The Book Club

Let’s Talk About Sex

Dear Katha and Chris,

Yes! Let’s talk about sex!

But before we do, I have to admit that I’ve let myself get ever so slightly polarized by this debate, bashing Greer more than I meant to, just because my excellent interlocutors praised her more than I would have. Katha and Chris, you’re right to point out the strength of her personal writing, a thing less common in feminist circles 32 years ago than it is today. Is it the stronger, as writing, for having been couched in the impersonal, for passing as social observation? Probably. Had she spoken in the first person, I doubt she could have dashed off her global putdowns, her clever aphorisms, with such a giddily breezy shake of the mane. “Sexual religion is the opiate of the supermenial”—she sums up in one line what Friedan took an entire chapter to lay out. “Much can be accomplished sexually by flattery, which is a version of prayer.” Yes! A sidelong swipe at religion swathed in a witty social aperçu! Oscar Wilde, thy match is met!

I also admire Greer for being a bold and gutsy reader, a much better and deeper and funnier critic than, say, Kate Millet, the reigning feminist critic of that day. “In the work of Violette Leduc vulgarity is a strength”—could the prissy Millet have allowed herself a thought like this? Greer’s readings of Mailer are a generous corrective to Millet’s one-note condemnations; Greer perceives the strain of self-mockery that pervades his over-the-top depictions of sexually voracious manhuntresses and poisonous maidens, even though in the end she wisely refuses to let him off the hook. On a certain dead white male occasionally maligned by know-nothing undergraduates, Greer writes perceptively, “When the choice lies between the ultra-feminine and the virago, Shakespeare’s sympathy lies with the virago.” And so on. She understands irony and loves perversity, and she knows that both things are indispensable for the interesting and intellectually honest reader.

Back to sex. Here, though I am infinitely more amused by Greer’s witticisms than I am by, say, Friedan’s tut-tutting in the chapter of The Feminine Mystique called “The Sex-Seekers” (which I reread this morning, just so I could quote from it), I have to say that Friedan called it right and Greer, alas, as she admits in her own introduction to the 21st-anniversary edition, wrong. For all the release of Reichian sexual energy that Greer sought to effect upon women, and notwithstanding her laudably detailed and confessional defense of the vaginal orgasm, for which she was surely excoriated (I have to give her credit for guts here, even though I think she goes a little cuckoo on the subject; I still remember how much trouble Madonna got into years later when she remarked that cunnilingus alone couldn’t make her come; she needed a penis inside of her), in the end it is Friedan’s sad observation that has carried the day:

Instead of fulfilling the promise of infinite orgiastic bliss, sex in the America of the feminine mystique is becoming a strangely joyless national compulsion, if not a contemptuous mockery. The sex-glutted novels become increasingly explicit and increasingly dull; the sex-kick of women’s magazines has a sickly sadness; the endless flow of manuals seeking new sex techniques hint at an endless lack of excitement. This sexual boredom is betrayed by the ever-growing size of the Hollywood starlet’s breasts, by the sudden emergence of the male phallus as an advertising ‘gimmick.’

Greer understood some of this, as the quote above about supermeniality proves, but she betrayed her own insights by insisting that women play the superheroine at all times, by rejecting mutual dependence between lovers or spouses as crippling, horrifying, etc. I have to admit that this was my own twentysomething view of marriage, so maybe it’s some sort of developmental phase we all have to go through, at least if we had mothers who quashed big portions of their personalities in order to accommodate themselves to their husbands. But it also helps us to understand why Greer would have switched to sexual Darwinism by the time she published The Whole Woman three decades later, when she wrote that men are “doomed to competition and injustice, not merely toward females, but toward children, animals, and other men.” Not all evolutionary psychologists would agree with “injustice,” but they wouldn’t object overmuch to “doomed to competition.” And that sort of fatalism about sex and love and intimacy, in which all three are reduced to epiphenomena of biological sexuality, which is supposed to be nasty and brutish and selfish, goes hand in glove with the joyless culture of sexual fetishism, which promotes an equally dim view of human nature. Greer tries to distance herself from her contribution to this in that introduction to the 21st-anniversary edition of TheFemale Eunuch when she writes:

Twenty years ago it was important to stress the right to sexual expression and far less important to underline a woman’s right to reject male advances; now it is even more important to stress the right to reject penetration by the male member, the right to safe sex, the right to chastity, the right to defer intimacy until there is irrefutable evidence of commitment…

All that is listed in that second clause is important, don’t get me wrong, but the case for such rights is very often made. They’re all too necessary to emphasize in a culture unhealthily obsessed with and terribly afraid of sex. Her newfound Puritanism is the flip side of her Darwinism. As always, Greer is a woman of her time. Much rarer, and to me much more valuable, is what Friedan understood and Greer seems never to have grasped: that what’s worth striving for is neither total self-fulfillment nor total self-protection, but an end to dehumanization and more emphasis on love, trust, openness, and mutual dependence, whether between men and women or men and men or women and women. The world outside is plenty cold and dark; we don’t need Greer to add to the chorus of voices insisting we seal its inhuman chill into the bottom-most reaches of our hearts.

Enough preachifying. And thanks, both, for an uncommonly stimulating discussion.