Have Dildo, Will Write

Behind The Bedroom Door:
Getting It, Giving It, Loving It, Missing It

Edited by Paula Derrow
Delacorte, 334 pages, $25

In her introduction to Behind the Bedroom Door, Paula Derrow bemoans “how little the women I know [talk] about the awkward couplings and surprising urges, the long dry spells or messy, mind-blowing encounters that make up a person’s sexual history.”

Hmmm. Ms. Derrow must know some women I don’t know.

But she may have a point when she goes on to assert that the media, post–Sex and the City, has given us a warped view of what others are up to, making us insecure about our own “less than HBO-worthy experiences.” Hence the need for this latest feisty collection of essays from women writers, which, in the vein of other catchily titled tomes like The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage, and Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race, and Themselves, aims to unleash the voices of the day on a provocative personal topic, providing a more “honest” view of things.

So what are women really up to behind the bedroom door? Pretty much what you’d expect: losing their libidos after childbirth; cheating; using sex toys to spice up their marriage, then hiding them from the kids. Of course, some are doing other things, too: Pari Chang gets it on with her husband in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden; 37-year old Elizabeth Cohen marries an insatiable 21-year old artist, with whom sex is “Unprecedented. Delicious. Funny. Silly. Slow. Fast. Morning. Midday. Midnight.” Deanna Kizis angrily screws a noncommittal boyfriend with a dildo. That most of these writers, as we learn in their essays and in their bios in the back of the book, are happily married professional scribes with two children living in liberal enclaves or upstate farmhouses does not compel them to hold back. I was interested to learn that New York Times Cost of Living columnist M. P. Dunleavy enjoyed “occasional anal sex” during her last long-term relationship.

 

EVEN WHEN PREDICTABLE, sex is fun to read about—and for name writers to write about—otherwise, these meaty compilations wouldn’t keep coming (no pun intended). That 26 women dishing about their bedroom exploits produces a book of wildly varying quality is no surprise. In the best essays, the writing breathes life into well-worn topics. In the worst, it makes them read like facile women’s magazine articles (Ms. Derrow, incidentally, is an editor at Condé Nast health rag Self).

The standouts includes Lauren Slater’s lovely meditation on how, at 44, she’d rather carve a mantle out of granite than sleep with her husband, whom she loves deeply. Meredith Maran isn’t having sex with her husband, either—“After years of neglect, my whole body now feels like one big throbbing clitoris”—and so she takes up with a woman, who ends up hurting her more than any man ever has. Susanna Sonnenberg memorably recounts an embarrassingly ill-fated one-night stand with a much older man in the aftermath of a shattering breakup. Single mother Lori Gottlieb resents her married friends for the sex they don’t want after childbirth; their AWOL libidos make her feel “like a sex-crazed teenager.” Hope Edelman’s moving dispatch is about her first teenage love, set against the backdrop of her mother’s illness:

“Within a few weeks, we were spending long afternoons on my green shag carpet with our hands underneath each other’s clothes while my father sat sentry in a black vinyl swivel chair in the family room on the other side of the wall, doing New York Times crossword puzzles, listening to Frank Sinatra, and smoking Tareytons as my mother recovered from her weekly chemotherapy treatments upstairs and, quietly and imperceptibly to all of us, slowly began to die.”

 

UNSURPRISINGLY, MANY OF THE most successful essays in Behind the Bedroom Door aren’t really about sex at all.

If they have a common flaw, it’s the pat, clichéd ending that neatly bundles all the author’s lessons learned. Take this one, tacked on to an otherwise fine contribution from Martha Southgate about her struggle to remain monogamous in marriage: “The hard truth is, when it comes to love and desire, the greatest gifts are sometimes the most difficult to accept.” Ugh.

Inevitably, Behind the Bedroom Door made me question whether anything remains to be gleaned from hearing my sisters talk about their vaginas. That sex has lost its power to provoke does not mean, luckily, that good writing has. Ms. Derrow could have eliminated 5 or 10 of the essays that try a little too hard to be funny or shocking. Because—as with any anthology—it’s not the subject matter that makes it worth reading, it’s moments like this one, from Jane Juska: “In 1957, I was twenty-four and getting diddled in the back-seat of my Chevy convertible with my boyfriend, Jack, where I orgasmed all over the place, my first time. Wow! What was that? It was so thunderingly wonderful I figured I was engaged.” (Ms. Derrow gets points for enlisting writers of varying age and sexual orientation).

But about the subject matter: This book failed to shake my conviction that most women already talk too honestly and too much about sex. Sex isn’t our primary insecurity at all: Relationships are. Family is. Balance is. Sex we’ve mastered, thank you. The essays in this anthology should make that clear.

Meredith Bryan is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at books@observer.com.

Have Dildo, Will Write