Lois Shearing reviews previous Bisexual Book award winner, Vow of Celibacy; a flirty, fun, an undeniably sexy exploration through one woman’s love live. You can read Lois’s interview with the author Erin Judge here.
Where was Vow of Celibacy when I was growing up and more importantly, coming out?
Where was my fierce, complex, funny, bubbly, bi femme protagonist? Where was that queer older sister character I could look up to and see myself reflected in rather than piecing together bits of my identity from queerphobic mainstream media and bi-erasing queer outlets?
Every teen girl wondering if she is bi should be given a copy of Vow of Celibacy. Not just because of its honest and positive representation of bisexuality but because it it’s honest towards sex, sexual desire, and body image.
Natalie, through whose eyes we see the story unfold, doesn’t see sex as bad or consider herself dirty for wanting and enjoying it with boys or girls. She does however, understand and show us how complex our feelings towards sex can get and how our sexual partners may not always be good for us, even if we really like them.
Natalie takes us on a journey through her high school years where she lusts over boys and comes to terms with her desire for women. We follow her into her first experiences with sex and sexuality, as well as finding herself in different but equally important ways; like her passion for sewing and designing.
This character aspect felt really fresh. In the vein of “write what you know” so many writers write about, well, writers, which made reading about a bubbly fashion designer a welcomed break.
We then follow Nat into college where she meets her best friend, Anastasia. Okay, ‘Staz is a writer and hers was the only character I had a hard time swallowing. Having grown up in England and spent very little of my life elsewhere, I sometimes found her ‘quirky Britishness’ didn’t hit the mark. For example, I know very little about wine, have a strong working knowledge of cider, and definitely know what a 2-in-1 shampoo-conditioner is.
The reader and Nat also meet Ben during her college years, a charismatic student film professor with whom she begins a torrid affair. It’s the outcome of this turbulent and toxic relationship that dominates the rest of the plot.
One of the most refreshing things about this novel is the way it looks at how we can be bad for other people without realising
Through her nostalgia over Ben, we explore Nat’s issues with her body as a plus-size women, her glorious openness about her queer sexual desire and her relationship with her parents. One of the most refreshing things about this novel is the way it looks at how we can be bad for other people without realising or meaning to. As Nat re-examines her time in college with Ben and how he affected her self-esteem, we are shown the ways in which Natalie’s low opinion of herself lead her assume others see her in the same lights and therefore, she doesn’t take their feeling for her seriously. As Nat pines for Ben’s approval, she leaves a trail of spurned lovers she didn’t even realise cared for her.
This book also explores the ways in which straight men and lesbians can hurt bi women in different ways, yet the pain caused can be equal. Ben, a straight man, hurts Nat by using and spitting her out in a way so many bi women can relate to. Natalie, like so many bi women, allows her internalised feelings of inadequacy about their sexuality to lead to let Ben treat her like she isn’t good enough. As a plus size character, this feeling is doubler for the protagonist.
Natalie, like so many bi women, allows her internalised feelings of inadequacy about her sexuality to lead her to let other treat her like she isn’t good enough
The author also looks at how lesbians can hurt bi women in relationships by treating us as flakey, tourists, or just not queer enough for them. Reading Natalie’s girlfriend Alex tell her she wasn’t really a dyke and could just choose to take the easy road out and date men stung in a way so many bisexual women can relate to when our sexuality and journey to accept it is dismissed.
My main criticism of this book is the same one I have with life in general; could have been more girl on girl sex. Judge certainly doesn’t flinch when it comes to details and there are plenty of steamy, salacious scenes all through Vow of Celibacy. Still, the focus on Nat’s relationship with Ben means there’s more scenes with Nat having her way with men. But this doesn’t make the book bad representation, plenty of bi women prefer men or end up sleeping with more than with any other genders.
Overall, if you’re looking for a feel-good read about bisexuality, body confidence and being a woman, this is the book for you. On paper, the idea of a book about a bi women that focuses on her sex life and involves a threesome sounds eye roll worthy. But Judge’s isn’t a straight man writing a sexed-up bi femme fantasy. She’s a living breathing bisexual women who isn’t ashamed of sex and refuses to pretend it isn’t an enjoyable, central part of many bisexuls’ lives.
We need more writers like Judge and more books like Vow of Celibacy.
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