Lust Never Sleeps

The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power (21st Century Essays) BY David Shields. Mad Creek Books. Paperback, 160 pages. $18.
Screwed: How Women Are Set Up to Fail at Sex BY Lili Boisvert. Dundurn. Paperback, 184 pages. $20.

We’ve had half a century with The Second Sex, The Dialectic of Sex, Sexual Politics, and all the rest, yet straight men of letters still regard their fossilized sexism and quotidian horniness as windows into existential wisdom. Hard again! the male author marvels while streaming free porn in his book-lined office. What does it all mean? These are the inquiries of those who refuse to read feminists: How would a nerdy man have power over a pretty woman if she’s the one making him want her? How could a man be accused of disrespecting women when he’s so awestruck by their young, sexy bodies? David D. Gilmore’s attempt at self-exculpation in 2001’s Misogyny sticks in my memory as an example of this convenient cluelessness: “Like most baby-boom males, I consider myself a tolerant and enlightened man, and I harbor a sincere fondness for women as friends, lovers, colleagues, workmates, and, of course, paragons of physical beauty.” A sincere fondness for physical beauty—how could one tolerate a workmate without it?

This benevolent stance is shared by David Shields, a man who appreciates women so much that he’s eroticized their sexual rejection, disdain, and disinterest even more than their receptivity. In Shields’s latest, The Trouble with Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, he slavers over “the sexy, young television actress” who makes him hate himself because he’s not beautiful, and he mentally admonishes a besotted girl walking with her boyfriend: “Don’t oversell the devotion.” Why ruin a good thing by enjoying it? Mutual affirmation has no place in his erotic universe unless it means two people agreeing on which one of them is inferior.

From left: Carroll Dunham, Left for Dead (3), 2017–18, urethane, acrylic, and pencil on linen, 52 × 46". Carroll Dunham, Left for Dead (4), 2017–18, urethane, acrylic, and pencil on linen, 52 × 46".
From left: Carroll Dunham, Left for Dead (3), 2017–18, urethane, acrylic, and pencil on linen, 52 × 46". Carroll Dunham, Left for Dead (4), 2017–18, urethane, acrylic, and pencil on linen, 52 × 46".

In Shields’s marriage, coldness reigns—or so he tells us. (In the past he has made much of his own unreliability as a narrator.) His wife doesn’t even like his books, and that’s how he wants it, though it’s also a source of constant anxiety. He praises her “icy temperament” and mostly addresses her in the form of wheedling questions, as if he’s playing Jeopardy! in hell: “Why do you always check to see how much I leave for a tip?” “Why don’t you have a single photo of me anywhere in the house?” “Why do all your favorite books about marriage include a dead spouse?” He claims he wrote The Trouble with Men in part to understand their union by exploring “the perils, limits, and possibilities of human intimacy,” but he also claims this book could “risk” the marriage, and that might be what he’s ultimately after.

I can’t say what the book has done or will do to his marriage—in the end the only qualities I associate with his wife are patience and good taste in reading material—but I know that “human intimacy” is not actually Shields’s focus. What he’s beguiled by is what he sees as his own fascinating sexual complexity: “I’d always envisioned this book as an exploration of something about myself that I don’t understand, and my confusion is interesting to me,” he writes. That confusion has something to do with his erotic triggers: what turns him on and when and why, and how that affects his love life—fine material for introspection. But Shields is so enraptured by his ignorance that he’s fetishized it. He’s covetous of it. He craves exhibitionism, not connection: He wants to publicly luxuriate in the nooks and crannies of his lust while passing it off as an intellectual inquiry. He writes that he’s “obsessed” with sex, and “a lot of what I want to do is think about it.” But “think about it” here only means “dwell upon it,” not interrogate or complicate or learn. Ideas don’t develop or expand. We only look on as he presents variations on the same scenario, reaffirming that it turns him on.

Consequently, this work comes across as the tedious provocations of a man desperate for any negative attention he can get. “Women, asked to describe the best sexual experience of their lives, almost always mention an exceedingly brief thing they had decades ago with a near-convict,” he declares. Upon viewing scads of hacked celebrity nudes from 2014’s The Fappening, he is filled with “relief”: “these women are as sad and afraid and shy—above all, shy—about sex as we are,” he writes, hiding behind highly dubious collectivity. “The shape of a high-end sports car’s rear end is meant to replicate a bubble-butted woman’s,” he asserts, and “pink is associated with girls because it’s the color of their pussies; blue is associated with boys because it’s the color of the veins in their cocks.” Life is too short to indulge such rapturous dilettantism. Even immortals would roll their eyes.

I’m not always so aggrieved by a man lazily stroking his own libido. Accounts of someone’s arousal can be (and often are) comic, enlivening, and, at their best, contagious. Even chauvinism can be made delightful if delivered with enough panache; The Prisoner of Sex proved as much. But Shields’s presumption that his desire necessarily contains timeless insight—usually about women qua women and, less frequently, men qua men—makes him complacent, incurious: He quotes profligately, but what he shares simply reiterates his own tastes rather than building an argument or deepening comprehension. He excerpts a William T. Vollmann novel because he finds the “awful and sad” scene “thrilling.” A message tee he once saw worn by a waitress (BEAT ME, FUCK ME, EAT ME, WHIP ME, CUM ON MY TITS, AND THEN GET THE FUCK OUT) is presented without comment, as if it were profound and revealing enough to stand alone.

Compared to the other challenges of the twenty-first century, this preening, dogged ignorance is a minor problem, but it still corrodes the spirit to see willfully uneducated fumbling passed off as philosophy. At least Mailer had the courtesy to read Millett before he soldiered on with his regressive nonsense. Shields quotes some women, including Toni Bentley, best known for her paean to assfucking, and the witty, enthusiastically pro-sex Susie Bright, but the scarier feminists are rarely mentioned at all, and sometimes only through others’ lenses. (He quotes Bright’s critique of Dworkin, but not Dworkin herself.) Would it have killed him to read something written by a woman who doesn’t tell him what he so breathlessly yearns to hear? I suspect he knows that while he could emerge from such an experience with his life intact, his boner may never be the same.

In Screwed: How Women Are Set Up to Fail at Sex, Quebecois television host and journalist Lili Boisvert explains this phenomenon in gentler terms: “Many people are afraid of a paradigm shift when it comes to sex. They fear their fantasies will cease to excite them. . . . Fundamental values around which their lives are organized would become obsolete.” Boisvert has been on the sex beat for years, and she approaches her subject not as an academic, literary aspirant, or chronic masturbator, but as a committed educator. Read as a chaser for The Trouble with Men, Screwed is a mercy, offering little in the way of style and everything in terms of lucidity.

Boisvert’s basic premise is what she’s named the “cumshot principle”: Men transmit desire, women receive that desire, and much of each gender’s behavior before, during, and after sex is designed to obey and preserve this one-way arrangement. She has no objection to cumshots per se; they’re just a useful metaphor. “The woman acts as a target, and a target is passive,” she writes. The book is devoted to diagramming every gendered demand, expectation, and dynamic that grows from this foundation, so much so that there’s a literal diagram at the end, right before a glossary that includes definitions for male gaze and objectification. (I don’t know if teenagers are among this book’s target audience, but I hope they, as well as many technically adult men, read it.) Boisvert warns from the start that she paints with broad strokes because heteronormativity is similarly crude, even when those who live within its framework make choices that are nuanced and resistant. She intends to highlight the expectations and stigmas we assert ourselves against, not to deny that we make the attempt.

As translated by Arielle Aaronson, Boisvert speaks with the patient clarity of a middle school teacher or experienced babysitter: someone who can’t risk relying on implication, because her charges will exploit any potential misunderstanding. Her delivery is nonjudgmental and unemotional, an exceedingly rare combination given the subject. This is probably why, though her observations are familiar, their repetition is welcome. Consider her take on men hitting on women they don’t know: “Frequently, men immediately perceive a woman they consider sexy and attractive to be in seduction mode (which is, of course, a passive mode for her). The man’s logic might look something like: ‘I find you attractive, therefore you willingly provoked this reaction; you seduced me, which is a green light.’” In other circumstances, this painstaking explanation might exasperate me, but I came to see it as brilliant. It is quite hard to be rational about sex. We’re provided with so few tools to do so and assured that there’s nothing to examine anyway; intractable “biology” is always the culprit. “The truth is, we don’t actually want to understand our sexual mores,” Boisvert writes in the introduction. We prefer familiar answers “because they validate our current choices and behaviors.”

Boisvert’s most radical moment comes when she acknowledges certain pleasures granted to women that are usually denied to straight men, such as reveling in being lusted after and having “eyes glued to their bodies.” Many feminists would hold the party line that such thrills are unremitting burdens, or inherently degrading, but not Boisvert. “We can concede the injustice,” she writes. “Men do not have access to this power.” And with this concession, she touches on a vital element of the magnanimous chauvinist’s psyche. Men have for centuries told themselves that their obsession with women’s bodies is the real gendered injustice, that women are allowed to be parasitical because we’re sexually indispensable, and if men were (objectively, biologically) beautiful, or if women liked sex as much as men do, they would be the pampered gender. Mailer’s diagnosis still fits (who would know better than he?): “In the profound pussy envy of men there is the simple even sentimental suspicion that it is easy to be a woman—one need merely lie back and all Heaven will come into the cunt.” Many tenacious and deeply felt fantasies ride on this conviction, not only those pertaining to sex but those that prop up gender essentialism, misogyny, male supremacy—entire worldviews. True liberation is to be an idol: a “worshipped” object free from obligation, a valuable piece of property expected only to please the eye.

Sexual compulsion is as determined and illogical as an addiction, which means it might take someone like Boisvert—calm, focused, and firm—to counteract someone like Shields. When he claims that “all desire objectifies. There’s no such thing as desire without it,” Boisvert is ready with a factcheck: “Desiring someone does not equal reducing that person to a thing. The difference between the two lies in understanding that the object of our desire might not desire us in return.” It’s jarringly disingenuous for Shields to claim that a subject can’t desire someone they recognize as a fellow subject. Another person’s subjectivity—their unpredictable capacity to refuse us, lead us on, or respond in kind—is what makes them compelling, and Shields knows it. If the women he desired were truly objects, there would be no tension, no frisson, nothing worth writing about.

But here’s the ruse: Shields’s appetite for rejection is just another way of keeping women confined to the sexual sphere. Throughout The Trouble with Men, women are consistently tagged by visual appeal. A peer of his is “gorgeous”; an ex-student is “stunning.” And his “writer-friend” is “much better looking” than he is, which disqualifies her from collaborating on the book with him. These female figures are neither fully human nor fully object. They’re subjects, sort of, but their personhood becomes irrelevant beyond the bounds of the narrator’s libido. Shields desires, and women, those powerful paragons of beauty, are desired. It’s what any enlightened man would do.

Charlotte Shane is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.