As soon as I cracked opened Erica Jong's new anthology, "Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex," I was overcome with giddiness. The table of contents boasted female writers from august publications sharing the most intimate aspects of their lives. It isn't common for serious female writers -- the sort who write about respectable issues like politics and poverty -- to dip their toes into that piranha-infested lake of personal judgment and criticism. Just as good girls don't talk about sex, good-girl writers don't write about sex. Not only can it be devastating personally, but it can also earn you a professional reputation as a chick lit author or, worse, a sex writer.
But here was Ariel Levy -- author of the treatise against porn culture, "Female Chauvinist Pigs" -- taking a break from her highbrow analyses of gender and sexual politics for the New Yorker to write about the first time she had sex. That's not to mention: Gail Collins of the New York Times remembering the anti-sex education she received at her Catholic girls high school; Slate's Meghan O'Rourke seeking solace in sex after her mother's death; and novelist Anne Roiphe recalling playing doctor with a male friend at age 5, and then again as teenagers.
I was delighted: Respected female writers exposing their sexual underbellies! I was also alarmed: Respected female writers exposing their sexual underbellies -- what were they thinking? It's just as Rebecca Traister wrote in Salon a couple of years ago about Katha Pollitt's "Learning to Drive," a book of intensely personal essays: "Is there ever a point at which it is a good idea for women, especially intellectual, politically engaged women, to strip off their clothes and caper naked as jaybirds in front of a line of would-be assassins?"
There is certainly no shortage of romantic and sexual tell-alls penned by young women. In fact, you should see the pile of discarded books next to my desk sent to me by publishers; I call it the Leaning Tower of Chick Lit. I have no intention of reading those books, because they too often offer exposure without illumination. We may live in a hypersexualized culture, but we aren't so good at letting the sexual and the serious coexist, particularly when it comes to women. In Jong's introduction to the book she quotes contributor Daphne Merkin, a writer for the New York Times Magazine, who is no stranger to self-exposure: "The sexual arena is so often treated as laughable or minor when in truth it is often serious and major." That's exactly why I was so pleased, and unsettled, by the book's roster.
So, you might be wondering, did it live up to expectations? I've said a whole lot without even moving beyond the table of contents. There are a handful of exquisite essays by the writers mentioned above, as well as a classic by Fay Weldon about losing her virginity to her best friend's boyfriend, a touchingly hilarious piece by J.A.K. Andres about her 6-year-old daughter's discovery of her clitoris, and an essay by Molly Jong-Fast about being raised by sexual libertines, which was excerpted in Salon. But the challenge of getting respected women authors to write candidly about sex is palpable in the book. In fact, the project started with a different premise: Sharing women's stories of the "best sex" they had ever experienced. (Which, if you ask me, is bor-ing.) The concept was discarded and so were the parameters for inclusion -- a move that has a slight air of desperation -- so the end product includes a few fiction pieces that feel out of place.
Just as we need women willing to run naked before the firing line, though, we need incomplete anthologies in order for things to get better.