Henry Miller has just been laughed at for rhapsodizing about Walt Whitman. He’s sore. A woman enters the apartment. Henry drags her into the bathroom. He fastens his “lips to her red mouth.”
“Please, please,” she begged, trying to squirm out of my embrace. “You’ll disgrace me.” I knew I had to let her go. I worked fast and furiously. “I’ll let you go,” I said, “just one more kiss.” With that I backed her against the door and, without even bothering to lift her dress, I stabbed her again and again, shooting a heavy load all over her black silk front.
I closed my copy of Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion, restored my tray table to its upright position, and avoided eye contact with the gaunt elderly woman in the aisle seat as I squeezed past her legs. I locked the door of the tiny bathroom and leaned against the dispenser of toilet seat covers. I slipped my hand inside my jeans. My eyes shot open as the tremors began, and I saw, in the milky glass above the sink, that I had become Miller’s description of the woman at the moment of climax: “a wild, tortured look as if her face were under a mirror pounded by a hammer.” Once the sensation returned me to myself, I met my still-widened eyes and understood with discomfiting clarity the delight Henry took in forcing this bestial transformation upon his sex partners.
In a recent New York Times review of Renegade, a new Miller hagiography by Frederick Turner, Jeanette Winterson argues that the book’s main shortcoming is one shared by nearly all Miller criticism: a failure to grapple with the question “Why do men revel in the degradation of women?” While I find such a purely political treatment of Miller’s content to be a willful denial of his complexity, I was interested in Winterson’s query because it reminded me of my contorted, twenty-four-year-old face in the airplane bathroom. I had to wonder why I revel in representations of men degrading women in ways I find appalling in real life. Indeed, the aggressive, one-sided encounters I experienced in high school and college were my initiation into a new kind of pain.
During this period, there was no possibility I would receive pleasure from the interaction—aside from very short-lived excitement. Boys would push my head to their waists and ejaculate within seconds or thrust inside me nine or ten times, groan, and collapse. Always, ejaculation would occur just as I was becoming most open and aroused, feeling another person’s entire self caught up entirely in me. And then he was gone, looking away with an expression of bewildered defeat. I was alone with a monstrous need set loose in my chest, striking my rib cage with each inhale, keeping me from sleep. I felt as desperate as the woman Henry “disgraces” in the bathroom, who later clings to him and begs him not to leave.
Even with my first few boyfriends, my orgasm was often a halfhearted encore. I’d try to show them how to touch me, moving their hands and whispering, “Softer. Softer.” Mostly, they seemed to have no erotic interest in the mechanics of my pleasure. But then, neither did I. I could only come by imagining men roughly taking their pleasure with reluctant partners, scenes I’d gained from watching online porn when my sexuality was too demanding to ignore but too unformed to be selective.
Miller is one of a handful of writers whose sex scenes include realistic depictions of female orgasms—realistic in part because his characters appropriate masculine desire as a stand-in for their own needs. This is particularly true of The Rosy Crucifixion, in which women “in heat” beg Henry to fuck them with variations of the chant, “You want it! You want it!” While Miller is richly attentive to the physics of female lust, there is something hateful in his attention. He describes his wife June (whom he calls Mara) “struggling frantically to bring on an orgasm” for so long that Henry loses all sensation in his penis.
It looked disgustingly like a cheap gadget from the five and ten store, like a bright-colored piece of fishing tackle minus the bait. And on this bright and slippery gadget Mara twisted like an eel. She wasn’t any longer a woman in heat; she wasn’t even a woman; she was just a mass of undefinable contours wriggling and squirming like a piece of fresh bait seen upside down though a convex mirror in a rough sea.
Henry “shooting a heavy load” on a stranger’s dress is naturally sexier than this prolonged, desperate striving. Henry needed something and he got it, giving no thought to the implications of that need or its means of fulfillment.
Female pleasure is more complicated than male pleasure. It generally takes longer for women to come; there are more ways of achieving orgasm, or failing to; numerous emotional and psychological factors enhance or inhibit a woman’s pleasure. Perhaps this is why I often imagine scenarios of coercive sex or enact poses of degradation. Deprived of the capacity to respond to the often convoluted demands of my will, I can experience sex as pure sensation, immune to striving and analysis. It’s sexy to be freed—even through a trick of the imagination—of the complications of my own needs and the elusive but constant fear that they will not be met.
Because Miller is aware of this fear, his accounts of sexual recklessness are much more than misogynistic bravado. Soon after he gets married for the first time, Henry runs into an ex-girlfriend. They go back to her apartment and fuck silently for fear of waking her son, Georgie, who is dying of tuberculosis in the next room. Henry has the sense that she is crying throughout the sex, “like a toilet box that won’t stop running.”
And though she had begged me in a frightened whisper not to come, that she couldn’t wash because of the noise, because of Georgie in the next room, though I knew that she was the sort who gets caught just by looking at her, and that if she were caught it would go hard with her, still, and perhaps more because of the silent weeping, more because I wanted to put an end to the gurgling, I came again and again … There was something fiendishly detached about it, almost as if I were a pyromaniac sitting in a comfortable chair in my own house which I had set fire to with my own hand, knowing that I would not budge until the very chair I sat in would begin to sizzle and roast my ass.
During the act of intercourse, Henry is erotically compelled by his own “fiendish detachment.” But what he later recalls most acutely of the experience is not pleasure but the frightening image of Maude’s face when they said good-bye: “a face looming out of darkness, the upper part of the head caught as if in a trap door.” While the thought of submitting to brutish lust may at times turn me on as a concept or a pose, I know that for a woman to endure such an experience in life is most often a deadening lesson in sexual intimacy. Many of my friends can only have orgasms with a vibrator or not at all, even with boyfriends or husbands who long to satisfy them. When I was talking with one of these friends recently about the bad sex we had in college, the word disconnected came up again and again. To avoid the pain of wanting pleasure from someone unable or unwilling to provide it, a woman may silence her sexual feelings so thoroughly that they go into permanent hiding.
When I used to watch porn as a teenager, I would always put one hand over the worn, fake-tanned faces of the girls. I didn’t want to see the way their eyes floated, detached, in the midst of the fucking, as if a personality that belonged to someone else had gotten lost inside them and was searching for a way out. I told myself that as long as I didn’t pay for this brutality to women, I wasn’t hurting anyone by getting off on it. But then I stumbled on a scene in which a middle-aged man kept pressuring a teenage girl to have anal sex. She eventually relented, staring at the ground in front of her face and asking no one in particular, “It’s probably better than giving it up in the shelter, right?”
I have not been tempted to watch porn since. And I no longer find The Rosy Crucifixion very valuable as either literature or erotica. I agree with Miller’s assessment that The Colossus of Maroussi is his best book largely because “it expresses joy, it gives joy.”
Which is not to say that I now fantasize about men in sequined boxers feeding me vegan cupcakes at the foot of a rainbow. I still find nothing sexier than a man’s selfish, reckless pleasure. But I now understand this to be an innate desire, one that is simply fun so long as my partner also cares about my satisfaction. Inviting rough sex with my boyfriend is worlds away from enduring unexpected aggression from an acquaintance.
Still, when I’m not engaged in sexual activity, it makes me sad to think that my arousal is based in crude animality. On the most basic level, there is little difference between my fantasy life and a lion’s mating rituals: male finds desirable female; subdues; ejaculates. Yet I want sex to be a shared delight so strong it releases me from the strictures of everyday living. So the urge to dramatize poses of degradation is what Miller calls “a sultry, passionate rebellion” against the fact that one’s needs do not result in what one wants. I will always want sex to be more than the physical act of intercourse it will always insist on being.
Miller puts it this way in Tropic of Cancer:
Going back in my memory over the women I’ve known. It’s like a chain which I’ve forged out of my own misery. Each one bound to the other. A fear of living separate, of staying born. The door of the womb always on the latch. Dread and longing. Deep in the blood the pull of paradise. The beyond. Always the beyond.
Hannah Tennant-Moore is a writer living in Brooklyn.