US Guys: The True and Twisted Mind of the American Man by Charlie LeDuff, The Penguin Press, 242 pages, $25.95.
The other night, I watched a friend work her magic at a spot in the East Village. Her face imbued with the flush of three or 10 cocktails, she leaned in toward a guy and turned up the charm. Her saucer eyes remained both alert and beguiling. The guy responded graciously, nodding and sipping, touching and laughing. She took him home that night, had a blast, and sent him on his merry way in the morning.
“I had him in the palm of my hand,” she told me the next day. “And he had me in his.” She didn’t bother to predict the future.
It’s a city thing. A young thing. A thing learned in college after maddening power struggles with lame-ass morons. A New York thing—to kiss, drink and feel nice about it. To feel that a man-woman interaction isn’t such an agonizing mystery. To see sex as a gamble, but fun as hell. To see men as peers, not aliens.
I watch it happen in this city constantly. Nights like these turn into a romance or a sex habit, or else they remain a happy memory. They might cause a little stress, or spark a tiny epiphany (That guy was really just an idiot)—but a city girl’s got a life to lead, so she gets over it.
I think of the “hookup” culture—the adolescent no-man’s land of indefinable sex, the hormone-driven free-for-all caricatured by Tom Wolfe as fellatio and frat parties—as a necessary rite of passage. Laura Sessions Stepp begs to differ. A Washington Post reporter who investigated eighth-grade oral-sex rings back in 1998, Ms. Stepp has now spent a year with three groups of young women—mostly well-off and suburban—in college and high school. They dished about their sex lives freely, terrifying Ms. Stepp in the process.
Unhooked includes vignettes detailing everything from tense IM conversations to a 19-year-old’s near-rape experience. It’s a sympathetic warning to college chicks everywhere and, eventually, a plea to turn back the clock. Ms. Stepp’s girls are detached, stubborn. Confusing love and lust—and resisting their “natural” impulses to love and be loved—they rush into kissing, sex and everything in between. They’ve absorbed all that feminism stuff, and now they’re paying for it. Though its heart is in the right place, feminism has gone too far: It “needs to revisit its assumptions and expand its vision of what it means to be a woman.” In other words, back to the good old days, ladies: “Explore your feminine side …. Bake cookies, brownies, muffins.” Ms. Stepp declares that when you hook up, “you make yourself passionless.”
Ouch. Dare I ask what she thinks of my beguiling, saucer-eyed city girl?
Not that I don’t recognize Ms. Stepp’s rather nuanced account of well-adjusted girls feeling tortured—suppressing swelling feelings, poring over text-messages to try to get inside some guy’s head. Indeed, when I read 19-year-old Shaida’s wistful comment about her fate as a perpetual “fuckbuddy,” a chill of identification creeps down my spine. Shaida admits that there’s “a very fine line between being sexually liberated and being sexually used.” Granted.
But wait. I’m 22, went through it all, and came out fine: I took a cue from the city that had born and bred me. Midway through Ms. Stepp’s exhaustive study of the blow-dried sorority girls at George Washington University and—yep, you guessed it—Duke, I begin to feel indignant on behalf of my neglected demographic: girls, street-smart ones, who do the hookup thing and get out alive … or smarter, even.
Ms. Stepp tells us that it feels nice for a guy to pay for dinner, that lust inevitably fades, and—the kicker—that one should “think erotic, not pornographic.” Now that’s a distinction that’s pissed off pro-sex feminists for years. As I read on, it still does. “Guys are not the enemy,” she concludes. “Don’t excuse their bad behavior, but do try to understand it.” Uh, thanks, Laura—never thought they were the enemy in the first place!
In US Guys, Charlie LeDuff gives a succinct reply: Women have no hope of understanding men. Don’t even try, babe. America has been built, nurtured, enjoyed and destroyed by guys, and they have enough to stress about without bringing women into the picture. “Women here are third…. Never let a broad bust up the family,” Mr. LeDuff says about a fight club in Oakland, Calif., one of the many all-male subcultures he visits as he shuttles us through his own yearlong trip around the country. He takes us from a gay rodeo to a Custer’s Last Stand re-enactment in Montana, reporting with a rough-and-ready poetry on one impoverished group after another. “Men crave dignity and fulfillment,” he tells us—and become losers if they don’t get it. He shows us a nauseating America, unified only by its deeply dissatisfied, highly unmotivated dudes.
Women are background distractions—whores, waitresses, sad-sack wives. Men want to be fulfilled—not by their ladies, but by each other. Boarding a cross-country flight, the author leaves his own wife in tears at the airport: “She wasn’t giving the proper respect and I let her know it.” The problems of America (and believe him, there are many) is a bed that men have made for themselves, and need to lie in—alone. The dearth of women in US Guys underlines a far more ominous boy-girl disconnect than any of the faceless frat boys featured in Unhooked.
Mr. LeDuff focuses mostly on Western and Southern small towns—technically cities, but small towns all the same: Tulsa, Okla.; Amarillo, Tex.; Cleveland, Tenn. I think, smugly, “A smart urban woman could teach these guys a thing or two.” I continue to search in vain for the city girl I know. (I revise my blanket city-girl proclamation after Mr. LeDuff’s chapter on Detroit. In this dying metropolis, a guy’s only reaction to a murdered, ravaged, bloody whore splayed out like a starfish is: “She jus’ a raggedy thing, no one is gonna miss her.”)
So maybe I don’t speak for all city girls. I speak for the New York girls who might not be so baffled by men after all, whose interactions with men aren’t limited to campus mixers or illicit transactions in Detroit warehouses.
Mr. LeDuff does check out New York—and dubs it the birthplace of metrosexuality. His search for the meaning of “metrosexual”—not to be confused with “GAY”—uncovers a man whose groomed nails and sweet-smelling coif reveals a weakness for vanity, consumerism and general societal pressure. This is the closest Mr. LeDuff ever comes to finding an overlap in the sensibilities of men and women. (That he finds it in New York offers me some faint satisfaction.)
In the midst of Laura Stepp’s 14-year-old blowjob experts and sorostitutes and ill-fated feminists, and Charlie LeDuff’s slain sluts, trailer-trash wives and pathetic baby-mamas, Saucer Eyes from the other night is lost in the crowd. In a place like New York, men and women are squeezed so tightly against each other, against revelry and the grind, that they’re forced to learn how to interact. They catch on to each other’s ways … and end up seeming not so different after all.
Nona Willis-Aronowitz has written for The Village Voice and Salon.