examines the powerful forces that kept her inside it — even after she knew it was over. “The truth is I was secretly terrified of being single in my thirties,” she writes, “despite my feminist posturing.”

If any woman should have been primed to leave or avoid a dull marriage, it’s Willis Aronowitz. She’s the daughter of two high-profile and progressive writers (both deceased): Stanley Aronowitz, a political organiser and professor of sociology, and Ellen Willis, a feminist journalist and rock music critic. 

When they met, fell in love and became parents in the early 80s, Willis and Aronowitz were already in their 40s and 50s respectively. Each had a complex train of marriages and de facto relationships behind them and they shared open-minded (though not uncomplicated) views on sex, jealousy and monogamy. They were older, intellectual parents to their (no doubt precocious) only child, a somewhat cliched New York image, although Willis Aronowitz gives nuanced, unvarnished accounts of both of them, stressing that her mother was “nothing like the ‘cool mom’ you might expect a feminist rock critic to be.”

Nona Willis Aronowitz as a child with her mother Ellen Willis. (Photo: Getty Images)

Willis Aronowitz was sexually explorative from her early teens and “did a lot of boning” before she astounded her social group by marrying Aaron of the mid-West in her mid-20s. They were a real couple but it was really a marriage of convenience for shared health insurance purposes — and yet, Willis Aronowitz was surprised by its impact. “I had assumed that since the institution meant absolutely nothing to me, I could bend it to my whims, rejecting and using aspects of it as I saw fit,” she writes. “But no matter how blase I thought I felt about our transactional union, it managed to take on a life of its own.”

Suddenly Aaron’s extended family treated her like one of their own; her more suburban co-workers viewed her with a new respect; and dropping the word “husband” invariably eased the way with bureaucrats, Christians and the elderly alike. These were “little sparks of social capital” writes Willis Aronowitz. And they gave off warmth. 

“The most iconoclastic among us think they’re impervious to marriage’s charms, so they consider it safe to buy in ironically, for the benefits and nothing else,” she writes. “But there’s no easier way to defang a radical than the lure of a status bump… To my horror I started to truly feel satisfied.”

When it gradually became obvious that her and Aaron’s relationship was breaking down, she writes, her smugness turned to fear. Sexual frustration aside, “I’d gotten a taste of marital privilege, and I didn’t want to let it go.”

If trauma is something that passes between generations at a cellular level, it’s not surprising that women – even privileged, feminist, 21st century women – take comfort in being married. Long before it was seen as a source of emotional and sexual fulfillment, the institution was a means of survival, with the potential alternative for women being low social status and poverty. 

Not that there weren’t early dissenters. Willis Aronowitz tells the story of Mary Gove who in 1847 fled a disastrous marriage and joined New York’s literary scene where at a party she met and fell for Thomas Low Nichols. When her terrible ex finally granted a divorce, Mary reluctantly married Thomas, to avoid scandal. But her wedding vows speak volumes:  “I only promise to be faithful to the deepest love of my heart,” she said. “If that love is yours, it will bear fruit for you, and enrich your life our life. If my love leads me from you, I must go.”

Willis Aronowitz is skilled at interweaving feminist history and theory with her own (and her friends’) experiences. And when it comes to exploring the big social changes of the second half of the 20th Century, she has access to gold. Ellen Willis left behind screeds of journalism as well as diaries, snippets of autobiographical fiction and  soul-baring letters to lovers with her own complex relationship trajectory (and radical years as a single woman in the 70s) mirroring the times.

This hotline to Willis’s 60s and 70s, with its acid trips, female camaraderie and frank negotiations with male lovers, brings revelations. For example the civil rights and anti-Vietnam protest movements weren’t as intertwined with second wave feminism as I’d imagined. Willis recounted an anti-Nixon rally in Washington DC in 1969 where some of her feminist allies were billed to speak. When they took the stage the organiser, anti-war leader David Dellinger, inaccurately announced that “the women have asked the men to leave the stage”, building a mood of hostility. The crowd responded by heckling the speaker Marilyn Webb with, “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” and “Fuck her down a dark alley!”. 

Willis Aronowitz draws a parallel with some of the creepy “woke misogyny” she’s encountered on dating apps. The revolution is unfinished.

But sometimes it needs to get a grip on itself. The tone-deaf and unaware whiteness of most second wave feminism doesn’t escape Willis Aronowitz and Black feminism and Black women’s sexuality is a strong thread through the book. Particularly interesting is the part about Black women’s reclaiming of pleasure, when most scholarship has focused on their bodies “as a site of suffering and violation”. In a 2015 essay We Get Off, Black feminist Joan Morgan wrote of a “mulish inattentiveness to black women’s engagements with pleasure—the complex, messy, sticky, and even joyous negotiations of agency and desire that are irrevocably twinned with our pain.”

Feminist writer Joan Morgan. (Photo: Getty Images)

Willis Aronowitz’s approach to Bad Sex is exhaustive and sometimes exhausting. During her post-marriage months, which included paying a masseur for a “happy ending” which she can’t quite arrive at, and valiant attempts to challenge her heterosexuality, I started to wonder how she held down a job (all that texting!) and I related to her friend, a new mother, who cuts off one of her sex-anecdotes with “Listen, I got four hours of sleep last night. I just can’t do this.”

Thankfully, Willis Aronowitz reaches that point too, entering a “fallow” period in her sex life (and using it as a springboard to discuss celibacy movements in 1970s feminism). 

Then she meets Dom, an unfolding process that appears to follow a well-worn narrative track. At first he presents as handsome and straightforward a pleasurable, if slightly bland, hookup. Then gradually he reveals quirkier more individual qualities that get under her skin. She’s in love.

Nona Willis Aronowitz (Photo: Penguin Random House)

Could Bad Sex be about to end with a wholesome happy ever after?

Of course not. After a cheesy whirlwind romance she and Dom decide to keep things fresh and before long Willis Aronowitz is banging a trainee park ranger (not even a real park ranger) in a carpark. When she regales the encounter back to Dom, he tells her “Get it, girl”.

Are the rest of us kidding ourselves? Is monogamy a fraudulent out-dated restraint and jealousy a babyish but conquerable impulse?

Bad Sex stretches your thinking, raises many questions and even answers some of them. But I was left with one. What happened to Aaron? At the end of the book Willis Aronowitz thanks her agent “who has excellent taste, if I do say so myself, and who gave this book its title”. But surely Aaron deserves some credit for that too? I searched for him in the acknowledgements, but he was nowhere. 

Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution, by Nona Willis Horowitz (Penguin Random House) is out now.

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