“When Fear of Flying was written,” Erica Jong says in her introduction to a recent edition,
“it was still a novelty for a heroine to reach out for independence and not die as a result.” It
was, indeed, a different era. When I first opened the bestseller in 1974, I don’t know which shocked
me more — seeing the word fuck or discovering that the heroine’s name was my own. Just a few pages into it I
realized that the fictive Isadora’s story was also my own: a restless, thirty-something
married woman finds herself preoccupied, filled with longing — not for a hearts-and-flowers
romantic encounter, but for a hip-bruising sexual one. I wasn’t the only woman for whom Barbara
Cartland bodice rippers wouldn’t cut it — there were others who wanted sex, and not hours of
foreplay with long-haired knights but faceless, anonymous, down-and-dirty, shuddering sex. Here, in
print, was a problematic situation that I’d never before been able to bring up with my dearest women
friends and a solution (the lusty married woman gets the guy).
In outlining the requirements for the now notorious zipless fuck, Jong was revealing a female secret
so well guarded that when I did a search for adultery at the library (to learn how) just months
before reading the book, it yielded nothing but a reference to Emma Bovary — corroborating Jong’s
observation that female sexual independence was a fatal aspiration. Even popular culture hadn’t
caught on yet: when sex came up in jokes, films, television shows, and, yes, in women’s magazines,
the focus was on his frustrations when she had a headache or his stifling
boredom with the monotony of monogamy.
Meanwhile, Jong’s book was flying off shelves, and women were reveling in their red light fantasies (sometimes realized, more often not) instead of seeking medication to quell them. The mere
fact that others were being inspired by the zipless fuck — the contagion of the idea — was
more erotically charged to me than the passage that follows. -IA
From Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
Growing up female in America. What a liability! You grew up with your ears full of cosmetic ads,
love songs, advice columns, whoreoscopes, Hollywood gossip, and moral dilemmas on the level of TV
soap operas. What litanies the advertisers of the good life chanted at you! What curious catechisms!
. . .
What all the ads and all the whoreoscopes seemed to imply was that if only you were
narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, your hair, your boobs, your
eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars —
you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill
every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), make you misty, and fly you to the moon
(preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever . . .
Nobody bothered to tell you what marriage was really about. You weren’t even provided, like
European girls, with a philosophy of cynicism and practicality. You expected not to desire
any other men after marriage. And you expected your husband not to desire any other women. Then the
desires came and you were thrown into a panic of self-hatred. What an evil woman you were! How could
you keep being infatuated with strange men? How could you study their bulging trousers like that?
How could you sit at a meeting imagining how every man in the room would screw? How could you sit on
a train fucking total strangers with your eyes? How could you do that to your husband? Did
anyone ever tell you that maybe it had nothing whatever to do with your husband? . . .
Five years of marriage had made me itchy: . . . itchy for men, and itchy for solitude. Itchy for
sex, and itchy for the life of a recluse. I knew my itches were contradictory — and that made
things even worse. I knew my itches were un-American — and that made things still worse. It
is heresy in America to embrace any way of life except as half of a couple. Solitude is un-American.
It may be condoned in a man — especially if he is a “glamorous bachelor” who “dates starlets”
during a brief interval between marriages. But a woman is always presumed to be alone as a result of
abandonment, not choice. And she is treated that way: as a pariah. There is simply no dignified way
for a woman to live alone. Oh, she can get along financially perhaps (though not nearly as well as a
man), but emotionally she is never left in peace. Her friends, her family, her fellow workers never
let her forget that her husbandlessness, her childlessness — her selfishness, in short — is
a reproach to the American way of life.
Even more to the point: the woman (unhappy though she knows her married friends to be) can
never let herself alone. She lives as if she were constantly on the brink of some great
fulfillment. As if she were waiting for Prince Charming to take her away “from all this.” All what?
The solitude of living inside her own soul? The certainty of being herself instead of half of
My response to all this was not (not yet) to have an affair and not (not yet) to hit the
open road, but to evolve my fantasy of the Zipless Fuck. The zipless fuck was more than a fuck. It
was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals,
underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. Tongues intertwined and turned liquid. Your
whole soul flowed out through your tongue and into the mouth of your lover.
For the true, ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never get to know the man
very well. I had noticed, for example, how all my infatuations dissolved as soon as I really became
friends with a man, became sympathetic to his problems, listened to him kvetch about his
wife, or ex-wives, his mother, his children. After that I would like him, perhaps even love him —
but without passion. And it was passion that I wanted. I had also learned that a sure way to
exorcise an infatuation was to write about someone, to observe his tics and twitches, to anatomize
his personality in type. After that he was an insect on a pin, a newspaper clipping laminated in
plastic. I might enjoy his company, even admire him at moments but he no longer had the power to
make me wake up trembling in the middle of the night. I no longer dreamed about him. He had a face.
So another condition for the zipless fuck was brevity. And anonymity made it even better . .
Zipless, you see, not because European men have button-flies rather than
zipper-flies, and not because the participants are so devastatingly attractive, but because the
incident has all the swift compression of a dream and is seemingly free of all remorse and guilt;
because there is no talk of her late husband or of his fiancée; because there is no
rationalizing; because there is not talk at all. The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is
free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not
“giving.” No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove
anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is
rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one. Whenever it seemed I was close, I discovered a
horse with a papier-maché horn, or two clowns in a unicorn suit.
© 1973 Erica Mann Jong
all rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.