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The Trapped Sexuality in Fear of Flying

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Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying is about 29-year-old poet Isadora Wing, who is bored in a bourgeois marriage. She dreams of a sexual encounter with a stranger, and when she travels with her husband to Vienna and meets the attractive Adrian Goodlove, she indulges in this fantasy. At the time of the book’s release in 1973, women were not supposed to fantasize about sex, and Jong wrote the book to give voice to women who were trapped the same way Isadora was. Sexuality is important both metaphorically and thematically in the novel, and it is through Isadora’s quest for a more fulfilling experience that she learns about herself, her insecurities and how to deal with them.

Erica Jong states in the Foreword to the 2008 edition of the book that she wrote Fear of Flying to “tell the truth about women whatever it cost me” (foreword, viii), and one of the truths she wanted to tell was that women also fantasized about sex, and that this is something that should be accepted in society. Her goal with the novel was to “slice open a woman’s head and show everything happening inside” (foreword, ix), Jong claims that before her, no one had done this. She also writes that it “remained for a woman to expose female fantasy with as much frankness” as John Updike and Philip Roth who had “dared to take literature into the precincts of the bedroom” (foreword, ix). This is also mentioned by the main character, Isadora, in the novel. She discusses how up until women started writing books there was only one side of the story of sex being told, and comments that “throughout all of history, books were written with sperm, not menstrual blood” (27). Here Jong is expressing clearly one of her main intentions with the novel, through her main character.

One reason for why Erica Jong is still talked about today is because she was one of the first female novelists to introduce the concept of casual sex with a stranger, with no strings attached. Jong called this “the zipless fuck” in Fear of Flying, and this term is what many associate the novel with. When Isadora describes her fantasy of the zipless fuck, she explains that “when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff.” (14) One of the criteria for such an encounter is that the people involved do know not each other. Because of this, in this situation “there is no power game” (14), thus making it “the purest things there is” (14). The storyline revolves largely around Isadora’s quest for this experience, and it is Adrian Goodlove who is supposed to become Isadora’s great sexual encounter in the story. Instead the opposite happens and she ends up getting to know the unsympathetic man that Adrian is, and on top of that hardly has any sex at all with him. However, her affair with Adrian is largely what drives Isadora to learn about herself and what she really wants, and is a driving force for the novel and Isadora’s development.

Although Fear of Flying may seem like a book simply about a woman’s quest for sex and passion on the surface, there is more to it that Jong wanted to convey. Sex is a very important factor in the novel, not necessarily because it is supposed to be a pornographic account solely depicting a woman’s thirst for sex. It is not a novel about sex in that sense, but sex is used to represent women’s battles in the 70s and earlier. The feminist movement was not a fight for sexual equality, though this was included in it, but in Fear of Flying sex represents the struggle. Isadora’s internal struggle for sexual satisfaction is supposed to help show how what was seen as acceptable amongst men is unthinkable in terms of women.

But the novel also directly addresses other feminist issues at the time. It comments on and criticizes what the society sees as the woman’s role. The novel appeared in the middle of the second wave of feminism in the United States, and Jong tries to express many of the issues American women faced at the time that led to feminist activity. Isadora, like many other women in the sixties, rejected what Betty Friedan, an important writer and feminist in the second wave of feminism, called “the feminine mystique” in her nonfictional book from 1963 with the same title. Here she explained that women were led to believe that only with a husband and children to take care of could they have a real identity. The protagonist in the novel goes against this expectation to be only a wife and a mother, by having a job and by refusing to have children. Isadora did marry twice, but has never felt the need to become a mother. A reason for this is because then the child would belong in part to the man who impregnated her. The world she lives in is male dominated, and she refuses to get pregnant for this reason, as well as because becoming a mother would come in the way of her writing, and she sees her diaphragm as “a barrier between my womb and men.” (52)

Jong is here trying to convey the feeling many women had at the time when the women’s movement broke out in the sixties. Many refused to have children because they were terrified of ending up like their mothers, as housewives in unhappy marriages. Many young girls saw how their mothers ended up and viewed motherhood as a trap that could not be broken out of. Isadora gives a voice to these women in her novel, asking:

“What did it mean to be a woman, anyway? If it meant what Randy was or what my mother was, then I didn’t want it. If it meant seething resentment and giving lectures on the joys of childbearing, then I didn’t want it. Far better be an intellectual nun than that.” (53)

But then Isadora also decides that being a nun is not much better, because they had “no juice” (53). She has a lust for sex that stops her from completely breaking away from men. When she is running around with Adrian, drunk on champagne and infatuation, she fantasizes about their marriage and comments that “No sooner did I imagine myself running away from one man than I envisioned myself tying up with another.” (86) It is because of her boring marriage with Bennett that she desires Adrian, but she would not dream of divorcing Bennett for sex. This is because Isadora, like many others, wants the safety and stability that comes with having a respected husband. “I simply couldn’t imagine myself without a man. Without one, I felt lost as a dog without a master; rootless, faceless, undefined.” (86) Isadora would rather be in an unhappy marriage than to endure living as a single woman at this time. She observes that “there is simply no dignified way for a woman to live alone” (11) and that she could barely survive financially, and on top of that she would be forever hassled by everyone around her about her “husbandlessness, her childlessness – her selfishness in short.” (11) In other words, in Isadora’s and many other women’s view, it was better to be dependent on a man than to be independent in a man’s world. Without a man, she feels she has viable no identity.

As mentioned, Isadora knew that she, along with most other women, would never really be able to be as financially secure alone as she would be if she was married:

“Damned clever, I thought, how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead. Almost anything had to be an improvement on hustling for your own keep at some low-paid job and fighting off unattractive men in your spare time while desperately trying to ferret out the attractive ones.” (87)

She criticizes this reality while at the same time taking part in it. One of the reasons she has for marrying and also staying with Bennett is the fact that he encourages her writing instead of putting it down. According to society, she was doing something wrong and selfish by wanting to write instead of giving birth. Isadora’s sister Randy often makes an issue out of it, telling her to “stop writing and have a baby,” because she’ll “find it so much more fulfilling than writing…” (49) She cannot understand why anyone would want to live outside what is the convention.

Sex is a major part of the book because it is very important to the protagonist. Isadora mentions sex in a great many situations and a lot of her issues revolve around this. When describing Bennett, her present husband, she points out his “long thin fingers, hairless balls, a lovely swivel to his hips when he screwed” (35), and she also mentions that she “fell in love with Bennett partly because he had the cleanest balls I’ve ever tasted.” (33) Though she may be exaggerating here for the sake of being witty, her sexual attraction to Bennett was a significant part of why she fell for him, showing that sexuality is obviously a very important part of the protagonist’s life.

As mentioned earlier, Isadora has had no desire of having children, so it is lust and the sexual act itself that is so important to her when it comes to sex. Isadora says that her husband is turned on by Adrian’s pursuit of her and asks herself and the reader rhetorically “what doesn’t come to fucking in the end?” (33) Sex seems to sum up a lot for Isadora. In the latter part of the book, when she is lying in bed with Adrian, who is not able to have sex with her, she wonders about men’s inability to get an erection in general:

“Besides, the older you got, the clearer it became that men were basically terrified of women. Some secretly, some openly. What could be more poignant than a liberated woman eye to eye with a limp prick? All history’s greatest issues paled by comparison with these two quintessential objects: the eternal woman and the eternal limp prick.” (97)

As shown here, Isadora often seems to draw parallels between sex and life in general. But at the same time she criticized Freud for doing the same thing earlier on in the novel. She comments that Freud assumes that women want a “stiff prick” (27) because men want it. “A big one, Freud said, assuming that their obsession was our obsession.” (27) She also reflects upon this being the case because only men had been writing books, and therefore “there was only one side to the story” (27). But at the same time Isadora’s life and issues revolve around sex, and in a way she confirms what she criticizes Freud for assuming.

The protagonist often seems like a very insecure woman, although she strives to seem independent and self-assured. She responds passively to most things that happen to her and seems to just go along with whatever happens to her, thus frequently ending up with men that are not entirely good for her. This may be why so many women responded positively to the book when it was published. Many recognized themselves in Isadora, stuck in boring marriages with only their secret fantasies to get them through the day. This is the reality that Betty Friedan had criticized ten years earlier, and Jong gave many women a voice with her novel. She conveyed what so many kept inside out of fear, because it was unacceptable for women to be lusting after sexual pleasure like men did. Isadora herself is criticized by her sister Randy for being honest and revealing her feelings and desires and for being what Randy calls a “‘stinking exhibitionist’” (48). Jong wanted to reach out to all the women who felt repressed, reveal what she felt was wrong with society and encourage women to take charge of their own lives.

One reason for why Fear of Flying was so shocking when it was published in 1973 was because of Isadora’s language. Words that may seem common now were scandalous then and are used many times throughout the novel. Sex is described seemingly without shame with descriptions like “his curled pink penis which tasted faintly of urine and refused to stand up in my mouth” (95). As early as the first page of the novel, Isadora explains how her “nipples stand up and salute the inside of my bra” (3) and even this was a rather shocking sentence coming from a woman at the time of the book’s initial release. Isadora repeats words like “cunt” and “fuck”, and does not hesitate to use phrases like “the longing to be filled up, to be fucked through every hole” (9) or “his tongue was playing music in my cunt” (95). Erica Jong writes herself in the Foreword that it was not Isadora’s fantasies that made her a role model for women all over, but her “general exuberance” (foreword, ix).

The novel has an open ending, and it is unclear if Isadora ends up single or returns to her husband Bennett on a more permanent basis, but what has been achieved through her experience with Adrian is that Isadora has learned how to take control of her own life. Whatever Isadora ends up doing, she does because she really wants to, and not because it is expected of her. This is how the book ends, with Isadora learning to trust herself more. She has learned that searching for the perfect “zipless fuck” is a lost battle and comments that “the man under the bed can never be the man over the bed. They’re mutually exclusive. Once the man comes up from under he’s no longer the man you desired” (286). She has learned that a fantasy is and can only be a fantasy, and that instead of chasing it she should learn how to live and deal with what she has. Near the end of the book there is an incident on a train where a train attendant attempts to have sex with her in the compartment. Instead of seeing this as the opportunity she has been waiting for, Isadora is shocked and pushes him away. She later realizes that this could have been her “stranger on a train” (331) and that she simply found him revolting. Again this shows how she has learned to separate fantasy from reality.

Fear of Flying is a story of a woman who goes from being insecure and bewildered both about sexuality and herself in general, to knowing who she is and what she wants. It is through her search for the “zipless fuck” that she gets to this point, and it is also because of this journey that she learns to take the plunge for what she at least believes is freedom. Isadora learns to live life on her own terms, and her search for a fantasy has led her to this knowledge.


Jong, Erica. Fear of Flying. London: Vintage Books, 1998.

Kerber, Linda K., Alice Kessler-Harris, and Kathryn Kish Sklar. U.S. History as Women’s History. Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

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