Why Aren’t We Sexually Liberated Yet?

by | April 18, 2013 | General | 7 comments

By Donna George Storey

Hard as this might be to believe, in the 1960’s and 1970’s “liberal” was not a dirty word. Today you must be brave even to use the euphemism “progressive,” but there was a time, or so it seemed to my youthful, idealistic self, when many believed that if we recognized the evils of racism, poverty and sexism, our society could quickly come up with solutions and move forward to a just world for all. Of particular relevance to this blog is the Sexual Revolution, which once promised liberation from the rigid morals of the past—which, let’s face it, were chiefly about controlling sexuality with fear and shame to assure a man of his paternal rights.

When I came of age in the late 1970’s, remnants of the bad old ways still lingered—I was often called a slut for the sin of being comfortable discussing and joking about sex, for example–but I was confident my children wouldn’t be troubled by the virgin/whore complex or face obstacles to reproductive self-determination.

As we all know, I was wrong.

Fortunately, I can point to one area of “progress.” Erotica, once discreetly swathed in brown paper wrappers, is now burning up the bestseller charts. It’s even possible for an author to use her own name without being socially ruined (discretion is still advised depending on your job and community standards). Yet Lisabet Sarai has correctly pointed out that the genre’s commercial success has led to homogenization. There are exceptions, but for the most part publishers and readers bring certain expectations to their erotica reading experience—to the detriment of originality, surprise and depth. In that sense, the more the genre has “succeeded,” the more freedom of expression has suffered.

More disturbing is Jean Roberta’s recent discussion of our society’s efforts to silence honest discussion of the sexuality of anyone under eighteen. Public discourse on the topic tends to hysteria, allowing for no nuance or complexity. Suggest a lesbian seventeen-year-old should have access to intelligent, thoughtful information about her sexual orientation and to some minds you’re no different from the founders of the North American Man Boy Love Association. Be but under suspicion for downloading child pornography (which could actually mean a 17-year-old consensually sending a topless photograph she took of herself for her lover’s eyes, although we all immediately imagine the very worst kinds of brutal victimization), and you’re condemned without a trial. It’s an effective way to silence us all with fear just like the old days.

The sexual abuse of a child is a heinous crime, and even speaking of it pains me. I am also horrified by the physical and emotional abuse of helpless children as well as the suffering caused by the refusal to provide medical care and food to impoverished children, although that far more common misuse of adult power seems to elicit little concern among lawmakers. I’m also deeply saddened by an environment where a natural human instinct cannot be discussed in any way that would suggest enjoyment or any positive outcome other than pregnancy. Far too many people feel shame about their sexualty because of ignorance, and thus are vulnerable throughout their lives in a childlike way to those who would exploit that shame (to the profit of capitalism mainly).

Jean’s column reminded me of a book I read recently by Judith Levine, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. The first section is all about why the author had such trouble publishing the book. And this is 2002 when the tolerance and enlightenment that first blossomed in the 1960’s ideally should have been fully incorporated into our national consciousness. Alas, the Big Five publishers might cautiously publish a book by a Ph.D. on sexual dysfunction or the dangers of the hook-up scene, but a suggestion that sex education for those under 18 should mention pleasure was too incendiary for the printed page. It was eventually published by a university press.

Such is progress in our time.

Erotica writers explore the pleasures of sex in their writing—that is in fact why and how our work is categorized as erotica. Characters must bizarrely exist without a sexual thought or feeling until their eighteenth birthday, but I have personally found enough to fascinate me in the erotic lives of happily married middle-aged couples, a relatively new territory of outrageous sexual expression that has yet to be made illegal. Yet Jean’s column got me thinking that in writing (the world of imagination) as well as law (the world of real actions), the rules designed to protect the innocent are arbitrarily applied.

For example, although the TV adaption underplays the ages of the protagonists as written in the books, the wildly popular Game of Thrones is bursting with sexually active teenagers and incestuous relationships of various kinds. Why do they get away with it without any of their millions of viewers protesting or engaging in copycat behavior? Is it only because the sinners suffer imprisonment, death, thoroughly evil spawn or miserable, miserly lives so that “pleasure” is clearly married with punishment? Or think back to Risky Business, Tom Cruise’s breakthrough movie, about a highschooler who earns money by running a brothel in his house while his parents are away. Skinny boys obviously in their early teens are shown cashing in savings bonds to take advantage of the new local business. Shouldn’t this horrible and dangerous endorsement of perverted entrepreneurship be pulled from the market as harmful to our morals? Yet somehow it has eluded the eyes of the censors.

Sometimes I fear we’re moving backwards or at best sideways.

Yet perhaps I am being too impatient. The pace of modern life accelerates, but revolutions always take time to root and flower. The rise of the middle class took centuries—let’s hope its reported fall is equally leisurely. Why shouldn’t a more enlighted view of sexuality be allowed a lifetime or two to stick? There are some promising signs that the progressive spirit need not despair. An African-American is president. Gay marriage is gaining mainstream approval, most promisingly among the young. A respectable married woman like E.L. James uses a pseudonym, but nonetheless appears in public to be celebrated for her provocative story. The forces of profound change provoke reaction, but democracy is slowly gaining ground throughout the world and in new, more subtle ways like self-publishing.

Okay, I’m feeling a wee bit better now.

Twenty-first century society is not as liberal as I imagined it would be 40 years ago, but I have to admit, we’re better off now in important ways. So I’ll do what I’ve always done–keep writing erotica, calling myself a progressive and doing whatever I can to make liberation a reality.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor

Donna George Storey

I want to change the world one dirty story at a time. When I posted this mission statement on my website, I hoped my cheeky ambition would make my readers smile. I smile every time I read it myself. And yet I’m totally serious. I truly believe that writers who are brave enough to speak their truth about the erotic experience in all its complexity—the yearning, the pleasure, the conflicts, and the sweet satisfaction—do change the world for the better. So if you’re here at ERWA because you’re already writing erotica, a big thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re more a reader than a writer, I encourage you to start dreaming and writing and expressing the truth and magic of this fundamental part of the human experience in your own unique voice. Can there be a more pleasurable way to change the world? I'm the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical erotic novel set in Japan, The Mammoth Book of Erotica Presents the Best of Donna George Storey  and nearly 200 short stories and essays in journals and anthologies. Check out my Facebook author page at: https://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor/  


  1. Joan Defers

    There was actually a kerfuffle over the graphic novel version of the first Game of Thrones over one of the characters marriage consummation at 13. I forget how it was resolved, but drawing those sorts of pictures for publication is illegal, apparently.

    I forget how old she's supposed to be in the television series.

  2. Fiona McGier

    I'm with you on everything you said! I, also, was called many names many times, but my reply was always, "I don't think I'm a slut, and I don't care what you think." I figured by the time my own kids were teens, surely things would be advanced. Nope. Still the same. Sigh. Boys do, girls get called names, and no one can talk about anything in school without getting fired. Yet all freshmen read Romeo and Juliet and Juliet is 13 when the play opens! She's dead before she's 14! Society is full of hypocrites who say abstinence is the only thing kids need to be taught, yet they also sell sexy clothing to young children, like tight shorts with words on the ass for girls, and make-up for toddlers. Sigh.

    Americans are weird. Laurell Hamilton says when she goes to England for book signings they tell her she puts too much violence in her books. When she comes back to the U.S., she gets told she has too much sex in her books. We'd rather shoot you, than make love. Puritans aren't dead! They still rule here!

  3. Donna

    Hi Joan–I've heard that they are much stricter about images than words, perhaps because they assume the worst perverts don't read? But my son was surprised at how young the characters were in the books, so I guess the actors do look over 18!

    All true, Fiona. It's very sad how little has changed. I try to avoid exposure to violence as much as possible in "entertainment" (okay, I'm watching Game of Thrones, but I close my eyes). But it sells well and no one seems to mind that kind of obscenity!

  4. Garceus

    Hi Donna!

    ActuallyI'm amazed at how quickly things have changed. A lot of people have said how E L James isn;t the best writer out there, but I celebrate her popularity because it does move the game forward.

    Literary erotica has never been especially popular compared to the hard stuff, that's just how it is. But I've always come to things by a back door. I discovered Shakespeare by listening to Orson Welles play the Shadow on tapes of old radio shows I came to Wagner's Ring operas because I heard the music in a vampire movie. People who will know us when they find us.


  5. Lady Flo

    John Lennon's slogan "Make love not war" seems utopia.
    On this topic I'm very critical and cynical. Why aren't we sexually liberate yet? Because it's impossible.
    Sexuality is a strong energy, a instinct of life and death, as Freud said. Life (love) and death (violence). And this forces are in our bodies and in our minds… we can not free ourselves from them, we can only keep them under control… with a soft control, or with a hard check.

    Sexuality is a hot stuff… hot for violence and power before then eroticism.

  6. Lisabet Sarai

    Excellent post, Donna. I also grew up during the sexual revolution, and benefited from that fact, but I'm not that surprised that we've moved backward in some areas. Social change runs in cycles. A guest blogger of mine recently wrote a fascinating post about how sexually open the English were in the late eighteenth century – only to come back to the official prudery of Victorian times.

    I think that AIDS had a huge impact on the ongoing liberalization of sexuality. All of a sudden there was this horrific disease – a plague – that most afflicted those who were sexually active. It was so easy and natural to the puritans to hail this as rightful punishment for "immorality". At the same time, any rational individual would be at least somewhat deterred from the spontaneous expression of sexual desire by the very real risks involved in sex.

    What worries me even more is the fact that erotic experience seems to have lost its mystery, intensity and importance in the modern world. Young people can easily find sexual stimuli, without any of the obstacles faced by our peers – and thus without the associated excitement. "Sexting" seems so silly and banal to me. When I was a teen, sex was a big deal. Now it's akin to playing a video game, I guess.

  7. Donna

    You're right, Garce, there have been lots of changes in mere decades in terms of sexual behavior and gender roles, but there's been a lot of backlash, too, and specifically teenagers, who are not even allowed to think about sex in terms of public expression. I think silencing this area of experience is harmful and leads to ignorance and more abuse of power, and we've gone backward.

    Lady Flo, sex is a powerful force, and it resists being "civilized." However, I guess I am a 1970's liberal in that I believe education, for example that females can experience pleasure, but it isn't automatic. By "liberation," I meant we are not forced to remain silent about and ashamed of our experiences. Erotica is one way to push that agenda foreward!

    Good points, Lisabet, and I agree that the trend to vulgarize sex has taken new forms. We're familiar with the (false) stereotype of any erotic writing being stupid just because there's sex, which indeed strips away any mystery, depth, magic. You're reminding me that this is also what good erotica does, and another way it's different from porn. Good erotica illuminates this deeper, dare I say spiritual, side of sex.

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