In The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Gave Up Sex, the journalist and editor Sophie Fontanell ... well, the title says it all. The book has been somewhat of a sensation in Europe, and it has now been excerpted in The New York Times. (It goes on sale in America next week.) I haven't read the book, but Fontanell has given a long interview to Britain's Daily Telegraph which deserves some comment.
The general premise of the interview is that we live in a sex-crazed society (or societies) in which anyone who exhibits any hesitation about any aspect of sex is considered a mentally unbalanced nutbag. But, thankfully, we have journalists with Fontanell's courage to correct our reverse-puritanism. As she states, "We live in a culture in which people would die rather than admit to having felt listless about sex at one point in their lives." Or, as she explains at greater length:
"You can wear a thong, discuss your sex life, make sex tapes, and nobody says a thing. You can make love to a monkey, and nobody says a thing. But if you say, 'I don’t do it,' that’s just not on."
Rather than calling her out on this view of how society discusses sex, the writer of the piece, Anne Billson, notes that, "We're all supposed to be getting it regularly, perfect sex, and if we’re not it’s seen as a cause for concern, somehow pitiable or unhealthy... Not having sex is nowadays thought of as an unnatural state, to be remedied at all costs via problem pages, couples counsellors, singles bars, [dating] websites." This is followed by the claim that, "People just don't express dissatisfaction with their sex lives," which must be referring to people who don't visit couples counsellors, single bars, or dating websites, but nevermind.
Okay, you might be saying, but Fontanell and Billson must have have other worthy points to make. Alas, here is Fontanell:
For example, there's a phrase "we made love all night long." But who wants to make love all night, without sleeping or talking? That's the sort of thing I deal with, the sort of thing that needs to be talked about. It's the sort of sexuality that is terrifying for women — and for men, because it’s they who must maintain the erection.
No, really, she actually said this, and appears to mean it. Unlike, for example, the people who use the phrase "we made love all night long" and who do not mean that they had intercourse all night long.
At this point in the interview, I sensed something was missing, namely gross generalizations about sexual matters within different cultures. Sure enough:
We talk about differences between the English and French. I’ve noticed that Frenchmen — even obnoxious, misogynistic Frenchmen — openly adore women, all women, of every shape and size and age, while their British counterparts, on the whole, do not.
"I get the impression, perhaps totally false, that Englishmen are frightened of women," observes Fontanel.
Perhaps. But don't worry, because Fontanel can bridge these differences:
"I like to see my writing cross boundaries. And what I describe about myself is universal. I think a veiled woman in the United Arab Emirates could understand what I say. She might not have the liberty to do anything about it, unfortunately, but she'll understand everything."
The crucial thing to note about this interview, however, is that while the book is ostensibly a non-judgemental take encouraging people to live their lives however they please, it is actually the opposite. As Fontanell states, "Not one of them could stand my singleness, because it could have been theirs." She continues: "Every time I go to a wedding I have the impression of being present at a lie… For me it’s the beginning of the end." Translation: Everyone is actually unhappy in their relationships and jealous of Fontanell.
But what about her case against sex, which began because, in Billson's words, Fontanell decided that "no sex...was preferable to bad sex." The piece concludes as follows:
"As I said in the book, there are two things I missed when I stopped having sex. One is the loss of self when you make love, and it's so good and intoxicating that you lose control. When you don’t make love, you are always in control. The second thing is to be caressed, to be in someone’s arms, with your head on his shoulders."
If neither of those things sounds appealing, this is the book for you!
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.
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