'Behind the Bedroom Door' or what I learned about sex from middle-aged women

The collection contains a healthy serving of these predictable storylines, but for good reason; the target audience is people who spend their beach vacations reading about new romances instead of experiencing them (i.e. me). Still, this formula delivered a few heartwarming surprises. In "The Great Pretender," Jane Juska takes us back to the 50s when sex occurred in the back of cars and accidental pregnancies resulted in marriage. After forty years, and four sexual partners, she discovered that it's okay to be passionate, to put yourself on the market, and in the process she finally got lucky.

Lauren Slater delivers a striking counterpoint to this formula by confirming most men's fear, that a large proportion of women just aren't interested in sex. Slater cites the fact that "40 percent of women suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction, usually low libido" (50). The cruel irony is that 40 percent of men probably suffer from overactive libidos.

[image-1]The majority of essays leave readers optimistic about sex, even if you're the kind of reader with a penis. A surprising number of the essayists confess fantasies about one-night stands and extramarital affairs. While it's no surprise my wife isn't thinking about me when she closes her eyes, I still wouldn't talk about the affairs I haven't had, unless she admitted to hers first. Susan Cheever best articulates why so many women are drawn to the idea of anonymous sex: "one-night stands [are] the erotic manifestation of carpe diem" (18). With a one-night stand, anything can happen. Of course for Cheever, that anything was a thirty five year relationship, while my vision of a successful one-night stand involves breakfast.

This sentiment of spontaneous sex is echoed in "Turn Me on, Turn Me off," in which Bella Pollen confronts the paradox that most women are "torn between the mutually exclusive needs for the intimacy of a long-term relationship and the thrill of a one-night stand" (46). While women may crave the security of a long term relationship, when it comes to sex, they still want the illusion of spontaneity and passion. For Pollen, the biggest spoiler of this illusion is when men wait until the sex starts to ask, "What turns you on?"(37).

This dilemma of finding ways to breathe new life into an old relationship is addressed by many, but never really solved. The only answer Ali Liebegott can propose is to cherish the excitement of a new relationship while knowing that one day she'll pass a rest stop with her new partner and one of them won't want to stop for highway sex.

Surprisingly, most of the descriptions of men are more than generous, making me feel inadequate to the point that I began cheering for these women to trash talk their asshole exes. I couldn't understand how these sensitive men could turn down experimentation with toys or threesomes. Nor could I compare to Martha Southgate's husband who offered a marathon of unconditional love, waiting for Southgate to return to him after she was rejected by a love interest. In contrast to the vogue sitcom image of the aloof husband, many of these male partners realized before their partners that "marriage is a terrifying choice, one [you] have to make over and over" (176).

The down and dirty exception to this was in "Turning the Other Cheek," in which Deanna Kizis takes a flaky lover up on his habit of coyly mentioning, "apropos of nothing, that if [she] got a strap-on, he might let [her] use it on him" (66). In doing so, she "experienced-how a man could have sex with a woman and love it but not love her, and it was okay" (74).

Laughing about the oddities of sex makes us more comfortable with our own quirks. The hush-hush nature of sex lends well to humor, which appears throughout the collection, easing the tension of more serious essays. Suzanne Paole uses humor to answer the riddle that "sex makes children, then children do all they can to unmake sex" (177). For Paole, lying to her kid about the purpose of her sex toys, or her husband's hand cupped over her mouth to keep from waking the kids, becomes a new kind of sexual thrill. Jenny Lee writes in a neurotically witty voice that is sexy because of its unsexiness; she mistakes her friends' advice to have a one-night stand with a suggestion to buy a night stand. Valerie Frankel takes humor a step further, claiming that if you aren't laughing during sex, producing sweaty noises from bodily collisions, then you're not doing it right.

Behind the Bedroom Door is a brothel, offering a range of different sexual experiences: sex with a passionate, but ill-tempered man; sex as a new and returning lesbian; sex with the sensitive juvenile delinquent; sex with older men; sex with younger men; sex to make a baby; pregnant sex; craving constant sex after childbirth; sex as a single mother; sex despite excruciating pain; annoying a husband into performing a rape fantasy; sexercise; a threesome where the men have sex with each other; sex while wasted on drugs; sexual encounters with older cousins who say "this is our little secret"; preferring sex with fuck buddies over long term partners; sex while making to-do lists...

Even with this variety of sex, the book's major flaw is its limited range of voices. While I'm sure all ethnicities and sexual preferences were represented proportionately, most of the essayists were middle-aged women, reflecting on the vanilla sex of their younger years. I found myself craving the stories of younger women, swingers, BDSM enthusiasts--but I guess that's why I prefer porn to romance novels.

The notable exception is "Lost in Space," in which Julie Powell tries to revamp a failing sex with sex books, new toys, and lingerie-the standard advice given by most sex advice writers. When her marriage fails, in her quest to be needed Powell becomes a masochist, craving physical abuse from partners as this proves she is needed for something. Through the bruising journey, she realizes there's no cure-all for a waning sex life or relationship, leaving us with the dismal, yet Zen-like suggestions, that "maybe we are all simply drifting, falling in and out of one another's gravitational pull, coming together to fuck or to hurt one another or to love as best we can"(165).

In the end we're left to piece together our own philosophy for figuring out what goes on behind our bedroom doors.

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Why would I, a straight man, review a collection of essays about women's sex lives, and more importantly, why would I choose to do so on my honeymoon? Either I'm a caring husband searching for insight into pleasing my new wife, or I'm a calculating bastard researching ways to maneuver through discreet affairs. Whatever the case, I started Behind the Bedroom Door, expecting a series of romantic comedy plot lines: a torrent of quirky yet troubled sexual encounters redeemed by a meaningful relationship still in its honeymoon phase. After all, who'd write an essay about their lukewarm sex life when their current partner was sure to read it (coincidentally my marital sex life is like the opening night of a Cirque Du Soleil performance).

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