"Sex isn't everything," Nicole Hardy's mother cautions her in the prologue of her memoir Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin, as the author battles between her strict Mormon upbringing and her increasing longing as a single 30-something for raw human intimacy of the erotic kind. Her memoir, along with French Elle editor Sophie Fontanel's The Art of Sleeping Alone, both seek to seriously respond to the question asked, albeit satirically, by E.B. White and James Thurber in 1929: Is sex necessary? Their conclusions? Yes--and no, and each answer is equally compelling.
The two books approach the lack of sex from opposite ends -- Fontanel overwhelmed by sex's demands, Hardy burdened by her church's dictates. Together, they speak to the desire to forge our own sexual (and social) path, as free as possible from the pressures placed on us by society. Reading the two very different memoirs makes it clear that whether that pressure is to have more sex, or less of it, it's still oppressive when it doesn't take into account an individual's wants and needs. For Fontanel, pursuing her own path means breaking away from the libertine culture of her peers ("Not one of them could stand my singleness, because it could have been theirs"), even if it means offending them.
Fontanel writes, "We live in a culture in which people would rather die than admit to having felt listless about sex at one point in their lives." By boldly admitting that very thing, she is offering an alternative to a world where women are advised to give five-minute blowjobs to "babyproof" their marriages. Fontanel's most direct predecessor in the no-sex memoir genre is Hephzibah Anderson's 2010 Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex, which is a far more straightforward tale, one that perhaps could go in the stunt memoir category, with its precise limit of one year of chastity. The parameters Anderson draws help her navigate her period of sexlessness. Fontanel doesn't have such a timeline; we don't know until the very end whether she will in fact break her spell of sexlessness.
Fontanel's story bears no resemblance to the punchy Grace by Vogue creative director Grace Coddington. To even call it a memoir is stretching the term, not only because the 53 chapters are so brief (2-3 pages each), but also because they so often focus on people other than Fontanel herself. These snippets about strangers only serve to make her own journey more mysterious. By glossing over some of her own story, she makes herself a more exotic and untouchable narrator. The reader gets the sense that the distance and solitude she craves in her personal life extends to the page.
This remove is made understandable when one considers what lies at its root: being raped at 13 by a man 20 years her senior. Fontanel never uses the word "rape," and certainly doesn't dwell on the incident, other than to say she was "precocious" and "dreaming of lust" at that age -- emphasis on dreaming. When she goes with the stranger to his hotel room, she's "ecstatic," her girlish dreams come to life -- until it all goes wrong. It's this backdrop that makes her glee at her lavender milk baths and hugging her pillow "exactly as if it were a human being" not sad but tender moments.
Hardy's is the more harrowing tale, though, as the distance between her Mormon upbringing and her ache for touch -- an ache that stems from both body and soul--becomes more and more vast. While Fontanel faces a few askance looks, she, for the most part, is free to travel, sleep, eat and roam alone, without opprobrium. Hardy, on the other hand, is constantly being watched and judged, by her family and fellow churchgoers. Whether she's "sinned" or not, she's presumed to have broken the rules. After a trip to Fiji with a man who hopes to become involved with (but doesn't, sexually), Hardy receives a two-paged single-spaced email from her former bishop, telling her not to let her shame over her potential sin get the best of her. It ends with a kicker: "I love you." She tells her father, "This is how church is, for me," a subject she elaborates on in a Modern Love column in The New York Times. The tenderness Hardy is searching for, it's made clear, is not to be found within the church, no matter how much she prays or studies. It's not just her religion that makes her feel different; when a man rejects her sexual advances, she recalls a male friend saying, "'You're in trouble, sweetheart. No man wants to be your teacher.'" Contrary to popular belief, just because she's a woman, sex is not instantly available to her any time she wants it.
Fontanel seems to fit the definition Sasha Cagen put forth in her 2004 book Quirkyalone: "A person who enjoys being single (but is not opposed to being in a relationship) and generally prefers to be alone rather than date for the sake of being in a couple." A 19-year-old female friend tells her adoringly, "I want to live like you, for art." Rather than elaborating on what she's missing, as Anderson does at times, Fontanel explores what she gains when she removes sex from her life's equation. It becomes clear over the course of her memoir that she is seeking not just a break from sex, but a different way of approaching it, one as far from "wham, bam, thank you, ma'am" as she can get. She hints at this early on: "I'd had it with being taken and rattled around. I'd had it with handing myself over. I'd said yes too much. I hadn't taken into account the tranquility my body required." Her sometimes wispy, often romantic renderings of the people she encounters, left me wanting to know more about her, though she has a knack for finding concise ways to skewer men like the trumpet player who usually reads Faulkner but has taken up the gospel of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus instead. One can practically hear Fontanel's dry laugh as he extols on men's "instinct for domination."
Hardy becomes increasingly sure that the life she's long envisioned for herself as a Mormon wife is not her ultimate calling. Though she seeks out love, through LDS personals and setups, she shares something in common with Fontanel: a desire for freedom and autonomy, on her own terms. When she does finally, at 36, find a man she can see herself with in the long-term, Hardy approaches sex not with awe so much as relief. She hasn't "lost" her virginity, but found an aspect of herself she was missing. When her first lover asks if she feels different after having had sex, she replies "sort of," adding that she's now "weirdly complete...[n]ot in a creepy 'you complete me' way. There's just been so much, for so long, to carry around. So much to feel or not feel, say or not say, think or not think. I just feel thankful to have made the choice of who, and where, and when. A lot of women don't get that."
Neither is a happy ending tale; in face, the culmination of their bouts of sexlessness are anticlimactic, or at the very least, not the high point of either memoir. During a holiday in Goa, Fontanel gets a massage; the chapter is perhaps the most tender and erotic she allows herself. "I could feel my back open and crows fly out." Her message seems to be: seek your own version of those crows. Maybe from sex, but maybe from something else entirely. While still a virgin, Hardy gets this high from salsa dancing: "Moments like these are the Band-Aid I've come to depend on...what matters is being held in the arms of one man after another, moving my hips in the figure of an eight until sweat runs the length of my back...A sliver of physical intimacy, a promise of what might one day come."
It's fitting that neither memoir about not having sex makes the moment of erotic communion its focal point. Instead, each woman retains some power and authority from her time abstaining -- even Hardy. While I was expecting her to emotionally collapse after the demise of her relationship with her first lover, she is surprisingly calm. As the impending breakup hovers over her, a friend echoes Hardy's mother, telling her she has "male attitudes" regarding love and sex, asking, "Don't you feel like sex means everything?" Hardy responds, "I'm not sure I feel any connection between love and sex. They've always existed so separately. Every time I've felt loved, it was in the absence of sex. And any encounter that even approached sex happened in the absence of love." What's extremely rare, even in 2013, is for a woman to admit this and not act ashamed.
Both books counter the notion that love, in the form of a romantic partner, conquers all. Sex isn't everything, but it is important, and the impact of its absence depends on who controls access to it. Being protective of one's body and solitude is far different from having chastity thrust upon you. Fontanel takes a lover in the very last pages, wanting "to begin again with the body," yet the scene is more of a reawakening than an ending. Certainly, she points to the pleasures of the journey rather than the rewards of its conclusion. While neither Fontanel nor Hardy offers advice to their readers, they nevertheless provide an alternative to our culture's romantic myths fed ad nauseam to single women. If there's any lesson, perhaps it's that navigating those find-a-man messages requires forging a path of your very own, regardless of what your culture or peers tell you.
Rachel Kramer Bussel (rachelkramerbussel.com) is a writer, editor and blogger. She is the editor of over 50 anthologies, including The Big Book of Orgasms; Serving Him: Sexy Tales of Submission; Twice the Pleasure: Bisexual Women's Erotica; Best Bondage Erotica 2013; Gotta Have It: 69 Stories of Sudden Sex; Women in Lust and more. She writes widely about sex, dating, books and pop culture. Follow her @raquelita on Twitter and at her blog Lusty Lady.