The Kindness of Strangers

So last night I was out in the neighbourhood, and I cannot believe we’re halfway through August, and it was my first patio night. Ah, beer on a patio, a true measure of civilization.

I was wending my way home and ran into Rubin and Kim at Sausi’s. They were just leaving for the Fringe, and were talking to Dan, Chambray’s boyf. He’s writing a novel and was having problems with one of the characters. I don’t know Dan, really, except through Chambray, but it seemed the neighbourly thing to do was to sit down and see if I could help.

Now, there’s been a lot of stuff in the wind lately about feminism and how men and women relate. Wrestling through Dan’s character problems last night gave me another angle on it.

His problematic character is Stephanie, a 36-year-old who works in an art gallery. Dan calls her a nymphomaniac. (Trouble alert, trouble alert!) But there was something about her that just wasn’t clicking for him, so we started talking about her and I began to see the trouble. He wasn’t seeing her ‘nymphomania’ as a disease, although he described it thus. He was seeing it as her whole character. Everything about her had to do with her “abnormal sexual desire.”(More on this later) Furthermore, he wasn’t creating her as a character, he was treating her as a tool to create plot points. So I explained how I saw this and we worked some more on her background, on her person, on her habits outside of the sexual ones, and he started feeling a lot better about her. Saw that instead of just sticking her into situations, she was someone with other motivations than sex.

Now, this is a man who is otherwise well attuned to people. He has a reputation as a caring, responsible guy who is thoughtful and deliberate in his actions. Last night, I saw him put a almost-passed-out drunk stranger into a cab, give the cabbie 20 of his own dollars, and ensure that the girl knew her own address. These are not the actions of an unenlightened man.

So courtesy of Google, I did some looking up of the term, nymphomaniac. There’s no such thing! There is sexual addiction, compulsive sexuality, and a couple of other terms, but there is in fact, no way to measure if someone is a nymphomaniac or not! Albert Kinsey even defined the term as “Someone who has more sex than you.”

So I got to wondering why this obviously well-rounded man would see a ‘nymphomaniac’ as not a person? What makes a woman who has a lot of promiscuous sex an un-person? The morality issues? No. People who cheat on their spouses continue to hold status as people. People who deliberately have sex with others’ partners are still people. The neediness issues? (There has been a lot of talk about ‘nymphomania’ as a symptom of low self-esteem.) No, people with low self-esteem are just that, people. With low self-esteem.

The only thing I can think of is that, maybe even subconsciously, many men feel threatened by a woman who wants a lot of sex. Ergo, the label of having ‘unnatural appetites’. By unnatural, I mean, of course, ‘wants to get it on when a man doesn’t’.

But here’s Dan, this modern, caring, intelligent guy. And he can simultaneously believe a woman who wants a lot of sex is not a person, and that the drunk girl needs to get home before someone preys on her.

Have we really come very far in the feminist battle?

3 Comments to “The Kindness of Strangers”

  1. By Arwen, August 15, 2005 @ 8:52 pm

    Alarming, but utterly pervalent, I think. Of course, I’m figuring out that the third wave is battling the sex-positive battle: maybe it’s not so much that feminism hasn’t come very far so much as that our generation is the one fighting the sexual battle. You (gently) re-educating Dan goes a long long way.

    One of the things I noted in blog discussions about sexuality was that the consciousness of female objectification that was brought about by the second wave was somewhat misinterpreted by the good guys out there: men are pigs and lust is dirty and you should ONLY love a woman for her mind, which all gives the impression that women AREN’T pigs, and don’t have lust, and will ONLY love you for your mind. Which is all bullhooey.

    Viva la sex drive.

  2. By Carol, August 16, 2005 @ 1:37 pm

    I think there’s a pretty common tendency for guys learning how to write—even sensitive, feminist-friendly, nice guys—to make their protagonists male, and to use female characters only to function as a foil for the protagonist (or perhaps to advance the plot in some other peripheral way). Even when we’re talking about positive representations of “strong” women, sometimes I think the women are made to be cool only to show just how much cooler the men we’re supposed to be relating to are. (“She’s so smart! And witty! And ascerbic! And fiesty! Only OUR HERO could possibly be worthy of her!”)

    There’s also more to be said here about the problem of male characters representing the universal subject (to which anyone, regardless of gender, is supposed to be able to relate), and female characters only ever representing the particular, embodied, emotional, mysterious, and impenetrable (to which male readers are never expected to relate).

    But I’ve got a lecture to write, and a stack of papers to grade, and I really need to get back to work. So instead, I wave my hands, and gesture in the appropriate direction.

  3. By Liz, August 16, 2005 @ 10:12 pm

    Carol, I totally agree about the heroine thing. Sometimes, though, OUR HERO is not worthy of her and I wonder why the movie or book is not, in fact, about her. Why should there be so many stories out there where the woman settles for someone, and, in fact, feels he’s THE ONE, just because of his quirky sense of humour/idealism/whatever. I mean, really. Oh, when you get here, I’m going to get you to read a Cynthia Heimel essay about this stuff.

    Arwen, I think those thoughts in the heads of the good guys have caused a lot of problems because those guys think that all you have to do to ‘get’ women, both in the sexual and understanding sense, is act really passive and understanding and never, ever let women think you noticed their hooters.

    cnuts.

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