The XX Factor

Oh Yeah, Then Pornography Happened

Kerry, I agree with you that the “daring” misogynist sexuality portrayed by literary lions of yesteryear that get Roiphe all excited has disappeared because the novelty has worn off. Roiphe, in her favorite note that she likes to hit, blames feminism for being prudish, an argument that relies on the questionable assumption that sexuality is the same thing as misogyny, and nothing is hotter than a man who cares more about degrading you than getting you off. But the change she notes is easily attributed to an obvious cause she apparently wishes to ignore, which is that in the era she describes, pornography exploded in popularity to the point where it’s ubiquituous.

Let’s face it; pornography owns the narrative about male virility demonstrated through dominance over women who are portrayed as dirty whores who don’t deserve any respect. That wasn’t so in Updike and Roth’s heyday, but if a male writer nowadays wants to write a story about bullying and dismissing women as eroticism, he has to contend with the fact that porn does so harder, longer, faster, and with an often alarming brutality. The male writers she quotes mostly seem to be contending with this reality; they don’t even need to directly reference porn to grapple with the way that it creates a comical distance between sex as it’s actually experienced and sex as our culture collectively imagines it.

Roiphe’s angst over what she perceives as the feminist murder of male sexuality has a lot of bizarre assumptions underpinning it, so many that it’s hard to untangle them all. The casual assumption that the only real male sexuality is cruel and contemptuous of women doesn’t really square away with any reality that I know of, though I suppose if you watch a lot of mainstream porn and/or reality TV shows, you might start to think that way. But even if you accept that the only real male sexuality is one that dismisses women’s safety, pleasure, autonomy, or humanity, I still question the idea that feminists have beat it into the ground because of aforementioned reality TV shows and mainstream porn. Or maybe Roiphe doesn’t live in the world that I do, where the word “facial” tends to only mean the skin treatment as an afterthought.

I find simple-minded Roiphe’s assumption that characters like Alexander Portnoy or Rabbit Angstrom are straightforward celebrations of what she appears to think is the only legitimate expression of male sexuality. When I read those books back in college, I honestly and naively took those characters to be the literary equivalent of mustache-twirling villains. Now, of course, I realize that the characters are somewhere in between, meant to be pathetic or disturbing, but also sympathetic. Going back to what you said, those stories don’t resonate anymore, because the world has changed. A man who seeks to define himself through a form of sexual bullying of women doesn’t seem daring or an interesting statement on modern ennui anymore; he just seems like someone who watches way too much XTube. It’s hard to care much about Rabbit Angstrom when we have his modern form, Jon Gosselin, running around in Ed Hardy shirts with the babysitter on his arm. Maybe a great writer could complicate Gosselin as a character for us, but right now, most of us are too busy laughing at him to care.