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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit