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Sex and Sensibility

28 True Romances from the Lives of Single Women

Edited by Genevieve Field

About The Book

It's all about you. Your apartment. Your job. Your dates. Your sex life. Your time off. Your exercise. Your food. Your music. Your future. What are you waiting for? Who will you love? What is it, really, that you want?
The life of a single woman in the twenty-first century is full of new connections, new sex, new love, and new loss. It's about letting the laundry pile up, sipping strong drinks with near strangers, and dishing to girlfriends on those foggy-headed, flushed morning-afters. But it isn't all heightened connections and steamy dates. The single girl is no stranger to the scramble for a Saturday night plan, the oh-so-promising guy who took her number at a party and then -- poof! -- disappeared, the ever narrowing circle of unattached girlfriends....
In Sex and Sensibility twenty-nine of today's most acclaimed -- and often bestselling -- female authors write about the push-pull between independence and vulnerability, fearlessness and self-doubt that defines single life. Jennifer Weiner, Pam Houston, Laurie Notaro, Amy Sohn, and Julianna Baggott are just a few of the real-life heroines whose stories about long-distance dating, twenty-something divorce, online crushes, and thrilling one-night stands make up this funny, frank, and unabashedly erotic celebration of singlehood and sisterhood -- a quintessential handbook for today's independent woman.


Chapter 1: confessions of a teenage cocktease

elissa schappell

I blame the suburbs for making me a cocktease. Growing up in a small town in Delaware there were no malls, movie theaters, or cafés within walking or biking distance. There were no museums, no galleries, no book or record stores. There were, however -- in abundance -- boys.

Thus, my girlfriends and I spent a lot of restless hours hanging out at each other's houses, lying on canopy beds or on the shag-carpeted floor, door locked, tickling each other's arms and backs, gossiping about boys and what we'd do with one if we ever got one, occasionally hopping off the bed to dance in front of the mirror, lip-synching Cheap Trick's "Surrender" into a hairbrush. In the summer we went to the neighborhood pool and tanned on top of picnic tables, running across the hot macadam parking lot in bare feet when we heard the ice cream truck, or we biked to a swimming hole with a rope swing off a bridge, occasionally flashing motorists.

At night we prowled in darkness, rearranging the letters on people's mailboxes to spell curse words, or we amused ourselves by putting one neighbor's lawn furniture in his next door neighbor's car. Tired of petty vandalism, we hung out in each other's driveways, or on occasion headed over to somebody's house, and down into a finished basement or den to watch the neighbor boys shoot pool or play foosball, The Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, or maybe The Clash on the stereo.

On some evenings (maybe it had to do with the phases of the moon) a sort of erotic terminal velocity would be reached and someone would suggest putting on something slower, like Led Zeppelin, and pairing up. This was offered in the same way that, had it been all girls, someone might have said, "Hey, let's have a séance," or "Who wants to play Light as a Feather?"

These weren't make-out parties like people would later have in high school, where couples slipped off into bedrooms and linen closets. These were unchoreographed, purely spontaneous eruptions of adolescent lust. Always there was this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I did the math -- was there a girl for every boy? In those awkward moments of sussing out the numbers, it almost seemed as though my peers were magnetized, drawn inexorably to each other by complementary charges, as I ricocheted back and away into a corner. (Admittedly, coupling up wasn't quite as excruciating as picking teams in gym class, where me and the girl in the helmet were always the last two standing. The phrase "You get Schappell" haunts me still.)

So what to do? Should I make an excuse -- headache, curfew -- and beat a hasty retreat home? Being the extra girl (the extra boy generally sat and watched) meant being exiled to TV upstairs with the younger siblings and unsuspecting parents: pure torture. It had happened to me once, and as I'd trudged numbly up the stairs, blind with humiliation, I'd sworn I would never let it happen again.

The ritual dictated that girls sat in the boys' laps or beside them, and you made out for the length of a song. When it ended you rose and moved on, a perfect circuit of blue-eyed geisha girls in cutoffs. Sometimes, if the song was going on too long or they were desperate to hook up with the next person in line, someone would yell out, "Switch."

Although I lived in fear of someone yelling out "Switch" on me, it was still heaven.

Nobody got hurt, and nobody got bored; the worst thing to happen was a cold sore. In this way I learned how to kiss, learned each boy's kiss was as distinctive as his laugh. Some kissed with their teeth, some slobbered, some chewed on your lips like taffy, and others could kiss in a way that made you feel like your blood had been turned to butter. I could have identified those teenage boys in the dark by kiss alone. When it was over, only when I'd tempted breaking curfew or missing dinner, I'd leave with a girlfriend, the two of us sprinting away from the house, sneakers pounding through backyards, laughing, reeling, and drunk on hormones -- something real had just happened to us. Free from any uncomfortable small talk, any kiss-or-no-kiss-at-the-door awkwardness, we were nothing but desired. It never occurred to me that boys were about as sexually discerning as farm animals.

Sometime around seventh grade, it was officially ordained that I was not really girlfriend material. Sure I had a nice rack, long blondish-brown hair, and didn't seem too smart despite my glasses (I'd learned early that boys liked dumb girls best), but, sadly, as one of my friend's mothers had put it, I just wasn't right in the head.

At that age it wasn't obvious in pictures; there was no punk rock dye job, no nose ring. It was easy to wear the right clothes, the grosgrain headband, the madras pants and Fair Isle sweaters, tennis skirts and docksiders. It was easy to outwardly assimilate, but my inside? That I couldn't fake. As soon as I opened my mouth I was revealed. Unfortunately I talked all the time. I cracked wise, I did imitations, I asked dumb questions like, If you had to sacrifice one of your senses, what would it be, and why? Or, Let's say that a starving man steals a loaf of bread to feed his wife and children, is that really stealing? Questions that had people shaking their heads. "You are so strange," they'd say. "Cute, but strange."

Thus, every night after asking God to bless the souls of my dead grandparents, and to let me die before my parents did, as I could not live without them, I'd add, and please God just make me normal, don't let me be a nymphomaniac, or a lesbian like those girls on the volleyball team -- even though they seem really happy....

I was worried about my sexual curiosity -- my desire to binge at the banquet of teenage carnality. Was it so wrong to want to know if it felt the same way with this one as it had with that one? If I started having sex, would I ever be able to stop? Was having sex like peanuts and tattoos -- you couldn't have just one?

Things changed in high school once kids started getting their licenses. The stakes got higher, and more interesting. It wasn't uncommon, at the end of a double-date, to end up parking in a field or an empty lot. While one couple made out in the backseat, the other went at it in the front. It all felt very thrilling and wrong, and terribly sexy.

The trick was you and your girlfriend had to decide ahead of time how far each of you was going to go, otherwise it became a competition -- he has her shirt off, and your boyfriend doesn't have yours. Of course once the windows began to fog up and everyone was stupid with lust, all bets were off. Inevitably, my date and I would be the ones booted out of the car -- first undressed got dibs on the wagon.

I wasn't going to get even a little nude, because no matter how many tequila sunrises I drank, how much hash-under-glass was enjoyed, I wasn't going to seriously fool around in a car with another couple. No way. Not the first time, and probably not ever. Witnesses? Are you joking? Once you had sex it was all over. Your passport got stamped hussy and there was no return. If you slept with a boy it was either because you two were serious, very serious, or you were a slut. I knew, deep, deep, down inside me, that no boy in this town was ever going to be in love with me, or me in love with him. I also knew that this made me different from other girls, and different was bad. Different could, no matter what you did, get you a bad reputation.

The only solution was to keep moving along, smiling, remembering what my mother once told me (she herself was a spirited, fun-loving lass, as was my grandmother): Be a good date, not a great date, a good date. I read this as: Don't flirt with his friends, don't leave with someone else (you've got to dance with those that brung you), and don't go all the way. Going all the way was pretty much like just throwing up your arms and saying, "Game over." I didn't want to go all the way. All I really wanted was to have some fun. I liked chasing boys, hooking them, and reeling them in. Getting my picture taken with my trophies, and then letting them go. When they said, "I'll call you," my heart pounded simultaneously with, Oh please do, and, Oh please don't.

I knew it would only be a matter of time before they saw my true colors: before I would burst into tears at seeing a Christmas tree put out for the trash, or jump out of the car at a red light in an unspeakable fury of some sort; before my insistence on kissing endlessly, and the matter of my not going all the way, would become an issue; before curiosity would kill the cat, and I'd start thinking his best friend was cuter, more interesting, more unknowable than he was, and wanting him.

I knew it was just a matter of time before we'd be ignoring each other in the hallways, and my friends would be shaking their heads at my cupidity, and his friends would be sniggering, and saying mean things, running me down, and I'd feel like a fool, and I'd be so, so angry. Why, oh why, couldn't I be a boy? I would wonder. Why couldn't I be some charming cad, a Casanova, instead of a holding-tight-at-second-base slattern?

Not long ago I sought out some old diaries of mine. Flipping through them, I searched for the early roots of depression, glimmers of nascent genius; instead what I found were the rantings of a horny Pollyanna afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder.

It's over with Craig, I have been crying for hours. Last Friday I made out with Joey at the Tower Hill dance, he is such a good kisser! He says he doesn't like Missy any more. God! Of course Chris was mad when he saw me with him. He tells me he wants to do things to my body, things that I'd like. I think I could love him. I wish he wasn't drunk so much. Oh well! Maybe I still like Chris. What is wrong with me? I don't know! I am so confused, and I am hurt too. Also, then there's Phil. I think I could really like him....

Good God. Someone should have turned a fire hose on me.

Copyright © 2005 by Genevieve Field

Reading Group Guide

The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion of Sex and Sensibility. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Many fine books from Atria Books feature Readers Club Guides. For a complete listing, or to read the Guides online, visit
Questions and Topics for Discussion
Q. In the Introduction, we learn that today approximately 32% of U.S. women between the ages of 20 and 44 have never been married, as opposed to 19% of women in that same age group in 1970. Does this statistic surprise you? What are some of the reasons for this rise in the number of single women?
Q. In Confessions of a Teenage Cocktease, Elissa Schappell passes on advice given to her from her grandmother: Be a good date, not a great date, a good date." What were some of the ramifications of being too "great" a date?
Q. Pam Houston touches on the theme of female competition in her essay, In the Bowl of Lights that is La Paz, where she and a female co-worker compete over a handsome Italian architect. When he shows interest in her, she admits it "never occurred to her say no." Why do you think this is? Daisy Garnett, in her piece Sexual Healing, relates a similar theme..."like many women, when it came to sex, I was so grateful to be given the opportunity to say yes, I never learned how to say 'no.'" Why do you think it is hard for some women to say no to men's advances?
Q. In Sexual Healing, Daisy Garnett is pleased with herself after the encounter with the amorous masseur and wonders, "Is this what it feels like to be a man?" Do you think this is a popular fantasy for women--to have sex like a man? Why would that be empowering? Why do you think her experience with the masseur makes her less interested in sleeping around and more interested in, as she puts it, "permanence?"
Q. Amy Sohn is known for her frank descriptions of sex in her magazine and newspaper columns and her novel, Run, Catch, Kiss. In Travel Love, she pines for the more romantic customs of the Victorian era. Do you think many women do? What are the pros? The cons?
Q. Movies can be very influential on how we view the world, especially when it comes to romance. Amy Sohn leans over to unlock her date's car door a la Kyra Sedgwick in Singles. Julianna Baggot envisions the typical tearful airport goodbye with her French boyfriend. Is this influence helpful or harmful?
Q. In her essay How to be Alone, Lisa Gabriele suggests that her father's leaving when she was young affects her current relationships with men. Do you think this is true of everyone? How important are our relationships to our family with regards to our relationships with others?
Q. In How to be Alone, Lisa Gabriele pines for her long-distance football player boyfriend only to visit him and discover "being with Mark is not as much fun as missing him." Have you ever been in a relationship or dating situation where the anticipation was better than the reality?
Q. In Herland, Revisted, Meghan Daum compares and contrasts life as a young single woman in New York City and Lincoln, Nebraska. Were you surprised by the census numbers Daum provided and the male/female ratio in some U.S. cities? Daum uses Charlotte Perkins Gilman's feminist classic, Herland, as a touchstone for this piece. Discuss the concepts of 'Herland' and 'Ourland.' Which kind of 'land' do you live in?
Q. Merrill Markoe reveals in her essay, Medusa's Sister, that after having sex for the first time, she felt like she knew less about the sex act than when she was a virgin. Do you think this is common in young women? Were you surprised when Markoe later revealed she was raped?
Q. In Do You Take this Woman, writing partners Em & Lo demonstrate how their friendship is similar to a marriage. Discuss the ways that a friendship resembles a marriage. Are men like this with their close friends?
Q. In The Feast of San Gennaro, Jennifer Weiner brings up a much-discussed topic--what exactly denotes sex--is it the physical act or a deeper intimacy? What constitutes cheating?
Q. With bountiful Internet dating sites and columns like Missed Connections, how does modern media and technology affecting modern-day dating?
Q. In One Way to Stay Warm in the Winter, Thisbe Nissen tells of an unorthodox roommate situation, with another woman and a man. Is their situation attractive to you? Why or why not? When you first heard their proposed plan for living together, what did you anticipate would happen?
Q. Jennifer Baumgardner's Whereya Headed references Judy Blume's novel, Forever. Which books or films from your youth had an influence on how you viewed dating and relationships?
Q. Laurie Notaro relates the agony of ending a dating dry spell only to realize she hasn't "tended the garden" in Cut and Shave. Do you have any embarrassing dating stories?
Q. Jane Austen's novels discussed marriage and romantic opportunities with a slightly jaundiced eye because, as Darcy Cosper points out in her essay, Everything I Know About Dating I learned from Jane Austen, in Austen's day marriage "was merely the only course open to (a woman) at that moment in history." What are some of the changes in dating since Austen's day? What would Jane Austen think of today's modern single woman?

Product Details

  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (February 1, 2005)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743483032

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