Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Let’s talk about sex, baby

“…this panel of three female authors at the Art Gallery of Ontario…considered what it’s like to write about sex.”

As an analogue TV owner without cable, I’m behind on contemporary programming. Because I have seen exactly one episode of 30 Rock while visiting relatives, I missed the reference in the title of last night’s panel discussion organized by Toronto artist, Margaux Williamson; I mistook ‘I’m a Very Sexy Baby’ for a discussion about the sexualization of baby girls in Western culture (a classic case of projection since that’s the focus of my own art). As it turned out, this panel of three female authors at the Art Gallery of Ontario moderated by Darren O’Donnell considered what it’s like to write about sex. That’s also a topic close to my heart: I’m very aware of what boundaries I don’t want to transgress in writing a blog containing words like ‘masturbation’, ‘labioplasty,’ and ‘sexting.’ To clarify, these entries in Artist in Transit are always written in the name of art, librarianship, or feminism. Still, it makes me nervous that a colleague at the academic institution where I started the blog described it to his class as an ‘erotica blog,’ though that may say more about the lens through which he views the world than it does about my writing. It’s a concern that is paramount for me today, writing this post and knowing that tomorrow I assume another academic position. I feel like a hybrid of the 30 Rock characters, Abby Flynn and Liz Lemon, shown in a clip at the AGO event. As Abby says, why is it any worse for Abby to use her sexuality than it is for Liz to wear glasses to look smart?

The passages read by the authors proved invariably that language and sex are intertwined. Tamara Faith Berger read a passage in which a female character defends her sexual choices to a friend while smoking a joint; Chris Kraus read a sex scene from the female point of view in which “words come out as they do,” but she is tongue-tied post-coitus; and Sheila Heti read about a woman distracted from playwriting because of a task assigned by her lover, to write a report on an elderly man’s voyeurism.

If this seems like an unlikely event for the AGO, allow me to share some details about the writers: Sheila Heti collaborates with Williamson, and she had artist Shary Boyle read a draft of her first erotic novel before it contained x-rated passages. Chris Kraus started reviewing art in the process of writing her cult classic, I Love Dick, because the object of her desire was an art critic (1). Berger, meanwhile, went to art school, and was always interested in sex as a subject but couldn’t find a way to address it visually. “Going to art school helped…with writing porn,” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience.

O’Donnell asked what was at stake for the authors in writing about sex. Although their initial responses indicated it was relatively risk-free, the comments they made later suggest otherwise. Kraus, who called the art world puritanical, felt that I Love Dick was written off as “exhibitionism and narcissism,” and that she was only respected as a writer when she took sex out of her books. Heti removed her email address from her website when her writing took an erotic turn because she was worried about receiving perverted comments, and Berger had someone walk out of her recent reading at a public library. Liz Lemon was right on the money when she said, “Society puts a lot of pressure on us [women].” The Madonna/whore complex is alive and well in writing, and kudos to these women for staring it down.

The prickly topic of feminism came up on multiple occasions. Williamson noted that she has watched a lot of television while doing her residency at the AGO, and she was intrigued that 30 Rock addressed “such insane feminist politics” (re. Liz trying to correct the behaviour of the threesome-loving, pigtail-wearing Abby, all the while indulging in reading a website “where women talk about how far we've come and which celebrities have the worst beach bodies” [2]) without fixing problems. The three authors are similarly unapologetic about the explicit passages in their published works. Even when the sex scenes are degrading in some way or are the outcome of obsession, as Berger says, “You can’t devalue the bond” or dismiss its role in paving the way for self-awareness. In the authors’ books, a single male character unlocks female desire, so even if that desire is not female-generated, as far as feminism is concerned, at least it’s not at the mercy of the entire male sex. “That’s what’s hot about it,” Heti says. An audible gasp went around the room when audience member Misha Glouberman raised the notion of male-generated desire. It was a reductive moment that reminded me of something I heard Moe Tkacik, co-founder of Jezebel (see Liz Lemon quotation above), say two years ago at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art, which has been burned in my brain ever since: “Men. F*#! ‘em. They’re the problem.” As a feminist, I feel that attacking men for being thoughtful about female sexuality is counterproductive, and as a librarian, I have to say that making observations about fictional characters does not constitute agreement with their philosophies. There must be a better use of our collective energy.


(1) Guthrie, Kayla. Performing is Storytelling: Q+A with Chris Kraus. Performing is Storytelling: Q+A with Chris Kraus.
(2) TGS Hates Women, season 5, episode 16, aired February 24, 2011


  1. Great post, Heather. I'd hoped to attend this lecture but, well, life and parenthood got in the way. Glad to read your take on it. Could you expand on your last paragraph about the "prickly topic of feminism"? What was the issue about "male-generated desire"?

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. In terms of the prickly topic of feminism, one of the questions that was asked was, 'Is there such a thing as the wrong kind of feminism when it comes to writing?' Chris Kraus made an interesting clarification: exploring the conditions of debasement is not in itself debasing. Misha Glouberman observed that the female protagonists tended to respond to male lovers who were more aggressive than they were. (They pushed themselves out of their comfort zones to please their lovers).

  2. Hey Heather! I'm not sure if during the Q&A I totally got across what I wanted to say. I'm normally pretty comfortable talking in front of a group like that, but I think I stumbled a bit there. I was responding very specifically to the previous question from another audience member, and some of the responses. If I remember right, she asked about the social perception that men have more or stronger sexual desire than women, and how the work tried to correct that perception. My sense was the conversation was starting to take a turn to say that the texts, in their depictions of female sexuality, were undoing the idea that male desire dominates sex.

    That seemed to me to oversimplify a big part of what was going on in the texts that were read, which I thought were really complicated in their depictions of sexuality. Both Sheila's text and Tamara's were very much about a women subjecting herself to a man's very strong desire, and following his orders despite their reticence, and Chris's was about wanting to be a "lapdog". It seemed really interesting to me that these very strong female writers, writing very forcefully and frankly about sex, read things that in that at some levels really supported (or at least depicted) the idea of sex as dominated by male desire, and a lot of what made the texts interesting was about the contradictions and conflicts and problems arising from this. I felt like the conversation was starting to gloss over that fact, and I wanted to acknowledge that the texts were a lot more complicated than the conversation seemed to be suggesting.

    I'm not sure whether that came through clearly. Hopefully I got at it a little better here. (I hope, especially, I'm not mis-recalling what other people said...)

    1. Thanks for these added details, Misha. I agree with you about the contradictions and conflicts making the texts even more interesting.

  3. Thanks for a great event, Sheila, and for helping to round out the details of this conversation.