Behaving Badly

Bad Behavior: Stories BY Mary Gaitskill. Simon & Schuster. Paperback, 224 pages. $14.

The cover of Bad Behavior: Stories

IN “A ROMANTIC WEEKEND,” the second story in Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill’s grim and lyrical debut collection from 1988, two characters go to Washington, DC, for the titular getaway. Much of their time together goes awry because of a drastic mismatch of expectations and psychosexual needs. Beth, the female protagonist, has fallen suddenly in love with her companion. She conjures a fantasy of complete submission and devotion: “He made her do things she’d never done before, and then they went for a walk and looked at the new tulips that were bound to have grown up somewhere. None of this felt stupid or corny, but she knew that it was.” Indeed, her companion feels otherwise. He wants her to submit to him in his way—he longs for a “dim-eyed little slut with a big, bright mouth and black vinyl underwear”—and Beth is too smart for him, resisting his attempts. It’s not that she doesn’t want to be dominated but that she does, terribly, and he fails to rise to the occasion. After a particularly humiliating conversation, Beth is crestfallen: “How, she thought miserably, could she have mistaken this hostile moron for the dark, brooding hero who would crush her like an insect and then talk about life and art?”

There’s an eroticism in being treated cruelly, even if it’s not polite to admit it. Gaitskill understands that BDSM isn’t about the acts performed but the psychological impulses that they spring from, and those impulses aren’t always beautiful to look at. Nor are they easily categorized. Much of today’s media portrayal of dominance and submission has been usefully sanitized—there’s Fifty Shades of Grey, of course, which hardly titillates, but also the plethora of advice columns on how one might integrate BDSM into an otherwise vanilla sexual practice. Even Secretary, the 2002 movie based on another story in Bad Behavior, has a clean, happy ending that the original text avoids. In such accounts, the nasty dynamics that make BDSM so enticing are practically power-washed; individual kinks become akin to ice-cream flavors, or to various services that might be offered at a spa. BDSM becomes palatable to mainstream audiences when one draws a distinct border between the fantasy and the real, but that’s rarely how it operates in practice—and it’s certainly not what makes it fun.

Gaitskill’s stories leave the dirt on, even when detailing acts that take place only in fantasy. Beth and her companion fight, “screw”(Gaitskill’s seems an especially fitting use of the term, given the characters’ practices), and treat each other horribly. Midway through the trip, after a lackluster dinner, they have this banal exchange:

“I want you to drink a lot,” he said. “I want to make you do things you don’t want to do.”

“But I won’t do anything I don’t want to do. You have to make me want it.”

It’s a scene I wouldn’t expect to see in fiction today, and certainly not in erotic writing. It’s too difficult and stubbornly unsexy—these two people unable to agree on the basic terms of their arrangement—but it still carries the erotic charge of a mutual desire for domination and submission, leaving the reader feeling both aroused and frustrated (much like the characters). And no doubt the exchange would be quickly held up as an example of—forgive me!—bad behavior in a sexual-health classroom or feminist safe space. Yet for most of us, this is how sex happens. It’s how sex really is. We want to be made to want the things we want. We’d like our most intimate desires to be known without our having to ask for a thing, though we hardly come close to reaching that kind of pure communication.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, 2002. Lionsgate Films.
Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader in Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, 2002. Lionsgate Films.

The best sex writing seems to be about sex but is really about something else, such as the failures inherent in romantic fantasy, or our inability to find connection. Kinky sex isn’t the subject, merely the form through which these ideas are expressed. In Bad Behavior, BDSM dynamics are always used to say something precise about character. When Beth says, “You have to make me want it,” she’s talking about sexual submission, but it’d be foolish to think that’s where the story ends. She’s also talking about mutuality and love (in whatever fractured form).

At the end of “A Romantic Weekend,” the characters, driving home from DC, lapse into parallel fantasies in which they have each achieved the version of perfect communion they were looking for. Beth knows that her imaginings are carefully wrought, a “pasteboard scene of flora and fauna” that she scrutinizes to see if there’s a way for her companion to “function as a character” within it. He, meanwhile, pictures Beth in all sorts of degrading configurations—beaten, tied up, crawling on all fours, in a taxi with her skirt pulled up—but then decides that “the next day he would send her flowers.”

This always strikes me as the most tender line in the story—the two characters are playing out their private narratives of sex and intimacy, struggling to adapt them to the people they’ve happened to meet, expressing them in flat signifiers like pop songs and flowers (or whips and chains). Perhaps, in this messy and often loveless world, that’s all we can ask for.

Larissa Pham is an artist and writer in New York City and the author of Fantasian (Badlands Unlimited, 2016).