A FEW YEARS AGO DURING A PRESS CONFERENCE IN CANNES, AN AMERICAN PHOtographer grabbed my arm and led me outside to a patio overlooking the water. Down below in a boat was a buxom woman clad only in skintight short shorts. "Look at those tits!" he exulted, and I agreed they were humdingers. To my surprise, he suddenly frowned. "You know, you'd have to be a really cheap bitch to go around like that."
This tiny episode is almost a parable of our (male-dominated) culture's schizophrenic attitude toward female sexuality: Even as we expect women to be alluring, seductive, hot, we often despise them when they actually are. While it would be nice to think that we've moved beyond such ancient pathologies ("Oh no, not the old madonna-whore routine again"), few things remain more volatile than women shaking off their traditional role as objects of male fantasy and actively pursuing their own desires. After all, it's one thing for a model to shake her booty in a music video aimed at leering teens, quite another for her to take the lead singer to bed and expect him to deliver those orgasms.
This profound ambivalence toward female desire helps explain the fevered articles that have greeted the American publication of The Sexual Life of Catherine M., the international best-seller by Parisian art critic Catherine Millet. Already a scandale in Paris -- whenever women write freely of sex, the French pretend to be shocked -- the book has given women critics an undeniable frisson, although not always a happy one. While Salon's Stephanie Zacharek dubs it a groundbreaking work ("a dare to every human being, particularly every woman, who claims to be sexually open. No woman has ever written a book like this"), Judith Thurman's New Yorker review sniffs at the volume as if she'd just been handed an orgiast's soiled panties.
The Sexual Life of Catherine M. is Millet's brave, if ultimately tiresome, memoir of having sex with literally thousands of different men, of whom she could name maybe 50. She's fucked 30 men a night at a swingers club, blown every guy in sight in the Bois du Boulogne, and spent entire evenings being anally gangbanged (she admits to being sore by night's end). Like a human pinball machine, she kept racking up huge numbers and never, ever seemed to go Tilt. Far from being ashamed or guilty about such activity, this lapsed Catholic wraps her promiscuity, at least theoretically, in anti-bourgeois radicalism -- the refusal to worry about morals or AIDS, the attempt to transcend our prejudices about proper sexual behavior. "I fucked for the pleasure of it," she says, "but didn't I also fuck so that fucking wasn't a problem?"
WHILE THE AMERICAN VISION OF SEX SEEMS FORever bound to questions of personal morality, the French view inclines toward the philosophic. Steeped in Sade and Bataille, Millet cares less about taking us inside herself or her lovers (most of whom are just anonymous dicks, anyhow) than about putting her hyperbolic personal history into an intellectual framework. The book's four chapters are titled "Numbers," "Space," "Confined Space" and "Details," and this sense of abstraction carries over to the alienated descriptions of her physical encounters. This is one of the least-sensual memoirs ever written about sex, and it will take a more avid reader than I to be turned on by Millet's rhetoric -- the "antlike determination" of the men bonking her, the "assembly line of pleasure" inside her "shell of a body," her way of looking at her own flesh "as a puppeteer does a puppet." You can look long and hard for the merest whisper of genuine enjoyment or jouissance. Her book makes The Story of O feel as winsome as Annie Hall.
"I really like sucking men's cocks," Millet declares at the beginning of the last chapter, and while she probably does, by that point I no longer trusted her self-awareness. This is a woman who not only didn't have an orgasm until she was around 30 (Japanese vibrator, a revelation) but tosses off that piece of info rather than examine what this might say about her sexual life -- how, for instance, it recapitulates male fantasies of the infinitely accessible woman. While she freely talks about her orifices or her pleasure in being passive, she seems eerily disconnected from the meaning of her encounters; even her words about her complicit husband feel detached.
Reviewing the book in the Los Angeles Times, Mario Vargas Llosa noted how drearily redundant sex books become when they aren't linked to the rest of the world. He's largely right, yet the real problem is that this memoir lacks interiority, soul. Wearing her abstractions like armor, Millet freely exposes her tastes and behavior -- what the puppet is doing -- yet never lets us see what all this might mean to the puppeteer. One wonders if she has any idea. For the longer you read, the more Millet comes to resemble the Singaporean porn actress Annabelle Chong, who claimed that she starred in The World's Biggest Gangbang (251 men in 10 hours) to prove a feminist point, or Rachel Griffiths' character in Six Feet Under, who feels driven to have joyless sex with strangers, then wants to see this as a brand of personal integrity. While there is a certain integrity to Millet's extravagance (even allowing for exaggeration), I only wish that her sex life seemed more like liberation and less like its own punishment.
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OF COURSE, THESE ARE DIFFICULT TIMES FOR THOSE who champion women's freedom -- Callie Khouri's gone from the rebel-yell exuberance of Thelma & Louise to the sitcom acceptance of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood. We've long since passed the point at which sexual pleasure was put forth as a foretaste of utopia, a potentially liberating force for both women and men. These days, the right believes in passing out chastity brochures instead of condoms. The left has fallen into prudishness, still cowed by a cadre that finds pornography and harassment everywhere. And though our popular culture never tires of selling commercialized eros -- booty-call song lyrics, nude models on billboards, downloadable smut for every kink, shows like Real Sex that specialize in sniggering -- we have become less willing and able to honestly explore our real sexual lives. We somehow seem to have drifted back into the 19th century. During the Lewinsky debacle, I heard people ask over and over, "Why would a president risk everything just to have sex with an intern?" when the real question should've been, "Why is anyone surprised?" For all of our knowingness, we seem to have forgotten (or repressed) what Freud struggled a century ago to make us see -- that we're driven by unconscious impulses far vaster than we can ever know.
Perhaps reacting to a mainstream that sells jejune ideas of sexuality -- intercourse with fruit pies! -- many of today's artists seem stuck in the clichés of transgression. Whether it's Storytelling's black prof viciously screwing a white student, Baise-Moi's run-amok chicks banging and murdering men, or the Korean teens in Yellow Hair trying to fuck a man to death, today's "subversive" works merely tar our sexual lives with a reflexive, dead-end negativity that too often feels defeatist: In Catherine Breillat's brainy Romance, the heroine imagines a dream world in which her face can be kissed by the particular man she adores while her nether regions are pleasurably plundered by some guy who turns her on. For her, life's tragedy is that the body and the head have no prayer of getting in sync.
Even a racy Hollywood movie like Unfaithful comes down on the side of misery. Although Diane Lane's adulterous wife isn't demonized or turned into a monster -- nobody's shrieking "Kill the bitch," as the guy did behind me when I first saw Fatal Attraction -- her illicit attraction to her lover still proves fatal. And the movie punishes her for it: A housewife's taste for afternoon delight leaves behind a corpse and a mistrustful marriage that looks suspiciously like a prison. She has crossed the sexual line, and the result is disaster.
Given all this grimness, you see the appeal of Almodóvar films, Nerve magazine and especially Sex and the City. Sure, the show is frivolous, consumerist and sometimes excruciating -- I'm constantly embarrassed for unsinkable Kim Cattrall and her obligatory randiness -- but it has the life-affirming hopefulness of great pop-culture junk. Carrie and her friends inhabit a magical Manhattan where women spend their lives lunching with friends, shopping for shoes, sleeping with attractive guys (who have subtle names like Mr. Big) and then talking about their adventures as freely as gay men. Naturally, this is the purest zipless fantasy, but that's the whole point and the whole pleasure (which is why the last season's more "serious" episodes were so dull). In an era when the dream of sexual freedom is routinely viewed with disdain or disapproval, Sex and the City offers something positive: a lighthearted glimpse of erotic utopia.