True deviancy is choosing not to have sex

Abstinence poses a puzzling challenge to our oversexualised idea of life.

In a culture that clamours with the noisy public narratives of sexual desire, the implacable silence of sexual refusal is the last remaining taboo. At least, that is what the journalist Sophie Fontanel felt when she composed the opening sentence of her bestselling memoir, The Art of Sleeping Alone. “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,” she wrote.

It is very French, that lofty vagueness about chronology – though not strictly necessary, given that Fontanel, a 50-year-old editor at French Elle magazine, has revealed elsewhere that her period of celibacy lasted for a dozen years, between the ages of 27 and 39. When her memoir was first published in France it caused – predictably, in the country that produced such assiduous libertines as the Marquis de Sade and Dominique Strauss- Kahn – quite a stir, selling 150,000 copies in a few weeks.

The real surprise, Fontanel has said, was the response of her readers. They emailed, wrote and even stopped her in the street to express their gratitude that she should have dared to articulate an apparently unspeakable fact: that “sex is not compulsory”.

The reaction of Fontanel’s acquaintances was less enthusiastic. “What if my wife reads your book?” cried one anguished chap. Her discarded boyfriend was convinced she’d found a new lover. Her friends offered sartorial advice – she should get herself some high heels, show a bit of cleavage – and blind dates. A lesbian friend assumed that since she’d given up men, she would fancy a tumble with a girl, while an old university chum offered a threesome with her and her husband, whose penis, she remarked by way of enticement, “was like an insatiable doll”.

Fontanel swiftly realised that her elective singleness felt like a dangerous reproach in a world of couples who seemed to want her to be as miserable as them. Even “the marginal couple, Sabine and William, doleful swingers who absolutely had to stay together to have someone to swap –even they found me peculiar”, she writes, adding with a certain complacency, “I was discovering conventional behaviour in the most liberated milieus.”

You can see why she might have felt smug. In the narratives of sexuality, the libertines have always had the best lines. Chastity is the exclusive province of the great bores of erotic fiction, from Richardson’s Pamela, with her “zeal for housewifery”, to Laclos’s monument of virtue, Madame de Tourvel of Les Liaisons dangereuses, who responds to her seduction by the rakish Vicomte de Valmont by expiring. Not to mention Sade’s unfortunate Madame de Mistival, whose untimely appearance at a wordy orgy involving her 15-year-old daughter, Eugénie, is greeted with many imaginative indignities, including the sewing-up of her vagina by her recently deflowered (and now thoroughly debauched) offspring.

In some ways, Fontanel’s memoir feels like a counterpoint to that other bestselling account of a Frenchwoman’s intimate life: Catherine Millet’s 2001 memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M, in which the distinguished art critic described her strenuous erotic life of group sex, orgies and swingers’ clubs (including one famous establishment, Les Glycines, where it was – a trifle deflatingly – necessary to produce a social security card to get in).

Millet attributes her fondness for group sex to shyness: “I was reticent in social relationships and I saw the sexual act as a refuge into which I willingly abandoned myself as a way of avoiding looks that embarrassed me and conversations for which I was ill-prepared . . . I never flirted or tried to pull. On the other hand, I was completely available, at all times and in all places, without hesitation or regret, by every one of my bodily orifices and with a totally clear conscience . . .”

This almost puritanical separation of feeling from the uses of the body as a sexual instrument is one of the fundamental constructs of a certain style of philosophical pornography. In her essay “The Pornographic Imagination”, Susan Sontag makes an ingenious comparison between pornography and the slapstick comedy of early silent movies, writing: “It’s not that the characters in pornography cannot conceivably possess any emotions. They can. But the principles of under-reacting and frenetic agitation make the emotional climate self-cancelling, so that the basic tone of pornography is affectless, emotionless.”

Millet made a distinction between the deliberate lovelessness of her sexual encounters, and an underlying spirituality – even mysticism – that informed her project of libertinism: “Mine was not the kind of freedom played out on the whims of circumstances, it was . . . an acceptance to abandon oneself unreservedly to a way of life (like a nun saying her vows!)” The style of coolly intellectual exploration of sexual extremity echoes that of the erotic novel The Story of O – though Millet’s narrative, being (presumably) true (and if true, then not pornographic) is the more interesting.

Though their journeys lead them in opposite directions, Millet and Fontanel’s memoirs share a common starting point. Both women are fascinated by the conundrum of how a woman’s life is shaped by her decisions about what she does with her body. The mystical embrace of physical debasement has traditionally been the preserve of the more ecstatic sort of female saint. But while there are moments of exaltation in Fontanel’s memoir, on the whole her embrace of chastity seems to have been prompted not so much by a desire to explore a new philosophy of living, as by a deep ennui with bad sex: “I’d had it with being taken and rattled around,” she writes. “I’d had it with handing myself over . . .”

A modern take on chastity tends to view it as an oppression of the most burdensome kind. The freedom to make what use one chooses of one’s body deliberately affronts the traditional conflation of monogamy with virtue, which objectifies a woman by making her into a prized possession and strips her of autonomy by characterising her deepest feelings as shameful or negligible. Against that sort of tyranny, sexual licence seems to offer a pleasurable rebellion.

That, at any rate, was the theory in the innocent early days of second-wave feminism. The reality proved more complicated. The journalist Angela Neustatter recently described her experience of rejecting an offer of sex from a chap whose instant riposte was, “Are you frigid?” Filled with shame at being a lone puritan in the era of sexual permissiveness, she slept with him.

From that compromised perspective, a project of chastity seems interestingly subversive. But it is a surprisingly narcissistic version of the impulse to test the power of erotic refusal that informed the celibacy projects of both Fontanel and the British journalist Hephzibah Anderson, whose 2009 memoir, Chastened, describes a similar retreat from love – though Anderson’s experiment lasted a mere 12 months.

Anderson, like Fontanel, was in her late twenties when she realised that “the kind of sex I was supposed to be cool with as a postfeminist, 21st-century western woman – a casual sort of intimacy without intimacy –was not working for me . . . Penile penetration . . . tipped me over the edge. I had given something of myself, and accordingly that was the moment at which I started needing more than I might ever have wanted from the man in question . . .” Or, as her mother put it, “You sleep with these men too soon.”

In each case, it seems that the experiment in solitary living was not so much a route to a recalibration of the author’s intimate relationships, as a kind of protracted emotional spa break. Fontanel’s period of single living was the more extreme renunciation: it lasted from her late youth to early middle age and seems to have included some distressing epiphanies. At one point she got rid of all her books: “Their contents served no purpose. All they did was tell stories.” At another, she felt that she was losing her identity: “Overnight I had become a vague, blurry shape . . . My being had lost the solidity of things.”

But her novella-length memoir is written in a style so elliptical and fragmentary (and the English translation by Linda Coverdale is so ponderous) that the connection between author and reader sometimes feels impossibly tenuous (although the final sentence, announcing the end of her decade of sexual drought, is a corker: “I put my hand where it hadn’t been in a long time, surprised to touch something that reassured me so much.”)

The real surprise, for anyone interested in exploring the sexualisation of our culture and its effect on the female condition in the early 21st century, is the alacrity with which both Fontanel and Anderson resumed the steps of the old dance when their period of abstinence was over – in Fontanel’s case with a man who was already married. “I did not steal that man,” she writes. “I took him in order to take wing. I wanted to begin again with the body . . .”

Her readers may think with some asperity that the habit of beginning again with the body was exactly what made her turn to abstinence in the first place. Whatever happened to her conviction that, without sex, “My life would be soft and fluffy. I was through with being had”?

All a mistake, apparently. Suddenly, celibate Sophie was transformed back into seductive Sophie; her clothes chic, her nails red-lacquered: “I was back . . . My solitude had been an infirmity . . . Walking along the street, I saw nothing but possibilities.”

It is a maddening conclusion to an intriguing memoir. But then as they say in France, the heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing . . .

Jane Shilling is the author of “The Stranger in the Mirror: a Memoir of Middle Age” (Vintage, £8.99)

Image: 'Drape I' by Eva Stenram

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser