Forty years ago, poet-writer Erica Jong published her daring first novel, Fear of Flying.
In it, she torched conventional assumptions about female sexuality with her brazen protagonist, Isadora Wing, who craved “zipless fucks” (no-strings-attached encounters with strangers) as unapologetically as any man.
The book, which appalled and thrilled in equal measure back in 1973, follows Wing’s real-life and imagined sexual adventures, including an affair through Europe with clever creep Adrian Goodlove, a tryst she pursues under her husband’s psychoanalytic gaze. With blistering candor, Wing defiantly questions society’s most sacred beliefs and institutions—monogamy, marriage, parenthood and more.
How do Wing’s assertions hold up, circa 2013? The Observer asked Ms. Jong to reflect on her aviophobic alter ego’s ideas about love and sex, with the benefit of 40 years of experience and 24 years of marriage (to attorney Ken Burrows.) When she’s not making the rounds to promote the new 40th anniversary edition of her classic, Ms. Jong is at work in her Upper East Side home office on her next book, Fear of Dying. But first, whither the zipless fuck?
Isadora Wing at 29: Even if you fuck everyone in sight, you don’t necessarily get closer to freedom. … It’s all desperation and depression masquerading as freedom. It isn’t even pleasurable. It’s pathetic.
Jong at 71: Promiscuity doesn’t prove that you’re liberated. What I keep hearing from very young women is that there are not a lot of erections going on out there. So many men are freaked out about the new empowerment of women that all they wind up doing in bed is having oral sex. The cock is not functioning, except for the Internet tootsies. It’s about the fear of women and all the powers that we have. We have the power to give birth. We can even be artificially inseminated. We can screen the zygotes. We don’t need a live-in man to get pregnant. In fact, there are a lot of women living without men. Sometimes they are gay partners, but sometimes they are two heterosexual women who just find it easier to live together without mess.
Wing: Perhaps there was no man at all but just a mirage conjured by our longing and emptiness. … Maybe the impossible man was nothing more than a specter made of our own yearning.
Jong: I don’t think there’s just one person for everyone. It would be very hard for me to be with a guy who was not bright or funny. And he’d have to see the absurdities of the world, not exactly as I see them necessarily. With the men I’ve been with, the most important thing was how they smelled, rather than how they looked. The first time you sleep with somebody, you either feel like you’ve come home or like you’re with an alien. Ken, my husband, just smelled like he belonged to me. I’m not talking about hygiene. I’m talking about when you hug him, he either feels like a member of your tribe or not. It’s their scent. I have a very sensitive nose. I identify with dogs. I understand the world through my nose.
All the Single Ladies
Wing: A woman is always presumed to be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice. And she is treated that way, as a pariah. There is simply no dignified way for a woman to live alone. … I simply couldn’t imagine myself without a man. Without one, I felt lost as a dog without a master—rootless, faceless, undefined.
Jong: This is one thing that has changed, actually. I know so many women in their fifties, sixties and seventies who delight in being on their own. It’s amazing. They don’t see any stigma attached to it. We don’t need a man to prove our identity anymore. I’ve heard so many older and younger friends say, “I’m just so happy being on my own. I don’t have to ask permission to paint the living room purple.” Without men, we can do whatever the fuck we want. That’s a wonderful feeling.
The Marriage Plot
Wing: What is marriage anyway? Even if you loved your husband, there came that inevitable year when fucking him turned bland. … What about all those other longings, which after a while marriage did nothing much to appease. … You expected not to desire any other men after marriage. And you expected your husband not to desire any other women.
Jong: We all have tremendous fantasies about marriage. If you want to see them played out, just go read one of those marriage magazines. Women really think that it’s all about the ring and a $10,000 wedding dress by Carolina Herrera or Vera Wang. The whole fantasy of marriage is a sick trick on women.
You’re not really meant to be married until you’re over 50, because when you’re young, you’re jumpy and you want to taste everything, so it’s very hard to be married. As you get older, it gets easier. First of all, you’ve made your peace with a lot of things, you’ve experienced a lot of things, and you’re in a position to appreciate stability. I’m not sure I ever appreciated stability when I was younger. Really, the best marriages are third and fourth marriages, when everybody’s too tired. But it does get better as you age and the things you value change.
Fidelity and Its Discontents
Wing: How hypocritical to go upstairs with a man you don’t want to fuck, leave the one you do sitting there alone, and then, in a state of great excitement, fuck the one you don’t want to fuck while pretending he’s the one you do. That’s called fidelity. That’s called civilization and its discontents.
Jong: Look, Fear of Flying is a very young book. That’s just the sort of thing that a woman in her twenties would say, feeling morally superior to the entire adult world. The heroine is very green and still searching for herself, her belief system and her profession. We tend to be more critical when we’re young. Certainly, I was insufferable when I was in college! I thought I knew everything. One thing I know for sure now: I don’t know everything, and total honesty in a relationship may not mean confessing everything. “Just keep your mouth shut” is sometimes the key to life.
Wing: I would have a child when I was ready. Or if I wasn’t ever ready, then I wouldn’t. Was a child any guarantee against loneliness or pain? Was anything?
Jong: The push to procreate is still strong. It’s not universal, and certainly a woman can say, “I wasn’t meant to have children; I don’t want to have children.” But there’s such societal pressure to have babies if you’re a woman, less for a man. And today, we have all these political fringe lunatics—the tea partiers and evangelicals—who are trying to take away birth control! I mean, it isn’t abortion they’re after—it’s birth control. They want women barefoot and pregnant, so that we can’t join the political process and change things. They don’t want women to have control over their lives.
What ever happened to ZPG [Zero Population Growth], which offered support for people who didn’t want kids? I don’t think everybody should have children. There are people who recognize they’d be appalling parents, who were raised by appalling parents, and they’re horrified of the idea of having children. We should let them be horrified.
But when I turned about 34, I started adopting all the stray dogs in Connecticut, and, at a certain moment, I said, “Erica, you better have a baby or you’re going to wind up with a house full of homeless animals.” So I had my daughter, Molly. I was just amazed at how much I loved her. I would have thrown myself overboard to swim after her. Fear of Flying
Wing: My fear of flying, after all, lets me ride on planes as long as I agree to suffer through the whole flight in terror.
Jong: I’m not afraid of flying anymore. The book cured me, because it took me all over the world. Fear of flying is really an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It has to do with wanting to be in control of the universe. But we aren’t. That’s something we really don’t know in our twenties. You get to know that better and better as you get older. I enjoy my life much more than I ever did. I enjoy small things more. We’ve had a gorgeous string of days here in New York. September was so beautiful. I feel so fortunate that I understand what it means to be in the moment and not always looking to the past or the future.
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