Sex and The Married Girl

I’ve been trying to review this book by Mandi Norwood (one time editor of British Cosmopolitan) for over a year, but each time I try, I just get stuck on one question. Why on earth do I find this book so bloody irritating? I shouldn’t, really, because it does contain a lot of feminist ideas about marriage and heterosexual relationships and it proposes a view of marriage that many feminists have been fighting for for decades. So why can’t I stop concentrating on the flaws?

I’ve come to the conclusion that when mainstream writers like Norwood ‘do’ feminism, card-carrying feminists like me can’t help but spot all the little annoyances contained within the text, despite the fact that the general principles being put forward are essentially pretty sound. I don’t mean that to sound as if I think I’m a “better feminist” than anyone else; what I think I’m trying to get across is the frustration when someone tries to present basic feminist ideas to a mainstream audience but manages to do so in an incredibly ham-fisted way.

Norwood obviously thinks she’s discovered some fascinating new social trend

In this book Norwood aims to tell the truth about “modern marriage” to break the “impenetrable wall of silence that we build around us after our vows”, to “challenge conventional thinking”, to encourage women to “break the rules that need to be broken”.

If you read this book expecting some kind of useful manual for modern feminist relationships, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The book is more like a few magazine articles stuck together. You know the type, the ones that trumpet the latest social trend and invent Labels with Capital Letters for them. Norwood obviously thinks she’s discovered some fascinating new social trend, that of powerful married women who have revolutionised marriage, the “Married Girls” (yes I know what you’re thinking – I’ll come onto that in a moment). “We constantly challenge stereotypes” she claims of her own marriage: “no aspect of our relationship remains unchallenged by our breaking with tradition.” She is prone to this kind of wild generalisation.

The introduction contains an unconvincing attempt to justify and explain the “Married Girl” label. It is pretty transparent that Sex and the Married Girl was obviously chosen as a title because a) it references Helen Gurley-Brown’s zeigesty 1960’s book Sex and the Single Girl (thus implying Norwood is carrying on this legacy), b) cashes in on the popular show Sex and the City, and c) has the word “sex” in it (despite the fact the book is supposed to be about marriage generally, not just sex within marriage). But having settled on this title, she has to pretend that there is a genuine reason behind it besides selling the book. So she argues that the label Married Girl is “not a spit in the eye of feminists who’ve worked vigorously, on behalf of us all, to have women taken seriously”, but rather because we are all living longer – meaning that “there’s every scientific… reason to consider and call ourselves ‘girls’ until we’re well into our forties.” Hmm.

She argues that modern “Married Girls” are moulding and changing marriage on their terms

Her basic message is that modern “Married Girls” are fabulous, powerful, in control, and they are moulding and changing marriage on their terms. A key theme which repeats itself throughout the book is to contrast these women to their mothers, who she argues were all downtrodden, demoralised, and dejected by marriage. Now of course, everything is just tickety-boo!

However, it gradually dawns on you that Norwood’s remit is not actually marriage in general terms or even the state of marriage in the UK and U.S. Her scope is actually very limited: she’s talking about what she calls “Married Girls”. She says this is women under 45, but it’s actually heterosexual women under 45 who have very successful careers, plenty of their own money, can afford to hire cleaners, who think porn is cool, who get married later in life after having been to University and/or travelled the world, chick-lit reading, Manolo wearing, assertive, confident, femme, glamorous urbanities.

The annoying thing is that Norwood constantly acts like she’s representing all “modern women” and presents the view of her Married Girls as the view of all women. There is not much room for diversity or real alternative choices or opinions in the book. All the women she quotes seem to agree with her (funny, that). She totally brushes aside and ignores any indication that some women may not be having such a fun time as the ones she interviews, applying the “head in the sand” approach to women’s issues. She can barely contain her boredom for anyone who raises the problem of women’s position in the world. “Yes, yes, we know women have had it rough.” she writes in the introduction. “Yes, yes, we know many women continue to suffer. But what’s the story now? What are the lessons we’ve learned? How do we regard our role today?” In other words, talking about continuing sexism in world today is “exhausting”, “dreary”, and boring and I’m going to completely ignore it. This is despite the fact that in later parts in the book she does seem to accept that sexism still does exist and that it is wrong.

there is not much room for diversity or real alternative choices or opinions

I think it’s also the nature of Norwood’s feminism that’s annoying. It’s a sort of relentlessly upbeat “women are fab- fab- fabulous and we all have fabulous careers and fabulous sex and wear fabulous shoes!” style (if you’ve ever read Cosmo you’ll recognise it). You have to grudgingly accept that this sort of stuff is very appealing to women who would normally shy away from feminism. But bah humbug! Is it just me who finds it pretty naive?

The constant generalisations and assumptions that all women think the same are frequent. In the sex chapter, she states, matter-of-fact, “porn is no longer a feminist issue.” Oh really? Even many anti-censorship, pro-porn feminists wouldn’t necessarily go as far as to say that. She goes on,

Married Girls don’t feel degraded, devalued or disgusted by pornography… 70 percent of the women I interviewed felt porn positively enhanced their sex lives. They see it for what it is: voyeuristic fun. Says Freya, 35, ‘I think that’s a big difference between us and our mother’s generation. We don’t look at the women in porn movies in a political sense. I mean, the majority of women in porn today are in it because they want to be and they’re earning a very nice living, thank you… No-one’s getting hurt, no-one’s being denigrated’… Sam has no problem suggesting [watching porn with her husband]…. ‘It’s dead normal’.

The discussion of the issue doesn’t get any more thoughtful or questioning than that. Whether you are pro-porn or not, you have to admit that such a simplistic view of the sex industry and a total ignorance of the possible consequences of supporting it is either naive or willfully stupid.

Actually, not all women think the same way about these issues. And secondly, to present one view as the norm isolates those women who think differently. What is the Married Girl who doesn’t like porn supposed to think when she reads this? That she’s sad, that she needs to lighten up? What if she’s pressured by her husband to watch porn and she doesn’t want to? The whole point of the book is supposedly about standing up for what you believe in and forming a marriage that’s right for you, but in some ways, like this, it seems to just create another mould rather than encouraging genuinely individual choices.

Another example is the emphasis on paid work as the be all and end all of a woman’s identity. You can see that this concept is a kind of twisted, hand-me-down version of some elements of second-wave femisim, but do quotes like “If I didn’t work, what would I be? Nothing” and “I work, therefore I am” really express the full range of possibilties for women or men?

it seems to just create another mould rather than encouraging genuinely individual choices

The book’s chapter that reads most like a Cosmo article rather than a serious discussion of the issues is the chapter on infidelity. Sure, it’s important and realistic to accept that long-term relationships are hard to maintain and everyone will probably be tempted to stray at some point. But is dedicating several pages to the different kinds of affair (“the fuck buddy, the almost affair, the one-night stand, the platonic pair, the lesbian lover, the online lover”) really useful to anyone? The epitome of this is the section on “the star fucker” in which a married women’s anedotes about sleeping with famous celebrities are retold. Who cares?

The magazine influence also comes in with numbered lists. Incidentally, number one on the “10 reasons to have an orgasm tonight!” list is “It alleviates the pressure to go to the gym.” Seriously! Excruiatingly, the chapter on power struggles in marriage (alongside tips on “Mother In Law Control” charmingly entitled “married to a son of a bitch”), contains a two page step-by-step account of how to give a good blow job – the argument being that this is something that women feel powerful doing. I’m not disputing that, but good grief, is this the best we can do?

The chapter called “Me, Myself and I” talks about how women should maintain their own identity and lives despite being married, and that they should not be left doing all the housework. All well and good. But the solutions she quotes simply show how out of touch she is with most women’s lives. “I have a live-in nanny who does all the cooking and the cleaning and all the food shopping. And she cooks dinner every night.” Says one interviewee. Another one “tells me her cleaner still comes twice a week ‘to do the beds and the bathrooms and give the kitchen a good clean.'” And that isn’t the end of it; in the sex chapter, she gives the example of “Married Girl Tina”, who wanted to find more time for sex:

Instead of spending her free time doing domestic chores, she’s just hired a cleaner. And instead of having tired, unsatisfying sex with her husband, Billy, who happens to work five blocks away from her, they book into a hotel on a regular basis for a lunch-time tryst. (Luckily Billy knows the manager – apparently he does a lot of corporate entertaining with that particular hotel chain, which helps secure a swift reservation).

Newsflash: most of us don’t live in Manhattan, hire cleaners, have 6 figure salaries or know the managers of fancy hotels.

Another issue that is never answered is the question: why get married anyway? Despite concluding that married life is fantastic and wonderful, she could have been talking about any long-term committed relationship, yet she never explains what makes formal state-endorsed marriage better. Without that explanation, the whole premise of the book seems lacking.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve focussed on the flaws because I can’t help it, but there is actually a lot in the book that does chime with feminist principles. However, for feminist readers, so much of this is simply common sense rather than the revelatory social trend Norwood presents it to be. Because of this “well, duh, obviously” factor, it’s easy to focus on the annoying parts of the book rather than accept the fact that this is a mainstream, Cosmo-style view of marriage, with whatever pros and cons that implies.

This book may be suitable for your feminist-phobic, stiletto-wearing Cosmo-reading sister who aspires to the lifestyle of Carrie Bradshaw, but will probably frustrate your average women’s studies graduate or feminist blogger (I’d say Young Wives Tales by Jill Corral and Bitch Magazine editor Lisa Miya-Jervis is much better). Perhaps, all told, Sex and the Married Girl is simply as a way of sneaking in feminist ideas into young hetero women’s minds in palatable way. After all, not everyone is going to choose Germaine Greer over Cosmo.

Catherine Redfern is the Editor / Founder of the F Word.