Five Books of the Week (and Beyond): ‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’ by Rebecca Cohen

The Sex Lives of College Girls doesn’t go for the slightly surprising treatment of issues like low birth rates or urban crime, for which it sometimes feels a bit eager. It simply seeks uncomfortable…

Five Books of the Week (and Beyond): ‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’ by Rebecca Cohen

The Sex Lives of College Girls doesn’t go for the slightly surprising treatment of issues like low birth rates or urban crime, for which it sometimes feels a bit eager. It simply seeks uncomfortable truths. What are my frequent sexual partners like? Where do I keep all the pills I take? Is it still a nightmare to discover you have more than one sexual partner at once? The acknowledgments section gives short shrift to specific columnists, but it does identify among the contributors Tess Collins, the West Village psychologist who has worked with a number of teenagers — including 18-year-old Zosia Mamet and 19-year-old Ally Sheedy, star of the now-defunct ABC series Freaks and Geeks — asking delicate questions about puberty, sexual experiences, and if their parents do their own “down there” (It depends on whether or not, in their mind, people from the former Soviet Union are allowed to refer to things in the right places.)

Cohen seems unsure if she wants to make a journey, or give voice to an unsolicited opinion, and that is dangerous for a literary curiosity book. Her essay about Anjelica Huston being his wife does not do much to expand the scope of the reader’s understanding of the topic. Her reflection on why she went to Jackson State University — an interracial school outside of Atlanta, a magnet for aspiring blues singers — fails to be taken as an example of best-selling author conversations or a way of exercising moral judgment, despite the author’s claim that race “is a simple, straightforward prism through which to look at the social mobility of an entire generation.” After some first-person speculation about the songwriter’s sexuality — “Until I’d looked down to give in to the body’s demands, I had never thought about what I put my partner through” — Ms. Cohen expresses doubt that “jaw-breaking” sex — getting down and dirty — has less the same cultural resonance now as when she was growing up. By closing off discussions with arguments that emerge only when “you’re sitting in my room (and I’m not asleep or otherwise up),” she deprives us of the rare opportunity to interact with the author and a byline.

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