Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power.
In February of this year, when I first read The Trouble with Men by David Shields and Getting Off by Erica Garza, this sentence kept running through my mind. I felt sure it was Foucault. Part of my grad school experience, maybe, or an epigraph from somewhere or other, but definitely Foucault. It’s such a Foucault thing to say, right? Did he ever write a single sentence that wasn’t tangled somehow with sex or power or both?
But no, it wasn’t Foucault. I Googled and discovered that the quote was most frequently attributed to Oscar Wilde, in slightly different words (“everything in human life is about sex”). That didn’t seem right to me, so I Googled more thoroughly, and found that, as with many pithy quotes, it’s not too clear where it came from. I’m still choosing to think of it as a sort of one-sentence summary of the Foucauldian worldview.
I should have written this essay months ago, when the books were fresher. Getting Off was newly in paperback after making a splash in 2018. The Trouble with Men was brand-new. I wanted to write about them in tandem, because juxtaposing them revealed things that neither book could reveal alone. But none of my pitches got accepted and I kept getting other assignments and the whole idea fell to the end of my list.
Part of the reason I haven’t returned to the idea until now is that I feel the need to explain and defend Shields before I criticize him, and that—the defense, the criticism, the reasons he’s important to me—could be a whole essay in itself. He’s an incredibly important figure in my pantheon, one of the Three Davids who have shepherded me toward intellectual fulfillment. I find his books and his voice unique and necessary, part of a pushback against traditional forms of writing that we badly need if we’re ever going to tug fiction out of the shadow of Dickens.
I find Shields’s worldview deeply thought-provoking and, sometimes, deeply obnoxious. In my handful of conversations with him, he’s told me that he’s fine with this. I think he’s aware of his own dimensionality as a writer, the ways in which criticizing him is part of reading him. He would not be any good if he ignored that criticism, if he didn’t use it to inform his work and keep writing anyway. But my instinct to write about the importance I place on Shields in my own reading and writing is something a reasonable editor would ask me to cut. I’ve been dreading writing these two paragraphs just to have them removed.
In any event, Shields couldn’t be more different from Erica Garza, a debut memoirist who, in Getting Off, tells a story about sex and porn addiction unlike any I’ve read before. Garza’s writing is steady and unglamorous, revealing her struggles and journeys without editorializing, without calling attention to form or subtext. It’s a straightforward and compelling book, resisting salaciousness despite its subject matter, placing sex and porn addiction into a larger pattern of mental illness. The book is an algebra equation, solving for X, where X is a healthy life. The pleasure of solving the equation is the pleasure of reading it.
The Trouble with Men is calculus. This is not a value judgment, indicating that because Shields is doing something more sophisticated he’s doing something better. Algebra is more useful for more people. And, in fairness, Shields has been doing math for a hell of a lot longer than Garza, so his work is much more finely tuned. It reflects the special language he’s constructed for his books over the last couple of decades—built of the words of others, complex rhythms of breaks and space, and self-reflection. The Trouble with Men is about “sex, love, marriage, porn, and power,” as the subtitle promises, but mainly it’s a book about Shields. As he quotes someone else about another book, deftly describing his own:
It’s all him all the time…He doesn’t know the first thing about women…It isn’t that he doesn’t get them; he doesn’t seem to care to get them. On some level, they simply don’t interest him. He’s interested only in himself and how they factor into that self. His book is an authentic account—I’ll give him that—but there’s no air in the room. I can’t enter this story. He fills every available crack and crevice, as it were, and is so busy telling on himself and anticipating what the reader (or his wife) may think that the reader has no space to think. I’m listening to a man who is pretending to ask me a question, then answering it for me, too.
The latter half of this paragraph could describe any one of Shields’s books. (Fortunately, Shields is so fascinating that filling every available crack and crevice with himself often makes a phenomenal read.) But the first few sentences could describe many, many, many male authors I’ve read and many more I haven’t.
I’m not accusing Shields of not knowing the first thing about women, or not caring to get them. For all of his telling on himself, I can’t really determine from his books whether that part of the paragraph is as true of him as the other part. What I am saying with certainty: 1) Shields’s latest book is solipsistic, as nearly all of his books have been; 2) Shields is Shields’s project, unapologetically and (it seems) eternally. That is fine with me, because the results are so worthy. But because he is a man over age 50, 3) his solipsism leads to sexism in The Trouble with Men, in ways he either didn’t see or that didn’t bother him.
If not for Getting Off, I might not have seen this so clearly, nor been so enraged by it. One of the adjectives most frequently applied to Garza and her account is “brave,” and the reason is plain when reading. She writes starkly about degrading experiences, about days and opportunities lost to porn and masturbation, about avalanches of bad decisions regarding sex partners. It’s a catalogue of harrowing addiction experiences made much more taboo by the nature of that addiction. And yet she is brave, and Shields, in writing an equally confessional book about sex, is not. No explanation comes to mind for the adjective being appropriate to one writer and not the other, except that one is a woman and the other is a man.
Women cannot demonstrate sexual rapacity without shame and shunning. (Please see decades of feminist theory if this point seems unproven.) Consistently, Garza fails to seek help for her addiction because of her profound shame. Shields wonders, in a distant way, if there’s something wrong with him, because of the way he behaves around sex and love, but it’s no more neurotic or realistic than any other insight. Meanwhile, Garza’s shame led her into years of self-destructive behavior of a kind that could have killed her a hundred different ways.
Shields assembles several pages at a time of graphic talk about porn, some words his own and most not, I think to indicate that all these thoughts have passed through his mind at some point. “—porn: the world’s one true religion.” Only a man unashamed of his sexual appetite could write this fragment in all seriousness. Or this one: “The fantasy was that she disdained me until I fucked her into admiring me.”
Garza fantasizes about disdain, too, about her own humiliation. But she has no good ending for that fantasy, no way in which her own prowess or worth leads the fuck-ee to admiring her. It’s just a cycle of humiliation. “I wish I could say this was the last time I saw men like him, men dug up from a painful corner of my past and messily transposed onto a promising present to confirm the story I was intent on telling myself: this is all I deserve.” For Shields, wielding the power to humiliate is a turn-on. Saying “Get the fuck out of here, you fucking bitch. What the fuck do I care?,” to his wife, decades ago, is “Like a parody of misogyny. Cliché of clichés; fact of facts; it made me feel male/got me hard, saying what I said.”
The divide between them is clean and convenient. It splits them tidily into gendered cultural commentary on the same subject. Shields leaves shame for the subtext, while for Garza it’s the text. Shields writes about sex and men and porn in part to encompass what already exists, and in that stance, he assumes that he’s gathering up what we all think but rarely admit. Garza writes subjectively, about her own experiences, fretting continually about what’s normal and her deviations therefrom. Shields oscillates from a solipsistic view to a broad view with a suggestive in-out movement. Garza remains linear, focusing carefully. For Shields, the connection between sex and power is immanent, uncontainable; for Garza, the connection is interpersonal, damaging.
What bothers me about all this is how thoughtlessly Shields forged his book, how little he considered sex and power issues beyond what concerns white males. Shields’s initial assumption in writing the book, that the culture needs more commentary from white middle-aged men on sex and pornography, appalls me. Garza’s narrative of her addiction remains incredibly uncommon, and her book could be useful in nudging women (and men) struggling with the same addiction to seek help. Shields’s book is a collection of attitudes that we all breathe as part of this culture, whether or not we can relate to them. Garza’s book is a narrative of how those attitudes harm women—not all women, but those whose lives are emotionally narrow enough for sex to take up all the room.
The two writers are doing different things at different stages in their careers, but their books are on the same subject. One writer felt inherently that he did not need permission to write, and the other had to overcome tremendous doubt and embarrassment to do so. Do the math.
Shields: “Will men ever seen women as real? For that to happen, men would first have to get some distance on themselves as vectors on the grid of male sex-drive and understand that their fantasy life is inevitably underwritten by howling weakness. Then they’d have to refuse to pretend that this weakness is not ever-present.”
Garza: “Porn was a mirror for how I felt about myself, a sexual being who couldn’t stop rubbing herself numb, who let guys fuck her into oblivion, who hungered after the Thai girls on the street and the men who purchased them, who hungered after anything that might quiet her mind for a few moments and satiate the itch that never seemed to go away.”
Shields: “Listening to two women behind me talk to each other about nothing in particular, I could immediately tell, to a virtual certainty, that the woman farthest away from me was beautiful and the woman closest to me was unattractive—based solely on the sound of their voices. What would it be like to be that beautiful? How does the world come to a person like that?”
Garza: “We [girls in a beauty pageant] were all in the same boat, trying our hardest to live a lie. Instead of embracing them as comrades, I reacted with domination. Why not let them think I was naturally flawless? …I didn’t know then, not entirely, what a nasty game I was learning to play. I already had trouble connecting to other girls and women, yet the pageant would make connection even more unfavorable.”
Shields: “The sexiest things anyone does to anyone else are always selfish. I mean, it’s the selfishness itself that’s sexy.”
Garza: “We were impatient and disinterested with a situation unless it was leading to sex. We were never really satisfied with the act of sex—it could always be better—and when it was over, we quickly wanted to discard the person. Their use was diminished. Our use was diminished.”
No writer alive is as restlessly honest as David Shields. Such honesty has inherent value. But this book centers men again and again and again on a topic on which men have already said plenty. He confesses imperfectly and yet epically, inflating his sense of how sex and power work to an attitude he believes to be definitive, when it isn’t. He says he bears shame about sex, but this book doesn’t seep shame the way Garza’s does. He’s been telling us for many years that he hates himself; unlike for Garza, his arrogance is equally towering. Shields is his own primary subject, however a reader may choose to perceive that choice, but The Trouble with Men demonstrates that he’s become a little too comfortable in the role.
Garza is just starting at being a writer—lining up words more carefully, less confidently, and emanating more fear about telling her story. She’s the real thing in terms of self-hatred. Her insights are genuinely new, and although they’re no more definitive, Garza claims her own subjectivity, her own myopia, more convincingly than Shields. This is the burden of women who write: we are constitutionally incapable of assuming that our worldview is general, is the default, because we absorb evidence every day, from all corners of culture, that it isn’t.
For both of them, everything in human life is about sex, except sex, which is about power. These two writers, at least for the spell of their two books, cannot divorce their lives from sex. As Garza puts it: “Porn kept us from engaging with the world. Porn distorted our perception, not just of sex, but of everything. Something so simple, like standing in an elevator with other people, or brushing up against another body on the subway, or exchanging money with a supermarket clerk—anything really—could quickly be turned into a pornographic scene by our trained, overstimulated minds.”
I remember this nervy, quivery feeling from puberty, as if the world was simply jammed with possible sex, and all I had to do was move my hand or eyes in some secret way and the whole encounter would turn toward bow-chicka-wow-wow. Since then, I’ve often wondered if it’s how a majority of men see the world. If they look at life through sex goggles: everyone a potential partner, every encounter a potential scene.
That’s extraordinary power, but it only exists in a push-and-pull with and against the people who could offer up the sex that would soothe the curiosity. If heterosexual men are hopelessly tangled in a sexual tug-of-war, and they have the muscular advantage, what of the women on the other end of the rope? Shields—perhaps inexcusably—has left that equation out of his book altogether.