The Promise of Sex

July 27, 2016   •   By Stephanie Pushaw

Losing It

Emma Rathbone

IN HIS 1997 REVIEW of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time, David Foster Wallace shows little sympathy for the solipsistic and sex-obsessed Ben Turnbull, a protagonist whose twilight-of-life impotence provides fodder for a large part of the novel’s internal ruminations. “[Updike] makes it plain that he views the narrator’s impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself,” Wallace comments. He documents the novel’s many pages of flowery reflections on women and “sex and the imperiousness of the sexual urge,” contrasting them with the single page devoted to contextualizing Turnbull’s concerns within the larger backdrop of the futuristic Sino-American War. It’s clear that Wallace views Turnbull’s problem as one based fundamentally in selfishness: the world is collapsing, and his major worry is getting laid.

If Turnbull “persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair,” as Wallace writes, perhaps his ideal literary descendant is Julia Greenfield, protagonist of Emma Rathbone’s Losing It. Julia, at 26, is still a virgin. It is an unusually late age — most American women lose their virginity around age 17 — but not unheard of. Rather than allowing this fact to be merely one aspect of her multifaceted personality, Julia has let it fester to the point that it is, almost without hyperbole, all she thinks about. “My virginity composed about 99 percent of my thought traffic,” she reflects at one point, and this is hardly an exaggeration.

Wallace ultimately dismisses Turnbull as an unbearable narcissist, saying “the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.” This is the vital difference between Ben Turnbull and Julia Greenfield: although they share the common trait of thinking about sex most of the time, Ben is a sexually experienced 66-year-old man who still views copulation as the only answer to his “ontological despair,” while Julia is more interested in the promise of sex than the act itself.

Losing It’s first-person narrative means that, like Julia, the reader is almost always thinking about Julia’s virginity. When she’s not obsessing over it directly, it provides a constant lens through which she views the world. She frequently imagines other people’s appearance and behavior in bed, as though their outwardly exhibited traits must translate directly to their most intimate moments. Upon meeting her new boss and seeing a picture of his wife, Julia imagines “they regularly had bawdy, baseboard-pounding sex.” His partner, on the other hand, with “a knee-jerk politeness about him,” is cast as a deliberate and precise sexual partner: “I wondered if that meant he’d be the same in bed, attentive to your every need with perfect decorum. Or maybe that consideration could turn cold and sharpen into cruelty. I wondered if this was something you could tell about a person.” Julia seems to only half-know that, of course, these are things you cannot tell about people; this doesn’t stop her from casting all her acquaintances in imagined erotic episodes.

After a promising high-school swimming career, which brings her to the brink of Olympics qualification but plateaus unsatisfactorily in college, Julia has bounced between a succession of dead-end jobs in arbitrary cities. She drifts in the type of post-collegiate ennui that has unfortunately become a shorthand backdrop for the contemporary millennial — a young adult with the privilege to shape her destiny but a lack of tools with which to do the shaping. Julia’s not particularly ambitious, and you’d be hard-pressed to identify something that might constitute her “passion,” except perhaps the tireless pursuit of someone to deflower her. It’s unclear what, if anything, Julia expects to happen after this much-hyped event, but she seems to view “losing it” as some kind of magical portal into a different, better life.

Losing It takes place over the course of a slow, hot summer, a fitting scope for a book whose theme we’ve seen many times before in literature and film. The summer-camp hijinks and pre-college fervor of teen sex comedies like American Pie and Superbad come to mind, and plenty of young adult fiction deals with the topic, with Judy Blume’s Forever being possibly the most striking and controversial for its time. Even when they’re not the main focus of the story, the virgin is a trope in the coming-of-age tale, both as a foil to those more sexually experienced, and as a character with a ready-made personal goal. For obvious reasons, these stories are typically focused on adolescents, whose summer fumblings and misadventures take place in some fabulist Shakespearean “green world” largely free from the shadow of parental figures. These summers are bookended by the comforting promise of another year of high school, or freshman year of college, or some other refuge in which there will be plenty of new people, virgins and non-virgins alike. In contrast, the edge of Julia’s summer seems ever-receding: as her future bobs ahead of her, just out of reach, it rings with a more acute desperation than that faced by those hapless, inexperienced teenagers. Julia’s summer of loneliness, she believes, could stretch into a fall, and a winter, and ultimately a life characterized solely by her failure to have sex — unless she diagnoses, and cures, what’s preventing her.

Julia seems to be cursed with a kind of terminal adolescence, which comes through in the way she interacts with other “adults.” At 26, she is firmly in their territory, but inside her head, a teenage insecurity reigns. In conversation, Julia’s responses are often monosyllabic, verging on apathetic, and her interest in others’ lives, if not always feigned, generally feels forced. During her first evening with her aunt Vivienne, to whose home in rural North Carolina Julia has exiled herself in an effort to jump-start her future (and solve her virginity problem), Julia reflects:

I couldn’t tell — should we be talking, making small talk, laughing and catching up at this point? Everything I did seemed too loud. “Here it is,” I said to fill the silence, when I found the opener.

Most of Julia’s conversations are of this vein. The scenarios Julia has rewritten in her own head are relayed to her best friend Grace with a gloss of revisionist history, and without much awareness of Grace’s reaction or advice. When the conversation turns away from Julia herself, she second-guesses her own responses, questioning whether she’s made enough of an effort to seem excited or intrigued by a conversation topic — and therefore overcompensates with the intent of portraying interest. Rarely does she stop to reflect on whether or not she actually is interested, and her focus seems to be on maintaining an outward persona that will disguise the hollowness she feels at her core, a hollowness which she seems to believe will only be assuaged by the panacea of sex. Even the most banal encounters seem awkward and drained, at least inside the constant tumult of Julia’s head, where she agonizes over every possible angle and interpretation of her own and others’ gestures, statements, and intonations.

We find out early in the book that Aunt Vivienne is a virgin as well; this provides a neat potential future for Julia to fear and rail against, as she observes and dissects all of Vivienne’s behaviors to try to deduce what is wrong with her, where she somehow failed. Vivienne adheres somewhat to the maiden-aunt stereotype: lipstick on her teeth, countrified hobbies including painting scenes from Arthurian legend onto plates and labeling preserves. But Julia also sees something steely and hardheaded in her aunt, a skein of citified integrity and decisiveness beneath her benign exterior. Rather than accept that her aunt’s virginity is neither any of her business nor something that can be diagnosed, Julia instead persists in her search for Vivienne’s specific failure. She notes when her aunt does things “like a normal person,” thereby defining Vivienne, and by extension herself, as deliberately abnormal based on the glaring fault they share: virginity. Julia is perpetually seeking that tiny hinge in the universe on which she closed the door to the possibilities of a life filled with sex and love. But, however obliquely, she is also aware of the flaw in her obsession:

When was the last time you wanted something? Wanted it so badly that the very grip of your wanting seemed to prevent you from actually getting it because you were throwing things off with your need, holding too hard, jarring things out of joint?

This question underwrites the entire book, recalling the advice many young people are given when they express worries about ever finding anyone: “It’ll happen when you least expect it.” Letting go, we are told, is the answer. But with an anxious, self-doubting personality like Julia’s, letting go is sometimes the hardest thing to do. She pushes away the very thing she longs for most desperately.

Rewriting conversations, imagining others’ sex lives, revisiting her encounters with men through rose-colored glasses in order to convince herself that they’re meaningful — these are all harmless enough, if slightly immature, responses to the complicated world of relationships. The dramatist in Julia flowers when she vets potential partners for herself, exaggerating their virtues and reshaping their glaring flaws into assets, without asking herself whether she even likes them in the first place — a kind of interpersonal parallel to her dissection of small talk.

A key, and somewhat troubling, example of this occurs during dinner with a man named Bill Meeks, whom Julia meets on an internet dating site. Despite an onslaught of red flags early in the evening — Meeks brings his dog along to the nice restaurant where the two meet, among other transgressions — Julia rewrites his character for herself, evincing her desperation and strange reality-bypassing optimism. In a passage that showcases Rathbone’s strong descriptions while also reading like an insipid rom-com, Julia reflects on the date just after Meeks has suddenly bolted from the restaurant, leaving her bewildered with the check:

Were we having a great time? I tried to align myself with just that, that the recent turn of events on our date had exhibited the kind of spontaneity usually associated with people who were having a lot of fun together and were mutually delighted by the kind of madcap things that were taking place […] I pictured us making out on a ski lift, his face rugged and tan. I saw us in an imports store, and he’s playing peekaboo behind an ethnic mask.

Again, this is in the aftermath of Meeks abruptly leaving her alone with an unpaid check. The evening unravels after that, and culminates in Meeks insulting Julia’s desperation to her face. It’s a difficult scene: ugly and sad to envision. But mixed with the pity, what we feel for Julia is a hard-to-shake frustration at the way she puts up with being treated poorly for the sake of keeping up appearances. Julia’s extreme self-consciousness swings two ways. When looking outward, she’s constantly, miserably aware of how she believes others perceive her, fabricating internal dialogues and future scenarios that are willfully misaligned with the reality she occupies. Yet for all her internal machinations, her inward examinations display a curious lack of self-reflection and self-awareness. Although she possesses a bright wit and cheerfully self-deprecating attitude, Julia’s near-constant rumination about her own virginity means that we are denied access to the kind of deeper self-examination and impetus to change that we might hope for from her character.

There are many instances in Losing It which invite deeper reflection than they actually elicit, but Julia’s terrible date with Meeks is one of the most glaring. After the date’s bitter conclusion, during which he bears vocal witness to her not-so-secret doubts about herself — that she’s desperate, off-putting to men, overly accommodating — Julia returns home and purposefully avoids thinking about it. This might be justifiable as an immediate self-preservation method, but the incident is simply never brought up again, neither as a painful memory nor as a learning experience. What, if anything, Julia takes from her hideous encounter with Meeks is left unspecified. When we’re so desperately rooting for Julia to show integrity, to respect herself, and to place more of her energy into developing herself as a fully alive, well-rounded individual, we feel let down by such evasion of reflection. This is further underscored by Rathbone’s use of the first-person; why, if she gives us access to Julia’s constant script-flipping of awkward scenes and erotic narratives of strangers, don’t we get to the deeper parts of reactions?

In the constant assessment of her own physical attractiveness, and her incessant revisiting of past conversations to find clues about how people (mostly men) perceive her, Julia displays a regressive submission to the desires of others. She wants to be attractive so that a man will want her, but she doesn’t stop to consider what it means for her to want them back. Yet she does manage to dismiss a few potential partners before the inevitable (anti)climax of actually losing her virginity. This push-pull between an “anyone will do” attitude and a panic at the flaws of every potential partner is at the heart of Julia’s dilemma. Although she launches herself into the summer with the goal of “getting it over with,” she’s still subconsciously searching for a moment that feels right. Losing It is ultimately concerned not with Julia’s transformation from virgin to non-virgin, but rather with her transformation into a woman capable of calling her own shots and recognizing her own worth, without thought spared for how others, especially men, might view her.

Rathbone deftly portrays the complexities of Julia’s adulthood — wry intellect jostling with pervasive insecurity, college-educated with a high-schooler’s expectations of love and sex. Without any certainty about her career plans, Julia straggles through life with the self-imposed burden of being “abnormal” due to her lengthy virginity. She clings to sex as a balm for all that ails her, an answer to her own very 21st-century ontological despair. It is a credit to Rathbone that these thoughts, repetitive and circular though they can become, still manage to hold a sympathetic edge. It’s easy to become exasperated by Julia’s career paralysis, rescue fantasies, and lack of consideration for others — underscored in several dramatic fashions, including an alcohol-fueled make out session at a funeral and a major lapse in judgment during her aunt’s art show — but it’s also virtually impossible not to feel an uncomfortable familiarity with her emotions, no matter how tempting it is to play the sophisticate and deny ever experiencing such feelings.

For all Julia’s flaws, she is an eminently believable character. At some point, we’ve all either been a Julia or known one: a hardheaded individual with a soft spot for storybook romance but a cynic’s appreciation of being proven right about peoples’ flaws. Julia can be an annoying narrator — self-centered, wilfully delusional — but ultimately, she’s an undeniably familiar one. And Losing It is aided immensely by Rathbone’s sparkling prose: she writes with a painter’s eye and a diarist’s heart. Her precise and vibrant imagery — of a summer countryside, of old houses, of suburbia’s dead spaces — hooks us almost more effectively than Julia’s pursuit of sex. She has “lunch at a shopping complex where elevator music [stands] in the air like pond water.” Rathbone evokes the sense of being lost in an artificial environment; she sketches Julia’s almost-lover Gerald’s townhouse development with a knack for capturing the sterility of everyday existence, the hot, wide distances that exist between people in the same cubic foot of air: “there were still little orange construction flags here and there, and mounds of red dirt that hadn’t healed into landscaping grass. It felt eerily empty. A plastic sheet blew by.” And Rathbone has a perspicacious eye for defining those feelings that often seem too elusive for labels: “Then I lay on my stomach and looked out at the field and the trees in the distance, and the hazy yellow late-day sky, and tried not to feel like a rope had been cut, and I could only tell it had ever been there by the new sense of drifting.”

The most affecting moments in Losing It are those in which Julia seems on the brink of unraveling into a messier, but more true, version of herself. Because although — much like the rest of us — she bobs constantly between despair and hope, self-confidence and crippling self-doubt, Julia maintains a kind of simmering energy that can’t help but bubble through the cool surface she strives so hard to present. The love stories she writes in her head are juvenile, but maybe she deserves a little disillusionment — the important thing about Julia, immature and self-centered though she may be, is despite her “problem,” she hasn’t been browbeaten into depression or apathy. Rather, she displays a constant, if subtle, hope. Although her virginity takes up “99 percent of [her] thought traffic,” and readers may yearn for her to prioritize other facets of her 26-year-old life, it’s hard to deny that she shows a single-minded dedication toward “losing it” that could hopefully be replaced and perhaps surpassed by a true self-developing passion. By the end of the novel, after the inevitable happens, we leave Julia, not much older, not much wiser, but having — finally — conquered something. Julia learns what we’ve known all along: sex won’t change her in some profound, life-altering way. And knowing this, one hopes, she can move into a future she will design solely for herself, maturing into someone worthy of love precisely because she’s no longer obsessed with finding it.


Stephanie Pushaw is a writer from Los Angeles and current Truman Capote Fellow at the University of Montana, where she is pursuing an MFA in Fiction.