Mary Gaitskill was brought up to say “no”. When she was raised in the American South in the late Sixties, her parents taught her that men couldn’t be expected to take responsibility when it came to sex, because they were “driven by these powerful urges”. Men, they said, would “try to get sex from you”, so it was up to women to refuse. “And if you don’t resist,” she told me, mimicking her parents’ voice, “well, then you’re gonna get pregnant and it’s your fault. You’ll be ostracised and it’s the end of the world.”
Gaitskill, who was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1954, views today’s attitudes towards sexual consent as being “almost the opposite of how I was brought up”. Gaining verbal consent for all sexual activity is now understood as the moral standard for intimate encounters. Since men are more likely than women to be perpetrators of sexual violence, in heterosexual relationships this often means that the man is expected to ask for the woman’s consent. In her youth, Gaitskill would never have trusted a man to take this kind of responsibility. “My father – and this is when [I was] 13, 14 years old – once said, ‘There are guys out there who would cut your guts out to have it!’ We were almost taught to believe that men were animals.”
The author of the devastatingly frank short story collection Bad Behavior (1988) and novels including Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991) and the National Book Award-nominated The Mare (2015), is used to writing “against the dominant strain of thinking”, she said over Zoom from her home in upstate New York. Her stories are filled with sadomasochists, sex workers, people engaged in affairs and characters who are lonely and self-destructive. Gaitskill, who wore a light grey jumper, did not choose the title of her latest book, Oppositions, a collection of essays first published in the US in 2017 as Somebody with a Little Hammer. But she sees why her publisher thought it appropriate.
Gaitskill considers the current feminist mode “rigid”, an inevitable reaction, she said, to a time when “the moral guide-posts were taken away for a while”. She believes this cultural shift emerged in the Seventies, when the attitude towards sex became: “Free love! Live for today! And yes, women want sex too!” The lessons Gaitskill’s parents had taught her about sex were dismantled. The change was in many ways liberating, but the notion that sex could only ever be positive also created confusion, particularly for young women.
“I know I certainly got hurt in situations because I simply didn’t know what I could say ‘no’ to,” Gaitskill said. She recounts one such experience in “The Trouble With Following the Rules”, an essay first published in Harper’s in 1994, which appears in Oppositions. In it she describes a sexual encounter with a man in Detroit after taking LSD. Gaitskill was 16 at the time; he was in his mid-twenties. She did not want to have sex with him, but, she writes, “when he put his hand on my leg, I let myself be drawn into sex because I could not face the idea that if I said ‘no’, things might get ugly. I don’t think he had any idea of how unwilling I was.”
[see also: The limits of “consent culture”]
For a long time Gaitskill thought of the event as “rape”. Since then, she has changed her mind. “Finally, at some point I realised, ‘No, I wasn’t raped. I never said ‘No, I do not want to’.” This, again, goes against the dominant strain of contemporary thought: that consent is active not passive; saying “yes” is the only invitation to sex.
“I don’t agree with that,” Gaitskill said, a statement that many contemporary feminists might find not just controversial, but potentially dangerous. “If you don’t even try to tell the man ‘No’, whether he personally asks or not, I don’t know how you can then say ‘I was raped’.” She defended this view by referencing the context in which she was raised: “Men would try to get women to have sex with them. That’s what they were expected to do. If you put up no resistance, if you didn’t struggle or say anything, I don’t think you could expect a man in that context to really know, ‘No, she doesn’t want this’.” This, she suggested, absolves them of blame, but today any man who has been to college, where consent workshops are the norm, would have been taught “to get consent – but nobody said that then”.
“The definition of rape has changed a lot,” Gaitskill said. She suggested some feminists claim “that practically everything is rape”; meanwhile, she pointed out that very few rape charges result in convictions. “Especially in America, it seems like people bounce back wildly from one moralistic pole to the other. I think America is a crazy place, really.”
Rather than abiding by a “solid rule”, each situation should be considered case by case. But nuance is what the contemporary conversation often lacks, Gaitskill said. “That’s partly why I never wrote an essay on #MeToo. I thought about it, but it simply became too confusing in my mind to try and approach on a rational level.”
In the end, she wrote This Is Pleasure (2019), a short novel that she says “is a #MeToo story”. (“I’m capable of being simplistic, actually!” she added, with a grin.) The book asks how we ought to treat those who are accused of wrongdoing. Quin, a middle-aged book editor, is alleged to have sexually assaulted multiple women. He is also a long-term friend of Margot, who considers him a better person than many of her female friends. “I want to try and understand how both things can co-exist,” Gaitskill said. “I do feel that it’s important to voice these areas of confusion, to not forget about them.”
That so many women in particular find it difficult to say “no”, Gaitskill said, is because “women are still brought up to feel they should please. Not just sexually, but generally.” In fact, she said, this is something she has observed professionally. In other interviews she has given, the interviewer often comments on the fact she doesn’t smile. “Even these women journalists, who I’m sure are feminists, are made uncomfortable when I don’t smile when they’re expecting me to. I don’t think they’d be like that with men. It’s an unconscious bias. I personally dislike forced smiles. I feel like I can sense them – and that makes me uncomfortable.”
In neither her writing nor her conversation does Gaitskill bend to meet expectations.
“Oppositions: Selected Essays” by Mary Gaitskill is published by Serpent’s Tail