So, I love Anne Lamott. It’s been awhile since I read it, but Bird by Bird was one of my favorite writing advice books. I’ve taken several writing classes with two wonderful women – Janet Thomas and Susan Reese – and both have read her “shitty first drafts” excerpt to encourage the class to write. I find her funny and wise and kind-hearted. There is a section of Bird by Bird that I can open to naturally, even taking the book off the shelf after years without touching it. I’ll excerpt it here:
“Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the light on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.”
“Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done.
“If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act–truth is always subversive.”
All this is to say, I really like Anne Lamott. I read one other book by her, Plan B, and while I don’t share her religious faith, I really enjoyed it. So, the other day, when she posted a new piece, about being on Match.com for a year, I was ready to love it. I like her, and I tend to be interested in most things that explore dating and relationships, especially when written by a thoughtful writer like Anne Lamott.
And for the most part I did like it. There were quirky, interesting stories and her usual unique voice carried all the way through. Here’s the link so you can read it for yourself it you want: My Year on Match.com
But there was one part in this piece that bugged me so much I can’t stop thinking about it and felt compelled to blog about it. Here’s the excerpt:
“I am skittish about relationships, as most of the marriages I’ve seen up close have been ruinous for one or both parties. In four-fifths of them, the men want to have sex way more often than the women do. I would say almost none of the women would care if they ever got laid again, even when they are in good marriages. They do it because the man wants to. They do it because it makes the men like them more, and feel close for a while, but mostly women love it because they get to check it off their to-do lists. It means they get a pass for a week or two, or a month.
It is not on the women’s bucket lists. I’m sorry to have to tell you this.”
Ummm, what?! I was in so much shock over this part that I could barely keep reading. And it pissed me off enough that my attention wasn’t as fully trained on the rest of the article as it could have been had she left this part out. For me, this little section really detracted from the piece. Honestly, as a woman, I felt somewhat betrayed. It just seems so regressive. It’s like going back to the old paradigm that women don’t want sex, which is just not true as a universal. If she feels that way, fine, say that, but don’t put that on the rest of us. I would say in the circle of people that I know, (yeah I know, real scientific stats here), there’s a majority of the other way around, where the woman in the relationship wants sex more often than the man. I polled some friends about their friends and got the same response. In these cases, this old paradigm can really be problematic, because women can start to feel like there’s something wrong with them, like they’re super slutty or somehow wrong.
The tired old belief that men want sex and women just do it to keep the man happy also sets up a strange power dynamic that I don’t think is healthy. It sets up men as the aggressors and the women as the ones trying to stop it or placate or concede to keep him happy. To me, it just goes back to this old regressive thought pattern that serves to deny women their full sexuality.
If she were just a random person writing this on a blog post or article, it wouldn’t have bothered me so much, but she’s a well-known, respected writer. If she were just stating her own truth, it wouldn’t have bothered me so much, but she’s saying this is true for most (and some parts imply all) women.
Last term, I took a class on behavioral endocrinology. We studied the way that hormones can coordinate behavior, and how behavior affects hormones, mostly in non-human animals. We studied male and female sexual behavior in animals. This behavior can be split into two main categories–appetitive and consummatory. The latter is exactly what it sounds like, doing the deed. Appetitive behavior is the motivational stuff, what an animal will do to seek out a mate. This is usually tested using something called obstruction tests. Basically, a rat or mouse or whatever will be obstructed from reaching a potential mate and researchesrs watch what lengths it will go to to reach that mate. Sometimes it means going through elaborate mazes, or walking over an electrified floor getting foot shocks all the way, or swimming (and rats hate water).
At first, research on appetitive behavior was only done on male animals. Why? Because of all the old beliefs I’ve been talking about here. Back in the day, it never occurred to researchers (mostly men) that female animals could display appetitive behavior because females were seen as receptive only, and it wasn’t thought that the females would actively desire or seek out mating opportunities. However, in recent years, the same obstruction tests were done on female animals. And guess what? The females walked across the electrified surfaces, swam though they hated water and went through elaborate mazes to seek out males to mate with.
Humans, though animals ourselves, are always a bit different because other things come into play like psychology and cultural norms and taboos and all of the complicated social and emotional mess of being human, so it wouldn’t be quite right to directly extrapolate everything from animals to us, but it would also be wrong to think that it doesn’t apply at all. We are sexual creatures, men and women alike. And yet most of us (I have yet to meet anyone who truly doesn’t) have intimacy issues to some degree.
Intimacy and sexuality are some of the more difficult things to write about well because there is so much we don’t talk about and because these topics dig at our cores. But, precisely for these reasons, I think it’s important to write honestly and openly about these things if at all possible. It’s the only way to continue and perhaps change the conversation. Maybe what Anne Lamott wrote was true for her, but I think a lot of other women and men have different truths that are worth writing about. I know I admire the writers who do.
I feel a little funny about this post, and almost didn’t write it. Which is kind of stupid if you think about it, because this is just a blog by some random wannabe writer on the internet. Still, it makes me somewhat uncomfortable to basically come out and say that I think we should write more honestly about sex and that it’s important for women to own their sexuality and deisres. I feel some sort of blurry cultural taboos rooting around in my gut and telling me I should shut up, that I might piss people off, that the potential of pissing people off is more important than my own pissed-off-ness and feelings of betrayal at the excerpted passage from the article. But fuck it, I think that NOT talking and writing openly about sex and intimacy and desires and taboos only increases the sense of isolation we’ve all had too much of.
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