The Conundrum of Sexual Life in Today’s America

And one novel’s attempt to bypass it

A painting by Salvador Dali of a shapeless woman floating below the nude legs of a man.
Salvador Dali / Museo Nacional Reina Sofia / Alamy

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.

They’ve appeared in major metropolitan areas of America: bright ads in startling technicolor, featuring eely, long tongues and hairy chests, that promote the services of the dating app OkCupid. Each image serves as an entry in the taxonomy of modern romance: OkCupid is, apparently, for “every single pansexual,” “every single bookworm,” “every single vaxxer,” and so on. Encountering these ads during my morning subway commute, I’ve been struck by the trickiness of their cataloging act. OkCupid has cast a charmed circle of inclusion, from which some people must still inevitably be excluded. Its ads celebrate, for example, “every single feminist” but not, of course, the opposite ideological position; “every single tree hugger” is called upon to join OkCupid, but there’s no mention of those who want both lovers and a fossil-fuel-based economy.

You can call this selectiveness the politicization of dating (obvious), or the commercialization of politics (better), but most accurate would be to say that it is the natural impasse of sexual life in America. Sex, post–free love and post-#MeToo, is based equally on permissiveness and control: Changing norms suggest that everyone is allowed what they want, provided that what they want falls within certain uneasily maintained boundaries. Society is now porn-positive, so long as the porn is the good kind. The media, which have elevated individual desire to a ruling principle, extol kinky sex and violent sex while nevertheless stoking anxiety about the political savoriness of these activities. Nowadays, those who are sexually active or interested in sex are presented with a bounty circumscribed by the knowledge of that bounty’s possible dangers. But who, aside from the advertising executives at OkCupid, would want to arrogate to themselves this sort of authority, cataloging novel ethical codes of romance? As the feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan wrote in The Right to Sex, “where does speaking about morality end and moralising begin?”

Corinne Hoex’s Gentlemen Callers, translated from the French by Caitlin O’Neil, offers not so much a contribution to this problem as a path of diversion—a refreshing shortcut through the thickety discourses of sex, power, and consent. The destination, the clearing in the forest, is pleasure. Hoex’s book, which unfolds as a series of presumed dreams about the unnamed narrator’s entanglements with different men, flaunts an obsession with heterosexual romance, that wellspring of so much contemporary anxiety. Yet these uncanny erotic couplings aren’t plagued by the neuroticism of modern-day encounters; they take place in a humid atmosphere of surrealism and sensory profusion, sometimes even going beyond the realm of the human. Through these encounters, Hoex’s narrator seems able to perceive the lucid image of her own pleasure, which in real life—surveilled and structured as it is by the male gaze—women rarely get to do.

Hoex substitutes feeling for overthinking—the writing foregrounds material texture and taste, modeling a sort of Epicureanism of stimulation. In one representative vignette, our narrator embraces her paramour, a swimming instructor, as less a woman than an octopus: She feels her arms extend fantastically as they “wrap around his waist, clasp his hips, palpate his scarlet suit under their suckers.” She senses, instead of skin-on-skin contact, a stranger texture: the wet, chlorinated smack of suction, “the incomparable qualities of elastane and Lycra.” The men in Gentlemen Callers change, but Hoex pursues this commitment to the sensory with a religious seriousness.

That most of the sex in Gentlemen Callers seemingly occurs in dreams is significant; it’s typically the realm where we are least in control of ourselves and where, crucially, withholding or granting consent is impossible. Male interests are consistently distinguished by profession: the baker, the beach attendant, the chiropractor—pairings that feel almost like porny setups or costumed role-play. Hoex’s verbs are fevered and dramatic, but unlike the prose of smut, also otherworldly: In sex, the narrator churns, thickens, elongates. She describes, at one point, how a partner “splashed” her against his chest. Her language is exciting but not arousing. Far from the brute literality of bodice-rippers, Hoex’s writing deploys the abstraction of poetry, as bodily pleasure folds into the pleasure of the surprisingly well-placed word.

The narrator’s romantic explorations are inseparable from the public sphere; she undertakes her trysts while stopping by the tailor or the butcher’s shop, in a kind of circuit of sexual errand-running. The fact that her counterparts are identified by profession reiterates sex’s concealed presence amid everyday modern life; it is no surprise that Charles Baudelaire, eminent theorist of the flaneur, is quoted throughout the book. To be sexually available is to be receptive to strangers, the ways they both shock and help us; the same is true for living, fully, in a city. Sometimes the narrator’s partners are eager to please, referring politely to her as “Madame”; other times they wield their scissors and knives more imperiously. The narrator feels enlivened rather than objectified by these anonymous interactions. Even when things get meta, as dreams are wont to do—at one point, a gentleman caller insolently demands entrance into her reveries—she maintains the upper hand, concocting a dutiful night watchman to stand guard before her dreams. “Sleep well,” he promises her. “You won’t be disturbed.”

Hoex’s narrator repeatedly demonstrates a desire to relinquish the human form—an avowal not of beastiality but of curiosity. In one vignette, the woman dreams of being a cat, then, as a cat, dreams of being a woman. All the while an attentive pet groomer brushes her “smoothly, with devotion.” Is she the animal or the human nestled inside the animal? Either, it seems—as the groomer “kneads” her body, she proclaims herself a “Persian pussy” (the pun works in French too). I read in this shape-shifting a wish to encounter love in all its possible physical logics. As a cat, the narrator can be brushed; as a fly, she can buzz in her man’s ear.

Reading Hoex, one can’t help intuit the meagerness of our culture’s erotic imagination, which portrays straight women who are sexually subversive in exceedingly limited ways. The female sexual outlaw, in mainstream imagination, tends to be either abjectly submissive (Sally Rooney’s protagonists; Story of O) or worryingly promiscuous (Lars von Trier’s film Nymphomaniac). These roles thrill us, because they seem to offer both escape from and capitulation to patriarchal norms—they are visions of sex that are politically ambiguous yet, in other ways, resolutely orthodox.

Hoex, however, makes these two options feel like flipping, on and off, the same tired light switch. Can’t we imagine the outer limits of sex without anxiety? Can’t we believe in a pleasure that is new, perhaps disquieting—but not at risk of moral failure? The answer may be no. But in its love for a preposterous and ever-changing desire, Gentlemen Callers is less a switch than a floodlight cranked to full power; it shines, into the corners of ordinary life, a diffusive and even humorous erotics. And if Hoex ultimately tables necessary questions about consent and violence, she does offer us an imaginative alternative whose urgency and fidelity to naive pleasure are, in their own way, political.

In the book’s last vignette, “The Burglar,” a man in a black catsuit breaks into the narrator’s bedroom. We think we know what to expect—the prospect of violence registers as a common, fearsome one. But this is no rape scenario; it is not even a rape fantasy. The burglar has broken in only to break the narrator out, guiding her through her own open window. With him she goes, “through the dark to where dreams reside.” Would that sex were always like this: a routing away from harm, into the weird, dilatory unknown that another person betokens.