Just as men joke there’s no such thing as bad sex, it’s hard to conceive of a dull anthology of sex-related sagas. But while Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex provides some delights, it is neither as transgressive nor as culturally significant as we might have wished.
See also: 5 Myths About Sex and Aging.
The book’s origin story certainly makes sense. Who better than Erica Jong, long-ago rhapsodist of the zipless you-know-what, to compile such a collection? As contributors, Jong had the juice to recruit 28 literary figures both high and low, among them Susan Cheever, Susie Bright, Eve Ensler, Linda Gray Sexton, Jennifer Weiner and Fay Weldon.
The anthology’s working title was Best Sex I Ever Had, Jong reveals in her introduction. Indeed, writing about their “best sex” seems to have been the initial brief to contributors, but not everyone managed to stick with the program — or even come close. New York Times columnist Gail Collins, for example, discusses the repressive atmosphere of Catholic schools (no breaking news there), while “The Diddler” by J. A. K. Andres describes her kindergarten daughter’s embarrassingly precocious masturbatory habits. (A decade from now, no doubt, it’s her daughter who will be mortified.)
In any case, Jong tells us, she ultimately discarded the Best Sex moniker, appropriating instead the title of a traditional blues song that she dubs “a passionate lament of female desire.” She suggests that “the fantasy of perfect sex is far more powerful than explicit sex itself,” and that “yearning is often more thrilling than the consummation.” I suspect that many men — and some women, too — will disagree.
Jong cites the power of fantasy to justify the inclusion of fiction, along with nonfiction, in Sugar in My Bowl. “[T]he line between the two has blurred in our time and fantasy enriches both genres,” she argues. Yet Jong’s own blurring of lines makes her subtitle, Real Women Write About Real Sex, seem something like false advertising.
Will modern readers even care? Doubtful — and the anthology’s very unevenness deepens the pleasure of its highlights. Feminist sex critic Susie Bright offers up genuine erotica in “Love Rollercoaster 1975,” about a teenage labor organizer succumbing to fierce, primal attraction. Another authentically sexy story is “Reading of O,” Honor Moore’s elegant commentary on Pauline Réage’s erotic classic.
Against the backdrop of her mother’s cancer death, the grief memoirist and poet Meghan O’Rourke muses on how the sexual choices of one generation affect the next in “Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, Gladly.” And Jong’s own daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, explores a similar theme, though more sketchily, in “They Had Sex So I Didn’t Have To.”
The relationship between (life-affirming) sex and the specter of mortality is at the heart of Jennifer Weiner’s “Everything Must Go.” In this well-crafted short story, a married woman scheduled for a double mastectomy reaches out to the former lover most appreciative of her soon-to-be-lost charms.
While its contents are plenty explicit, Sugar in My Bowl might have benefited from a more explicit organizational scheme. Jong could have played up the shift in generational attitudes and behavior that has taken us from repression to “free” love to the culture of hooking up. Or she might have showcased the range of emotional responses sparked by sexual expression, from ecstasy to exploitation.
In partial compensation, we get the unconventional wisdom of Susan Cheever, in “Sex with a Stranger.” “This is the real danger of a one-night stand,” writes Cheever of one such encounter, which unexpectedly produced an enduring love, a marriage and a son. “Not that it will lead to nothing, but that it will lead to everything.”
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.