Mary Eberstadt on “What Does Woman Want”

Every once in a while, I start reading a magazine article that initially appears to hold only limited interest for me, only to get drawn in by what turns out to be its very engaging material. In other words, I move from “I’ll give it a few paragraphs” to “okay, you got me.” Occasionally I’ll even reach “maybe I should mention that in a blog.”

This happened recently with Mary Eberstadt’s “What Does Woman Want?” in the October edition of First Things.

Eberstadt begins with an interesting recap of what she terms the “summer marriage wars”—a controversy centered upon the opposing essays of Caitlin Flanagan (“Is There Hope for the American Marriage?”) and Sandra Tsing Loh (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”) in Time and The Atlantic respectively. While this account is interesting in itself for a number of reasons, Eberstadt uses it as a platform to explore what appears to be a increasingly common (and public) confession of at least some women in today’s culture: that their “marriages—that is to say, marriages made among enlightened, older, educated, sophisticated people—are a sexual desert.”

Why is this? Eberstadt engages in an intriguing survey of several possible factors, but lingers near the close of her article on “something else [that] lurks under the rocks picked up by fashionable writing about marriage these days—something that crawls away from the light even as it squirms just under the surface of the new confessionalism.” She continues:

“Don’t eat too many snacks, or you’ll ruin your dinner.” Every woman issuing the new literature of complaint and heartache will understand just how meaningful the saying is—at least when it applies to kids and dinnertime. Yet sexual satiety, of the kind that oozes by other names from so much female confessional literature these days, is almost never recognized the same way. In particular, pornography is the invisible ink of many of these essays and lives—obvious one minute, unnoticed the next, and the bearer of a message no one apparently sees. Understood or not, however, it appears to be leaving a mark on at least some of these publicly lived lives.

In Loh’s essay, for example, a husband—as it happens, one of those husbands no longer interested in sex with his wife—bookmarks his pornography on the computer; his wife knows all about it, even reports it to her friends who are also commiserating about their sexless marriages—and no one seems to connect the dots at all. Another writer for Salon, reflecting on Loh’s essay, similarly nudges up against this obvious if missing piece of the puzzle (in a piece called “Why Your Marriage Sucks”), noting, “I write this article from a hotel room in New York City, where nearly a dozen porn movies are on offer”—a fact the author uses to highlight what she thinks of as an irony, when it might instead suggest something else: a possible causal relation between all those movies on the one hand and, on the other hand, a loss of romantic interest on the part of those who think them inconsequential.

I’ll end the post with one more extended quotation, one that highlights an irony that is both more substantive (and tragic) than that which was suggested by the Salon writer above:

The kind of feminism these women have so unthinkingly imbibed has come at a great cost. It has rendered many of them ideologically if not personally blasé about something they cannot really afford to be blasé about. In Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy chronicles the steady infiltration of pornography into female society. The pressure on women to accept pornography as an inconsequential and entertaining fact of life rises by the year—and outside the circles of the conservative and the religious, there is little cultural ammunition for any woman who wants to resist it. In fact, one of the few tony writers who does seem to grasp the destructive role of pornography in modern romance is Naomi Wolf, who chillingly observed several years ago that “the onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as porn-worthy.” Almost none of her feminist sisters have followed suit.

All of which brings us back to the enigma of this summer’s marriage wars. Perhaps some of the modern misery of which so many women today authentically speak is springing not from a sexual desert but from a sexual flood—a torrent of poisonous imagery, beginning even in childhood, that has engulfed women and men, only to beach them eventually somewhere alone and apart, far from the reach of one another.

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