Scary Old Sex

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

Arlene Hey­man’s Scary Old Sex and Rebec­ca Schif­f’s The Bed Moved are curi­ous­ly sim­i­lar: both are short sto­ry debuts, both use sex as a micro­cosm of human behav­ior, and both col­lec­tions fea­ture a sto­ry about can­cer and a sto­ry about Sep­tem­ber 11th. They are also, of course, both by Jew­ish women, although of dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions. Sex and death cir­cle around each oth­er in these sto­ries with such unre­lent­ing pres­sure that there’s lit­tle room for any oth­er kind of experience.

Schif­f’s work has been labeled Slut Lit” by some review­ers — divi­sive yes, but by no means nec­es­sar­i­ly insult­ing. Many women write about sex, but Slut Lit” seems to be about women hav­ing sex that is detached, imper­son­al, and maybe a lit­tle bit sad. That there needs to be a sep­a­rate genre for this kind of writ­ing sug­gests that female sex­u­al ambiva­lence is strange and sur­pris­ing instead of a nor­mal aspect of adult sex­u­al­i­ty. That is what makes the Slut Lit” label tire­some instead of rev­o­lu­tion­ary; there will nev­er be a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry of books by men exam­in­ing the curi­ous con­cept of emo­tion­al inti­ma­cy as it relates to male sexuality.

All of that said, slut” does not have to be such a ter­ri­ble word. It could con­jure an unapolo­getic woman who’s in touch with her desires. Heyman’s cadre of old­er women is cer­tain­ly slut­ty by that def­i­n­i­tion, yet the genre hasn’t claimed her. Per­haps the idea of old­er women in pos­ses­sion of a sex dri­ve is too much to stom­ach for even the most slut-friend­ly reviewer.

Where Heyman’s female char­ac­ters are demand­ing and irri­ta­ble, Schiff’s are lacon­ic and ambiva­lent. They rep­re­sent an age gap in slut­ti­ness. Hey­man writes about phys­i­cal encoun­ters frus­trat­ed by the mun­dan­i­ty (or even grotes­querie) of aging, while Schiff writes about com­plex, emo­tion­al empti­ness stem­ming from amounts and types of sex that Heyman’s gen­er­a­tion was hard­ly allowed to put down in writ­ing when they were young.

It is too bad, then, that most of the char­ac­ters in both col­lec­tions are dif­fi­cult to invest in. Both authors’ obser­va­tions are keen and fun­ny, but both cut too close to what they already know: Schif­f’s char­ac­ters are often sur­pris­ing­ly self-inter­est­ed and grate in their youth­ful expectan­cy, while Hey­man’s are most­ly melo­dra­mat­ic and make you want to roll your eyes at their obstinacy.

Schiff’s sto­ries feel like anec­dotes from a sin­gle, white, mid­dle-class life, rather than a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of voic­es and expe­ri­ences. The entire col­lec­tion might as well be about the same per­son, and is beg­ging for the deep­er invest­ment of a nov­el and the chance to grow. Schiff is most suc­cess­ful with younger char­ac­ters who are every bit as wry and bit­ing as their old­er peers, rec­og­niz­ing the emp­ty trade­offs they are expect­ed to make as they mature. I’m in high school,” says one girl. I don’t have sex. I don’t have any­thing.” That line might be the rage at the heart of Slut Lit”: with­out sex, you have no pow­er, and with it you some­times have even less.

Heyman’s explo­rations of the pet­ty and the dull are promis­ing, but her hyper-obser­vant style relies too much on expla­na­tion and leaves lit­tle room for feel­ing. It is also hard to tell if the often insuf­fer­able atti­tudes on dis­play are meant to be iron­ic. Hey­man is at her best when she embraces empa­thy in Danc­ing,” a sto­ry that’s prob­a­bly the least about sex and the most about death in the entire collection.

Despite their short­com­ings, both of these col­lec­tions suc­cess­ful­ly break taboos around sex­u­al­i­ty. Schiff treads rare emo­tion­al ground in writ­ing about female sex­u­al ambiva­lence; Hey­man plunges into large­ly unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry with her sex­u­al nar­ra­tives of old­er women. Schiff’s char­ac­ters, who have what they don’t real­ly want, and Heyman’s, who don’t real­ly want what they have, deserve to be lis­tened to. Hope­ful­ly we are on the edge of a Slut Lit” typhoon, and these voic­es will only become more diver­si­fied and complex. 

Relat­ed Content:

Nicole Loef­fler-Glad­stone is a dance artist, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, cura­tor, writer and edi­tor liv­ing in NYC. Read her dance crit­i­cism atThe Dance Enthu­si­ast and peep her cura­tion @thebunkerpresents.

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