Books, News & Commentary, Non-Fiction

What’s Better Than Sex? We ask writer Samantha Trenoweth

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The new book Better than Sex:Women write about Sex and Romance in the Digital Age sees 16 writers look at sex and romance in the digital age. From love to Tinder and on to sex shops writers including Lena Dunham, Zan Rowe, Van Badham, Roxane Gay, Emily Maguire, Jamila Rizvi, Lucy Le Masurier, Susan Chenery, Rosie Waterland, Fiona McGregor, Rachel Hills, Zoe Norton Lodge, Ann Friedman and Celeste Liddle look at love and sex lives of women.

The book is edited by journalist and author Samantha Trenoweth whose books include Jenny Kee: A Big Life, The Future of God (interviews with prominent religious thinkers), 1001 Australians (with Toby Creswell), Bewitched & Bedevilled: Women Write the Gillard Years (ed.) and Fury: Women write about sex, power and violence (ed.).

We asked Trenoweth a few questions about women and sex.

The book addresses not just sex, but romance. Is romance in a critical state as the result of online interactions, and would that be such a bad thing?

That’s exactly the question that started this book rolling. I was wondering just that. So, I asked the opinion of a bunch of women who are much wiser in the ways of online love than I am, and I think the verdict we’ve reached is, no. In spite of the fears expressed by everyone from Vanity Fair to the religious right, there’s no danger of a romantic apocalypse any time soon.

Would that be such a bad thing? Life can be cold and cruel, so I’m in favour of the stuff that brings people together, encourages empathy and happiness. Holidays, romance, ice-cream, sand mandalas, Splendour in the Grass: they’re all fleeting but that’s not such a bad thing.

Could we say that for both men and women, the “choice” afforded by connected technology creates a market approach to love? What, if any, are the consequences of a love that we appear to select? If we“choose” love, or sex, in the way we have previously chosen consumer goods, are we also at risk of having post-purchase disappointment?

Some online dating aps definitely present—I think not love so much as people—as commodities, though obviously this is not purely an issue in matters of the heart. A price has been attached to almost everything that might conceivably turn a profit for the top five-percent. It pisses me off, but I think it loses a bit of its power once we’re conscious of it. As to post-purchase disappointment: that’s always existed.

Many of the essays in this work are intensely personal. Can you tell us why this seems to be a form preferred by feminist readers and writers?

I don’t know that it is a preferred form for feminist writers, in spite of the obvious ‘personal is political’ idea. I’ve read a hell of a lot of very dry, academic feminist writing. Personal writing is sometimes preferred by editors because it can make difficult topics approachable and engaging, and allow readers to spend a moment in the writer’s shoes, so it encourages empathy. Our brains are wired to respond positively to personal stories.

In Catherine Lumby’s essay on “gender deprogramming” and elsewhere in the book, it is taken as read that gender is simply a construct. Now that you have edited three well-regarded anthologies on feminism, would you say that this idea of biological sex as being incidental to gender is something you’d be keen to explore? Not a small question, BUT: does sex have any link to gender that is not just down to, say, parents and media? Or, is the matter decided?

I can’t answer that question because I honestly don’t know whether there is an answer yet, but it is definitely an area I’m keen to explore in a future anthology. I think that the way this current generation is dissolving gender boundaries and looking creatively at sexual identity is incredibly exciting.

We like the look the essay which canvasses thought on the matter of Tinder and related platforms and how these have really changed the way we do the sex and love business. Do you believe that these new approaches to coupling (or trebling, or whatever) have had an observable social impact?

There’s no doubt they have a social impact—or a whole bunch of them—some perceived as positive, others negative. You’ve already mentioned that the way these aps are designed encourages commodification. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that digital dating gives access to the dating pool to a whole lot of people who would otherwise be sitting at home on a Saturday night watching re-runs of re-runs.

In the chapter Van Badham wrote for the book, there’s a sense that digital media gave her a certain freedom and control of the dating process, but that after a while, it also began to feel too easy—potential partners were too readily available. I got the impression, reading it, that she was beginning to feel like the kid at the party who’d eaten too many cupcakes. In the end, she met her true love at an irl trade union party, which is very Van and very romantic.

I don’t really believe the Vanity Fair-style horror stories that predict a Tinder-driven end to love, romance, sunshine, puppies, the world as we know it. The reason I don’t is that the online world is just a reflection of the real-world people who daily create and recreate it. It can reflect the best and the worst of us, but it does reflect us. And for the most part, if the contributors to Better Than Sex are to be believed, we want much the same things, in the way of love, that we’ve always wanted, we’re just looking for it in different places.

HOW did you get Lena Dunham’s phone number!?!

That would be telling.

Celeste Liddle’s work explores the territory of a life without a primary love object. Is this, do you think, a really central tension for feminism, especially heterosexual feminism, that we can replicate broader social condition in our most intimate relationships?

What I love about Celeste Liddle’s chapter is the way it thumbs its nose at what society/friends/family/community expect of women and boldly affirms our right to claim what we want for ourselves. This seems particularly poignant in the context of Indigenous culture, because the chapter points out that Indigenous women have two cultures shouting at them about who and what they should be. I think Celeste’s is by far the most radical chapter.

Yes, the way gender politics play out in our personal relationships has always been a central issue for feminism.

There seems to be a view that women need better role models for most things, including sex and love. Or, at least, that they need to read inspiring stories that describe other possibilities of doing sex and love. Did you feel at any point in editing this work that there’s a sort of contradiction here? Which is to say,  to counteract discourses that suggest or describe certain behaviours with discourses that suggest or describe certain other behaviours could seem circular.

I don’t think it’s so much about better role models. There are already some thoroughly inspiring role models out there, though of course there could always be more. For me, the issue is more to do with telling our own stories, rather than having our stories invented for us by the male imagination. I think the efforts to redress the gender imbalance in the film industry are incredibly important for this reason.

I suppose that’s why I edit these anthologies. I started out with Bewitched and Bedevilled: Women Write the Gillard Years because I was sitting at home watching/reading predominantly male commentators tearing Gillard apart. And I kept asking, where are the women’s voices?

Better than Sex:Women write about Sex and Romance in the Digital Age is published by Hardie Grant Books

You can buy the book here 

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