Welcome to Part 2 of Helen Gurley Brown’s advice on sex. I made this a two-parter because, well, this part is a bit of a downer. I’ve enjoyed keeping this little experiment of mouseburgering my way to the top on the humorous, eye-rolling, side of things, however, this chapter on sex had a number of sections that made me feel icky. Granted all the chapters so far have had parts that made me feel this way but given the current climate with sexual harassment in the news, these ones hit closer to home. The quotes and advice I’m about to share with you make me feel insert-any-number-of-negative-emotions-here because not only did this woman believe these things and they likely were very true at the time she wrote them, but this woman had control of a magazine, that has shaped the minds of an unfathomable number of young women all over the world, for over thirty years.
“Should you ever compromise and do something to him, or let him do something to you that makes you feel, well, yucky? No, of course, you shouldn’t.” When I read those two sentences, I thought, ‘Yes! Finally, Helen. Now I see why some people call you a feminist.’ But I should have held my reaction for just a split second longer. “And neither should you ever get menstrual cramps, dark circles under your eyes, hives, sunburned or bitten by mosquitoes. Every sexual encounter should be soul-lifting and exquisite, yes, but sex, like life, my dear, is not perfect, and you, Miss Faintheart, may not always be able to squirm out of a sexual situation just because it’s making you feel a little queasy!” Essentially, she is saying that you must step-up and do that thing, have that sex, sleep with that man you don’t want to. “Perhaps a man you adore as a friend or someone you owe a lot to is simply terrible in bed. . . that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sleep with him.” You’re supposed to have sex with someone who you don’t want to because you owe him? “Perhaps a man with marvelous “credentials” – he’s glamorous, famous, exciting, takes you fabulous places – is also an indifferent bedmate. Well, maybe Jackie Onassis could say goodnight at the door, but not you. . . Sex is part of your package.” Excuse me? “Maybe you like the man sexually, but don’t care for certain things he likes to do. If you mostly enjoy yourself in bed, not being turned on some of the time or even turned off isn’t going to hurt you. It hasn’t killed me yet, anyway.” I don’t think I need to point out how horrific that last line is. She’s not talking about ‘that thing you only do for your husband on birthdays and holidays,’ she’s talking about what you need to do impress and keep a man. Helen also preached that ““sensible” before-the-act conversation about what you like and what he likes is a passion killer. I wouldn’t.” That might explain why she found herself in the middle of so many acts that made her feel “yucky.”
What do you do when he wants to have sex and you don’t? “Do it anyway. No, it isn’t bad for your health or, I think, even bad for your psyche. . . you’ll probably get in the mood enough so that you won’t “suffer.”” Helen goes on to remind us to pretend to be turned on, even when we aren’t because it’s sexier for him. Well, you’ll get that message if you can follow her awkward beaver analogy. “Somebody working away at you like beavers building their dam – slap, slap, pat, pat, paddle, paddle – is friendly (and gets an E for effort) but if that somebody is squish-mushy himself, is he nearly as satisfactory to you in bed as a man fully aroused? Of course not! Conversely, being hot yourself simply makes you better at what you’re doing to him. One is not always hot, of course, and you can be “good” – make him happy – even though not turned on yourself (otherwise, prostitutes would not be so well paid.)”
Now it was only a few years ago when Amy Poehler outraged people when she wrote in her biography, “You have to have sex with your husband occasionally, even though you're exhausted. Sorry." She referred to it as maintenance sex. I don’t find what Amy wrote offensive because she’s not talking about getting into bed with some dude because you owe him, she’s not implying that your value to your husbands is based on having sex, and she’s certainly not suggesting that you do anything you don’t want to. She’s just saying that sometimes you’re going to go to be exhausted with your life partner and instead of rolling over and going to sleep, it might be healthier for your relationship if you roll the other way and have healthy, happy, and consensual sex.
All this ‘do it anyway talk’ of Helen’s makes the most sense when you pair it with her section on saying no. “I’ve always thought a pass more of a compliment than a put-down, no matter who is making it. Also, since we’re sexually wooing men some of the time now, what is there to be so sanctimonious about?” As Helen sees it, because it was finally socially acceptable for a woman to ask a man out, they had nothing to complain about when someone “comes at you for the squeeze, the grab, the kiss, who ought not to.” So, “What to do?” she asks. “There is no better way than just to be cool. Don’t squirm. Don’t thrash about. That’s what I wrote in Sex and the Single Girl twenty years ago, and defensive tactics haven’t changed. A wildcat will turn him on; a cool, unresponsive girl will calm him down. . .” Another option, in my opinion, is a knee to the crotch. It will have the same calming effect and will communicate how you’re feeling. “Well, if we had to take all the rebuffs a man takes to his sexy ideas and to his hands, mouth, penis, we might never leave the house in the morning. I really do admire their courage. Say No thank you in the nicest way. Lie, if you will, but be ever so gentle and kind, even to the creeps.” Just remember that ladies; we need to be nice even to the biggest creeps because someone may have already turned them down.
Helen quotes the late Helen Lawrenson book as an example of female behavior she simply doesn’t understand. The passage of Lawrenson’s book Whistling Girl reads, “I was lying on my back with him kneeling over me when suddenly, with no warning, he thrust himself into my mouth. I thought he was going straight down my through and I was in utter panic, as well as gagging. I lay there paralyzed, my eyes shut tight and I was, of course, unable to speak. Finally, I managed to wriggle out from under, scurry into the bathroom and throw up.” What does our Helen think about this? “What an odd reaction!” Running away from someone who has forced a sexual act on you without your consent is apparently a strange way to behave. Likely in Helen’s mind, you should have stayed around long enough to compliment and thank him.
Now, I could forgive all of this by thinking that Helen simply didn’t know any better. The same way that other antiquated ideas are passed along generation to generation. It’s not out of malice, it’s just because that’s how things were. But the problem with that is that Helen has made it clear repeatedly throughout her book that she doesn’t really like other women. She sees them as her enemy. “Enlightened as your rivals may be, do you suppose there’s any comparison between you in bed with your need to please, your craving for affection, your passion, energy and well, drive, and other women in their, narrow or fat little beds?” And in case that wasn’t clear enough, here’s another – “You know how talking to 60 percent of people you talk to is boring even though they know plenty of words and can put sentences together. Well, for the men of the world, so is going to bed with at least 60 percent – possibly a higher percentage than that – of the women in the world boring. Those women don’t talk like you or care like you or try like you; in a word, they don’t make love like you.” Helen wants it to be clear that you are competing with other women, she herself has been competing with other women her whole life for men’s affection. “I began to discover, around age nineteen, that being wanted “that way” gave a girl a kind of power over men, that though most girls were prettier than I, they could not and did not necessarily get men more turned on. Perhaps my “rivals” kept themselves more in check.” In the section where she discusses ‘C--- Power’ she talks about wives being the rivals of single women, “Okay, perhaps you, a single girl, wonder why the man doesn’t leave his wife and marry you since you have this terrific attribute.” That terrific attribute is what she calls ‘C--- Power.’ Not only is she the mother of his children, Helen explains, but “don’t forget that his wife, your rival, may have supported him emotionally through the bad times and he has some sense of loyalty though you don’t want to hear about it!” Of course, a sense of loyalty is the only thing that would be holding a marriage together. “Both kinds of power are rewarding – power always is – but of the two, I prefer ours.” Helen may sound like she’s on our side here, but Helen is on her own side. And that’s what makes her words so malicious.
The whole book is built on exploiting other women’s insecurities – insecurities that she was so familiar with because they were also her own. So much of the book is humorous nowadays because we have moved (read: ran) away from it. There is so much distance between us now and her thinking then, that it is laughable. But if all the recent news about in the media tells us anything, it’s that this subject isn’t that far behind us. The perpetrator here is subtle; we aren’t being stared down by an obvious aggressor, there isn’t a naked man blocking the door and holding our safety, our career, or our futures in one hand and unwanted sex in the other. Instead, we have a woman who uses conspiratorial language to let us know that she is on our side, that she is helping us.
In this chapter Helen also tells us about her ill-fated adventure in being a kept woman. “I was kept once for about six months. He was a rich New York banker – the quintessential WASP (talk about hating Jews – this man could have given Hitler pep talks), old (forty-seven!), and married.” She had seen this a money-making opportunity. He set her up in her own apartment, bought her clothes, and gave her a job (she was his secretary). Eventually he got bored of her – and maybe annoyed with her asking for more and more money and dropped her by taking his wife to Europe. “It’s a good thing my little arrangement didn’t work. . . because otherwise the rest of my life wouldn’t have happened to me. I wouldn’t have married David; he wouldn’t have helped me write a book; you and I wouldn’t be together now.” When I read this, all I could think was, ‘I wonder how much healthier we all may be right now if it had worked out for her.’ The only thing scarier than the fact that so many women took her advice when this book came out, is that there are still people buying it and positively reviewing it on Amazon!