"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 21, 2023

When ‘No’ Means 'Yes' - The Ambiguity And Excitement Of Romance

One does not have to read through many volumes of literature to find examples of men’s frustrated pursuit of women.  A woman’s ‘no’ was part of her allure, ‘playing hard to get’ was part of an elaborate pas de deux, a mating dance of sexual demurral, passion, and conquest. A woman’s currency was her honor and her chastity. Her marriage might be arranged and her final worth a matter of dowry, family name, and ancestry; but the ballet was still her way of testing the interest and resolve of her suitors, exciting them with her demure sexuality, and promising much more.

Shakespeare’s Comedies are all about men chasing women and the ways in which the smarter, wittier, and more able ladies ran rings around them. Rosalind (As You Like It) knows that men are only after one thing, stumble and fall over themselves to get it, and make fools of themselves trying:

No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is
almost six thousand years old,
 and in all this time
there was not any man died in his own person
videlicit, in a love-cause.
 Troilus had his brains
dashed out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he
could to die before, and he is one of the patterns
of love.
 Leander, he would have lived many a fair
year, though Hero had turned nun, if it had not been
for a hot midsummer night; for, good youth, he went
but forth to wash him in the Hellespont and being
taken with the cramp was drowned and the foolish
coroners of that age found it was 'Hero of Sestos.'

But these are all lies: men have died from time to
time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

Image result for images helen mirren as rosalind

Yet Rosalind, Beatrice, Viola, and many other of Shakespeare’s savvy women are eventually softened and receptive. Portia (The Merchant of Venice) jokes with her minions at the expense of the many wealthy suitors who must solve the riddle of the ‘caskets’. One is laughably pretentious, the other clueless, the other fey and unserious.  They all want the beautiful and wealthy heiress, and she is having none of it – until the man of her dreams comes calling.


Thomas Marvell’s (1621-78) To His Coy Mistress is perhaps the most well-known poem about a lover’s pursuit of the woman he loves:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day….
I would love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews…
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace…
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Image result for images thomas marvell poet
Guillaume de Poitiers (1071-1127) five hundred years earlier expressed the same frustrated feelings. In the tradition of medieval courtly love, men wrote poems about the ladies of their desire. In this one the poet sighs that he must dance to his lady’s tune, obey her law, wait patiently for her favors. Like Marvel Poitiers wonders if he will be an old man before she will bestow her love. 

All joys are humbled, all must dance/To her law, and all lords obey/My lady, with her lovely way

Of greeting, her sweet pleasant glance/A hundred years of life I’d grant/To him who has her love in play.

Since man can find no better here,/That lips can tell of, eyes can see,/I wish to keep her close by me.

To render my heart fresh and clear,/Renew the flesh too, so the sere/Winds of age blow invisibly.

If she’ll grant her love in measure,/My gratitude I’ll then declare,/And conceal it and flatter there,

Speak and act all for her pleasure;/Carefully I’ll prize my treasure,/And sing her praises everywhere.

Image result for guillaume de poitiers

‘No’ was expected by these knights and troubadours; and despite their sexual ambitions respected women’s chastity.  If a woman gave herself too easily, then she must have given herself to others and would be no more than a courtesan and unworthy of marriage. Her reticence was a sign of value and her resistance one of moral and social resolve.

It was no surprise, then, that sexual games were played so elaborately. The hijinks of Shakespeare’s comedies were no more than metaphors for the necessary mating rituals of everyone who had a stake in marriage. The fanciful scenes of  All’s Well That Ends Well or Love’s Labor Lost play out prescribed sexual roles according to which women piqued men’s desire but did not give in to it; and men pursued women to the point of silliness but could never have them. 

Although perhaps not so elegantly, sexual duets have been danced ever since. As late as the Fifties in America ‘No’ meant no pregnancy.  There might not have been any courtly fortune at stake, but few young women wanted to risk the ostracism and social stigma that went along with unwanted births. The rules of engagement were understood. Illicit sex carried with it a social opprobrium for both men and women that most wanted to avoid.

Image result for images Fifties boy and girl on a date

Not that we didn’t try; but a stern ‘No’ meant exactly that. Legs tight, groping hands slapped, “Not now” were all part of the drill.  We expected to run up against the fence line but were not too young to sense female arousal and desire and always figured there was a way through the perimeter. Nor we too young to understand when the militarized zone was indeed impenetrable and that no stealth or stratagem could penetrate. Storming the walls never occurred to us.  Sexual conquest to mean anything had to be mutual.  If a girl agreed to sleep with us, it was a tribute to our allure, potency, and charm.  Force would have been an insult to both her and us.

In other words the game of ‘No’ was played out then as it was in Petrarch’s time.  The goals were the same as were the rules; but the changing times made them more flexible. So much was at stake for the young noblewoman of the 16th century that a pas de deux was all that a young courtier could expect. In late Fifties America, however, we sensed the changes that were coming – not so much sexual freedom, but altered sexual roles. Sex might be possible.

So, what has happened in the ensuing generation? Why has the age-old sexual ballet turned sour, nasty, retributive, and punitive? One would have thought that with the final liberation of women, the game would remain the same, but the rules of engagement – pursuit and submission – would be altered.  There would be no need for shy demureness, reticence, or chastity on the part of women; and instead of a playful hand-slap men would get a firm ‘No’. In other words women would have no reason whatsoever for refusing sex other than lack of interest or desire; and men, now appreciating women’s new sexual authority and seeing a wide-open field, would not bother to persist.

Coyness, flirtation, perfume, décolleté would not disappear; and if anything would become more provocative; and it was up to men to negotiate with new sexy-cum-defiantly independent women. Most men I know have learned quickly and well.  Women are just as interested in having sex, bonding, mating, and marrying as ever before; and just as in Abelard and Heloise’s day, the only conquest that counts is the mutual one. A lady’s voluntary and passionate submission is a tribute.  Force makes no sense at all. If you can’t win a woman’s heart with charm, confidence, and patience, then it isn’t even worth trying.

Abelard and Heloise

So the current crisis about rape is a mystery to me. What has happened to the beautiful game? Have men forgotten that women have not changed and still respond to respect, male confidence, and sexual interest? Have women read only half of the new sexual charter and not bothered with the part about sexual maturity and responsibility? Have men gotten caught between the sexual expectations of a libertine age and the new authority of women?

It is surprising that men need to be told “No means no”. Of course it does, and is expected in any relationship; but as true and honest a declaration it may be at one moment, a firm ‘No’ may turn into a warm ‘Yes’.  That’s how the game of mutual conquest is played – figuring out just when ‘No’ becomes ‘Yes’.  There are no absolutes in sexual gaming as any sexually successful man – or woman – knows.

Image result for images no means no

Intelligence and sophistication may be at the heart of the issue.  I know many thirty-somethings who have courted, dated, and mated with no less romance and love than any troubadour or well-born lady.  They have understood that romantic engagement is only sexual at its most base and primitive.

The most successful love affair in all of Shakespeare – and he was no fan of marriage or romance – was that between Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Kate in the first act is indeed a shrew and a vixen, but in the course of the play is ‘tamed’. Yet Shakespeare was not writing about abusive male patriarchy but mutual conquest.  Kate needed Petruchio’s confident sexuality and respect; and Petruchio finally found a woman with energy, wit, intelligence, and passion. Sex was the least of it.

Image result for images elizabeth taylor kate the shrew

Shakespeare understood the drama, counterpoint, and even elegance of a romantic affair.  As in all his plays he created strong women who, although living in world of male dominance, learned how to navigate well within it.  He knew that sexual dynamics were permanent.  No social strictures or artificial constraints could neuter them; and the resulting theatre of sexual advances and responses was what interested him.

The intellectually sophisticated One Percent get it. Frat boys do not.

Eventually things on campus will sort themselves out.  Women will eventually learn to resort to their basic intelligence, strength, with, and resolve and be just like Shakespeare’s women, getting what they want when they want it without outrage and protest. Men will finally figure out how feminism squares with femininity and get on with things.

Hopefully both will learn how to play the beautiful game once again.


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