Can women be saved from bad sex? "Finding your desires is a conscious process," says author

"Bad Sex" author Nona Willis Aronowitz discusses with Salon why sexual liberation is so elusive

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published September 3, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

Frustrated Couple (Getty Images/gpointstudio)
Frustrated Couple (Getty Images/gpointstudio)

Bad sex: Everyone's had it, though few people are secure enough to talk about it. For women who have sex with men, bad sex is, frankly, a chronic problem, one that infects all sorts of encounters, from the classic one-night stand to the long-term marriage. It's not supposed to be this way, Teen Vogue editor Nona Willis Aronowitz writes in her new book "Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution." "[S]ex has never been more normalized, feminism has never been more popular, romantic relationships have never been more malleable — yet we still haven't transcended the binds that make sex and love go bad." 

"It's undeniable that monogamy works better for some people ... but that still doesn't mean that there's any good reason why monogamy should be the default."

Using her own failed marriage as a jumping-off point, Willis Aronowitz digs through her own life, the experiences of family and friends, and history itself to explore the various ways women have sought — and all too often failed to find — sexual satisfaction. The result is both thought-provoking and readable, though Willis Aronowitz's frankness has provoked a lot of discomfited responses. Sexual desire is, after all, a messy and often contradictory business. But, as Willis Aronowitz's explorations suggest, that may be the same reason it remains so compelling to people — even when it's not satisfying to us. 

Willis Aronowitz spoke with Salon about her new book and the often elusive nature of sexual satisfaction. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Preparing for this interview, I read some reviews of your book, and I was struck by how defensive a lot of them were. A lot of reviewers were so caught up in trying to argue that monogamy doesn't make someone uncool, that they missed the point of the book. Literally, there's only one chapter about non-mongamy, even though obviously that fact of your life is sewn throughout the book. Do you think your book has anything useful to say to us boring monogamous people?

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A lot of people have been commenting on that chapter as if it's some full-throated defense of non-monogamy, when really it's just an argument against the default of monogamy. I think it's undeniable that monogamy works better for some people. Either they don't really feel the urge to have sex with other people, or they might have the urge, but just acknowledge that dealing with their own feelings of jealousy and insecurity is too disruptive.

I understand those reasons! It is disruptive. Dealing with jealousy is extremely hard because there's so many reasons, both internalized by culture and perhaps intrinsic, why we would feel jealousy. But that still doesn't mean that there's any good reason why monogamy should be the default, given that so many people cheat on their partners and have feelings of wanting to hook up with other people or have relationships with other people.

I know what reviews you're talking about. I feel like they made my point even stronger, because they felt very protective over the concept of monogamy. There are very strong cultural messages, especially geared towards women, that monogamy is preferable and even your secret desire. And I just think that a lot of those cultural messages seep into our consciousness, so there's no way to know whether these desires are intrinsic. And there's no way to know whether any desire is intrinsic, actually. 

"The backlash towards casual sex and sex positivity right now forgets that once you're in a committed relationship, there's all kinds of patriarchal expectations waiting for you on the other side. "

To answer your question about what monogamous people can learn from that chapter about non-monogamy, I think it's to actively interrogate your desires, rather than just falling back on a cultural default. Finding your desires is a conscious process – sometimes really confusing and difficult, but in my opinion, necessary. And I think that's true for straight people, too. You have to actively claim straightness in the same way, I think, you have to actively claim monogamy. Default positions not fully realized desires, in my opinion.

Your mom (rock critic and feminist writer Ellen Willis) is a major influence on this book. She was known in large part for her debates with anti-porn feminists in the 1980s. One thing that strikes me is that no one in the feminist sex wars in the 1980s, either the pro-sex side or the other side, was all that concerned about the difference between casual sex and committed sex. Andrea Dworkin didn't think heterosex was any less exploitative if your partner married you or said he loved you. She said romance was bad too.

Yet, somehow the feminist sex debate has really morphed into one over whether or not it's more empowered to be nonchalant, what you call Team Chill, or more demanding, like Team Intense. What do you make of that shift?

The second-wave feminists were a lot closer to the overt oppressions of old-fashioned marriage. Now marriage and committed relationships are much far improved, in my opinion, from a feminist perspective, although still have a long way to go. There is also a lot of casual sex, and it is less stigmatized. Meanwhile, marriage and committed relationships are actually becoming less common, for various reasons. And so I think a lot of women who are going through the wringer of Tinder, and campus hookups, and nonchalant casual sex look at committed relationships and really want them, and I don't want to deny women's desires.

I've been in committed relationships that were wonderful, including the marriage that I write about in the book. It had a lot of beautiful moments in it, and the support and loyalty that I got from that relationship was wonderful. I'm in a committed relationship right now that I find to be great too. So I'm not talking shit about committed relationships in general. But the backlash towards casual sex and sex positivity right now forgets that once you're in a committed relationship, there's all kinds of patriarchal expectations waiting for you on the other side. People like Andrea Dworkin, they came of age before the sexual revolution and before feminism. So they knew very well how oppressive marriage could be, and this idea of, to quote Andrea, "men possessing women."

"Woke misogynists are a subset of fuck boys, although I don't necessarily think that they're allergic to emotional conversations. In fact, that's what makes them so dangerous."

That's partly why it wasn't a debate about casual sex versus commitment, although I do think that there was a debate about anonymous sex versus loving sex. They remembered very distinctly what it was like being a wife in the '50s, which was often a nightmare.

Honestly, it's still a nightmare now for a lot of people. What I liked about your book was that you dragged it back into that space. You talked about sex in committed relationships, and casual sex, and found both are rife with the same questions that plagued second-wave feminists.

I really didn't want one to be privileged over the other. I think they both have their problems, and they're very different problems.

I do want to talk about fuck boys, however. You hear the term a lot, and I think a lot of people don't necessarily know what it means, especially when they're Gen X or older. They do show up a lot in your book. You don't always call them fuck boys, but I would say that I would identify them as such, both in the historical sections and just generally. So for our readers, what is the fuck boy? Why do they suck so much?

I think one definition of a fuck boy is a man with whom you have a sex-forward relationship, but also a kind of nebulous emotional relationship. And he's somewhat of an emotional vampire as in trying to garner emotional support from you, but neglects to do it himself. And he is capricious. He is allergic to commitment and open communication. He often isn't willing to be exclusive with you, but also gets jealous if you hook up with other people. Some or all of those characteristics, I would ascribe to fuck boys. They're all kind of very emotionally indulgent on their end, but bristle when a woman displays emotional depth of her own.

There's a lot of overlap with your concept of the "woke" misogynist, which is these guys who feel they have evolved, progressive opinions on gender and sexuality, but they are so swimming in male privilege that they just can't stop acting entitled.

Woke misogynists are a subset of fuck boys, although I don't necessarily think that they're allergic to emotional conversations. In fact, that's what makes them so dangerous. You think that they're so emotionally intelligent. You feel at first that you can feel vulnerable with them, and then it's a bit of a bait and switch. There are lots of different types of woke misogynists, but I think men who are adopting a feminist posture and then in some way act sexist or misogynist do know that women are looking for more emotional engagement from men. And therefore they do sort of give it often. So that might be a distinction.

This book has an interesting format. You toggle back and between your own personal life and your own exploration, discussions of your friends' and family's trials and tribulations. And then some of the more historical stories going back, honestly, centuries in some cases, of women who were kind of going through similar struggles with what you call bad sex. Why did you decide to go with that format?

Well, I decided to make it a memoir because I have a very clear narrative arc: A journey of being unhappy, then going through lots of different things, and then being somewhat at peace at the end. Although I wouldn't say there's a happily ever after at the end, because as I say in the book, sexuality is an impossible thing to pin down, and it's always going to be a moving target and a dangling carrot, just out of your reach. But that reaching is still very important.

"We just have to accept that finding your desire is just an active process and will be for the rest of your life."

So that's why I wanted to make it a memoir, but I couldn't not put history in there, because it was really part of my journey. I was reading a lot of history at the time that I was going through all this emotional tumult. I was reading a lot of my mother's work. I think my early feminist education as a result of being her daughter and also just having an interest in the topic made me very connected to previous generations of feminists, and I've always kind of looked to them for guidance and advice. And this was no exception, because feminists had really grappled with these issues very directly.  

If I was going to write a memoir, history had to be a part of it. It's central to my understanding of who I am as a woman, and as a feminist, and as somebody who desires sexual and romantic fulfillment. So it was not easy to toggle between the two and really the three, because it was also my mom's story. It was actually one of the hardest things I've had to do writing-wise, but I felt like I couldn't not do it.

One thing I kept thinking about when you're talking about sex is this thing that you're sort of reaching for a vine you're never going to grasp. There's really two issues here. There's the problems that women face finding sexual satisfaction, because we live in a world that either shames us for it or at least doesn't value women's desires. But then there's also the paradox of sexual desire: If you actually find satisfaction, you're no longer feeling desire.

I do have to acknowledge what you're saying, which is that sometimes if you have unfulfilled desires, they can feel a lot stronger. I was in this sort of state of perpetual horniness during my marriage, because I constantly felt sexually unfulfilled by it. And therefore sex just seemed just so, so, so important, because I wasn't satisfied, and I could feel myself reaching for something else. And when I did have sexual encounters that were good during that time, they felt just so revelatory, and I couldn't live without them.

But once your desires get met, sometimes you're not craving them quite as much. And I think I've especially realized that being with a partner that I at first connected sexually with, and then later connected emotionally with. I still think we have a good sexual connection, but going through a pandemic, and then a pregnancy, and now three months of full immersion into newbornhood, I can't say that I have that same desire that I did for sexual satisfaction compared to when I was in a marriage that didn't have that element. It was such a priority because I didn't have it.

I think we just have to accept that finding your desire is just an active process and will be for the rest of your life. It's never going to be something that you can grasp and capture. You have to just constantly be reassessing. Some people can, but a lot of people can't just keep seeking out the same sex act, or the same type of people, or the same type of relationship for years on end.

Not only will the dynamic happen that we just talked about, which is that now your desires are fulfilled, and it's not this ache. It's not this urgent task, but it's also just your life circumstances changed. I think my very identity changed several times during the timeline of this book, and since I finished this book, it's changed a couple of different times. Being comfortable with change is the real key.

Bringing it back to those defensive reviews. I think a lot of that defensiveness is rooted just that, this fear of change, that we and our desires change over time. It's an understandable fear, because so much depends on maintaining a stable version of ourselves. But you're right. We're always changing. And how can people do a better job of embracing that and feeling comfortable with it?

Beyond just the fact that we are changing, we also have to acknowledge that our desires are made up of a lot of different influences. And I think that's where people get defensive, and that's where people feel threatened, when you try to tell them that their desires might be made up of a lot of unconscious pressures, and expectations, and norms. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think that if you actively interrogate your desires, and you come up with something that aligns with the dominant culture, like monogamy, for instance, that's fine, as long as you've done a conscious interrogation. I think it's the same thing with feminism in general. If you decide to be a stay at home mom, for instance, and you really think about the reasons why, and you have personally decided that that's going to make you happy, there's no reason not to do it.

But there's also a reason to acknowledge that it lines up with patriarchal expectations, and it's worthwhile to acknowledge that many men wouldn't make the same choice. And why are you necessarily making this choice, and what are all the influences involved in that choice? I think it's the same with sex. It's like, fine. You desire monogamy, be monogamous, but you have to sort of acknowledge that there are reasons why women are socialized to want commitment in a way that men don't. And it's honestly just a fact, and it could feel just like your raw and stark desire. But there's very rarely such purity in your desires, and that's true sexually and romantically.

I talk about, in the last chapter of my book, really caring about men's pleasure while being kind of indifferent about my own orgasms. Orgasms during sex are not necessarily a huge priority of mine. In fact, the expectation of them can kind of be distracting and take me out of the moment. I'll never know whether that's because I've been socialized to really prioritize men's pleasure, or because that's just how my sexuality works. And I think with men, if they say that they get off on their partner's pleasure, they're celebrated, and people take it at face value. And people are like, wow, what a woke dude. But if a woman says something like that, she's assumed to sort of be kidding herself. 

I know it in my gut that they're my desires, but they also are clearly shaped by cultural expectations, and they could be totally coping mechanisms for how the world works. And I think even my heterosexuality might be that way, and there's really no way to know. And I think embracing that is even more difficult than embracing change, because knowing deep down what you want and still not being able to disentangle it from society is really frustrating and humbling, but it's necessary. It's a nearly impossible task to just have desires in a vacuum, and that is why I think people get defensive more than the change part.


By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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