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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About ‘Bad Sex’ but Were Afraid to Ask – The New York Times

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In a quest to explore her own sexuality, Nona Willis Aronowitz hit the sheets — and the books.
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BAD SEX: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution, by Nona Willis Aronowitz
“Bad sex” has become a catchphrase in recent years, shorthand for the ways that sex can still be unequal and sometimes not-quite-consensual. When I picked up “Bad Sex,” Nona Willis Aronowitz’s new book, I was prepared for an analysis of sexual politics post-#MeToo.
But Aronowitz is writing, it turns out, about literal bad sex. By that I mean the kind we’ve probably all had (though hopefully not too often): awkward, unsatisfying, formulaic, clumsy, detached, boring — the kind of sex that, after eight years, and even with forays into nonmonogamy, ultimately prompted the author to dissolve her marriage.
It’s here that “Bad Sex” begins, in the final days of 2016, when, as the author puts it, “everything in my life and in America was in extreme disarray.” Aronowitz, a sex and love columnist for Teen Vogue, was 32, in a crumbling relationship, caring for an ill father and reeling from the election of Donald Trump. She was bored, restless and horny.
And so she set out to discover what good sex is for her — and answer the many contradictory questions that came up along the way. Was it terrible to have been in a relationship with someone with whom the sex was so bad for so long, or was she terrible for ending a relationship over bad sex? Did good sex require love, or was it the casualness of non-love that made it good? How could she reconcile her feminist belief in independence with the part of her that didn’t want to be alone?
Most people don’t look to their mothers when trying to answer questions about their sex lives. But most people do not have mothers who coined the term “pro-sex.” Aronowitz does, in her late mother, Ellen Willis, a radical feminist writer (and, incidentally, rock critic) who argued that sexual liberation was crucial to women’s liberation. Yet Willis didn’t talk much about sex with her daughter, aside from giving her a copy of “Rubyfruit Jungle” on a family vacation.
So Aronowitz delves into her mother’s writings, tracing her views on marriage and monogamy, her relationship with Aronowitz’s father, the social theorist Stanley Aronowitz, alongside the stories of pro-sex feminists and sexual liberationists who came before her: free-loving Mary Gove Nichols, who in the 1850s argued for abolishing marriage; Audre Lorde, who declared sexual pleasure a tool for fighting oppression; Roxane Dunbar and Dana Densmore, who believed in the power of withholding sex — or celibacy — for political gain. “The person who has been through the whole sex scene, and then becomes, by choice and revulsion, a celibate, is the most lucid person,” Dunbar wrote.
Aronowitz does this all while right-swiping her way toward a more enlightened understanding of her own desires. Early in the book, she notes that even in the progressive New York circles in which she was raised, sex was often treated as T.M.I. She rejects that notion here, detailing the intimate mechanics of her own sexual journey: an anonymous tryst with a man in France; a not-quite-exclusive-but-not-exactly-nonmonogamous relationship with a tortured but sexually confident man named Mor; a multi-night stand with James, a college student who was “sweet, eager and even a little bit smart” but whom she kicked out of her apartment after he tried to film her during sex; an abortion. She is un-self-conscious in her descriptions, recounting length of orgasms, positions tried and the precise tools used to achieve them.
It’s a challenge to successfully chart one narrative in a book. Aronowitz attempts to weave together three, which can make the writing feel disjointed — jumping from her relationship in the present (to a man named Dom) to the early-1900s anarchist Emma Goldman, who advocated “free love,” to her mother’s views on nonmonogamy. At the same time, this history is also critical, and fascinating, as a framework to interpret society’s views on love and sex in the present.
In trying to understand her desire for an open relationship, for instance, we learn that nonmonogamy was often the norm in lesbian communes of the 1970s, where many residents considered it a political endeavor — and sported a popular “Smash Monogamy” button. Through the work of the sociologist Jane Ward and the poet Adrienne Rich, who coined the term “compulsory heterosexuality,” Aronowitz tries to unpack why her own relationship with her ex felt so stifling. “Given how much of our sexual preferences are socialized and expected,” she says, “the only way to know how authentic our sexualities are is to be an active participant.”
Given the prominence of the raunchy 2020 hit song “WAP,” by Cardi B, featuring Megan Thee Stallion, I loved learning that in the 1970s “WAP” stood for “Women Against Pornography,” a feminist group that believed pornography promoted sexual violence (and was, somewhat controversially, affiliated with the idea that violence is baked into all sex between men and women). Aronowitz also explores, with the help of the feminist sex pioneer Betty Dodson, how men learn to have sex; as Dodson notes, in the 1960s and 1970s most men involved in the sexual revolution still viewed sex as quantitative — resulting in a lot of bad sex. “In out, in out,” Dodson recalls. “It was so boring you could die.”
An erotic massage, which Aronowitz undertakes to see if she can climax in such a setting (she can’t), yields an interesting history of female sexual pleasure — including how, before the 18th century, women were assumed to have the same internal reproductive organs as men, and thus, a woman’s orgasm was viewed as equally critical to procreation. It was in the Victorian era, she writes, “that women’s sexual pleasure was knocked off its pedestal.”
Sex has always been political for feminists. And yet couching every desire in “the political” can be complicated, if not plain exhausting. Recounting how she first learned to orgasm, Aronowitz says she felt “the specter of the pleasure gap hovering over my sex.” Of jealousy in nonmonogamous relationships, she writes: “It’s impossible to know whether jealousy is intrinsic or socially learned.” And while she doesn’t buy the “political imperative” of polyamory, like some of the smug evangelists she encounters, she doesn’t believe they’re wrong about monogamy’s “mass indoctrination,” either.
Toward the end of the book, Aronowitz rereads her mother’s diaries from the early ’80s, in which Willis grapples with her own beliefs about free love — and her reality of a mostly monogamous relationship with Aronowitz’s father, who has had an affair.
The first time Aronowitz read those journals, in her 20s, she was stunned; she tried to remember all the good things about her parents’ relationship, which lasted 25 years. But this time, in the midst of her own sexual self-discovery, “I started thinking about my parents as just two out of so many poor souls who try to square their personal lives with their politics.” Indeed, sex — and politics — are never so simple.
BAD SEX: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution, by Nona Willis Aronowitz | 352 pp. | Plume | $28
Jessica Bennett is a contributing editor in the Opinion section of The Times. She teaches journalism at New York University and is the author of “Feminist Fight Club” and “This Is 18.”
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