(This essay is excerpted from The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, edited by Cathi Hanauer, just released in paperback from William Morrow/HarperCollins.)
I grew up in Manhattan in the seventies and eighties, with my mother, an older half-brother, and a younger brother. My mother was a precocious farm girl from Vermont who started college at sixteen, got pregnant at eighteen, had a shotgun wedding, and moved to New York with her then husband, who she dumped before my older brother, William, was two. Besides being smart, my mother was beautiful, and some of her first work was as a model. I have a picture of her taken by a photographer at Vogue when she was six months pregnant with me, holding Will, who was four at the time. You can barely notice her baby bump, and her smile is both provocative and innocent: the original MILF.
In fact, fucking was something she did often and with many different men in her life, and for decades I assumed this was because she wanted to. Only recently did she tell me she did it mostly because she felt that, in order to be a “gracious hostess,” she had to. I smiled a little when she said that; it was yet another way we were, and are, opposites. In her forties, she fucked regularly yet rarely wanted to, while I want to regularly and rarely do. Then again, she spent many years unmarried, and I’ve been married for more than two decades. The question is how much longer I can stay that way without physical contact. I’m only now starting to figure out the answer.
My Mother’s Affairs
By the time my mother married my father, she’d finished college—commuting to a prestigious school just outside the city—and had some success as a poet. She wanted to be a writer, not a wife, but the combination of early motherhood and the constraints of the 1960s led her quickly back to the altar, and soon she and my father—a handsome Republican stockbroker from Harvard—had a place on Park Avenue, and then me, and then my younger brother, James.
The question is how much longer I can stay married without physical contact.
Mom had several affairs during their union and left my dad after six years for a married man, keeping my brothers and me, though not necessarily by choice. (Back then, no divorce court gave the kids to the father.) I remember, toward the end, my father sitting alone in the dark watching Nixon on TV while my mother laughed with friends in the well-lit dining room as they assembled McGovern signs. Though I adored them both at that time, their conflicts and differences were painfully apparent to me, even as a kindergartner. I felt bereft for my dad, and I went to sit on his lap so he wouldn’t be sad or the only Nixon fan in the house. But then he was gone, along with his loneliness, and by the time he disappeared into the elevator with his expensive leather bags, my mother had already moved on.
The Original MILF?
It was 1972 at that point. I was six. And predictably, the married man my mother left for stayed married, and she, in the soul-crushed aftermath, hit the party circuit hard. She was a regular at the hot clubs—the Factory, Studio 54, CBGB—and by the time I was twelve, she was taking me along with her. She had an endless line of boyfriends, and I had it on good authority that she gave the best blow jobs in town.
I was never welcome in my mother’s bedroom at night because there was always a guy in there with her—some of them the most well-known artists, critics, and writers of the time. By then she was working her dream job as a writer for a respected newspaper, and our house was like a salon for fascinating people. And so, even though I knew there was a lot wrong with what went on there, I also felt there was something cool and inspiring about it. Some of the men were kind: They threw James and me up in the air, brought us toys, and took us to the park. Others were less nice, including the cold and distant man who eventually became my stepfather.
Beautiful and Fast
By the time I entered the Upper East Side private girls high school I attended in the early eighties, there was not much I had not seen—including performance art by one of my mother’s friends in which a cat licked cream out of her vagina—and pretty quickly, not much I had not done. My friends and I were beautiful and fast; half of us wanted to be models, the other half actresses. We made out with emerging rock musicians and thirty-year-old financial types in the same night just because they bought us drinks or drugs. I went to third base for the first time in a phone booth at three a.m. on Seventy-Seventh Street during a blizzard. It’s hard in this day and age of helicopter parenting to accept that the parents I knew back then, including those of my friends, were either absent or as unleashed as we were. It was a different and wilder time.
By high school graduation, I looked hard at my scene (think New York City version of Less Than Zero) and made a beeline toward monogamy. I found it first with a college boyfriend and then, immediately afterward, with the man who would become my husband. I was twenty-two when I met Michael, a high-up in a creative department at the West Coast tech company where we both worked. He was thirty-two and dating someone else, but one day we kissed in his car, and soon that became a regular thing. We’d go to the movies and make out hotly; he’d push me up against the wall outside our office.
Watch interview with Cathi Hanauer, editor of The Bitch is Back, which first published this essay.
Looking for Monogamy
I tell you this because it matters relative to how things went later on. My desire was stronger than his—I was younger, and I’d just come off a relationship where we sometimes had sex two or three times a day—but his was there too; perhaps we each pulled each other a little more into the middle. We married two years later. I was twenty-four. Michael was funny, alluringly awkward, charmingly aloof, and very, very handsome, all of which I liked. I was tired of being sought after, fucked for a certain period of time like a masturbatory prop, and then left feeling empty. Here was a man who I wanted to win, instead of vice versa. I wanted love, security, a stable family. And I found most of it with Michael, then and still.
When I have so much already, do I have a right to want more, to sacrifice other people’s sense of well-being—the people I love the most—to have it?
This month, we celebrate twenty-two years of marriage and two children who are almost grown themselves—no small feat, given the dismal statistics for couples who marry under age twenty-five (six out of ten don’t last) and the amount of divorce and instability I lived with growing up. On the surface, Michael and I are an enviable couple: attractive, social, responsible, well-off, and kind. We both work and we both take care of our children. We don’t fight, we don’t yell, we don’t throw things, and in all our years together I have only once or twice doubted his devotion, faithfulness, or love for our family. I chose Michael because, though I still wanted to have a healthy physical relationship, that desire paled in comparison to my desire to be protected and cared for—to have a family I could feel safe in. And I don’t believe I made a mistake in that choice.
Before You Accuse Me of Bragging
But before you accuse me of bragging, let me tell you this: Michael and I have not had sex, of any kind, in the past six years, and most likely never will again. Even our kisses have become the kind you reserve for your grandmother. And before that, for many, many years, when we had sex at all—maybe once or twice a year—it was fraught and difficult and often simply didn’t work. For some couples, this absence in a relationship like mine might not be a problem, or at least not a deal breaker. For me, it was never okay, and it’s gotten less okay over time.
And now, with one child heading into college and the other not far behind, I find myself asking myself the questions that I pushed to the back burner in the years of young children and jobs and building and maintaining the safe and otherwise loving household in which we raised our kids. Are love and affection and shared history and parenthood enough without sex? Do I want to be like my mother, breaking up families just because she wasn’t completely fulfilled or “happy”? What is happiness? When I have so much already, do I have a right to want more, to sacrifice other people’s sense of well-being—the people I love the most—to have it?
I’m not sure.
The Slow Death of Desire
Loss of desire in a marriage doesn’t usually happen overnight, and ours was no exception. As I said, even at the beginning I was the more ardent one—but back then, it didn’t feel like a problem. Once Michael’s and my car make-out sessions led into actual dating, we slept together, literally and otherwise, about three times a week. I usually initiated the sex—I would start the kissing—but that didn’t bother me, and he always responded. In fact, at first I think he was turned on by how hot I was for him, and for sex. He told me then, and sometimes still does today, that I’m the sexiest woman he knows—which is great, but very confusing when it is not followed up by any indication of desire.
An inkling of what was to come revealed itself when we didn’t experience much passion on the honeymoon—which at the time seemed fine: we were tired from planning the wedding ourselves and from finding a place to live, and he was loving and affectionate anyway. But pretty soon after the honeymoon, he stopped being able to get an erection with me. He was upset about it. One day when I came home he was in the stairwell waiting, and he tried to seduce me. It didn’t work. He felt terrible, and he held me and told me he was sorry and didn’t know what was happening. The same thing happened the next time, and the next. He eventually said he thought it was because, once we married, the idea of sleeping with the same person for the rest of his life freaked him out. But it’s not like he wanted anyone else. It’s not like he cheated. He just didn’t want to have sex at all, it seemed.
Both Guilty; Both Innocent
At first I took it badly. I was young, and I had no experience with this sort of thing. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me, no matter how many times he assured me the problem wasn’t about his physical attraction to me. I think now that if I had been older and less self-conscious, more vocal, I could have orchestrated things a little better. But I wanted him to take charge and teach me—he was so much older, and I was used to that dynamic—and he wasn’t that type. He liked to be stroked, not do the stroking, so to speak. Not that he didn’t offer to go down on me. He did, but after a few times, I didn’t think he liked it, and I felt too guilty, so I just told him not to worry about it.
I don’t want to play the blame game here anyway; we were both “guilty” and both “innocent,” just by virtue of who we both were. He once told me, in a bittersweet way, that I was like a tiger to his bull, and it was exhausting for a bull to keep up with a tiger. I think, in hindsight, that my energy level was probably what attracted him to me in the first place, but after a while it left him fried. At the same time, I was attracted to his distance—his inhibition, even. In those days, I wanted to move lust to the back burner.
Kid Complications Arrive
But I didn’t want it gone altogether. Forever. I still wanted to feel desired, and I still wanted some sex. So I stopped sulking and getting angry and began working hard to get his attention—and erections. I gave him blow jobs in the car and pulled him into closets at parties. I talked dirty to him and tried to fantasy role-play. And eventually it got a little better. He always hated planning sex, and he liked getting oral sex, so once we figured out that combo—spontaneity and head—it worked, give or take. I rarely, if ever, had an orgasm, but I was happy to just get something moving. I figured once we remembered how fun and good sex could be, it would automatically feed on itself, and my pleasure in it would grow. At that point I was thinking way more than I was feeling.
So we slogged along, and then we were ready to get pregnant. When it didn’t happen right away, we had to start timing encounters. That didn’t work at all, and eventually we had to have some laboratory assistance. That turned out well: It was easier for him to come in a cup than to plan a sex session with me. Then, once I was pregnant, he didn’t want it at all. And you know how it is after that. Sleepless nights, breastfeeding, nonstop physical contact with a baby. Two years later, I was pregnant again. I wasn’t interested in sex, and he was happy without it. I think those years were the best we’ve had.
When I—and my libido—started to wake up from all that, the problems reemerged.