Ta-Nehisi is reading Raymond Chandler, and in exploring Philip Marlowe’s distaste for some of the women in his path, his observation that “It’s so hard for women—even nice women—to realize that their bodies are not irresistible,” turns to the question of visibile manifestation of male desire, and its relationship to shame:
Erection is not a choice. It happens to men whether they like it or not. It happens to young boys in the morning whether they have dreamed about sex or not. It happens to them in the movies, in gym class, at breakfast, during sixth period Algebra. It happens in the presence of humans who they find attractive, and it happens in the presence of humans whom they claim are not attractive at all. It is provoked by memory, by perfume, by song, by laughter and by absolutely nothing at all. Erection is not merely sexual desire, but the physical manifestation of that desire.
Masculinity’s central tenet is control—and perhaps most importantly, control of the body. Nothing contradicts that edict like erections. It unmans you, it compels you through sensations you scarcely understand. And it threatens to expose you, to humiliates you, in front of everyone. Laugh now at the boy at the middle school dance, who gets an erection on the slow number (God help him if he has orgasm.) But he does not forget that laughter, nor does he forget what prompted it. That boy is going to be a rapper. Or a painter. Or an author of fictions where men are men and somehow are invulnerable to the humiliating effects of the female form.
In the comments to that post, a number of people, rightly, bring up Prince as an example of someone who managed to decouple desire and shame, which I think is exactly right. When he sings in “When Doves Cry,” “Touch if you will my stomach / Feel how it trembles inside / You’ve got the butterflies all tied up / Don’t make me chase you / Even doves have pride,” Prince is offering up evidence of his arousal and embracing the power dynamic his desire occasions. The woman he’s speaking to has the initiative there. There is the possibility that he will be rejected or shamed. But he’s also gained power by being willing to run those risks, to speak honestly to her.
It’s also worth, as a counterpoint to Marlowe’s contempt, to consider Agent Cooper and Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks:
Her appearance in his bed is a repetition of Carmen Sternwood’s attempts to seduce Marlowe. But rather than reacting with disgust to his own attraction to her, or anger at her for arousing him, Cooper is kind, and self-denying. “What I want and what I need are two different things,” he tells her. His desire for her can exist within a web of his other values, including his devotion to the F.B.I. And perhaps most importantly, Cooper isn’t angry at Audrey for wanting him, an emotion that seems to underscore Marlowe’s repulsion to a number of the women that he encounters.
Because that’s the critical other half of this conversation, one that I discussed in part yesterday in exploring why James Bond and other sex objects designed for women’s consumption can be so threatening. If men can be shamed for visible and involuntary evidence of arousal, both because they’re deemed to have slipped in their control, and because they risk sexual rejection from the women who have prompted their reaction, women can be shamed for voluntarily expressing arousal and asking that their sexual needs be met. Such requests meet with such complicated reactions because they fracture sex, raising the possibility that for men and women, intercourse assumes varying levels of importance and delivers different levels of satisfaction. In other words, a positive reaction to evidence of male desire is the beginning of a negotiation, not the end of it. And that negotiation is a culturally fraught one.
Women who know their own pleasures can be a source of both fascination and intimidation, an equation more complex than Ludacris’ “lady in the street but a freak in the bed.” In A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Randolph Henry Ash, a Victorian poet in a sexless marriage, begins an affair with Christabel LaMotte, also a poet, who has been living in a lesbian relationship with a painter. When they first have sex, Ash reflects that:
That was the first of those long strange nights. She met him with passion, fierce as his own, and knowing too, for she exacted her pleasure from him, opened herself to it, clutched for it, with short animal cries…Here, here, here, his head beat, his life had been leading him, it was all tending to this act, in this place, to this woman, white in the dark, to this moving and slippery silence, to this breathing end. “Don’t fight me,” he said once, and “I must,” said she, intent, and he thought, “No more speech,” and held her down and caressed her till she cried out. Then he did speak again. “You see, I know you,” and she answered breathless, “Yes, I concede. You know.”…In the morning, washing, he found traces of blood on his thighs. He had thought, the ultimate things, she did not know, and here was ancient proof. He stood, sponge in hand, and puzzled over her. Such delicate skills, such informed desire, and yet a virgin. There were possibilities, of which the most obvious was to him slightly repugnant, and then, when he thought about it with determination, interesting, too.
Ash assumes he will know Christabel better than she knows herself: when that turns out not to be true, he has to prove to her that he knows how to give her pleasure and to reckon with the fact that she can be knowing independent of him, or of any other man. That he can bring himself to curiosity, rather than to simple disgust with the prospect of her having sex with her female lover, is a marker of Ash’s scientific nature, further proof of him as a modern man rather than as a purely Victorian one.
But not all women are lucky enough to have lovers who are interested in genuinely discerning their pleasure, in asking them questions and following their leads. The rise of a masculine ideal of pleasure-giving is an absolutely seismic one. But it can also lead men to dub themselves experts and to demand affirmation of their skills without regard to whether they’re actually giving the women they’re sleeping with what they want.
On last night’s New Girl, Schmidt found his assumption that he’s God’s gift to women, or, as he puts it, “a Vagenius,” challenged by the reaction of his boss (Carla Gugino). “Our bodies really made something,” he told her as she dressed to leave his apartment. “I feel like we brought manufacturing jobs back to America.” “Yeah, it was fine,” she told him. Rather than starting an actual conversation, Schmidt’s reaction was to challenge her experience of what had just happened in favor of his own understanding of events. “What do you mean it was fine?” he demanded. “I broke your brain, girl.” But she wasn’t going to let Schmidt get graded on a curve. “How do I put this delicately?” she explained. “I was nowhere close to finishing. I was bored. And cold.” And Schmidt’s reaction was telling. “World shattered,” he declared. And even when she suggested “We’ll try again. It’ll be better,” Schmidt still insisted “The world I once lived in: shattered.” The problem wasn’t that she didn’t feel good—it was that her not feeling good destroyed Schmidt’s sense of his own prowess. It might have been interesting if New Girl sat with those emotions for a while, and if, when Schmidt went to consult Jess’s lesbian gynecologist friend, he’d learned something from her experience, rather than having the show suggest that he’s so good at pleasuring women that he can even get a gay woman off just by talking to her. There’s a crucial step in between standing up the ability to make a woman experience sexual pleasure a symbol of manhood, and getting men to understand that for that stripe on their sleeve to be truly earned, that pleasure has to be genuine rather than something a woman tells a man she’s experiencing to make him feel better.
Or as Andre 3000 puts it, “I will pause for your cause.” “I’ll Call Before I Come,” released in 2000, is remarkable not just for its mission statement, nor for its integration of Prince’s melodic styles or ideas about satisfaction and sexual vulnerability into a more macho medium, but for its utterly comprehensive approach to the question of what men should aspire to when they have sex with women. First, Three Stacks lays into the men listening at home from the initial line of the song: “Nigga quit being so got damn selfish.” Big Boi speaks from the perspective of a convert to the cause, explaining: “Do you really know what it feels like / to have no control over the G spot? / It’s like a brand new pair of Reeboks or a junkie freshly detoxed / You feel the tingling all over like convulsions or the rooster pox / I used to not give a damn / But now I make it a point just to please you / So you can go back and tell all your buddies, I Pretty D’d you.” Focus on the g-spot, a rather unreliable method of orgasm, aside, it’s a verse that has a sense of what a woman’s orgasm actually feels like, and an attentiveness to girltalk as a place where the truth about a guy’s performance comes out. He wants the stripes for real, an impression that’s reinforced by the song’s chorus: “I’ll call before I come / I won’t just pop over, out the blue / I hope that you do too.” Nobody here is exhibiting Schmidt-ian confidence in their prowess. Instead, there’s a genuine desire to do right.
And if that weren’t unusual enough, the perspective of the song switches in its second half to that of two women, Gangsta Boo, the first female member of Three 6 Mafia, and Eco. Boo’s speaking from the perspective of a woman who’s adopted a stereotypically male attitude towards sexual selfishness: “Whatcha mean dog, telling a play like Boo to call before I come,” she asks male listeners. “You a game I’m fucking you for fun.” In her verse, men are supposed to assume the same position as women whose ability to sexually please powerful men gives them social capital: faking it won’t cut it. “Groupie you need to be glad you even knew me,” she spits. “Do me and tell all my friends my truly blew me.” Eco’s coming from a different place, both literally and figuratively, explaining to a man why she left him for a man who was genuinely attentive to her needs. “Because you caught me playing nurse / Wit a stethoscope running around in one of those cut shot white skirts / I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t respond to idle wishes / Peeped in the window saw me cooking shrimp / In high heels and washing dishes / For Daddy Fat Sax [one of Big Boi’s nicknames] and it’s something I couldn’t explain / I know it’s a dirty, dirty game, but you should called before you came.” The kind of femininity she’s putting on, the Sexy Nurse mashed up with the Fifties Housewife, is a performance for a man who genuinely meets her needs.
This is not a universally understood conversation, in hip-hop, or anywhere else in our culture. But as OutKast explains, as Randolph Henry Ash makes clear, as Agent Cooper understood, it’s one that’s key to moving beyond shame, beyond simple satisfaction, to genuine happiness.