Sugar In My Bowl, edited by Erica Jong, is a collection of essays and short fiction about female sexuality by writers like Julie Klam, Fay Weldon, Jennifer Weiner, and many others including me. The book is coming out June 14, but you can preorder it on Amazon.
Gail Collins, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, has a hilarious essay in the book that describes how her Catholic education warped her perceptions of sex.
She writes: “I was possibly one of the least sophisticated teenagers in the United States outside of Amish country, and although I knew the mechanics of how babies were made, I had not yet really come around to imagining that people actually did that kind of thing voluntarily.”
Until Collins was well past puberty, she believed that virginity was the same thing as being unmarried and was completely mystified by whatever was going on between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She warns that’s what can happen to a girl when she’s “taught about sex by women who didn’t have any.” That would be nuns, who, apparently, had all kinds of special insight into gender differences:
“Boys were not much more than little sex robots, and they could not be held responsible for their actions. Once, we were all called to assembly to hear Charles Keating, the head of the Citizens for Decent Literature (and future star of a huge savings-and-loan scandal), who told us the story of a young mother who went walking down the road with her two small children while she was wearing shorts. The sight of her naked legs so overwhelmed a passing motorist that he swerved off the road and killed both the kids. And it was all their mother’s fault. We were then asked to sign a pledge never to wear any kind of shorts, including the long Bermuda ones.”
In another great essay, novelist Min-Jin Lee writes that it wasn’t until her husband pointed out to her that she’d left sex out of her writing that she realized she had. Re-examining her literary heroines (and their creators) including Emma Bovary, Jane Eyre, and Hetty Sorrel, all scandalous for their day, Lee writes: “Looking backward at my betters made me realize that I was shy at best, cowardly at most. Okay, I was terrified to write about sex. Why?”
Lee, a Korean-American, traced part of her reticence back to a disappointing class she took in college called “Women’s Studies and Asian-American History and Literature” that didn’t inspire her quite as she’d hoped:
“Alas. In print and visual media Asian women were often hookers, mail-order brides, masseuses, porn stars, dragon ladies, submissive sex slaves, and yes, cartoon characters with long black hair, red lips, and racially improbable bosoms. Asian men were sinister gangsters, inscrutable businessmen, angry nerds, and scheming eunuchs. If Asian women were oversexual, then their brothers were asexual.”
Twenty years later, after her conversation with her husband, Lee googled “Asian women” and got 14 million hits, mostly sexual references in the same genre as her college course.
“I may see myself as a forty-two-year-old writer, mother, wife, and former lawyer, but fourteen million hits trumped my subjective reality.” This distortion changed Lee as a writer. From then on, “When relevant, I wrote about sex, even Asian pornography and date rape, because I wanted to be honest about what was significant inside and outside my world. For most of my adult life, I had been uncomfortable with my body- my racial and sexual envelope. This time, in my pages, I thought, maybe I can talk about how it is for me, and I wrote it down. If I had been angry about the lack of self-determination of Asian women’s bodies and lives, I had been staging a feeble and arrogant protest by refusing to write about sex.”
One of my favorite pieces in the anthology is by critic, novelist, and New Yorker contributor Daphne Merkin. Her essay– about how she abandoned a prestigious literary fellowship to pursue the magnetic lust of a summer romance– shows how sexual obsession colonized “all the available mental space in my head.”
My story is called “Light Me Up.” I wrote it because so many love stories, especially those with female protagonists, end with ‘happily ever after,’ when the girl gets the ring. I wanted to introduce a newlywed couple and then throw some scary challenges– involving sex, money, and a new baby– their way.
You can read an excerpt from Sugar In My Bowl here.