The Sunday Times January 14, 2007
Casual sex is a con: women just aren't like men
Former groupie Dawn Eden explains how she realised morality made more sense for women than free love
The Sixties generation thought everything should be free. But only a few decades later the hippies were selling water at rock festivals for $5 a bottle. But for me the price of “free love” was even higher.
I sacrificed what should have been the best years of my life for the black lie of free love. All the sex I ever had — and I had more than my fair share — far from bringing me the lasting relationship I sought, only made marriage a more distant prospect.
And I am not alone. Count me among the dissatisfied daughters of the sexual revolution, a new counterculture of women who are realising that casual sex is a con and are choosing to remain chaste instead.
I am 37, and like millions of other girls, was born into a world which encouraged young women to explore their sexuality. It was almost presented to us as a feminist act. In the 1960s the future Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown famously asked: Can a woman have sex like a man? Yes, she answered because “like a man, [a woman] is a sexual creature”. Her insight launched a million “100 new sex tricks” features in women’s magazines. And then that sex-loving feminist icon Germaine Greer enthused that “groupies are important because they demystify sex; they accept it as physical, and they aren’t possessive about their conquests”.
As a historian of pop music and daughter of the sexual revolution I embraced Greer’s call to (men’s) arms. My job was to write the sleeve notes to 1960s pop CDs and I gained a reputation for having an encyclopedic knowledge base, interviewing the original artists and recording personnel. It was all a joy for me, as I was obsessed with the sounds of the era. I would have paid just to meet artists such as Petula Clark, Del Shannon, Brian Wilson, Harry Nilsson, Alan Price, and the Hollies — and instead I was getting paid to tell their stories. I became the top woman in my (overwhelmingly male) profession. The opportunities for shenanigans were endless.
Rock journalism had an extra bonus for me because I was deeply attracted to musicians — all kinds, though drummers, unused to being appreciated for their minds, were easy marks. While I was unaware of Greer’s injunction to make love freely, I read the supergroupie memoir, I’m With the Band by Pamela Des Barres, envying her ability to drink in everything that was desirable about rockers — their good looks, wit, creativity and fame — without seeming to lose any part of herself in her (extraordinarily numerous) dalliances with them.
I tried to emulate her and I suppose to a large extent succeeded. In some ways, the touring rock musician was my ideal sexual partner. By bedding them I could enjoy a temporary sort of fairy-tale bond; knowing it was bound to be fleeting as we would both move on meant that I never had to confront my own vulnerability about properly making a connection with someone. I could establish a transient intimacy and never have to deal with the real thing — and the real rejection that might entail.
Of course the rejection would come as the latest lover moved on to the next town and the next woman — but somehow, being able to see it coming made me feel more in control. I was choosing, I thought, the lesser pain.
But in all that casual sex, there was one moment I learnt to dread more than any other. I dreaded it not out of fear that the sex would be bad, but out of fear that it would be good. If the sex was good, then, even if I knew in my heart that the relationship wouldn’t work, I would still feel as though the act had bonded me with my sex partner in a deeper way than we had been bonded before. It’s in the nature of sex to awaken deep emotions within us, emotions that are unwelcome when one is trying to keep it light.
On such nights the worst moment was when it was all over. Suddenly I was jarred back to earth. Then I’d lie back and feel bereft. He would still be there, and if I was really lucky, he’d lie down next to me. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling like the spell had been broken. We could nuzzle or giggle or we could fall asleep in each other’s arms but I knew it was play acting and so did he. We weren’t really intimate — it had just been a game. The circus had left town.
Whatever Greer and her ilk might say I’ve tried their philosophy — that a woman can shag like a man — and it doesn’t work. We’re not built like that. Women are built for bonding. We are vessels and we seek to be filled. For that reason, however much we try and convince ourselves that it isn’t so, sex will always leave us feeling empty unless we are certain that we are loved, that the act is part of a bigger picture that we are loved for our whole selves not just our bodies.
It took me a long time to realise this. My earliest attitudes about sex were shaped from what I saw in the lives of my older sister and my mother — especially my mother, a free spirit who was desperately trying to make up missing out on the hippie era.
My parents split up when I was five; a few years later Dad moved across the country, so I was raised by my mother. While my schoolmates’ mothers were teaching them how to bake cookies, mine was letting her goateed boyfriend teach me, aged eight, the complex mechanics behind his water bong for smoking pot. (He thoughtfully stopped short of letting me take a drag on the weed.) My father held traditional values, but he didn’t want to seem prudish and was clearly uncomfortable setting down rules for a daughter he rarely saw. He almost never talked to me about sex. It was simply understood that I would have sex when I was ready — whether married or not.
I learnt from my sister and my mother that a woman can be intelligent and beautiful and yet have a difficult time meeting a responsible, gentlemanly man who wishes to be married for life. This was the 1970s and early 1980s, the age of the Sensitive New Age Guy or aptly named “snag”. My mother attracted them because she was new age herself, doing kundalini yoga and attending lectures by various gurus.
The snags treated her with what passed for respect in that world but they never gave much of themselves and didn’t appreciate Mom in the way I did — I wondered if there were any men capable of valuing inner beauty. In both her search for a husband and her quest for a fulfilling spirituality, Mom was, in my eyes, fuelled by a longing to fill the empty space.
As I hit my teens, I felt the vacuum too and longed for male companionship. But I was determined not to get hurt the way I had seen my mother hurt. Having premarital sex seemed like a surefire way to get burnt. So I decided early on that I would not have sex until . . . marriage? That would be great. However, I didn’t think I could wait until then. Instead, I resolved that I would wait to have sex until I was really “in love” — whatever that meant.
That all may sound simple enough but, growing up, I had little concept of the meaning of sex and marriage. I thought sex was something one did for recreation and also if one wanted to have a baby. (Well, I was on the right track with that last one.) Marriage, I believed, meant that one had a societal sanction to have sex with a particular person. Sex was better when one was in love, I imagined. Married people should have sex only with each other because — well, because it wasn’t nice to cheat, plus cheating could lead to divorce, which I knew meant lots of pain.
As a teenager with no moral foundation for my resolution to save my virginity for Mr Right — other than a fear of being hurt by Mr Wrong — I felt free to push the envelope. No, more than free. I became one of those mythical virgins who does “everything but”. The name Lewinsky was not yet a verb, but if it were, I imagine men would often have whispered it to one another behind my back.
When, at age 23, I finally got tired of waiting and “officially” lost my virginity to a man I didn’t love, it was a big deal to me at the time, but in retrospect it wasn’t really so significant. True, my dalliances became less complicated. When I did “everything but”, I used to dread having to explain why I didn’t want to go all the way; once I started having sex, that was no longer necessary.
But in a wider sense, losing my virginity, far from being the demarcation between past and future, was just a blip on the continuum of my sexual degradation. The decline had begun when I first sought sexual pleasure for its own sake.
Our culture — both in the media via programmes such as Sex and the City and in everyday interactions — relentlessly puts forth the idea that lust is a way station on the road to love. It isn’t. It left me with a brittle facade incapable of real intimacy. Occasionally a man would tell me I appeared hard, which surprised me as I thought I was so vulnerable. In truth, underneath my attempts to appear bubbly, I was hard — it was the only way I could cope with what I was doing to my self and my body.
The misguided, hedonistic philosophy which urges young women into this kind of behaviour harms both men and women; but it is particularly damaging to women, as it pressures them to subvert their deepest emotional desires. The champions of the sexual revolution are cynical. They know in their tin hearts that casual sex doesn’t make women happy. That’s why they feel the need continually to promote it.
These days I live a very different kind of life. I still touch base with old musician pals now and again, but I’m more likely to hang out with members of church choirs. I am chaste. My decision to resist casual sex was, once again, influenced by my mother — though not in the way she initially hoped.
Although she was Jewish, she gave up her new age beliefs for Christianity when I was a teenager. I myself had no such plans at the time. For one thing, I didn’t have faith. I had grown up up in a liberal, Reform Jewish household; but, after being a bat mitzvah at 13, I fell into agnosticism and it seemed like nothing could pull me out.
As far as I could see, Christians were a dull, faceless mass who ruled the world. My mission in life, as I saw it, was to be different; creative, liberal, rebellious. Then one day in December 1995, I was doing a phone interview with Ben Eshbach, leader of a Los Angeles rock band called the Sugarplastic, and asked him what he was reading. His answer was The Man Who Was Thursday by G K Chesterton. I picked it up out of curiosity and was captivated. Soon I was picking up everything by Chesterton that I could get my hands on, starting with his book Orthodoxy, his attempt to explain why he believed in the Christian faith.
That was the first time it struck me that there was something exciting about Christianity. I kept reading Chesterton even as I continued my dissipated lifestyle, and then one night in October 1999 I had a hypnagogic experience — the sort in which you’re not sure if you are asleep or awake. I heard a woman’s voice saying: “Some things are not meant to be known. Some things are meant to be understood.” I got on my knees and prayed — and eventually entered the Catholic church.
One night last year I had dinner with a male friend, a charming English journalist I would have dated if he shared my faith (he didn’t) and if he were interested in getting married (ditto). He peppered me with questions about chastity, even going so far as to suggest that maybe, given that I’d been looking for so long, I might not find the man I was looking for.
“That’s not true,” I responded. “My chances are better now than they’ve ever been, because before I was chaste, I was looking for love in all the wrong places. It’s only now that I’m truly ready for marriage and have a clear vision of the kind of man I want.
“I may be 37,” I concluded, “but in husband-seeking years, I’m only 22.”
The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On, by Dawn Eden, was published by W Publishing Group/ Thomas Nelson last month