Men Undressed: An Examination
One of the most intriguing aspects of reading this anthology was how sex offered up these writers a more compelling platform upon which to write as sex is a topic which almost always grabs the attention of the reader, but which offered an opportunity for these writers to explore other, even more compelling topics such as emotions, the balance of power, gender identities, among others. Sex was used repeatedly in the book as a strong means by which the writers could approach certain human issues and stumbling blocks and seek to overcome them. The anthology creates a really interesting dialogue in the sense that it presents sex as both an element of an intimate and romantic relationship but also something which exists as a relationship unto itself. This is something that the anthology can courageously explore while shaking off the puritanical morality that is so embedded in American culture.
One of the most striking ways in which women picture male sexual desire is via the short story in the anthology by Nava Renek. This featured a male protagonist who was coming from a place of emotional needs, an extreme emotional need to be loved and to be cared for emotionally. This made the setting of his actions so interesting, because he was a character who would just pick up women in bars -- a starting point which seem prosaic and un-interesting, and motivated primarily by primal urges, but which is actually coming from this extreme emotional place for him. The main character in this story genuinely desires his marriage to work, but the dynamics continue to be off, and cannot stand to be corrected: this is a character that sees casual sex as his only recourse. One aspect of feeling loved and emotionally alive is to experience passion, even if it only exists fleetingly through a range of different women. But unlike the other men portrayed in this book, this character would rather trade all the casual sex in the world for a more satisfying marriage. In this story, it's too late for both the husband and wife, when they both come to the realization that they're working on something which isn't succeeding and neither have the inner fortitude to make scary changes that would ultimately benefit both of them.
One of the more revelatory aspects about this anthology is the fact that the female writers didn't fall into the trap of romanticizing sex, the way that male writers do when they write about it. There's a superficial aspect which can be created via male writers writing about sex and women, and about female writers writing about the female sexual experience in terms of "chic lit" and comparable genres. In keeping with these old constructs there's a danger of not getting to the heart of the matter. With women the cauldron of emotions can contain a range of contradictory elements which can be fascinating and also daunting.
One of the great successes about the way that the male sexual experience was portrayed in this anthology was the fact that it avoided cliches, stock archetypes and avoided breaking sex scenes clearly down into gender. The writers were aware of the tendency within culture to make certain portrayals of sex within American culture seem more masculine vs. more feminine and that these would fall into things like porn vs. romance novels. The female writers of this anthology were able to present sex from the male perspective, yet without making it into a gendered archetype. Everything managed to stay individualized. None of the writers in the anthology fall into the trap of discussing men at large or the male condition: the characters in the story happen to encapsulate the well constructed characters which are fostered in good writing. While the stories do present the male experience, because they're written in that manner, they avoid trying to make one single grandiose statement about the male experience of sex in general. This is one of the major beacons of good writing. One relevant example which comes to mind is DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's lover: Lawrence does not decree that all women experience sex in this particular manner, but merely that one...
The writers of this anthology were still able to present this gendered sexual experience in a way that was believable and resonant but which did not fall into the trap of fiction as a clinical study.
One aspect of the male sexual experience that the writers appear to touch upon is the fact that it can be difficult for men to sustain long-term relationships with any degree of happiness. The longevity of relationships creates a strain upon men that they appear to be unable to fix. It appears as though when wounds arise in relationships, men are often unable to cope and turn to other avenues -- these other avenues often being other women, or pornography. There's a strong commentary about emotional issues and sexual issues as interconnected, and a strong reluctance of men in addressing those sexual issues. There's also the implication that so much of a man's self-worth is inherently connected in his ability to have sex, have sex well, have sex often and to feel connected to his partner. For example, the protagonist in "The Gold Cure" by Jennifer Egan demonstrates how the depression which afflicts him is caused by and perpetuated by his lack of sexual potency.
There's the suggestion that sex holds a promise for some and the possibility of transformation more strongly than for women -- or perhaps on a more visceral and unrealistic level. Consider the following excerpt from Lidia Yuknavitch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights": "He closes his eyes and when he comes it is into the mouth of the young and beautiful worldHe is lost there. A boy's mouth takes him out of himself." In a word this excerpt demonstrates the phenomenon of romanticization of sex which is akin to what male writers do with female subject matters. However, the common thread which persists throughout much of the writing that occurs in "The Garden of Earthly Delights" is the fact that there's something ephemeral and fascinating about the moments of sex which can be so passionate and intense, they are almost transformative, and do possess the uncanny ability to transport an individual to another realm, or reality. This aspect of the sexual experience appears to be something that men are more vulnerable to or is something that they seek out more often. On the other hand, consider Sherri Joseph's story "The Winter Beach" which tells the story of Kent, who is freshly married to a Mennonite lawyer, but who soon slips back into his affair with a former male lover.
This story succeeds on various levels and plays with themes which seem very localized to the male sexual experience. For example, the experimentation and the tendency to be constantly looking for something appears to be something which persists in the male sexual experience. There's a sense of the wayward and adrift male which can continue to be a presence throughout the anthology. This piece succeeds because it also discusses male sexuality and the way in which gender role manifest throughout sexuality, but makes this commentary in a more nuanced fashion.
Sex as transformation and sex as exploration appear to be some of the common threads which emerge throughout the short story. Elizabeth Searle's story, "A Dead American" looks at the sexual experiences of the youngest type of man, a 15-year-old boy. The story is able to demonstrate how the sexual journey of a man begins and offer details of the trials and tribulations and inherent conflicts which are a part of that journey. The construct of the hostage girl in this particular story adds a sense of a greater internal struggle which is riddled with sex, hormones, duty, obligation and desire. The story almost acts as a greater construct for the dueling desires to help vs. The desire for this young girl, and the sheer desire for her to desire him. There are elements in this adolescent who one can see are certainly evident in all young men in sexual situations to some extent, such as fault, earnestness and boldness and selfishness. One can conclude that the theme of the flawed sexual partner is a sexual motif that abounds throughout this narrative.
Thus, there are new ideas presented about sexual intimacy that emerge through reading this anthology. In some ways the ideas presented are brand new, and debunk old myths. The stories which show men as craving and lacking love, craving and lacking desire, are all revelatory of associations that women don't typically make about men…
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