Study Guide

You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down Sexuality

By Alice Walker

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Story 4: The Lover

She had never been particularly passionate with him, not even during the early years of their marriage; it was more a matter of being sexually comfortable. After the birth of the child she simply never thought of him sexually at all. (Lover.1)

Walker and her characters are not big on marriage. In this world, marriage has a nasty way of crushing female sexuality. That's because marital love (or lust) is stunted by things like a partner's love of porn, the birth of children (which is never seen as a positive thing), or—as in this case—a sense of confinement or suffocation.

The narrator of "The Lover" knows that she's beautiful, talented, and productive. Why should she confine herself to the boundaries of marriage—especially to a man who does nothing for her? She sees the acquisition of many lovers as the best chance to fully express her sexuality.

When they made love she was disappointed. He did not appear to believe in unhurried pleasure, and thought the things she suggested he might do to please her very awkward at the least. But it hardly mattered, since what mattered was the fact of having a lover. (Lover.24)

The narrator so looks forward to taking her first lover and becoming a modern woman. It's almost a shame that the sex isn't great. But this doesn't stop her from loving the whole experience—because, hey, it's all about the thrill of an adventure.

Story 6: Coming Apart: By Way of Introduction to Lorde, Teish and Gardner

Still, he does not know how to make love without the fantasies fed to him by movies and magazines. Those movies and magazines […] that have insinuated themselves between him and his wife, so that the totality of her body, her entire corporeal reality is alien to him. Even to clutch her in lust is automatically to shut his eyes. (Coming Apart.70)

In "Coming Apart: By Way of Introduction to Lorde, Teish and Gardner," we get a brief look at male sexuality through Walker's eyes. The husband in her "fable" can't find arousal without the sexual fantasies inspired by film and porn. The problem? These fantasies cut him off from any real engagement with his wife. She may be there, but she's not the one he's really making love to. Sex for him is a selfish act played out entirely in his own mind.

Story 8: The Abortion

[...] as she walked up the block, with its modern office buildings side by side with older, more elegant brownstones, she felt how close she was still to that earlier self. Still not in control of her sensuality, and only through violence and with money (for the flight, for the operation itself) in control of her body. (Abortion.31)

As Imani goes for her second abortion, she's disappointed in herself. She feels powerless because she's in this situation again, despite her experience and knowledge, just like a teenager who doesn't really know how babies are made. She sees abortion as hardcore violence—but something that can't be avoided in her situation. Her pregnancy threatens her stability in that moment—which makes her feel even more out of control.

Story 9: Porn

Like many thoughtful women of the seventies, she had decided women were far more interesting than men. But, again like most thoughtful women, she rarely admitted this aloud. Besides, again like her contemporaries, she maintained a close connection with a man.

It was a sexual connection. (Porn.1-2)

The main character of this story starts off with a daring premise: men are in her life for sexual pleasure only. She's not looking for a soulmate or proper companionship—she has her girls for that. Because her relationship with her man is based on sexuality, she's got zero tolerance for bedroom shenanigans that interrupt her "flow." That includes the introduction of porn, which makes her feel unsafe and degraded. Once the sexual connection has been compromised, it doesn't take much imagination to guess what will happen to the man in her life.

The long-term accommodation that protects marriage and other such relationships is, she knows, forgetfulness. She will forget what turns him on. (Porn.29)

The wife in Walker's "fable" decides that she'll ignore her husband's porn-fuelled fantasies, no matter how uncomfortable and degraded they make her feel. But she can't let it go, not if she's going to live life on her own terms. It's not only about his sexuality, after all. Forgetting is not an option, but facing reality—for both of them—is equally difficult. The reward, however, is pretty great: freedom from harmful and unrealistic expectations of themselves and each other.

Story 10: Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells

(Luna had made it a rule to date black men almost exclusively. My insistence on dating, as she termed it, "anyone" was incomprehensible to her, since in a politically diseased society to "sleep with the enemy" was to become "infected" with the enemy's "political germs.") (Luna.47)

This is an example of the personal-as-political at its finest. For activist Luna, walking the talk means taking her political beliefs all the way to the bedroom. Interestingly, sexuality also becomes a way for Luna to judge other people.

Story 11: Laurel

Laurel, who loved working among the grapes, and had done so up to the moment of leaving the orchards for Atlanta, had dirt, lots of it, under his nails.

That's it, I thought. I can safely play here. No one brings such dirty nails home to dinner. (Laurel.15-16)

The narrator is attracted to Laurel for heaven knows what reason in the first place, but here, she's pretty clear: Laurel is not a keeper. (You can't bring a boy with dirty hands home to your mama.) And that's actually a good thing because this girl doesn't want to be pinned down in a serious relationship. She's seeking nothing but pure pleasure from Laurel, which seems appropriate since they have nothing in common but chemistry.

Interracial couples were under surveillance wherever the poor things raised their heads anywhere in the city. We were reduced to a kind of sexual acrobatics on a bench close beside one of the dormitories. (Laurel.22)

The narrator and her squeeze, Laurel, are probably not thinking of the political implications of their interracial relationship in one of the most hostile places in the country—they're just trying to find a place to hook up. They basically take up wherever they can find a stationary spot. This recklessness proves that chemistry is chemistry, no matter where, when, or between whom. But it also foreshadows the bizarre behavior that puts the narrator in such an awkward spot later in the work.

(My husband's convictions notwithstanding, I suspected marriage could not keep me from being, in some ways, exactly the woman Laurel remembered.) (Laurel.78)

In some ways, the narrator of "Laurel" is a lot like Imani from "The Abortion": she feels out of control of her sexuality. The fear she has is that she can't be loyal, even though she's now in the most committed relationship she's ever been in. There's nothing, she worries, that can stand in the way of chemistry if it's there. Fortunately for her, it isn't there. But her ambivalence toward commitment and her sense of guilt where Laurel is concerned team up to knock her down pretty hard by the end of the story. She can't help but think that if she'd been more selfless, Laurel wouldn't have succumbed to despair.

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