BOOK – THE ART OF SLEEPING ALONE

Imagine being at a party, people milling around drinks in hand, conversation is interesting then momentarily tedious, when someone suddenly says quietly: 

“For a long while, and I really don’t wish to say when it was or how many years it lasted, I chose to live in what was perhaps the worst insubordination of our times: I had no sex life.”  

This is Sophie Fontanel’s opening admission in her memoir The Art of Sleeping Alone: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex (2013).

It’s true that I’ve had intimate unasked for details of sexual exploits foist upon me, by a tipsy bragging man or woman at a party, but talk of no sex life? Not that, which makes Fontanel’s opening claim surprising and even shocking.

Spontaneously I flicked to the back jacket cover, and was greeted by a smiling, radiant, attractive woman, who has been an editor at French Elle for more than a decade, I read. What had prompted this decision, I wanted to know? Fontanel did not apparently find herself simply going through a dry period where no lover materialised to flame her desire; hers was, she tells us, a determination, a choice to be celibate – why? 

For a few months Fontanel’s friends tolerated her solitude and state of abstinence with curiosity. Curiosity soon gave way to harassment – had she met someone yet? Why was she not dressed properly – showing more leg, more cleavage and where in heavens name were the high heels?  They urged her, shoved her towards a man, any available man, but she was having none of it.

“I’d had it with being taken and rattled around. I’d had it with handing myself over. I’d said yes too much.”

In breezy prose and loosely connected vignettes, the narrative goes on to tell about the sexual lives of Fontanel’s friends. The guy who had been a star but who now is alone and melancholy and lives with his Monet; Henrietta who “bound herself to a man” through love, because she figured that “without anything, one has nothing”; the woman from Basel who extolls the wonderful sex that she has with her industrialist husband, though she still hankers for other men and her husband fantasises about a threesome; the neighbour who has been suffering for five years because his wife won’t let him touch her, as she finds the male body repulsive. 

Dissatisfied, compromised, sad lives – what did they tell me, if anything, about what sat at the heart of Fontanel’s story?

‘If you force yourself to make love, if your sex life isn’t as good as the one you dreamt of or expected, if you don’t feel respected, can you just stop? 

‘The answer is yes. And the fact that women can make love when and how they want is sexual liberation. But sexual liberation is also to not do it, if you don’t want to.’

Fontanel talking to the Telegraph

Could the key lie in the experience of the young girl who at thirteen looked sixteen? The precocious teenager who followed her lust into a hotel room with a handsome tourist from Mexico, twenty years her senior, a stranger who took what she had unconsciously offered, irreversibly. Did that first sexual experience shape everything that followed? 

At twenty her first serious boyfriend had his way with her. He woke her in the middle of the night but she was never grumpy. In bed, he tugged her head this way and that but she didn’t bat an eyelid. He strode around the apartment imperiously. She remained impassive and mysterious but something else lurked within.

One day her boyfriend was in bed watching a television show about dog handlers. Contrary to what the public think, a colonel explained, the dangerous dogs are not those that bark and carry on, appearing fearsome, for those dogs give someone a chance to actually plan an approach and form a relationship with them. The dog that appears placid, on the other hand, that allows you to approach, doesn’t growl, welcomes your pat, then suddenly whips around to tear off your cheek because you have unknowingly touched her on “some nondescript place” – that’s the tricky dog. A picture of a female Dalmatian appeared on the screen. Fontanel chillingly realised – she was that tricky Dalmatian.

Ours is a culture where to admit to having no sex life is to open oneself to ridicule. Someone who is not doing it  – frequency is crucial – can feel like a pariah condemned to silence. Fontanel’s slim volume goes a way to lifting the veil of silence, but more needs to be written with sensitivity and intelligence about the unravelling complexities of desire.