A move from the UK to the US left Sarah adrift, but a conversation with a university student was the catalyst to Sarah’s first book, exploring the history of attitudes to female sexuality and the clitoris.
Tell us a little about your background.
I’m English but have lived in Chicago since 2016. It was a messy family move just at the point when I was beginning to re-establish my academic and teaching career in the UK after being a stay-at-home mum. The only way we could make the America transition work was through me giving up my job and facilitating our relocation. I felt like I had landed on a chute in a game of chutes and ladders.
Life is still split, with two older sons (26 and 24) living and working in the UK and my two youngest (21 and 15) now at university and high school in Chicago. I am fortunate to hold a green card, and receiving it was a defining moment. People ask me which is home, and once you have a green card, you have the luxury of choice. Now both places feel like home. I have stopped trying to choose. I had no idea that at 50 I would be making a new life in America and I have no idea what will be happening when I am 60. Making a new life at 50 has been very empowering in terms of teaching me to focus on the here and now.
When did you start to think about making a change?
While I love being a mum, I always found the erasure of self that goes with full-time childcare and housewifery hard, so I knew when I moved that having something next was a matter of urgency. My teaching qualification isn’t valid here, so I felt adrift in the land of opportunity. Having packaged my family off for their days in this new world, with the right kit, reassurance, and enthusiasm, I often found myself bursting into tears.
The “aha” moment for this next act was after my first six months. I dusted myself off, told myself no one was going to solve this for me, that I was resourceful, capable, and good at problem solving, and I had better start somewhere. I found a therapist and then it was serendipity that I met Hélène, who gave me great faith that a next act was possible. During that year, Hélène’s interviews on Next Act for Women kept me going. They provided role models, kind words, and hope. I had always wanted to write a book and the voice in my head started saying, “Now is your chance. Are you scared, or what?” And of course, I was scared! It felt like an audacious ambition, but also, I had nothing to lose.
What is your next act?
My book, The Sweetness of Venus. A History of the Clitoris was published on Valentine’s Day this year. Yes…Clitoris. Although it’s about so much more than that and the most alarming thing about the book it the title. Honestly! The idea for the book came during a conversation with a young friend about university and dating. She asked, “How does sex really work?” That same week, during coffee with a new friend, we ended up talking about what labels she should give her three-year-old daughter for her genital anatomy. The title came from a sixteenth century anatomist who said the clitoris should be called, “the love or sweetness of Venus.” How did we lose such a loving phrase?
I started researching and found that in many heterosexual relationships the orgasm gap is real. I discovered that despite being a liberal and informed fifty-something I, along with most other people, didn’t know the full anatomy of the clitoris. It’s shaped like a dragon fly, and extends deep into the pelvis. It was first drawn in 1844, so why isn’t this more widely known? I also found that most women need clitoral stimulation to orgasm, and the vocabulary for discussing this is lacking. That’s when I backtracked to ask, how and when did female pleasure lose pace with male pleasure? Why, when reproduction is central to life, has reproductive anatomy and the female urge for sexual pleasure become so taboo? I became angry that women were losing out.
Once I had the idea for The Sweetness of Venus it was as if my career came together—my love of reading, research, studying, libraries, humor, high and low culture, and writing all seemed to coalesce. Suddenly I’d found my next act. Here was an important topic with a story of denial, misunderstanding, brutality, and lies that no one had told before, and I probably had the skill set to write it. The urgency stopped being what I did next and started being the conversation society needs to be having about female sexual desire and pleasure. Humor makes this conversation easier.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
I audited my working practice and found that I was most productive when I had a four-and-a-half-hour run at research or writing, optimally from 11am. (I am not a morning person.) I stated diarizing three writing slots a week. Then I began to put in evening dates to write. I decided to treat it like a job, as something I needed to prioritize. I found libraries where I could work, so that I could leave the house and not be available for interruption.
I repurposed my time. Carers end up with a lot of unproductive time – 50 minutes waiting in a carpark while a child goes to a basketball skills session in a noisy, drafty gym for example. I had spent years feeling guilty about wasting these scraps of time, particularly when I added them up over a week. Why hadn’t I achieved anything productive? It was so liberating to let go of this feeling, to see it for what it was for me, arid land. I began to use it differently.
Once I started researching and writing, I loved the process. I decided to give myself a year before making any personal assessment about progress and I recommend this. It gives you time to get into a project, and takes the negative pressure off. When people asked me what I did I started saying, “I’m an unpublished writer.” Just giving voice was exciting, and I started to build connections.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My friends and family wanted to be supportive, although adjusting to me being less available was challenging. I had to be tough when they opened the fridge door, sighed heavily and looked at me. I’d say to myself, “It’s not on you, Sarah.” I reminded myself they were all grown-ups, including my husband, and if they didn’t fancy scrambled eggs, they were as capable as me of going to the store and picking up something else. I stopped pairing socks and turning laundry the right way around. They wanted me to be happy but some of them missed the full service and took it personally. Others though were wholeheartedly cheerleading from the get-go, and I’m enormously grateful as it made the process less lonely.
What challenges did you encounter?
Initially my biggest challenge was self-doubt but I had a turning point when I read a LinkedIn survey which found that men applied to jobs on the off chance, even if they weren’t qualified, and women tended to ONLY apply when they were fully qualified for the role. I thought, “Sarah, look up and walk the walk. You can do this.”
Getting traction with a publisher was challenging because of the “shocking” topic. I had a fantastic agent who believed in the book, and without her it would still be sitting in a file on my laptop. The more publishers came back with comments like, “We love the writing style, it’s fresh and funny, but feel the topic is niche,” the more determined we became. Fifty percent of the population have one; forty percent of the population want, or ought to be, engaging with one; the other ten percent will be care givers, siblings, or friends to people who fall into one of the previous two groups. How is that niche? We also encountered comments like, “We did a menopause book last year,” as if the “women’s issues” box had been ticked.
The book was published by a small independent press, Armin Lear. There is no marketing department or budget, so my current challenge is getting the book seen. Once people read it, they tend to love it. My family, friends, and Instagram community have been incredibly proactive and supportive about getting the word out there. Six months on and I have been on a panel discussion for the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago to tie in with their exhibition Reproductive; I’ve done Instagram and Facebook lives, notably with Hélène (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2ZGEhiv9Zk&t=6s), and a presentation for www.clitoris.io; I have a book club coming up with the Wilzig Erotic Art Museum in Miami; and I’ve been asked to be part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in November.
My three older children have been amazing, networking me into young influencers, so it now remains for my fifteen-and-a-half-year-old to acknowledge it. “I get that it’s important and I’m glad I know about it, but it’s not really what you want when you start high achool.” Although some of his friends are aware of the book and now see me as a bit of a Gillian Anderson figure from the Netflix show, Sex Education.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned that I’m funny. I knew I could do the academic research, but the voice of the book came as a surprise. It was like a lovely joyous smile bubbling up out of me, but it works because although the history of repression is shocking, brutal even, it is ultimately a book that cheerleads for female empowerment and more pleasure. And we could all do with more laughter and pleasure right now.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Haha. In life, yes, so many things. With this book, no.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
You have never been so resourceful, wise, and powerful as you are now. Be kind to yourself about timing though. I think one’s “what next” sometimes rises to the surface of a gently turbulent pond, and the time spent moving around the water is not wasted. Take classes, join social media groups, talk to people, smile at strangers, read different books … It’s all stirring the pond.
What advice do you have for those interested in writing non-fiction?
Read, read, and read. I read lots of non-fiction books to imagine myself into the space. Make time to write. Workshop early pieces to get feedback on what is working and what isn’t. It’s never too early to start creating a platform and building relationships. Be prepared that finding an agent and then a publisher is time consuming and tough. If you want to be a published writer, know who your readers will be, get inside their heads, and write for them.
What resources do you recommend?
This was the best resource I found when it came to practical advice about the publishing process: https://thewritelife.com/category/get-published/
In Chicago, Loyola University has an incredibly generous borrowing policy for community members, and if you can go on site (worth it for the view of the lake from their Information Commons) you can access online resources too: http://libraries.luc.edu/visitors
I also used my alum privileges with my UK universities which gave me access to online library resources like Jstor.
I worked with an incredible young graphic designer to create Instagram frames and the book cover: https://www.facebook.com/eilidhdoigdesign/
I’m based in Chicago and I joined Chicago Writers Association (CWA) to give me a community early on: https://www.chicagowrites.org
What’s next for you?
At the moment I am marketing Sweetness and looking out for more next act opportunities. I’m beginning to host book clubs and Zoom makes that achievable. The requirement to have a platform as a writer led me to set up an Instagram page, @its.personalgirls, which has been an unexpected bonus. I enjoy the challenge of creating original content and found a wonderfully appreciative and supportive community that I’d like to keep building and working with. I set it up as a platform that would be broader than the history of the clit to give me a feminist voice. I’d love to incorporate more speaking engagements into the mix and I have another idea for a book germinating.
Connect with Sarah Chadwick:
Book: The Sweetness of Venus: A History of the Clitoris