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)