Tom MacWright

I read Bad Sex by Nona Willis Aronowitz on


Bad Sex is, principally, about the search for pleasure and happiness in relationships and sex, and how sex’s role has changed over time in feminist circles. The author is the daughter of two famous activists, one a pro-sex feminist and rock & roll columnist, the other a labor organizer.

The book is split between a modern-day memoir of Aronowitz’s relationships, affairs, and love life, and her reading of the feminist classics.

I really liked the latter. As a whistle-stop tour of modern feminism, this is a decent place to start: the citations and references felt earned and well-researched. The stories that tried to put you in the time & place to just hear the words but understand the cultural milieu that gave rise to them: it’s pretty good. Aronowitz balances biography, citation, and commentary in a way that feels natural and left me interested in each of the historical movements that she talks about. There are plenty of subcultures and ideas in feminism that this introduced me to.

The memoir half was harder to like. The personal is political, they say, and hers is especially – each phase of her monogamous, polyamorous, celibate life is connected to the political theory. But it was hard to see how it all fit together, whether these were lessons learned, or if there was really any interesting ideas being connected by the lurid sex stories intertwined with the history. And there’s so much talking to partners about sex, but less communicating, even to her husband or friends, about the kind of topics that this book is about.

This also takes on heteropessimism and, mostly, accepts it: the idea that heterosexual women are embarrassed and annoyed but their need to date men, but have no other options. This is a pretty tricky one - a lot of times it boils down into a sort of light misandry combined with objectification, which is sort of where Aronowitz lands. Fair enough, men are terrible, but the theory still feels a little weird to me, in part because adopting it is sort of like deidentifying with one’s heterosexuality in a way that sort of sneers at almost everyone else, and more importantly, tries to make your personal not political, or political in a different way despite being, functionally, the same thing. Harrumph.

Bad Sex: an interesting and decent book that I liked more as a jumping-off point to the wider world of feminism than I do as a memoir.