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Shades of Red

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Forty years ago, in an act that might be seen as truly regressive if not downright self-destructive, I decided to marry my high-school boyfriend. My parents, of the marrying '50s generation, were so startled by my counter-rebellion, that they offered a wedding. My grandmother, far more the true rebel, was not so easily swayed: she told me that I was an idiot, then helped me find a dress, and then, as I boarded a wedding-bound plane, she handed me a copy of Fear of Flying. Boy, was that a good idea.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Erica Jong's iconographic novel: a story that introduced the idea of sexual liberation and sexual fun, romantic hedonism and the advantages of being a well-educated writer.

Recently, I have been astonished to discover that there is a whole generation of women who are not familiar with the term 'zipless fuck.' That's not to say that they don't know it when they see it, or know one when they see one; but the term zipless fuck was in fact coined by Ms. Jong in Fear of Flying and it was not only a literary metaphor it was, at the time, an incitement to sexual riot. Erica Jong's novel invited women to take a look at their own desires, and do something about it. She showed us how much fun we want to have, and how good it feels to get there.

When Erica Jong wrote Fear of Flying, women were just stepping off the path of good-marriage and professional-sublimation. Isadora Wing, the perfectly named heroine, was an educated young woman who had married a good man, an insightful man, an analyst. Her new husband was prepared to be not only her lover but her teacher, he would teach her how to be fulfilled as his wife. Together they attend a professional conference in Vienna where Isadora meets (and falls for) one of her husband's colleagues. And in the book's "ah-ha" moment, he teaches her how to simply fulfill her self. Isadora, fear cast aside, flies, soars, enjoys and returns to earth unscathed.

This spring in my bookshop, an army of women, young, old and in-between have whispered Fifty Shades of Grey; the story of a young woman who allows herself to be sadistically abused to satisfy the fantasy of her boyfriend. Shame on you, my grandmother would've shouted back. Sweetheart, she'd have said, if you want to read a book about sex, then read a book where the heroine's on top. Learn how to make yourself happy: we are still living in a world where real life beats women every day, and every night, too; you don't need a lover with a whip. She'd have hand-sold Fear of Flying.

It seems that America's zeitgeist has suddenly and shamelessly regressed into a misogynistic free-for-all. This year alone, we have had to face legislators who voted to force pregnant women to undergo rape by probe; and a presidential candidate who campaigned not only against choice but against birth control and higher education. It's terrifying? Why are we taking it?

And why haven't I taken to the streets in protest? Instead I've over-subscribed to organizations that push back: raising some amount of consciousness-money, and printing millions of T-shirts. For a country that has shortened its reading span to visual-bites, the T-shirt might well be replacing the novel as the font of intellectual freedom. I've been shaken (not stirred) by the newest fem-slogan: "Trust Women." Does it mean "trust women," as opposed to men? Or is it "trust women," they'll make the right choice. The latter would be a deal breaker for me. Trust women to do the right thing? Whose right thing? Whom are we reassuring? I want to trust that women, all women, will be able to do whatever the hell they want.

Five years before Jong wrote Fear of Flying, we were watching the charming naif Benjamin Braddock (The Graduate) being told that the future was in 'plastics.' So it was perhaps with delicious irony that I read on as Jong's equally young heroine, Isadora Wing, discovered that true power lay in those 30 little pills that were embedded in plastic. Plastic proved toxic; the Pill proved empowering and liberating. Until now.

Fifty shades? No, thank you. I don't want to read a book in which an educated girl gets tied up and whipped. I want to hold on and go forward. So here's my literary and political two cents: Forty years later, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying is a classic: sexy and funny, sensuous and provocative, still the very best. And yes, 40 years ago I did get myself off the plane, divorced, back to school and fun -- and then I married the true love of my life. And I keep Fear of Flying on my favorites-shelf so that I can remember to share it with friends.