first person

Bad Sex

I’d had private doubts for years. Why couldn’t I just be single?

Photo: Millennium Images/Gallery Stock
Photo: Millennium Images/Gallery Stock
Photo: Millennium Images/Gallery Stock

It was six months after we’d broken up when Aaron found the pros and cons list. It’d been ripped out of a yellow Moleskine notebook, presumably so I could stash it somewhere more discreet or maybe dispose of it altogether. Yet it was diligently dated “11/21/13,” which apparently I couldn’t help noting for posterity.

I’d written it during a five-day solo trip to France before I started a full-time reporting gig. The trip was conceptualized as a long weekend in upstate New York, but somehow I found myself on Airbnb browsing quaint French dwellings instead — the ultimate setting, I thought, for a romantical getaway with myself. During this search I learned the word gîte (cottage), and that I could not afford one in the places I’d heard of, like Provence, but could maybe swing one in this mountainous area in the south called the Cévennes. The place reasonably fit my fantasy of solitude against a medieval limestone backdrop, unchanged by the modern world. I booked a gîte and a plane ticket.

It took me a day and a half of navigating a Parisian train station, a car-rental kiosk, endless roundabouts, and a tense standoff with another driver on a supposedly two-way dirt road that, I swear, could not have been more than six feet wide. (He eventually took pity on me, reversing back up the mountain when he heard my panicked English.) I finally arrived at my gîte in the teensy, leafy hamlet of Monoblet.

The cottage’s owner, Fabien, was a fortyish salt-and-pepper dad of two girls who recommended I call the town’s restaurant to announce my plans to dine. The cobblestones were slick with rain when I arrived at the square. There was one tobacco store that doubled as a bar, emitting fluorescent light and some rather unwelcoming male energy. There was one bakery selling bottles of wine for three euros each. And there was the one restaurant, white-tableclothed and empty. I sat down and ordered a six-course meal, complete with a sorbet palate cleanser that the waiter had to pull away from me prematurely, à la Vivian from Pretty Woman.

After that night, the damp late-fall weather mostly left me tucked inside the cottage with my yellow notebook, consuming the bakery’s three-euro wine and bread and soft cheese and various spreadable meats. Fabien only enhanced the appeal of hunkering. Every morning, he came to my cottage, which he’d built himself, to start a fire in the wood stove and bring me little treats like fresh eggs, fig jam, and homemade vinegar. I learned he was going through a divorce, that this Airbnb might not be long for this world. He was very sad and very hot, and while I was too shy to do anything more than flirt with him, I began to fantasize nightly about leaving my life in New York City with Aaron to roll around naked in front of the wood stove with Fabien, feeding him slices of Camembert as a postcoital snack.

I did start to wonder why I’d come all the way to Monoblet just to gorge and scribble and masturbate. I’d given people a lot of reasons for this trip — a last hurrah before a demanding job; a chance to write in peace — but why this random, far-flung, English-free place? The woodsy, misty landscape was, if I was very honest, not unlike my original destination of upstate New York, and so was its bone-chilling November weather. A higher salary was on the horizon, but at the moment I plainly could not afford this.

I think I knew that I just wanted to spend some uninterrupted time, far away, contemplating whether I should end my marriage.

Consider, for instance, the pros and cons list. I wrote it at the kitchen table on a gray afternoon, as naturally and casually as a shopping list. Transcribing the circular thoughts that had become fixtures in my brain, I put Aaron’s good and bad qualities in two columns. They were around the same length. The pros lavished praise on his tender heart — “generous,” “sensitive,” “affectionate,” “sense of comfort,” “always on my side.” The cons were mostly different ways of pointing out our incompatible interests: “we sometimes have nothing to talk about,” “doesn’t read.” And then, one vague entry, covered over with scribbles: “bad place with sex.”

Aaron found the list one day in our protracted post-breakup period when, amid the rage and its rebound into knee-jerk intimacy, there was also a deluge of mundane tasks to do, like going through a bunch of boxes together and divvying up the items. When the paper fluttered out, he scanned the list, unsurprised by its content (we’d talked about all these issues to death), but flabbergasted by the date.

“Two thousand thirteen?” he exclaimed. “You stayed with me for three more years after this?”

“There were just as many pros as cons,” I replied weakly. But I knew what he was thinking: Why did this woman stay with me for so long if she was clearly miserable?

It’s still a good question. It’s one I’ve asked myself a million times. It’s one best answered by that euphemistic crossed-out entry on the list. Thousands of miles away in France, alone, in a gîte, with no sunny days, no work, no friends, no parties, no chores, no Aaron, I wasn’t ready yet to be honest, even on a list meant for nobody but myself.

I’d like to say that my divorce began with that one seed of doubt in France, which eventually blossomed into the clarity I needed to end our eight-year relationship. The truth was that the doubt seeds had been sowed for a long while, at least six of our eight years together, usually plowed over by the comforting, everyday marital routine one becomes used to and is convinced one cannot live without, or by more potent sensations like fear and the pleasure of acceptance. The pros and cons list might have been the starkest proof of the doubt seeds’ existence; Fabien and his gîte might have been the most poetic instance of them taking root. But there were always one hundred seeds sowed every so often, with a pathetic germination rate of 15 percent, then 20, then up and up until finally the sprouts were clustered so close together they were impossible to ignore.

There were some doubt seeds in the very beginning, when Aaron and I were twentysomething hedonists who had incoherent late-night fights, ones that involved shoving each other and slamming doors. There were some doubt seeds later when I made him move from his hometown of Chicago to my hometown of New York: he hated the city and its seven-dollar beers and dirty screeching subways and tussles with aggressive strangers. Very understandably, he couldn’t fathom why anyone would want this punishing life. And doubt seeds showered everywhere each time I’d crave an intellectual sparring partner but then remembered there were huge chunks of my brain I knew he didn’t understand, and vice versa.

But the doubt seeds that turned into saplings, and then giant weeds, were the bad-sex seeds. I can now say with certainty that our sex was bad, and toward the end it got worse, metastasizing in a hideous way. It was bad in 2008, when it mostly took place drunk at six in the morning or hungover at noon. It was bad in 2010, at the tail end of the honeymoon period after moving in together, and a few years later when many of our attempts at fucking would snowball into an unclothed argument and end with him slamming the bedroom door, and with me curled into a fetal position. It was bad when I started to sleep with other people, at first adhering to but later breaking the rules of our already nonmonogamous relationship. It was bad up until the last time we fucked, August 19, 2016, two weeks before I moved out. It was bad!

Even when our sex was “good” — everyone’s body parts were doing what they should; if you saw a video of us doing it, you’d be like, “hot” — I wasn’t present, nor was I lost in bliss. Most of the time I was some putrid combination of bored, irritable, and dissociated. A couple of years in, when I requested an open relationship, I came up with all kinds of sexpert-approved reasons: because it creates and maintains healthy tension, because monogamy isn’t sustainable, because to hell with patriarchy and the marriage industrial complex. But I knew deep, deep, deep down that the main reason I wanted to fuck other people was because I no longer wanted to fuck him.

So what, exactly, was so bad about our sex? During our harrowing mid-coitus fights, I’d fixate on technique and positions, not acknowledging that we simply didn’t have that unlearnable spark, which could, of course, be enhanced with but not created by skills. I knew I’d had wonderful sexual encounters with other people where our chemistry transcended mechanics or traditional markers of success; one of my favorite sex partners, for instance, had never even witnessed me orgasm. I was also attracted to Aaron, and always had been. So it really boiled down to the fact that most of the time, sex with him felt physically, rhythmically, olfactorily wrong. And once in a while, when I was in the mood for self-honesty, I could see clearly that our “bad sex” was the symptom of a bigger problem — that I didn’t love or understand him in the way I needed to. That our connection, though real, wasn’t strong enough. I was scribbling out the one con that mattered most.

For a long time, I couldn’t admit any of this to anyone. This was me, who had a reputation among my friends for being candid, dishy, horny, and emotionally indulgent. Me, who had thought and written about sexual politics for years. Me, who grew up with a radical feminist mother who never settled for an unsatisfying relationship and had taught me, through her writing, to value passion and intellectual chemistry.

It was partially because Aaron’s good qualities routinely quelled these moments of misery. He was vibrating and alive, a well of empathy who wanted to absorb the world’s beauty and pain. Aaron was my ravenous partner in consuming pleasures — beaches and bike rides and cocktails and all kinds of food — and he was also down for a depressive cry while listening to Cat Power or Explosions in the Sky. His soul was stripped bare for me: no guile, no shade, no contempt for me ever. Not once did I catch him in a lie. I felt like a sinister double agent in comparison.

But there were other things holding me back, things that had little to do with the affection or emotional support I got from Aaron. The truth is I was secretly terrified of being single in my thirties, despite my feminist posturing about independence. Besides that, I worried about being a hypocrite. How would it look if I admitted I stayed with a person I didn’t like to fuck, despite my almost religious devotion to the fruits of the sexual revolution, especially the pockets that focused on female pleasure? I couldn’t see clearly whether this was just my problem, or if this was a common feeling among women like me, who outwardly had their sexuality all figured out but privately had doubts about their lives.

It hadn’t yet occurred to me that if you keep your worries and fears and suspicions to yourself, if you travel halfway across the globe alone and still end up covering those fears and suspicions with scribbles, it’s impossible to know which parts are personal, which parts are political — or whether there’s a difference, or whether it matters. I hadn’t yet asked myself: What happens when you say your darkest thoughts out loud?

In the fall of 1967, a small group of mostly white, mostly educated women in their twenties started meeting in the evenings in narrow apartments on the Lower East Side in New York City, former tenements that still had bathtubs in the kitchens. The group was called New York Radical Women. Their idea was to talk about their daily lives and put them in the context of society.

Before women were encouraged to compare notes, slogans like “Sisterhood Is Powerful” had the force of shouting a taboo. The young radicals were calling for women’s liberation, not just the right of women to participate in the same oppressive societal structures as men. In the meetings, the women talked about all kinds of things that were previously considered private affairs, from pregnancy to abortion to harassment to rape to beauty standards to the tyranny of childcare and domestic chores. And sex — lots about sex. Entire sessions would be devoted to sexual pleasure and lack thereof. One workshop on sex at a 1968 radical feminist conference memorably lasted long into the night.

These meetings gave women permission to expose intimate relationship details to the open air, often for the first time. They revealed their most taboo sexual fantasies. They came out as lesbians. They discussed shame and fear and also everyday affronts like partners who appeared to be decent humans but didn’t even bother to feign interest in their pleasure, boundaries, or birth control methods. There were mass admissions of fake orgasms. The point wasn’t to solve everyone’s private problems, but rather to understand the social basis of their complaints — and then change them.

In 1968, the newly formed group New York Radical Women compiled some of these ideas into a twenty-nine page journal called Notes from the First Year. A friend passed on the journal to my then twenty-six-year-old mother, the writer Ellen Willis, who was skeptical at first. “It disturbs me,” she wrote at the time. “All our problems aren’t caused by men — are they?”

But it was not long before she was fully immersed in the women’s movement and began to see her life through different eyes. Suddenly she was noticing every catcall on the street, every condescending “dear.” She’d been dating a music writer named Bob, and certain things she’d taken for granted about their relationship — their mentor-neophyte dynamic; his displays of male aggression — were now bathed in the harsh light of her new awareness. By the following fall, she’d broken up with him for a younger guy named Steve, a mellow hippie with long strawberry-blond hair who was “more like what I think men should change into.”

And at the tail end of 1973, when she’d just turned thirty-two, my mother initiated a breakup with Steve, too. He remembers it not as one defining incident — although their fights were at times acutely painful — but as a result of her amorphous desire for freedom and solitude. It wasn’t a clean break. She and Steve felt like family to each other, and for years they would occasionally sleep together after a night out on the town. But partnership never felt quite right. As she said to Steve, miffed after discovering he’d gone on a few dates with another woman: “You know, we were always better friends than we were lovers.” Looking back, Steve thinks she was probably right. “Ellen really did want to live on her own,” he reflected years later on the phone to me. “She wanted to have other relationships. She wanted to be by herself.”

And she would live alone, for six years after that, first in the place they once shared in Park Slope, then in a small apartment on Waverly Place in the West Village. She’d hole up and write (or have writer’s block) for days, eating marshmallow circus peanuts and blintzes from the Polish diner. It became a place she danced to Creedence Clearwater Revival, had affairs, gossiped with friends, and read books while chain-drinking coffee.

Through those years of being a single woman in her thirties — still rare, still considered pitiable, but becoming both more accepted and common — consciousness-raising remained part of her life. She attended meetings once a week with her women’s group, which she sometimes called the Sex Fools. The group was started in the mid-seventies, when there was already backlash to radical feminism’s most transformative ideas. The group met regularly for fifteen years. The personal details that fueled those meetings opened the door to everyday friendship. Raw honesty wasn’t just a political strategy; it was also a new and exciting way to experience womanhood, one that would define the generations to come.

By the time I was a teenager, candor between women, especially about sex, was the norm. We spilled about our partners’ embarrassing orgasm sounds and our first vibrators, then later about our lackluster sex with too-drunk Tinder matches and the first times we got our butts eaten. But an unsettling thing started to happen in our twenties when people around me paired off in more serious relationships. Many of us who were coupled up defaulted to a hermetically sealed bubble of “things are hard but everything is cool.” My single friends still messaged me things like “Finally got my brains fucked out by some neanderthal from Tinder, he bit my lip so hard I’m afraid it’s gonna swell.” Yet it suddenly felt inappropriate to complain about a person you’d already invested so much time in, whom you’d deemed different from those losers you dated when you were young and stupid.

Instead of providing every single unvarnished detail of every one of our dumbass melodramas, like I did in the beginning, now I’d give a sanitized version of Aaron’s and my struggles. I’d gloss over whole leitmotifs of our daily lives. There were fleeting expressions of doubt about our future, and equally fleeting hints from my friends — kind and tactful — that they’d had the same thoughts about our relationship. It felt improprietous to go further. I never said what I really felt, never truly detailed the magnitude of my loneliness and dissatisfaction and sexual frustration.

I yearned for a structured way to talk about it, not in a therapy way (though I should have done that too), but to compare notes with my peers. Did anyone else have similar doubt seeds, and if yes, did they nurture them or stamp them out? I couldn’t get it out of my head that I should be past the need for group feedback to put my problems in perspective. Modern women like us knew what we deserved, what we were looking for — which made it that much harder to admit when you were unhappy, especially if it was for a retrograde reason like not wanting to be single. The biggest shame of all was staying in a passionless partnership. If you knew you had a right to a fulfilling and stimulating relationship, intellectually and sexually, wouldn’t you rather be single than stuck? Besides, wasn’t it kind of pathetic to obsess over your relationship? What about your brain, your career, your friendships, your family?

For me, the result was the same as it had been for women in the pre–consciousness-raising days: a prevailing sense of isolation.

That’s not to say that who we decided to love and date felt apolitical; to the contrary, we all expressed our sexual and societal ideologies through relationships that bent gender or scoffed at monogamy or blurred traditional roles. I was with a guy who did housework and supported my career and my desire for other sex partners; I had the freedom to go wherever I wanted in any outfit I wanted; as a journalist, I constantly wrote about and criticized America’s unhealthy relationship with sex.

Still, those markers of modern romance didn’t allay my fears, some of which I detailed in an unusually candid 2011 email to my friend Kate, a writer ten years my senior. In the email, I expressed a growing desire to end my relationship because “something is missing,” but
I also mulled over the idea of settling: “There’s definitely a chance I’ll just ‘go with it’ and have a family with Aaron and be the fucking breadwinner for the rest of my life,” I wrote, “because people assure me that dating deeply sucks in NYC and that Aaron is amazing. Which he is in so many ways, but ya know. Ugh.”

In other words: better trapped than alone. Life is a series of trade-offs, I told myself, and an imperfect partnership might be a better choice than the social and emotional consequences of being a woman without a partner — feminist legacy be damned.

In an essay called “The Family: Love It or Leave It,” from 1979, my mother characterized the six years she spent without a partner in her thirties as “neither an accident nor a deliberate choice,” but rather evidence of feminism’s success: “The sense of possibility, of hope for great changes, that pervaded those years affected all my aspirations; compromises that might once have seemed reasonable, or simply to be expected, felt stifling … For me the issue was less the right to be alone, in itself, than the right to take as much time and room as I needed to decide what kind of life I wanted, what I could hold out for.”

I reread those words shortly after I came back from France. It was one of countless times I’d consulted my mother’s writing since she died in 2006. If she had been alive during the Aaron years, I’m sure she would have been maddeningly hands-off if I’d asked her directly for romantic advice. Still, it crushed me that the opportunity to ask was out of my reach: she was gone. The only thing I could do was consume her writing, again and again, clinging to decipherable morsels of counsel.

And during that particularly intense bout of post-France ennui, those morsels were steering me toward freedom. “Family morality regards sensual pleasure for its own sake as frivolous, sexual passion as dangerous and fundamentally antisocial,” my mom wrote in the essay. “Since passion is by definition spontaneous — we can behave in ways that inhibit or nurture it, but finally we feel it or we don’t — a marital arrangement based on legal, economic, or moral coercion is oppressive.”

The marriages she saw around her seethed with unattractive compromises, emotional repression, and sexual boredom. Most partnerships she knew of were predicated on “a sexist détente: the husband had made it clear that he would not give up certain prerogatives and the wife pretended not to hate him for it.” She inverted my calculation, turning it from feeble to hopeful: better alone than trapped.

From BAD SEX: Truth, Pleasure and an Unfinished Revolution by Nona Willis Aronowitz to be published by Plume, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC Copyright © 2022 by Nona Willis Aronowitz.

Bad Sex