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Mary Gaitskill teaches us to embrace complexity The writer understands that love is a living nightmare

Sex won't save us (Secretary, Lions Gate)


November 19, 2021   6 mins

When I told Mary Gaitskill to read Michel Houllebecq’s first novel, Whatever, she replied: “You like that crap?” The next day she sent me a kind email recommending an energy healer. I didn’t take her up on the offer; I remained confused and disappointed that she’d been so unimpressed.

Before our call, she’d emailed me explaining that she wanted to talk about incels, and I thought that Whatever was the best book about them ever written: the world is divided into ugly and hot people who compete in ruthless combat, with no relief in marriage and no reward but rot. It’s obviously depressing — when I first read it, I immediately made my first (and for many years, last) therapist appointment. I was a 21-year-old living with my brother on Gainesville, Florida’s Sorority Row. I had no romantic prospects.

A few years later, I was in graduate school further north, in a contrived relationship with a cheerful Connecticut lawyer. In a cold and sunny condo, on the smooth wooden flooring, I read Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior: it was one of the only books about ugly women I’d ever read. There it was, again, but Midwestern and dumpy, not French and brainy: the sick sad world, where you might get laid but you’ll never get better.

Reading Gaitskill’s fantastic latest book, the essay collection Oppositions, I began to see why she’d reacted so badly to Houellebecq: he sounded simple, scientific, and therefore stupid. And Gaitskill doesn’t brook stupidity. Her terror and her grace — alongside her disorientingly good looks — is her intelligence; an elegant and icy one that, in the end, is also merciful. Throughout these astonishing essays about literature, music and more, she seems to be circling the notion that curiosity—embracing the muddle —is the path to empathy for sick, sad creatures like us.

Most of the essays in Oppositions are reprised from her 2017 collection Somebody With a Little Hammer. That title comes from her essay — included in both volumes — about teaching Anton Chekhov’s Gooseberries, with its famous speech: “At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall — illness, poverty, loss — and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now.”

Gaitskill serves as the person with the little hammer, but she doesn’t just remind us of unhappiness: beyond that, her job is to remind us how complicated living is, how little we know, how much we have left to do. Her job is to make us be adults.

That maturity — sometimes painful, often bleak — can prove unpopular, especially when it comes to sex. But here, Gaitskill is in a class of her own: braver, ballsier—just smarter. Twelve pages into an essay defending Lolita as a book about love, about how lovers strive for heaven and dwell in hell, she starts talking about how she was molested at five — and says she felt empathy for the man; that she was even aroused. Wow!

Anyone rushing to dismiss Gaitskill as unempathetic or cold would be hard-pressed: she inserts herself into these questions with unflinching bravery, and she knows suffering herself. But her “story”, like everyone else’s, is up for debate, and she doesn’t make herself a martyr or a hero. And her goal isn’t to condemn — not to condemn Mailer or Nabokov or her assaulters or the pretentious boyfriend obsessed with The Talking Heads: her goal is to complicate. Her goal is to change her mind.

She brings the same remarkable mixture of clear thought and startling vulnerability to questions of sexual consent: her essay “The Trouble With Following the Rules” is, for me, just about the best analysis of date rape ever written. It begins with Gaitskill’s description of her date rape as a sixteen-year-old girl dropping acid with strangers in Detroit, before questioning whether it was really rape. In a stunning turn, she says that when she was “raped for real” by an attacker who threatened to kill her, she got over it pretty quickly. Then, she writes about when a casual friend and her get drunk and he became aggressive and seemed almost to force her into sex.

In a move reminiscent of Amy Hempel’s The Harvest, Gaitskill writes: “In the original version of this essay I didn’t mention that when I woke up the next day I couldn’t stop thinking about him, and that when he called me I invited him over for dinner again. I didn’t mention that we became lovers for the next two years.” That first draft made the story simpler, but the messy version is braver and more true.

In Gaitskill’s vision, sexual partners have awkward, often painful, negotiations to make, often in the dark, often in a rush, often in confusion. And any decent, kind sex won’t come from rigid rules; it will come from, as she writes, “the kind of fluid emotional negotiation that I see as necessary for personal responsibility”. That negotiation may take years. By the end of the essay, she takes responsibility for pretending to consent, tripping in that apartment decades earlier, with that man who was poor and black and “high on acid and misunderstanding, just as I was”.

Gaitskill isn’t telling women to have lower standards for sex; in a sense, she’s telling them to have higher standards. In a remarkable piece on reading the Bible (“A Lot of Exploding Heads: On Reading the Book of Revelation”), she defines fornication not simply as sex outside of marriage, but as “sex done in a state of psychic disintegration, with no awareness of one’s self or one’s partner, let alone any sense of real playfulness”. It is a “primitive attempt” to “give ballast to the most desperate human confusion”.

Lately, outlets including the New York Times have been chattering about the idiotically termed “sex negativity”, supposedly in vogue among young women. However, after reading Gaitskill’s essays, it seems they’re not opposed to sex, but rather to what Gaitskill calls fornication.

“The Trouble With Following the Rules” is probably the best articulation of what, I think, women my age are so unhappy about: in the old sexual regime, the rule was for women to have as little sex as possible, and now the rule is to have as much sex as possible. But neither world really cares what women actually want or need, and in the new, supposedly liberated world, even if you aren’t date raped, as she says: “sometimes I did find myself having sex with people I barely knew when I didn’t really want to all that much.” Sex can be unpleasant or regrettable or confusing without being assault; with women under so much pressure and in so much pain, it’s hard to imagine otherwise.

As she writes, all people have a mixture of strong and delicate parts; part of them wants strange sex, while part of them flinches from it. Often, we want many things we can’t articulate at all: that’s what being human is. We all know that, and we all deny that as we tell students to fill out “consent forms” on their phones before sex.

Gaitskill is trying — alongside other books of this year, such as Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again and The Right to Sex — to make sex complicated again. Often, it’s neither pure, joyous, free-willed pleasure, nor felony rape. As Gaitskill writes in her sympathetic but clear-eyed essay on Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat who later became an anti-porn activist, “I imagined that Lovelace simply lacked the confidence to describe what she did and felt in a nuanced way, and that the thing was very, very nuanced and contradictory. So she went with either ‘I liked it’ or ‘I was raped.’”

So many experiences are in between; in another anecdote, a woman in her fifties described how she was furious when she thought about how in her twenties, a man in the East Village would grab her breasts. But back then, she was giggly and flirted and loved attention. “So which is true, the giggly girl who just laughed when the guy grabbed her, or the angry woman in her fifties?”

Then she amps it up: apparently, some women orgasm when they are raped. What are we to do with this information? We live in a world of pain and compromise, and we need new language for “the sometimes excruciating contradictions that many women experience in relation to sex”. Without it, to quote her essay on the adaptation of Secretary (“Victims and Losers”), “every American has been “telling his her ‘story’ and trying to get redress for the last 20 years. Whatever the suffering is, it’s not to be endured, for God’s sake, not felt and never, ever accepted.”

Gaitskill accepts suffering. Perhaps that’s why girls my age love her so much. Gaitskill can see that even when we behave badly, we’re not just bad people making bad choices; we often don’t have good choices. We’re not sluts or evil or victims. We’re lost and lied to by everyone that was supposed to give us answers.

Too many of us, like the protagonist of Secretary, “yearn for contact in an autistic and ridiculous universe, and
 wind up getting [our] butt spanked instead.” We know that sex won’t save us, that work won’t save us, we know that feminism won’t save us, and we don’t think the old rules will either. There’s a sense of doom.

The last thing Gaitskill said to me, as I was leaving her home last week, was that she thought she’d have been a very different person if she hadn’t been raised in Michigan. Perhaps that’s the Midwesterner in her — a sense that the world where safety and comfort were a promise, where if you made the right choices the right things happened, has already ended. We showed up late.

But there, too, she’s different from Houellebecq. She might be dark, but she isn’t mean. She sees that everybody is suffering, men and women, beautiful and ugly. We are all both villains and victims. Across these essays, she’s attuned to the way art and experiences people dismiss as upsetting or triggering are simply attuned to the complexity of life — to the way that love is a living nightmare.


Ann Manov is a writer living in New York. Visit her website here.

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Ian Gribbin
Ian Gribbin
2 years ago

Nice piece of writing.
Couple of points. Firstly, try being an unattractive, poor male with low prospects/low IQ when trying to attract a partner. We usually turn to suicide in such circumstances, Society dare not admit that for men sex is a need not a want. But then to admit that a lack of sex causes depression and suicide in men, would mean the full legalisation of prostitution. I have no doubt that were women to have similar needs the entire government and psychology industry would be moving heaven and earth for them.
Secondly, because stupid feminists thought that the behaviours of each gender were fluid – we’re just different genitals with the same brain – they have caused untold damage to both men and women. Women have far less desire for casual sex than men. Many men prefer sex that it isn’t intimate, that is raw desire. Women, unless they’ve been on a ton of testosterone like transmen do not have these primal urges. The brain science has shown this over and over. Even with 100% contraception this has not altered female psychology one jot. Epic failure.
The maestro on all this is Roy Baumeister

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Gribbin
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

Correction.
MOST women have far less desire for casual sex. Many women DO have a primal urge for sex (I hesitate to say most, because I don’t know but do suspect that it is most).

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

I think the motives for casual sex vary a good deal across people. One thing I would say is that quite a lot of women do it for approval or validation. I don’t know many men who do.
The wildness of female sexuality is one of the worlds best kept secrets. But I would say that many women need to feel physically and emotionally safe before they can show it.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

I said MOST. I certainly have had and still have female friends who have casual sex because that is that they want to have. Approval or validation doesn’t enter the equation.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

I am glad I found a beautiful wife who didn’t sleep around. Heaven on earth at times.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  David Morley

That equates to marriage in my book. Sleeping around will not bring emotional security. Gaitskills writing is just sleeping around with anyone. I was interested at first then just disgusted by her rediculous stories.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Perhaps a primal urge, but not a primal need, like men do. I’m not aware of women having nocturnal orgasms in order to keep their internal organs intact.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

Sorry but you know not of what you talk! Many women have orgasms in their sleep.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Which is precisely why I qualified my comment with “…in order to keep their internal organs intact.”
From a biological perspective, and to the chagrin of many feminists apparently, it would have been quite impossible for the species to continue, as long as it has, without a male orgasm. I’m not aware of the biological necessity of a female orgasm in order to become pregnant.

Zirrus VanDevere
Zirrus VanDevere
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

There is not a necessity for female orgasm in regard to pregnancy, but I do believe there is data showing it certainly helps. What you are calling a “need” rather than a “want” can be satiated through masturbation, of course, and most men have the full capacity to not be brutish. I think it’s important that women recognize and respect this incredibly strong genetic impulse, and that they negotiate with care. This is why loving pair bonds are ideal, of course. But sex *is* complicated, and finding honesty, and ultimately grace, in non-pair-bonded sex should also be the goal.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren T

Not a necessity but still a need for some.

Yendi Dial
Yendi Dial
2 years ago

thank you, enfin…. a woman who speaks clearly realities that we want to ignore. I am a woman.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago

I think you are correct. My wife kept a virgin but now married she touches ectasy quite regularly. As she seemed so prim and proper it took about two years for me to confess my desires to her.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

There is an enormous difference between (most) men and (most) women in that regard. This is evidenced by the proliferation of gay saunas and sex clubs in Western cities, but not lesbian ones.

Perhaps gay men are fundamentally different from straight ones in often wanting sex with multiple partners, but I doubt it. The difference is the opportunity is much greater between two men than between a man and a woman. Of course not ALL men would like a lot more sex with more people, and some women do, but overall there is a big difference.

Mary Thomas
Mary Thomas
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

So my gay friends have told me over and over again. They’ve even gone so far as to say that one of the points of being a gay man is to have unfettered, unquestioned, unintimate and undemanding sex as frequently as possible. A great friend now 67 tells me he had sex in saunas 8 or 9 times in a night, sometimes several nights running, just moving from room to room.
As a woman I hear this but cannot imagine it. I know nobody who would wish to do this (excluding prostitutes). Women’s sex is incredibly powerful, deep, extensive and frightening to most men. I think many men feel overwhelmed by a woman who allows her entire self freedom in sex.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Mary Thomas

I believe women’s sexual desires work much better in a comitted faithful relationship like marriage. That is what I have seen in my own marriage. A lot of people I know say the same.

Zac Chave-Cox
Zac Chave-Cox
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

Surely we can empirically prove that sex is not a “need” for men considering that for millenia, large amounts of men have willingly taken vows of celibacy. It’s not to say the desire isn’t there but it is just that – a desire – not a “need”.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago
Reply to  Zac Chave-Cox

If you are talking about priests it is well known that the desire of some on a large scale was worked illigitimately on children, damaging thousands of them.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

A lack of sex causes depression and suicide in men ?

No, loneliness and lack of self-belief cause depression and suicide; and also cause too much preoccupation with sex.

Remedies ? : tackle the loneliness, tackle the inferiority complex.

Don’t worry about sex or sexual frustration.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

The things you mention show me a lack of hope. Working towards a good marriage would cure most of these ills. Some of us need sex and can get in trouble because of it. Marriage was always the answer in the past but people are becoming like animals from what I can see.

Helen Moorhouse
Helen Moorhouse
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

It is worth knowing what the pill does to women’s libido. Because it suppresses the sex hormone it requires much stronger sexual signals to raise interest. The result of that is that women on the pill are likely to be attracted much more to James Bond types – interested in sex but not in starting a family.

dasgupta.sucheta
dasgupta.sucheta
2 years ago

I think women are slow to recognise their desire/primal urge for sexual intercourse, orgasm, etc. One reason could be that sex is risky, especially in some cultures, so there exists a psychological disincentive to love. But the more factual reason would be that when there is no conscious love, desire, for women, is often transient and momentary, and contextual.

Last edited 2 years ago by dasgupta.sucheta
Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

Interesting, thoughtful, adult piece. More from this writer, please! Excellent.

Bogman Star
Bogman Star
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

Indeed, second that

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

And third it, very good writing

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

Can’t help but notice that it’s men who give the most gleeful approval of a woman who can’t bother to care about human feelings when it comes to sex (or human suffering when it comes to abuse).
Mary Gaitskill sounds an awful lot like Ghislaine Maxwell.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

I agree. She writes about the most awful relationships and sleeping around culture and it’s not a one off. All of her stuff seems the same. Why would one want to know about that lifestyle. I admit I wanted to read her stuff but was highly disillusioned and won’t touch any of her stuff now.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

True sexual union, in its most satisfying manifestation, is initiated, actuated and perfected in a lifelong consensual co-habitation between one man and one woman. When children come along, the raising of them becomes a maturative component–a stage2– of that satisfaction, a fulfillment that this life provides, and through which life on this planet, all of which is precious and sacred, prospers and proliferates from generation to generation.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

The ultimate joy in this world is when two people love each other, get married and have sex. A man and a woman of course. God has chosen this picture to show the relationship between Christ and the church (not the sex of course) but that is important.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

A very interesting and well written article. It’s also sparked an interest in Mary Gaitskill, of whom I was unaware.

Horrifying to learn on-phone consent forms are now a thing. I sometimes think the world of todays young must be a truly terrible thing.

Interesting that most of the writing on this subject seem focussed on a broad age range around 20 to 40. As a sexagenarian I’ve found the gradual reduction in testosterone a benefit. Primal sex is great 
 but short. There’s a great deal to be said for taking a bit more time.

Yendi Dial
Yendi Dial
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

are you giving hope for people (men and women) above 60 as sex would last longer but is there still sexual desire? “ gradual reduction in testosterone a benefit. Primal sex is great 
 but short. There’s a great deal to be said for taking a bit more time.”

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
2 years ago

Very interesting and thoughtful article. Good luck finding something this well-written about this topic on a major media site.
Shame to hear she’s a Gator, though. But no one’s perfect.

Yendi Dial
Yendi Dial
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean Penley

what is a Gator?

Adrian Doble
Adrian Doble
2 years ago

‘Telling’ someone to read a book more often than not will provoke a defensive response.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Doble

Or to go educate themselves.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

I couldn’t avoid the nagging feeling in the back of my head that this is an exercise in overthinking.
As for this; “..some women orgasm when they are raped.” Perhaps it depends on who is doing the raping, and on little else.
Edit: To clarify a poorly expressed thought. I was thinking more of a general human quirk rather than a specifically female one.

Last edited 2 years ago by Terry Needham
Edward Jones
Edward Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Or how they rape?

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I heard somewhere that physical arousal in women during rape was an evolved mechanism to prevent vaginal injury.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

That a human being can accommodate themselves to what is anticipated is not necessarily the same as being aroused at the prospect.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

You’re not a woman.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

There are a number of rival theories for this, some more PC, some less, and some involving a real trip into nastiness.
There is the awful possibility that habitual rapists are actually rather successful at spreading their genes (absent laws and police to prevent them doing so). If a propensity to rape is heritable, then this would also spread the genes of their victims. Women who took more risks (or worse) would be at an evolutionary advantage and similar traits would tend to spread.
Going from memory here, I believe that female chimpanzees have been observed apparently putting themselves at risk by hanging around on the border of rival chimpanzee groups.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Morley
Zirrus VanDevere
Zirrus VanDevere
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

The question would be, then, *is* the propensity for rape heritable? There must be data regarding this issue. It’s obviously an adaptation, a clear example of genes wishing to get themselves further into the future. Just as the infidelity of married or partnered women tends to more successfully impregnate. Each individual is rightly judged for choosing to either control or give in to these impulses, however. We don’t have to be a slave to our genes. The important thing is to talk about these issues honestly and candidly, and keep the conversation going. Thankful for this author’s good effort toward that end.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

A woman can’t help what her body does. It is still a terrible crime is it not?

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

That is true and the same for male rape.
There is a disconnect from what might be described informally as our conscience, and our lizard brains – and the gulf in between no doubt causes a great deal of anguish as we try and square a circle

andy young
andy young
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

I was fascinated by the marital rape scene in A History Of Violence. Was it rape? Husband & wife clearly loved each other, but the wife was traumatised & confused by realisation of the danger to the family ensuing from her husband’s actions in the past.
Life is indeed complicated.

Yendi Dial
Yendi Dial
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

 â€œ..some women orgasm when they are raped.” as in various studies worldwide and as testimonials with “psy”, it happens, not often but it happens…. most importantly rape fantasies trigger orgasms as data in porn show clearly

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
2 years ago

Seriously? This is good writing? There was NEVER a time when safety and comfort were promised. Those promises were always an illusion. Life has always been nasty and brutish and for most people sexually unsatisfactory. I’d agree with those who argue that sex plays a different role in the lives of the average man and the average women. I feel profoundly sorry for men. Who wants to be a slave to an activity that anyone and everyone can do? How utterly dull! The answer of course is love. But sadly we have cast that aside.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

“Love is a living nightmare.”

Presumably by “love”, sex is meant.

Love is inconceivably beautiful – it is being enchanted by the beloved, being ready to die for them.

And even sex-without-love isn’t a nightmare. For if it were, why would people want it so much ?

Last edited 2 years ago by Tony Buck
Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

“And even sex-without-love isn’t a nightmare. For if it were, why would people want it so much ?”

I think Woody Allen said something similar quite pithily in ‘Love and Death’.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

Because they are corrupt?

Lloyd Byler
Lloyd Byler
2 years ago

There is someone special for each and everyone of us: pretty, ugly, smart, low IQ, somewhere inbetween.

Now go find that special someone instead of spending time in self-loathing.

Problem.

Solved.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Well written, but what an utterly dismal view of sexuality, which is one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind. I feel so sorry for these women.

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
2 years ago

Also, I love is NOT a living nightmare. If it’s a living nightmare it is NOT love.
I started getting raped by my father when I was four, I have experienced many associated horrors along with that – but unlike Mary, I found deep gentle compassionate lasting love. I broke the chain of abuse and raised a child in a loving home.
It really scares me that you admire this woman.
Her talent, yes, She is extremely talented.
But do you want her empty anguished personal life?
Really?

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
2 years ago

I found the turn of phrase “won’t save us” irritating. What is there to save us from? Life? That is what suicide is for.
Otherwise, “life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.”*
So, enjoy what you can, including reading a great essay like this one.

*John Cougar—long before he became Mellencamp because, i guess, life goes on


Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
2 years ago

She writes:” apparently, some women orgasm when they are raped. What are we to do with this information?”
There is nothing remotely new about that information. It is common knowledge that even small children may orgasm during rape.It’s a reaction from the body, and when it happens it can drastically increase trauma,and self blame.
Please do some research on sexual violence and trauma. It’s a helluva lot more “complicated” than uninformed (and probably in a LOT more pain than she claims) Mary could ever write about.
I recommend the classic “Trauma and Recovery” by Judith Herman. That one really stands the test of time.
Please do not admire this adolescent “cool girl”.
She isn’t worthy of your admiration. She is broken. You can be better than her.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

Brave & interesting writing. Perhaps dangerous though to talk openly about the mixed responses some have to sexual aggression. Some inclined towards rape use such examples to break their inhibition. And some victims of sexual abuse really do get traumatised for life.
 
The last paragraph is very true. But the proportion of ones life in nightmare mode depends very much on individual circumstances. If one doesnt role too low on the genetic lottery (including for whatever genes makes one prone to overthinking, or crave too much novelty), had a good upbringing & a little luck, then sex & love can be overwhelmingly an abiding joy. The feast or famine aspect of it is annoying, perhaps especially to those with socialist leanings. Few lifes can be more of an unrelenting nightmare than that of an incel with a high sex drive. Subsidised sexbots for all who need them!

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

I was reminded of Kundera’s definition of kitsch: the denial of sh-t, both literally and metaphorically.
The authors piece is a rallying cry against kitsch. And against its modern forms of PC and happy clappy wokeness.
will be checking out Gaitskell.

Stephen Magee
Stephen Magee
2 years ago

I subscribe to Unherd because I enjoy reading a variety of viewpoints. However. I don’t enjoy bad writing. This article was a verbal trainwreck. As Unherd grows, it might consider hiring a sub.

Last edited 2 years ago by Stephen Magee
DA Johnson
DA Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Stephen Magee

I’m relieved that someone else was mystified by what in the world this author was trying to say–it seemed to me she made several contradictory assertions. All the commenters saying that this is a well-written article must be more perceptive than I am.

dasgupta.sucheta
dasgupta.sucheta
2 years ago

This is an important piece. It makes the essential point that consent is, by its very nature, not straightforward at all times and that sexuality is flexible, momentary, and unpredictable. To know this is to open yourself to vulnerability. Yet without vulnerability, sex or creativity or even friendship is impossible. This position has earlier been articulated by Germaine Greer, Katherine Angel, and, sorry to surprise, me. In my case, I waited 15 years until 2008 to achieve my freedoms, do inner work, own my opinion, and be certain. I arrived at it from my quest to gain and defend women’s freedom of movement as their moral right being an Indian 1980s teenager who was customarily denied it. That is an essentially libertarian, and in my case left-wing, approach.
It has been implied in this article that many rapes are banal, like bad sex, as Greer puts it, but some arouse the victim, it is said here. It is difficult to say, then, which one is the ‘real rape’ among the two and this is my minor quibble with the author.
In the second case, it is necessary to admit and embrace the arousal, with its potential implication of the victim’s possible sexual disloyalty though not their/her dishonour or dishonesty. It is important to acknowledge this truth as also the complicated nature of consent, for two reasons, one, an appreciation of it will lead to more truthful relationships, and two, factoring it will lead to true reform of the rape laws since rape without injury is a tort rather than a crime.
The backlash is caused by left-wing cancel culture feminists who are actually trapped in the right-wing honour ideology even if they would be loath to admit it. So they abhor admitting that rape can be “enjoyed”. They rightly suspect that the first information about this phenomenon of the victim’s sexual participation in rape has come from right authoritarian sources and traditional cultures as in my instance. But these cultures sometimes have their finger on some psychological facts. And the cancel culture feminists are wrong in claiming we did not verify them. If we hadn’t we would not have been so steadfast in the quest for our freedoms, more steadfast than they have been because they only inherited them. And we would not have gained them.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago

I confess I couldn’t follow most of it although I gathered it was about sex. I have come to the conclusion that sex is only between my wife and I and that she is the only one I should talk to about my strange desires. It goes nowhere trying to talk about it on some forum. Fortunately she understands me and sex can be the intimate glue that keeps us connected.

Mike Howlett
Mike Howlett
1 year ago

What is the fatal flaw in this kind of thinking and writing is the failure to understand that you may well be someone who stands at the door “with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind [anyone] that unhappy people exist”, but it’s like trying to explain blue to the blind, or Mozart to the deaf – you are always preaching to the converted. Life, the universe and everything is not so simple. I have nothing more to add but maybe some more wise reader has a suggestion?

tom j
tom j
2 years ago

Yes, good piece. I’m reluctant to recommend Houellebecq because he is so obscene. But if you’re trying to summarise him, you also have to point out how *funny* he is. Bleak & dark & cynical, yes, but his humour illuminates the pathos of our existence.

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

For men, sex is simple
 a route to pleasure.
For women, more often than not, it’s ultimately a means to acquire resources.
It’s no more complicated than this.

Last edited 2 years ago by William Shaw
Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
2 years ago

Have you noticed how much the men love this woman, Esther? Ask yourself why. Mary is not your friend. She’s not any woman’s friend (or child’s friend – thank god she doesn’t have kids!)

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 year ago

I know it’s a silly thought, a cliche of a cliche, but Ms. Manov’s is a fresh, new voice. A good read! Looking forward to seeing more.
Now I’m off to her Velvet Underground piece. Wish me luck.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago

Instinctive reproductive sexual beviour evolved before consciousness and does not depend on consciousness. When consciousness evolved it required that behaviour to give a conscious awareness of pleasure to ensure the goals of conscious behaviour was aligned with instinctive behaviour. Humans added a complication when they evolved language as it led to much more complexity in social interactions. Those interactions include sexual behaviour for play rather than reproduction. There is evidence for play in bonobos but language has increased the associations between the conscious experience of the pleasure and a great diversity of behaviours. Increasing excitement from, and obsessiveness for, such behaviours. Society has used language to establish rules that have added shame, guilt, inhibition and the concept of gender. The rules are deeply engrained and it will take time to adapt society from the legacy of men exercising control on reproduction to a new balance.

Michael Cooper
Michael Cooper
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Goodness how dreary