Money, Prestige and Sex, Part I: How To Sleep With 1,000 Men?

During the Labor Day weekend of 2011, I paid a visit to a family relative who happened to reside just 6 blocks from where Mr. Steve Jobs lived.  Mr. Jobs was still alive then and had just announced his stepping down from Apple a few weeks prior.  Getting closer to his place, I noticed a brand new Mercedes without a license plate parked around the corner, and his backyard was planted with green and red apple trees.  As we continued to walk past his driveway, two boys – one about 13 or 14 of age with sandy brown hair, light complexion with freckles and full lips, and the other a few years younger – strolled towards a girl about 8 or 9 years old in a bright red and yellow jacket and pink skinny jeans standing in front of Mr. Jobs’ house.  The older boy called out “Grace” and the girl with her face lit leaped into his embrace.  It was a heart-warming moment that would put a smile on even the most jaded person’s face.

More than four years passed and that image was as vivid as it ever was.  The most arresting thing was how the boy exuded warmth, content, and grace, and the fact they walked to, instead of being dropped off at, Mr. Job’s house, indicated he was very likely a neighborhood kid living in this affluent community.  His pace was assured, and his gaze focused.  There was no trace of any hardship or suffering.

Shu Yi, a prominent writer based in Hong Kong, once notes in one of her novels that “the look of poor children’s eyes is always that of discontent.”  I did not fully comprehend it until a co-worker brought her son to work one day.  She was a single mother who according to her own account, had literally walked away from her marriage with only clothes on her back, and was at the time embroiled in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband.  Her son was a lanky lad with blonde hair swept across his right forehead.  I caught a glimpse of his eyes – eyes seemed to protest the whole world had turned its back on him, and had to quickly look away.

This coworker was an intense woman who would occasionally share her dating episodes with us.  One day she wanted to show me something and handed me her smart phone.  A picture of a naked woman on all fours – presumably her – was on the screen.  I kept my silence and composure as she quickly swiped it through.  One Friday she excitedly told us about her upcoming date with a guy living in her apartment complex.  The next Monday morning, she showed up looking deflated.  It turned out the date ended on a sour note when she refused to sleep with him after dinner.

Carrie Bradshaw, the fictional sex columnist in “Sex and the City,” once observes: “New York City is all about sex. People getting it, people trying to get it, people who can’t get it. No wonder the city never sleeps. It’s too busy trying to get laid.” I am almost certain all the single women in the world echo this sentiment: “They say the average 33-year-old woman has sex 3.5 times a week. I’d like to know who that woman is.” One woman who certainly had a more fabulous sex life than the average 33-year-old woman was Peggy Guggenheim.  She once famously claimed she had slept with 1,000 men, which was a staggering number for a woman even by today’s standard, though certain male movie stars, rockers and professional athletes have reportedly bedded much, much more.  I, for one, want to know who these men were and how she found them.

Peggy Guggenheim was born into a very wealthy family, even though she got a smaller share of inheritance than her cousins did when her father went down with the ill-fated Titanic.  She did not have to work for a living, nor did she have to marry a working man.  She surrounded herself with industrialists, writers, artists and other luminaries, and had time and money to devote to patronizing art and promoting artistic movements.  Based on the photos I see, she was not a particularly striking woman.  What I do notice is that she radiated glamour, confidence and refinement.   And why wouldn’t she have these qualities, if you received first-rate schooling, had resources for maintaining a svelte figure, and never had to worry about putting food on the table or comforting your crying babies in the middle of the night?  The wealth and prestige she inherited allowed her to put together an impressive body of 20th century modern art.  She collected art, and at the same time men, predictably drawn to her fame and fortune like moth to flame.

Peggy Guggenheim Huffington Post

A prostitute who slept with 1,000 customers would have concerns about sexually transmitted diseases, cervical cancer, violence, or exploitation.  A woman of Peggy Guggenheim’s pedigree would cede no warnings of such.  She was merely described as having a “veracious” sexual appetite instead of being labelled as “promiscuous” or urged to seek treatment from sex addiction. Thus a self-fulling prophecy unfolded conveniently: once you have that many notches in your bedpost, you are believed to possess an admirable level of certain skills, which in turn attracts even more suitors.  Whereas a man might be reluctant to admit patronizing prostitutes, which carried stigma, being one of Peggy Guggenheim’s conquests inevitably led to curious cocktail hour inquiries in earnest and envy: “What was she like?”

Women who want to have a satisfying sex life thinking they can attain that by becoming wealthy and influential may be disappointed.  The power and allure of Peggy Guggenheim was rooted in her last name; she was born rich.  A self-made woman will no doubt have to sacrifice her social life to invest in her career before becoming successful, which amounts to losing time, the most precious commodity in her pursuit of both.

In the first episode of Season 3’s “Sex and the City”, Miranda Hobbes, the Harvard-educated lawyer-turned-partner who finished first in her litigation class, ponders as their ferry sails towards Staten Island leaving Manhattan behind: “Look at how small it looks. Who would have thought an island that tiny would be big enough to hold all our old boyfriends?”  Well, in Peggy Guggenheim’s case, it did not.  She moved to Europe, slept with 1,000 men, and her “Peggy Guggenheim Collection” is now a modern art museum overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice.

Peggy Guggenheim Venice photo

Money, Prestige and Sex, Part II: The Fallacy of Having It All

Pragmatism vs. Romance, Then  

The “middle of the road” doctrine was one of the most fundamental principles of ancient Chinese philosophy.  Growing up, with the exception of being expected to excel academically, my generation was taught the importance of being modest, keeping a low profile, and not wanting too much of a good thing.  The theory applied to every aspect of life, from work to social, and had paramount influence on how one chose a life partner.  A man usually emphasized looks, age and domestic skills, and a woman put a man’s family background, education and career path above appearance and personality.  I still remember how shocked I was when reading a Sunday Los Angeles Times wedding announcement of a young American woman with a master’s degree working for Unilever marrying a serviceman with only a high school diploma.  A marriage like that was, and still is, unfathomable in China.

In the West where people have enjoyed steadily rising living standard, romance is still valued.  Both young men and women put a premium, at least initially, on physical attractiveness, with chemistry and compatibility rounding up the top three.

Pragmatism vs. Romance, Now  

As societies evolve, traditional way of life is giving way to new reality.  In countries where a woman’s primary role was producing children and being servile, the rapid economic development and social uncertainties practically demand a woman be productive and self-sufficient.  Whereas a man in the past focused on his bride’s youth and looks, the current male generation pays far more attention to her education, income potential, and most importantly, her ability to help his career.  Their courtship is almost transaction-based, and the prevalent culture’s deep-rooted pragmatism, while always strong, has taken on a modern urgency in direct response to economical unpredictability, social upheaval, and people’s general underlying survival instinct.

The West’s feminists and pop culture have during the last few decades popped up the notion of “having-it-all,” whatever it means, and encouraged women not to settle.  The international bestseller “Lean In” causes an average working woman to think that if she works at it, she too can have a thriving career, and a nurturing husband who is equally successful in his own right, supports her career choices, and shares equitable household chores and child-rearing duties.  In other word, a modern man must play a number of roles: provider, friend, lover, child care technician, business partner.  I myself find it astonishing for a woman to think that she can find a man capable of performing all these functions, and a woman disillusioned enough to think that she can is setting herself up for disappointment. While Ms. Sheryl Sandberg has my deepest sympathy for the tragic loss of her husband, it’s a social experiment of gigantic order to see when, or if, she can find another man who will replicate what her late husband did for her.

Sheryl Sandberg

As if things were not complicated enough: as a young woman gets older, her needs in a man changes regardless of her marital status.  If her partner’s capacities do not evolve accordingly overtime, it’s evitable for a gap to develop and grow between what the woman wants and needs and what the man is willing or able to provide. If we breakdown the demographics of these women, an even more startling phenomenon emerges: when a middle class woman grows her professional circle and climbs up the socioeconomic ladder, when her investment in her education and career starts to pay off, she will find herself becoming more appealing to her contemporary men, who grow more appreciative of women who possess the life experience, maturity and confidence that they once did not value as much.  Interestingly enough, the difference between what Eastern and Western men want at this stage becomes almost negligible, as mature men appear to be more universally attracted to women of their intellectual and professional equals.

The Money Divide

I will not speculate what women of the upper echelon do to deal with the gap, and I can only point to anecdotes.  Ethel Kennedy was reported to have gone on dates after Bobby was assassinated.  When she realized none of these men could match what Bobby offered, she never re-married.  Peggy Guggenheim decided to just sleep with men after two failed marriages, and she was able to find 1,000 of them. This is another area where the rich have us beat: have you ever heard of any working class woman pulling off that feat?

Peggy Guggenheim portrait

While a wealthy woman makes a relatively easy decision to either give up or simply ratchet up sex partners, a middle-class woman with her new-found popularity has rather limited options:

a. Find a way for her man to fulfill her needs

This can be a daunting task akin to trying to teach an old dog new tricks, and is known to cause frictions and resentment.  No man likes to face his inadequacies, perceived or real.  Few women have the patience, strong will, or diplomatic skills to “change a man.”  Even fewer men have the desire or humility to improve.

b. If option “a” does not work, her choices include:

i.Giving up


iii.Filling her needs in a different man

Note neither “i” nor “ii” is desirable.  Giving up may lead to frustration, anger and depression.  Leaving can have adverse emotional, financial or logistical consequences. “iii” takes more courage and requires resources most woman are not equipped with.  Before Anna Karenina throws herself in front a freight train, Jinlian Pan, the most infamous adulteress in the Chinese history met her violent end and her story serving up as a cautionary tale was told and retold in traditional and new media of all sorts imaginable.  Pan was in a forced marriage to an ugly midget.  Humiliated after her handsome, brawny, valiant brother-in-law Song Wu rejected her advance, she sought comfort in a flamboyant playboy rumored to have the most advanced sexual prowess.  They conspired to poison her midget husband, and Song Wu exacted revenge by cutting her head off and disemboweling her organs as a sacrifice to his dead brother.  Since the quaint notion of a man being everything for his wife is deeply rooted in our culture, most people still find it appalling that a woman dares to think outside of her box (no pun intended).  My current dentist once shared her practice with her also dentist husband, who had a ski accident and has been confined to a wheelchair for the last five years.  A few weeks ago, she saw me when I went in for a routine cleaning, and told me in front of her staff that her therapy sessions with her psychiatrist had not helped at all.  She was a beautiful, accomplished woman, and I immediately realized that the elephant in the room was that she was sexually frustrated and had no outlet.

Pan Jinlian

Again, the dilemma seems to stem from the socioeconomic divide: while rich men are open to having just a strictly physical encounter, average men are much more reluctant to be just an f* buddy.  Samantha Jones, the character who embodies sex in the seminal pilot episode of “Sex and the City,” declares: “This is the first time in the history of Manhattan that women have had as much money and power as men plus the equal luxury of treating men like sex objects.” And her friend Miranda Hobbes points out: “Yeah, except men in this city fail on both counts. I mean, they don’t wanna be in a relationship with you but as soon as you only want them for sex they don’t like it. All of a sudden they can’t perform the way they’re supposed to!” Maybe because both men and women realize that whoever is capable of separating emotion from the sex act has the upper hand, and neither wants to relinquish the power, or forgo the ego of self-importance by being considered just a sex partner.

SATC F-buddy


Some suggest that Peggy Guggenheim was a role model for women, and I don’t really think she set out to be one intentionally.  She was a woman who knew exactly what she wanted, and she was not afraid of going after it.  Fortunately for her, she had all the resources and none of the inhibitions to accomplish that.  The rest of us?  Not that lucky.

Money, Prestige and Sex, Part III: A Tribute to Union

I have a friend Linda who confides her frustration with her husband Walter almost every time we meet.  Walter is in his early 70s, 17 years older than Linda, grew up on a ranch in Illinois, and is estranged from his parents and siblings.  Linda started her small business some time ago and deals with its growing pains on a daily basis.  When she returns home, she still has to cook and clean as Walter is domestically challenged.  Walter’s father passed away a few years ago and did not leave anything to him.  Walter deep down inside is a country boy and longs for the days when he can return to his family ranch in his golden years.  After he found out his father had left the ranch to his siblings, he hired a lawyer to contest the will.  It was a long, drawn-out battle that saw him take a second mortgage on their house and make multiple trips to Illinois.  Thirty thousand dollars later, he still did not have the ranch.  Needless to say, Linda and Walter have very little to say to each other these days, and sex is out of the question.  Linda is a smart, attractive woman who has plenty of admirers, and when I asked her whether she would leave Walter, she said something that caused me to pause: “I will never find a man who will ever love me more than Walter does.”  In 1980s, Walter was an American expatriate working for a Fortune 500 company, and brought Linda to the US on a fiancé visa after meeting her overseas.  He spent one month’s salary on her one-way business class ticket, married her on the last day before her visa would expire, taught her English, and showed her the world when he travelled extensively for his employer.  Without his nurturing, Linda would not have been able to start her own company.  Even though there is no passion, they still have great respect for and appreciation of each other.  She knows she is Walter’s only connection to this world, and walking out would devastate him.  As a compromise, she keeps interesting and successful men in her company, and sets her emotional boundary as she has no illusion of what they represent.

Conventional wisdom has that married men don’t leave their wives.  With the way family law is written, a divorce can send a man (and a woman) to emotional and financial ruins.  Statistics shows that 80% of the divorce petitions are filed by women, which is not a surprise given the great stride they have made in their education and careers.  While I wish these women the best finding what they want, I still recognize that divorce is a strenuous undertaking, with serious emotional and financial ramifications.  With the exceptions of neglect and abuse, a couple just doesn’t decide to call it quits simply because they don’t love each other anymore.  There are almost always underlying reasons that act as a catalyst to finally tip over the balance: affair, finance, career choice, illness, etc..  Well, do divorced people become happier?  Unfortunately, research shows they are no happier than before their divorce, which leads me to think that maybe, just maybe, the fickleness of human nature is to blame.

When I was still in high school living in China, the airing of a television series “Anna Karenina” caused a huge controversy and inspired heated debate.  Back then, divorce was frowned upon, and a divorced woman was a social pariah and considered morally corrupt.  I don’t know what percentage of the couples stayed married because they did not want to bring “shame” to their families, or feared being ostracized at work, or could not afford separate housing.  I do still vividly remember a high school classmate’s mother complaining to me about her insensitive husband.  Given the backdrop, it was no wonder why even my literature class teacher could not understand Anna’s decision, and women shook their heads praising Karenin’s restraint dealing with his wife’s infidelity, as a typical Chinese man would have beaten his cheating wife to a pulp, or worse.  Years later when I read the novel, I marveled at Leo Tolstoy’s masterful ability at depicting human emotions.  After Anna leaves her husband and children, she and Vronsky live together despite the scorn of the entire aristocratic society.  She turns paranoid and jealous, and they argue constantly.  Tolstoy writes that Vronsky becomes increasingly fed up with Anna’s temper, and describes his disgust with the sipping sound Anna makes drinking her tea.  When she decides to attend an opera despite his pleading not to make a scene, Vronsky finds her beauty, which is what draws him to her initially, and her exquisite gown, repulse him.  Tolstoy initially did not intend for Anna to kill herself; as the story unfolds amid the tumultuous geopolitical, economic and social landscape, her suicide becomes an inevitable end.

Anna Karenina book cover

Anna Karenina

When a couple first meets, sparks fly and fireworks erupt.  Eventually, passion gives way to the mundane, whereas an all-encompassing companionship evolves and transcends whatever physical, financial or logistic bond that binds them together in the first place.  There may be detours, circles, or even dark holes on the way; however, the path points forward.  It is that very bond that elevates coupledom to partnership: a deep, unbreakable connection designed to withstand the test of time.

The fictional ultimate political couple Frank and Claire Underwood has a common goal: power.  They are friends, lovers, and the staunchest supporter of each other’s and their collective cause.  When Claire’s former paramour Adam is blackmailed by Frank’s political enemy to reveal their affair, Claire and Frank summon Adam to their residence to strategize, and here is the exchange:

Adam to Frank:                      Oh, your wife? What does that even mean to you?

Frank to Adam:                      Do not mistake any history you have shared for the slightest understanding of what our marriage is, or how insignificant you are in comparison.


Adam to Claire:                      I’m sorry I ever met you.  All you’ve ever done is cause me pain.  Now you’re fucking with my life and the life of the woman that I love more than I ever loved you… I’m not part of this world.  I didn’t sign up for it.  I have no interest in it.

Claire to Adam:                      We‘re giving you an out, Adam.  And if you choose not to take it, I will bury you.

Adam to Claire:                      I’ve never hated anyone before.  Now I know what that feels like.

Claire to Adam:                      It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it?


Frank and Claire

Series Conclusions

Peggy Guggenheim was a pioneer in her endeavor well before the feminist movement, which has given women choices and empowered them to freely decide what they want to do with their bodies, sexuality, and relationships.  I wholeheartedly support whatever they do to pursue their happiness, however they define it.  Unfortunately, even though our society supposedly is more advanced and tolerant of alternative lifestyles, there is still a considerable amount of stigma associated with a single woman who opts for sex rather than marriage, or a married woman either seeking attention and comfort from a man other than her husband, or leaving her marriage outright to go after whatever it is that she wants.  I am thankful to Peggy Guggenheim who was ahead of the curve demonstrating to her admirers and distractors alike that she could unapologetically sleep with as many men as she pleased, just as men could.  I also find it equally laudable for women to stay with their men, regardless of how inadequate they may be, to build a life-long union that is based on love, friendship, respect, companionship that transcends the purely physical.

Peggy Guggenheim Art Addict