I’ve always been a good student and a “good” girl. Or at least that’s what most people think, if they think of me at all. However, there is another side to me, one you here at ERWA know well, but that would surprise many: a woman who is deeply skeptical of authority and who dares to make my private pleasure public in prose, whether that be the joys of female sexuality or my delight in analyzing American history and culture.
In spite of myself, my “good student” ways led me to soak up the messages our society sends to girls and women. Even if I don’t agree with the values of the patriarchy, I know them and feel them and, I’ll admit, even live my life by some of these rules willingly. Still, sometimes I’m confused. How can men love their mothers, wives and daughters and still support laws and customs that harm women? How can so many men be against contraceptives? Do they want a future where they must either be celibate or have twenty children? Why do women as well as men attack the credibility of victims of sexual assault and harassment and make the assailant into the “true” victim? At times I wonder: If men didn’t need us for heterosexual sex, would they simply do away with all women since they seem to be so angry at them all the time?
I’ve been considering these questions for a lifetime, but just this past week, I actually got some interesting answers, thanks to Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Cornell professor Kate Manne. Professor Manne’s book is not a beach read, but it’s accessible and especially relevant in these turbulent times. It clarifies so many things about being a woman in our man’s world and about my own actions as an erotica writer, as well as the nature of what men want from women and why they’re so mad when they don’t get it.
I can’t do justice to Manne’s argument in a blog post, so I’ll try my flawed best with a summary of those points that directly impact my experience of writing and promoting erotica. First, Manne discusses the popular, or “naive,” conception of the misogynist as a man who hates all women irrationally, just because they are women, like the way Hitler hated Jews. By this definition, misogynists would be rare. After all, most men love their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters or some subset thereof. And many women are misogynists, too—could they hate themselves in such a way?
Manne then presents a more satisfying functional definition of misogyny as the means by which a patriarchal society polices and patrols female behavior. Sexism holds that women are naturally subordinate, or more euphemistically complementary, to men. Misogyny attempts to put wayward females back in their designated place by “condescending, mansplaining, moralizing, blaming, punishing, silencing, lampooning, satirizing, sexualizing, belittling, caricaturizing, exploiting, erasing, and evincing pointed indifference.” (Manne, 30)
Misogyny also valorizes women who behave properly. Manne’s framing of proper behavior was particularly enlightening for me, in what she calls a bad gendered historical bargain (from the female perspective, that is):
“Women may not be simply human beings but positioned as human givers when it comes to dominant men who look to them for various kinds of moral support, admiration, attention, and so on. She is not allowed to be in the same ways as he is. She will tend to be in trouble when she does not give enough, or to the right people, in the right way, or in the right spirit. And, if she errs on this score, or asks for something of the same support or attention on her own behalf, there is a risk of misogynistic resentment, punishment, and indignation.”
Thus women owe men of equal or superior social status their good will, what Manne calls “hers to give” or feminine-coded goods and services: attention, affection, admiration, sympathy, sex, and children; also mixed goods such as safe haven, nurture, security, soothing and comfort.
Masculine-coded perks and privileges are “his for the taking”: power, prestige, public recognition, rank, reputation, honor, “face,” respect, money and other forms of wealth, hierarchical status, upward mobility, and the status conferred by having a high-ranking woman’s loyalty, love, devotion. (Manne, 130)
If a woman tries to take what is “his,” she is “bad” and misogyny punishes her by calling her out as selfish, negligent, irresponsible, ungrateful, and unfair to men. (Manne, 87)
Manne compares our reaction to this “unnatural” dynamic of female self-regard to a situation where a waitress refuses to take our order, then asks us to serve her. Who wouldn’t be outraged by this betrayal of expectations? Where’s the service with a smile? (Manne, 50)
As I mentioned earlier, women, too, police the behavior of other women. Consider the female commentators who blame #MeToo victims for wearing the wrong clothes, not being strong or savvy enough to fend off a boss’s advances, and worst of all, destroying a good man’s career because she’s a whiny drama queen who wants attention and lots of money.
I also found Manne’s explanation quite reasonable concerning why some conservatives so vehemently oppose the ACA’s coverage of female contraception but not coverage of Viagra: “…We can now make sense of contraception coverage becoming a common point of contention, too. She is asking to be provided with an antidote to human giving—and in a way that often highlights her human capacities being deployed in self-development or geared toward financial success, that is, his province. The latter also threatens to turn her into a usurper.”
Whether this resentment of women who put their own pleasures first must lead all Americans to have families of twenty children is another matter, of course. But at least the outrage makes more sense.
As I was reading Down Girl, I also had some insights into the relationship between misogyny and my erotica writing.
As long as I can remember, I knew I existed to please others. I was supposed to be a good daughter and student and be as attractive a female as I could manage, given my natural limitations. The stares and catcalls of men on the street that began when I was 13 were a reminder of what movies, TV and magazines preached: I existed to please male eyes and egos. I learned to be careful when flirting because if I gave my attention to one boy, then another, the first would take it personally and punish me. While my actual relationships were not nearly as reductive as the messages bombarding me from the media, I knew that, rightly or wrongly, my chief purpose was to be a loyal girlfriend and wife, an enthusiastic sex partner, and a devoted mother. Public achievements were icing, as long as they didn’t interfere too much. As an empty-nester, I’m doing community service and baking cookies for the holidays to please the palates of my friends. Yes, I have my secret life as a rebel, a scholar, and a feisty truth-teller, but for the most part, I’ve chosen the safe route for a woman in a patriarchal world.
Writing erotica under my own name, of course, is the exception to my conformity. I have felt that I am a “bad” girl—the closest I’d ever come to hanging out in the smoking area in high school–for speaking frankly and positively about the female sexual experience. It has been mostly thrilling, although I have been occasionally attacked and shamed.
Manne’s book made me reconsider just how “bad” I am.
For indeed, am I not still a “good” girl in terms fulfilling my patriarchal purpose of pleasing men? I’d guess most of my readers are women, but I’ve gotten fan mail from a good number of men over the years. Many men read erotica because they are genuinely interested in women’s sexual experiences, and that’s a good thing. Still, as I’ve gathered from our cultural messages, sexuality seems like the only thing about women your “average guy” would be genuinely interested in reading about–with the goal of satisfying his own sexual desires. The type of erotica I generally write affirms the desirability of the heterosexual erotic experience (with some lesbian detours, but men like that, too). My work offers support and solace and might even serve as a surrogate partner. If I wrote instead on female friendship and quilting, I’d probably have zero male readers, no matter how eloquent my prose.
On the other hand, a “bad” female erotica writer would make male readers uncomfortable. Some writers I admire greatly do. While I sometimes challenge traditional sexual values, I tend to do it gently, with humor, and accompanied by a fundamental pleasure in male company. What’s there for a man to hate?
I’m not saying any of this is wrong. I just find it interesting how my way of being in the world has been informed by these time-worn values.
Manne also made me more aware of my internalization of the danger of trying to claim any position of privilege traditionally seen to belong to men.
When I published my novel, Amorous Woman, I found it hard to “toot my own horn” to promote the book. It felt dangerous, selfish, and stuck-up to claim for myself public importance as a Published Novelist. Who did I think I was?
I managed to overcome my reluctance by framing my book as my “child.” I had given birth to her and owed my newborn baby a good start in life. Thus I transformed myself from a selfish, egotistical artist into a self-sacrificing mother. That kept me going through many a cold call or excruciating snub from a “serious” bookstore that didn’t have the time of day for novels like mine. My little girl needed me to be strong!
To be honest, I sincerely do not see my work as a means to show the world how great I am. I see it as a way to connect with others, assure them they are not alone in their feelings and desires. I also felt a duty to present a view of Japan that engages with but also transcends stereotypes as a way of paying back the warmth, humanity, and hospitality of my Japanese friends.
So I just have to face the fact that I’m bad at being the bad girl. I’ve learned my good girl lessons too well: Stay safe in a man’s world by being the pleaser, the giver, the titillating, but reassuring entertainer.
Yet I won’t fall prey to another common misogynistic reflex—that anything a woman does is automatically devalued. Manne agrees that men still want women around because the comforts they give are “truly valuable: they are genuinely good and the lack thereof bad. Consider that, as well as affection, adoration, indulgence, and so on, such feminine-coded goods and services include simple respect, love, acceptance, nurturing, safety, security, and safe haven. There is kindness and compassion, moral attention, care, concern and soothing.” (Manne, 110)
I also happen to know many men who give these wonderful human qualities to me and other women–it’s just that it seems they’re allowed some time off now and then with no harm done. Still I’m proud to value those qualities and offer them freely to my family, my friends, my colleagues and my readers. Thanks to Manne, though, I’ll definitely examine my feelings of safety and danger and “good” and “bad” as I continue on my writer’s journey.