A Conversation With Alix Kates Shulman
The definition is much broader now that feminist ideas have spread throughout the culture. I would say that anybody who wants to call herself a feminist is a feminist. In addition, there are “applied feminists” — to borrow the writer Carolyn Heilbrun’s wonderful term — meaning someone who may not call herself a feminist but who lives like one. In the early days, there was a lot of debate about who was a real feminist. At the beginning of any movement, definitions seem to matter more. In the late sixties, there was a sense that we were just a handful of people. As the movement spread, we were very worried about being co-opted. So whether or not a newcomer was a “true” feminist seemed to matter, especially if that person was representing feminism in the media; there was a lot of mistrust of the media. We didn’t want to give up on our larger ideals and settle for something less.
For me, it is a magical moment. Some combination of the group dynamic, the food, the wine, and the festivity — together with a little courage — has for once made it possible to speak directly and be heard clearly about these usually misrepresented subjects. For a moment, my mother, as well as my more receptive father, is able to see an aspect of my sex life free of distortion or oversimplification, and therefore to better understand me as a sexual human being. I am exhilarated to have accomplished such a delicate bit of communication, and deeply appreciative of my mother’s willingness to put aside her usual judgments and biases. It is a moment of real intimacy between us, and, although neither of us speaks of it directly, I know that she, too, feels the connection. I also know that this moment will pass.
As I’ve been writing a book about sex in recent months, I’ve had the Kama Sutra, the Indian guide to personal sexual culture, on my desk, and I’ve occasionally consulted the Internet to track down relevant books and articles. On the Internet, I’ve noticed, as soon as you venture in the direction of sex you quickly come upon crude, unadorned images of stark sexual union. Apparently we have finally found a public place where we can show our private parts and secret fantasies free of the repressive eyes of the government agencies that serve our culture’s dominant puritan philosophies. But here there is no love, little sentimentality, and almost nothing that could be called foreplay in any innocent sense of the word.
To begin with, marriage is an impossible topic of conversation. Just try to put into words what makes a friend’s marriage work — never mind your own. It’s impossible to fully describe, much less arrive at a consensus about. Marriage is a subject sure to disrupt most dinner parties. Ultimately a product of the human imagination, it appears in countless forms and varieties. For reformers and many feminists, marriage is oppression and legalized rape, while right-wing fundamentalists (Christian, Muslim, and otherwise) see heterosexual marriage as an act of salvation for civilization.
A flock of silent mallards skims low, and the first bats flutter out. In a moment the couple will disappear into the warm, glowing belly of the hotel, where they may or may not make love. So much depends on the man’s attentiveness, and so far he is blowing it. I know more than a little something about that myself.
Without hesitating, I carried the pie out into the hallway, and climbed the flight of stairs to the third floor, where I knocked boldly on the man’s door. Not a sound from inside. I breathed deeply; the air seemed thinner up here. While I waited, I examined the way the purple syrup had bubbled over the browned pastry. After a minute I set the pie down before the threshold and turned to leave.
I went on hearing the term now and then, but I didn’t bother myself much about screwing until somebody said that Barry had screwed Maria in the catwalk, a narrow, fenced walkway overgrown with bushes. I pictured a yellow-handled screwdriver and decided that Barry must have fixed something for her: her skateboard, maybe. Barry was three years older than me and Maria was a year older and pretty.
Besides teaching sixth- and seventh-grade English, I’m also homeroom teacher for the entire seventh grade, which consists of forty-nine girls who are impossible to tell apart as they all appear to be named Lisa and wear identical outfits — white blouses, green skirts, green knee socks.