In 1971, Anaïs Nin told Erica Jong, “Women who write about sex are never taken seriously as writers.” Jong’s first and most famous book, Fear of Flying, published two years later, was about as close as she could get to a direct refutation. Thirty-eight years later, Jong is still out to prove Nin wrong, this time with Sugar in My Bowl, an anthology of 29 essays and short works of fiction about sex by women who are indisputably serious writers. Sugar in My Bowl’s The book’s roster includes Ariel Levy, Anne Roiphe, Gail Collins, Eve Ensler, and Rebecca Walker—an impressive lineup.
Fortunately, Sugar in My Bowl isn’t mired in its own gravitas. Instead, it’s conversational, even confessional. The essays read like stories told by friends over dinner—granted, extraordinarily articulate friends with fantastic stories. The book was originally intended to be a collection of responses to the question “What’s the best sex you’ve ever had?,” but while some essays are direct answers, many wander off down other paths. By asking women to define the phrase “good sex,” the assignment forces the writers to define themselves—their deepest desires, their greatest fears, and the experiences that shaped who they are. “In the end,” Jong writes, “writing about sex turns out to be just writing about life.”
Reading Sugar in My Bowl offers a rare opportunity to peer in on a breadth of intimate sexual experiences, a wide variety of motivations, and problems and desires you never knew existed—as well as the little thrill of stumbling upon a story that sounds like your own. DoubleX founding editor Meghan O’Rourke writes poignantly about sex and mourning. Anne Roiphe tells a sweet story about nascent childhood sexuality. Linda Gray Sexton discloses her desire for erotic asphyxiation. Margot McGowan reveals her struggle to reclaim her sexuality after becoming a mother. The sexiest piece by far is Rebecca Walker’s, for whom the best sex she ever had was the best sex she never had—it’s a sensual, languorous account of a youthful love affair that was, though she barely realized it at the time, a fork in the road.
Jong has been criticized because nearly all of her contributors are white and none of the pieces focuses on same-sex desire. This is a worthwhile objection, but I want to draw attention to one spectrum that Sugar in my Bowl does trace beautifully: age. Fay Weldon, who at 79 is one of the oldest contributors, writes about coming of age in a time when sex “was a private and secret activity, and not the focused rush to orgasm by all means possible that it is today.” Molly Jong-Fast, Erica Jong’s daughter and at 33 one of the youngest contributors, suggests that her conservative attitude toward sex and love is a reaction to the sexual liberation her mother championed. “If it is every generation’s job to swing the pendulum back, then I have done mine.” While not all the writers seem so concerned with considering their own sexual experiences in a generational context, each story contributes to a larger conversation about the way women’s sexuality evolves through changes of era and culture.
Seen in this light, the book becomes an intensely personal yet wide-ranging history of women’s sexuality in the 20th century, with stops along the way at a women’s university in WWII-era England, a Catholic girls’ school in the 1960s, women’s liberation, the birth of Internet porn, and the rise of helicopter moms. Though it is Erica Jong who compiled the anthology, it is a line from Anne Roiphe’s essay that still rings in my ears, days after I finished, and carries the power of a mission statement: “Sex is a matter that unfolds like an accordion in the brain, the past is connected to the near past to the present and the future stands there waiting to be attached.”