Forty years after Erica Jong coined the term “Zipless Fuck” in her 1973 novel Fear of Flying, the sexual exploits of heroine Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing still feel transgressive. For those of you who missed reading the seminal Fear of Flying during your angsty college years, here’s a summary: Isadora, a 29-year-old poet on her second marriage to an austere psychiatrist named Bennett, is looking for sexual and emotional fulfillment. She ditches Bennett at an analytic conference in Vienna, and runs off with a daffy, libidinous Laingian shrink with the appropriate name Adrian Goodlove. Fear of Flying covers threesomes, attempted foursomes, wife swapping, adultery, and all with an endearing, neurotic panache.
There are certainly non-sexual parts of Isadora’s life that feel dated. She believes things like, “you can’t be a woman and an artist. Having babies uses you up,” because her mother and her three sisters had artistic ambitions subsumed by pregnancy. The notion that women can’t both work and be mothers is, thankfully, passé. Even more dated is the psychiatry talk in the book. Psychoanalysis as a mode of therapy is woefully out of fashion.
But the idea of a married woman finding unabashed sexual fulfillment outside the bounds of monogamy still feels, well, naughty. And though women are having one-night stands—they can even order one up through the Tinder app with the slide of a finger—they continue to be judged and even punished for their sexual behavior (see the rampant, disgusting proliferation of revenge porn).
In the United States, specifically, we’re stuck defending our right to birth control, and women are still called selfish for choosing the childfree life, as if it’s 1965 again. You could still imagine a stodgy male reviewer calling a sex-driven heroine like Wing, “a mammoth pudenda,” as the reviewer Paul Theroux famously did when Fear of Flying came out. Why haven’t we come further since the sexual revolution?
“In Italy they always call me ‘una feminista transgressiva’,” Erica Jong says over the phone when I ask her why the sex in Fear of Flying continues to feel so current. She says she’s not a historian, but she thinks the main reason we haven’t progressed in our sexual mores since the 70s is still part of an anti-feminist backlash that’s been going on since the Reagan administration. “Whenever progressivism is in full flower, women move forward. Then women move backwards,” Jong says. “If you go back to [18th century feminist] Mary Wollstonecraft and trace feminism, it makes S shaped curves. It moves forward, it moves back.”
Though it’s definitely much more acceptable to be a working mom than it was in Isadora Wing’s day—in 1969, 44 percent of women were stay-at-home moms, compared with 26 percent in 2009, and stay-at-home moms spend less time out of the workforce than they used to—women who choose to be childless still feel a societal pressure to have babies. As Jill Filipovic wrote in the Guardian earlier this year, “Bring up the possibility of educated white women choosing not to have children and you'll be met with intense hostility.” You could see a character like Isadora Wing absorbing that hostility in 2013 and expressing a sentiment like, “Something in me apologized to all the people who complimented my poems: something in me said: 'Oh, but remember, I have no children,’” as if any other accomplishments pale in comparison to making babies.
Jong believes that some of the pressures the American women who do choose to have kids have increased since Isadora Wing’s time. “I think a lot of American women, because they make so many sacrifices to be mothers—we don’t have family leave that’s generous, we don’t have maternity leave,” they are more embattled and as a result, more judgmental. When I suggest a metaphor—judgmental mothers are like crabs in a bucket—Jong seizes on it. “People become immensely competitive about their mothering when they don’t have other outlets.”
Jong thought the French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter’s book, The Conflict: How Overzealous Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, would become a hit in the U.S. the way it was a bestseller in Badinter’s native country. “I read the book and I thought, this is amazing. Here is a woman who has five children, a professor at the Sorbonne, and she’s saying attachment parenting is a way of women running away from freedom,” Jong says. But American women spurned the book, because they’re so wrapped up in competitive mothering, they didn’t want to hear Badinter’s arguments.
When I ask about Fear of Flying’s legacy, Jong says the fact that we’re still discussing it 40 years since it was published has been mostly a blessing. It’s given her a platform to speak about feminism, and to help younger women with their writing. “I’m an advocate for feminism wherever I go,” she says. “I want to be able to inspire younger women to understand that controlling your body, your health, having as many or as few or no children is the underpinning of all women’s freedom.” That’s a message that Isadora Wing would approve.