Does questioning women about their sex lives constitute harassment?

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

24 January 2020

10:00 PM

This is Pleasure Mary Gaitskill

Serpent’s Tail, pp.84, £7.99

Alert to the combination of a controversial issue and a brilliant writer, Serpent’s Tail have bought This is a Pleasure, first published as a short story in the New Yorker, and issued it as a very short hardback novella — 15,000 words, large print, lipstick kisses on the cover. Already described by the Guardian as ‘an incendiary volume’, the book is a response to, and questioning of, the #MeToo movement.

Quin Saunders, the longtime head of a respected publishing imprint, is accused of harassment by the many women who work or write for him, is ultimately stripped of his career, boycotted and humiliated. He’s the Harvey Weinstein of the publishing world — although the sex seems to be more verbal than actual.

The story is told in two voices, that of Quin himself and his good friend Margot. She is of the same generation as Quin and early in their friendship slaps him down — a response that younger women don’t, or won’t, follow. Quin is an elegant, perceptive character. He ‘imbibes’ people, particularly women, takes them to lunch, listens to their problems and interrogates them about their love lives. He picks people up, invites them to his parties and then drops them. His behaviour is (as Margot says) mildly sadistic. Are the women victims, or do they in some way conspire? At what point does intimacy turn into anger, flirtation into abuse?

Quin’s persuasive self-defence is that

most people are starved for perceptive questions, and the chance to discover their own thoughts. This is especially true of young women, who are expected to listen attentively to one dull, self-obsessed man after another.

It is, he believes, a question of ‘going up to the line of acceptability and not crossing it’. But for some women cross it he does.

Margot struggles to defend him. At a low point in her life he had been supportive and kind. For her the line is only crossed when he seems to make light of the story she tells him of being abused as a child.

Already there are those on the Good Read website who describe Quin as a creepy dude and the women as victims. But the suggestion that the #MeToo debate is moving into a more nuanced area is very much at the heart of this publication.

Mary Gaitskill is renowned for her writing on female sexuality and sado-masochism, and her prose here is perfectly poised. Reading This is Pleasure is like walking on a tightrope of questions that don’t allow easy answers. In a New Yorker interview last year, Gaitskill’s views appeared more explicit than in this story. While clearly on the side of women speaking out, she is also concerned about the current situation of men: ‘I feel that masculinity is being demonised and sex is being demonised, that physical touch is viewed with inordinate suspicion.’ And that, she says, ‘seems dangerous to me, in a different way’.

Dare one think of #MenToo?

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