Robert Coover's story "The Babysitter" is broken into more than one hundred paragraphs, each of which describes a certain scene. The scenes are roughly chronological to start, but the timeline becomes more and more confused as the story advances. The figure of the babysitter (who has no name) is present in all of them, either as an active character, a passive audience to the action, the subject of fantasy, or the source of subconscious unease.
The story largely centers around sexual desire, with the babysitter as the object of that desire. Mr. Tucker, his pre-pubescent son Jimmy, and the babysitter's own boyfriend Jack are the three characters whose desire drives the narrative. Jack also has a friend, Mark. All of these men express their desire in different ways. Jimmy tickles the babysitter, and fantasizes about her bathing him and staring at his naked body. Touching her and thinking about her makes him feel excited, but also scared; he's not entirely sure what he wants. Mr. Tucker's fantasies are much more explicit, and range from a desire to simply watch the babysitter bathe, to a desire to watch her have sex with her boyfriend, to a desire to have sex with her himself. Jack's fantasies are, at first, rather limited—he enjoys kissing the babysitter and touching her breasts, but he is unsure how to move to the next stage of a sexual encounter. His friend, Mark, fires his imagination by suggesting they simply rape the babysitter, taking what they want from her.
The desire these men feel is variously deferred, frustrated, and gratified in the story's fragmentary narrative. In some fragments of the story, the babysitter willingly consents to sex; in others, the men rape her; in a few, the men kill her. She or the desire she awakens in others are the common threads that run through each fragment.
The babysitter herself does not seem to feel any desire. She is young and beautiful, and to a certain extent is aware of herself as a sexual being—she has a boyfriend, after all, and she admires her body in the bathroom mirror. Her sexuality is much more innocent than the men's, however, and is limited to a sense of vague curiosity and amusement regarding men's bodies. When she takes a bath, it is just a bath, a way of relaxing, a way to smell nice. To the men, it's a teasing ritual she enacts specifically to arouse them, but the babysitter is not thinking about them at all, except perhaps in the context of how annoying it is to be interrupted by them (Jimmy knocking on the bathroom door, Mr. Tucker or Jack calling the house phone). Her interactions with the men are innocuous, and she is blissfully unaware of their predatory urges towards her. She is not interested in sex, and her feelings toward the baby may be construed as a kind of horror of sex and its consequences. To her the baby is annoying, dirty, even repulsive. At best it is dormant; at worst, it makes her furiously angry. Depending on the fragment of the story in question, the babysitter ignores the baby, takes care of it in a perfunctory manner, or kills it to silence it.
The language of the story is thick with sexual imagery, "pushing," "thrusting," "balls," "plunge," "slick," "slippery," "holes," and so forth. Sex is almost a living presence in the story, and the narrative shatters along the lines of each character's desire. Jimmy wants to see the babysitter naked, to touch her in a way that is not quite innocent, but not yet fully sexual. His narrative involves voyeurism, tickle fights, and fondling; alternatively it involves sexual aggression on the babysitter's part, and fear and shame on his own. Mr. Tucker wants to have sex with the babysitter, or at least to watch her having sex. His narrative is variously one of watching her, seducing her, and extorting sex from her. She is always a willing participant, even in the extortion, because in Mr. Tucker's narrative, the babysitter wants sex, and wants him. However, Mr. Tucker's narrative collides with that of Jack and Mark, whose desire for sex with the babysitter leads alternately to a soft-focus erotic threesome and a brutal, ugly rape. Mr. Tucker and the boys imagine encountering each other and fighting over the babysitter, exchanging blows, even drawing blood.
The babysitter, who has no desire, has a much simpler narrative—she wants to put the kids to bed and take a bath. She is interrupted by the children and the telephone. If Jack and Mark do come over, she and they simply watch TV together. The Tuckers return from their dinner party to a clean house and sleeping children. The dark side of the babysitter's narrative involves no sex; instead, she murders the baby, because she can't stand its screaming, endless need for her. The men's screaming, endless lust for her drives their narratives toward any number of possible outcomes; the babysitter's revulsion for that kind of all-consuming need limits her outcomes to ones in which the need does not exist (the baby is asleep, her boyfriend does not come over, her boyfriend comes over but does not try anything) or in which she can effectively end it (by killing the baby, telling her boyfriend to go away). She is aware of being pinned by the male gaze, when Jimmy pulls her towel off and when she sees faces at the windows, but she manages to protect herself from fully encountering that gaze. The men, by contrast, are all about making physical contact, and the consequences of that contact may be temporarily gratifying but are often disastrous.
One theme of the work might be that sex is a powerful, dangerous thing, and engaging in it invites myriad possible consequences for those involved. The safest course of action is to stay away.