By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Essays

Sex and Privacy

Dispatches from the Liberation Front

Lily Meyer

Composition for Eye and Camera (detail), 1969, by John Piper (1903–1992); photo © Agnew’s London, Bridgeman Images/©2023 The Piper Estate/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS London.

Should a book called Bad Sex have bad sex in it? You’d assume so, but journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz’s memoir/feminist history Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution, does not. Instead, Aronowitz pairs the story of a tumultuous and enjoyable stretch of her own sex and love life with a broad history of American feminist efforts to fix, redeem, or get rid of sex, heterosexuality, and marriage. Some of this history is personal: The author’s mother, Ellen Willis, was a rock critic and radical feminist who cofounded a 1970s activist group called the Redstockings and, in essays written largely for the Village Voice, became a leader of pro-sex rhetoric, advocating for pleasure in all its nuance amid the 1980s wave of antipornography puritanism.

Aronowitz is less prone to bucking trends. Indeed, Bad Sex is part of a highly trendy genre: the braided memoir-history, whose rise can be traced in part to two mid-2010s books about female singleness: Kate Bolick’s Spinster, in which the author intertwines her life with those of great single women through history, and Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies, which covers similar ground but is driven by data and interviews. All the Single Ladies is a strong, thought-provoking book; it gives a reader much more to hold on to than Spinster. Yet it was Bolick’s model that took hold.

Books like Spinster, which are anecdotal rather than sociological, often make simplified or false promises—and conflate, rather than intertwine, the autobiographical and the historical. Bad Sex falls into precisely this trap. At first, Aronowitz, Teen Vogue’s sex and love columnist and the award-winning editor of an anthology of her mother’s writing, presents herself as a representative of all befuddled straight women, promising that the book will lead to a collective understanding of why “we still haven’t transcended the binds that make sex and love go bad.”11xNona Willis Aronowitz, Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution (New York, NY: Plume, 2022), 2. But this purported history treats its author’s story as less an example than a promise: If I can become liberated, she claims, you can too. By the end, Aronowitz somewhat improbably casts herself as an emissary from the realm of sexual freedom.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).