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by Joan Sewell
Broadway, 2007
Review by Christian Perring on Oct 14th 2008

I'd Rather Eat Chocolate

Joan Sewell says she has a lower libido than her husband, and this caused problems in their marriage.  He wanted more sex than she did, and she didn't feel comfortable having sex when she wasn't in the mood.  She wasn't in the mood very much.  In order to help her marriage, she watched TV specials, read various self-help books, and even went to a couple's therapist, and eventually she and her husband Kip came to an agreement that worked for both of them.  So I'd Rather Eat Chocolate is a simple memoir, yet it is enjoyable because Sewell is smart, thoughtful, and possibly a little odd, although she tends to think that many women have a similar blah reaction about sex. 

Sewell describes her husband as a good lover, so her lack of enthusiasm for sex doesn't stem from any deficits in his technique.  He is also romantic and loving, so the problem, if that is what it is, is not about needing to have sex combined with love.  She just doesn't find sex that rewarding, and she doesn't want to give up on sleep or even the next chapter of the book she is reading to have sex instead.  When someone tells her that they have sex every day, she is stunned.  When Kip tells her he would ideally like to have sex almost that much, she finds it hard to understand.  She could easily have sex quite rarely and be perfectly happy about it.  She likes sex well enough, but it just is not a big priority for her. 

She tries the suggestions in the self-help books, maybe with some doubts, but with a basically open mind, yet she finds them unhelpful, because she finds their approaches problematic.  She feels that their suggestions would make her give up too much of herself, or make her live falsely, denying some basic part of herself.  Sewell is not ready to do that: a female friend of hers has much more sex than she wants, just in order to please her husband, and just grits her teeth and get fakes orgasms to get it over with more quickly.  Sewell doesn't want to place herself in that position.  Her marriage reaches a point where she and her husband start sleeping in different beds, and it looks like they might not be able to work out their problems.  However, though open discussion and even some negotiation, they manage to find an arrangement that suits them both, that gives him enough and yet also allows her to keep her sense of integrity and control over her life. 

Sewell is particularly strong in her analysis of the problems of self-help books such as John Gray's Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, making perceptive criticisms and explaining why their approaches did not help her.  A basic problem for such books is that they assume that if sex is done right, then women will want it as much as men.  That might be the case in some relationships, but it wasn't true for her.  Sewell's description of her process of trying to solve her marital problems is also nicely done: hoping that someone else can provide a solution, trying all sorts of ideas, and finding none of them very helpful.  Her experience must be quite frequent: with all those self-help books out there and self-proclaimed experts claiming to have the solution to one's problems (and also threatening that if you don't take their advice, your marriage is bound to fail), one can feel a failure when even after reading the books, watching the videos and catching the specials on TV, the problems continue.  Modern American culture is very prescriptive about what marriages should be like in order to be successful, and it is not very tolerant of people who do not conform.  So Sewell's determination to try the ideas she gets from these other sources yet retain a critical stance towards them is a welcome change.  She manages to find a solution using some of the ideas she found in the books and videos, but she also uses her own creativity and self-analysis.  In her readiness to work it out for herself, she can serve as a role model for others.

Toward the end of the book, Sewell does some of her own generalizing about the differences between men and women with regards to sexual readiness and libido, and although she is not making universal claims about the differences between the sexes, she does verge on the same simplifications that make self-help books so problematic.  It probably is true that men on average think about sex and want more sex than women, and there may well be biological reasons for this related to hormone levels.  Yet not only is there great individual variation, but also sexuality is a complicated phenomenon, and it is not unusual for people to have a mixture of feelings about it, which don't get explained by hormone levels.  Sewell doesn't say much about the meanings of sexuality formed by her past experiences in her adolescence and other relationships, and she is a little too quick to just use the label of "low libido."  She alludes to some past relationships which were not so healthy, but does not explore the role of sexuality in them.  Most therapists will wonder what part they played in her current experience of sex, and whether there is more to her low libido than just hormones.  Even if her own low libido is purely a biological phenomenon, she needs to be more careful in resorting to biology as an explanation of gender difference.  Since she discusses some feminist writers and undoubtedly is familiar with some work in gender studies, it's a little surprising that she doesn't show more sensitivity to these issues.

Nevertheless, I'd Rather Eat Chocolate is one of the more thoughtful discussions of sexuality in memoir form, and will be especially interesting to readers who have similar issues in their own relationships. 

Link: Author web site

© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.