For centuries, women left fathers’ houses for husbands’ houses, or they never left home at all. Sex was traded for food, shelter, social standing: marriage. To write about sex this way is old-fashioned. But to fail to acknowledge the aftermath of the old barter is dishonest. The so-called sexual revolution seems to have been only provisionally extended. Rape remains a crime for which we try not just the accused but the victim. Because of the Internet and phone cameras, public shaming of women who’ve had sex—whether or not they’ve consented—has a terrifying ability to proliferate faster than a communicable disease. And we’re still arguing about what “consent” means. It means to feel with. Yet it’s familiarly construed to mean a half-hearted “Yes, because objecting doesn’t seem worth the effort.” I hoped to depict more than measly consent, more than promiscuity and its repellent alter-ego, respectability. I wrote about sex because it’s a small moment that reflects big quandaries.
Women once faced daunting biological consequences for sex, but even post-condom, post-diaphragm, post-pill, we haven’t escaped social consequences, the atavistic disrespect our vocabulary recalls. Sex—how and when women are permitted to have it—is a subject through which women interpret our place in the world, our progress and regress, the hopeful directives that led us forward and the pseudo-liberated primrose paths too. Writing about the protected, the saved, the known, and our willingness to face not just the anatomical unknown but the changed future if we break old rules is writing about initiative and maybe even courage. When two people in a story have sex the subject isn’t sex but civilization itself, how its rules are tested, stepped beyond, or once in awhile bumped up against as a one-size-fits-all container in which individual desire is contained.