Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Feminism and Male Aggression: Cara McKenna's AFTER HOURS

Feminists have struggled long and hard to persuade the public that violence against women is the inevitable end result of the unequal power relations between men and women that have historically characterized the world's societies. Since the 19th century, feminist activists have worked to overturn laws that encourage and perpetuate male on female violence, such as those allowing a husband to physically "chastise an errant wife," or an intimate partner to engage in sexual relations with a woman without her consent. In the twentieth century, they've worked to support studies about violence, and to publicize the results, statistics that demonstrate the continuing prevalence of such abuse. And feminist activists have played key roles in crafting the United Nations' Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1993, and the United States Congress's Violence Against Women Act in 1994.

No one could argue that increasing the awareness of the prevalence of violence against women is a bad thing. A 2012 Special Report from U.S. Department of Justice cites a 64% drop in non-fatal intimate partner violence in the United States between 1993 and 2010, due in large part to increased legal services for victims and increased public awareness of a problem that was once just swept under the rug.

Yet the publicity meant to educate and to advocate on behalf of women can have the unfortunate side effect of engendering distrust, even fear, in women, not only of violent men, but of men in general. Reading the statistics gathered by the Office on Violence Against Women and the the Minnesota Center Against Violence & Abuse at the University of Minnesota, statistics reporting that 1.5 million American women are raped or physically assaulted by a man they know every year, 22.1% of American women report having been physically assaulted by a current or former partner, and that one in three female murder victims are killed each year by an intimate partner, it's hardly surprising if women fear that violent men are lurking not only around that shadowy, empty street corner, but behind the face of every male community member, every male colleague, every male relative. How can women balance the need to be aware of male violence against their sex with the reality that the majority of men will never raise a hand to harm?

The male protagonist of Cara McKenna's AFTER HOURS is hardly a wolf hiding in sheep's clothing, a violent man hiding behind a pleasant demeanor. No, Kelly Robak appears to be all wolf. When Erin Coffey, newly beginning her job at as an LPN in a hospital ward designed for men who suffer from persistent, disruptive psychotic episodes, sees him standing in the patient lounge, her brain instantly flashes "inmate," not "patient." "His head was shaved to brown stubble, and even from twenty feet away I could make out the scar running from beneath his ear down his neck," Erin notices as she watches him, his "large arms crossed over his equally large chest." When Erin finds out that he's not a patient, but an orderly, one large enough to wrestle down a patient in the midst of a psychotic episode (it usually takes three), she's somewhat reassured. "After all, this was a man who'd keep me from bodily harm," Erin tells herself.

But when bossy, likes-to-be-in-control, "thug of a man" Kelly begins to push Erin to extend their relationship to after hours, Erin's doubts comes roaring back. In her family, Erin's always been the rescuer, nursing her dying grandmother, protecting her younger sister Amber from their mother's indifferent parenting, defending Amber and Amber's young son Jack from her verbally abusive boyfriend. What would she do with a man like Kelly, who orders for her in a restaurant without asking what she likes, who won't let her pay for drinks, who tells her straight out he's "real my-way-or-the-highway"? Understandable that such a man, at the beck and call of others all day long on the job, would want "what I want, the way I want it," but such a man is hardly likely to appeal to even "the most middling feminist," Erin thinks.

And Erin does consider herself a feminist. "My sister and mom were welcome to his type, and all the pleasurable mistakes those men offered. As for me, no thank you. All set. If you want me, I'll be at the coffee shop, looking for a nice boy of manageable proportions with no scars and a basic grasp of feminism," she tells herself when her attraction to Kelly threatens her good intentions.

Yet the more Erin sees of Kelly, the more she begins to realize that there is more to him than just aggression. Kelly has a calming influence on the patients, and cares about their welfare. He can be mischievous, or a controlling hothead, "in the neon intimacy of the bar," but cool and civil on the job. His crass assertions can be read as sexist, or merely as searingly honest. "We've got a little something between us, don't we?" he asks Erin early in their relationship, recognizing what she can't bring herself to acknowledge. When she simply says, "If you say so," he finds her lack of honestly disappointing: "He winced like I'd just tried to knee him in the balls. 'Okay, we can be like that.' " His honesty forces Erin to be honest in her turn, honest both about her attraction to him and about her doubts about the wisdom of acting on it.

Erin soon realizes that Kelly "wasn't quite like the men who'd turned my mom and sister's lives inside out. He was hardworking and seemed honest, and unless he made a pass when he dropped me off, his intentions were harmless enough, But he'd painted himself as a cousin of those men—aggressive and admittedly selfish, admittedly a bit of a bully. I'd always been so determined never to fall for one of those types." To the self-sufficient Erin, falling for an aggressive man seems to be a worrisomely anti-feminist act.

But there is a difference between an aggressive man and a violent one, McKenna's novel insists. And it's a feminist act to be able to differentiate between the two. AFTER HOURS shows Erin, and through Erin, the reader, how to tell the difference. First, by setting up sister Amber's boyfriend Marco as a negative foil to Kelly. After Erin and Marco have a verbal altercation that leads to shoving and injury to Erin, another colleague at the hospital notes,"Bullies tend to prey on weak people, people they perceive as worthless." Marco's behavior fits this description to a T, but Kelly's doesn't, Erin thinks: "It was Kelly... I'd always seen as a bit of a bully. But he didn't want an easy target. If he was after anything, it was a challenge." Later, talking with Kelly about the incident, she realizes,"You... you're kind of an ass, but you know it. He's just a big, spoiled toddler with a loud truck and a drinking problem. And absolutely no self-awareness. No respect for anyone else's needs or feelings. I don't think it registers, that other people even have feelings." When Amber's son is hospitalized, it's not Marco, but Kelly, who shows up to be emotionally supportive, despite his deep discomfort with situations beyond his control.

Second, by showing that Kelly not only recognizes that other people have feelings, but is invested in learning the signals, both verbal and non-verbal, that Erin uses to convey her emotions. "Where'd you go?" Kelly asks her after she grows still and stiff during their first sexual encounter, wanting him and fearing him and worried that he won't stop at the line she's verbally drawn. "He kissed my ear, and when I spoke it was like he'd stepped inside my mind," she thinks when he doesn't take her false reassurance as permission to keep going. Here, and at other points in the story, Kelly works to understand Erin's feelings, urging her to express them, and to help her deal with them when they become overwhelming.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, Kelly understands that no means no: "I can't go all the way tonight," Erin tells him, even though part of her wants to, wants to break away from her good-girl role and have hot, unprotected sex, even knowing that in the morning "it'd feel awful" having ignored her own responsibilities to herself, her own self-respect. In older romances, the fact that the heroine feels desire was often enough to justify the hero's "taking" her, even over her verbal protestations. Erin recognizes the prevalence of this cultural assumption, not just in romance, but in society in general: obvious arousal has "been permission enough for too many pushy men." "But a lust-heavy sigh in my hair erased" her worries, as Kelly stops. "I want you... But not tonight. Not that far," she reminds Kelly, just to be sure. "I heard you the first time," he responds, with "not a jot of irritation in his tone—just a fact." Rather than upbraid her for being a tease, or pushing her to give in, or shaming her into backing down, Kelly takes care to follow the letter of Erin's law, aware that she is the ultimate arbiter of what happens to her own body.

Erin gradually realizes that Kelly's aggression is only one facet of his complex character, a character with many nuances. It's not that he's really different, deep down underneath, that the aggression is just a mask to cover vulnerability, as so many romances of the past have asserted in order to excuse their heroes' aggressive behavior. Instead, Erin learns that that Kelly is both bossy and kind, domineering and thoughtful, calming and provoking. He wants Erin to allow him to be in charge during sex because he enjoys taking on that role—"It's the illusion of control I want, not actually forcing anyone to do something they're not into"—not because being controlling is the only way he can be. Once Erin recognizes that she, too, can play different roles (submissive sex partner, dominating sex partner, competent nurse, strong sister, vulnerable aunt) she can give over the fear that her desire for the bossy Kelly is inherently odds with feminism:

Where in the tenets of feminism did it say it was liberating to stubbornly deny yourself pleasurable sexual experiences just to spite a bossy man? No place. Feminism isn't a zero-sum game. Choosing not to sleep with Kelly, and our scoring zippo additional orgasms off each other? That was zero-sum. Banging each other's brains out for one memorable weekend? Win-win.

But accepting Kelly as a lover, even engaging in BDSM, does not mean she must cede her identity to him; as she prepares for their tryst, she thinks:

Cute but comfortable underwear, freshly shaved legs but my downstairs left to its own devicesbecause I was no man's personal porn star. I was Kelly's sex slave but also a feminist, and the crooked line had to be drawn someplace. And that place was in the perfectly lovely, feminine, God-given soft curls between my legs, I decided.

Erin and Kelly have to get beyond a few more assumptions about what it means to be a feminist, and what it means to be a man, in order to walk that "crooked line" of feminism and reach their "happily for now." Because while feminism promises that love can and should exist without violence, it never promised that love can be completely without fear. But a woman who looks like a bunny but has the sharp claws of a raccoon might just be the perfect person to  truly see, and to love, a wolf with a bit of soft wool and the occasional gentle "baa" mixed in with the scary, snapping teeth.

Photo credits:
Violence Against Women statistics: YWCA
Don't be a Bully: zazzle
Sex-Positive Feminism: Boston University Take Back the Night

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

Penguin/Intermix, 2013.

Next time on RNFF:
Setting up submission guidelines


  1. another colleague at the hospital notes,"Bullies tend to prey on weak people, people they perceive as worthless."

    That line seems to imply that only weak women will be abused, and that's just not true. For example,

    Dennis Waterman, who was interviewed by Piers Morgan, admits that he hit his ex-wife Rula Lenska because she was cleverer than him: "The problem with strong, intelligent women is that they can argue, well. And if there is a time where you can't get a word in … and I … I lashed out. I couldn't end the argument." (McAuliffe)

    1. Thanks, Laura, for bringing this to our attention. You're making me consider the stereotypes that have grown up not just about domestic abuse and its causes, but also about stereotypes of domestic abuse victims, and the way they can disempower the abused.

      Perhaps there is an important difference to be made here, between a bully and an abuser? Both seek to appease their own lack of self-worth by dominating others. But a bully turns to the "easy mark" to find relief, while an abuser turns to those with whom he is intimate? And the abuser strives to reduce the power of those with whom he is intimate? Do most domestic abusers have a history of bullying?

      I think a trip to the library, to read some articles in the journal VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, is in order in the near future...

    2. "Perhaps there is an important difference to be made here, between a bully and an abuser?"

      Off the top of my head, I'd say no, because I associate "bullying" with things that happen outside the home, and "domestic violence" with (as the name implies) things that happen inside the home. I'd probably make a distinction between the settings rather than between the types of behaviour or their motivations. I'd think of both bullying and domestic violence as abuse.

      Here's the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's description of bullying:

      Bullying can be:

      * verbal abuse, such as name calling and gossiping
      * non-verbal abuse, such as hand signs or text messages
      * emotional abuse, such as threatening or intimidating someone
      * exclusion, such as ignoring or isolating someone
      * undermining, by constantly criticising or spreading rumours
      * racial or sexual bullying
      * physical assaults, such as hitting and pushing.

    3. But did he ever "lash out" uncontrollably against his boss? Against some guy bigger and stronger than him? Someone that "lashing out" against would actually have *consequences* for him?

      Most abusers say they couldn't control themselves -- but they control themselves just fine in *other* situations.

  2. I thought this was a brilliant book. I was pretty appalled by Kelly as a hero at first, for the same reasons Erin was. When he ordered her a drink, I thought, "Seriously? We're over. Only jackasses do that." But what I loved was how Erin was able to see little flashes of Kelly's complexity, while taking care to go slowly and protect herself at the same time. And by the end of the novel, Kelly had also learned things about himself and about the man Erin needed him to be (e.g. not a douchebag who orders for her) and that it could be just as sexy to have Erin in charge of sex as it was for him to be in charge.

    I agree with Laura's comment, but I also think that that comes out strongly in the novel. Bullies tend to first see *themselves* as worthless or lacking in some way, and their bullying behavior is a way for them to make others weaker than they perceive themselves to be. Kelly grew up in a family where he could've easily seen himself as worthless, but he managed to develop a self-confidence that made him more comfortable with who he is and therefore not threatened by other strong people. In fact, he blatantly acknowledges that strong women are a big turn-on. Marco, on the other hand, is truly a loser and clearly lacks all confidence in himself, and I felt like that was really what underscored his bullying. He might've thought that women and his child were easy, weak targets he could subjugate, but I bet he secretly fears that he's the most worthless person in the room.

    1. Yes, Erin's colleague's words were meant to suggest that her actions defending her sister were a good thing; "We respect what others are willing to defend.... We value what others value, or at least covet those things. But bullies don't like conflict. Theirs is a cowardly facsimile of power, won only through sure bets. And they'll always go after the low-hanging fruit."

      There's an important distinction to be made between a bully and an abuser, though (see my comments to Laura above). And perhaps "weak" isn't the right word; might "disconnected from social supports" better convey the idea colleague Dennis is trying to get at?

      On another note, I didn't write about this in the original post, but McKenna's book also provokes a lot of thought about class and classism. If I'd had the time, I would have written an entirely separate post about this topic, too. Definitely an example of a powerful working-class romance.

  3. Well then. Another book that you've put on my must read TBR. :) Thanks as always for your well-thought out review, Jackie!