Stoya's Sex Lit Book Club Unfolds Into Instruction on Gender Dynamics
By Holden Taylor
What was framed and set to be a lively Sunday evening of literary discourse — on the merits, values and devices of Pauline Réage’s Story of O — quickly (and recurrently) devolved into a referendum on male intellectual fragility and the gendered dynamics of even the most left-leaning and liberal-seeming collection of people — here, a diverse and neighborly crowd gathered for feminist pornographer Stoya’s Sex Lit Book Club, produced by House of Scorpio and hosted at their emphatically sex-positive and inclusive Gemini and Scorpio venue in Gowanus.
There were two moons, one waxing, one full, painted largely along the walls; seats were made out of couches, massage tables and barstools; pillows and blankets abounded. The audience was distinctly, perhaps amorphously, middle-aged Brooklyn: mostly hip-seeming couples, dressed as if they could have been at a poetry slam filmed for an early 2000s HBO special. There were teachers and outspoken women and nonbinary folk; semi-intellectual men with, varyingly, bald heads, ponytails, leather jackets, cowboy boots and, of course, most pervasively, very pressing opinions; a Frenchman with a heavy accent and endearing trepidation, an Aussie mistaken to be a Brit; PBR cans in hands; hair in shades from black to blonde and green to purple; a world-renowned pornstar in a sweatshirt and jeans sitting cross-legged on stage with a book in her lap and no need for a microphone.
The talk began as perhaps planned: half-structured, the group — roughly forty people — took turns (sometimes predicated by raised hands, other times more naturally) discussing the month’s book, a French novel from the 50’s written under a pseudonym and debatably, if problematically, labeled erotica. The narrative focuses on a French fashion photographer, solely referred to by the moniker O, as she is subject to a series of disturbing, mounting and never truly consensual sexual, violent and psychological abuses. She is, as one attendee remarked, essentially coerced into a sex-trafficking ring — led in by a lover and systematically beaten and ravaged by a collection of semi-anonymous men in a French chateau.
The book’s plot and its context (its hallowed place in the erotica canon; that it was written by a woman as something of a desperate ode to a lover the author thought wavering) disturbed and made for unbearable reading for many of the women, and some of the men, in the room. Multiple women remarked how they had to put the book down — barely 100 pages — multiple times; how them finishing it was a nod to their obligation to and appreciation for the book club and in direct conflict with their experiences, their ethics — emphasized especially within the unfolding environment of November, 2017 — and their tastes.
Where the conversation took a turn — and a turn from which the night could not reconstitute itself — was when an abashed and well-intentioned man sitting on a couch near the front of the audience early-on offered an insight he had found while searching the internet for defenses of the story: “If we frame the piece as pure fantasy,” he said, we can then debate its merits and its literary worth without necessarily subjecting it to our modern morals and standards. While this perspective was framed emphatically by this man as not his but one that he “found compelling,” it initiated a dynamic that dominated the rest of the night: various, strong-thought women voicing their visceral discomforts with the book — problematic because of its absent consent; resolutely not fantastic because of the constant insight into O’s internal suffering and neuroses —and a handful of men (really only three or four who seemed hell bent on sharing their various, redundant “intellectualized” opinions) glossing over said discomforts to imagine the story as existing within this reverent “bubble of fantasy.”
The room assumed a distinct unease, an aura of gendered-contention, as the dynamic repeated itself over and over, with nuances being added while fundamental tenets remained stoic. Miss Scorpio — Larisa Fuchs, generous host, infamous party thrower, and bartender for the night — interjected multiple times to reify how the story could and should not be seen as anything but cruel because of its interpersonal depiction of abuse — the characters were resolutely human as opposed to, say, the work of Marquis de Sade wherein bodies are often devices made of flesh and little else. Another woman, a New Yorker now living in London, described the book as a “modeling of toxic male behavior;” the story was constantly referred to as within and for the male gaze, despite (or perhaps even more disturbingly, because of) the author’s gender identity (as a woman) and predisposition.
What was revealed — the substantive debate over the book’s merits was single-tracked and rather placid — was a resolute refusal on the part of a handful of particularly inclined men to simply listen. Stoya, discussion leader and oft-exasperated, had to interrupt with a “Sir! There is a woman talking.” And then had a particularly instructive interaction with another man when he, in a terse back and forth with Miss Scorpio toward the end of the night, asked the host, with hands gesticulating his eternally urgent perspective, to clarify what exactly she meant by saying the story was “problematic.” This was, of course, after she had done so, explicitly and repeatedly, over the course of two hours. His request for clarification was met with a roomful of groans — from every woman in the audience and some of the men. Stoya looked over to him and asked, “Do you know why what you asked received that response?” Spoiler: he did not.
Stoya informed him of exactly why, “You are not listening,” she said and mentioned that a cigarette sounded to her more and more necessary, then asked this man if he could reiterate why exactly the story was problematic. He could not.
This bit triggered a transition of topics. From repetitive semi-literary dialogue, the subject shifted into a referendum on male inclinations and failings in even the most liberal purporting of crowds. Any room in open discourse will be dominated by a handful of voices; this is natural. It was revealing, on Sunday night, which voices assumed control, which voices seemed to engage and listen and which were predicated on expressing opinions for, perhaps, the sole reason of hearing themselves sound semi-articulate in a sophisticated neighborly forum.
The insistence by these few men to reframe subjects at hand, to focus moreso on how they could remove themselves from a story’s ethics to discuss it “artistically” or “academically” and their subsequent and evident discomfort — sometimes doubling down, other times squirming — when their inconsistencies, shoddy intellectualizing and resolute deafness were called out, proved defining of the night.
What’s to be taken from the event is twofold, but surely more. That these dynamics were identified and deconstructed could be seen as valuable; to undo and unlearn entrenched inequities and behaviors, this sort of contention and discourse is needed, is necessary. But for an environment and audience so veiled in progressive decor to be reduced to patterns that anyone who has a Twitter account, that anyone who has listened to a woman, that anyone who has been awake for the last two (or 2000) years could identify as shitty, as outdated, as typical and exhausting — this was frustrating, even depressing. That so many of these people who showed up (and paid) to enjoy themselves a literary and erotic discourse, had to, rather, plead (over and over) with an unceasing group of men on why they ought to, at the very least, listen to their women-counterparts was an emphatic statement on the work left to do, on the onus of which men still lag, on the low-bar and lower actuality of gendered relations and realities.