The Surprisingly Sexy Imagery in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

[This has been sitting in my drafts folder so long that The Handmaid’s Tale is largely irrelevant now. Realizing this made me want to just delete it, but it was mostly complete so I just hunkered down and finished the damn thing. Bear with me, one day I’ll learn to write quickly enough for the news cycle.]

When I was done reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and done watching the Hulu Original series) I was left with mixed emotions. On the one hand, the story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when you let religious white men take over, but on the other hand, it’s also peak white feminism; it’s not inclusive of women of color (WOC). To Hulu’s credit, they were diverse in the casting of the TV show, and their adaptation was great, but I don’t think they addressed race any better than the book did.

But I digress, I’m not here to do a hot take on The Handmaiden’s Tale—there are so many other better researched and argued essays you could be reading if you wanted thatI’m here to talk about how surprised I was at the sexual imagery that some of the passages evoked. Much of the storyline is about the worship of fertility and the suppression of female sexuality, so I was surprised at the stark sexual imagery Atwood employs to describe the pedestrian:

I walk along the gravel path that divides the back lawn, neatly, like a hair parting. It has rained during the night; the grass to either side is damp, the air humid. Here and there are worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half dead; flexible and pink, like lips. (1)

Did you not orgasm when you read pink lips? All this talk of partings and dampness coupled with fertility…and she’s literally just talking about the backyard. Like…SHE HORNY!

Later on, Offred describes some Japanese tourists that she spots around town:

The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before. (2)

Once again, Atwood, through the eyes of Offred, is over-sexualizing a scene that would have been fairly common in pre-Gilead America. Offred is herself taken aback by the overtness of it, illustrating just how much she’s grown accustomed to this new world.

One of Atwood’s finest moments in the book is when she uses the imagery of a slug to describe male impotence:

To have them putting him on, trying him on, trying him out, while he himself puts them on, like a sock over a foot, onto the stub of himself, his extra, sensitive thumb, his tentacle, his delicate, stalked slug’s eye which extrudes, expands, winces, and shrivels back into himself when touched wrongly, grows big again, bulging a little at the tip, traveling forward as if along a leaf, into them, avid for vision. (3)

Fucking LOVE the idea of a man’s dick (and to a larger extent, his ego) being compared to a fucking disgusting slimy slug, so delicate that even the slightest disturbance will cause it to retract. This speaks to male fragility, particularly in the arena of sex and women.

So now I imagine, among these Angels and their drained white brides, momentous grunts and sweating, damp furry encounters; or, better, ignominious failures, cocks like three-week-old carrots, anguished fumblings upon flesh cold and unresponding as uncooked fish. (4)

Furry encounters? I really like that, if I ever release an X-rated film that’s what I’m calling it. Offred has temporarily disempowered Aunt Lydia and the other women in power by imagining them in embarrassing sexual failures.

There are many moments like this throughout the book. They’re all slightly different; blunt and aggressive language in some scenes, mocking and dismissive in others. It gave the book another dimension and made it enjoyable to read, problematic white feminist thinking aside.


  1. Chapter 2, page 11
  2. Chapter 5, page 28
  3. Chapter 15, page 87
  4. Chapter 34, pg 222

*Edition cited:  The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, Houghton Mifflin 1986.

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