When good feminists have ‘Bad Sex’: Phoebe Maltz Bovy reads Nona Willis Aronowitz’s book on the subject

Nona Willis Aronowitz and her book. (Credit: Emily Shechtman/Penguin Random House)

The title of American writer Nona Willis Aronowitz’s recent book, Bad Sex, immediately reminded me not of Bad Jews and all the other Bad books these days, but rather of the time in high school when a girl got up at a poetry reading and recited a poem about “bad sex.” The topic choice—and this was teen poetry, so presumed autobiographical—struck me as the height of sophistication. Not only had she, unlike the other 15-year-olds at this math-and-science high school, had sex. She had had so much of it that she could rate the different experiences.

Much like this classmate of mine, Aronowitz has had sex. She’s done it. She has, as she puts it on numerous occasions in the book, “boned.” (“During my four years at Wesleyan University, I boned a lot but didn’t have a steady boyfriend.”)

Being a woman of non-zero sexual experience does not make her unusual for someone in her late 30s—quite the contrary. But this information is presented in a tone that anticipates a reader who will faint at the mere thought. It’s a teenage language of sexual frankness, the voice of someone who, as the saying goes, thinks their generation invented it. Which is strange because Bad Sex also weaves in sexual histories (including those of her own parents) from earlier generations.

Bad Sex is ultimately an attempt to make peace with the fact that you can grow up the world’s most open-minded, up-for-anything, progressive person, and still wind up a straight white lady with a conventional domestic life, including a male partner. Nona Willis Aronowitz wants the same things nearly everyone else does, but is politically and culturally aligned with sexual minorities. She gives women the old college try but decides, after much handwringing (and after the all-powerful force that is sexual orientation has its say) that “cis men” are more her speed. Given her countercultural New York upbringing, her winding up a boring straight lady is a bit… conservative.

This is a spoiler of sorts, though, because the book opens with the story of the author in her newly-single days, and includes romps of all kinds, including a visit to a euphemistic masseur. There are adventures and there is handwringing about those adventures. There is an Israeli ex-boyfriend who was apparently really hot. (There is, regretfully, no photo of him.)

The questions asked in Bad Sex are mainly about herself: “What, exactly, do I want? And are my sexual and romantic desires even possible amid the horrors and bribes of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy?”  That’s from early on in the book. The concluding chapter brings such insights as, “Even if I could freely express my desires, how could I tell they were really mine?” She comes to numerous conclusions and rationalizations, none of which are the advantages of taking one’s self less seriously.

The book’s narrative begins with Aronowitz escaping to France (but rest assured, an inexpensive part of France) on a solo vacation, to contemplate the “pros and cons” of her marriage. Self-indulgence, yes, but of a very specific sort.

To say that the author comes from a position of privilege is not entirely wrong, but also an oversimplification. She emerged from a Lena Dunham-esque world, where cultural capital often exceeds the economic. Her parents were left-wing New York intellectuals, which is not, in this context, a euphemism for Jews, though they were that, too. Her mother, Ellen Willis, was a prominent “pro-sex” feminist, her father, Stanley Aronowitz, a prolific leftist professor.

Aronowitz, then, is the sort of person for whom writing a 600-page (in electronic version) book about your sexual history is a birthright. As the child of two New York Jews—one a gastroenterologist, the other a stay-at-home mom—the thought would not have occurred to me.

But hers has not been a life without suffering. Her mother died when Aronowitz was only 22, and she was left as a caregiver for her aging father—who has, per her acknowledgments, since passed away as well. And there’s her divorce, which, even for the dumper, has to be a stressful situation. The issues with this book do not stem from its author being unusually insulated.

Nor is hers the self-involvement of a writer who lacks the curiosity or intellect to go beyond her own experiences. Aronowitz weaves in feminist history (lots of Audre Lorde, but not just), as well as friends’ stories. She anticipates the critic who might question why we’re hearing about sex from a straight cis white woman. (“If you’re queer or trans or disabled or fat or old or any combination of any of these, sexual freedom requires untangling even more still.”)

Some of the issue might be more with the publishing industry and its conventions than with any individual author’s writing. The book opens with her connecting her own story with that of America on the whole—“in extreme disarray” in 2016—and then segueing interchangeably from her own romantic complaints to those of “we,” a group consisting of “many women who fuck men.” (No prim terms like straight and bi women here.)

She presents a litany of “our” disappointments with men, which is to say, of her disappointments men, but the contemporary non-fiction law is that the personal must be aligned, and in simplistic ways, with the general. A kind of am I right, ladies?, but posed as statement, not question.

And yet! Aronowitz an engaging writer, even if the topic at hand is her own navel. Or maybe the self-involvement is a feature, not a bug, of the work itself, which I read more or less in one go. A writer should convey how fascinating they find their topic, and it’s clear that she finds her own sexual history, and what it all means, endlessly compelling.

I’m stuck, though on the juxtaposition of that title, Bad Sex, and the extent to which it’s a reference not just to unappealing or politically fraught sex generally, but to her sex with her ex-husband, Aaron. (Aaron has a distinctive last name as well, and this takes two seconds to find online.) He is now notable primarily for being a man with whom the sex was inadequate. It’s their divorce story that launches the first chapter, “Bad Sex.” The chapter that includes the line, “Did I really blow up a relationship that lasted a quarter of my life, just because of bad sex?”

Sorry but: poor Aaron!

He’s never going to write his book. A working-class man without intellectual pedigree, his side of this story will never be told. But who cares, he’s a man, is the idea. And men are systemically privileged, so.

Aronowitz’s stance is that it’s feminist for women to freely state their truths, which includes speaking frankly (and publicly) about their sexual experiences.

It’s a kind of feminism, I suppose, but not one that gives the movement itself a good name. The feminism of intense self-involvement. Of not considering that men, too, are people.

With rare exceptions, the author is only able to see herself as victim, both in that relationship and with respect to the patriarchy in the abstract. Which, look, sexism is real, but does not appear to have been a determining factor in 99 percent of her personal anecdotes. But if you assume that every interaction between a man and a woman is coloured solely by gender, then publicly humiliating your ex-husband for his failings in the bedroom is a feminist act.

The actual break-up catalyst is not even about sex, but rather something far more cringe-inducing. It was the summer of 2016, and Aronowitz recalls having been shaken up by the Pulse gay nightclub shooting, the killings of Black men by police, and other news events that were indeed upsetting but did not impact her personally or demographically:

“One might think all this bloodshed and bigotry would have distracted me from my comparatively trivial relationship problems, and in the short term, they did. … But the very fact that none of it seemed to faze Aaron proved to be the last snip that severed our connection. His apparent indifference to the world around us made me feel profoundly lonely in a moment when all I wanted to do was hold my loved ones close.”

A lack of news-cycle-based outrage was Aaron’s downfall. His soon-to-be–ex-wife responds to his indifference to the deaths of the marginalized by… going out and sleeping with another man, which their open marriage permitted. Not that there would be any marriage to speak of for much longer.

The book is of a piece with those divorce-themed personal essays that sometimes pop up in in the New York Times, the ones where a woman stops laundering her now-ex husband’s socks and wants you to know about it. These are always amicable breakups, rooted in a woman’s desire to self-actualize. The vibe is that of a consciousness-raising session of the sort Nona Willis Aronowitz’s mother knew all about. But this time around, the comments are open.