No sex is better than bad sex," says Sophie Fontanel, sitting forward on a couch in the historic Hotel Le Meurice, in central Paris. "You would think this is obvious, no?" Her dark eyes wait, smiling. "But the fuss!"
Forget a man who can last all night, or a man who can't last at all. What women want - or at least, what this couture-slim 50-year-old wants - is a bit of tenderness from a soul mate, from a man who is comfortable with silence.
"I don't know where he is, this secret man," says Fontanel in heavily accented English. "When you get older, it is not simple. Most of the men my age are like little boys with beards; they are looking at very young women. So we must learn to be happy by ourselves."
A sigh. "Did you notice that when we arrived, our first reflex was not to look for the men?" When I tell her I'd already cased the joint before going back outside to get a mobile signal, she laughs a machine-gun-fire laugh before continuing.
"Ah, but we are not searching anymore," she insists. "We are used to being alone among women. But in my bed, I have my dreams."
Fontanel's French best seller L'Envie (Desire), published in English here next week as The Art of Sleeping Alone, tells of how, aged 27, she decided to become nobler, more spiritual, by taking a sabbatical from sex.
"I spent the early years of my adult life having a lot of very disappointing sex," she says. "Even when I was happy with the man, in bed we became like two machines. Lovemaking was never like in the descriptions I'd read or the Hollywood movies I loved."
There were flings, one-night stands, longer liaisons; all the while Fontanel refused to listen to her body, to the cramps and fatigue that hinted at unresolved trauma. "As soon as I felt a smidgen better, I'd go back to forgetting myself," she writes. "I was ready to be banged into again." One day, when a lover was angered by her refusal to comply with his sexual demands, the usually placid Fontanel snapped, and had an epiphany: "I made a decision to leave him and take time out. I wanted to wait for a new view about sex. I wanted men to see me, to dwell within my person."
Part memoir, part essay, Fontanel's slim book uses episodes from her life to make the case that a pause sexuelle in these oversexed times can be life-affirming. L'Envie hit a chord in France, shifting 150,000 copies in a few weeks. By being brave enough to come out and say that, unlike food and air, sex isn't actually essential, Fontanel spoke to women and men for whom celibacy was shameful ("There are many couples who act as if they're making love all the time but they are not"), or who'd been drawn or pressured into encounters that had left them feeling worthless.
"Suddenly I was no longer 'poor Sophie, the lonesome girl', " says Fontanel, who when not writing from home (later she'll email me a photo of the Tuileries Garden outside her window) is a senior editor at Elle magazine and a fashion blogger. "I made a little revolution by telling girls they are not obliged to do anything they don't want to do. These young women are talking dirty on Facebook and dressing like prostitutes, but really they are playing."
Fontanel should know. The younger of two children born to a wealthy Parisian businessman father and a housewife mother with Armenian heritage, Fontanel reached puberty early. "At 13, I had boobs. I wore heels. Little ones," she says with a smile. "I discovered that getting men to look at me was easy."
It was as a 13-year-old that she found herself in a hotel room with a man in his 20s: "I told him it was impossible, that I was a virgin, but he said we had to," she says. "I was crying and completely paralysed because I was so ashamed." When she told her late mother, she was taken to see a doctor but forbidden to press charges; Sophie was partly to blame, her mother reasoned, since she'd entered the room of her own free will. "I adored my mother but this was a big mistake. If you tell a man no, then he has to stop."
Later, as deputy editor of French Cosmopolitan, Fontanel commissioned an article titled "It Was Not Rape, But ..." that evoked a huge response. "I knew I would have to protect my body because no one else was going to," she says. "It just took me a little while."
While fontanel set about enjoying what she calls her "indescribable equilibrium"- bathing in Japanese lavender milk, walking through poppy fields, seeing the world through the eyes of children - her friends were variously shocked, uncomfortable, fascinated. A flurry of matchmaking attempts saw Fontanel invent imaginary lovers to keep wannabe do-gooders off her back.
Couples at dinner parties counselled her to show more leg ("My freedom had to be paired with availability or else it became a disorder," she writes). Meanwhile people told her their secrets: famous lotharios confessed to performance anxiety and married neighbours to using prostitutes.
Fontanel's sabbatical lasted 12 years, during which she felt variously judged, invisible, empowered and liberated. "But it is not a good thing to never lose control," she says. "Finally I took a lover, a married friend who found it exciting that I wasn't sleeping around. He told me never to be ashamed of what I wasn't doing, especially since the private lives of all the people we knew were shit."
Today they are just friends again, and Fontanel is content. Just don't call her single. "I am free. The worst thing about it is always having to give reasons, to have to make my biography every day." She pauses, smiles. "I might meet a man," she says, "or I might not. But whatever happens, I will be true to myself. I deserve the best."