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Former Sexually Free Woman Discovers Chastity continues to be a popular entry in the man-bites-dog genre, the latest example being’s “Chastened”: The Joy of No Sex , an interview with the author of a book about not having sex for a year. The interviewer is quick to denounce ” patronizing, self-righteous and judgmental sermons about my generation’s sexual behavior” and praise Hephzibah Anderson’s “shamelessness” about her “casual flings,” but Anderson is more interesting than that.

She says, for example, that

I think that we are far too willing to rush to write things off as being “just sex,” and I think that where there is a profound physical connection, that does suggest something deeper. Those profound physical connections — they are profound, and there is almost a spiritual dimension to them, but we’re so prepared just to say that it’s just human nature and biology. It’s a real shame, it really undermines and devalues sex. I think that a lot of people miss some potentially really rich connections by telling themselves that it is “just sex.”

She is a victim of her narrow and limited understanding of human sexuality (that “almost,” for example), but still, it’s something you don’t hear every day. Outside church, anyway. Naomi Wolf made the same points several years ago in a New York magazine article titled The Porn Myth .

I am not advocating a return to the days of hiding female sexuality, but I am noting that the power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time. In many more traditional cultures, it is not prudery that leads them to discourage men from looking at pornography.

At the end of the article she describes a visit to a friend who’d become an Orthodox Jew and now wore long skirts and covered her hair with a scarf.

“Can’t I even see your hair?” I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. “No,” she demurred quietly. “Only my husband,” she said with a calm sexual confidence, “ever gets to see my hair.”

When she showed me her little house in a settlement on a hill, and I saw the bedroom, draped in Middle Eastern embroideries, that she shares only with her husband — the kids are not allowed — the sexual intensity in the air was archaic, overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West. And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all day — in Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another woman’s hair.

She must feel, I thought, so hot.

Compare that steaminess with a conversation I had at Northwestern, after I had talked about the effect of porn on relationships. “Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.”

“Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?”

“Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”

None of this is new or deep, nor have Anderson and Wolf thought deeply enough about sexuality and the ends for which it has been given us (not that they see it as something given us, which is part of the problem), but it is helpful to have such unimpeachably secular and worldly writers saying these kinds of things.

It is also sad that they have not gone farther with the truths they have seen. Anderson ends the interview:

I suppose I do feel slightly more in control of it [her sexual life], although I am perfectly willing to concede that this is an area of our lives in which none of us really has much control. At some point, you’ve got to surrender control.

This seems to mean living the life she once lived, but less often. The real question is to whom (and to Whom) to surrender control, and when, and in what relation. There’s a way to be “so hot” to someone else, and to stay that way,  but it’s not the one Anderson proposes.

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