woman reading

Messy and Beautiful

Once in college, I spent a summer interning at a spiritual retreat center. People of all ages and faiths came there for workshops and classes, some staying a weekend and others as much as a year to learn and reflect and eat tasty vegetarian meals in community. One afternoon, a few of my fellow interns decided to host a forum on sexuality and the sacred which turned out to be one of the most profound experiences of my summer.

We sat in a circle, participants in their early twenties through their eighties, and talked about our experiences with sexuality and how it overlapped (or didn’t) with our experiences of the divine. People were so open; it brought me in touch with the almost-universal nature of sexuality and how it plays a daily role in every individual’s life to some extent, even your mailman and your cranky neighbor who you never thought of in a sexual context until this moment.

People came with a wide variety of perspectives and experiences, many of which I hadn’t gone through myself. Regardless, I often felt like I could relate to some element of their story or imagine myself in their shoes; it opened up my world, revealing a place I knew was there in every human life but which is so rarely discussed in a frank and non-judgmental way, especially across generations.

Having my preconceived notions about some of the people debunked felt a little jarring at first, but mostly it made me feel more connected, less alone; everybody has to grapple with this stuff and there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers. It turned out to be a moving and thought-provoking experience that has stayed with me in the years that have passed.

I recently had a similar experience reading Behind the Bedroom Door: Getting It, Giving It, Loving It, Missing It, a collection of essays by women about their experiences and feeling around sex and their sexuality, edited by Stephanie Dogloff. The writers allowed themselves to be very real and vulnerable, in a true, beautiful way.

One recurring theme which struck me is the messiness of life, especially where sex is concerned. There was a decided lack of “and then we lived happily ever after” pat endings in the stories. Even the women who were writing from a place of sexual satisfaction related how sex has played a fluid and sometimes combustible role in their lives and relationships, and how things have evolved for them over time.

There were frank essays about trying to reconcile mismatched libidos; sometimes one partner wanted a different kind of sex than the other, sometimes one had a flagging libido due to external circumstances that had to be grappled with, and in one case a woman had lost interest in sex completely but still adored her husband and didn’t know how to reconcile their seemingly mutually exclusive needs.

The writers didn’t tone down their joy and exultation when things were going well in their sex life, either, which was sexy and invigorating and offset some of the more bracing moments in the book.

Similar to my experience at the retreat center, even if I hadn’t walked in each author’s shoes, I felt I could relate, and I gained new ideas, empathy, and insight from each of the thoughtfully-written essays. I recommend it for anyone interested in the various incarnations of female sexuality; it doesn’t represent every element out there, but it does cover a diverse range of experiences, and it’s refreshing to be told the whole, unvarnished truth, as stark and as beautiful as it can be.