Divorcist Reads: Sex and the Single Woman

Header image of woman's lap with book and tea

So long, Sex and the Single Girl

When my friend Keri gave me a copy of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl in 2005, it was a revelation to me. It was like HGB was talking directly to me, a gorgeous young single thing in the Big City, ready to capitalize on my youth and hunger*.

The book itself was the 2003 re-release, blurbed by–who else?–Sex and the City‘s Kim Cattrall and it took me several incredulous search queries to determine that yes, this was the same text as HGB had written it in 1962. How could it have come from a time as long ago as the 60s? The ideas were so scandalous to me (just have an affair with your boss? That’s an option we say out loud?), the language so bold (I could-and should-have a “sexy kitchen”? What even was that?)!  Reader, I ate it up. This was kind of feminism that wasn’t perfect but seemed to have a place for me.

Sex and the Single Woman: Did we need a reboot?

Alas, the book didn’t have a place for everyone. This is one of the issues the editors of Sex and the Single Woman felt they could address in their response to the classic. If you’re looking for an updated version of the original, with new tips and adjusted for the 2020s reader, this isn’t it. Sex and the Single Woman leaves Girl in the last century and starts an entirely new conversation.

The similarities end with the title

What we have instead is a collection of essays from a new generation of single women. These 24 individuals are much different from the “girl” Helen Gurley Brown was speaking to. These women are diverse in age, ethnicity, gender identity, and so much more. One of the contributors writes, “In 2022, most of us can agree that the solution isn’t gaming the system but changing it to work for all women—not just those who are white, single, straight, and cisgender.” And so we get a smorgasbord of accounts from all kinds of women who are eager to help change the system for everyone. 

What we loved about Sex and the Single Woman

cover of sex and the single womanKate Crawford’s essay on getting one’s groove back as a 65-year-old-woman is particularly inspiring: “In the 1960s, I’d romped through my coming-of-age. My passion? Social justice with a capital J. My pastime? Sex with a capital S.” Asking herself, “If not now, when?” Crawford declares: “That’s it…I’m resuscitating my sexy sixties campaign.”

Ways through

Many contributors write of adjusting to single life after relationships of all sorts–ones that ended in tears, escape, or even prosaic ones that die on mutually agreed-upon terms. And yes, times were tough for these women, but the throughline of these types of essays in Sex and the Single Woman is that it always gets better and you’re always better for it. Friends get you through, books get you through, or even your own brilliant self get you through the end of a relationship with a person and into a much better relationship with yourself.

Single by choice

Contributor Evette Dionne tells us how she came to the decision to uncouple with her partner and how she discovered the joys of being single. “In my new reality,” she writes, “I was responsible only for myself: I sublet a studio apartment, complete with the brick accent wall I’d always wanted…Night after night, I cooked or ordered dinner for one. I made new friends, many of whom were single or in long-distance relationships, and we frequented happy hours together. I didn’t feel a need to rush home by a certain time to accommodate a partner’s wants or expectations.”

Dionne tells us something “miraculous happened” along the way: “I felt as though I were walking through a mansion with an endless number of doors, all of which were open: I was excelling at work, I’d landed a literary agent and begun crafting a book proposal, and I had much more free time to gure out what actually brought me joy. Instead of shaping my preferences around someone else’s, I could dictate where I lived, if and when I cooked, what time I came home, and how I spent my evenings.”

Nothing lonely about being single

While Dionne is alone, she’s not lonely. She sums it up perfectly in this line: “I’ve learned over the years that there’s nothing lonely about being single” and goes on to say how her village shows up for her when: “When my family dog died… my friends sent flowers, cards, and even a frame for my favorite picture of her. When I had a myomectomy to extract fibroids from my abdomen, my parents and friends rallied around me, from helping me shower and sit up to comforting me through the recovery pain. Rather than relying on a primary romantic partner to be everything—to orient my life around—I have the power, the fortitude, and the agency to create the village I need and deserve.”

Helen Gurley Brown wanted women to enjoy their single life–at least until they could pounce on their happily ever after with whatever man seemed most ideal. The editors and contributors of Sex and the Single Woman want the same thing, but remind us that “happily ever ever” can mean any number of things, including staying single and starting right now.



*Often literal hunger, by the way. Rent and an entry level publishing salary left about $50 a week for extras and damned if those extras were going to be anything I could get for free elsewhere, like food. There was usually leftover cake or bagels in the 18th floor kitchen.