What do women want?
That question, like any other, is easiest to answer when asked properly.
I was watching TV the other night and saw a Helzberg Diamonds commercial. The husband, presumably a stay-at-home type or otherwise stereotypically 'weak' male, blows on his wife's toes, pleased with his work in painting them.
"How do they look?" he asks.
"They're beautiful," she responds, glancing down, before quickly returning to her more-interesting magazine.
"I don't know," he says, "I think they may need another coat."
The Voice of Helzberg brings us back to our senses. "Because you're not that guy, the narrator intones, in 'real man' voice, "there's Helzberg Diamonds," all said during a montage of the season's newest earrings, necklaces, and rings.
Advertisers have crafted three images of the modern male: oafish, subservient, and subservient in an effort to excuse their oafishness.
Between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day, men are golden. Christmas offers the hope of a Get out of the Doghouse Free card if we buy a big shiny diamond in return for all the time we missed since last Christmas and that year's big shiny rock — the equivalent of giving big tithes to a church the one time you go, rather than doing something from the heart each and every week.
But between February 15th and Thanksgiving, men are simple beasts, existing solely to pay the mortgage, do home-improvement projects (always at their wife's behest, but okay because it means a trip to Home Depot), scream at the television during football games, and drive the minivan during family vacations.
Tear Down that Wall
Lisa Solod Warren's latest effort, Desire: Women Write about Wanting, thankfully reveals a female gender that's more complete, complex, and tougher to please than the materially-validated women depicted in advertisements.
The women writing the essays in Desire run the experiential gamut: from old women with still-powerful sexual urges (S.S. Fair's "Still Horny after all these Years"); to mothers obsessed with providing for their children – even at risk of questioning the assumptions of their left-liberal upbringing (Janice Eidus's "The Root of All Evil"); to women whose sexuality knows no bounds, not even familial ones (Vicki Hendricks's "The Ketchup-Lid Skirt"). The selections in Warren's collection are diverse, to say the least.
It's not all about sex. Entries cover "the body, the soul, and the real," though each entry necessarily includes elements of both.
Women will appreciate Desire if only to see its writers delve where few woman will ever go in writing their urges, their fantasies, their fears. Feminism, after its short-lived "free love" phase, began to adopt a puritanical tone regarding sex — "my body: ask before you touch," for instance, makes verbal consent a necessary condition for moving forward; if the cavemen had operated on the verbal system, it's unlikely any of us would be here. Feminism taught that the personal was political. That the reason women dressed a certain way or behave sexually in certain ways is because of male society's need to control women and their natural urges. The women writing Desire bask in, and give into, those urges freely and openly.
Though you'll find Desire in the "Women's Issues" shelf, one of the worst kept secrets of any "for us, by us" venture is that outsiders are encouraged to — and not prevented from — breaching the city gates.
Men reading Desire will come to see that women are just that: women. Individuals. Imperfect ones, with their own quirks and foibles and desires and secrets. That they love sex, not only because it pleases their man, or produces children, or because it's anniversary night, but because it feels good — sex for sex's sake, if you will.
Rachel Kramer Bussel presents the tale of a sexually liberated woman driven to face her demons by her boyfriend's remark that she is a "really good blowjob giver."
"Was his a compliment or an insult?" Bussel wonders, the remark too neutral to classify either way. "I couldn't bear to ask." This causes Lustlady Bussel to re-evaluate her entire sexual history — specifically, whether she had too much of it.
"I realized," Bussel writes, "that although I may think I'm as sexually liberated as a girl can get, there remain demons lurking in the far reaches of my mind, wanting to label me a slut."
Though she initially tries to blame her boyfriend for the way she feels, in the end she admits that the voices she hears are coming from her own head, and it's her job to quiet them. At some point in life, Bussel learns, you have to be who you are. An adult woman sexually liberated enough to write about sex for a living can't very well blame society, or her parents, or the Catholic Church for the way she feels about sex. "Where Sluts Fear to Tread" reveals a rare woman whose journey towards sexual accountability came to a happy resolution — at least, in the moment.
Lisa Solod Warren is another. Warren, Desire's editor, "had long been a reader of fairy tales," but always thought something was missing from the "happily ever after" narrative style — like, what happened "After the Happily Ever After." (Interesting sidenote: the American "happily ever after" derived from a German saying that "if they haven't died yet, they're still alive today." When you hear someone say that original fairy tales are grittier than their Disney counterparts, this is exactly what they're getting at).
As Warren learned in her first marriage, "real fairytales don't always have happy endings." After 20 years of a passionless, communication-less union, Warren decides to call it quits.
"My ex was a perfectly good man," she admits, "but he just wasn't good for me. This is a hard thing to realize, an even harder thing to do something about."
Divorce was the something she did, despite her doubts that she'd ever be able to find the love she longed for, especially as a divorcee on the north side of 50.
"Enter Michael. He was my real life doppelganger, my soul mate, my Vulcan mind-meld."
Warren, to this day, still harbors doubts, well aware that her fairy tale could end prematurely.
"But I am deeply committed to the happily ever after," she writes, "to the true end of the story."
The Timeless Question
What, I ask again, do women want?
The man who can ask that question at the individual, and not the corporate level. The man who'll sacrifice when he knows what the girl he wants, needs. And someone who doesn't need Kay Jewelers to tell him what a good Christmas present is.