December 2011

Richard Thomas


Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience edited by Stacy Bierlein, Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza, and Kat Meads

I can't say it much better than Steve Almond in his foreword to Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience when he says "The stories in this collection... are written by women struggling to understand men, what sex feels like for them, how it functions in their lives. We are sorely in need of that understanding." These twenty-four stories explore a wide range of male sexual behavior and perspective, as well as everything that surrounds these moments of intimacy and desire. We see men as abusive and manipulative, vulnerable and exposed, lost and confused -- in other words, human. But there is something unique to this collection, and that is the mirror, the microscope that these talented women use to show us what they think of men, what they have experienced, no doubt, and how they choose to represent the male characters in their stories. The most successful examples in this collection do more than just titillate and arouse, they expose their male characters with an honesty and unflinching wonder, leading us to place sympathy next to hatred, and compassion close to rage.

Men are people, too. And yes, there is definitely some heat in these pages -- steamy passages packed with slick flesh and glossy mouths eager to supplicate and engulf. Take these word counts as some sort of indicator of the passages that unfold with tension and desire: cock, thirty-six times; penis, thirty-two times; breast(s), forty-six times; vagina, six times; pussy, seven times. But those are just words, the ways we describe our body parts, and I'm grateful that we don't have to endure purple prose with ridiculous labels and imagery. The importance of reading these stories is that we have so many chances, as Almond put it, to understand men, and the motivations behind the things we do -- the good and the bad, the soiled and the pure. He ends his foreword with the following observation, which is succinct as much as it speaks the truth, when he says that the men in this collection (and men in general, I think) have a "desperate gratitude that lives beneath all our Guy posturing; the secret debt we carry toward all women in our lives, for their ridiculous patience, their affection, for knowing us better than we know ourselves and forgiving us anyway." He may be onto something there.

With a title like Men Undressed, you'd expect some hot passages, right? And you certainly won't be disappointed. Susan Minot's Rapture was a controversial title when it came out, the story essentially an extended internal dialogue layered over a blowjob. The excerpt here is a perfect example of how to create tension, and arouse your audience, by the physical acts on the page:

He lay back like the ambushed dead, arms flung down at his sides, legs splayed out and feet sticking up, naked. He lay in the familiar bed against the familiar pillows he'd not seen in over a year. Eyes closed, face slack, he might indeed have been dead save for the figure also naked embracing his lower body and swiveling her head in a sensual way.

He opened his eyes, barely, and looked down at her. He looked with cool, lowered lids at her mouth pressed around him.

Another story that does a great job of creating tension and arousal is Aimee Bender's "Motherfucker." Bender's protagonist has a philosophy when it comes to seducing and fucking the mothers he pursues around town. Instead of expanding, opening oneself up to the universe, allowing your body and mind to unfurl in the pursuit of an orgasm, he preaches about doing the exact opposite, containing that tension and longing until it has nowhere to go, the only means for release the eternal contractions and expansions of an extended climax. This is a long excerpt, but you need to hear the entire passage in order to fully appreciate what is going on:

He stepped closer. For some reason, his hands were shaking. Using his finger as a pointer, he drew an invisible line around her. He said: "Listen. Look. Desire is a house. Desire needs closed space. Desire runs out of doors or windows, or slats or pinpricks; it can't fit under the sky, too large. Close the doors. Close the windows. As soon as you laugh from nerves or make a joke or say something just to say something or get all involved with the bushes, then you blow open a window in your house of desire and it can't heat up as well. Cold draft comes in."

"It's not a very big house, is it?" she said.

"Don't smile," he said. She pulled in her lips.

"Don't smile," he said. "It's not supposed to be big at all. It should be the closest it can to being your actual size."

She could feel it brimming on her lips, that superstar smile, the bow-shape, the teeth long and solid tombstones. She knew just what she looked like.

"Don't," the motherfucker said, harder.

And the smile, like a wave at the beach, receded. And when she didn't smile, when the windows stayed shut, the glass bending out to the night but not breaking, the glass curved from the press of release but not breaking, then the tension went somewhere else, something buckled inside her and made the longing bigger, tripled it, heavied it, made it so big the whole house grew thick and murky.

It's an intense passage, the control that the motherfucker wants, the submissive behavior that the woman resists, the letting go and merging with another.

Another story that explores the heat of its characters was "Greedy, Greedy," by Su Avasthi. She documents the place where a sex-addict and an anorexic meet. The sex-addict trolls the erotica aisles of a local bookstores looking for women that are easy to pick up. The anorexic gets off on food, the glossy photos of a cookbook her pornography, the slick and salty flesh of her men, her feeding time.

The men in this collection, they like their pornography, and it would be easy to say that the women authors in here are building up a mythology, fantasizing that men are really like this. And not all men are. But certainly men enjoy the visual over the emotional, and are responsible for a majority of the billions of dollars that are spent each year on pornography, both online and in video sales. But it's not as simple as just getting off. It never is. In Susan Solomon's touching and ultimately bittersweet story "Chicks with Two First Names," Vince is a single man in his forties who takes care of his mentally challenged sister, but in the privacy of his own home he rents adult videos, the DVD of fisting sitting out on a coffee table like a coaster -- innocent and utilitarian. It will be his undoing. In a simple gesture to return a lost purse, a woman comes to his apartment, and in noticing the video, offers Vince a little action on the house, a favor to keep her inside out of the cold, a way of saying thanks. But Vince passes. He's seeing someone. And as ironies go, when his new lover finds the video, she sees it as a depraved interest, the woman on the screen a victim, and leaves him.

Likewise, there have to be sex toys in a collection like this, right? Vibrators and dildos galore? Except, much like the video in Susan Solomon's story, it's rarely about the sex act, it's all about the motivation and the results. In "Camp Whitehorse" by Alicia Erian, we get to follow what could easily on the surface be called a jerk. But haven't you been there, caught between a rock and a hard place, juggling more than one person, dating one, sleeping with another, trying to figure out why one gets you hard, and the other fills you up with light? Errol is dating Louise and Audrey, trying to make a difficult choice. When Audrey gives Errol a video of herself masturbating, she tells him to keep the volume turned down. And at first, he honors that request. But eventually, you know he'll turn up the sound:

When she first gave Errol the tape, Audrey instructed him to watch it with the sound down. He said fine, then left the sound up. It turned out that hearing Audrey say another man's name when she came was the least of Errol's worries. What really got him was Audrey herself. The way she writhed and moaned and whimpered and cooed. The confidence with which she held her pussy open. He'd never really known the woman on the tape, but she was the one he wanted.

At the end of the video, Audrey screams out "Hutch, Hutch," and it will be Errol's undoing. As hot as the video may be, who can watch a woman screaming out another man's name as she climaxes in a writhing, sweaty mess? Only a sadist. He eventually makes a mess of it all, trying to pass one girlfriend off to a buddy, the other girl finding the tape. As men often do, he screwed it up, got greedy, and selfish, and ended up with nothing, nobody to call his own.

While there is a sexual component in every story in this collection, the way that this anthology really obtains its depth is by focusing, at times, on the people and experiences that come before and after the naked flesh and blissful aftermath, the blinding morning light and hangovers filled with shame. In Jennifer Egan's "The Gold Cure," a man tries to cling to his youth, unable to get an erection, his youthful assistant a barometer of lust that hardly gets the needle to jump. In "Mating in Captivity," by Nava Renek, a man is in a relationship that has all but dried up, no longer any affection or longing left between him and his wife, his only options left to run around, or indulge in online fantasies with roxanne77, a woman who is always there for him, but never in the flesh. What these stories, and others, have in common is the sadness that is left, the echo of loneliness that fills the pages, and the frustration and longing that is left behind, these men unable to connect.

And there is family. There can't be family without sex, that's how we all got in trouble in the first place. One of the most compelling stories in the collection, "Blood," by Gina Frangello, deals with a father on a camping trip with his daughter, Rachel. He's trying to reconnect. And at the same time, he is distraught over a girl he is sleeping with, woefully underage, the daughter of a business partner, way too close to the age of his own daughter, too similar in many unsettling ways. Kendra, the young girl he has been sleeping with, is in the hospital with stomach problems, a rupture, and sepsis. Distracted and jumpy, the trip is destined for failure and his daughter's unexpected period, seeping through her shorts, doesn't make things any better. But it's the ending that really explores the complexity of the male psyche, the way that men can also be emotional, and vulnerable, and hurt. These feelings aren't limited to women. Exhausted and clinging to each other, the father and his daughter come to an understanding:

He stared up at her. Grabbed her arm and pulled her down to him, against his chest, held on to her so tight he felt the fine bones of her ribs pressed right up flat against him, grating against his flesh. She clung to him, silent now, her face buried in his chest. She was trembling, or maybe it was him, and her thighs were wet from when she must have squatted and leaked on herself. Darkness taking over the orange film-set sun, her arms weak, the smell of her sweaty and dirty from water, heat, and blood. The sound of nothing, of loss, pounding in his ears, and he couldn't let go, even when she started to squirm, to say, "Ow." Something like relief and something like the fever of illness, of drug. He whispered, "I'm sorry, baby," and she murmured, "It's okay." A woman already, comforting him for his own inadequacy.

This is a stirring, unsettling and provocative collection of short stories. It should be studied from beginning to end, with no story left unread, by any man out there that has ever wondered what women think of us, what they think we do, and what memories from their past stay with them. And it should be championed by women as well, supporting the ways that these female authors have challenged themselves (and succeeded) in taking on the portrayal of men in all of our messy and complicated ways. In her introduction, I think Cris Mazza says it best, when talking about the merits of this collection: "Wouldn't it be true that the ways women imagine how a man views, thinks about, remembers or approaches sex, says something about the view we might have of ourselves?"

And in conclusion: "Literature should allow us to imagine people who are unlike ourselves -- to slip into their lives, their minds, their perspectives, not for the sake of parodying alleged deficiencies, but to discover both our innate similarities and our enigmatic differences, and thereby appreciate them more."

Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience edited by Stacy Bierlein, Gina Frangello, Cris Mazza, and Kat Meads
OV Books
ISBN: 978-1936873081
350 pages