2015-05-28 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

For women, sex equals power (but we already knew that)

On a recent Saturday night, I had the chance to sit in on a late-night drinking session with a group of male writers in New York. These were guys who have published important books, men with forceful opinions. They spoke with eloquence and depth of world events and literature while I sat sipping my sparkling water, trying not to make a fool of myself.

At one point in the evening, the conversation turned to an anthology two of the men are editing.

“It’s mostly male writers,” one of them said, “but we have a few women.”

“And they all wrote about sex,” the other said, laughing.

“No, it’s true,” the first man told the group. There were five stories in the book from women, he added, and all five were about sex — and they were the only stories about sex in the anthology. “None of the men wrote about it,” he told us.

This provoked general consternation among the other men followed by some good-natured elbowing. Of course women would write about sex, the opinion seemed to go. It’s what we’re always talking about.

The thing is, even when women are talking about sex we’re not actually talking about, well, sex. I’d argue that what we’re really talking about is power. And power — the struggle for it and the struggle against it — is at the heart of all great stories. It’s assumed that women have neither the physical strength of men nor, traditionally, the financial resources. So how does a woman gain mastery over a situation? By being desirable. Look at Helen of Troy, who was so hot she launched a war.

What struck me in that late-night discussion was that the male writers didn’t see it. It obviously had not occurred to them that the women were writing about anything other than sex.

When I got home, I was quick to ask my women writer friends their opinion. I told them some of the stories the editors of the anthology had referenced — a female commanding officer seducing a younger enlisted soldier, a widow sleeping with and leaving a string of men — and they nodded emphatically.

“Those stories aren’t about sex,” one said. “They’re about dominance and control.”

What’s interesting to me about all this isn’t so much the literary implications, but what it says about men and women and how we relate. If even in this modern era, sensitive and intelligent men can’t see what’s behind the sex talk, then I worry there’s no hope for any of us. Women will always be considered prattlers, even when we’re getting at something important.

Although now that I think about it, I wonder if there isn’t some value in being underestimated. When the boys leave us to our silly sex tales, we have the freedom to be subversive in what we write. We can speak our personal truths — about feeling powerless, about exploiting our power — in ways that won’t be condemned. Read any sexy story written by a woman, and you’ll see that’s what she’s really doing. And that, I might argue, is its own form off power. ¦

— Artis Henderson is the author of “Unremarried Widow” published by Simon and Schuster.

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