The Talking Curse

Men Explain Things to Me Rebecca Solnit. Haymarket Books. Paperback, 100 pages. $11

Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me is a slim, well-intentioned, and gratingly naive collection of essays on Women’s Issues. It could serve as a sort of primer for freshman-year dorm-room discussions of why rape is bad, why all people deserve the right to marry, how they can maintain a baseline measure of equality while they’re married, and why feminism is still a noble movement. But that’s only if you like your agitprop soft-boiled and sexless.

The 2008 title essay did offer a provocative little theory about an insidious way men try to jockey and dominate over women in public settings; it engagingly documented the phenomenon we now commonly call “mansplaining.” In this patronizing, demeaning social convention, a man seizes an opportunity to explain something to a woman regardless of the fact that she may know more than him about the subject. (In Solnit’s case, she suffered through a long disquisition on the nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, even though her boorish male interlocutor was unwittingly trying to seize the conversational initiative from Solnit with details cribbed from her own book.)

More is at stake in such encounters than the all-purpose dickish vanity of the practiced alpha male. Men’s unchecked overconfidence, Solnit argues, “trains [women] in self-doubt and self-limitation” that keep them from saying what they want to say and being heard. The act of mansplaining, she writes, is yet another instance of “women . . . being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever.”

Thanks in part to Solnit’s helpful dissection of the mansplaining epidemic, I’ve been able to end many tedious conversations with shitty guys who’ve tried to explain everything from abortion to Steely Dan to me. It’s a useful and liberating salve to an irritating social situation, and all kudos would go to Solnit if she didn’t sabotage her essay with preposterous leaps such as: “I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the trajectory of American politics since 2001 was shaped by, say, the inability to hear Coleen Rowley, the FBI woman who issued those early warnings about al-Qaeda.”

It’s true that the US intelligence community’s neglect of Rowley’s advance warnings was shameful. But the notion that the deranged foreign-policy myopia of the Bush years can be chalked up mainly to the implacable logic of mansplaining is readily dispelled by the words “Condoleezza Rice.” Indeed, as it happens, Coleen Rowley herself has lately been campaigning to get Rice booted from the board of Dropbox, thanks to her abysmal record as a warmonger and torture apologist.

It gets worse. Throughout the book, Solnit tries to make a behavioral connection between the men who mansplain and the men who murder and rape women. Solnit says she was surprised that a meditation on an amusing incident at a party turned so quickly into a series of discussions about rape and murder, but she contends it’s a “slippery slope of silencings.”

Mansplaining, gang rape, rape, murder, spousal abuse: It all can be traced back, Solnit argues, to men’s insatiable sense of entitlement. For Solnit, the transgression of mansplaining is on a “continuum that stretches from minor social misery to violent silencing and violent death.”

Solnit’s continuum reflects one of the most childish and infuriating aspects of modern feminism: the notion that men harm women because of patriarchy instead of pathology. If an ideology blinds critics like Solnit to the differences between a loutish conversationalist and the Taliban, then that ideology is fucked up.

Yes, it’s significant to identify and call out men’s penchant for silencing women at cocktail parties, on bad blind dates, or in decades-long marriages when talking with their unfounded overconfidence about shit they don’t actually know about. But whether this convention stems from misogyny or bad manners, it remains, in fact, a social irritant—a troubling psychosocial dynamic between the sexes. The key word here is social—meaning it is an interaction that takes place in the civilized world. Rape, murder, and maiming belong to a presocial existence, and are rightly characterized as the acts of barbaric madmen.

“Rape will not be understood until we revive the old concept of the barbaric, the uncivilized,” Camille Paglia wrote in her 1994 essay collection, Vamps & Tramps. “Ideas of civilization and barbarism have become unfashionable because of their political misuse in the nineteenth century.”

I thought about Paglia’s argument as I contended with Solnit’s earnest denunciations of the univocal spectrum that allegedly renders boorish party banter equivalent to untrammeled sexual assault. Curiously, the broader analytical terms both writers employ are similar. They agree that the sexes are locked into a kind of extended cultural warfare—but Paglia is far more inclined to grant female agency, and female complicity, in the terms of engagement. By contrast, even though Solnit is ostensibly the more radical critic, she confines women to a monolithic condition of victimhood. It’s small wonder, then, that Solnit describes the sex war as “a grim battle,” while Paglia sees it occurring on a somewhat more equal footing. It’s an important distinction to mark, since the sex war ultimately isn’t just about rape, or the overbroad and philistine slogan of “rape culture.” One of the most confounding elements of the pitched battle between the sexes is how much we love planting our faces (and other parts) in the crotches of the enemy. In Solnit’s collection, the actual wet, messy, and bewildering act of sex never makes an appearance. Think whatever you want about Paglia (I think she’s divine), her work is undeniably forthright in acknowledging the ambivalence, pleasure, and anguish that comes from fucking. Indeed, there is even eroticism to fighting in the sex war, as Paglia points out, with the partisans whipping, goading, and seducing one another into new frontiers of retreat, victory, and surrender.

There are no whips, just as there is no sex, in Men Explain Things to Me. And that’s too bad: If you want to win the sex war, you probably should be armed.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is an independent journalist based in Los Angeles.