According to the reams of yellowing newsprint we’ve been rereading for this issue, the ’80s were The We Decade. In essays, counter-essays and entire theme issues on “Gender Wars” and “The New Mating Game” (Parts I and II), the Weekly pondered love, lust and post-lib platonic relationships. But no one actually figured out how to do the mystery dance.
From “Gay in L.A.: One half of gay is women,” by Loretta Lotman; May 17, 1979
Kristine, a psychologist, sipped white wine and relaxed in the comfortably elegant Los Feliz duplex. She and her lover, Jane, a statuesque black actress of commanding presence, moved to L.A. from a large Midwest city a little over a year ago. They were both disappointed at the lack of social options for lesbians, especially couples, in L.A. “Where we came from, everyone knew everyone else. There was a real sense of community, parties and much better theater. We still feel isolated in Los Angeles.
“One of the great lacks of L.A. is a high-class lesbian bar. I’d pay the money for a meal or drinks, but there’s no place. We don’t look for gay environments, but it’s disappointing there isn’t that much going on for us.”
Tall, slender, with short brown hair and gentle blue eyes, Kristine radiates a peaceful calm. As a therapist in a large clinic, she will not come out openly, because she feels it would interfere with her clients’ process. However, she is frank with her co-workers and doesn’t censor Jane’s presence or importance from her conversations.
“I think sometimes straight people have a mythology about gay or lesbian relationships, that we have no problems. Any relationship needs work. The intimacy struggles are the same between two women, a man and a woman, or two men.” Thrice married (“God knows, I tried!”), she has been with Jane three years. It is her second gay relationship.
“A relationship with a woman gives me a greater sense of equality. I feel freer, stronger, able to be more vulnerable and understood. It’s a combination of finding a lover/friend/sister/mother/nurturer all wrapped up into one. Men have been socialized into a very rigid, unexpressive way of being. They see their own vulnerability as weakness. It’s crippling. I feel very sorry for men.”
From “Images of the Sexual Life: Girl to woman, lust to lassitude, N.Y. to L.A.,” by Laurel Delp; July 4, 1980
Four in the morning and Maggie falls in a tangle of passion on a bale of rags in the front hall of her loft building; Nancy succumbs on the second floor of her building. Eight flights, after all, is too far to take a stranger. DiDi has herpes II; I’m running around like a little old lady keeping track of the men she’s slept with and whom they’ve slept with and whom they’ve slept with — I come to the conclusion that if I am to remain immune, I will have to remain celibate. Reluctantly, I throw my notebook away.
We think of ourselves as outlaws rather than rebels; outlaws because we know one day we’ll have to pay, even though we don’t know exactly how it will be.
But it doesn’t matter, because we live in a world of walking, talking works of art; people who have become the embodiment of their fantasies. Elegant drag queens, trashy soubrettes, groupies spread-eagled and noticeably lacking in lingerie, drunk poets, weary rock stars, a man with clothespins on his nipples. People are always bobbing out of their chairs to deliver gratuitous monologues. At the end of the night they stumble off in bizarre couplings toward the taxis lined up, motors running, at the curb.
From “Friendships with Women,” by F.X. Feeney; January 2, 1981
The heart of a masculine conversation seems to lie in the built-in silences and fortifications, while with women it would seem to be the very opposite, that the heart is in the breaking down of those barriers, of finding a common language. What gives such generalities their validity — at the same time that it’s bringing an end to their currency — is the more and more common occurrence of men and women having strong, sexually disinterested friendships. Working with women, or getting to know them as part of a couple (the best friend of your lover, say), combining subliminally with the senses of equality taking hold in society, have all had the effect of allowing the two sexes to interact with greater freedom, and as mere human beings — with the result that more and more men tend now to open up to women in ways they only rarely do with each other. Lovers are called “lovers” and friends called “friends,” and topics of anatomy are given the full treatment, not only candidly but with some zest. In earlier times (I’m thinking particularly of the Victorian era) platonic friendships existed, too, but most often without any awareness of — or even the language to admit — the sexual freight such benign intercourse was carrying. Freud sure worked miracles to turn that around. Yet, interestingly enough, even having the language now, the taboos still exist.
From “The Plight of the Liberated Male: A Look at the Man-Woman Dilemma,” by Steve Erickson; September 24, 1982
At the age of 32, the single male runs out of excuses. Unless he has become particularly ä practiced at lying to himself, he realizes that his inability to sustain a longtime relationship lies either in his conscious choice to avoid one or in his unconscious choice of circumstances in which one is impossible. At which point every encounter becomes a trial, at which point every trial holds the seed of disaster. Intellectual communication seems frustrated, sexual fulfillment becomes erratic, emotional commitment is unconvincing. Expectations of women are dispensed with in deference to personal desperation; other expectations rise to a level exceeded only by the man’s expectations of himself. The structure upon which one’s ego is propped wobbles, threatening to topple altogether (women think the male ego is boundless, when in fact it is the most fragile of self-inventions — which is why men work at it so long and hard and loudly), and if the man is aware of himself at all, or at least aware enough to recognize his own con, each single failing threatens to kick out the underpinnings of the structure. The man hurries to prevent the collapse in any way possible, utilizing whatever delusion, rationalization or displaced hostility will do the trick. Social life feels alienated, youth recedes, vocational obscurity beckons; love and its possibilities seem to vanish one by one. Doubt begets doubt. The singular lapse extends into a pattern. Self-discovery degenerates into self-absorption at its most self-pitying; and even the writing of an article about it must be as questionable for its motives as it is informed by the perspective involved.
From “Shadow-Dancing in the Marriage Zone,” by Michael Ventura; April 13, 1984
The mission of marriage in our age is to live out the question of how far can men and women go together? Because they must, they have to, go wherever it is they’re going together. There is no such thing as going alone. Given the doings and the structure of the psyche, there’s no such thing as being alone. If you are the only one in the room, it is still a crowded room.
Marriage creates a field between two people in which these issues can be lived out, lived through. This, of course, happens or tries to happen willy-nilly in any serious connection between people; but it is the focus and inner mission of a marriage. That is the danger of marriage, and its very danger is its hope.
In this sense, marriage is on the cutting edge of this culture now, as it may never have been before. What men and women may or may not become is being tested in its crucible.
From “The Case Against Marriage,” by Vivian Gornick; April 13, 1984
We marry not so much for good conversation or the adventure of self-discovery or a shared inner life as for emotional solace: warm life in the house, the denial of the solitary state, the fluid sweetness of domestic intimacy. For this we become husbands and wives, and gladly. What comes with the solace is extraordinary insularity, a frightened amateurish relation to solitude, a reduced sense of the risk and marginality of most lives, hard questions about the inner self not asked for years at a time. Marriage faces into the void of existential loneliness, the ache and terror of incompleteness, and tries to close the door on it. In so doing it shuts the door on other existential realities as well.
None of this is news. These are hard truths about the married state we have always known. But few people before now have seriously considered not getting married, or not staying married because marriage deprives one of worldliness or a coherent inner self. Today, that consideration seems as important as or more important than marriage itself. The instrumental nature of wifehood or husbandhood (to be married persons, persons of family) has become distasteful to a great many of us. The enterprise seems insufficiently life-giving to make us live out our days and nights, months and years, pushing back a piece of knowledge now in focus: Neither kinship nor ritual ceremony nor legal bond makes us love ourselves or each other more. It seems difficult now, if not impossible, to act on a moral imperative that, in the absence of genuine feeling, has become an abstraction. [William] Godwin’s declaration that marriage is often desolating to the soul is now a compelling reality. Everywhere, there is continuous thrashing about inside the married relation: the endless rhythmic act of divorce, the unremitting effort to “make it work,” the pain and relief with which people free themselves, the overwhelming lack of evidence for the assertion that men and women flourish within marriage.
From “The Plight of the Post-Liberated Woman: Having your cake and eating it too,” by Susan Block; June 22, 1984
More life, more adventure, more sex, more money, more fun, more war, more more. I don’t know about you, but post-liberation has made me voracious. The voracious woman. The man-eater. The witch. The bitch. The ego, the Amazon, nobody’s baby, nobody’s fool, she’s burned off one breast the better to shoot . . .
But what happens when we’re tougher and faster than our men? Then we have to protect them, don’t we? And how tough can we be when our period is two days away? When our bodies and souls are slowing down to a bloated crawl, how can we race on to victory? And what about the old time clock — the biological one, of course. Many a post-liberated woman, just slightly older than me, 34 or so, is panicking as she starts to near the end of her childbearing age. Her high-powered career is beginning to feel awfully hollow. She commences manhunting with a vengeance. She joins clubs she’s not even interested in. She aerobicizes, panting in desperation, as if running after a man — any man — but no man is right (at this age, there are so many personal, geographical, familial and financial requirements), and her nights, her nights are filled with longing and wondering, “When will I meet my match? When will I ever feel safe?”
From “Dark Involvements: Love in L.A., sort of,” by Alan Rifkin; December 21, 1984
Camille has deep convictions. Not particularly quiet ones, but never careless either. She also has a walk like nobody’s business. I don’t think she knows I love her. (She has a boyfriend.) She knows I like her convictions and her walk, and once during an argument at work when she told me on tiptoes not to give her any of my “lip,” I liked it so plainly that I asked her to say it again. The room went quiet, and she said the words. It was a playful moment. Still there was a nice unspoken danger to it — scratching some native taboo against one free human being holding very still to satisfy the fixation of another.
I like her voice, her touch, and I’m wild about a certain pair of shoes she wears, so evidently I have a number of fixations about the woman. The good news is that these surface as daily surprises, that they are not rigged against her nature. I did not produce the shoes from a long-hidden box and ask her to model them standing on a chair. I love them because I love her.
I did not set out to “objectify” Camille.
The bad news is I already have. There is a certain stay-as-you-are aspect of the impulse to love, a sort of cyanide that love carries in its breast pocket, which hints not only at what a melodramatic character love is but how ambivalent. For after the lip incident and a series of what I saw as well-placed cosmic coincidences, I soon began loving an idealized person, as the jargon goes, instead of the real one. I began to believe that our souls were one. That settled, anything Camille and I can put into mere words nowadays strikes me as pretty much beside the point — a disaster, given her love of debate. Her protests grow more distant. In the middle of her finest speeches, I’m thinking that she’s cute when she gets mad.
That thought, of course, ranks somewhere between a faux pas and a symbol of oppression, depending on which half of the state you live in, but both camps are equally obsessed with how to civilize the dope who would say such a thing, in time for Valentine’s Day or the next ERA balloting. Obviously, as the dope, I’m not with them on this one. Political movements are notoriously averse to ironies, while writers are notoriously floored by them.
What we have here — Camille and I and the etiquette police — is a basic irony: Something as human as love can blur into something dehumanizing. It can blur lovers into objects. It can flirt with the ideas of adoration and violation only to find that they’re on the same continuum. Something as bright as love is a deep, dark force.
From “Gender Wars: A noted author-therapist warns of reverse sexism,” by Warren Farrell; November 20, 1987
ITEM: Why would Simon and Schuster publish a book called No Good Men? Imagine No Good Jews or No Good Blacks.
ITEM: Why is it that the more “independent-oriented” the women’s magazine, the greater the attack on men? . . .
ITEM: Why has a formula emerged to make a “self-improvement” book a best-seller? A formula that says Men Hate/Women Love, as in:
Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them
Men Who Can’t Love
Women Who Love Too Much
Smart Women, Foolish Choices
ITEM: The movie Fatal Attraction found millions of women identifying with Glenn Close’s attempts to murder the man who would not leave his family for her once she had sex with him: the same “death wish” that made millions of moviegoers cheer as Charles Bronson killed his muggers. “Men” have become America’s new muggers — especially those men who want sex for free. The new sexism is the new death wish. Men who get sex without commitment are seen as taking advantage of women in the same way that muggers have victimized the innocent.
ITEM: Why does an ABC/Washington Post random sampling that finds that more than 90 percent of women are happy with men receive almost no publicity, while at the same time a skewed sample that finds more than 90 percent unhappy makes the front cover of Time magazine?
From “Gender Wars: Love’s body,” by Michael Ventura; November 20, 1987
Several weeks ago, in the first of the ä Feminine Principle columns (“Rear Window,” L.A. Weekly, October 30), my friend Linda Frye Burnham opened what I hope will be a naked dialogue about sex in these pages. She wrote cogently about the image of the female ass in today’s advertisements, but more importantly she got down, displaying real courage by openly describing some of her sexual preferences, bodily functions and bodily feelings — something virtually never done by anyone in any mainstream forum anywhere in this country.
And it’s most rare for a woman to write frankly of sex — the double standard is alive and well in these United States, women and politicians being especially vulnerable. A woman dares critiques of her private body merely by walking down the street; when she discusses her body in print, she risks a far more intimate, even threatening, critique.
Taking issue with Ms. Burnham’s statements, as I’m about to, is not to lobby for butt-fucking, or to diminish the radical importance and example of her daring. Rather, it’s to present, by contrast, an entirely different mindset about what a human body is.
She wrote: “I don’t know about you, but if anal intercourse is [so] much fun, I’ve been missing something. Most women think it hurts. Generally, we heterosexual females like it from the front because that’s the way our orgasmic mechanisms are built, and because it makes you feel like a real person to open your eyes and see a man there, not a mattress or a carpet.
“I don’t spend a lot of time reading pornography, but I know that it’s more about power than sex. When a man really wants to assert himself, anal intercourse is a wonderful answer. Not only does he make the woman do something she doesn’t want to do, something that hurts, he doesn’t have to deal with her front — the part with the eyes, mouth, breasts, clitoris and vagina. The parts that say ‘woman.’”
But don’t we “see” with our skins as well? And haven’t we all looked into each other’s faces again and again and not seen?
And isn’t the true “seeing” the mood in the bed, the intimacy between the lovers — even in the pain, when there is pain? And don’t the membranes inside you “see” as well — isn’t “information,” as we call it now, “transferred” by each touch? And if we are to know each other deeply, beyond the medium of words, don’t we need everything that every membrane, every cell, every position, can teach?
From “The New Mating Game: Monogamy and its discontents,” by Doug Sadownick; November 27, 1987
You leave work early because you want to “do it” with your new boyfriend. For the first time in years, the mensch you feel you can introduce to your parents and the dude you can’t wait to make out with are, unbelievably, the same. You hightail it home anticipating how blithely shocked your guy will be upon seeing you so early in the day. You want to prove to him that he “rates” — even more than your, uh, career does. But when you turn the key in the door, you hear, “Oh shit.” It’s disgruntled enough to dispel any previous hopes for that afternoon’s romance, let alone lifelong monogamy. So much for surprises.
It’s been a few years since that surprise made my errant boyfriend Tim and me take a serious look at our relationship. Tim and I will have been together five years this December — so, as you can see, we survived the pain of that first infidelity and found the anxious resolve to go on to make it through one or two traumatic others. While long-term gay relationships are nothing new, their manifestation in the ’80s is. If you see AIDS as a kind of barbaric warfare, then monogamy, to some gay men, may resemble a convenient foxhole, offering companionship, security and the possibility for more regular, if not safer, sex. But we young gay guys are no longer so at home with being trapped at home, finding out, perhaps painfully, that love grows deeper the more it’s tested.
But at the time of that first infidelity, I was destroyed. It seemed that the whole foundation of my world had caved in. I had built this new life with my boyfriend — replete with a communal car, dog and bank account — on the assumption that we were essentially married. And that marriage, I thought, demanded unflagging monogamy. But in looking back, I see that my boyfriend and I had not yet really laid the groundwork for our life together. Like my own Eisenhower-era parents, I took it for granted that love would continue to blossom on schedule as long as the structure of domesticity was firmly established. I chose form over content — security over passion — and that reflex backfired.
I remember panicking. We were in the middle of a health crisis, but it wasn’t the fact that my boyfriend had had sex with another man that disturbed me. We were all practicing safe sex by then, and our gay newspapers, friends and institutions had done a good enough job of educating us that it wasn’t sex per se that spread AIDS. Your libido could rev as much as you wanted; you just had to keep certain bodily fluids to yourself. What flipped me out more was the notion of being alone during a plague.