In 1936 Esquire magazine ran the earthy and earth-shaking expose' by Helen Lawrenson that "Latins Are Lousy Lovers." Now comes Ann Landers, everyone's favorite war correspondent in the battle of the sexes, to report that no, it's the American male who's a lousy lover.
How does Ann Landers know? Some women told her.
A November column asked: "Would you be content to be held close and treated tenderly, and forget about 'the act'?" Landers, swamped by 90,000 letters, announced that 72 percent of the women said yes: They would prefer closeness and tenderness to sex.
What most surprised Landers was that 40 percent of the 72 percent were under 40, not an age, presumably, for celibacy. "That I am hearing this in 1985 is pretty startling," Landers concludes. "It says something very unflattering about the men in this country. It says men are selfish. They want theirs. They're takers . . ."
Spitting in the collective face of American males may keep Landers high on the popularity list among some angry or disappointed women. It doesn't, though, answer some of the harder questions that remain, beginning with the major mystery of all: Why do some marriages and relationships succeed while others flop?
It is no 1985 discovery that men can be sexually selfish. That terrain has been well spied out. Few writers better -- or more succinctly -- depicted the classic male taker than Tolstoy in "Anna Karenina." On the way upstairs, the elderly but carnal husband seeks out his young wife in the drawing room. He finds her and says unemotionally but demandingly, "Anna, it's time."
Ann Landers can say flippantly that "men are selfish" and come up with the percentages that supposedly prove that too many rotten Mr. Goodbars are home saying, "It's time." But the problem is more with love and expectations than with sex and mates. In the 1970s, the joy-of-sex books began to pursue the female market. The message, in everything from "Nice Girls Do" to "The Sensuous Woman," blared: Now that liberation has gotten women off their backs, they should expect more from both the world and the bed.
These books weren't presented as steamy sex manuals, the kind that men, in all their baseness, were reading. They were sociological treatises. Their authors promoted themselves as sages delivering the wisdom of Venus. "I am a distinguished scientist with impeccable credentials," said Irene Kassorla, the author of the best-selling "Nice Girls Do," in which the distinguished sciences of "fingertipping" and the "untamable Maxi-Orgasm" are explained to the love-starved.
Women were led to believe that their marriages didn't have to be like their mothers' marriages. It was possible to leap from pleasurelessness to ecstasy in one generation. "For better or for worse" would now be "for better or for much much better." Instead of being like the morose wives in yesterday's Charles Addams cartoons, the nice girls and sensuous women of the new age would resemble the beauties on Keats' Grecian urn, "forever panting, forever young."
A con was on, and large numbers of women appear to have been taken. They were sold fantasies, as men were earlier sold them in the '50s and '60s by Hugh Hefner, another distinguished scientist. Now women are telling Ann Landers about the louts and losers in the bedroom who make them feel like mares on a stud farm.
Landers was able to get a sensational column out of her survey, but the unsensational reality is still that men and women want the same from each other: close and tender love, and sex to be one of the expressions of it.
Giving up illusions is better than giving up sex. In "Some Men Are More Perfect Than Others," a treasure of a book, Merle Shain writes: "We marry for all the wrong reasons, and often we marry the wrong person as well, and even when we chance to marry someone we continue to like, having the notion that our mate should be our everything can make the marriage go awry.
"Some part of each of us is a dark forest and no one can follow us there, so every marriage has a little pocket of unmet needs. Often those who know us best also know us least of all, so one can be imprisoned by another's needs and expectations almost as easily as by one's own."
Neither the women's sex manuals nor the men's magazines attempt to add the spiritual and romantic to the biological. Closeness and tenderness are cravings of the soul that should not be either-or with sex. All of it is part of human nature, female and male. Sexual love is only one clause in the contract of emotions that bonds a man and woman.
The other kinds, in small print perhaps, are essential, too: I'll-do-the-dishes-and-take-out-the-garbage-love, tell-me-your-troubles-love, you-pick-the-movies-and-restaurant-love, I'll-get-up-with-the-baby-love, let-me-read-a-poem-to-you-love. None of those is as tingling as fingertipping, it is true. They touch the heart, not mere nerve endings.