personal challenge memoir review #2: chastened

guys. what the fuck. this book SUCKS.

i am not sure why i picked it up. i think i read a review of it somewhere that made it sound potentially intriguing. it’s a memoir kind of deal by a woman who made a personal vow with herself to not have sex (which she defines as “penile penetration”) for a year. her vow was inspired by a chance encounter on the streets on new york city, when she saw her ex-boyfriend from college steering a smiling blonde woman into a jewelry store. she learned from a mutual friend later that they had become engaged. this happened shortly before the author turned 30, & it made her think about how she hasn’t really had any real long-term relationships since she & the college boyfriend split up eight years earlier. in fact, no man since there has told her he loves her. this makes her think, somehow, that maybe it has something to do with sex–that maybe she has been divorcing sex from love & is reaping the rewards, in the form of casual sex & no love. it’s never really entirely clear what the author hopes to gain from avoiding sex for a year, or what inspired the decision, but…let’s just go with it.

the books starts with WAY TOO MUCH FUCKING DETAIL about her relationship with college boyfriend. if i was that dude or his fiancee & i stumbled across this book, i would not feel great about it. the next chapter is all about the last guy she had sex with, an older man named jake. i had a hard time with this character because a) he sounded like an asshole, b) i always feel weird about way older men doing it with way younger women, but mainly c) i kept picturing him as the short, balding bongo player on “flight of the conchords”…see here for a visual. yeah, the guy in the music video, playing the bongos. sexy? not so much.

& then the book slogs on, with hephzibah not having penile intercourse, but going on plenty of dates with various men. the main thing that made me literally want to throw this book across the room is that hephzibah CONSTANTLY maligns feminism. at first, she’s all quick to say, “i’m not a feminist.” okay. that’s cool. i personally don’t really understand why a woman wouldn’t be a feminist, but whatever. some people don’t like to label themselves. but then she starts pushing all these myths about feminism. she claims at one point that feminism’s enduring legacy is that it called for women to abort male fetuses. WHAT? seriously? is she smoking crack? is she actually pat robertson in disguise? every political movement has its crackpot fringe extremists, but i can guarantee that aborting male fetuses was never a part of the mainstream (or even radical) feminist agenda, okay? she also goes on & on about how feminists are such big hypocrites because some women enjoy porn (what does that have to do with anything?) & some women became lesbians for political reasons (so the fuck what? what does that have to do with her vow of chastity?).

she seriously takes every chance she gets to ridicule feminism & talk about how useless & stupid it is. she claims that feminism basically achieved absolutely nothing, as proven by the fact that women’s lives in, say, sudan, are not appreciably better than they were forty years ago. really? on what authority, exactly, is she claiming this to be true? is she secretly an expert on sudanese gender relations as well as a professional solipsist? i am the first to acknowledge that feminism as popularly conceived by this book (she basically equates feminism with either second-wave consciousness-raising sessions or with new york feminist collectives trying to close down the times square strip joints) didn’t put as much energy as they could have into the issues of women in developing nations. but feminism has positively impacted women all over the world in large & small ways, & i think it’s a crass generalization to suggest that the lives of women in developing nations have been unchanged for the last fifty years. though i’m sure it looks that way from the perspective of a self-centered white westerner whose biggest problem in life is when to confess to her most recent date that she has taken a personal vow of temporary chastity, which could potentially be compromised by enjoying a romantic weekend getaway in some palatial estate somewhere.

she also goes on & on & on & ON about how the “sexual revolution” actually disserviced women by creating a chasm between sex & intimacy, so women were having more sex than ever but enjoying less intimacy. & this is based on…what historical or sociological sources again? or is it just an assumption based on nothing? she claims that this led to a lot of unplanned babies & single moms, & that is just so awful because pregnancy is SO DANGEROUS for women. she comes back to this “pregnancy is as close as a woman will ever come to death until she actually dies for real” theme again & again…without ever stopping to acknowledge that it was FEMINISTS that helped to legalize birth control access to single women, & it was FEMINISTS who helped legalize abortion, & it was FEMINISTS that enabled hephzibah to enjoy a decade of no-strings-attached sex while successfully avoiding unwanted pregnancy.

she also suggests that feminism is bunk because she has it on good authority that simone de beauvoir occasionally cried over men. i can’t think of a better reason to throw a decades-long movement agitating for basic human rights for half the world’s population out the window…can you?

anyway. back to the book. so she goes on dates. though it becomes clear that she considers any time spent more or less alone with a man (even just talking on the phone) a date. by that standard, i have dated a lot more than i thought i had. there is a section where she acknowledges her preference for older men & speculates that it is due to the fact that her father was largely absent from her childhood. she also suggests that most women prefer older men because, at the end of the day, women really WANT to defer to men (she actually says this), but because it is not politically correct to do so on the basis of gender anymore, they choose older men so they can defer according to age. um…suddenly it becomes apparent why hephzibah is so down on feminism. it’s because she doesn’t really seem to have a lot of respect for women, including herself.

she also suggests that she is avoiding sex because she has learned that she can’t really have sex with a man without developing feelings for him. she goes on to elaborate, insisting that this is a problem that all women share, because women are just biologically wired to develop strong emotions for the men they bed. why, hello, biological essentialism & ridiculously outmoded theories on how the clan of the cave bear selected mates like it has relevance in the year 2011. i was wondering when you’d show up to the party.

later in the book, she begins to grapple with the possibility that maybe it’s not sex that is the problem. maybe it’s just male attention in general. maybe her desire for male attention is what distracts her from her work & her friendships & creates the intoxicating flood of emotions that she likens again & again to an addiction. & clearly, her vow of chastity is not preventing her from seeking out male attention in general. basically, she’s hooked on the male gaze.

hey, hephzibah, you know what might help you with that? maybe…FEMINISM. seriously. if she could validate her worthiness as a human & a woman within herself, maybe she could spend a little less time seeking that validation from men, specifically in the form of sex, intimacy, or “love”.

there are numerous points in the book where i actually felt a physical wrenching of sadness for how clueless hephzibah is about herself. she allows jake to swoop back into her life & does all kinds of sexual things with him (everything but intercourse, i guess), & at one point, he says, “i think i might love you, a bit.” despite the fact that he has a girlfriend, & has had said girlfriend for the entire time that hephzibah has known (& been sleeping with) him. she split once when she realized he wasn’t going to end things with his girlfriend for her…but she allows him to seduce her again by suggesting that it’s just an undeniable physical connection. dear hephzibah, usually when we are doing sexual things (if not actual sex) with people that we have great big huge crushes on, we tend to think that our physical connections with that person are very special & noteworthy. once the crush is history, you kind of forget about the supposed physical connection.

anyway, hephzibah latches on to this pseudo-declaration of love & clings to it like a life raft. girlfriend is thirty & this is the best she’s gotten since college? “i might love you, a bit”? i think we can all agree that that is legitimately sad.

& just a chapter or two later, she is telling another man about her plans to temporarily re-locate to new york city. her plans are being held up by complicated visa issues. he jokingly says, “i have a green card, which is halfway to citizenship. let’s get married.” hephzibah also latches on to this, painting it as basically a real marriage proposal, & worse, suggesting that getting a fake marriage proposal from a man she’s not even actually dating was actually some kind of achievement for her. something to be proud of. it made me so sad. it totally reminded me of being in high school, listening to my lady friends pick apart the coded messages in what their boyfriends were saying to them. “he says he loves spending time with me? that’s like saying he loves me, right? OMG he loves me!” except hephzibah is thirty. so it’s very sad.

anyway…finally, FINALLY, the book & the vow are over. the epilogue is so rambling & non-sensical, it’s almost unreadable. hephzibah tries her hand at a little sociological analysis, discussing statistics about teenage pregnancy & such forth. it’s pretty terrible. she writes something about teen girls being “pressurized” into sex. um…i think she means “pressured”. the words are not synonyms. i kind of can’t believe this woman is a professional writer (she does a lot of work for magazines). it’s obvious that she wants to wrap her story up in a neat bow about how she had sex with a great man after her vow was over & now they are engaged. i mean, she claims to not want that because it’s the pat way that memoirs about being single women always end…but it’s not hard to read between the lines & smell the defensiveness that belies the truth. anyway, that does not happen. she has sex with kind of an asshole man & the sex is terrible & hephzibah is still single. it is unclear that she learned anything from her year of chastity except maybe how to snag a literary agent.

i did the heavy lifting, reading this horror show. learn from my mistakes.

Published by Ciara

Ciara Xyerra wrote zines for the better part of two decades. She has a brilliant & adorable preschooler named Ramona & sews as much as she possibly can. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her boyfriend. She enjoys catching up on "The New Yorker", meatball subs, keeping it cranky, intersectional post-third wave feminism, dinosaurs, & monsters. If you have nothing nice to say, she recommends that you come sit here by her, so you can say not-nice things together.

8 thoughts on “personal challenge memoir review #2: chastened

    1. yeah, hephzibah anderson. she’s british, if that helps provide necessary context. though i am also a fan of the idea that i would have just invented that name for her because i hated the book so much.

    1. i read fast, so it’s not really a big deal. if i was laboring over a terrible book for days or weeks, things would be a lot different, but it’s just a couple of hours & then i’m done. i think i should make more of an effort to read books i like though…if only i weren’t so critical.

  1. This sounds awful, and I praise you for finishing it. That’s tough, even if it is a quick read. Unless it’s so awful that it’s funny, like a bad movie.

    I am a really slow reader, but I absolutely have to finish a book once I start it. That’s why this True Blood book has been sitting on my desk half read for almost a month. I’ve moved on to greener pastures, though. But I still feel like I have to finish it.

  2. Reading this review made me feel so crazy. How does stuff like this get published? You should send your review to her. I also thought that you made up a name for her. Ha!

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