Sexual Harassment Rules by Lynda Schor
Spuyten Duyvil Press, December 2013
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.
Read the article at The Brooklyn Rail:
Betty Tompkins, Cunt Painting #7 (Courbet), 24 x 24″, 2007