What do women want when it comes to sex? Traditionally speaking, men are the ones who have always been thought to have ravenous sexual appetites. You know how it goes: for men, sex is a matter of lust and physicality; for women, it’s a matter of emotional bonding and intimacy. But is that really how it is? Of course not (much to the chagrin of traditionalists). When Sex and the City premiered in 1998, one of the reasons it made waves was because it showed four women unabashedly exploring their sexual desires. And recently, The Colbert Report poked fun at The New York Times for essentially publishing the same story repeatedly over the last century: BREAKING NEWS…College women have sex. For fun. Without monogamy. *gasp*
It’s almost laughable — okay, it is laughable — but this line of thinking (largely pushed by evolutionary psychologists) has also come with severe consequences that women must now deal with. Leaving aside all the baggage it’s placed on gender expectations, this line of thinking is also still deeply entrenched in the scientific and medical communities. As a result, we’re left with more questions than answers: Where is the Viagra for women? Where are the treatments and studies on female sexual dysfunction? Why is the existence of the G-spot still up for debate? Is monogamy even natural?
These are some of the things Daniel Bergner explores in What Do Women Want? The book began as a several years ago as a controversial article in New York Times Magazine, and Bergner has since expanded on the topic. Female sexuality is a tiny field within science that is just emerging; there is surprisingly little known about the science and psychology of female arousal and female desire mostly because these are topics that have long been ignored or entirely written off. Bergner interviews primatologists, sexologists, psychologists, scientists, and dozens of women taking part in their studies.
This August marked the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. Monroe is a woman who attained icon status early in her short career, and whose role in pop culture has since reached mythical proportions. Published in 2001, Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde reimagines Monroe’s life, from her troubled childhood to her whirlwind rise to stardom, and ultimately, her tragic downfall. Referring to the main figures in Monroe’s life by their roles — The Ex-Athlete, The Dark Prince, The Playwright, The President — the sympathetic portrait Oates paints is one of a naive woman who wants to be loved and also wants to be taken seriously. She is a woman rising up in an era when women in her position were fundamentally powerless and constantly at the mercy of men’s whims.
Disclaimer: I’ve never studied Monroe’s real life in any way, so I have no idea how much of Blonde is real and how much is Oates taking creative liberties, so don’t take my references to events as biography. I do know, however, that most of the beginning of the book is based in fact: her mother was mentally ill, and Norma Jeane Baker came of age in foster homes desperately wanting to know who her father was. In the book, she dies not knowing his identity (questions surround his identity in real-life, too), and this is something that always eats at her. With her beauty and her well-developed figure, Norma Jeane attracted male attention early on; in Blonde, her foster mother marries Norma off at age fifteen to get the pretty girl out of the house and away from the eyes of the foster father. This is the first of many betrayals by people Norma Jeane assumed loved her.
That marriage doesn’t work out; she’s young and never truly feels loved, and yearns to be free. Difficult years are ahead; she tries modeling and acting, but the price is high and degrading. In a moment of extreme desperation stemming from her poverty, she poses for that infamous photo shoot that ends up in Playboy. Oates is blunt in her criticisms of those in power:
I have only one question regarding Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress: WHY ISN’T EVERYONE TALKING ABOUT THIS BOOK?! No, really…WHY? Alternating between the Philippines and the United States, the stories in Monstress explore areas of Filipino and Filipino-American culture, the traditions of the past, and the direction of the future. Further adding to the book’s complex layers is that a few of the stories feature gay and trans characters, while another examines a Filipino immigrant family’s response to teen pregnancy. The end result is a surprisingly stellar, beautiful, devastating debut immersed in familial and cultural history.
The book opens with the sadly nostalgic title story, about an actress and her B-movie sci-fi film director boyfriend. Initially dreaming of being cast as the beautiful heroine in her boyfriend’s films, the actress indeed becomes his star…only he lovingly casts her as his “monstress” every time, putting her in the grossest, weirdest costumes he can create. Years later, the two are living in poverty and obscurity. Then an American director appears one day wanting to buy their old monster footage, promising them money and the opportunity to go to Hollywood, and this proposition changes everything for them in ways they can’t foresee.
The most lighthearted story in the collection is “Help!” It’s a historical reimagining set in Manila in 1966, where the Beatles were on tour. The Beatles snub the First Lady, Imelda Marcos, and spark a national outrage (this actually happened). In Tenorio’s story, the narrator’s Uncle Willie is the executive director of VIP Travel at Manila International Airport. He’s furious that the Beatles would dare insult his beloved Imelda Marcos, paradigm of Filipina womanhood, and enlists his nephews to help him beat up the Beatles before they board their plane and leave the country. The narrator feels its his duty to help his uncle, while his cousins agree to the zany scheme only because they’d get to meet the Beatles.
This book. Arrrrgh. This book.
I was initially intrigued by Sugar in My Bowl, a collection of essays edited by Erica Jong, because of its premise. In her introduction, Jong raises a lot of great points about the gender-based double standards when it comes to writing about sex. When Miller, Lawrence, and Nabokov wrote about sex, they were subversive and daring. They were breaking down barriers. When women wrote about sex, conventional wisdom said that they may as well have sounded the death knell for their writing careers. Jong was surprised that even now, women were hesitant to write about the subject; she was even more surprised at how many contributors felt the need to consult their significant others before agreeing to participate in this project. Still, it sounded like her main goal was to have an honest discussion about female desire. Sounds awesome, right?
Unfortunately, that wasn’t entirely the case. As with most collections, some essays were stronger than others. The subtitle is also a misnomer: while most of the essays were about “real sex,” there was also quite a bit of erotica. This wouldn’t be a problem had the book been marketed differently–I have nothing against erotica–but I do feel that the inclusion of fiction altered the intended purpose of the book.
Sugar in My Bowl started out strong, and I was really enjoying myself for a while. I loved almost all of the essays by older women who grew up in a different sexual era. For instance, Gail Collins’ essay, “Worst Sex,” focus on her education at a Catholic school in the early 1960s. Although her mother was open about any questions she and her friends had about sex, her teachers were the exact opposite. It’s a humorous reflection about her sex (non-)education:
[Our teachers staged a long, ferocious campaign] to keep girls from ever having carnal relations with anyone except our future husbands. Unless of course we chose to join the convent and dedicate ourselves to perpetual chastity. Really, it’s a wonder that we are even functioning, let alone talking about orgasms.
Another essay I loved was Min Jin Lee’s “Reticence and Fieldwork,” in which she talks about sexuality and racism. Lee, a Korean woman, was shocked in the late 1980s to learn firsthand about the sexual stereotypes of Asian women; an acquaintance’s husband drunkenly approached her and said, “You know Korean girls are wild in bed.” Later, she struggled to come to terms with the sexual expectations within her own culture: virginity was one of the most important factors in snagging a Korean husband. She dissects these stereotypes with honesty and even discusses the effect that these expectations had on her writing. It’s one of the strongest essays in the collection.
Fresh out of college, Molly Birnbaum only knew one thing: she wanted to cook. Even though she went to Brown and had no background in the food industry, Birnbaum managed to convince Chef Maws at the Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge, Massachusetts to hire her. Though she started from the bottom as a dishwasher, Birnbaum quickly immersed herself in the world of food, watching and learning as much as possible, and developing her nose and taste buds along the way. She even applied and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America, one of the top cooking schools in the country.
Then she was hit by a car. In the painful months of recovery after the accident, Birnbaum came to the horrifying realization that she had lost her sense of smell. And since so much of a person’s sense of taste is tied to one sense of smell, Birnbaum’s sense of taste was also severely diminished. Without those two crucial senses, the future she’d envisioned for herself suddenly vanished.
As soon as I saw the premise of Season to Taste, I knew I had to read it. You see, my sister and I were born without a sense of smell, and it’s always exciting to encounter other people who are in the same boat! It actually took me longer than usual to finish this book because I kept stopping to compare our experiences. There was so much to think about!
I guess anosmia—the medical term for a complete absence of a sense of smell—has never been a big deal for me since it’s something I’ve always lived with. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a proper name for it! My main lament is that I’ll never be a wine connoisseur, even though (unlike Birnbaum) I can taste just fine. But it was a pretty traumatic experience for her, especially since she wanted to be a chef. She wrote at length about all the smells she missed, and I was blown away. When I was living in New York a few years ago, I appreciated my inability to smell the bags of trash piled up along the street or the stench of urine in the subways (two things I’d constantly overhear people gripe about). However, when Birnbaum wrote sadly about not being able to smell things like hot cider in a farmer’s market, my immediate reaction was, Seriously? You can smell stuff like that from that far away?! Most people probably wouldn’t think twice about those things, but it was truly fascinating to hear about all the smells one encounters on a day-to-day basis.