The world is run by women. Violence is a thing of the past. Public transportation is clean and free, and personal finance counselors—like a cross “between your mother, Lara Croft, and J.P. Morgan”—manage everybody’s bills. All men are subjected to an intensive series of reeducation programs before they’re allowed full status as individuals. But there is one remaining problem, and it lies at the heart of Cheryl Benard’s novel Turning on the Girls: The utopian new order is stymied by sex.
A researcher named Lisa has been hired by the Ministry of Thought to reevaluate sexual fantasies, searching for something more than the bodice-ripping romance novels and sadomasochistic scenarios that have heretofore comprised people’s erotic vocabularies. Her proselytizing, sensitive-man SR (significant relationship) has nothing much to offer, and for the first third of Benard’s saucy but PG-rated novel, Lisa reads de Sade, Paglia, Réage, and numerous romances in search of politically correct erotica. No luck. Then she’s asked to infiltrate a band of sexist counterrevolutionaries who are plotting to bring men back into power, and finds herself immersed in a renegade subculture where women giggle helplessly and men say things to each other like “Is that babe yours? She is hot!”
Conspiracies abound, Lisa does finally have some good sex with a he-man who has been living in the woods, and violence turns out to be the answer, sometimes. The plot is a bit of a tangle, and its most provocative question—can sex still be sexy when power imbalances have been eradicated?—never gets answered to anyone’s satisfaction, but Benard’s thoroughly imagined matriarchy has fascinating elements. For example, the school system refuses to grant eternal fame to military leaders or criminals: None of the children have ever heard of Hitler.
Intriguing as the premise is, the narrative voice prevents any deep connection with the characters. Benard seems to be aiming for a feminist deconstruction of the traditional omniscient narrator, but the result is disorienting and overly cute. “I could probably develop a remotely plausible story for how the power shifted back [to women], since some paranoid people like Rush Limbaugh think this is happening already anyway,” she writes. “But then I would have to write a really well-researched historical tome, which would be about a thousand pages long, and who do I look like, James Michener?” It doesn’t work, and Turning on the Girls feels less like a turn-on than a tirade.