Me and Lillian Talk Again
Hi, this post is for those people who enjoyed my audio interview with author Lillian Fishman about her novel Acts of Service which is a story of a highly civilized three-way between two supposedly queer women and a very attentive man (posted Monday the 27th).
Its a follow-up so if you didn’t listen to the audio it won’t make sense…if that’s the case, I’ll see you next week!
But for those of you who enjoyed the interview, you might also like this exchange about generational attitudes towards sexuality, social influence and the body plus thoughts about incels (involuntarily celibate men).
MG: When I asked you if you had a clear idea of "Acts of Service" from the beginning, you said:
"I knew what seems to me to be the central problem of the book, which is grappling with the idea that you have some innate sexuality to discover and that once you discover it, you'll be happy and fulfilled. And if you can be honest with other people about it, then you'll have this deep fulfillment and freedom, which is an idea that you're raised with, I think, especially if you are gay. That's the idea, is you just have to come to terms with this innate biological truth about yourself, and once you do everything will be clear to you."
Do you think this is how lots of people of your generation feel? I don't think most people in my generation felt that, like your sexuality was something you had to discover, it was something that seemed unequivocal, you could feel it coming up from your body. And I don't think there was an expectation of happiness or even coming to terms, it was just there. What I do remember, and I don't know if this was typical, but I felt strong wish to push back on my parent's seeming belief that sex was innately dark, dirty and violent (I had rather puritanical parents) unless it took place in strict parameters in which case it was the purest thing in the world. I wanted it to be on one level more simple and good, even if I could sense real darkness and ambiguity in it early; I wanted to believe that if you just accepted your desires no matter what they were, you could experience them freely and without getting seriously hurt--which now seems to me pretty naive.
Is there a difference between your paragraph and mine? Does it matter? The only difference I'm seeing now is the question of "discovery" vs. just feeling it as it rises. Plus I guess as you're describing it you seem to be saying that you had an expectation of happiness and fulfillment; I don't think we quite felt that. It was more a hope than an expectation, at least for me.
LF: I think in my generation and where I grew up, while it was never articulated this way, there was a sense that it was (basically) okay to be gay and certainly to be straight, that everyone had a place now that the gays had ascertained their hard-won spot in mainstream society, and that you would follow one of two paths: you’d “come out” as one thing (bisexual or gay), or you’d be straight. This is in terms of how you present your life to society, not in terms of private practice or kink. One of the ways it was so obvious that people believed there was a static truth to be discovered about each person’s sexuality was that it was common and accepted to make jokes about how anyone who came out as bisexual was just afraid to come out as gay, and that calling yourself bisexual was a stepping stone on the way to accepting yourself. In fact, I think the reason I called myself gay as a teenager was because disdain for the reality of bisexuality was so strong, and I didn't want people to think I was confused or ashamed.
So it wasn’t that I didn’t believe that people had dynamic sexual experiences. But I was presented constantly with an idea that everyone had an identity which might not be visible but which was absolute in some way. Inconsistent behavior implied discomfort with the self.
I think this is all of a piece with what you write: about wanting sex to be simple and good rather than dark or painful; about feeling it just “rise up in you”. It seemed to me that everyone thought it would just “rise up in you” and the whole social part was you deciding whether you would deny or confirm. Whereas my experience was that, in the moments when I felt a new desire or curiosity in different years and stages, my first thought would be, “this isn’t coming up from inside me, it’s coming from outside me somewhere, and at some point it wormed it’s way in so it feels like it’s coming from the inside.” I'm sure this was because I went to a women's college and studied critical theory and gender and literature and so I was (and still am relatively) allergic to just "accepting" a feeling that appears to come from inside, rather than investigating its greater source. And Eve’s process is entirely about that problem, feeling her desires as infiltrators that are planted socially and somehow actually antithetical to her chosen beliefs.
MG: I have another question which is hard to answer if you’ve never thought about this subject which is the subject of Incels, Involuntarily Celibate men. If you know anything about them, you know Nathan would be a Chad, the kind of guy who gets as many women as he wants either due to his looks or money plus limitless confidence. Acts of Service, in addition to being a hardcore feminist's nightmare would be an incel nightmare! Eve does seem to be attracted to Nathan's money and social position because, even if she doesn't want money from him or to marry into his privilege, its hard to think if he would have the confidence she loves if he came from a poor or even middle class family. As I read it, his easy sense of self is linked closely to his class. Do you agree with incels that such linkage is inevitable, that the Nathans of the world are always going to get the most desirable women?
LF: Eve’s whole attraction to Nathan and the experiment she runs by allowing herself to get involved with him is based on entirely the same premise as the incel premise. She knows she is interested in him based on these corrupt and deeply intransigent social categories, and yet that only makes her somehow more attracted to him. I think most incels (despite disliking Nathan and what he represents, as Eve does) would prefer to become a Chad overnight than to abolish the system (just as Eve prefers to be desired by Nathan than to reject him).
While I was working on Acts I was extremely influenced by Amia Srinivasan's piece "Does anyone have a right to sex?" in the LRB, and it is about exactly this: the places where actually the claims of incels and the realities of feminism intersect. It's about the ways in which sex-positive feminism has attempted to whitewash all the bigotry that we know is involved in women's choice of partners (from porn and dating app data), and how, of course, a lot of what incels experience in terms of sexual rejection is completely real and those social standards do exist, especially in the subculture of "hot" women they're pursuing. Basically, yes, I think that both men and women suffer greatly under patriarchy, and that men who are not like Nathan suffer a great deal.
It's interesting that you say (and many people have said) that Acts is a nightmare for a hard-core feminist. That same article really lays out the trajectory of feminism that Acts lives in. Through the course of the book, Eve moves from a very radical McKinnon-feminism stance (no real pleasure under patriarchy, only negotiated rape) to something more forgiving but certainly short of the contemporary, don't-critique-anything-a-woman-claims-is-entirely-her-choice perspective. Srinivasan says--"When we see consent as the sole constraint on OK sex, we are pushed towards a naturalization of sexual preference in which the rape fantasy becomes a primordial rather than a political fact." I think the novel rests almost entirely on this problem, that contemporary sex-positive feminism would have us believed the rape fantasy is primordial rather than political. And in fact I think the book lands in a very feminist place. It's entirely a testament to the political rather than primordial nature of that problem. It's just that feminism is so large and disparate, you could also call the book a nightmare for feminism at the same time.
MG: Eve's process seemed somewhat the reverse, that her chosen beliefs were socially/morally driven as opposed to her desires which she felt she could finally express. That is why I think dogmatic feminists would be upset by the book--and I admit it even effected me somewhat that way. But I think that's a small idea of feminism and also I don't think its right to see novels as feminist or anti-feminist. I felt "Acts" was influenced by feminism obviously but I thought it was more about freedom from politics (as you described in the interview), a willingness to explore and have a kind of interstitial moment where the 'knowns' recede and something entirely unexpected happens.
About whether or not rape fantasies are primordial or political, I have no idea. Wouldn't it depend on the nature of the fantasy and the woman having it?
But this is sort of scary to me:
"my experience was that, in the moments when I felt a new desire or curiosity in different years and stages, my first thought would be, “this isn’t coming up from inside me, it’s coming from outside me somewhere, and at some point it wormed it’s way in so it feels like it’s coming from the inside.” I'm sure this was because I went to a women's college and studied critical theory and gender and literature and so I was (and still am relatively) allergic to just "accepting" a feeling that appears to come from inside, rather than investigating its greater source."
I hope it doesn't make you feel weird that I find it scary. But if I can't--if women can't--trust their own bodies how can we trust anything? Critical or gender theory? Those things are legitimate but they could never trump my own bod! If you believe that something else can constantly be worming its way in to the point that you think its you but it isn't really...how would you do anything? I do realize that one's natural feelings can be influenced or pushed by external factors: of course I was effected by years and years of movies and TV images and beautiful romantic songs supporting white male dominance as a norm. Even so however, I unthinkingly felt something in me stronger than that, subject to influence but still retaining its core. For example, when I was attracted to my beautiful friend when I was 14? I barely knew what a lesbian was, it was not in popular culture at all, only mentioned as a gross joke. Still, that desire came up naturally in me. Same thing when I first felt something like that for a boy. The specific shape and flavor these instincts take on are highly influence-able sometimes in profound and subtle ways. But humans are animals and no one has to influence animals to feel like doing it.
LF: I totally understand why it scares you, and I think for me: it both scares me, and I also agree with you, it isn't entirely true that I don't trust anything in myself. I'm in a stage of life where I find I'm constantly working to distinguish the difference between behavioral patterns and "gut instinct," or whatever sensation I want to respond to as gut instinct--animal feeling/action. Because of course I do have that, and so does Eve. Or maybe what's more true than that is: I'm willing to accept some of what has wormed its way in as having become essential to me, part of me, and not something to disavow.
For example, in contrast to you with your beautiful friend, when I was in love with female friends in middle school, I thought it was because I was weak, more comfortable with people who were similar to me than people who were different, because I was scared of men, not because I wasn't attracted to them. This was an idea I'd gotten from my parents and from culture at large. I think it's common, though unexpressed--there's a great line in Elif Batuman's new book, narrated by a 20-year-old, when she has feelings about her best female friend, about how that can't really be sex or love because it's too feminine, too intimate, and without any flavor of pain or darkness, which is always a part of dramatic love/sex. So even then I thought: this isn't a simple feeling, it's a result of my own maladjustment or simply my adjustment. Which must have been the reason I was attracted to critical theory and gender studies when I got a little older.
I think this is extremely personal (some people arrive in the world feeling that they come somehow from outside its social structure, and have a deep particular life-force; my sense of myself as a person is that I'm almost entirely responsive to my environment). I also think of this as age-related. I expect (I don't know exactly why) to become more emotionally governed and less obsessed with analysis as I get older--just because I expect to trust myself more and feel less suspicious of where everything comes from. But maybe it won't go that way at all.