Eight Secrets About Sex From People I Know
A writer Divulges what She's Not Supposed To Tell
It is my blessing and my curse to professionalize every single enthusiasm that floats through my distractible head. It’s this way for many journalists—you become fascinated by a subject, and then you kill the thing you love by turning it into your job. I have been a food critic, a visual-art critic, a film critic, and for many years a book critic. I was an expert on none of these things but an enthusiastic consumer of them. I’d written an entire book about my favorite hobby, yoga. (And I still like it, against all the oddsmakers’ predictions.)
It was probably inevitable that I would write something about sex. My re-preoccupation dragged on for another year; it felt like it was taking over my life. I wondered what the hell was going on—was everyone gripped by these thoughts? I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t want to confess exactly what I was going through, which seemed embarrassing, and what would my in-laws think?
So what I did was this: I wrote a book review about fucking. My piece was a long portmanteau review that looked at a bunch of memoirs by women about sex, and found—surprise!—that the best ones were complicated, thoughtful, doubtful, confused.
I also discovered an interesting problem for a woman writer of a sex memoir: It always seems like an attempt to incite desire in the reader.
This book review, once published, brought an unforeseen gift, or burden: Suddenly everyone wanted to tell me about his or her sex life. I mean everyone. I heard secrets, nonstop, for months. I actually got interested when one of them recommended I read some of BoostYourBodyHQ‘s stuff online, as it opened their eyes to new ways to enjoy their sex lives. I had thought I was alone, but all across the land, it seemed, there were people suffering a middle-aged anomie that found its expression through some kind of sexual travail. Everyone was either having an affair, or couldn’t get their spouse to sleep with them, or both. According to my findings, half the world seemed to want it all the time, and half the world seemed to want it not at all, and these two halves were mostly married to each other. You’d think this might be a gender division, but you’d be wrong.
I was sitting in a café, talking with a very serious novelist, one half of a power couple. She had long, wayward hair, as if her thoughts couldn’t be contained by her head, and the kind of sharp, miss-nothing eyes you normally see only in the old, though she was my age. Younger. She was a mother of four. We’d never met before. She was passing through town, read my sex article, wanted to meet.
“Yeah,” she said, smiling. “So.” She was at a loss for words. I bet that didn’t happen to her very often. She slung one booted leg over the other and ran a hand through her hair. She looked like she was about to opine about drilling in the Arctic, or denounce Philip Roth. I waited.
“Um, I keep going out,” she said. “I mean, when I’m supposed to be home. Like every night. I can’t be going out like this.
Dude. I have four kids. Who all have homework. And yet . . .” Her eyes looked excited but wary. She wanted to tell me something, but she’d only just met me.
“I go out, as much as I can. I leave my husband at home with the kids and do you know where I go?”
“No,” I said.
“I go out to bars. My god, I’ve barely been to a bar in like fifteen years because I’ve been a little busy reproducing.” She humbly, nicely did not add that she’d been busy becoming a great writer, though she’d been doing that too.
“Do you go by yourself?” Perhaps I was leading the witness a teeny tiny bit.
“I go with friends. Man-type people.” She re-twined her nervous legs. She paused and gave me a long, knowing look, holding my gaze. Her look contained a certain amount of pain. A certain amount? A lot. “Well, you know,” she said.
“A particular man-type person?” I asked. “Maybe,” she said. “I don’t want to stop.”
A guy I met that winter—for someone who never got out of bed, I seemed to meet a lot of guys that winter—called me up. He was driving across Canada on an ill-conceived book tour.
We giggled stupidly.
I didn’t really know this person. I’d been helping him with a memoir proposal, ostensibly. I was no longer really any good at male–female friendship and I had zero idea if we were friends, or flirting, or what. But I liked him, and he was a bit ahead of me in his career, and it’s good to have people like that in one’s life.
“So, I just broke up with my girlfriend.”
“I’m sorry?” I said with a question in my voice. You never know.
“Naw, it’s okay,” he said in his laconic way. “She wouldn’t fuck me.”
“What? Like, never?”
“Like, never. Like, seasonally. I got my springtime fuck, my summer’s fuck. Et cetera.”
“That’s . . . not so good,” I said.
“Yeah, well, last week I was teaching a workshop at”—he named a college—“and I sort of accidentally slept with one of my students. An undergrad.”
“Yeah, oops. Don’t tell anyone, okay.”
“Okay.” Silence, the sound of him driving, Canada rolling past like gorgeous oblivion. “How was it?” I asked eventually. I really wanted to know. Somewhere in the last few months, my native judgmentalism, once an extravagant, robust flower, had wilted or softened into curiosity.
“How was it? It was awesome. It was sex.”
“Oh good!” I said, genuinely happy for him. We started to talk about book proposals and then he had to ring off. “Great article, by the way,” he said, as if my sex essay had nothing to do with his confession.
A note from a college friend, via Facebook: “Loved the piece. Struck a chord. These days it seems like I want to Do It all the time and [husband’s name redacted] never wants to. I don’t know what to do. Am seriously thinking about having an affair but HOW???? How do you even do that?”
Speaking of Facebook, my “Other Messages” folder was chockfull of notes from middle-aged dudes, strangers who read my piece. They sent me song lyrics, poems, links to pieces of music that gave them feelings. They assured me: Women’s sexuality is underappreciated! Except by them! Also, would I like some help with it?
I ran into an old friend at a backyard BBQ. He matter-of-factly informed me he was having a midlife crisis and the thought of an affair had crossed his mind. But he was pretty busy. Also, he said, waving his hand comically up and down in front of his aging body, as if to display it, “Who’d have us?”
Who indeed. Despite my compatibility with my husband— sexual and otherwise—I too felt a sort of abstract yearning toward an affair, toward strange, but it was hard to imagine who it would be. The young musician? The Californian, who remained where he belonged—in e-mails, in Cali? The man who lived on my island who was sort of funny-looking, but for some reason gave me a near-electric shock whenever he touched me; for instance, when we met and he shook my hand. Who’d have me? (Well, Bruce.)
All this talk of affairs caught me by surprise. The mere act of imagining an affair had always seemed to me a thought crime. But other people were thinking about it, talking about it, doing it. Did Bruce?
At another backyard BBQ—in fact the nuptials for a long-term couple of lesbian friends—I met a woman who accused me (quite fairly) of heteronormativity in my article. I conceded the point, but she was off and running on another topic, describing how she just broke up with her partner due to sexual incompatibility. She wouldn’t tell me any more than that, so I suppose it didn’t really count as a secret, but she woefully kept repeating the phrase “sexual incompatibility.”
While I was in the bathroom one morning, Bruce picked up my phone, wanting to make a quick call, and saw a couple of e-mails from the e-mailer. He led me outside and sat me in the grass. He put an arm across my shoulder.
“That guy has been writing you. It sort of hurts my feelings.” He paused, figuring out what to say. “People like you, you know, Claire,” he said. “They love you.”
“I know,” I said. Even though I didn’t really believe him. “It’s okay to have secrets,” he said. “Just be careful.”
I cried a little, in a pro forma sort of way, wondering as the tears leaked out: Did he have secrets? We had been gone from each other so much, traveling alone. I knew it was dangerous, but I also intuited it was the only way for us to be married right now. We were each giving the other a long lead. I was so mired in my own despair it was hard for me to see that Bruce was undergoing something or other as well. We were sort of trundling along, in our separate orbs, next to each other. I didn’t know what to do about it, except hope we were headed in the same general direction. I often had an obscure feeling that I wanted to figure out a different way to be married; it had never before occurred to me that Bruce and I were in the midst of inventing it.
Here I had been going around thinking my friends and acquaintances were living morally upstanding, partnered, educated, organic lives. I thought we were like Tennyson’s Ulysses in middle age, “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will.” I thought we were made of stern stuff, stuff that wouldn’t give way to the chaos of midlife love and sex. The people I knew seemed, above everything else, too sensible for such nonsense. We were fleece-clad Northwesterners, not perfidious Californians or East Coasters! If we needed thrills and adventures, we found them sensibly: paddle-boarding the chilly waters of Puget Sound, clad in impervious wet suits (fun, actually); growing vegetables; playing in a band; binge-watching Wolf Hall. But all around me marriages were filled with secrecy and longing and adultery and sex problems. I wrote one article, and a door swung open, and now I saw the hidden world that lay beyond.
I taught memoir to adult students at a literary center in Seattle. My students were by and large sober-seeming achievers, dedicated to their careers and their children. Their midlife splashing out consisted of just this: making time for their long-neglected writing. In fact, I was fascinated by their sobriety. I was their teacher, the person in what can only be called a position of authority, and I was by far the nuttiest person in the room. (Something we never talked about: the weird truth that the nuttiest person was the published memoirist, and what that might mean. Did my all-too-apparent neuroses worry them? Did they really want to get into this racket if they were gonna end up like me? The eternal question: Was looniness a prerequisite for making a career as a writer?)
Mostly women, they came to my class directly from work. They wore serviceable blazers or intelligent sweaters and they knew how to put on the right amount of makeup so their faces said “Woman.” We talked about their pasts, because you must in order to teach and learn memoir. As with any group of people attracted to this genre—any group of people, period—strange things had befallen them. They were alive to the outlandishness of their personal histories. But what they didn’t have, mostly, was lunacy.
So I was a little surprised when one of them—a smooth-haired 30-something hospital administrator—pulled me aside after class and offered me a ride to the ferry. No, I liked the walk. So she walked with me, and told me she loved my article. “See, the thing is,” she said, “my husband and I have gotten kind of meh in bed, so I suggested we have another woman join us. I’ve never done that, and I wanted to try it. We found her on Craigslist.” On Craigslist? I looked at her blazer, her gold studs, her neat laptop bag. What the hell was going on out there in the world? My feeling that there were dimensions unknown to me increased a thousandfold in the space of a moment.
“So it’s been going on for months now. And I think they might be in love.” Pause. “And, um, I think I might be in love with her too. I don’t know. It’s eating me alive. I really don’t know what to do.” She gazed at me from big, hurt eyes. “What should I do?”
I said the only thing I could say, the thing it was my job to say: “Write about it.”
From LOVE AND TROUBLE by Claire Dederer. Used with permission of Alfred Knopf. Copyright © 2017 by Claire Dederer. Used by permission. All rights reserved.