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Sexual Violence and American Manhood
T. Walter Herbert
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002.
$29.95, 256 pages, ISBN 0-674-00917-7.

James Friel
Liverpool John Moores University


This book cheats. If you do read it, skip the prologue and the epilogue and you have, more or less, what you might expect: the predictable mix of sociology and literary criticism. It begins, however, by setting up a different set of expectations

My first encounter with violent pornography took place in the Eastern Seaboard Railway Station at Waldo, Florida, about twenty miles from Gainesville, where we lived. (1)

It is a good opening. It suggests its contents will be enlivened and richly complicated by a starkly confessional tone. The author describes his twelve-year-old self picking up from a rotating bookstand a crime novel, Mickey Spillage’s One Lonely Night and, innocently flicking through it, coming across this paragraph:

She staggered back a step and I yanked with the hand that held her dress and it came off in one piece with a quick loud tear, leaving her gasping and hurt…I slid my belt off and let it dangle from my hand. I watched her face. I saw the gamut of emotions flash by in quick succession, leaving a startled expression of pure animal terror...A naked woman and a leather belt. I looked at her, so bare and pretty…legs spread apart to hold a precarious balance, a flat stomach hollowed under the fear that burned her body a faint pink, lovely smooth breasts, firm with terrible excitement, rising and falling with every gasping breath. (128-129)

The young Herbert is intrigued, excited and appalled and the experience of this ‘pornographic enchantment’ proves formative. His larger response to the paragraph will be this book, which tries to understand:

How men get hooked—with all our social power—into a style of manhood that visits abuse on women, even as it alienates us from ourselves? How does the enchantment bind us, so that men live their inner lives through the bodies and emotions of women? (7)

However, the young Herbert’s initial response was to re-read the paragraph and then look for others. Can you blame him? I suppose you could, but, believe me, not as heartily as his later self does. Is our hero embarked on a life of depravity and the book one in which the abuser recants? No, not really. Not at all, in fact.

The personal note soon becomes limp, even bogus. His future life proves to be one of ordinary convention and smoothly civilized values. Herbert is a happily married man. He confesses he has not always been an exemplary feminist (he did not always help with the housekeeping!) but he has had the support, understanding and example of a good wife to bring him and their marriage to ‘mutuality and equal standing.’

What makes my personal story consequential is not that I have been the chief of sinners, with a story of redemption to offer…My story matters because it is not exceptional. (9)

The trouble is, he’s right. He is unexceptional. Personally, I am pleased for him but, as his reader, I feel duped. He sets up a promise he only half-delivers. What he confesses to—he once flicked through a dirty book!—is a minor offence described as if it were a capital crime. It gives the book a canting and faux-confessional tone that makes the reader distrust him and, as a consequence (and because we hear no more about that young boy who accidentally reads some Mickey Spillane), the book reads rather like one by an alcoholic who has never had a drink. I ended up feeling aggrieved for the young Herbert and then disappointed that the only person he went on to beat up was himself.

My own stack of Spillane is pretty low but I was intrigued by those ellipses in Herbert’s quotation and tried to find the passage on the Internet. I typed those opening sentences into Google and found the same passage, (quoted by the way with a similar intent) and also with ellipses but the emphasis is more than slightly changed:

I raised my hand until it was against her breast and pushed. Ethel staggered back a step and I yanked with the hand that held her dress and it came off in one piece with a quick loud tear, leaving her gasping and hurt with vivid red marks on her skin where the fabric had twisted and caught...Her head shook, unbelieving what was happening to her. It only lasted a moment, and her hands that trembled so bent up behind her back and the bra fell away and landed at her feet. Her eyes were on mine as she slid her hands inside the fragile silk of the shorts and pushed them down.
When she stepped out of them I slid my belt off and let it dangle from my hand....
I started to swing the belt back and forth very gently. Ethel pressed against the wall, her face a pale oval. " wasn't—"
"Keep quiet," I said.
A naked woman and a leather belt. I looked at her, so bare and so pretty, hands pressed for support against the panelling, legs spread apart to hold a precarious balance, a flat stomach hollowed under the fear that burned her body a faint pink, lovely smooth breasts, firm with terrible excitement, rising and falling with every gasping breath.

Both quotations show Spillane intent on inducing in his reader a ‘pornographic enchantment’ but the Internet user has quoted the passage in a way that shows the female character to be far more complicit in the action than in the passage Herbert quotes, far more alive to what is happening, far more vivid as a character. The passage, evidently, is in no way no more ‘honourable’ but it feels truer to Spillane’s take on femininity than the corpse-like doll Herbert creates in his quotation.

In Herbert’s quotation the female character is entirely passive, entirely abused—Herbert, for the sake of his own argument, even deprives her of a name. The abused doll feels like a counterpart of the good wife who redeemed the author and I am suspicious of both. As Herbert offers up a notion of ‘manhood that visits abuse on women’ he is also offering up a notion of women as saints men unreflectively desecrate. This isn’t too far away from Spillane. It only seems more benign. It is certainly no truer.

And that Google page I found strongly suggests that Spillane’s tone and style is not strictly for hard-boiled fiction alone. The sites it offered up with a similar vocabulary to Spillane were devoted to Romantic Fiction. Men raising hands and yanking open dresses are not features of male tales alone—and what might that tell us? That it is not men alone who are seduced by ‘dramas of manhood conquering womanly weakness (156).’

He is right to argue that men and women must engage each other on grounds of ‘equality and mutual respect (156)’ but the darker desires of both men and women are still in thrall to battle—especially as it is expressed in popular culture and advertising. Herbert’s book would have benefited from confronting the notion explored that women might also collude and promote—even nurture—such violence in men even as they suffer it and, even, because they suffer it. If society distorts men, it must also distort women. An awareness of this—not even an acceptance of it—would lead the author into murkier territory. This absence goes even further in deepening Herbert’s pitying and stentorian tone.

He warms to his theme intermittently. An early chapter on ‘Rape as an Activity of the Imagination’ does makes heavy and assertive work out of twelve atypical lines of Whitman and two partly quoted sentences from Thoreau’s Walden and there are relatively few examples of deep and detailed scrutiny of the texts he mentions but there are strong passages on college fraternities acting out theories of ‘warrior manhood’, on Harriet Beecher Stowe, and an excellent chapter which begins with pornographer, Bill Margold—‘The most violent we can get…is the cum shot in the face’—and then leaps back to Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter.

Such boldness is not typical however. He hauls out Norman Mailer for a kicking—is Mailer hauled out for any other reason these days? And he wrongly praises Peeping Tom as a more acute examination of the roots of male violence than Hitchcock’s Psycho. Both are indisputably great films, each with something to say about male violence (although Peeping Tom is British, a fact that Herbert does not allow to complicate his theme) but Powell’s film is a monodrama, and one only needs to compare Powell’s characterization of the Anna Massey role with those played by Vera Miles and Janet Leigh to see the Hitchcock film is a far bolder and more insidious movie. (One could also look again at the way in which Hitchcock used Massey in Frenzy). Simply put, Herbert prefers Peeping Tom because in it women are blameless victims; the father is the determining influence on the psychopath’s development whereas, in Psycho, Norman is ‘the plaything of womanly forces’ and women, in Herbert’s view of the world, do not instigate violence—ever.

There is also very little in the way of detailed analysis of commercial pornographic texts—which seems odd considering that this is his main focus. In the epilogue he returns to the personal note again. One wishes devoutly that he would not do so. He recounts an afternoon spent registering students when he momentarily fixed:

[A] predatory gaze on a woman in a yellow tee shirt. I did not know the student: my fascination had nothing to do with her as a person. (201)

He does not tell us what he thought as he looked at her and, certainly, he does not go on, of course, to physically abuse this student. He does not say if he regards her in sexually violent way. He need not. His gaze is an abuse.

Well, yes, I suppose it might be but, as with that Mickey Spillane-glimpsing teenager, Herbert rounds on his older self for falling prey yet again to ‘pornographic fascination.’ He was feeling bored and inadequate and, once he realizes this, the pornographic enchantment disappears.

His self-castigation does him some credit I suppose but it seems excessively puritanical to this admittedly coarse and unreconstructed reader—as does the book as a whole. It has a penitential tone that seems unearned, unnecessary, unenlightening and a confessional stance his ‘sins’ don’t justify.

Frankly I learn more (and feel more implicated) by texts that Herbert might benefit from mentioning such as the novels of Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, the novels of James Elroy and, especially, his memoir, My Dark Places. I mention them because these are writers who are in the vein of Mickey Spillane—who, after all, initiates these reflections. Such writers imaginatively investigate notions of masculinity and male violence to depths that, on this showing, Herbert cannot reach or, seemingly, contemplate.

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