"I Put a Lot of Pressure on Myself to be This Perfect, Sexual Human"
A Conversation with Nona Willis Aronowitz
I had fully planned to edit and publish this interview with Nona Willis Aronowitz, author of Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution, in the month of January but then my dad died. He had been living with dementia for a decade so it wasn’t a complete shock but neither was it entirely expected. Our relationship was complicated and so is my grief. I spent the last number of years focused on his decline and his care but now that he’s gone, other versions of him are visiting me in dreams and in idle waking moments. The father of my later childhood and pre-teen years has been particularly present lately, maybe because it's my earliest version of him. Or maybe it’s because I’m that guy’s age now, and in that same stage of life where I am parenting and still trying to be something. That version of my father was a doctor but he wanted to be a musician. He spent his evenings composing in our attic.
And so I’ve been thinking a lot about that, how he tried to be an artist in his spare time. I find myself remembering how he would excitedly call me over to listen to something he had spent a long time working on and had finally gotten right. The joy of solving a creative problem. As a child, this was amusing; as an adult, it is familiar. I wish I could talk to him about it. Reading his song lyrics for the first time in years, I am startled by the overlap between our artistic obsessions and concerns. I wish I could talk to him about that too.
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In her book and in our conversation, Nona talks about these kinds of silences of the personal archive: the conversations she never got to have with her mother, Second Wave activist and writer Ellen Willis. She describes going back to the actual, official archive – Ellen Willis’ papers are in the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University and many were published in The Essential Ellen Willis, which Nona edited – while writing Bad Sex as a way of asking her mother questions about love, sex, family, and work.
Will our children someday be searching for us in our writing, I wonder?
Ask this question too much, I think, and it gets in the way of the work. But it’s still a question I come back to again and again. I was delighted to be able to talk to Nona about writing and being written about, about non-monogamy after kids, and about the maddening abyss of inadequate childcare.
Photo credit: Emily Shechtman
Bad Sex is a deceptively simple title for a very complex book. It’s part memoir, part social commentary, it includes some important history. Was it always going to be all of those things or did it evolve?
It was always going to be like that. I always connected my personal journey to what I was learning about history, always tried to contextualize my own experience with a more universal experience. I always knew it was going to be kind of a shit show to weave them all together and it was the hardest thing I ever had to do. But I think the personal story is the Trojan horse that then introduces the reader to a broader history. At least that's how I'm seeing it, that they get to know me and what I'm going through, but then they get a whole host of other experiences along the way. I mean, I love memoir but I’m also a journalist and an editor and the way that I was an editor, I would never take a personal essay just for the hell of it. It had to have a more relevant, universal point than just a story about a person’s life.
I’m a big fan of your mom’s writing and I loved how, when you had a problem, you would go to her archive. The first essay I ever read of hers was “Next Year in Jerusalem,” about an encounter with Orthodox Judaism for Rolling Stone. And, reading your book, I saw so many similarities in your style and approach. Her investigation of religion there felt similar to your interrogation of sex, particularly that desire for something utopian or a straightforward adherence to ideology and then a reckoning with a messier reality.
My mom and I both grapple with this gap between ideology and our personal lives. Most feminists do. You are talking about a more utopian future when you’re an activist and when you’re political but at the same time you’re grappling with your everyday life, which doesn’t have these changes. So you have to cope however you can and it’s impossible to adhere to your ideology at the same time. I think sometimes when you are very married to an ideology, you can sacrifice your personal happiness for some of those rules. And things are just always going to be messy and ambivalent.
You go back to your mom's writing throughout your book, including some diary entries and other writing that she hadn't previously published. Did you debate including the unpublished stuff?
I was nervous about it, especially since the diary entries that I published mostly served as a contrast to the public record. And obviously there was a reason why she didn't want to reveal- I think she wanted to keep her current relationship private, which is a similar feeling I have about my current relationship. Like, I wasn't as candid about Dom, who's my current partner, as I was about my ex-partner just because, first of all, you're living it, you don't have that much insight into it yet. And second of all, you do have to worry about whether other people are gonna feel violated or whatever. And so I'm sure that's what she was doing with my dad because she really didn't write much about their relationship or about the emotional aspect of their relationship. But I did find it to be extremely valuable when I was really trying to excavate the layers of truths around relationships and around attraction and jealousy and all the different ways that we cope with pain in relationships. And she had a lot of pain, the relationship with my dad. And a lot of happiness too, but that was like part of the public record and the pain wasn't. I would hope that she'd be okay with it. I think that she was probably more private than I am and would have been mortified if she were still alive, if, you know, all of that was public. But I think she also appreciated the value of the archives being public. All that stuff is in her archive and I didn't hesitate for a second to put it in her archive because it's part of her and part of her history. And so I think it's okay.
There's that instinct to protect the present and it’s also hard to write about stuff like sex and intimacy and our closest relationships without some distance. Sometimes you can only really do it retrospectively, or that’s the real value of it.
And it was so interesting because when I interviewed her friends and her cousin who she was very close with about this relationship, they just had nothing but good things to say about it. And I was kind of like, ‘well what about this affair?’ You know, ‘what about all of this pain that she was feeling?’ And with the exception of maybe one friend, they were all like, ‘nope, don't remember it. I just remember them having a wonderful marriage.’ And I was like, well, that's not very helpful and nobody's wonderful marriage is unblemished. So it's those kinds of nuances that can get lost even among people who are close to the person because maybe my mom wasn't super forthcoming about it or maybe they just didn't want to think about the bad parts. They wanted to, for whatever reason, hold up this relationship as ideal. I don't see how that's helpful.
You lean into that messiness in this book. What is Bad Sex, exactly?
Well, the word “bad” is intentionally broad. People use the term bad sex but bad could be something so specific, like the specific sex I did have in my first marriage, where there was no chemistry, where it felt wrong, it felt off, we didn't have a connection. Bad sex can also mean that it feels coercive or it feels like you're doing it for the wrong reasons, or somebody's not respecting, not in tune with your desires, which is not exactly the same as coercive, but they're just not in tune with why you're even there. I think a lot of people have sex with people they're not attracted to because of other societal expectations, because of internalized expectations. And then I think it also means bad relationships. Why are we staying in relationships that aren't sexually satisfying? What makes our relationships go bad, even though we know what we deserve because we're modern feminists? I wanted it to feel very all encompassing. There are a lot of grievances about sexuality nowadays, I mean, for decades of course. But there are a lot of grievances that don't necessarily have to do with the nuts and bolts of the physical act. It's about entrenched norms and misogyny and shame and unmet expectations.
You recently had a baby. Has becoming a parent changed the way you think about those ideas?
It has totally upended all my priorities, of course. This book came out three months after my baby was born. It was supposed to be one month after but I told the publishers that wasn’t gonna happen. But even three months was patently insane. I was not the same person at all, my priorities were totally different. And I did have a sexuality, as much as a postpartum woman can have one, but it was certainly not the sexuality I’d written about on the page. I was happy that I had ended the book being like, sexuality is not static, you can’t pin it down, it will always be changing and evolving and you always kind of have to be discovering it. And while I was writing the book I had gone through the pandemic, I had gone through pregnancy at the tail end of writing the book, and all kinds of evolutions in my relationship. And parenthood, I mean, I’ve had a really hard time with it. I love my baby, she’s amazing, she’s perfect and she isn’t doing anything wrong which is why sometimes when I rationally look at the situation, I’m like, why are you so anxious, why are you having such a hard time? But it’s really brought out a lot of latent worry and anxiety around the enterprise of parenthood and just how all-consuming and relentless it is. And how it has really stolen a lot of my time that I used to use to think a lot about my sense of self, what makes me happy, what I’d like to pursue, sexually and otherwise. There’s just not as much of that time right now. And I know that comes back but it’s very all-consuming right now.
Yeah, the time thing is very real. You talk a lot about your own non-monogamy in the book and admittedly I read this as a mother of four who can barely handle my own very vanilla life but the logistics of that seemed...intense. I went into parenthood convinced it would be an equal split and was thrown by the vastly different physical and hormonal experiences we had during that first year.
Tell me about it. We had a deal before I gave birth that for the foreseeable future, we will put that on pause not only because of the biological aspect, which of course I thought about, but also just the zero-sum game of time and caregiving and stuff. So we just were like, let's put on that on the back burner for a while. We didn't give an actual time limit of when we were going to get back to it but I'd say around a couple months ago, my partner re-approached the issue and it actually- it's been so, so interesting that my jealousy is actually less now than it was before, even though I have less desire to get with other people at this moment. I don't know whether it's hormonal or just there's a lot on my mind, but I haven't really thought about having sex with other people right now. I guess I would have the time after bedtime, I could go on a date or whatever, but I just don't really have the interest at the moment. But I really now don't feel- we've had a child together and my partner just clearly is committed to me and also seems very attracted to me, which was a huge relief postpartum. I thought my body was going to be destroyed or whatever, but he seems to still want to have sex with me and so I feel pretty secure in the relationship right now. He's on the apps and dipping a toe in. He hasn't actually seen anybody, but that part is starting again a little bit and, honestly, I was like, ‘Okay, great.’ I truly don't care. I mean, I would care if a relationship he started took him away from our family.
I was going to say, because also his going out now requires you to be home, just from a childcare perspective.
But if anything, I have a more active social life than he does. I'm the one leaving more frequently after bedtime anyway. And also, we have acknowledged that whatever thing he may be starting, it would be very low impact.
It's not like he would see somebody once a week or anything like that. I don't know, not necessarily casual. I think what's made me jealous or insecure in the past is that Dom doesn't want casual sex. He wants to make a true connection with someone. Not on the level that we have, but he doesn't really like a one-night stand. So I think he'd really want to get to know this person. But in terms of time commitment, I think we're understanding that we have very little time right now, we get so little sleep. I don't even think he has a desire to do that. But I've been very surprised about my attitude shift. I think it stems actually from a dynamic that I discuss in the book, which is that I put a lot of pressure on myself to be this perfect, sexual human and to be this very intrepid and exploratory person when it comes to my sexuality, and parenthood has made me relax about that a little bit. You can imagine why.
Yeah, I think it relaxes you about so many things not having to do with the baby. I definitely had some postpartum anxiety with my first so I was not relaxed about her.
Yeah, I think I had postpartum anxiety and now I'm feeling- I had really hard holidays, both Thanksgiving and Christmas, which sort of threw me off of my normal routine. And I also just think it has to do with weaning. I'm really drastically cutting down on breastfeeding, which nobody told me creates more hormonal shifts. So I still struggle with it and it's a big issue and I'm really trying to put it in perspective but it's really on my mind, and being a perfect sexual human really isn't as much on my mind. It’s actually been a relief to just be like, I'll get back to that at some point. I started getting my period and I feel a lot more sexual after that. And even before that – I was surprised about this – I did actually have sexual desire, much more than I thought I would. People prepared me to never have sex ever again, or for a year. And that's certainly not how it's been. I mean, we have sex less, I think, but it's obvious why. It's not this feeling of why are we having less sex? It's like, well, duh, we just are totally exhausted and have logistical issues getting in the way. And again, this is my personal experience, it actually feels good to have it not be so available. So when it does happen, it's special and it feels like not obligatory or anything.
Was it strange to talk about this book in those first months postpartum when you're in a totally different world?
It was but I already knew, even when I was putting this book to bed, that I was writing about a totally different version of myself. I was already writing five years ago Nona. When I was writing this book, it was basically the duration of the most intense version of COVID. And then I was revising the book when I was pregnant. And so this seemed like at least two lives ago. I was like, I can't channel the person I was when I was breaking up with Aaron. That was so long ago. Adding one more layer of parenthood didn't seem that crazy. I was already prepared to talk about a person I barely recognized.
Another thing I really want to talk to you about, which has less to do with sex and more to do more with gender dynamics, is childcare. Your mom wrote about childcare and the challenge of childcare to gender equality and it’s something that I think about all the time because it is so often a site of conflict in relationships. Is that something you’re grappling with? Do you have it all figured out?
Oh my god, we definitely don't have it all figured out. The first few months we didn't have that problem. My partner got laid off a few weeks before the baby was born, which at first was really stressful but then was actually a blessing in disguise. We both started working part time at the two- or three-month mark because I had to start doing book stuff and he was just doing some contract work, and his mom was there for the summer. So that felt very much, we're doing the same amount of childcare. Of course, it didn't feel equal per se because the buck stopped at me because I was breastfeeding. And I also just, again, had that biological tuning in of the baby. I mean, that hit me like a ton of bricks. That was insane. But in terms of time and hours, it was equal. And then he started a new job a couple of months ago. We had a part-time caregiver and I was doing another project right on the heels of my book but then we decided to move to another city. And I knew that I was going to have to do a few weeks of basically solo caregiving because we had to find new childcare but I had absolutely no idea how tough it would be. I naively assumed that if you had the money to pay for childcare, you just had childcare but that's not the case at all.
It's not. Oh, how it’s not.
And it's infuriating. My partner and I have a lot of tension around this. He's younger than me, he has a job that pays more than me, and it's nine to five so he just couldn't do childcare in the way that I could do childcare. But also, I have the much more established career. I just came out with a book, I'm a writer. He has some job, I have a career. He wouldn't be insulted by me saying that. He agrees. His job is just a job but since he has to be there nine to five, I got stuck with the childcare. And when I arrived in Kingston, I just met so many women – and it was always women – who had inadequate childcare and had to take it on the chin with doing more childcare because they had chosen a more flexible career. And I think the reason why women choose flexible careers is because they prize work-life balance and some flexibility. I have chosen not to have a nine to five for now four or five years because I could make the same amount of money in less hours and not put so much pressure on myself. But now, all of a sudden, those hours are being filled by childcare because up until recently, we couldn't find enough. And I just actually felt completely insane for this last month. I had never been a full-time caregiver. I guess we were lucky in the beginning. It didn't seem lucky, it seemed normal. I didn't really give it any thought. It was a little bit of a financial strain but other than that, it was initially not that difficult to find. But all of a sudden, I was in this city where there's been an influx of young families and the availability of care has not kept up with that. It just took me weeks to secure childcare. I have finally secured it and I feel like I now have my life back but I was this involuntary full-time caregiver. I love my daughter, but I don't think I'm built for that.
I wonder how many people are.
I mean, some people I met seemed perfectly happy with the arrangement and some people were really just as angry as I was but it was almost always the woman who had put her career on pause. And I was sort of just like, I guess I knew this, but I didn't really know it. And I felt very stupid for not totally realizing that this might happen. I was reading all of those pieces during the pandemic about the dearth of childcare and how it was falling on women but somehow, I had filed away all of that as pandemic-specific, which was so stupid of me. Obviously, it was to the extreme but it exposed the cracks in the system in a way that I should have taken to heart and just didn't. So it really did throw me for a loop and I felt totally insane and exhausted for the whole month of December because of that issue. It really, really helps to have a partner who can talk to you about these issues. He and I are very, very conscious of all of these dynamics and can talk about them, and I'm really trying to not resent him for it. It's hard, though.
Even when you are a couple that talks things through, at the end of the day, someone is going to walk out the door to go to work and someone is not.
He was remote, so he was there and that was almost worse. I mean, he would actually help a few minutes here and there during the day. It just seemed so much more relaxing. I was just like, ‘Damn, this guy is just sitting in front of a computer...’
Work is the vacation.
I didn't work at all in December. I became that person who just didn't answer emails because I was just completely alone with this baby. I mean, my partner took the mornings every day, thank god. But then after her first nap, it was just me until bedtime, basically. And I was just like, how do I fill all these hours? I truly had never done it. It went from tag teaming it with my partner to having both him and his mom to having the other caregiver. But then it was just me for weeks. And I know that seems like a small amount of time but it just seemed…
No, it wears you down.
And again, it was nothing she did. In fact, she seemed sick of me too. She has a couple of different caregiving situations. I had to cobble something together. One of the situations is a home daycare and she seems to just love it. She gets a lot less attention than if it was just me but she just seems to be so happy and excited to go, and I'm just, ‘Great. Get a life, girl.’
This reminds me of the essay your mom wrote about you and the issue of childcare.
Yeah, I went back to that essay and, honestly, I found it to be lacking in details about my parents' 50/50 childcare. I was like, ‘There's no fucking way that happened. I know my dad, and now I know what it's like to have a newborn and now I know what it's like to be a breastfeeding mother, there's no way you guys split it 50/50 like you always told me.’ I really wanted to ask her more questions. I found that essay to be valuable in many ways.
Right, when you mentioned the in-home daycare it reminded me of the part of the essay where she talks about how you were so happy and your world expanded and how that's a good thing.
Yeah, exactly. I think she was right about that. Childcare isn't just an unfortunate thing we need to do because we have to work. It's actually adding a dimension of wonder to a child's life. I'm really grateful about that insight but I wanted more about how my babyhood went with my dad of all people because my father was much more risk prone than my mom and just not as organized, and I’m sure that there was some tension around-
I mean, I have never seen it done without messiness. Unless a woman is like, ‘I am happily doing all the childcare,’ I don't think that that exists.
Yeah, absolutely, and she just doesn't allude to any of that. And she talks about how, ‘Oh, he's done it before.’ Talking to my siblings, he did not do it before. That was not real parenting that he did when he was 19 years old in the '50s. This was the first time he really was an active participant in parenthood. I'm sure she was trying to preserve his privacy or their privacy but it's been really something that I would love to know and I can't know. What I remember from my childhood – obviously I don't remember my babyhood – was that my dad did do equal share in terms of time. He picked me up every other day and then woke up with me every other day. And they obviously had a 50/50 split in that way, but the cognitive load was almost all on my mom, now that I think about it.
I talk to writers who are parents about what it means to write and also be a parent, what it means to put yourself on the page when you have children who either at that time or in the future will read your writing. But I don't often get to talk to someone who does that and also was written about by a parent.
Yeah, not only do I have no problem with them writing about me, I wish there was more writing about me. Now that I'm a mother and I'm trying to raise my child without the insight of my parents, I wish I had more about what it was like to parent me. I'm so curious. I remember my childhood, but I don't remember my babyhood and I just wish that there was more information out there and it might as well be in the form of writing because that's just how I'm used to my parents processing their thoughts. My dad would use his own life in a very limited way in his writing, he mentioned me and my mom to make points sometimes, but it's mostly my mom's writing that really delves into the personal. And she only really wrote about me once.
In the childcare essay.
Yeah, I show up here and there but that was the one time she really wrote about me. And I've pored over that piece so many times just to extract something about my young, young childhood. And it never really occurred to me that, ‘oh, my privacy is being violated’ or ‘I'm being written about without my consent.’
That is really interesting because people are always fretting over what the rules should be about turning kids into content.
Yeah, I mean, I think it might be different if she had written about me when I was older. I think privacy started to become really important to me in maybe middle school. Maybe that's different for every kid, but I don't feel a way about it. I certainly don't feel violated. I appreciate knowing more about myself as a kid. Maybe that's just my writerly narcissism to want to know as much as possible about baby Nona.
Did you think about a future child reading your book while you were writing it?
I didn't think about it at all. I mean, my book came out and then I became mortified thinking about my future kids reading it but I'm fine with it. I have been very grateful for having as much personal writing as possible to turn to with my parents. I mean, my dad didn't really write about his personal life but my mother certainly did. So I'm not that worried about that. I am thinking about writing about parenting, except I have been grappling with the feeling of internalized disrespect for full-time parents. I would have a full day to kill so I'd go to various businesses and I'd go to Target and I'd see other stay-at-home moms and be like, ‘Oh my God, do people think I'm a stay-at-home mom?’ Or, ‘Do people think I'm that woman?’ And I would go to a bookstore and see my own book and be with my baby and be like, ‘Oh, fuck.’ You know what I mean? Why was I so weirdly ashamed to be a full-time parent? And what I was doing was just objectively more important than not only what my partner was doing – that's obvious in my opinion – but also probably more important than my writing. Why did I think that it was important for me to be writing? She needed to be taken care of and that was really important but I felt almost ashamed about it, and then I realized that was just obvious, internalized misogyny. And I feel the same way about whether or not to write about this experience. I'm like, ‘Ugh, do I want to be a mommy writer? Do I want to be a parenting writer?’ And then I have to be like, ‘Wait. That's very clear, internalized shame and denigration of this experience that so many people have. There's so much richness to it. Why would you denigrate it like that?’ And I actually had a similar feeling about being a sex writer. I was like, ‘Are people going to take me seriously?’ And now I have it again with parenting.
You might even say it's a pattern, that impulse to distance ourselves from writing that is closely identified with women...
I had to confront the fact that I looked down on full-time caregiving. And now I realize that not only is full-time caregiving extremely important when you need to do it but it also requires a huge amount of creativity, spontaneity, multitasking. It's just the hardest- I mean, of course, mental stimulation in some ways is very low because you're dealing with a literal baby but at the same time, I have never been more exhausted and not just physically exhausted but mentally exhausted because you're keeping so many things in your head at any given moment and you're entertaining to the nth degree. You really have to commit to bits.
Oh yeah, you're like a clown.
Yeah, excavate all of your enthusiasm and creativity and whimsical nature. And it's just really hard. It's really hard, and I can't believe I was such an asshole about it in my head. I would never have been an asshole about it in public but I was in my head. And I still don't want to do that but I now understand that anyone who does do it is really, really- I mean, I really admire them.
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Thank you for this conversation! So many things I've experienced that are hard to find women talking about out loud. I feel seen.