The Science of Single: One Woman’s Grand Experiment in Modern Dating, Creating Chemistry, and Finding Love. By Rachel Machacek. Riverhead. $15.
When Sex Hurts: A Woman’s Guide to Banishing Sexual Pain. By Andrew Goldstein, M.D., Caroline Pukall, Ph.D., and Irwin Goldstein, M.D. Da Capo. $16.
Hilarious but sad at heart, Rachel Machacek’s The Science of Single is the first-person story of a thirtysomething resident of Washington, D.C., who uses every available modern technique to try to find “The One” – or, as she more correctly notes, “A One.” And failing. The ultimate failure of Machacek’s year-long dating quest, during which she regarded dating as her job and went at it with the same intensity and single-mindedness that people usually bring to work, is the sad part of the book, although Machacek herself does not describe it that way. No, her journey is all about uplift, self-discovery, learning about herself and about dating techniques, discovering the pluses and minuses of various forms of connecting (both online and offline), and almost incidentally having plenty of what she herself calls “loveless premarital sex.” Machacek, a writer and editor, not only explores the men in Washington but also takes some time to look into the dating scenes in New York City, Chicago, San Diego, the Los Angeles area and Charlotte, North Carolina. Perhaps it should not be surprising that she does not find “A One” anywhere – after all, she explains, she is still dealing in therapy with “the baggage problem. I’m worried that I’ll never have a fulfilling relationship because I’m still working through old issues of not feeling like I deserve the attention and affection that I need, and so I recycle a pattern of being attracted to men who can’t give this to me.” But everyone has baggage, and if Machacek does not exactly carry hers lightly, she at least tries to get beyond it – and that is one attraction of The Science of Single. Another, more obvious one is Machacek’s ability to write so entertainingly about the many awful (and some not-so-awful) men she dates that a reader can easily get swept up in the apparent hilarity and forget that there is some real heartache underlying it. Machacek gives the men wonderfully apt nicknames: Perfect Redhead, Dr. Dreamy, the Bolivian, Music Man, El Rico. She intersperses highly amusing accounts of her attempts to make dates work with little snippets of introspection: “It’s becoming quite clear that I am not attracted to men who have any sort of potential for a relationship.” She tries blind dating. She tries speed dating: “Contrary to what I thought might happen, I did not curl up and die a painful, torturous death. In addition to not dying, I appreciated being able to test chemistry right off the bat, unlike online dating where predicting chemistry is next to impossible.” And yes, she does try online dating – in lots of different ways. She even offers some trenchant site comparisons: “If we’re talking numbers, eHarmony wins, hands down, with a whopping 357 matches sent to my inbox in one month. Over two and a half months, IJL [It’s Just Lunch] threw me into the ring with four guys. …I know a deal when I see it, and 357 matches for $50 is way better than 4 for $1,300.” Machacek is clearly intelligent, reasonably self-aware, ebullient, skilled at self-expression, a good writer, and open to all sorts of new experiences. She is also, at the end of the book, still alone. A shame? A flaw in her “science” methodology? The result of her “baggage”? A commentary on the near-impossibility, even with all the new methods of dating, of finding someone truly compatible? The Science of Single comes to no conclusion on what Machacek’s intense dating means, if indeed it means anything beyond the obvious exclamation: “Hey, this could be a book!” This is not a road map – it is a meander through some uncharted waters and many charted ones, ending up, at least for the time being, still at sea.
At least Machacek seems to have enjoyed the sex she had with men during her search, loveless though it was. Other women, even ones in committed relationships or marriages, are not so lucky. Female sexual pain is one of those rarely discussed conditions that can be debilitating in their effect on the joy of everyday life, but that are not brought up to doctors because of fear or embarrassment. When Sex Hurts is therefore, from the start, a great service to women who suffer from sexual pain, because they can read the book on their own and then take it to a gynecologist or other doctor and use it as a distancing mechanism to put their concerns in perspective – and they can also find out, thanks to the book’s clear and nonjudgmental tone, that they can be helped if they will only begin to discuss what is going on. The three authors have considerable expertise in this field, both individually and together. Andrew Goldstein is president of the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health; Caroline Pukall, an associate professor at Queen’s University in Canada, is a leading researcher of female sexual pain; and Irwin Goldstein has researched sexual dysfunction for more than three decades. The three previously collaborated on the textbook, Female Sexual Pain Disorders, but When Sex Hurts is far from textbook-like. Yes, it uses medical words frequently, but the authors generally do a good job of explaining what the verbiage means: “The term dyspareunia refers to sexual pain – no matter what the cause. Terms like vulvodynia, vestibulodynia, and vaginitis refer to specific conditions that cause dyspareunia.” The book lists many possible reasons for sexual pain: pelvic floor muscle problems, hormonal changes causing dryness and irritation, skin disorders, bladder inflammation and more. The authors explain how to do a self-examination to determine the location of pain, how to talk about it to your doctor, and what to expect during a thorough physical exam. They repeatedly give voice to women’s possible fears about the pain itself and about discussing it, and they suggest very reasonable coping strategies: “Tell your doctor you want to watch the examination with a hand mirror, and ask him or her to name each part being touched.” They talk about treatment of physical causes of sexual pain – and what to do if the pain may be psychological in origin, perhaps related to sexual abuse (in a section that includes a list of “sexual abuse and violence resources”). They discuss the importance of physical therapy, which they “recommend…for nearly every condition that contributes to sexual pain. Because it works!” And they discuss psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, medication and other possible approaches to the pain. The result is a thoughtful, well-written book that, at its core, provides hope – perhaps the most valuable of all elements of treatment. For that one element alone, When Sex Hurts is a must-have for any woman for whom sex brings pain rather than pleasure.