I’ve been struggling recently with an aspect of novel-writing that I never thought I’d have to consider, which is the difficulty of writing male-female relationships with anything approaching clarity or intelligence. Part of this is structural (I’ll get to that part in a minute), but a lot of it has to do with the ways in which my understanding of gender relationships has changed in the last few years, drastically and (I hope) irrevocably. It’s just hard, knowing what we know now (and what women have always known, I think, throughout the decades, even though it’s begun to bubble to the surface of the discourse more powerfully in recent years) to write about heterosexual courtship without at least considering the seriously messed-up sexual power dynamics that come with it.
(This post will come back around to writing, but first it has to wade through some particularly difficult issues that may, at first, seem tangential to writing. I promise it’ll come around in the end. I also want to point out that my own perspective is much less complex than most of the women referenced in this post, and I urge you to read their essays and novels and stories, since I’m sure I’ll miss many of their nuances.)
For those of you who haven’t read it, I highly suggest reading Sam Cohen’s recent essay about rape culture over at Delirious Hem. It’s powerful for several reasons, but the one I want to focus on is the way Cohen is explicit about desire. Most of the time, when we talk about rape (if we talk about it at all, since most dudes I know – and I’ve been guilty about this – prefer to pass over it in silence) we frame it in terms of protection and violation, with a subtle paternalistic bias, as in: how do we protect women from the violation that comes from rape, and how do we punish the men who commit it? Or, we ask, in a slightly more progressive spin, how do we resist rape culture, as men and women who understand its pervasiveness? How do we support and fight for our friends?
There’s something eminently realistic about these stances. It’s not fair, after all, to criticize women for being on the defensive against sexual violence, considering how pervasive it is – and it isn’t wrong to ask friends and allies to adopt a similarly defensive posture, in order to provide support in times of crisis. But what Cohen so artfully points out is that the assumption of defensiveness is in and of itself a part of rape culture – part of the way it closes off spaces for female desire. As she writes:
I hold the weirdly radical belief that girls desire sexually as much as boys do. I (along with I think most humans?) had very specific and detailed sexual fantasies from the time I was a child. I was excited for college to be a time of sexual exploration and adventure. This excitement, in part, informed my willingness to kiss boys, to sit on their beds. But then there’d come a point where it didn’t feel like we were exploring or adventuring together—it felt like they were taking. Or it felt like they were tricking me into something, rather than inviting collaboration. I can only understand this as a result of the belief that girls don’t desire, they only allow or disallow, acquiesce or don’t. This is Rape Culture.
What’s so important about an argument like Cohen’s is the way it gives no out to the “nice boys.” Instead of singling out certain men as monstrous rapists (although Cohen certainly holds no sympathy for these men and boys), she points out the way in which the culture itself sets up situations in which male desire gets free reign and female desire is made subordinate. In the process, she forces all heterosexual cis men to own up to the ways in which their own actions have been complicit in this structure. Not all of us are guilty of rape – although more of us than we should ever be comfortable with – but even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as rapists ought to recognize the times in which we’ve privileged our own desires over the desires of the women we’ve been with. Maybe it was entirely our own volition, or maybe it was toxic combination of a culture which assumes a mild level of coercion in sexual situations, in which men are asked to be aggressive, to overcome some form of expected resistance – doesn’t really matter, does it, in the end. We’ve all fallen far short of equitability, of what Cohen calls (in a hopeful phrase) “collaboration.” Some of us never get there at all, whether out of ignorance or shame.
Having read Cohen’s essay, I spent last night thinking about all of the situations I’d been in my life where sexual experiences have fallen far short of “collaboration.” It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I thought about drunken parties, awkward early dates, moments of confusion in which there should have been communication and wasn’t: the slippery space between no and yes. I think all hetero cis men have experiences like this, if they’re being honest with themselves. I think all of us ought to spend a great deal of time thinking about it. We could use a few more sleepless nights.
Which brings me to the question of writing, and the responsibilities inherent in creating fictional narratives around desire. How do we write about heterosexual love, when the reality of how desire works in the world is so skewed?
The most common technique is to ignore rape culture entirely, and to act as if our fictional heterosexual couple exists outside of it. The is the technique that most male novelists take when they write about love. It’s a very tidy method. It’s especially tidy when your protagonist is a man, and even a little realistic, since most men don’t ever consider the ways in which rape culture has affected the sexuality of the people they sleep with. But I don’t have to belabor the obvious ways this technique silences, simplifies, and ignores the woman in our fictional hetero couple, and in the process perpetuates the greater cultural silencing of female desire. In attempting to ignore rape culture, male writers ignore a crucial aspect of the way in which their female characters experience the world. To write about hetero love without writing about rape culture is to perpetuate a lie.
Cue the chorus of angry men – and I’ve spoken to a lot of them, since trying to talk about rape with your male friends is a great way to get yourself in a deep argument – who say, “well, why don’t we just leave the writing about sex entirely to women, then! If male desire so fucked up, then why don’t I just silence myself. Would that make you happy?”
Sometimes I think this would make me happy. People like Nell Zink and Chris Kraus and Sheila Heti and more women writers than I have time to list here are making courageous decisions to write about hetero female desire and female experiences of sex in all of their horrific grandeur, and that’s at least a beginning in the struggle to right a persistent imbalance in the fictional depiction of desire. Maybe if there were fewer men writing awful stories about male desire, perpetuating the idea that male desire is aggressive and female desire (when it even exists) is passive, then the world of literature would be a better place. Imagine, if you will, every Updike book in every library in America being replaced by the collected works of Jane Bowles, Mary Gaitskill, and Elfriede Jelinek? Progress!
Except — I’m a hetero cis male writer, and I’m interested in the way hetero relationships work. I’ve also seen the way in which a refusal by male writers to write about sex and desire, to relegate these issues to the (implicitly inferior) domain of “women’s fiction,” is itself a deeply misogynistic construct. It basically says, this is your problem – you worry about it. I don’t have the time. I’m thinking about bigger things. It’s the same saw, all over again: my desires are more important than your desires.
(It’s a similar argument to the way men describe being “unable” to write female characters, and so they avoid female perspectives. It’s a particular male privilege to be able to ignore large parts of existence because you’re simply “not good at it,” such as cooking, cleaning, and understanding other human beings.)
I don’t believe in a hierarchy of subject matter. I think that most male writers, like most men (and I implicate myself as much as anyone here), are extremely ignorant of the complex desires of their friends and partners, and that ignorance is no excuse. I think we lack the language to talk about such things in part because we don’t experiment with new forms, new ways of making meaning, around the literature of desire. I think hetero cis male writers have their own responsibility to write thoughtfully and incisively about the way men and women interact, sexually and otherwise. We should be able to write about love and desire just as honestly and painfully as women do, acknowledging our limitations, implicating ourselves when necessary, to reach for understanding. The fact that we persistently fail to do so, or ignore the issue altogether, is evidence of just how deeply rape culture has insinuated itself into our literature.