Madonnas And Whores: On Mothers Writing About Sex

Like most moms, and most writers, I have had sex.

You seem like such a nice girl — why do you write so much about sex?

What are you going to tell your kids about your books?

Are your readers shocked to learn that you’re a mother?

Are there any limits to what you’ll write about?

These are some paraphrases of questions I have been asked more or less constantly — in interviews, on panels, at book clubs — over the past eight years since my first novel came out. Perusing these questions, you may be under the impression that I write porn for a living — or that, at the very least, I have written a juicy, salacious, tell-all memoir about my own sex life, the tidbits of which all my children’s friends can now learn on the internet. Neither is the case. I write what is essentially literary/mainstream fiction, and while I got my start in the independent presses, my most recent novel was released by a trade publisher and was recently picked up by Target (yes, that Target), hence instantly shattering any street cred I ever may have entertained as an edgy or fringe writer.

That said… yeah… I do write “about sex.” I always have. I probably always will.

And yes, I happen to also be a mother. Of three, to be exact.

And somehow, here in 2014, these two facts still do not seem to be easy bedfellows.

My writerly consciousness came of age from the late 1980s through the 1990s: an era when writers were increasingly and unabashedly drawn to the dark side of humanity, including sexuality. Milan Kundera wrote of his Don Juan protagonist, Tomas, having his anus fingered by a tall, off-kilter woman who resembled a giraffe; Philip Roth wrote of water sports between Sabbath and his lover; Mary Gaitskill explored the powerful, if sometimes wounded, eroticism of masochism; Dorothy Allison wrote of the dangerous lines between complicity, fantasy, and abuse. The 1980s were heralded out with the nihilistic explosion of Less Than Zero, and Chabon’s celebration of bisexual youth and adventure, The Mysteries of Pittsburg, and by the late ’90s, even Kathy Acker was being published on a major, her books all but required reading for every artist and female graduate student in the country. Cris Mazza’s controversial FC2 anthologies provoked debates over the NEA funding “obscenity”; Vogue wrote about “perversion chic”; the New Yorker published Daphne Merkin’s ode to spanking. David Foster Wallace had not yet denounced irony. Chuck Palahniuk ruled the bookstore and Quentin Tarantino and Neil LaBute ruled the screen.

It was an era, perhaps, when “nice” was the last thing a writer wanted to be. Nice is boring, right? Nice is… our mothers.

Then something happened. Some combination of 9/11, the rise of “chick lit,” increasing corporatization, economic recession, and the anxiety of endless wars collectively morphed publishing for a decade, an en-masse phenomenon from which the industry is still in a tentative recovery. During this period of time, however, things changed, including the massive proliferation of a lighter, more “accessible” form of literary fiction (sometimes called “women’s fiction”), which aimed to be palatable and crowd-pleasing, largely in an effort to appeal to big box stores and media book clubs. It became common wisdom that “men don’t read fiction,” and that, in our depressing new world of terrorism and financial hardship, people wanted “inspirational” feel-good stories. Being too dark, too cerebral, or — somehow — too sexual, increasingly became a publishing taboo, especially if the terrain was aimed to provoke or disturb rather than to romantically reassure or mildly titillate. While “sexy scenes” were still widespread in genre fiction categories of romance, thrillers, or erotica, or even more mass-market fiction (long before the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, Laura Reese’s novel, Topping from Below, featured scenes of mummification, canings, electro-stim play, and — yes — copulation with dogs), in the literary fiction world, things were different. Despite the efforts, a generation earlier, of writers like John Updike, Philip Roth, and Jersy Kosiński, a pervasive view seemed to take hold that sex was somehow too base a subject, the fodder for more trivial writers, and that the more you attempt it the more you may be edging your way out of the subtle, formal Literary Club… either scuttling off to be branded as marginal or, more embarrassingly but more lucratively, “pulpy.” While of course there are still writers (of both genders) seriously and boldly “writing the body,” far too many literary writers in the post-millennial landscape treat sex like an embarrassing, sloppily drunk uncle everyone should ignore and pretend not to notice, for fear of somehow making things worse. They dread making mistakes when writing about sex — getting drafted into Salon’s “Bad Sex Awards.”

Yet there are few things more of us already know about when sitting down to write, that require no copious research. Sex is something almost all adult human beings on the planet do, and those few who don’t do it have complex and fascinating stories behind why they don’t. Only something like eating or sleeping could be as universal. Sex is not only an amazing vehicle for character development, it’s also one of the great eternal motivators of the human species, one of the great universal truths of life. How can anyone resist?

The month my debut novel was published, when I was nine months pregnant with my third child, my mother-in-law stopped speaking to me. While, as with any family drama, the interconnected chain of circumstances was ultimately more complex than just the subject matter of one novel, the fact is that one night, while I was out giving a reading, my husband answered the phone to find his mother shouting at him that I was a “sexual deviant” and saying she was “worried about the kids.” She was so upset that her accusations seemed vague and diffuse, if at all galling. One day, she would accuse my parents of being “evil people” and say that my father, whom she had known for 15 years and who lived downstairs from us, must have sexually abused me. The next day she would insinuate that our twin daughters, age 5, were possibly in some kind of danger from me, even though the one thing she had ever said in my favor, previously, was that I was a good, loving mother. All these conversations invariably ended the same way: with my husband trying unsuccessfully to steer her back to reality. For starters, to remind her that the novel was fiction…

“Do you think Agatha Christie really went out and murdered people so she could write about it?” he would ask.

“Do you think Stephen King keeps a writer locked up in the woods and amputates his feet? Do you think he owns a possessed dog?”

Fiction, you know? Like… it’s made up.”

When that got nowhere — when she refused to even come to visit our newborn son, and a few weeks stretched into six months — eventually this escalated to his hanging up on her and our stomachs jumping every time the phone rang, to finally just not taking her calls. It was only when she was diagnosed with cancer that I actually had to call her and insist on mending fences and rallying together as a family. She wrote, in one email, “I’m sorry for the extreme things I said.” Other than that, it was never spoken of again.

In the Lars von Trier film Nymphomaniac, the protagonist, in pursuit of her lost orgasm, begins to see a sadist (who keeps odd hours in an office building, where uniformly attractive, mainstream-looking women of means wait for his riding crop as though waiting for a dentist appointment) whose availability apparently contrasts with her babysitter’s schedule. Rather than hire a new sitter, or leave her child with a neighbor, the orgasm-crazed mother leaves her son in his crib and runs out for hours on end, almost to have him plummet to his death out a window, unsupervised, saved in the pinch by his cuckolded father. Von Trier, of course, is a legendarily controversial misogynist; another baby, of a similarly sex-crazed Demon Mother, does fall to his (purposely identically stylized) death in the same scenario in a former film, Antichrist, and in Nymphomaniac, the mother later abandons her son altogether so that she can go get flogged on Christmas. Clearly, von Trier is an authority figure on neither motherhood nor the culture’s global consensus of it, yet he does seem to play to widespread fears and fascinations (how else to explain an audience for a two-part, nearly five-hour-long film?) — he plays to and with stereotypes that already exist as collective archetypes. Sex and maternal instincts as being at odds. The sex drive in women as somehow linked to dark forces, to criminality. Strong sexual appetite as clinically diagnosable, hence the title of the film. Many critics have referred to Nymphomaniac as a kind of “female version” of the film Shame, starring the beautiful and often naked Michael Fassbender. But notably, in Shame, Fassbender’s sex-addicted protagonist neither has nor abandons a child. Audiences are not particularly interested in the overlap between fatherhood and adult sexuality. Also notably, Fassbender never murders anyone in Shame. It is possible for a man to be a sex addict, to be pitiful in some ways and sympathetic in others, without having to swing full-fledged into abhorrent. The male sex addict has a cock; the female nymphomaniac has a gun.

What is it, then, that makes people so uneasy about women writers — particularly those over a certain “wild” and unformed age (particularly those who have children) — exploring sex as a prime psychological literary terrain? I have tried to figure out why even many women writers I admire, who are progressive and savvy and feminist and smart as hell, have giggled or demurred or otherwise exuded what my closest literary comrades and I refer to as the “Well, I never!” attitude of shock and titillation, when they read sexual work by other moms, or when they’re prodded to include more sex in their own work. I’m not really sure how our culture has arrived at the mutually exclusive relationship between Motherhood and Sexuality, especially since in most cases, women become mothers by having sex. The unspoken subtext seems to be that once a woman has children, any openness she displays about sexuality, even in a fictional realm (how does she even know about those things?) would be either a bad/dangerous influence on her children, or would be direly embarrassing to them.

I reject those assumptions.

To be clear, my rejection isn’t based on some kind of sex-positive Pollyannaism. Though I think, as a human being, I am sex-positive, mostly as a writer, the sex that interests me is (perhaps like von Trier, ironically) the troubling kind. As Janet Burroway wrote, “In fiction, only trouble is interesting.” Sex can be hot, it can be connecting, it can be life-affirming and invigorating, it can be world-changing. It can also be awkward and wracking and stifling and dangerous and even violent. It can reveal… both secret desires and the faultlines of much larger power dynamics. To ignore it, to dance around it, to fade to perpetual black just when the riskiest revelations are about to occur (revelations that often have little to do with which body part goes where, but that occur while body parts are going where they go), seems to me a kind of polite cop-out, both of some of the most positive and negative forces around us. Aren’t these precisely the kinds of sticky, complex knots literary fiction aims to interrogate, untangle, and tangle again? Sex certainly isn’t the only ground worth covering in serious literature, nor are women or mothers the only writers capable of covering its varied ground. But among the assumptions that seem worth rejecting, when it comes to writing, I would include excessive playing to one’s own comfort level, any playing to the culture’s fetishization of either the purity or demonization of Motherhood, and, essentially, most forms of denial.

The Madonna/Whore dichotomy is, of course, nothing new. The prevailing belief that not only is sex itself “not nice,” but that people who have interest in it somehow themselves lack niceness, is particularly at play when it comes to women who are raising children. We’re a culture obsessed with the cult of Motherhood, with a renaissance, these past 15 years or so, of stay-at-home moms who have left high power careers to essentially be the CEOs of their children’s lives. It has become a normative thing for a woman to proudly put her own life “on hold” for the sake of focusing all of her energy on her children — a relatively new phenomenon, really, since the stay-at-home moms of the 1950s and earlier were often consumed by cooking, mending, cleaning, working farms, pleasing their husbands, and smoking cigarettes in their kitchens with other moms, than they were in trying to meet every possible emotional and stimulative need of their children. It has become, strangely, a “vulgar” thing for a woman with children to be… overly interested in adult culture… to want to be more than Mrs. Rogers, organizing endless craft projects and volunteering at the school and chauffeuring little Sophie or Jose to and from every extracurricular sport or lesson that will, we are led to believe, not just “better” her or his chances in life, but that are essential lest we want our child to fall radically “behind.” Surely such a mom — with a posse of kids at her house, in her car, or following her on bikes and scooters en route to the park — should not be thinking about sex! What if she has such a thought in the proximity of actual children? Do they have readings aloud of the raunchy bits in her books in the living room at night? What is happening over there!

Accordingly, I’ve found that the people most “shocked” by the sexuality in my fiction are the people who marginally know me, either in person or online, because it doesn’t jive with the personal “image” I project as a nice, middle-aged Midwestern woman who has been married for twentysomething years and has three children; it doesn’t fit with my being a loyal Italian daughter whose elderly parents live downstairs. The extreme schism in American psychology between mothering and sexuality may extend to family and sexuality even. Sexiness is almost always thought of (oddly) as a solitary thing — the domain of lone wolves. Whether George Clooney or Samantha on Sex & the City or, of course, pushed to the extreme in Nymphomaniac, those who are endorsed in the media as “sexy” are supposed to be phobic of commitment, to be “players” conquering a wide array of partners and having little interest in things like children or the elderly, or in being domestic or nurturing. Hence, in the linear mathematical equation of Sex, the more entwined a woman’s life is with family, the further away she is meant to sit from the smoking center of the Sexuality Graph.

Sexy women are just supposed to want to fuck people. Not actually talk to them. Or couple with them. Or set up house with them. Or raise children with them. Or, you know… want anything to do with other human beings they aren’t interested in fucking, apparently. Or be nice to anyone. Bitches are sexy. It’s hot to be a bitch. Never mind that being a bitch would be a lonely business… bitches can’t get lonely, because they’re bitches, right?

A sexual woman is not Human, quite…

A mother, as a saint, isn’t human, quite, either… in a different way. In a nice way.

I mean, where are we going with this? If pushed far enough, womanhood in general remains perpetually Other; a little clusterfuck of disparate otherhoods. If they are all busy arguing with each other, maybe they won’t notice that it’s still a Man’s world…

I am a nice girl, so I hear. I am also a grown woman, a writer, a mother, a wife, a lover, a daughter, a friend, a teacher, an editor, a feminist, and other things equally intrinsic, but harder to pin down with a one-word label. Like most mothers, and most writers, I have had sex. The sex I tend to write about isn’t my sex, but it’s still a part of “write what you know,” even when it isn’t Write What You’ve Had. I don’t require a research manual to know what it is to experience desire, or to have sex out of loneliness, or to lie to someone you’re sleeping with, or to struggle with the ways illness and sex intersect. I have two teenage daughters, and when someone asks me what I think about my kids reading my books, what I think is that I hope they understand that they are not the first generation to experience lust, or romantic conflict, or loss. I also hope they understand that men and women can at times struggle immensely with power dynamics and violence between them, and yet that most men are not, of course, violent or “other,” any more than women are. That we are all fundamentally the same emotional animal: equally voracious for connection and intimacy, and painfully thwarted in both by many factors, including our own demons.

My son is 8, far too young to read my books or any adult novels, but someday, I hope he will know the same. I hope many things in the world will teach my kids these things, first and foremost their interactions with other people. And if reading any of my work were to be part of that pastiche of what would lead my children to grow up to grapple with questions of intimacy and seek to connect rather than to avert their gazes, I would not just be happy and proud, but honored. It’s all any writer could hope for in terms of their impact on any reader, but of course, as with all things, with our own kids, it would matter even more.

***

Gina Frangello is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), which has been a book club selection for NYLON magazine, The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown; Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010), which was a Foreword Magazine Best Book of the Year finalist, and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is the Sunday editor for The Rumpus and the fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown, and is on faculty at UCR-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program in Creative Writing. The longtime Executive Editor of Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books, she now runs Other Voices Queretaro, an international writing program in the Central Highlands of Mexico. She can be found at www.ginafrangello.com.

Check out more articles on BuzzFeed.com!

Facebook Conversations
          
    Now Buzzing