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Quotes From Annie Potts'
The Science/Fiction of Sex:
John Gray's Mars and Venus in the Bedroom

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Since Annie Potts' excellent work is not online yet, I decided to write a summary of pungent quotes from her article. Professor Potts of the University of Auckland, New Zealand wrote The Science/Fiction of Sex: John Gray's Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, which is in Volume 1(2) of Sexualities, published in 1998 by SAGE Publications. In this feminist critique, influenced by poststructualism, she shows how Gray creates a patriarchal discourse in Mars and Venus in the Bedroom. Potts begins by noting that Gray's work is the latest in a long line of products which create normative notions of heterosexual activity and thus regulate current trends in sexual practices. She adds that certain themes recur throughout his work:

"The privileging of male sexuality over female, the notion of a naturally active male sex(pertise) vs an "unknowing" submissive female sex(uality), the privileging of coitus over other sexual activities, and the need to strive for 'self'-completion via heterosexual intercourse."

Potts gives several examples showing how Gray, in typical self-help fashion, uses undocumented "cases studies" to affirm his "expertise". She notes that while Gray deploys many markers of both documentary and scientific discourse, such as the use of anecdotes along with appeals to biology, nature, and anatomical difference, the central thesis of his work relies on a familiar fiction: the fabled differences between Martians and Venusians.

"In this sense, Gray's anatomy of sexual differences offers neither the science of sex, nor its fiction; rather it constitutes the science/fiction of sex."

In exposing Gray's science/fiction, Potts details how he relies on the popular view that great sex is compulsory because it "completes" a person. From a poststructuralist perspective, the concept that 'great sex' connects an individual to some core aspect of 'being' or 'identity' is problematic. Nonetheless, Gray expounds on the view of "wholeness" through men trying to "empty out" with women seeking to be "filled up":

"Coitus functions for men as a way of discarding "surplus" through orgasmic "release", while women--whose bodies . . . are socially constructed as partial and lacking, require coitus to become 'saturated'."

While Potts is aware of Gray's contention that men privilege women's sexual needs above their own, she details how "the responsibility of women for the complete well-being of their male partners through their acceptance or denial of regular "great sex" is ubiquitous in [his] book." Gray admits that women love sex, but is adamant that men need sex, thus paving the way for women to submit to "quickies":

"The man is clear of responsibility in this scenario. He has no choice; being a man, he must have sex whenever he needs to. The woman, therefore, must cooperate when confronted with a set of false choices: to participate enthusiastically, to "participate" inertly, or to decline sex and be responsible for the eventual disintegration of the relationship."

Potts does not hesitate to show how Gray reconstructs society's difference dividend, as he is adamant on the need to perpetuate traditional chivalry:

Gray attempts not only to "teach" a woman the "art" of being feminine (that is, dependent), but also to teach her the art of making the man act in a "naturally" masculine (protective) way. The ostensibly natural attributes of each gender actually break down into a series of learned body movements and gestures, which must be repeatedly rehearsed so as not to be forgotten. In this scene, disciplinary power functions to mask a woman's (unconscious) collusion in her own subordination."

In Potts view, John Gray constructs pleasure as male (s)expertise and female surrender. She details the striking similarities in content and style between Van de Velde's landmark 1920's Ideal Marriage and Gray's Mars and Venus in the Bedroom. Both authors liken sex to music or art, as the woman is the "instrument" that the man plays. Potts notes that Gray adds sports metaphors to the artistic ones, as he compares sex to a baseball game:

"The woman (that is, her vagina) represents 'home base', piercing her body an aggressive gesture of victory. She is neither audience nor player; she is the 'game', the 'score'; the passive, unresisting 'target' of his performance. His mastery of her becomes the object of the gaze of the crowd, who applaud his technique and skill."

Potts makes no bones about the fact that Gray thinks little of the clitoris, as he tells men to "grab a pillow, camp out down south, and resign yourself to the fact that you are not going anywhere for quite awhile" (p. 169-170):

"This clitoris here constitutes a place of no significance for men; a 'nowhere to go', a 'non-place' a supplementary venus in the absence of anywhere better; an unfortunate but (sometimes) necessary stop on the journey towards the final (and ultimate) destination: the vagina."

Potts sees that Gray's patriarchal discourse extends to the language men and women must use during their "lovemaking", as men should be articulate while women make "deep sounds" like "uumph" or "ohhh" (p. 57).

"Thus, the utterances a woman is permitted to make during sex correspond to the Kristevan "semiotic": they are signs and symbols that have meaning but do not achieve the full sense of language . . .In contrast, the man's sexual discourse remains in the realm of the "symbolic", which is the domain of position and judgment."

After expouding on Gray's missionary position mentality, it's hardly surprising for Potts to find that he's quite determined to domesticate the multifaceted potential of female sexuality, its capacity for multiple orgasms:

"In order to be truly satisfied, she is prescribed an orgasmic diet, consisting of one big "ultimate" orgasm rather than countless smaller or non-final ones. Thus, the woman's sexual response should become like his, which, after all, sets the sexual agenda: according to the quoted account, "they finish sex" when, and only when, "the man has his orgasm" (p. 143). Anything occuring after this is extra, a non-necessity, a problem in terms of how sex is legitimized."

Potts concludes her critique by showing how Gray tries to depoliticize heterosexual relations:

"Self-help books such as Gray's ultimately rely on New Age/humanist therapeutic discourses which emphasize the essential self and individual choice at the expense of social enquiry or social change . . . Indeed, the central premise of Gray's books--that men and women are essentially and correctly different--reflects an investment in maintaining the status quo."

Potts notes that as Gray tries to distance himself from an overt anti-feminist position, he continues to manipulate the female reader to accept her position of subordination:

"Such as surrender is never recognized as a difference in power between Martians and Venusians. Instead, it masquerades as a difference in their biology, or their souls, and therefore in this languages and culture(s); differences which in their origins must be considered natural, and consequently "healthy". This naturalization of difference constitutes the ide(sex)ology of Gray's self-help books: their mission(ary position)."

Kathleen Trigiani
November 1999



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Copyright 1999 Kathleen Trigiani. All rights reserved.