This is the first installment of a column on sex and love by Lillian Fishman.
As a party strategy, I recommend soliciting people’s thoughts about marriage. Sometimes they tell you a juicy detail about a recent divorce, or complain, with relish, about a friend of theirs hell-bent on marrying someone totally unsuitable. Nothing thrills me quite like listening to a fresh set of personal vendettas, justifications, regrets and absolutions, and imagining how the other involved parties might describe the same situation. In the grip of this kind of voyeurism I find it comforting to recall Phyllis Rose’s characterization of gossip as “the beginning of moral inquiry,” in her wonderful book Parallel Lives: “We are desperate for information about how other people live because we want to know how to live ourselves.”
It’s this desperation that drives me not only toward inappropriately probing conversations but toward the private thrill of advice columns. Whenever I encounter one, I feel flooded with wonder and disbelief: How could I have forgotten that a steady diet of efficiently described relational problems is available to me, condensed into piquant morsels, each powerfully suggesting the thrill of peeping into a stranger’s private rooms? I glut myself on them. Each seems to me to contain the seeds of many novels, a tiny showcase for passions, consternations and social judgments. I read the letters with all the generosity of which I’m capable. But a kind of troubled relationship begins to develop between me and the column. So often the offered advice is narrowed by the very premise that produces it: the demand for an answer. Is there anything so depressing as instructions on how to behave?
This is not a criticism of advice columnists. It’s a problem between me and the form. Most advice-seekers explicitly ask for instructions on how to behave so as to treat people reasonably, and make themselves happy. Some people don’t find it condescending or moralizing to be told to leave their husbands; some people write to advice columnists because they want to be told to leave their husbands. But most compelling problems don’t accommodate explicit prescriptions, and to encounter a mere prescription offered in response to a compelling problem makes me wince in frustration. It’s that same feeling that accompanies closing a particularly dogmatic novel—a combination of boredom and, worse, resentment at a missed opportunity.
As a writer, I work in a dialogic way; I plan and think first not in terms of story but in terms of ideological tension. I’m concerned with how we define ourselves within and against the cultural institutions and expectations among which we’re living. The letters written to advice columnists often express the most acute tension between the self and society, but the need to provide a solution too often leads the response to focus either on the importance of our innermost desires, or on adhering to the stringent ethical expectations of our culture, with a dispiriting neglect for the depth and fascination of the interplay between the two. Yet how interesting the advice column could be as a vessel for a more inquisitive dialogue on these terms: Why do we conceive of our circumstances as we do, and how can we provoke ourselves out of perspectives in which we feel (often artificially) stuck? The advice-giving situation offers us special permission to study personal lives, in which some puritan sense of bettering ourselves chases away the anxiety of prying.
I want to use the container of the advice column to investigate intimate quandaries in writing the same way I do out loud, with my friends, when we theorize about what our problems mean, and by comparing our experiences begin to conceive of them at a new slant. Let’s luxuriate in what Rose calls “a taste for the higher gossip”—that is, that misunderstood gossip which actually serves as a significant form of moral politics. The best advice (or perhaps the best provocation, which to my mind is much more enticing) is the comfort of communion, which surpasses that of any prescription.
Of all the problems of living, I’d like to focus on those related to love and sex because these seem to me to refer to those parts of life that are most private, most personal and most mysterious. A novelist once told me that she was disinterested in romance because she was only compelled by the types of problems people can’t escape, especially the problems of family. In some sense it’s true that romance and sex can be more easily done away with, or at least controlled, than family ties; and perhaps this is why I find the pursuit of intimacy particularly important and maddening. For these first few columns, I’ve solicited questions from my friends and from followers online. Going forward, I hope that questions like these—saturated with confusion and pride, and without recourse to an easily articulated or answerable question—will arrive organically from some of the readers who find that this approach speaks to them.
What I’m suggesting is more than anything a kind of problem-triage column—problems for your problems, if you will. This will be an advice column for those who would ask, rather than the perennial “What should I do?,” the inexhaustible “How should I think?”
Want to submit a question to “Higher Gossip”? Write us at email@example.com.
Q: I gave birth to my first child about three months ago. All my problems, emotional and physical, sexual and maternal, orbit around my breasts. They have grown into a shape and size I find grotesque. Like they do for most women, my breasts have played a big role in my sex life, and now that my relationship with them is so changed, for better (I can nourish my child) and worse (my body is deformed and unlovable), they serve as a symbol of the event from which I am trying to recover, and trying to salvage my sexuality—the birth of my child and subsequent total destruction of my mind, body and life.
My husband and I haven’t had sex in at least nine months. Since our child was born I have been so preoccupied, exhausted and hollowed out that I never even think about sex—until now. Things are getting easier, and I can feel old pieces of my self and my life beginning to resurface, including a desire for intimacy. My husband and I have always been very physically affectionate, and he is still affectionate with me in a way that communicates attraction to the way my body is now. My problem is that it’s hard to feel sexy when I don’t even feel like a person anymore—I exist only to serve my baby. Everyone I describe this to will say some version of “you need to prioritize time for yourself!” or “you’re putting too much pressure on yourself!” These sentiments are based on a lack of understanding about what it means to be a mother—that life is never going to be the way it was, and that that is a good thing. I don’t want my sexuality to exist under the pressure I feel to go “back” in other ways—to return to my old body, to return to my old job, my old life.
A: You’ve recently passed through a very serious, terrifying and radiant door, which leads only in one direction. I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never experienced those particular contradictions of joy and loss that you are experiencing now, with your child. Nevertheless it gives me a shiver of understanding and admiration to read that phrase—I don’t want to go “back”—in your letter. I can feel its wisdom. It seems to resonate across my intimate life, too, in ways I’ve never conceived of before.
Don’t you think that almost every time we experience our desire as adults, we encounter it as something “resurfacing,” just as you describe it: a desire that is inflected most of all by our first years of sex, and overlaid by everything we feel we’ve learned about ourselves since then? Sometimes, when I’m sitting around talking to my friends about dating and sex, I become aware of the version of me that is sexual, as if it’s a complete double of myself that I’ve left behind in some bedroom. It’s a version that I’m meant to reserve for lovers; my job is to conceal it, out of tact, from my friends and from everyone else I’m close to. Don’t worry, I seem to say to myself in those moments, when that version of me feels distant, the next time you’re intimate with someone, that version of you will appear close by at the right moment, and you’ll be able to call her up, just as you always do. I have to remind myself that it can always be the way it was. Even though she disappears in most of my daily life, I still have that other woman in my arsenal: erotic, resilient and secure.
But what an anticlimax when I do call her up—as if I’m tyrannizing myself. That woman I left in some other bedroom, the last time I needed her, takes her seat, and she orchestrates with perfect authority. All the pleasure is that of ego and performance. I feel good about myself and my consistency, and I feel a kind of resentful, disbelieving disappointment: I’m still stuck here, inside myself? Can’t I get somewhere else? I don’t want sex to be two predictable performances taking place in the same room. Despite all my usual instincts toward self-protection and competence, I don’t want to control the encounter; I want it to surprise me.
The fundamental misconception about sex in our era, I think, is that it lives in the arena of the self. We are so attached to the hard-won ownership of our bodies, the equivalence between our bodies and our sovereignty, that we imagine sex as something that our conception of our self provides for and feeds on, in turns. We think we need to feel great about ourselves to have sex. We think we need to feel sexy. We worship and enjoy those forms of sex that are grounded in independence and the bestowal of a private desire onto another person. We know that sex is a portal to intimacy and connection, but we imagine that this portal is structured like the proverbial oxygen mask: a situation in which we can only trust, love, connect with others once we have done all this (whatever that means) with ourselves.
Now you’ve been thrust into a situation in which connection with yourself is incidental and scarce. Your body has become a portal to intimacy and connection, not through your sovereign will, but through the forceful imposition of birth. You don’t even have the chance to call up that past self to tyrannize you with her ego and authority and say, look, these are my breasts, I know how to use them! The annihilation of the self you’re feeling is a long, drawn-out twin of the annihilation that is thwarted every time my woman-of-the-bedroom sweeps in to take control and ensure that I am not annihilated, but that I simply have a good time. You can’t think of sex as self-annihilating right now, because your role is to keep your sexual world and the world of your child separate, and that annihilation-of-yourself belongs to your child. Perhaps you didn’t think of sex as self-annihilating before, either, because your own woman-of-the-bedroom, with her hard-earned confidence in her breasts and her experience, was in the room with you, waving her baton.
You have recently experienced, as you say, the total destruction of your mind, body and life. I believe you have an opportunity here, in being wise enough to know you don’t want to go “back,” that few of us (even at critical moments of destruction and rebirth) recognize. Don’t salvage your old sexuality. People find it disturbing if you don’t keep the realms of motherhood and sex completely separate, but how can they be? Your breasts belong to both at once, vividly. Bring that totality, that annihilation of the division between your woman-who-is-a-mother and your woman-of-the-bedroom, to sex as it will exist on this side. I don’t know how to do it, and I don’t think there is any way to consciously create what is still unknown. What I mean is that I think your instinct is right: that all the advice you scoff at when you approach this new world of sex, about shoring-up-your-self, is beside the point. For the moment there’s a real wobbliness to your self. You don’t know what it is. It’s fucking weird. But you are very lucky: that wobbliness is created by a relation of intense, bewildering intimacy, an intimacy so unprecedented and shocking that it can’t tolerate the firm existence of a self inside it. You don’t have your full powers of self-protection and competence. Instead you have a rare opportunity to be surprised. Let your husband encounter your brand-new wobbly existence, in which you have forgotten how to call up your tyrants and protectors, “the self.” I envy you.