For the second time in as many weeks, I have encountered a truism which may in fact be true, but which I would honestly prefer not to think about that deeply: namely, women too often fail to appreciate the reality of male sexual desire. My second run-in with that notion occurred via an article recently published in The Atlantic: Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s piece “Hard Core,” which uses a discussion of the extreme nature of online pornography as a jumping off point for considering the impossibility of the sexual relationship, at least as conceived by a somewhat naïve feminism:
Male desire is not a malleable entity that can be constructed through politics, language, or media. Sexuality is not neutral. A warring dynamic based on power and subjugation has always existed between men and women, and the egalitarian view of sex, with its utopian pretensions, offers little insight into the typical male psyche. Internet porn, on the other hand, shows us an unvarnished (albeit partial) view of male sexuality as an often dark force streaked with aggression.
What internet porn in fact reveals, at least according to Vargas-Cooper, is the “uncomfortable truth that the women’s-liberation movement has successfully suppressed: men and women have conflicting sexual agendas.” It’s not clear to me what Vargas-Cooper believes to be the unified female agenda (though she seems to tie it closely to that above utopian egalitarianism, in principle if not in practice, where she acknowledges a more complex picture), but the male agenda—as much sex as possible, as often as possible, and preferably involving some display of aggression intended to make women feel uncomfortable, debased, or degraded, seems fairly clear.
Honestly, I don’t know what to do with all of this. My befuddlement is further complicated by having just read another recent contribution to The Atlantic, a piece by Caitlin Flanagan entitled “The Hazards of Duke” that undertakes a rather bizarrely unsubstantiated, though weirdly plausible, reading of the infamous “Duke Fuck List” composed, in PowerPoint format, by the woman a Slate Double-X commentator recently referred to as “poor Karen Owen.” Essentially, Flanagan suggests that reading between the lines of Karen Owen’s bravado-inflected prose (her list recounts sexual escapades and ranks the performance of sexual partners according to a somewhat ridiculous set of criteria) one might discover “a vulnerable creature whose desire for sex with campus big shots was at least partly motivated by a powerful and unmet desire for affection.” Does this suggestion bear any relationship to the truth of Karen Owen’s life? Who the hell knows? Maybe she was hoping for long-term relationships with one or more of these men, or maybe she just wanted a roll in the hay. What was striking, though, was how often her own sexual pleasure (and yes, I read the damn presentation) seemed to take a back seat—many of the encounters detailed were with men who lasted somewhere around the five-minute range, and happened sans substantial foreplay, making it somewhat unlikely that she was getting much sexual enjoyment along the way to the inevitable end of such transactions—the moment the guy came, and more or less (with some exceptions) lost interest in her existence.
Having no moral investment in the frequency, spontaneity, or variety of other people’s sex lives, I’m not really interested in condemning the Karen Owen’s model of female sexuality (or weighing in on whether she has brought about her “ruin” as Flanagan suggests). My only concern is that, somehow, the discussion around sexuality, male and female, still seems to be so ill-conducted as to prohibit meaningful conversation about the kinds of issues that we (all of us, but perhaps particularly women) would benefit from exploring. I know that I wish a public discussion of such issues had been possible when I affected my own style of bravado to re-narrativize my own sexual experimentation during college. Not to say that I had no positive sexual experiences at that time—I did. But I also had a great deal of confusion regarding what I actually wanted—from sex, from relationships, from the culture. And so, at various times, I was the tough girl who slept around and didn’t want to hear from you the morning after. I was as likely to escape without saying goodbye as any of my male counterparts. But I was, often simultaneously, the sad and lonely girl who wanted, well, something. A relationship? Maybe. To feel attractive and desired? Maybe. To get off? Sometimes. To feel loved and accepted? Probably, desperately, all the time. I can’t really make full sense of my sexual ramblings during college, though I certainly don’t feel devalued or ruined by them. I only wish, for my then-self, and for women, perhaps women like Karen Owen (but then again, who knows), that there was somewhere to go with all the sadness, loneliness, and confusion. So, what I suppose I’m proposing, by way of awfully long prologue, is that we spend some time, you and I, here and now, talking about this problematic question of sexual desire. Our experiences, our questions, our hopes. What do you say? I know this post began with questions concerning male desire, and I do suppose I want to return to those questions, or continue to touch on them in our correspondence. But perhaps it makes most sense to start with what we know (or don’t) concerning our own desire?