Sexual Harassment Rules
(Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2013)
Screw magazine once wrote that “Lynda Schor writes about sex as matter-of-factly as a harried housewife trying to make food stamps stretch at the local A&P.” It’s an ingenious strategy. Seemingly harmless on the surface, and deceptively self-deprecating, her observations on marriage, infidelity, jealousy, and betrayal—the innumerable exasperating moments that make up our love lives—remind us that we seldom get what we’re after. Yet while the preposterousness of her proposals often gives rise to hilarity, we find our laughter getting stuck in our throats when her exaggerations suddenly don’t seem all that exaggerated after all.
Lynda Schor, grande dame of satirical feminist literature, expatriate living in the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende, is widely known for her collections of short fiction, including Appetites, True Love & Real Romance, Seduction, and The Body Parts Shop. When Carol Novack, the late founder of Mad Hatters’ Review, interviewed her in 2007, Schor stated that “satire is often mean—probably only about 30 percent of the American population can recognize that satire is funny. And that it might be funny and dark at the same time is too disturbing. People…seem to think they have a right to be protected from being insulted or disturbed, and many feel empowered to censor what’s disturbing.” Compounding all this, of course, is the fact that when Schor satirizes sexual relationships, she is also satirizing an American society in which the capitalist paradigm has so infiltrated our thinking, our self-perception, and our personal relationships that, to quote Fiction Collective Two, “every message is an advertisement and everything is for sale.”
One of Schor’s intriguing “transgressions” is to portray herself and her aging body in a less than flattering light, and for a woman who has been indoctrinated for an entire lifetime to identify with her beauty, to value and preserve it, it’s a powerful gesture. We are treated to sagging breasts, rogue hairs, and strange lumps: there is “unruly pubic hair that grows down to the insides of my too-heavy thighs.” Too keen an observer of the relationships between the sexes to succumb to self-deception, Schor’s crime is that she just as ruthlessly aims her unerring, in this case female, gaze at the opposite sex. We are shown the flaccid bellies and limp penises of men who nevertheless continue to smugly inhabit their male privilege, ogling young women’s perky breasts and considering this, if at all challenged, their inalienable right. Yet there is no bitterness in Schor’s observations; rather, it is with an indulgent tenderness that she dissects her prey. As Gloria Steinem once wrote, Schor’s fiction “turns over the rock of female experience and reveals the truth underneath.” And as anyone in the business of debunking myths knows all too well, there will always be a sinister underbelly to this project.
Sexual Harassment Rules, a collection of 15 stories, begins with “Naked,” a sober meditation on the female nude. The narrator, a guest at an artist-run drawing workshop, seeks to “experience [the model], imagine her, but not really draw her.” Reflecting that the “formal falsity of the academic nude was also, to some extent, a moral falsity,” her mind wanders to Picasso, to Nolde, to Vuillard, Matisse, and Degas, and as she ponders the history of the female form in art, she is reminded that “the male gaze…the eye that observes, watches, is there even when it isn’t there. It’s built into us, that penetrating gaze.”
She has come with a friend, and although she knows better, she is compelled to compare herself with this friend, who (she can’t help noticing) seems to have fewer physical flaws than she. Her observation—“it is typical of me to remain distant, hold myself aloof as I am here, comfortable in the belief that I am only visiting this experience”—suggests a deeper unwillingness to engage in the uncomfortable entanglements presenting themselves to her: in this case, her uneasy presence in a room containing a small cluster of people busily working at their easels, seated around an unclothed person. Somehow, in an entirely natural way, the friend is more at home in her skin; later, it emerges that she’s having an affair with the male model. At the end of the session, when most of those present have packed up their drawing materials, the friend disrobes and poses for her and her lover, and then she herself, after much resistance, is persuaded to do the same—and as she finally gives herself over to her companions’ dispassionate gaze, she feels “at first a luscious chill, then a sweet burning singe along all the edges of my body everywhere he draws” as she experiences, apparently for the first time, the startling pleasure of being observed in the nude as something other than a sexual object or the potential source of someone else’s pleasure.
It is this humanizing gaze that Schor is interested in, and she reminds us again and again that the feminist project is essentially a humanist one. Her writing can be jarring and pornographic, her descriptions of sex unflattering and unflinchingly unromantic, but what she’s getting at, in the end, is who we reveal ourselves to be when we’re at our most naked and vulnerable.
The title story of the collection, “The Sexual Harassment Rules,” highlights a motley bunch of underpaid adjunct professors at an unnamed university gathered together to ponder the inherent imbalance of power in teacher-student relationships and to draft amendments to the regulations protecting teachers and students from the fallout of ‘inappropriate’ encounters. Many of the stories in this collection overlap with Schor’s own biography; the temporal settings range from the 1950s, when she began studying painting at Cooper Union and well before an awareness of sexual harassment had ever been formulated, to her years of teaching writing at the New School for Social Research—in an era when the power politics at work in the relations between the sexes had long become common currency. In a poignant and funny story about a young painting student who fantasizes about seducing her painting teacher, the narrator recalls the bygone naivety of her younger self and her equally virginal friend, a state of romantic unknowing in which “nothing can pierce our membranes, which in my case covers my entire body and my mind.” By contrast, the story “Teacher Evaluation” is a raucous account by a student who rapes his teacher to demand a better grade. “You know I deserve an A, I say, punching my livid cock into her waiting hole as hard as I can.”
Considering the far-flung changes our society has undergone in the way it articulates and celebrates its experience of sexuality, it’s astonishing that Schor’s descriptions of the sexual act never sound dated. In a language that ranges from the lyrical to the laconic, in scenes in which sharply drawn characters beg for love and barter for sex, we are treated to a spectacle of mismatched desires and expectations, romance and lust in which men and women alike abuse their power for all it’s worth.
A writer who publishes regularly with the Brooklyn-based independent press Spuyten Duyvil, Schor has no illusions about the transformative effect exerted by experimental women writers on the literary establishment: “transgression in language or ideas will be less accepted from women authors. The male story is still the main story, and the male story structure is still the acceptable story structure.” But we should never underestimate the subversive power of humor, because more than anything, Schor is a very funny writer. In the story “This Is Not Sexual Harassment,” the narrator observes, “she knows by now that anyone she’s attracted to is going to be very bad for her, due to some unfortunate early imprinting.”
During a summer away at a writer’s residency, she returns to her apartment for a night to find that her sons and two female students living there temporarily are holding a lively party. The narrator, a writer and writing professor whom her students refer to as “Ms. Schor,” is pinning her hopes on a relationship with a man named George, whom she is not physically attracted to. “Being with him is a decision rather than a passion, which she feels is a healthy development considering her past with men. So far she is managing without being totally turned off, or becoming obnoxiously hostile.” The girls give her a stiff drink, and then they decide to dress her up in a tight black dress with spaghetti straps and sequins, a good enough choice apart from the fact that it reveals her “newly sagging upper arms, and a new, strange crease where the underarm meets the breast line.” Schor contrasts the older narrator—half-heartedly trying to adjust her hopes to align more realistically with what life might still have to offer her—with the unabashed youth of the girls, their blatant sexuality, their beauty. As she watches them dance, “she smiles, pretending this music, these movements, these bodies are not arousing, and that she can have a good time with these kids without going too far, getting too involved.”
What does sexual harassment consist of? And what does it do to those on the receiving end? If we accept that it “can include a wide range of behavior, from the actual coercion of sexual relations to inappropriate sexualization of the working environment,” then every female student taken less seriously than her male peers, every deserving female employee overlooked for a raise or promotion because she might one day have a child, is also a victim—as are all the women writers men won’t read because “women’s literature,” they think, is none of their concern. For these men’s sake, let’s hope Lynda Schor’s Sexual Harassment Rules finds a wide readership—an intelligent readership; a human readership.