By Janet Capron
What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire
What is it women in men do require?
The lineaments of gratified desire
– William Blake
Declan sits facing the speaker on what we call judgment row, his back to the wall. The speaker is earnest and funny. We fellow survivors laugh with her as she tells her story of descent into penury and madness. The little room, a former storefront on a side street in the West Village, is full on this cold Friday night, everyone eager to share. Declan has his hand up. He starts talking about a course he’s taking at Brooklyn College with Allen Ginsberg. They’re reading Frank O’Hara. The class is opening him up, he says. He feels vulnerable every day. Declan is fairly new to this particular meeting, having driven over the bridge to see a cousin. He’s wearing jeans and a strange kind of red acrylic sweater with a lightning bolt or something down the middle. He has a Brooklyn accent. I don’t even (consciously that is) take note of whether he’s actually good looking. I’m just intrigued.
After the meeting, Declan is standing outside against the wall, smoking a Marlboro. I walk over and start talking to him. I can see the whites of his eyes, or at least that’s how I describe it later. It’s a biting, drizzly late March night, and I’m wearing a heavy slicker—nothing come-on about the outfit, but for some reason he seems afraid of me. He’s almost vibrating. ‘He’s a little bit shy,’ I think to myself.
Shades of those rare days to come when, for instance, Declan tentatively holds my hand while we’re walking in Central Park, testing romance. Suddenly his hand alights on mine, as erratic as a butterfly on a leaf, and then, before I can settle in, it’s gone, as if intimacy were, after all, too big a risk.
We stand out there talking in the cold drizzle for a while before he invites me for coffee. I’ve had several boyfriends and one husband from (old-time) Brooklyn, and each of them mysteriously shed his accent along the way. Declan clearly has not. He is soft-spoken, but it comes through all the same.
He takes me to a little café, gone now, in the West Village. A woman we both know from the Program—pretty blonde—is working there. Something about the way she serves him his herbal tea. She’s attracted to him. Then I realize why: he’s good-looking. The sweater, the Brooklyn accent, and the old pockmarks got in the way for a minute. Blue, blue eyes. That, and he’s disarmed me with his sweet reticence and charm. I don’t even realize I’m falling in love. Not then. The next day, after we’ve been up all night talking, sitting across a small table in my tiny garrett, is when it hits me. It hits me. No ambivalence.
Does anyone still write about passionate, romantic love? It’s difficult for me. I’m confounded now that I once adored this emotionally abusive dinosaur. But I want to understand myself, or at least who I was then. What keeps coming up is passion—the importance of it.
Declan tells me I’m feral. We’re sitting outside my apartment in his old, beat-up Brooklyn car that smells intoxicatingly like him. He grabs my face, looks in my eyes and says, “feral.” That is recognition. Most people I know think I’m very nice. It’s convenient for everybody, including me. No need to look past that. Declan takes me on, all of me. He grants me my humanity, satisfies me as I have never been satisfied before, tries like hell to subjugate me just in case it can be done, attacks me as he does almost everyone who closes in on him, and ultimately leaves me, or I am forced to leave him, because he’s brought me down. Repairs take years.
Declan may not fit the usual definition of a hero, but he did have a genuine appreciation for my sexuality. In light of the times, when all kinds of men are getting their comeuppance, I have to ask, who are these guys who seem to lack basic male pride? Bonobos know better. Do they honestly think women are incapable of desire and therefore have to be coerced? Is that it? I hear talk of the abuse of power, but when it comes to sex, there is no genuine power where there is no seduction. A woman in lust is beyond willing. This other thing—coercion is how it’s most often described—must feel empty. In cultures where women are genitally cut, the commonly held belief is that male pleasure is fleeting, superficial and easily dismissed. But when, in the act of sex, only one person experiences pleasure, that has got to be lonely to the point of alienation, and frustrating—for both.
Declan wouldn’t dream of imposing himself. On the other hand, it never would have occurred to him to ask beforehand if he could kiss me. Ask? By the time we got around to it, I was dying for it to happen. The sexual tension had to build and build first. When we finally kissed, I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. I was standing on an ottoman to reach his height. We held each other and kissed fiercely. In spite of that, we didn’t have sex right away. On his way out the door, Declan, while kissing me again, gently reached behind and grabbed a cheek of my ass and kneaded it a little (with long, elegant fingers). The gesture was slightly lewd and proprietary. It left me breathless.
I’m still in the West Village, in the same nice-sized, rent-stabilized apartment we originally took together; he’s retreated back to Brooklyn like some monster of the deep, where he’s hiding out with his ex-wife—who seemed to linger at the edge for all the years Declan and I were a couple, even when we tried living together. She bided her time. Made me feel like Circes, or worse, Calypso. I resent good, repressed women, which is what I imagined her to be (I have no idea really). I always think of Penelope, waiting chastely, barely leaving the house, weaving, for twenty goddamn years while Odysseus is out having adventures and getting side-tracked by passion. I want to know more about the Minoan Age, the civilization that came before Homer. Almost ten years have passed, and I still think about the beautifully preserved murals I saw on the ancient walls of the Palace of Knossos, where strong and agile adolescent girls are grabbing bulls by the horns and jumping over them. What happened to that sport?
My mother believed sex is natural and wholesome. She liked that the Greeks built temples for Apollo and Dionysus side by side. Somewhere outside time, the two gods of mind and body are best friends. She brought me up in that spirit. And there was no father around, so patriarchy was one removed. Then, as I reached puberty, the sexual revolution began. That helped, too. Although I didn’t escape entirely right away. I had a fair amount of the usual bourgeois, white-girl inhibition to throw off, but I started early and kept at it. By the time Declan came along, I was ready for the real thing—if you call the real thing being reliably satisfied. And I do. At least, I don’t think it’s a minor part of it.
Honey baby, won’t you cuddle near,
Just sweet mama whisper in your ear
I’m wild about that thing, it makes me laugh and sing,
Give it to me papa, I’m wild about that thing
– Bessie Smith, “Wild About That Thing”
Declan wanted me to come and held back not simply out of generosity, but because, I’m guessing, it made him feel powerful. Maybe that’s why it was sometimes difficult for me to give myself up. His prowess belongs to a tradition we aren’t featuring much lately, that of the man holding on, waiting for the woman to give it up. Nothing to do with equality. In fact, he reigns supreme. But the act itself was for me. He was plugged into me, lighting me up. His orgasms, while assured, were not the focus—and, as he later explained, were invariably heightened by mine.
Declan also got inside my head. He intuitively understood the way to free me was to spur the fantasy that I was his tool, that we were doing this dirty thing for him. “You’re my vessel,” he’d whisper. In fact, it was the other way round, but as long as we weren’t allegedly doing it for me, as long as I could mindlessly abdicate all responsibility, I could let go.
Yes, it’s long over now, but I don’t want his particular valor to go forever unsung. He wasn’t often thoughtful or even kind—except there in bed. Outside of it, Declan was a prisoner of that terrible male ego. “John Wayne ruined my life,” he used to say. I colluded though—I fed the myth. I wanted to walk next to the baddest guy in the jungle. Not that Declan was anything approaching that—he was too stuck inside his head—but he looked the part. My ex-husband truly was fearless and violent and, unexpectedly, kind and warm-hearted too. Declan, on the other hand, was a master of illusion. We both fostered that illusion—wanted it to be true. We liked to romanticize the class thing, the princess leaving the castle on the hill to join the peasant in the field. Except I will never know what it’s like to be born poor. You can commit suicide, but class suicide is nearly impossible.
As it happened, my family no longer had any money to pass along, so I did have to work. And working on the white-collar version of the factory floor stinks—it’s desensitizing and mostly unrelieved, punctuated by tiny intervals of abbreviated pleasure, those infrequent, stolen minutes outside on the street. This didn’t stop Declan from zeroing in on whatever idea of privilege I had left. For instance, he tended to be almost deferential to waiters. If I simply asked for a table by the window, it would be enough to elicit, “What a sense of entitlement!” C’mon, really? He had his own version of entitlement, belonging as he did to the last generation (let’s hope) of men who expect women to do the housework.
I was not about to come home to Declan, after a long and miserable day writing pharmaceutical advertising copy, and pick up after him. I stupidly did do all the shopping and the cooking, because I wanted to please him, but I stopped short of cleaning up his messes. He deliberately tested me, one time spilling both his ashtray full of cigarette butts and a mug of coffee on the floor and leaving that soupy concoction for me to find. There wasn’t much hope for us after that.
I grew up in a strange kind of a home, an apartment on Park Avenue, with my mother and our live-in maid. No man lived in the house, not even for the occasional night. In those days, my free spirit of a mother was nevertheless very proper about certain things. She would get up and come home in the wee hours—that’s how demanding the mores of the fifties and early sixties were. There was no benevolent or otherwise higher-up for my mother and me to serve, and the live-in maid served us, saving her pay to get back to her own son in Rutherford, New Jersey. I never even learned how to wash dishes until I found myself, (long before Declan) at the age of nineteen, living with a man for the first time. He was the one who taught me how to wash dishes and hang up my clothes, but he certainly didn’t expect me to do all the housework. In fact, neither one of us felt equipped to do any housework at the time; it interfered with our drinking. While I’ve lived with more than my fair share of men since, the only ones who assumed I would clean up after them were solidly working-class. There was not going to be any other maid. Too bad I am so often drawn to these men, because our fundamental disagreement over what the woman’s role should be is a lot to overcome.
I can’t defend my belief that working-class men are sexier. Of course it’s not, objectively speaking, true. Even my own experience gives the lie to this prejudice. Nevertheless, it persists. One reason could be an early, formative experience: To celebrate my thirteenth birthday, my mother took all the girls in my class and me on a boat up the Hudson to Bear Mountain. We shared the front deck with a bunch of high school kids from Brooklyn. The boys had ducktails. The girls had teased hair and wore tight, black capris and ankle bracelets. Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover,” his latest hit, was blasting from a speaker. I watched the boys making out with the girls, grinding. I didn’t know how to feel about it, I only knew the older high school boys at Rudolf Steiner (where I went), didn’t behave that way in public. The older girls I knew didn’t even come close to behaving that way.
Sexism exists in every class. Only the style differs. Bourgeois men are complacent; working class men, what’s left of them, are traditionally more direct and often unapologetic. In lieu of self-awareness, which barely exists, I prefer the latter. In other words, when it comes to sexist acting out, I would much rather be confronted than unwittingly patronized. Catcalls don’t bother me at all.
You have to be conditioned from early childhood to wait on a man, day in and day out, for no pay. Taking care of little children is another matter. The idea, though, of doing it for a fellow adult! The beginning of hegemony, Engels said. And then I’m supposed to love him on top of it? Honestly, no. But the power Declan had over me can’t be overstated. While I wouldn’t clean up after him, I was willing to do a lot even my libertine my mother never taught me. I did my best to come down off the hill and toil in the field by his side—and be satisfied. That is the kind of rule I understand—give it to me, papa.
A candid, young gay friend told me recently the reason it can be hard to find a top is because the orgasms are so much stronger for the bottoms. I hadn’t fully understood this about gay men until he explained it to me. “The only men who want to be exclusive tops are the ones with macho hang-ups,” he said.
So it’s not strictly female desire—maybe it’s explicitly the desire of the bottom. What I (and my friend) experience isn’t a brief spasm; it’s a total corporal response, a tidal wave. Satisfaction runs correspondingly deep.
Germaine Greer wrote fifty years ago in her masterwork, The Female Eunuch: “If we localize female response in [the head of] the clitoris, we impose upon women the same limitation of sex which has stunted the male’s response…when the release is expressed in mechanical terms, it is sought mechanically. Sex becomes masturbation in the vagina…if women are to avoid this last reduction of their humanity, they must hold out not just for orgasm but for ecstasy.”
This kind of ecstasy is still taboo, possibly more than ever. I don’t see passionate sex scenes in movies anymore, and they seem to be missing from a lot of contemporary literature. Only the music gets to it. Justin Timberlake’s mildly subversive lyrics in one hit could be a manual for not stopping too soon—which he equates with generosity. Exactly. I’m glad somebody’s talking about it. The old blues singers—Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker—were preachers. Just listen to the lyrics. They were instructors. And we do need to be taught. Those lyrics are not meant only to titillate, although I’m sure any discussion of sex has that in it. They’re more about the fundamental, largely unacknowledged importance of desire, of passion, generally forbidden because it defies the social order, because it’s transformative and a legitimate claim to freedom.
Sexual love is the movement that breaks the rules; an uprising of the senses that abolishes propriety…It is unpredictable, disorderly, and bad for industrial relations. — David Widgery
For the sake of this freedom, I want to formally acknowledge a crisis of female desire and the satisfaction that is its due.
Various younger female friends (not the broadest consensus, admittedly, but still informative) tell me the bedroom protocol these days is that a gentleman takes care to go down on his partner first, bringing her to orgasm before he enters. The understanding is his penis (not to mention his entire body, all of that skin that could be electrifying hers), won’t be the instrument of her satisfaction. It’s almost as if her orgasm is a minor, inconvenient obstacle that has to be dispensed with first. A society of wankers is what we have become. “Well, at least now everybody’s getting off,” could be the reply.
The general assumption is that intercourse never worked; however, not until the nineteenth century, in British and North American culture, was the vagina (which, incidentally, is surrounded by clitoral tissue) ruled out as a source of satisfaction for the woman. Our subsequent accommodations based on this relatively recent notion aren’t as liberated as we like to think.
By the time middle class boys and girls start experimenting on each other, the majority of them already believe only the male comes during intercourse. Both sexes have given up on the possibility of the female coming that way even before they’ve started doing it. Mainstream pornography reinforces this prime example of cultural hegemony, focused as it is entirely on male pleasure, culminating in the male orgasm. Since the women on screen are clearly faking it, there is nothing for women watching to identify with and therefore get aroused by.
A heterosexual friend of many years and I have developed the habit of being frank with each other, and we can sometimes breach the great divide. He is handsome and therefore got laid a lot in his twenties, when, for a while, he preferred one-night stands. It was never about pleasing the woman, he confided in me years later. In fact, he wasn’t sure why they were so willing. He figured all they wanted was a boyfriend.
“Why else the three-date rule that seems to be in vogue these days?” He asked me. Proof for him that we don’t have the same kind of urgent need.
“A woman is always risking the ‘wham bam thank you ma’am’ kind of night you describe, which is one good reason a lot of us have learned not to jump in the sack right away. No matter how urgent the need, hooking up with a complete stranger probably isn’t going to satisfy it. Furthermore, try to imagine having little-to-no expectation of achieving orgasm during intercourse itself, and you begin to get an idea of the source of confusion on this end. Not so straightforward then, is it?”
I continue to educate my patient friend, lecturing him on contrasting attitudes toward female sexuality in different epochs and other cultures. In ancient Greece and throughout the middle ages in Europe and the Middle East, for instance, females were generally thought to enjoy sex a lot more than men. “Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one part to men,” the founder of the Shiite sect and husband of Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, wrote around 500 A.D.
My friend is hardly alone in having thought that the female of our species, unlike the average male, can effortlessly rise above the demands of her easily tamed libido. But hard science has begun to challenge this broadly received opinion. Daniel Bergner discovered this in the course of his research for his 2013 book, What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire. He quickly learned, “Women’s desire—its inherent range and innate power—is an underestimated and constrained force, even in our times, when all can seem so sexually inundated, so far beyond restriction.”
For instance, recent data debunk the long-cherished idea that heterosexual women are naturally monogamous because they require security and affection more than sex. Several clinical studies have established that, to the contrary, women in monogamous relationships commonly experience a waning of desire, primarily because they are bored. Men, on the other hand, adapt much better to the everyday sameness of sex with one partner. Monogamous women’s lack of desire is attributed, therefore, not to negligible libidos, but to predictability.
To this I would add that inhibition brought on by low expectations might also contribute to waning desire among monogamous women. The sublimation of our physical responses while being penetrated, not wanting to get too aroused, knowing that our partner won’t hold off long enough (and having been taught it is castrating to make demands), accompanied by the embarrassment and even shame surrounding our inability to achieve a timely enough orgasm, may eventually lead to an unconscious association of frustration with the partner, which could be a major cause of repression generally, but especially where lack of fulfillment has become institutionalized.
Once, a long time ago, while visiting a commune, I watched a tiny baby crying in its mother’s arms in a room full of stoned hippies, while Hendrix blasted from giant speakers. After a while, the baby realized that neither its mother nor anyone else nearby could hear it and, suddenly, instead of trying to cry louder, it just stopped all together. When an emotional or physical need goes unmet long enough, sometimes, mercifully, it dies.
Because when I looked at Declan, I associated him—his body, his penis—with intense satisfaction, I couldn’t help but yearn for him in the uncomplicated way a man typically does for the object of his desire. Predictability was part of the allure in my case. Declan was a kept promise, a long, tall frosty glass of beer on a summer afternoon. He liked to needle me, accuse me of being with him only for the sex. Not true, I would protest. He was, after all, brilliant, funny, handsome. The sound of his low, inflected voice sent me. He made me laugh! ‘I’m in love with you,’ I insisted. But how does anyone distinguish between love and that palpable need?
The gentle devotion of orchardists tending trees and watching them grow slowly over seasons—I concede the long-time companionship of a happy couple wins, and passion, especially one as corrupted as mine, ultimately loses. But I will always have that experience. I have had that remarkable, crimson adventure. I know what it is to be in the thrall of someone.
The first night that Declan and I spend together, he takes me back to his small one bedroom in Brooklyn Heights. The neighborhood is a hermetically sealed enclave of gentility, and Declan has landed one of the last of its old-time, blockbuster apartments for a song. Not unlike my situation across the river, where I occupy a tiny garret in the soon-to-be one-percent West Village. We both have that specialized New York skill of being able to find a cheap place to live among the swells. His has character, even a degree of charm, right there on the main floor off Montague Street. There’s an actual foyer, a bar with a few stools marking off the small kitchen and a window seat in the living room. There’s a comfortable old couch and a rocking chair, a TV and a bookshelf full of Thomas Merton, Kierkegaard, Spinoza, Joyce, Yeats, Synge, Beckett, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. A bare wood floor.
The bedroom is tiny—just big enough for the queen-sized bed. We pile into it. The air-conditioner is old and loud. He establishes a custom by reading to me. This first night it’s a letter from Kierkegaard to his fiancé renouncing their engagement. A sacrifice, Kierkegaard laments, he must make for the demands of philosophy. I find it wildly funny that Declan reads this on our first night together.
I don’t come that night, not until the next day. We’re going at it in his tiny bedroom, missionary style, skin-to-skin and slowly, which suits us both. No foreplay to speak of, which suits us both too. I prefer the fucking itself to be the foreplay. I know I’m in the minority, but it’s all about what happens there. And I’m so hot for him, it’s not like I have to be primed. Even so, I’m amazed when I begin to realize this is happening—that he is staying with me, and, together, we are going all the way. Orgasm during intercourse—I’ve experienced it before, sporadically. I’m not a complete stranger to it, but I sense this is different. This is the way it is going to be.
Afterward, I am beaming, crazy in love. Declan is so ebullient, he can’t resist crowing about it to a few of his Brooklyn friends whom we meet for coffee nearby. We’re all sitting outside at a big, round table on that brilliant early June afternoon (it takes a while for the affair to begin—a few months in fact.) One doleful woman plainly has a crush. I can see heartbreak in her eyes, like glass shattering. Declan is oblivious. He is just overcome with pride.
Declan understood from the outset that I was capable of the same kind of lust he was, and that it is a human, not exclusively male, trait. I am continually surprised by the number of worldly, educated men who think otherwise. Take the powerful, fallen men in the news, who seem unaware of the potential of female desire. These guys are no Don Juans, that’s for sure. I truly don’t get what motivates them other than a failure of imagination. I am, and have always been, insulted if there is even a suggestion I could be manipulated into having sex. Of course seduction is a form of manipulation, but I mean when a man tries to talk me into it, as if I don’t know my own body and mind. Or when it is assumed to be always, on some level, a cold, antiseptic transaction, and it is only that he knows how to drive a good bargain. His pleasure in exchange for some kind of false security or even, simply, trading on my possibly fear-induced inability to say no. Dehumanizing. I would far rather get out-and-out paid than bullied.
On the other hand, lately, it seems, we’ve been attaching all kinds of significance to even the most casual and forgettable acts. My mother used to say, and she sounded genuinely bewildered, that she didn’t understand what all the hoopla was about, it’s just a natural, bodily function. I cannot reconcile my experience, what I know to be true, with what sometimes sounds like prudery. Women deserve to be treated with respect, but not at the expense of our full humanity. We shouldn’t have to be traditional nice girls in order to qualify for it.
For instance, I read somewhere that a grown, presumably heterosexual woman was traumatized by a man exposing himself. Seriously? After one memorable occasion between the sheets, Declan said, “Well, that explains phallic cult worship.” Not always a welcome sight maybe, but traumatizing? (And, by the way, when did we forfeit our birthright, the ability to say, with panache, “Put that thing back in your pants, boy”?) Was the woman not aroused at all or aroused against her will? Either way, if the sight of a physically excited man is, by default, triggering, this smacks of Victorian hysteria—it’s unwholesome. When any inadvertent exposure to eroticism is, ipso facto, a terrible affront, then something is fundamentally wrong.
Rape is different—different even from coerced sex—it is a purely violent act. I wish there were some way to talk about the various forms of unwanted aggression without lumping them together. Meanwhile, please understand that I second every woman who speaks out against violent abusers and those lesser shades, boorish incompetents. Men who know only their own pleasure are useless wankers.
While we’re outing and renouncing them; however, I hope we also remember to teach them that they, too, could be desirable. Men’s understanding that women are capable of independent, possibly at least as compelling, desire leads to the recognition that we are autonomous beings. Such understanding may even influence the way men behave. In Egypt, where ninety-seven percent of the married women surveyed have been genitally cut, the percentage of of women who have been sexually harassed is as high as ninety-nine percent, according to a 2013 report by UN women. Consider that there could be a buried element of frustration in all of this puerile acting out. I’m not excusing it; ignorance is never an excuse. Let’s try to banish ignorance nevertheless. Give the men in our world, at least, some idea of what they’re missing.
After all, isn’t that what we all want?