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Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution

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From Teen Vogue sex and love columnist Nona Willis Aronowitz, a blend of memoir, social history, and cultural criticism that explores the new problem that has no name when it comes to female desire, seeking answers from the author's life and family history as well as from revolutionaries of the past.

The daughter of Ellen Willis (of Second Wave Feminist fame), Nona grew up not only believing the feminist revolution was thriving, but that she was a result: She was sexually liberated, wrote her college thesis on 1970s porn, and had genuinely good sex from the time she was a teen. But then at twenty-four, she entered into an ironic and unplanned marriage that become a surprisingly seductive trap into conventional life. But eight years later that partnership was starting to show signs of wear and eventually culminated in divorce. It was in that moment of personal sea change and political tumult that Nona turned to her late mother's writing (and other revolutionaries of the past) for guidance, all while navigating the modern dating world. In a time when sex has never been more accepted and feminism has never been more mainstream, what does it mean to be sexually liberated?

For readers of Rebecca Traister and Rebecca Solnit, Bad Sex is a brave, bold, and vulnerable exploration of the enduring barriers of sexual freedom, which lays bare the triumphs and flaws of contemporary feminism and also helps shine a light on universal questions of desire.

336 pages, Hardcover

Published August 9, 2022

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Nona Willis Aronowitz

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5 stars
138 (19%)
4 stars
235 (32%)
3 stars
248 (34%)
2 stars
89 (12%)
1 star
15 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 131 reviews
Profile Image for Lauren Hakimi.
37 reviews37 followers
June 14, 2022
This book was so disorganized and all-over-the-place that I'm not fully sure what I was supposed to gain from reading it. From what I could understand, the thread tying it together was supposed to be the author ending her marriage over "bad sex," but as the book went on, the marriage was mentioned less and less frequently. The author seemed to contradict herself when she said at one point that "bad sex" amounted to a simple lack of "spark" and at another point that it was actually a symptom of a larger problem in her relationship. The discussion of the author's parents also seemed irrelevant to whatever point the author might have been trying to make. For example, the author had an abortion, and after her mom died she found out that she did, too -- OK, so what? While I learned some fun facts about feminist history, and the author quoted other writers as making some interesting points, I also wasted my time reading what seemed like pointless passages about various things the author does and does not find sexy. Yes, the personal is political, but it's the writer's job to show why. Saying that it's bad for conversations about sex or abortion to be taboo isn't an insightful enough point to justify this book's existence. The book also wasn't written in a compelling way. Of course, heterosexual sex for feminists really is something worth thinking about; I suggest that readers interested in these subjects check out books by Katherine Angel, Amia Srinivasan, and Peggy Orenstein.

Thanks to Plume for a galley.
Profile Image for Tracy Clark-Flory.
Author 5 books32 followers
July 6, 2022
A smart, intimate, and deeply researched exploration of desire and politics. "Bad Sex" beautifully balances the personal and the political, the individual and the collective. The personal journey made for a page-turning first read, and now I find myself returning to it, again and again, for reference.
Profile Image for Kiof.
261 reviews
September 5, 2022
Unfocused and unsatisfying, like bad sex often is. The author wants to tell two stories: one about feminist history and one about her personal history. The book would be much more coherent if it only told one of these stories. In their current state, neither is quite whole.

Her mother, a prominent activist and writer, serves as a bridge between the two themes, yet her life story, though intriguing, only adds to the thematic and structural confusion. (Also, I know the personal is political but the author's juxtapositions of her Tinder dates with the biography of Emma Goldman are a bit self-aggrandizing.)

I never got a real sense of why the Bad Sex of the title was so bad (though one gets a somewhat better sense of why the good sex was good) and sometimes the historical digressions were scattered and superficial. At times, it felt like the historical aspects of the book were mere diversions, a way of fleeing a more thorough, yet painful, self-examination--a habit I can certainly relate to, but one that is lethal for a memoir like this one.
Profile Image for Laura Noggle.
670 reviews382 followers
September 14, 2022
Disorganized and kind of all over the place, Aronowitz gets raw and real in this memoir meets social history of sexual freedom. I appreciated her honesty and vulnerability talking about a difficult subject and insights from her own relationships. She also assesses the triumphs and flaws of contemporary feminism while exploring universal questions of desire.

Somewhat unsatisfactory like any disappointing romp, it is at times a frustrating mix of hyper personal confessions and cultural criticism.

I still enjoyed it overall — 3.5 stars rounded up.
November 3, 2022
This book is probably one of the best books I’ve read in 8 years. The history, entangled with Nina’s personal stories, to the rich facts and info all wrapped up in this book make it an enchantingly delightful read. I found myself reading this book at a time when I’ve been reflecting on my own desires, needs, and experiences in this world—if you want a little guidance and some major laughs along your journey I highly suggest this book be your accompaniment.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,661 followers
December 18, 2022
She’s an excellent writer and I’d like to read more from her but this one seemed not fully cooked. It seems like the version of sexual liberation that is the foil to the author’s counter-story is a straw man version of feminism? I did appreciate her questioning everything about her marriage and her parents marriage and sex but it was frustrating to not have an anchor or a theory or a ballast in all the questioning. It’s fine to live one’s life that way but writing a book does require an arc or a narrative to guide the reader
Profile Image for Briana Blu.
10 reviews1 follower
January 31, 2023
More like a 2.5. Went into it optimistic and it made NPR’s best or 2022 list, but some parts were tough to not critique.

Decent stories and insights, but some big declarations about sexuality and its performance in society that would crumble under a 3rd wave feminism and combahee River collective analysis. Even the ability to write a book and expound on the sexcapades within are privileged. Black hetero and queer women and other women of color still exist in a world where using your sexual capital as discussed in this book ( queerness or deep heterosexuality as Nona describes) still carries with it deep social consequences.

I did find her chapter on deep heterosexuality to be very insightful and worth reading or listening to this book just to chew on it and her reflections on her mother’s reasons for partnership to be worthwhile.
Profile Image for aphrodite.
376 reviews859 followers
September 20, 2022
extremely interesting read. a bit more biographical than I may have liked but I learned/changed my outlook on a lot of things. great read for anyone looking to broaden or shift their view about sex.
94 reviews1 follower
January 14, 2023
This is a rudderless mess of a book with no discernible structure or thesis. While I was interested in her discussion of second wave feminism and some of her other asides about feminist theory and history, the bulk of the book is self-indulgent navel-gazing that serves to highlight how paradoxically un-self-aware the author is. Aronowitz doesn't want to be used by men who are selfish and emotionally unavailable, but she describes tale after tale of treating people as tools on her journey of self-discovery.

Although Aronowitz is keen to interrogate her desires, she dismisses any that don't seem to her sufficiently enlightened or transgressive. She writes off monogamy as inherently toxic and clearly sees it as demanding too many sacrifices, but she praises polyamory for the fact that it requires constant work warding off jealousy. I'm curious why self-sacrifice and unfulfilled desires within monogamy is unacceptable when she is willing to doubt, brush aside, and sacrifice her own professed desire for exclusivity. Aronowitz seems thoroughly confused about what it is that she really wants or what it is that could make her happy, and her narrow vision of the possibilities is downright depressing.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is when Aronowitz admits that she wishes that her mother (a well-known, sex-positive second wave feminist) had given her more guidance when it comes to sex. The memoir portions of this book feel like an exploration of what happens when someone is tossed into life with absolutely no ethical framework and is left to founder.
Profile Image for Sarah Rayman.
201 reviews1 follower
November 7, 2022
It gets a 4 because it accomplished (in a way i didn’t ask for) the point of book. It forced me to reflect a lot about partners, emotional vulnerability, societal complexities, stigmas, monogamy/nonmonogamy, where I’m at in life and what I want. I can’t be mad that it asked me to soul search and I complied. That being said, here are other notes I took:

* flashy/striking titles must be a 2015-present thing because this book’s title wants it to be good and it was a tad disappointing
* Balance between anecdotal and analysis + facts + historical context weighed more on the anecdotal
* Expected to be a lot more radical and revolutionary but it’s mainly just the inner workings of someone’s brain and their dating/fucking/married timeline sprinkled with literal entries from journals and diaries at various ages.
* I expected science and socialism and anti-capitalism and relationship analysis and psychology and HELP but alas I am forced to use this as a rough blueprint if I want to learn anything about myself - addendum: I did the thinking and feel good about what I’m taking away from the book, so thank you author letting me learn through your experiences that’s the point of books why am i getting upset about it
* I was originally kind of mad there was so much personal for every page or two of practical and historically contextual but I realized it needs to be that way - addendum: !!!!!!!!!!!!
Profile Image for Lauren.
34 reviews1 follower
Read
February 5, 2023
Part memoir and part survey of the history of American feminism and its attitudes towards sex, Bad Sex is informative but also has an intimate, gossipy quality that makes it a page-turner. Aronowitz talks about her own experiences with divorce, polyamory, and sex, and compares them with the stories of major figures and movements in feminism. She also shares the story of her mother, pro-sex feminist Ellen Willis, and consults her writing frequently when contemplating her own dilemmas. This strategy for telling her story–intertwining her own experiences with the history of feminist thought–can at times come across as self-aggrandizing, but I think it’s fruitful and true to her given her concern with squaring her feminist political beliefs with her (hetero)sexual desires. Reading Bad Sex feels like commiserating with a smart friend–more fun and relatable than directly enlightening, but Aronowitz’s honesty inspires self-reflection and I now have a nice little reading list from all of her references.
Profile Image for Sophie Guillas.
132 reviews5 followers
February 2, 2023
In Bad Sex, Nona Willis Aronowitz explores the state of sex after the sexual revolution. Even during the free love movement, the state of the patriarchy meant that a lot of the sex people were having was bad!

I really loved the intersections of feminist history, scientific studies, and unflinchingly frank autobiography in this book. I think the most touching moments were when she went through her own mother's (a feminist activist in the 60s) writing after she passed from cancer. I think it really clarified how close we are to important historical feminist thinkers and events. Through linking her experiences with divorce, polyamory, and abortion, she really connected with feminist history in all of its untidiness.
Profile Image for Doreen.
145 reviews1 follower
August 15, 2022
This was fantastic! Partly hyper-personal confessional memoir, partly deeply researched stocktaking of more than a century of feminist writing on women’s sexuality, Nona Willis Aronowitz’s book details her multi-year struggle to end her sexually frustrating marriage, her phase of wild promiscuity to make up for all that frustration, her ongoing experiment with non-monogamy in her current partnership (something she politically believes in but which still has the power to hurt her, and a lot), along with detours through Black and queer women’s sexuality (these parts were too short!), sexual dry spells, abortion, sex-for-hire, and much more. Throughout, the book brims with quotations from the writings of her mother, Ellen Willis (this alone makes Bad Sex worthwhile!), along with those of dozens of other feminist writers. While not everyone will find their particular ways of “doing” sex represented or prioritized—which is exactly the point of the book—I found it absolutely worth the read.
1 review
July 7, 2022
Thoroughly enjoying the journey of reading through this deeply personal and well researched chronicle about the vulnerable questions and ideas around sex and our desires that we must all wrestle with. The writing is witty, punchy and gets to the heart of the matter most satisfyingly!
Profile Image for Aerial East.
1 review
July 12, 2022
I loved reading this engaging, informative, and very relatable book. It's so great and I think everyone should read it.
Profile Image for Julianna May.
11 reviews
August 18, 2022
I do not recommend. I was lured by the title & cool graphic cover. What I found inside had me either cringing or marveling (at the author’s astounding self absorption). I had to Google this author and discovered she’s not even bothered to remove her husband’s name from her Wikipedia bio. Poor man. (Actually, lucky man that he’s no longer married to this woman).

I also discovered she’s the only child of two noted academics. This gave context as to her precious and self focused take on life.

I wish I’d watched a Gloria Steinem documentary instead.
Profile Image for ax.
26 reviews
September 18, 2022
i enjoyed this a lot, smart and well-researched but still has the intimacy of a friendly conversation. much to think about 🤰🏻
Profile Image for Laura.
66 reviews
January 19, 2023
This book had so much potential, but it was disappointing. The writing was disjointed and quickly switched back and forth between being a literature review on second wave feminism and a memoir. The different components weren’t incorporated in a way that supported one another. It was confusing, long, and felt like it had no direction or focus. There were no takeaways either; giving a review is somewhat challenging because I’m not sure what this book really was beyond an unfocused amalgamation of information on second wave feminism and personal sex stories. Again, a book like this could be wonderful, but its execution missed the mark for me.
Profile Image for Caitlin.
83 reviews4 followers
Read
December 13, 2022
the history parts were good and accurate, but holy hell do i disagree with a lot of her opinions about sex work and non monagamy
Profile Image for Jo.
414 reviews10 followers
February 21, 2023
Very disjointed and disorganized. I liked the historical analysis, and while I find it important to use personal experience to understand broader cultural phenomena, the memoir portion of this book just irritated me. It felt like she was trying to create her own "Fear of Flying" and pat herself on the back for being so sexually liberal and open, while subtly disparaging those who choose more traditional sexual paths.
1 review
August 12, 2022
I found the book relatable and informative. It tools hundreds of years of feminist theory and wove it into a deeply personal yet relatable modern day romance with romance. As prosex feminist this book hit home for me and inspired me to read more feminist works.
14 reviews
October 13, 2022
Fine… depressed and annoyed me, as most millennial feminists do
Profile Image for Maddie Martin.
45 reviews1 follower
August 28, 2022
This book was a confusing combination of memoir, the author’s mother’s life, second wave feminist history, and interviews.

While parts could’ve worked, albeit with MUCH smoother transitions, the author relied heavily at times on her mother and father’s story which felt… Kinda weird and intrusive given they’re both passed away and couldn’t consent to have their tumultuous relationship published. Given her mother was a fairly prominent voice in the second wave, much of the focus of the book is geared toward these dated conversations that could’ve worked if, you guessed it, they actually transitioned well into the author’s life and points of view. Though the second wave feminist history lessons become all too tiring halfway through the book.

The book also focuses solely on politics: awareness raising, rallies, protests, etc which were essential to, again, second wave feminism, but neglects to explore the effects social media and popular culture have had on our relationship to feminism and sex today.

Honestly, I didn’t even really like writing this review because I feel like a broken record and that’s what it felt like when I was reading this.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Chadsey.
168 reviews5 followers
October 11, 2022
2.5 for me. The cover made me think this is a book about a topic, but it’s really a personal memoir with some research and references sprinkled in. I liked reading it mostly, but I also believe this author’s sexual experience is very unique (extensive, open, pan) and I believe that the wider majority of readers may not exactly identify or relate to her. Good for her for being so confident and accepting and adventurous but that’s not what I thought I was here to read about.
1 review
August 11, 2022
Therapy

I was struck by the sheer number of off the shelf cliches in this rather pathetic attempt at self therapy. The author doesn’t even know the question while throwing every trite theory at her relationship problems against the wall, hoping something sticks. Don’t bother.
Profile Image for Brittany.
639 reviews1 follower
February 19, 2023
I'm learning more and more that memoirs (or quasi-memoirs) about feminist women leaving behind monogamy for the totes enlightened world of casual hookups and polyamory just to be (equally?) unhappy with those things too really annoy me. I think it's the casual, though explicit, dismissal of the works of sex-negative feminists while seemingly coming to the conclusion that so many of them have written about, yet maintaining an air of superiority about it all 👀

There were moments in this book that made me cringe. For a book that at least on the face of it is relatively woke, there were moments of unexamined misogyny that the author put forth without any amount of irony or self-awareness. For example, when she and her partner decided to try polyamory and he was checking in with her after his first hookup (as per their agreement), she said she felt jealousy (sure, that's fine). She began second guessing herself, wondering if she was like 'all other women who just wanted to suck a man into monogamy'. How can you write a book like this and nearly end it with a "Oh, nooooo, am I like *gasp* other women? Ew." Get a grip.

"Many of [the female feminist activists] had caught a distinct sense of dismissal, even contempt, from the male activists for whom they were stuffing envelopes. They often struggled to gain political clout on the left especially if they declined to trade sexual favors...Women were treated like sexual garbage cans by activist men."

"The marriages she saw around her seethed with unattractive compromises, emotional repression, and sexual boredom. Most partnerships she knew of were predicated on a sexist détente - the husband had made it clear that he would not give up certain prerogatives and the wife pretended not to hate him for it."

"...a funny reversal of the importance of sexual purity - the pursuit of sex solely to show that I was rejecting traditional expectations thereby proving the resilience of those expectation's influence."

"Women recalled chronic patronizing, compulsive interrupting and classic sexism excused with self-awareness. 'I know this is super scummy of me, but...'...A supposedly feminist guy who tramples on one's boundaries in some uncanny unexpected way. The worse thing about this phenomena, women remarked, is that it's often a general feeling and not necessarily a momentous incident and that makes it feel less real....These guys usually seem nice, reasonable, the kind of man you'd feel comfortable confronting about the very behavior he claims to denounce."
Profile Image for Rachel Spacek.
33 reviews1 follower
October 3, 2022
I heard Nona talk about this book and herself on a Longform episode and thought I would check it out. It sounded ambitious but she was such a wonderful speaker and thoughtful person that I thought the worst that could happen might be, I would be schooled in feminist history (which I would absolutely appreciate). But this was so much more than a feminist history and so much more than a memoir. As a heterosexual woman in my 20-something’s with a male partner I just had so much to gain from Nona’s unfiltered talk of sex with men and grappling with her desires against feminism. It’s not a classic “bad feminist” story but it is about a deeply feminist person talking about her desires and comparing them to what feminism both historical and modern tells women that they should desire. I learned so much and was truly never bored, I think the subtle & not so subtle mentions of sexual activity played a role, but even without if Nona’s life and her mother & feminism is so interesting to read. I can say I was skeptical at this book’s ambitious-ness but it worked better than I could have imagined!
Profile Image for Sarah Ammerman.
18 reviews
January 7, 2023
3.5 stars?

This messy mix of personal sexual history/family stories and the history of feminism helps demonstrate the author’s point that the ideologies preached in various feminist circles over the years never matched up with the realities of desire. She explores feminist approaches to marriage - as an institution of oppression and later as something that might be molded into something new founded on equality - and yet also acknowledges the privileges bestowed on those signing up for it. “There’s no easier way to defang a radical than the lure of a status bump”

I loved the review/survey of feminist history and respected the mentions of how most feminist movements left out the intersectionality of racism, much like the labor movements before them left women out of the discourse.

Minus 1.5 stars because by the end I felt so frustrated by the author’s inability to land in a good place and tired of hearing about her struggle.
Profile Image for Heidi Smith.
24 reviews
October 10, 2022
I really enjoyed the memoir parts of this book which focused on Nona’s own experiences with sex, particularly the chapters on sexuality and orgasm, and the impossible expectations placed on the probably heterosexual feminist woman. However, it felt like she added random history bits to reach a page count that I found myself skimming. Also, it felt a bit convenient that all of the suitably diverse friends and family members who she encountered all had sage tokens of wisdom to offer along the way or to beef up the narrative. Overall, I would’ve preferred if she went full send on the memoir side of things, or just made the juicy bits into a series of essays. And those poor men she wrote about 🫣
Profile Image for Kolby.
50 reviews1 follower
December 10, 2022
Definitely one of my favorite books of the year. Don't be fooled by the title; this book is not all about bad sex. It is about the power struggle that comes with being a woman, and how we have to navigate life being told to shy away from desires while still embracing their female power.
A lot of people complained about the writing style, but I quite enjoyed it. I didn't see it as a piece of literature nor as a credible source, but more of a conversation with the friend. It had the vibe of sitting around with a bottle of wine at 2am and debating everything you've been told throughout your life about how we should be acting. I learned so much about historical female figures and about emotions I never even knew I had.
Absolutely recommend at least skimming this to every woman I know, just to know the generations before you and the feelings that you're allowed to explore, even if they seem selfish or unacceptable. A true celebration of womanhood and how to understand our sexuality as both something to receive and deliver pleasure without shame.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 131 reviews

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