Get Out Your TugBoat
“Women who write about sex are never taken seriously as writers,” said Nin.
“That’s exactly why we must do it,” said Jong.
That year I was a freshman, studying writing at a top liberal arts college. My writing teachers were all men. According to them, Philip Roth’s sex-fueled novels were literature, but Erica Jong’s sexy tales were trash. It did not occur to me that there was a double standard. When I was a junior, one of those male professors sat down with my future ex-husband and explained to him what was “wrong” with my writing and how I needed to fix it. I found that mildly irritating but until years later I didn’t understand how deplorable it was. After all, I had grown up in the 1950s on Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, those icons of passive young femininity.
For decades after college, I did not write about sex. Which is not surprising because I didn’t fully experience my sexuality until after my second divorce. As a late bloomer, I asked my lovers about the nature of sex. What was this incredibly powerful force I had just discovered? Seemed like a logical question but probably one they had settled for themselves decades before. And then, with the zeal of a convert, I began to write erotica.
Jong published her anthology of women’s erotic stories, Sugar in My Bowl, in 2011, just as my second divorce was ending. Her stunning collection includes the voices of women in their twenties up to women in their eighties. At first glance the book appeared to be a triumph of women empowering each other to celebrate their sexuality. The days of the literary double standard, that translated into women censoring ourselves, seemed to be over. But not so fast. In her introduction to the book, Jong admits to bafflement at the reticence of these authors to submit their work. Some truly agonized over sending in their stories. Some even asked their husbands for permission.
I thought we were past all that, Jong muses.
I first read Sugar in My Bowl in the late 2010s, around the time that a friend started the “Dirty Old Women” reading series at a California bookstore. In that halcyon time before the pandemic, women writers over fifty gathered in person once a month to read our sexy stories to a full house. Looking back, I marvel at our freedom. We turned our backs on sexist limitations and shared our delight in women’s sexuality. Even more, we celebrated the sexuality of older women. We understood the secret: That sexuality is innate, not something society bestows on us or takes away. As older women, our very invisibility freed us from the women’s burden of pretending we are not sexual.
In the myth of Sisyphus, he pushes a boulder up a hill each day, only to find it has slipped back down overnight. When people illustrate the story, Sisyphus is pictured as an able-bodied white man. But perhaps he should be shown as a guy in a wheelchair, or an older woman, or a person of color – anyone who pushes the same boulder uphill day after day. For writers, that boulder consists of the effort to get our work published. Traditionally that boulder has been bigger and heavier for people who don’t look like white Sisyphus—or my college writing professors. But gradually, the boulder is shrinking for us all.
When I worked with the publisher of Aphrodite’s Pen, my guidebook for older women writing erotica, every person I dealt with from legal to editor to publicist was a woman. And far from projecting the ageist trope of the sexless older woman, every woman on the staff understood that women empower ourselves and one another through erotic writing. These women knew that claiming our sexual agency is essential. The result was a book that enables every woman everywhere to claim her agency and write her freedom.
It’s a fun revolution and it is happening now. The publishing industry is realizing the sheer market power of Women of a Certain Age. We are enormous consumers of books, including the Romance genre, which now has a special sub-genre called “Seasoned Romance” featuring characters over forty. We have swum in a sexist ageist soup all our lives, but there are more and more books and movies that show life as we live it, that we can use to reprogram and reinvent ourselves.
Culture—any culture—is an ocean liner, steaming in a certain direction. That direction can be misguided, can include structural bigotry of many kinds. As writers, you can get out your tugboats and push the bow round to the direction we want the ship to go. No one story is big enough to change the course of the culture. But the more of us who get out our tugboat and write about the vibrancy of our lives, the more we can correct the course of the ship. Lately I’ve been teaching a course called “Thee and Me Could Write a Bad Romance,” helping older people develop the tools to write sexy stories. There are more and more of us out there. Little by little, nudge by tugboat nudge, the ocean liner alters course.
Get Out Your Tugboat
So what can we do, writers and readers together toget out our tugboats and empower ourselves and model that empowerment for our daughters and granddaughters?
- First, read books and watch movies that show the possibilities of our lives. A great starting point is Carolyn Arnold’s new memoir, Fifty First Dates after Fifty. And, of course, Emma Thompson’s marvelous movie, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.
- Second, find ways to create that enrich your life, whether it’s writing or painting or cooking. And find people to connect with who are doing what you enjoy. If you are a writer, check out the free resources at National Novel Writing Month. And please explore Aphrodite’s Pen: The Power of Writing Erotica after Midlife.
- Third, enjoy your body. It’s a good gift. Take up weightlifting. Go swimming. Buy a vibrator. (Joan Price has great articles on vibrators for people over 60.)
As Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers, said: Learning and sex until rigor mortis. That remains the best advice ever.
And for you writers out there: Get out your tugboats. Let’s turn that ocean liner!
Keep the keys clicking or the pen moving,