Can Buy Me Love

What do a highbrow French thinker and a commercial African-American novelist have in common?

Book cover

Since its publication in the United States last month, Michel Houellebecq’s Platform has come under fire for its scathing indictment of a contemporary Western culture where pleasure is in short supply, sex is only a temporary antidote to civilization’s discontents, and misery is never far from the top of the page. Interestingly, though, another book tackling the same subject matter appeared last month and has been reviewed in an altogether different way—with much less excoriation and to-do. The book is Sexual Healing, by Jill Nelson.

Houellebecq is a highbrow French prophet of 21st-century mal du siècle, explicitly presenting himself as the heir of Camus and Céline. Nelson is an African-American author of an avowedly commercial novel. (She is also the author of a memoir, Volunteer Slavery, about being a black reporter at the Washington Post.) Her book-jacket cover shows an attractive young black woman blithely puckering up for a kiss; when her characters are down, they’re more likely to indulge in too much Ben & Jerry’s and a bubble-bath than in an impolite sexual dig and too much whiskey at the dinner table.

But Nelson’s book, like Houellebecq’s, is a deeply felt critique of the desolateness of contemporary Western sexual relations. And like Houellebecq, she comes up with the same controversial cure: sex tourism. As portrayals of contemporary sexuality, these novels have an eerily similar point of view.

By now Platform’s plot has been well-hashed by reviewers; in short, the noveltells the story of Michel Renault, a morose middle-aged Frenchman who feels cut off from humanity until he meets a young businesswoman, Valérie, on a package vacation in Thailand, and falls in love. After much theoretical discussion of the plights of Western sexuality, Michel and Valérie hatch a plan to offer a sex tourism package at a series of failing hotels in the East. European men will be able to find the kind of “pleasure” no longer easily obtained from Western women (who are too fixated on careers and status), and penniless Eastern women will be able to sell the one thing they have in order to climb out of poverty.

Book cover

Whereas Platform is a satiric tragedy, Sexual Healing is a comedy. Lydia and Acey, two black women in their 40s but “still fly,” are drinking champagne and gabbing about their love lives one lazy afternoon when it becomes clear that neither woman is sexually satisfied. (One has a physically timid boyfriend, and the other is in the midst of a divorce.) Still, neither wants to invest fruitless time looking for the next “One”; they have careers, friends, extended families that fill up their hours. Jokingly, one suggests they ought to open a brothel “for sisters. A place where you could fulfill your sexual fantasies without all the complications of a relationship.” Soon enough, this fantasy becomes reality, in the form of “A Sister’s Spa,” a hotel for black women in Nevada.

The engine of each novel is the author’s apprehension that pleasure is a lost right and that the simplest way to recover it is by explicitly turning it into a commodity. In the West, Houellebecq finds, sexuality has become overly bound up with tiresome social protocols: “On the whole, seducing a woman you don’t know, fucking her, has become a source of irritations and problems,” Michel tells Valérie. Nelson’s protagonists feel similarly; too often they’ve been on the receiving end of feigned emotional interest: “I’ve begun to suspect men and women aren’t so different after all. … That underneath all the wining, dining … women need good sex just as much as they need love. And that’s something they should be able to buy,” Lydia tells us. Houellebecq (who wrote his novel in 2000) even seems to anticipate Nelson when Michel tells Valérie, “What will probably happen is that women will become much more like men. … As women attach more importance to their professional lives and personal projects, they’ll find it easier to pay for sex too, and they’ll turn to sex tourism.”

There are more striking similarities—Houellebecq and Nelson both attribute the decline of Western sexuality to men and women who don’t have “porn star” bodies feeling self-conscious about sex and to rising standards of sexual “competition.” Both novels are graphic in their handling of sex scenes. (Houellebecq has been attacked for indulging in pornographic fantasies, but Nelson’s are, if anything, more ornate; filling whole pages with 1-900 adjectives like “sopping,” “aching,” and “hot.”)

Ultimately, both authors make the argument—for different reasons—that sexual tourism is not necessarily a form of cultural imperialism. For Houellebecq, sex tourism is an antidote to the ills of free-market capitalism, a fantasy about a purer way of living. For Nelson, it’s a rejection of the notion that black women are the chattel of the world and that sex today must necessarily be tied to the sexual identity of yesteryear. Both want to suggest that it is possible to have happy, respectful, non-exploitive, commercially transacted sex that owns up to (and partakes in) most supposedly “dirty” fantasies. (S&M is pointedly differentiated from these.) Inescapably, it’s much easier for us to buy this notion when it’s Nelson describing Acey fantasizing in the bath about three men pleasuring her. Her daydream seems to right some essential power imbalance; its graphic details may be read as a useful form of social forwardness. When Houellebecq writes about Thai prostitutes eagerly snuggling up to Michel, though, it just sounds like he’s reinscribing old Western power structures. 

The irony is that Houellebecq has a far less sunny vision of prostitution than Nelson does; at one point a Thai prostitute talks unhappily about how she ended up a prostitute, while Nelson’s male prostitutes are generally like the three basketball players who are delighted to get paid to “bone” all they want, like kids asked to taste-test candy bars. Even accounting for the difference between Thailand and America, and the whore’s life versus the gigolo’s life, Nelson’s vision of prostitution is far more transformative and optimistic than Houellebecq’s. (“A Sister’s Spa is becoming like the national headquarters of a vast, vibrant sorority,” Acey blissfully tell us.) Oddly this also makes it the more troubling of the two: Although the book is a lighthearted romp, and has been welcomed with warmth by critics, it lacks the self-loathing that makes Houellebecq’s satire multidimensional.

The truth is, it may require Nelson’s novel, with its surface pleasantness, to allow us to take seriously Houllebecq’s point about the sexual anxiety of the Western man. Houellebecq’s eager Thai prostitutes are a fantasy, as many reviewers have pointed out. But Michel’s need for them originates in something real. Just as Nelson’s women talk a great deal about getting sex without having to “compete” for it, Houellebecq’s men are always worrying that free-market sexual competition means that without money or good looks no woman will sleep with them. Houellebecq’s anxiety may come off as self-indulgent, but his point is an interesting and often unarticulated one: men, like women, feel the aftereffects of a culture that has sexualized everything to an idealized extreme.

Centuries ago, it was French writers who gave us the romance genre—which continues to define contemporary ideas about marriage, love, and sex. If the collective Western fantasy was once the story of thwarted, heroic true love, these novels, in writing against that tradition, point toward the replacement of the quest-romance with a quest that assumes that love isn’t sustainable and that romantic marriage is not a widely practical “deployment of alliance” (as Michel Foucault called the social strategies we use to legitimize sex). Together, they suggest a new kind of story about an ideal world where sex is like any other free-market good: easily and safely available to those who can pay for it. This isn’t just prostitution as we know it. It’s the revolution of expectations, a vision of a world in which a good threesome would be no more tricky to arrange than your next Brazilian bikini wax and could be had with less embarrassment.