22/01/2006 – Copyright Arts Telegraph
Howard Jacobson reviews Oedipus Revisited: Sexual by Shere Hite.
I am prepared to believe that no book is so inconsequential that it cannot bring enlightenment to somebody, but this one gets close. If there is a person, however, who still needs to be told that a woman doesn’t especially enjoy sexual intercourse in which she is treated as a wastebin or a punchbag, has more chance of reaching orgasm as a result of subtle clitoral stimulation than incessant vaginal pounding, and is the better partner for a little intimacy, he or she is unlikely to be a reader of this book.
Whatever brutalities continue to be visited on women by men of a fundamental cast of mind, we can be sure the society that gives them sanctuary will not be familiar with the work of Shere Hite.
For the rest of us, Oedipus Revisited is a visit too many. We are no longer strangers to theories of patriarchy and the economically possessive penis, the demeaning intentions of pornography, and a woman’s right to be pleasured in a way that pleases her.
If I say its author is guilty of preaching to the converted, I don’t only mean that we have long since capitulated to these findings – it’s not true, for example, as Shere Hite claims, that society begrudges women their vibrators and their climaxes, or that Hollywood, when it shows sex, shows only vaginal penetration: considerately performed cunnilingus is all but de rigueur in the modern cinema – I also mean that the work reads as though it is designed to be delivered from the pulpit.
No doubt it is the doom of all sexual behaviourists to sermonise even as they roam over our private parts. That is what gives studies into human sexuality their invariable tone of bathos.
Such big ambitions (in this case nothing less than the restoration of pre-societal harmony, globalisation with heart, and world peace); such small protuberances of flesh to rest them on. But even by the usual pietistic standards of sexology, Shere Hite is unrelentingly religiose. Hers is a sort of sexual millenarianism – prophesying that the hour is at hand for a ‘real revolution in sexuality’, warning that ‘Women may have hardly begun to show who they are sexually.’
In the meantime men are alienated, anxious, and unsure. That this is hardly surprising given the revolution women are planning for them is not germane to Shere Hite’s researches. The problems she identifies are the familiar ones: boys being taught to reject their feelings for their mothers as ‘unmanly’, their subsequent ambiguity in the matter of devotion and attraction, the militarism encoded into their idea of sex, anxiety about penis size, and – the main thrust of the book – a fixation on intercourse at the cost of all ‘the new and better ways’ in which people might enjoy one another’s bodies.
Where this book means to break new ground is by readdressing these matters from a man’s point of view. ‘Stop bashing boys,’ it warns – an injunction I take to be aimed at man-demonising feminists as well as patriarchs. But the well-meaningness is swallowed up in ignorance.
For all the 10,000 male respondents to her exhaustive questionnaire – not one of whom sounds as though he has been anywhere but Baltimore, or done anything but watch baseball – Shere Hite evinces no understanding of what it’s like to have a penis (that it can be harder to keep down than to get up, for example), to love a woman while enjoying the company of your own sex, to desire where you do not love and vice-versa, and to desire in ways you do not always welcome, in short to be subject to all the contradictory emotions which attend the sexual life of a man.
The play-with-yourself-for-a-brighter-future agenda might help women who have been brought up to live in shame and to hide from themselves, but it doesn’t cut the mustard for a sex that sometimes plays with itself too much.
I cannot myself take anyone seriously as a philosopher of sex for whom masturbation becomes cut and dried once we accept it does not make us blind. Religion had its own reasons for scaring us off our sexual parts, but the dangerous self-absorption which Kant and Rousseau wrote about, the ‘secret feeling of futility and humiliation’ described by D.H. Lawrence, have not disappeared suddenly from an act about which men still feel equivocal.
Remove the influence of priests and fathers from sex and it does not at a stroke become unproblematic.There is nothing to be said for blitheness in the face of feelings which every honest person must admit to being, at the very least, vexatious, and often too perplexing ever to resolve.
Clitoral satisfaction for every woman on the planet, by all means. But no, that will not make the world a more peaceful or intelligible place.