Before Cat Person: bad sex in second wave fiction

‘It is not every day’, wrote Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian this week, ‘that a short story goes viral’.  She was talking about Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, published last week in the New Yorker, and subsequently shared, discussed and dissected by thousands of readers.

What has made Cat Person a sensation is not its literary qualities. It is basically, as Cosslett says,

a tale, straightforwardly told through the eyes of a young woman, of an unpleasant sexual encounter that she has with a somewhat ambiguous stranger who turns out to be actively unpleasant.

But the response it got from women readers was extraordinary.  Their comments emphasised its ‘relatability’, the way it resonated with their experiences and their feelings: some said it was as if Roupenian had read their minds. Among men, on the other hand, reactions ranged from simple bemusement (‘I don’t get it’, tweeted one, ‘it all seems very mundane’) to outright hostility. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given how unflatteringly the central male character is depicted:

During sex, he moved her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head. When she was on top, he slapped her thigh and said, “Yeah, yeah, you like that,” with an intonation that made it impossible to tell whether he meant it as a question, an observation, or an order, and when he turned her over he growled in her ear, “I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits,” and she had to smother her face in the pillow to keep from laughing again. At the end, when he was on top of her in missionary, he kept losing his erection, and every time he did he would say, aggressively, “You make my dick so hard,” as though lying about it could make it true. At last, after a frantic rabbity burst, he shuddered, came, and collapsed on her like a tree falling, and, crushed beneath him, she thought, brightly, This is the worst life decision I have ever made!

Many commentators have put the extreme responses–both positive and negative–down to the novelty or shock value of seeing heterosex depicted from the woman’s point of view. ‘If so many [women] feel this way’, asks Cosslett, ‘then why has it gone unsaid until now?’

Actually, it hasn’t gone unsaid until now. Cat Person is utterly contemporary in its language and its setting (it belongs to a world of dating apps, flirting by text and learning your moves from internet porn), but its depiction of sex–more specifically, of bad sex–reminds me strongly of some fictions that struck a similar chord with women in the 1970s.

In a 2003 article called ‘Beyond trashiness: the sexual language of 1970s feminist fiction‘, Meryl Altman discusses three novels written by American second wave feminists–Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1973) and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973)–which became popular successes, selling enough copies outside the political subculture that produced them to ‘[carry] feminist revolutionary thought into millions of homes’. And the secret of their popularity, Altman suggests, was the way they approached the subject of sex.

They included lots of explicit heterosexual lovemaking, described from the women’s point of view, and they were forthright and clear that sexual satisfaction was important to women as well as men, that this was a reasonable and normal expectation – albeit an expectation often frustrated.

Among the recurring themes Altman identifies in these popular/feminist fictions are ‘the routine harassment and abuse of girls by boys and women by men’, ‘the expectation that [women] would both arouse and police desire’ and ‘an emphasis on sexual disappointment and male inadequacies, described in graphic detail’. Cat Person ticks the same boxes, especially the last. And just as commentators on it have been reminded of  Margaret Atwood’s aphorism ‘men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them’, so the 1970s novels very often depict men’s behaviour as simultaneously threatening and ridiculous.

Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, for instance, opens with the narrator Sasha telling her husband Frank that she has slept with another man. He responds by demanding sex (and reminding her that since they are married, she has no right to refuse):

I began to struggle in earnest. His breath on my neck made me very nervous. “Please, Frank, no fair.”
“Please, Frank, no fair,” he mimicked, adding, “bitch!”
…he pushed me onto one of the beds and deftly pinned my wrists over my head. With a wrench of his head he shook his glasses off; they dropped to the floor. I had a picture of myself as a comic-book victim, strangling on my own bra, which was flopping around my throat, and I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to laugh. But Frank looked so helpless without his glasses, dewy-eyed and unfocused, that bitch or no, I struggled not to laugh at him. …Instead I said, “I’ll scream!”
“Scream, then”, he mumbled. And, transferring both my wrists to one of his hands for an instant, he prepared with a minimum of undressing to rape me.

But then things take an unexpected turn:

There was no way out…to the accompaniment of my finally unsuppressible laughter, off we went on our last trip together.
This scene makes uncomfortable reading. Is what ultimately happens a rape, or isn’t it? It seems clear that Frank doesn’t care what Sasha wants, and is prepared to use force if he has to. She makes it so that he doesn’t have to, but her motives remain opaque: is she just resigned to the inevitable (‘there was no way out’), or does her anger give way to genuine affection, or pity?
51Stzakp-9L._SY346_What women want from sex, and how they negotiate between their own desires and others’ expectations or demands, are also questions explored in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. The resulting narrative, like Shulman’s, can be uncomfortable to read. After spending much of the novel pursuing what she refers to as ‘the zipless fuck’–a brief, anonymous sexual encounter unencumbered by emotional baggage–the heroine Isadora Wing finally gets to enact one of her favourite imaginary scenarios, having sex with a stranger on a train. But in real life she is not in control of the action, and she experiences the encounter as an assault. ‘I’d been offered my very own fantasy’, she reflects, ‘and instead of turning me on, it had revolted me!’
Like Cat Person, these second wave novels present us with female protagonists who have, as we say nowadays, ‘agency’–they are certainly not helpless victims, or passive creatures that things just happen to. Nor are they exemplary feminist heroines: though Marge Piercy’s characters are Political-with-a-capital-P, Shulman’s Sasha and Jong’s Isidora are not. They are on a quest for personal fulfilment, not trying to start a revolution. Nevertheless, their stories make clear that this quest exposes a woman to risks which men do not have to contend with, and that, in turn, exposes the limits of women’s freedom.PromQueen-cover01-330
Not only does Cat Person itself have precedents in 1970s fiction, its polarised reception echoes the way the earlier texts were talked about (albeit on a smaller scale, since the internet did not yet exist). One reviewer of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen wrote:
I daresay that not a woman reader will be really shocked and that the average man’s hair, regardless of length, will automatically stand on end from page to page.
Another suggested that
Men may curse, they may howl . . . yet men owe it to themselves to see themselves plain, as their wives and girlfriends perceive them.
Yet here we are in 2017 listening to another generation of men cursing and howling in response to another story portraying a man through a woman’s eyes. Has anything really changed since Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen?  Alix Kates Shulman asked that question herself in 1997, when the novel was reissued to mark its 25th anniversary:
Shall I rejoice that the novel, steadily in print since 1972, remains sufficiently alive to the times as to warrant a new, celebratory edition? Or should I bemoan the conditions that keep its social satire current?
Twenty years on, I think the answer is probably ‘both’. The reception of Cat Person suggests that there is still plenty to bemoan. But we should also acknowledge and celebrate the fact that women haven’t just been silent all this time. There’s a whole tradition of using fiction–comic, satirical and sexually explicit–to offer a critical female  perspective on heterosexual relations. And that evidently still packs a punch.
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Author: debuk

Feminist, linguist, writer