This post looks at Erica Jong’s Sugar In My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex (Ecco Books, June 2011). In this book, Jong has created a collection of essays about sex contributed by contemporary female authors. Before I write about the text itself, I want to address something that cried out for my attention in the introduction. Jong expresses astonishment that potential contributors would ask their partners, husbands or children before agreeing to write for her compilation. Did potential contributors specifically indicate they sought permission or merely consulted those who might be featured in such personal and intimate writing? To me, it is mutually respectful to at least warn an intimate partner that he or she might find details of a shared sex life in a published volume.
Most contributors to Sugar In My Bowl use initials or pseudonyms to protect the identity of past lovers. This is not commented upon by Jong. I assume she and the writers consider it an act of respect for personal privacy. While the writer shares intimate details, she does not expose the other person who participated. I view “checking in” with a spouse, significant other or child before publishing personal details as the same kind of respect a pseudonym or initials of a past lover provides. Jong is surprised that more than half a dozen contributors indicated they would get back to her before committing to the project. Out of almost thirty writers, I do not believe this indicates an antifeminist trend. If any of the contributors read this post, I hope they might comment about whether they actually asked permission or whether it was more of an announcement or respectful disclosure. At the website for the book, there is a recording of a live interview Jong and some of the contributors gave. In this recording, Jong and the authors talk a little bit about this topic, however, it is not a definitive discussion of the issue.
I think of various times my husband or I have committed to something. We never obtain permission from the other, but rather inform and discuss whatever it is we will do. We give one another the respect of a little warning, a forecast of what is to come. Like one of the contributors to Sugar in My Bowl, I wrote an erotic novel a few years ago. I plan to seek publication when the editing process is complete. While my husband feels a little strange about it because he thinks some of the sex seems eerily familiar in small ways, he would not discourage me from publishing it. Yet, I would never publish it without having had a discussion about it either.
Now to the task of describing Jong’s first edited text. When numbers of writers participate in a collection, it is bound to be quite varied and thus complex to review. Overall, the quality of writing is excellent. Each essay, story, graphic piece and script contribution is truly that, a contribution to the topic of real sex had by real women. So many aspects of female sexual experience and sexuality are touched upon, from a mother’s viewpoint of her school-aged daughter’s discovery of her own clitoris, to elderly sex in a nursing home. Each is given an honest, open and thoughtful treatment. Self-proclaimed prudish writers’ avoidance of the topic are poignant, interesting and provide a balanced, eye-opening view into another perspective. (Note: lesbian sex seems to be mostly missing, other than a mention or reference within otherwise mostly hetero- or bisexual essays.)
Sugar In My Bowl is not academic in its approach, nor is it erotica. A few of the essays made me laugh, and several made me cry, sometimes from the humanity presented, in empathy for the situation, or in recognition of a shared joy. Then, there were pieces that caused stirrings I’d like to take care of later tonight if my husband’s pain from recent dental work subsides and my teenagers go to bed before he and I are too exhausted to do anything about my desire. Jong writes in the introduction that the “approaches are as varied as sexuality itself,” which is true. This makes the book a refreshing and new contribution to literature about women’s sex lives.
Whether you want “sugar in your bowl” or the thought of it is salt in the proverbial wound, you will likely find something to which you can relate in this book. Of course, that identification with writing is something we typically search for, isn’t it? I suggest you read it all so that you experience the richness of the vastly different viewpoints Sugar In My Bowl amply provides. While the galley cover depicts multicolored gum balls in a somewhat vaginal, oval bowl, there is nothing “bubble gum” about this book. It is as “alluring and terrifying” as Jong claims sex itself is. It is an important, timely text. For this reviewer, Jong accomplishes her goal of editing a compilation that “embrace(s) our humanity without shame.” This is real writing by real women. Sex is the springboard and theme for thought-provoking essays about the vagaries of life.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.