There is a confession that you can make about your sex life that would be sure to stun people, and it isn’t partner swapping, S&M role-playing, taking a lover on the side, or switching sexual preference. No. You could confess that you don’t have sex much and that you’re just fine with that, in fact, you like it.
If you really wanted to shock them you could say that it isn’t because you don’t have someone right now to have sex with, you’re attached; no, you haven’t fallen out of love with your partner, you find them very attractive; you’re not depressed or medicated and it isn’t because you’re any more exhausted than anybody else; it isn’t that you’re all that inhibited, you’ve experimented with plenty of stuff; and no, it isn’t that you’re non-orgasmic, in fact you have rather nice orgasms. You just don’t particularly want sex, it doesn’t particularly interest you, and left to your own devices you would pretty much never be in the mood for it.
How do I know this is a shocking confession? Because I just read a book on it and I was shocked. What’s more I read the book on peak-hour public transport to and from work and I squirmed the entire time wondering what my fellow-passengers were thinking. On a rational level I am all about demystifying and destigmatising when it comes to women’s lives but this was an area I found surprisingly difficult to own in public, even if only temporarily and vicariously. I have read an awful lot about raunch culture and the ways in which it has pulled women into a loop of competitive self-objectification but never before have I fully considered the degree to which we are culturally immersed in sex, and how truly isolating that can be for many. Though we pretend to be scandalised by kink, the seriously wild have relinquished all interest in sex, and without regret.
I’d Rather Eat Chocolate by Joan Sewell is a memoir of one straight couple’s negotiations around sex. The author’s frank exploration of her low libido, its impact on her marriage, and her quest to discover whether she can and should change her libido makes for a fascinating counter-point to the sexual overload of contemporary media.
Libido is something I have more or less taken for granted in my life. Like anyone I can be too tired, bored, touched-out and irritable for sex from time to time, but generally speaking, there are only three times where I can remember a significant loss of libido – once in my twenties for a few months when I was having trouble with anxiety; and twice, more recently, for about six months each time when breastfeeding infants. I recall that it felt strange to not have a libido. It challenged my identity somewhat. And in all but the most recent experience I found myself worrying that my libido might not return. (By the time I had my second baby I was well aware that heavy-duty breastfeeding suppresses my libido, and sure enough once the feeds dropped my libido returned. Of course I have issues of my own but libido is not one of them).
The default position throughout I’d Rather Eat Chocolate is that Sewell’s libido requires adjustment, that is until one memorable chapter where she imagines a parallel universe in which virility is repugnant and abnormal. And it is here that her discussion is most valuable. As Sewell tries one sex strategy after another her book reveals insights far more damning than any confession about a marriage: first, there is the blatant sexism, and even misogyny present in the professional therapeutic approach to sexuality (honestly, making feminist critiques of sex therapists is like shooting fish in a barrel); then there is the extent to which our culture is both hyper-sexualised and entirely dominated by the straight male gaze; and finally, there is the offensive way in which we so readily and casually pathologise low female libido. And boy, do we. Even knowing this I found myself frustrated at times with Sewell when she found strategies to improve her sex-life that ultimately worked and which she abandoned all the same. It was only after I finished the book that I understood how much I must have wanted to ‘fix her’, that somehow I wasn’t able to accept Sewell and her libido as normal and complete. I still had work to do.
Unfortunately Sewell tends to generalise from her experiences and this leads to some tiresome stereotyping of her own in the book. But in spite of lines such as – “(y)ou can make the sex act more pleasurable for women, but I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where the mere thought of lots of kinky sex will fill us with joy” – (say what?), I still managed to find much to like in I’d Rather Eat Chocolate. In the end the solution Sewell and her husband find for their relationship isn’t revolutionary, but after exploring options ranging all the way from ‘sex on tap’ to ‘becoming platonic’, I’d Rather Eat Chocolate is novel to the degree to which the couple search for genuine compromise in their relationship.