Many fans of the television series Sex and the City are shocked and disappointed when they read the Candace Bushnell book that inspired it. In the print version of the tale, there is no supportive sisterhood of single friends, no light-hearted banter, no suggestion that anyone actually finds fulfillment in cocktails, casual sex, and Manolo Blahniks — only a cast of cynical, lonely, and alienated men and women jaded by the predatory New York dating scene. A recent collection of “True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts” paints an equally harsh picture of the modern battle of the sexes, summed up succinctly in its title: Love is a Four-Letter Word.
Like most autobiographical writing, the collection is revealing — just not in the way it’s intended to be. In his introduction, Neal Pollack, former sex columnist and author of the parenting memoir Alternadad, asserts that the pieces do “what good relationship writing should do: illuminate larger truths about the human condition, about our foibles, fears, weaknesses, insecurities, and passions.” What the collection actually does is illuminate smaller truths about some particularly postmodern predicaments. Pollack more accurately describes the anthology as “the blossoming of a generational point of view.” This generation — men and women now in their mid-to-late 30s — is the first to fully reap the unintended consequences of the sexual revolution. They came of age in the morning after the Boomers’ carefree romp. And, in the words that one contributor uses to describe a one-night stand, “morning brought hangovers and unpleasant truths.”
One of these unpleasant truths is that feminism hasn’t quite delivered on its promises — at least in the realm of romantic relationships. Michelle Greene begins her essay with the frank admission that “by the time I turned thirty, my life in New York had taken on a desperate edge.” A tale of a toxic relationship follows, which she rationalizes this way: “What I wanted were street skills: some sort of power that would allow me to engage in sexual drama without getting burned.” This path to female empowerment eludes her as it does others — such as self-identified feminist Maud Newton, who theorizes, “maybe I didn’t need to fall for every guy whose bed I woke up in,” only to fall very hard for the next guy whose bed she wakes up in. In story after story, drugs and alcohol prove necessary armor in the battle to divorce sex from emotion: “rivers of Stoli and heaps of cocaine” are consumed, “brain cells” are “annihilated.” But no matter how “drug-addled” and “s***-faced” the encounter, none of the protagonists successfully ward off vulnerability and heartbreak.
Perhaps part of the reason these women fail to find commitment-free sex liberating is that they continue to harbor desires for monogamous love, marriage, and children. D. E. Rasso relates how, after weeks of repairing to the room of an older college classmate for sex that left her “bruised, scratched, and — one time — bleeding,” she finally mustered the courage to inquire of him if they were “going out.” His reply was, “No. Of course we aren’t. . . . I’m at a point in my life where monogamy isn’t my style.” She was crushed.
Michelle Greene suddenly realized that her cheating, womanizing boyfriend of years “wasn’t the guy I wanted to marry” — but only after a pregnancy scare on a hike in the Himalayas, to which he responded, “Oh man. Look at where we are. What do you want me to do?” Said Sayrafiezadeh tells the story of a 34-year-old girlfriend who wanted his baby — though not necessarily marriage — and gave him a year to comply. He dumped her at the end of it.