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The Meaning of Bad Sex

#MeToo spawns a literature

David Mikics
February 12, 2020
Photo: J. Paul Getty Museum
Bruno Braquehais (1823-1875), 'Nude at Mirror,' 1850-1852Photo: J. Paul Getty Museum
Photo: J. Paul Getty Museum
Bruno Braquehais (1823-1875), 'Nude at Mirror,' 1850-1852Photo: J. Paul Getty Museum

#MeToo, like every social revolution since the birth of print, has become a literary genre. Two years ago, a story titled “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian appeared in The New Yorker. Roupenian’s short story dealt with a botched hookup and its aftermath, told from inside the head of a 20-year-old woman named Margot. Both Margot and the man she has sex with, 34-year-old Robert, seem to have Roupenian’s sympathy, especially when they behave badly. Roupenian is a cringe-inducing expert at describing bad sex. Margot doesn’t know what she wants, and therefore he is supposed to find out for her. But Robert is a sweaty fumbler, trying too hard. She sleeps with him knowing it’s a mistake, and then dumps him.

“Cat Person” got more reader response than any New Yorker story since Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” The throngs of readers who complained that Roupenian was slandering either Robert or Margot testified to how utterly real she made both characters. The author’s evenhandedness threw these readers off base, and so they took sides (as Robert does at the story’s end, when he slut-shames Margot). But the story’s real point is that there are no sides to take, just an impossible awkwardness.

Roupenian doesn’t load the deck by giving the man power over the woman. In a way it’s she who has the power. She’s the beautiful one, and she knows it; he’s a paunchy, hairy schlub.

The bombshell success of “Cat Person” ushered in the springtime of #MeToo fiction. The National Book Award for 2019 went to Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, about the kids at an arts high school in a certain sunbelt city during the 1980s, who grapple 30 years later with new reports of their former teacher’s sexual malfeasance. Trust Exercise feels fragmented, unusually for Choi, but this matches the divisive, hard-to-parse nature of her subject, sexual initiation and the blurred line between invitation and harassment.

In her final pages Choi shifts away from the teenage romantic gropings that occupy most of her book by giving us something quite different. She depicts a school trustee as a flagrant sexual predator, the powerful middle-aged man who literally thrusts himself on women. He is a shameful, monstrous figure, easy to scorn, whereas most of the novel deals with guilt rather than shame. Guilt is slippery, contagious, and uncertain. Shame is Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Jeffrey Epstein. Guilt is the rest of us.

Mary Gaitskill’s recent novella, This Is Pleasure, zeroes in on guilt rather than the easier target of shame. Gaitskill, like Choi one of our best novelists, depicts a disgraced Manhattan literary editor named Quin, who is the opposite of the usual goal-oriented predator. Quin doesn’t want to have sex but instead to burst through boundaries. After a reading, he puts his hand in the author’s face and tells her, “Bite my thumb.” (She walks away.) A sexual jester, he goes too far, flirting eccentrically, provoking and teasing. When his wife finds out about all this, she is furious, and we feel bad for her.

But here as in all her fiction Gaitskill speaks for the strange ones like Quin, even when they inflict damage. For Gaitskill it’s just a truth about the world: Damage is what people do, to themselves and to others. She is generous toward Quin, able to see him as innocent even at his worst-behaved, while never denying that such innocence can have terrible consequences, ripping apart family and friends.

Gaitskill has always known how to hit the reader hard. The hardest hitting moment in This Is Pleasure happens when Quin remembers having sex with a woman in the bathroom of a club, back in the 1980s, before everything changed and all the talk started to be about power and exploitation. Quin says, “What a different story we told about ourselves then. How aware we were that it was a story.”

Quin knows that there was something missing from the old story, doing what you want and then saying goodbye, no regrets. The woman in the bathroom bent over eagerly for him, but then, when it was over, she ran away. She was, he now thinks, traumatized, and there was no room in the story for that. Now, years later, he worries about it, as he didn’t at the time.

James Lasdun’s Afternoon of a Faun is a particularly compact, gripping example of #MeToo fiction. Lasdun predicted the genre years ago in The Horned Man, a bizarre and intriguing novel, as well as Give Me Everything You Have, his brilliant, nerve-wracking memoir about being stalked. An ex-student, in love with Lasdun and maddened when he rejects her advances, accuses him of arranging for her to be raped, as well as running a Jewish cabal to steal her writing. She launches dozens of emails a day at him, usually chock full of anti-Semitic rantings, pollutes his reputation by slandering him on websites, and, pretending to be him, sends scores of people obscene letters from his email address. She begins to demolish him, and she doesn’t stop, not for years. Lasdun domesticates the demon who can’t be exorcised: Putting her in his book is the only way to survive her onslaught. Stunningly, the memoir ends at the kotel in Jerusalem. For his stalker, Lasdun is like a silent deity, cursed, defiled, and worshipped through the furious emptiness of cyberspace.

Lasdun sympathizes with the current anti-patriarchal crusade, but he is terrorized by the “shaming and ostracizing power the new attitudes brought.” The stalker’s smears cling to him, a lasting poison, and people suspect he is what she says, a sexual monster. He writes, “I began to feel that I and other men were beginning to occupy a position in our society like that of women in various traditional societies, where the merest suggestion of sexual transgression could mean death … our reputations were frail, in need of vigilant protection.”

Afternoon of a Faun, like Give Me Everything You Have, describes what happens when a woman tries to sentence a man to social death. Lasdun tells the story of Marco Rosedale, once a globetrotting photographer on the prowl, but now happily married. Suddenly Marco finds his life torpedoed by an old flame named Julia, who threatens to publish an article about their long-ago sexual encounter in a Belfast hotel room.

Julia suffered a trauma that night in the hotel, and now she is bent on vengeance. As she puts it, “I didn’t tell myself: I’ve been raped. I knew something I didn’t want to happen had happened, but I didn’t know how to think about it.” Now Julia casts aside thought and plunges into action. She was raped, she decides, and so Marco must be destroyed.

Not rape, exactly, but something unfathomable happened between Marco and Julia the night they had sex, and Lasdun’s narrator, Marco’s friend, probes at the mystery. He voices a finely Jamesian sentence as he imagines Marco and Julia post-sex, “the act compressing its own colossal implications to a blackness too dense for either of them to comprehend as they rolled apart.”

Marco is pretty sure—though not completely—that he didn’t do anything he shouldn’t have that night, but he recognizes there was something ruthless about his affair with Julia. Sounding like Gaitskill’s Quin, Marco says, “That was the old code: every man for himself. Every woman, too, by the way.” He then ruefully adds, “Maybe it wasn’t such a great code.”

Afternoon of a Faun ends with Marco, the narrator, and a roomful of fellow liberals watching Donald Trump debate Hillary Clinton. Trump, the alleged shameless molester of women, resembles “some Freudian idol we’d set up in order to load it with the qualities we most abhorred about ourselves before driving it out into the wilderness.” “He is so going down!” one of the spectators yells, and indeed the candidate looks like “some elephantine statue lassoed in ropes and about to come crashing down.”

Trump didn’t crash. He rocketed to the presidency, and brought with him the archaic sexist impulses that #MeToo wants to banish. There’s a raging id in the White House, we men have been told, and we are suspected of sharing some of its vile energy. But a constant spotlight on the monstrous male draws our attention away from what #MeToo could still turn out to be, a serious examination of what goes on between women and men.

The simple oppositions of male predator and female victim may prove undesirable, not to mention untenable, in life as well as in literature. Victimhood does not liberate you, the critic Marilyn Simon argues in the online magazine Quillette:

If contemporary feminist orthodoxy insists that masculine sexual energy is, in itself, “toxic” … women will not have to contend with their own powerful sexual nature as the inspiration and location for the masculine imagination. But women’s condemnation of men’s sexuality will not inspire women to understand themselves sexually, nor is it likely to help men understand women. … The failure to contend with our natures because it is easier to retreat into our own self-willed dream of autonomy seems less like moral progress, and more like a lonely lack of courage.

Urging men toward more caution, and more kindness, in sexual matters is a good thing. But what we really need from both men and women is a wish to understand. Bad sex will always be with us, but perhaps we can start to learn from it.

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.

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