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sarah hampson

‘I discovered that I’d begun to glow,’ Sophie Fontanel writes in her new memoir.

They have told the world how not to get fat, how to wear a scarf with a certain je ne sais quoi and how to bring up bébé. Now a French woman is explaining how not to have sex.

It's a beauty treatment, apparently. A practice of self-involvement more energizing than yoga.

"I discovered that I'd begun to glow," Sophie Fontanel writes in her new memoir, The Art of Sleeping Alone, recently released here in English. A novelist and editor at Elle France, she went without sex for 12 years starting at the age of 27, when, she told one media outlet, she was "very pretty," lest anyone think she couldn't have it if she had wanted it.

That's the thing about women and sex. Many like to brag about their ability to have it – or not – as though it were an item of clothing, a grooming ritual, something integral to their appearance that they use to compare themselves to others. Jane Fonda, who is in her 70s, once told me in an interview that she could immediately tell if a woman of a certain age was sexually active. "You can see it in their face," she sniffed, as though they had made the worst fashion faux pas imaginable.

Similarly, Fontanel writes about her abstinence with full-fledged Gallic superiority. One imagines her, looking over the sharp cliffs of her cheekbones, at other people as she perches on a parapet in Paris, waiting for a friend. "It was strange to think that each of these human beings before me – the shabby ones, the short fatties, the old wrinkled ones, the blubber-lippers, the dreadful dressers, the ones sporting terrible ties, the pallid souls – might be the object of someone's desire."

When her memoir, titled L'Envie in France, came out there in 2011, it caused a sensation. "We live in a culture in which people would die rather than admit to having felt listless about sex at one point in their lives," she writes. Which is true. And her observations are incisive about how her friends view her desire to remain single and sexless. Her boyfriend at the time of her decision immediately assumed she was in love with someone else because she looked so good. "It was the only solution he could think of," she writes. Her best friend thought the same thing. "As soon as you've found yourself, others start trying to guess who the new person is," Fontenal continues.

Her solitude in a coupled-up world was a curiosity. "My freedom had to be a paired with availability or else it became a disorder." Friends suggested she wasn't showing enough cleavage or enough leg. Her hair was too messy. And why wasn't she wearing high heels? One has only to look through any fashion magazine to realize that sexual allure is what every designer is selling and every woman is expected to strive for. (In fact, Fontanel's next book is reportedly a meditation on the decline of female dress from elegance to overtly sexual.)

But her sense of "otherness" in The Art of Sleeping Alone is just a bit too precious. She comes to the realization of her need for celibacy when on a trip to the mountains – a peak experience, if you will, and not of the sexual kind. "With all the snow around, my destiny seemed to me like an Eden sweet with birdsong. My life would be soft and fluffy. I was through with being had." Later in the book, she writes about shutting the "portcullis" on that dark, secret tunnel of herself, of finding an orgasmic reverie among poppies in a field, of having art – good films, books, music – as her great passion.

It was somewhere between the covers of this slim book – after the description of her milk bath ("breasts upthrust like buoys signalling a human presence along a seacoast") and around the bit where a masseur in Goa unkinks her spine (and she senses "a little faun destined for delight had been crouched waiting inside me") – that you realize her problem isn't with sex in general, it's about having endured a lot of bad sex.

"There are limits to what one can hear," her friend, Axel, another devoted celibate, tells her at one point when they confide their love of hugging their pillows, which they determine other people would never understand.

Well, there are limits to what one can read, too.

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