Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution

Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution

by Nona Willis Aronowitz
Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution

Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution

by Nona Willis Aronowitz


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Named a Most Anticipated Book by Bustle, Esquire, Nylon, and The Millions

“Intimate, thoughtful, and accessible to anyone struggling with the persistent, maddening inequities of contemporary sex.” –Rebecca Traister, New York Times bestselling author of Good and Mad

From Teen Vogue sex and love columnist Nona Willis Aronowitz, a blend of memoir, social history, and cultural criticism that probes the meaning of desire and sexual freedom today.

At thirty-two years old, everything in Nona Willis Aronowitz’s life, and in America, was in disarray. Her marriage was falling apart. Her nuclear family was slipping away. Her heart and libido were both in overdrive. Embroiled in an era of fear, reckoning, and reimagining, her assumptions of what “sexual liberation” meant were suddenly up for debate.
In the thick of personal and political turmoil, Nona turned to the words of history’s sexual revolutionaries—including her late mother, early radical pro-sex feminist Ellen Willis. At a time when sex has never been more accepted and feminism has never been more mainstream, Nona asked herself: What, exactly, do I want? And are my sexual and romantic desires even possible amid the horrors and bribes of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy?

Nona’s attempt to find the answer places her search for authentic intimacy alongside her family history and other stories stretching back nearly two hundred years. Stories of ambivalent wives and unchill sluts, free lovers and radical lesbians, sensitive men and woke misogynists, women who risk everything for sex—who buy sex, reject sex, have bad sex and good sex. The result is a brave, bold, and vulnerable exploration of what sexual freedom can mean. Bad Sex is Nona’s own journey to sexual satisfaction and romantic happiness, which not only lays bare the triumphs and flaws of contemporary feminism but also shines a light on universal questions of desire.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593182765
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/09/2022
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 120,318
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Nona Willis Aronowitz is the sex and love columnist for Teen Vogue. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Cut, Elle, Vice, The Washington Post, and Playboy, among many others. She is the coauthor of Girldrive: Criss-Crossing America, Redefining Feminism. She is also the editor of an award-winning anthology of her mother Ellen Willis’s rock criticism, called Out of the Vinyl Deeps, as well as a comprehensive collection of Willis's work, The Essential Ellen Willis, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

Read an Excerpt


In the last few days of 2016, everything in my life and in America was in extreme disarray. I was thirty-two years old. My marriage was falling apart. My father was a year out from a massive stroke that had changed both our lives. My forays into fresh pleasures had left my heart and libido suffering from overexposure. The country was reeling after that infamous election. I was constantly sniffling—from crying, and also from the sinus infection that had rudely shown up on top of everything else. I felt at sea, and not in the placid way, in the thrash-around way. I looked at the up tissues piled on my coffee table and between the cushions of my couch, and I had a strong wish to put my former life back together again, even though some of this turmoil had been my own doing. In more hopeful moments, I’d feel the elation of dispensing with fear and inhibition. I’d be grateful for this intervention and the chance to rewrite my story. But during those few days, when self-doubt filled up the lonely void between Christmas and New Year’s, I wondered: Did I really blow up a relationship that lasted a quarter of my life, just because of bad sex?

What even is “bad sex”? It’s a cruel descriptor, both lazy and below the belt, an indictment of everyone involved. When people heard the title of this book, they assumed I would be discussing the nuts and bolts of the sexual act: stale technique and sexual dysfunction, low libido and the orgasm gap. To me, the mechanics of sex are important but limited. I’m far more concerned with the broader question of what cultural forces interfere with our pleasure, desire, and relationship satisfaction. And I’m particularly concerned with a dilemma recognizable to many women who fuck men: sex has never been more normalized, feminism has never been more popular, romantic relationships have never been more malleable—yet we still haven’t transcended the binds that make sex and love go bad.

We have not, for instance, succeeded in avoiding dudes who don’t notice we’re having a bad time, or notice but don’t seem to care, or pretend to care but actually don’t. We continue to deal with guys who cross our boundaries in some way, transforming bad sex (or even good sex) into something shitty and murky and scary. We still often end up indulging men’s fantasies rather than our own. We’re told that being vulnerable is the key to love and lust, and yet it’s easier said than done.

Even the most sexually confident among us sometimes hesitate to talk about all this, because we don’t want to hurt our partners’ feelings or seem demanding, because we want to appear as horny as we initially advertised ourselves to be, because the length of time it takes us to orgasm will spoil the mood, because we’re physically or emotionally afraid, because too much is at stake, because we’re simply not sure what we want. We still seem to face unpleasant consequences, both blatant and insidious, when we do talk about certain things that, even in the most progressive circles, are still treated like TMI.

Of course, sometimes bad sex, or a bad relationship, isn’t anybody’s fault. It may be caused by incompatibility, a dearth of attraction, an absence of chemistry. For some, this kind of neutral, blameless bad sex is a relatively small thing, certainly nothing to end a marriage over. For me, though, bad sex was the gateway that revealed all kinds of other truths. It was the thing that eventually exposed the desires I was ignoring in favor of society’s expectations, which led to a break in the hum of my life, which in turn forced the questions: What, exactly, do I want? And are my sexual and romantic desires even possible amid the horrors and bribes of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy?

This book is about the necessity, but also the complexity and absurdity, of answering those questions. They’re questions I ask myself many times throughout this story, which mostly unfolds between fall of 2015 and the end of 2020. Even with very little distance from them, I think we can all agree that these years were a wild time to be alive in America, and an even wilder time for one’s life to take a sharp turn toward the unknown. This has been a time of fear and death, but also of reckoning and reimagining. It’s made me curious about other times in history that vibrated with the same transformative energy. About what I could learn from revolutionaries of the past who lived through moments when the norms of sexuality changed.

Which is why, during that low point in winter, I turned to my mother for advice. Not literally, because she had died a decade before, a few months after my twenty-second birthday. My mom, Ellen Willis, a writer and early radical pro-sex feminist, was deeply involved in both the sexual revolution and Second Wave feminism, movements that were at once in harmony and in conflict. Her specialty was documenting the collisions of the personal and political, particularly when it came to sex. So I thought her writing might contain. . . not answers, exactly, but empathy, or articulation, orsome sort of guidance. I chose a 1989 essay called “Coming Down Again: After the Age of Excess.”

“It was the best, the worst, the most enlightening, the most bewildering of times,” she wrote in the essay, about the dawn of the women’s movement. “Feminism intensified my utopian sexual imagination, made me desperate to get what I really wanted. . .even as it intensified my skepticism, chilling me with awareness of how deeply relations between the sexes were corrupted and, ultimately, calling into question the very nature of my images of desire.”

The source of my own self-doubt, I have since realized, was precisely the double-edged sword of radicalization that my mother describes. Reconciling personal desire with political conviction is, frankly, a tall order. It’s chaotic, maddening, grueling, confusing, and yet essential—an exquisite mess that propels this book’s zigzag pursuit of sexual liberation. Alongside my own intimate history and my family history are other stories stretching back nearly two hundred years: those of ambivalent wives and unchill sluts, freelovers and radical lesbians, sensitive men and woke misogynists, women who risk everything for sex, who buy sex, reject sex, have bad sex and good sex. These are stories of pleasure, peril, safety, freedom, and the muddy paths that connect them all.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Bad Sex 5

2 Status Bump 33

3 I Want This 61

4 The Vulnerability Paradox 83

5 The Vulnerability Gradient 115

6 An Old Male Revolt in a Hew Disguise 135

7 In It for the Dick 165

8 The Fallow Period 195

9 Fire Needs Air 211

10 The Real Experts 247

11 Good Sex 265

Acknowledgments 289

Bad Sex Essentials: A Selected Bibliography 291

Notes 297

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