Kill Me Maybe

1975’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar and the never-ending panic over young women and casual sex.

"Looking for Mr. Goodbar" Richard Gere, Diane Keaton
A still from the film adaptation of Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

© 1977 Paramount

Your level of enjoyment, when it comes to Judith Rossner’s 1975 best-seller Looking for Mr. Goodbar, may very well depend on whether you’re willing to read an entire book for the sake of being sarcastic. I bought it from a used bookstore when I was in my mid-20s. I had heard that it was about a desperate single woman in New York. I was young; I was hip; I was a woman in New York. I bought the book as a defiant feminist gesture, a statement on all I would never be.

Then I read it. Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a book about misery—a claustrophobic, paranoid misery that seeps into you. It made me feel spooked by my own psyche, like a campfire tale that reveals the Hook Hand Killer was never found because he’s … right … here

But before we get there, let us pause, and appreciate the charm of the jacket copy that pulled me in, and the specific female despair it delineates: “Judith Rossner writes with haunting intensity of the temptations and problems of a young woman of today alone in a big city where there are opportunities for a different kind of life—a life that relieves the boredom of work or dispels the chill of solitude, a life”—wait for it—“where you can have sex with strangers.”

The plot of Goodbar is probably familiar to many readers, either from the book itself or from its 1977 film adaptation. A young woman named Theresa Dunn lives a double life. By day, she’s a clean-living schoolteacher, in a serious relationship with a kind but unexciting lawyer named James. By night, she frequents singles bars, where she wantonly tempts men into bed, with working-class sexual dynamo Tony her most common hook-up. A grisly fate, of course, awaits, as we’ve known from the beginning. Theresa rejects Tony for slapping her, rejects James for proposing to her, then takes home a drifter, who bashes her head in and rapes her corpse. Pleasant dreams!

Just because it’s no longer 1975 doesn’t mean that the temptations and problems of a young woman alone in a big city—especially the problems of who she’s having sex with and how—don’t still take up quite a lot of cultural space. And to some, it’s still a horror story.

Consider the reaction to HBO’s Girls, which features several young women of today alone in the big city. In its premiere, protagonist Hannah submits to cheesy dirty talk and doggie-style sex with an inconsiderate woodworker. “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” Frank Bruni moaned in the pages of the New York Times. Or look to Rush Limbaugh’s reaction to Sandra Fluke, who attempted to testify before a congressional committee about the health benefits of the pill. You recall that Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” but do you remember he also described her with language—“She wants all the sex in the world whenever she wants it, all the time, no consequences”—you could imagine Theresa Dunn’s neighbors using?

Bruni argues that young women are forcing themselves to have too much casual sex, and making themselves miserable. Limbaugh argues that women are gleefully having too much casual sex, and making everyone else miserable. But the basic story they’re telling is surprisingly similar: Young women plus sex equals excess, and excess equals misery. Something is out of joint with the girls today; they’ve gotten out of control, and it has to end badly. But this fear has been with us since before the sexual revolution. Maybe since the seduction novel, in which sheltered girls were invariably impregnated and left to die by handsome rakes. Or since Anna Karenina taught us that sexual awakening was the first step to being crushed by a train. Or maybe it’s older still: Maybe it’s been with us ever since we started warning little girls to be careful when they go through the woods alone, don’t talk to wolves on the road, don’t get into bed with anything they don’t recognize, because it might have teeth.

Of course, Goodbar is, itself, a copy of an earlier story; it fits the framework of moral panic because it’s based on one. Rossner began the novel as a reported piece for Esquire on the 1973 death of Roseann Quinn.

Quinn was 28. She lived alone in Manhattan, near a bar named W.M. Tweedy’s. After work, she would often go to a bar and read. When she didn’t come in to work, a friend went to her apartment and found her body. She had been beaten, and stabbed 18 times, and a candle had been inserted into her vagina. She had picked up the killer, John Wayne Wilson, at a bar.

The story was a media sensation, dominating headlines for weeks. Feminist Susan Brownmiller decried the heated, sexualized coverage. Much of the public discussion centered on Quinn’s private life. Wilson wasn’t the first man she’d brought home! Neighbors had heard fighting in her apartment before! Was this rough sex gone wrong? Was she suicidal? Had she wanted all the sex in the world with no consequences? Was she what Gloria Steinem was going to the barricades for? The answer was never only about Quinn. The day after her body was found, the Daily News ran the headline “Once more, bachelor girls ask: Who’s Next?” From Roseann Quinn to “bachelor girls,” from one woman’s death to a warning about single womanhood: It only took one day.

Rossner must have had a sense of the story’s mythic resonance while reporting her Esquire piece. But when her piece was killed, and she fictionalized it, she had substantially more room to enhance the story. Which she did, in epic fashion.

At the time, Rossner was a divorced, well-praised, and poorly-compensated literary novelist; she worked as a secretary. She described her working conditions for Goodbar as follows: “I had just had a car accident and burned my leg and I was all depressed.” And so, she sat down and wrote the saddest (and most surprisingly well-reviewed ) potboiler imaginable. Although the basics of Quinn’s life—a slight limp caused by childhood polio, being murdered, the fact that she had been to bars—are adhered to, Theresa Dunn stands well apart from Roseann Quinn. First, because Rossner goes out of her way to establish a complex, tormented inner life for Theresa. Second, because her complex and tormented inner life is extremely goofy.

Rossner presents Theresa’s sex life as a process of slow soul death. Because she is shy and self-conscious about her limp, she must therefore have an affair with a married professor, who says things like, “You may write me a special essay for Friday—How I Lost My Virginity. Work from your imagination, if necessary.” Because that professor dumps her, she must stay with her sister, who is a married swinger. Because she has a one-night stand at her sister’s house, she must have others. Because she has one-night stands, she’s revolted when James falls in love with her, and rebels by screwing half of Manhattan.

Poor guy, Theresa’s boyfriend. He’s saddled with representing both the conservative promise of marriage and the inadequacies of the sensitive liberal man. He’s endlessly understanding, patient, and interested in this “women’s movement” he’s been hearing about; for all these reasons, he’s virulently unsexy. He’s sexually inexperienced; his explanation, that in college he “had a homosexual affair with a Jesuit priest,” remarkably fails to increase his allure. (It’s never mentioned again.) And then, there’s what happens when they do have sex:

[Theresa] touched the base of his penis, slowly began to run her finger up along it but felt something strange which at first she couldn’t—

Oh, Jesus, no!

He was wearing a condom! She’d never even seen one before and it threw her.

Yep: In this novel about the social conditions that create promiscuous women, birth control isn’t one of those conditions. Theresa doesn’t use it, relying on “her deep certainty that she would never become pregnant.” None of the other men in the book insist on it. Her sister has two illegal abortions. Theresa doesn’t approve of those, either.

What does cause Theresa’s moral decline? Rossner provides a litany: divorces, open marriages, hippies (“two males and one female, although it was hard to tell, for they were less sexually differentiated than the homosexuals downstairs”), “the homosexuals downstairs,” singles bars, women’s lib, Theresa’s own self-loathing. Of all the explanations for Theresa’s lifestyle, the explanation Rossner never offers is the simplest one: She does it because she can. It is possible to have sex without getting married or pregnant, so she has casual sex. Because when sexual freedom is an option, people will take it. Even girls.

The reason Roseann Quinn’s death terrified people wasn’t that she was a freak or a hippie. It was that she was steadily employed, modestly dressed, well-liked. She was normal. But she was a new normal—one that, decades later, we’re still trying to deny or scare away.

What is the moral of Little Red Riding Hood’s tale? “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf,” Perrault concluded. They may. But they often don’t. Women go to work, go out, and meet people to have sex with. Complications, we know, ensue. Corpses, usually, do not. The fact that Goodbar still haunts us—it’s been used as an argument against everything from 50 Shades of Grey to Craigslist—may point to a deeper fear than we’re willing to admit. Maybe what scares us isn’t that girls are putting themselves in danger. Maybe what scares us is simply the fact that they’re putting themselves out in the world at all.

There are many absurd things in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. But what’s most absurd is how relevant it still is. It’s valuable simply because—like all good horror stories, and all fairy tales—it boils a common fear down to its bare outline. A young woman has sex. She likes it. Because she likes it, none of the rewards we offer for good behavior—marriage, or children, or love—matter anymore. She goes out into the woods alone and does not heed her mother’s warnings. She finds a monster in her bed. And he eats her up.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.