Last Thursday, April 6, New York writer Amy Sohn teetered onto a crimson-lit stage at Merkin Concert Hall in a polka-dotted cocktail dress and red patent-leather heels so high she could barely walk. Next to her was a strapping bald fellow named David Tronzo—recently voted “one of the Top 100 Guitarists of the 20th Century,” according to the program—who played inventively, sometimes employing a plastic cup to bang on his instrument.
After a few beats, Ms. Sohn launched into a sort of spoken-word performance based on the sex columns she wrote for the New York Press in the 1990’s, mixed in with excerpts from her novels, Run Catch Kiss and My Old Man.
“I felt nasty, smelly and foul in front of my boyfriend and it really bummed me out,” she said in the retelling of “Stench of a Woman” from 1999, about her exploits with a guy she was seeing named Novel Lover, and her inability to restrain herself from farting in his presence. “I put my hand on his Member Only,” she continued. “It grew firm and proud. ‘Oh Novel Lover, you have such a beautiful healthy cock.’”
Ah! Sex columns!
Ms. Sohn went on about her fetish for musicians and guys with bad skin, her stalking of various boyfriends and the excuses boys make to bolt in the morning. The audience members sprinkled throughout the 450-seat auditorium, including many friends of the performers as well as a clutch of teenage girls and a scattering of single men, laughed.
There was a certain time-capsule quality to the Merkin Hall stage show, a memorial to the grand ol’ 90’s, when women still had the power to shock bored magazine readers with tales of their seemingly glamorous dating lives. Ms. Sohn, 32, one of the genre’s pioneers, is now ensconced in Brooklyn, married with a 9-month-old daughter. She won’t be returning to “Mating,” her own sex column in New York, any time soon.
After “Female Trouble,” the raunchy, first-person sex narratives she produced weekly at the New York Press in the 90’s, and a watered-down series at the New York Post, which were followed by five years of “Mating,” Ms. Sohn has decided that she doesn’t want to “be writing just about sex anymore.”
While Ms. Sohn was on maternity leave, New York hired Nerve.com writers Em & Lo to fill in, with the understanding that Ms. Sohn would return, post-baby. Instead, she’ll be contributing features to the magazine dealing with motherhood, “relationships and, yes, family,” Ms. Sohn said. According to New York spokesperson Serena Torrey, Em & Lo will continue with the “Mating” column; the magazine’s editor, Adam Moss, “is very comfortable having a diverse body of relationship, dating, sex and parenting writing in the magazine.”
Indeed, some of the energy that once went into chatty sexual-adventure writing has been sucked out by a hybrid form of mommy/baby porn. Writers like Caitlin Flanagan and her sensual ruminations on nannies and $700 baby buggies in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and Ayelet Waldman’s kooky version of family erotica in Salon and The New York Times, seem to have garnered more column inches of discussion than single gals listing their sexual conquests. Three pieces by Sandra Tsing Loh, who’s on the mommy-book beat at The Atlantic, were just nominated for a National Magazine Award for criticism. Perhaps Ms. Sohn has seen the future and is hitching her stroller to it.
“I think that motherhood and parenting is hot right now in a way that it wasn’t even just five years ago,” Ms. Sohn said by phone, citing the publication of Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness, the “baby boom” underway in Manhattan, Ms. Flanagan’s new book To Hell with All That and the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times, which seem to feature weekly debates about the division of housework. “In New York, people become obsessed with their children the way they were once obsessed with their mate.” (She mentioned Ms. Waldman.) “I think as people start having children at an older age,” Ms. Sohn continued, “especially in New York City, in a time in their lives when they’re more affluent, they’re thinking about the meaning of parenting and worrying about it in ways that parents in my generation didn’t do.”
No one seems quite as intrigued by bikini waxings as they once were; even the ubiquitous thong has morphed into the granny-panty. Candace Bushnell, who wrote Sex and the City for this newspaper, is now married, and her latest novel, Lipstick Jungle, is about women’s professional power struggles rather than romance; Anka Radakovich, who virtually invented the sex column in Details in 1991, is now doling out advice to married women in Redbook. (She also writes the more adventurous stuff she used to do for Details for British GQ.)
“I had the most loyal readership where I had one place where I wrote the column every month,” Ms. Radakovich said, referring a bit wistfully to her Details column. “That was a fun job. But now I’m sort of moving on to novels and screenplays.”
The sex writer Susie Bright, who filled one of several columns that dealt with the topic at Salon, said that she was still doing the same kinds of things, but that the oversaturation had driven her crazy.
“I’m thrilled that we kicked the door open, but with a lot of the imitation and duplication, we’re starting to see [that] a great deal of what’s called erotica now is—yuck, what we were trying to get away from,” Ms. Bright said. “You began to see more and more banality come out of it. It’s like hearing that your favorite Beatles song—that you wept over—is being used to sell beer or a car. And you’re like, ‘What happened?’”
“The official State of the Candace Bushnell–esque Sex Column is horribly hackneyed at this point—so out, that who knows?” said Julia Allison, who is fresh out of college and writes “The Dating Life” for AM New York (and who appears on her Web site lounging on a bed staring into her iBook), writing via e-mail. “But by and large, the formula of first-person accounts of one’s sexcapades is unbearably clichéd, undoubtedly narcissistic and inevitably boring as hell. I tend to shy away from that type of writing.”
But the fact that the whole sex-writing thing was practically flogged to death didn’t exactly dissuade her from entering the field.
“One of my boyfriends in college went to Medill and now is a reporter at a newspaper. He went the quote-unquote traditional route espoused by my teachers,” said Ms. Allison. “And now he writes about—I’m going to get in trouble here, but things that I wouldn’t want to write about. So, God, if you can get a column right out of college, I’ll take it.”
According to Ms. Sohn, her desire to branch out and try other subjects didn’t suddenly overwhelm her after childbirth, but was a decision she’d been “coming to for a while.”
“You can only test-drive female-arousal creams for so long before you have to get a life,” she said.