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Donna George Storey

There are two main flavors of historical fiction writer: those who are thrilled to research every last detail of life in the past and those who are more easy-going and romantic about evoking the spirit of the time. I tend more toward the latter, but when writing about the erotic life, a researcher-type faces some serious obstacles to getting those specifics down right.

There simply isn’t that much information about what really happened behind closed doors before the Sexual Revolution made these things acceptable to discuss publicly.

However, there is one area of sexual expression that is fairly well researched: prostitution. Accounts of prostitutes provide one of the few windows we have into sexual practices in centuries past—give or take a few daring amateur lovers who shared explicit love letters or confessed to carefully preserved diaries.

Prostitutes are “public women” after all, so the men of earlier days may have felt the institution was  suited to a relatively open discussion both as a “social evil” and in the form of guidebooks to the red-light districts that thrived in cities large and small until the early twentieth century in America.

This month, I introduce a series of columns about prostitution in 1910 and what several fascinating publications reveal about sexuality a hundred years ago. I’ll take you on a gaslit journey of New York, New Orleans and San Francisco, from sumptuous parlor houses to assembly-line “cribs” where working men sated their lust on Saturday night.

This buffet of after-dark indulgence is brought to you by scholars and journalists who guided me on my journey of historical discovery. I’d like to introduce them to you.

First there is Ruth Rosen who gives us The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, published in 1982. Rosen approaches her subject with the enthusiastic sense of discovery that animated feminist scholars in the early days of second-wave feminism. Until that time, prostitution had rarely been presented at all sympathetically from the viewpoint of women. Rosen introduces us to the voices of both prostitutes themselves and the respectable ladies who tried to “save” them. Alas, the latter’s effort to enforce a single sexual standard where men would be expected to be as chaste as women was a failure.

Next is a volume that has long been in my library: Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose. This book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of courtesans of the time by Ernest Bellocq. Rose conducted interviews in the 1960s, when many prostitutes and clients who gave Storyville its sparkle were still alive to tell the tale. Rose’s book is a true gift, a glimpse into the complex dreams and disappointments of real people. I want to thank those folks for sharing! One of his informants, “Violet,” provided the outlines for Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, starring a very young Brooke Shields as the child prostitute. But the interview with the real Violet is actually more interesting.

The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld by Herbert Asbury, who also brought you The Gangs of New York, is a raunchy tell-all about the sin city of the West Coast. Asbury makes San Francisco sound like one big, depraved, drunken debauch—and asserts that even the respectable citizens were secretly proud to live in the wickedest city on the continent (but don’t tell New Orleans). He is a bit cold-blooded in his descriptions of vice and exploitation—reminding you that Rosen’s attention to female subjectivity was much needed–but you learn a lot about human nature.

Finally, Timothy Gilfoyle’s City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 immerses the reader in our cultural capital city’s pleasure districts. The author describes how Gotham’s thriving commercial sex trade gradually became increasingly invisible, thanks to the campaigns of religious reformers early in the century and urban renewal in our time. Every cigar store used to a have a girl behind a curtain, ready for a quick encounter with a customer who was so inclined. The cigar stores are fewer and the girls in their shifts long gone. Or at least as far as I’m aware.

In casting my gaze over this repast of erotic history, I notice one interesting commonality. Each book begins with a tour of the most luxurious bordellos frequented by rich men then gradually descends to the functional cubicles of the low-end trade, the descriptions of which are oddly compelling in their pathos. It occurred to me that this tour of the different levels of sex for sale offers the American audience a double obscenity. Just as prostitution is a bald revelation of sexual need that polite society prefers not to see, the blatant class differences of the commercial sex trade likewise expose another part of human behavior our democratic society regards as unmentionable.

Yet in one respect, both the fancy bordello and the miserable crib had one thing in common for a man on the town—at the end of the evening your wallet would be empty, no matter how much or how little you had at the start.

I promise, however, that you will feel richer in the end after our many nights on the town in America 1910. Join me in October for an evening in a rich man’s paradise!

Last month, I talked about my dreams by day. Even before I honed my skills as an erotica writer, my waking reveries were vivid and explicit.

Yet I can’t recall a single explicit sleeping dream. At best there’s been a kiss and an embrace. No one has ever taken off any clothes. I feel a bit like the Meg Ryan character in When Harry Met Sally—although of course, only at night.

In pondering the nature of my night dreams, I realized there is a lot of suspense and implied sexuality. I know some people think dreams are boring—I find them endlessly fascinating, like a secret code where the same message has many translations. For those of you who do like dreams, I’d like to share two recent examples that have stayed with me to see what you think.

In one dream, I was lying on a single bed in a small bedroom, rather like a maid’s room in an attic. A man walked in and started opening the drawers of my small dresser over against the wall. I felt mildly violated, but said nothing and stayed motionless on the bed merely watching and waiting. Then the man came over, sat down beside me at the edge of the bed and looked down at me.

That’s it. But when I woke, I thought, “What a weird sex dream.”

In another, a man asked me to meet him in his hotel room for a meeting on political issues. I was worried he might take some sexual advantage, but he was perfectly professional, even though we were sitting on beds while I asked him questions about political action. Still uncomfortable, I excused myself to get something to drink and found myself in a huge hotel lobby complex, like the endless mall lobbies they have in Las Vegas or the train stations in Japan. I wandered through stores and bakeries and restaurants in an effort to get back to the meeting. When I finally found the man’s room, it was occupied by someone else, as if he’d never been there. I never found him again.

“Wow, I think that was sort of a sex dream,” I thought when I woke up.

My night dreams are more like old-fashioned romances than modern erotica: the simmering tension between me and a mysterious man, the unsettled nature of our relationship, the fade-to-nothing before anything actually juicy happens. Is it because I was raised in a time when sex was rarely openly discussed? Or is that I deal with explicit sexuality in my waking life so it’s other things that need working out at night?

Each of these men had the name of someone I’ve dealt with in real life, but I know the dream was not about that person, rather more of something he represents: the sense of a power differential and my being in a world where he has more control than I do.

Last month I argued that our waking dreams have interesting things to tell us. Night dreams do as well, but the listening requires even more patience and curiosity to find the truth at their heart. I remember one dream analyst recommending that you pay attention to the feelings a dream evokes rather than any of the “factual” details. I also find that approach more illuminating than a list of symbolic meanings—dresser drawers symbolize my vagina and hotel rooms sexual intimacy (although you could argue for both).

In any case, I can feel when a dream drips with sexual politics even if everyone keeps his/her clothes on. A good erotic story can achieve the same. (In case you’re curious, yes, as in the photo above, I always sleep in lipstick to look my best 24/7!)

Are your night dreams different from you daydreams?

Recently I got an email informing me that there was a new comment on my article entitled “Six Secrets to Writing Your Own Over-50 Shades of Erotica” which appeared on a website for women over 50 called Zest Now. “Thanks, interesting thoughts!” wrote the gentleman. I’ll take all the positive feedback I can get, even if the article had been published five years ago as part of my campaign to promote the ebook release of my novel, Amorous Woman. I only vaguely remembered what I’d written, so I revisited the site. (The link to the article doesn’t always work, so I’ve reprinted the article in its entirety below in case you’re interested in how my advice holds up.)

I stand by all six secrets and was frankly surprised at how economical the writing was—I have a tendency to ramble on when I’m talking about sex. I was also amused to remember that when I wrote that article about being inspired to write your own erotica after reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I myself had not read Fifty Shades of Grey. However, a friend I trusted had told me that reading about the relationship between Ana and Christian was very interesting to her, so I built from there.

In my defense, so much had been written about Fifty Shades, I felt I knew it well enough to use the social phenomenon as a basis for my suggestions. Also, we erotica writers had been urged to take advantage of the Fifty Shades boom to elevate our own personal brands. I wanted to be optimistic and hope that the bestselling trilogy would whet the appetites of new erotica readers who might then seek out the types of anthologies where my work was published. Could the Fifty Shades wave lift us all?

Five years later I have to say that Fifty Shades mostly just fucked the rest of us over.

Now I don’t have data to back me up, but my sense it that publishers are all the more disappointed when erotica anthologies or novels don’t become the next Fifty Shades. It’s rather like the film industry. The period of openness and artistic risk in the 1960s and 1970s that gave us Five Easy Pieces and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice was destroyed by the blockbuster Jaws, which I recently watched. It hasn’t aged well.

The 1990s marked the advent of the Erotica Revolution, with presses like Cleis and magazines like Yellow Silk and Clean Sheets showing us that “nice” girls and boys could write thoughtful, steamy stories. Again, this might just be me, but the literary quality of Fifty Shades branded all erotica as a mediocre guilty pleasure for mommies. Literary erotica editor friends who’d been getting commissions from mainstream publishers suddenly found the river had run dry.

I still remain optimistic for the future of literary erotica. History shows us that cultural setbacks can be succeeded by leaps forward. In the meantime, I stand by my words of yore: “Whether you’re aiming to publish or please a special audience of one, writing erotica helps you focus on pleasure, which is guaranteed to improve your sensual life–even if it’s already very good indeed.”

Six Secrets to Writing Your Own Over-50 Shades of Erotica
(Zest Now, June 3, 2013)

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, who will turn 50 this year, has shown that the world loves a sexy story. Reading erotica is a great way to spark your libido, but have you ever thought of writing your own? As a 51-year-old wife and mother who’s been publishing erotica for over 15 years, I can confirm that there’s nothing more sexually empowering than putting your own steamy story down on paper. Whether you’re aiming to publish or please a special audience of one, writing erotica helps you focus on pleasure, which is guaranteed to improve your sensual life–even if it’s already very good indeed.

Here are six secrets for bringing your unique erotic stories to life:

Find A Safe Space. Although our generation came of age during the Sexual Revolution, most of us still hesitate to express our positive sexual desires. Find a safe space, both physical and mental, to create your world of pleasure. Close the door against the voices that urge you to feel shame for feeling good. In this protected place, you are free to get in touch with your fantasies, memories, images and scenes that turn you on. Suddenly everything is possible.

The Pleasures of Research. Erotic writers transform sensual experience into vivid words and images, but it takes practice. First, read some erotic books to learn what you like in style and content. Which stories do you wish you’d written? Which scenes turn you on and why? The assignment gets better. The next time you make love to your partner or yourself pay close attention with all of your senses. Where is his skin the softest? When does the sound of his breathing change? Slow down, enjoy each sensation. Try out a new position you have in mind for your story to get the logistics right. Homework has never felt so good.

Start Slow and Let It Flow. Start slow with a sketch of a sex scene or a list of scenarios that turn you on. Erotic stories can be about real experiences, but they are just as often about fantasies, dreams, forbidden desires. Let the thoughts and images flow. Experiment and discover. You’ll surprise yourself with the magic you create.

The Real Secret to Good Erotica. Dirty words only take you so far. The real secret to a compelling erotic tale is the relationship between the lovers. Critics panned Fifty Shades of Grey, but the characters’ deep feelings for each other enchanted millions. Write about a couple you care about, their desires and conflicts and how they overcome them to be together, and your reader will be right there in bed with you. As older women, we bring a wealth of life experience to the writing process. Use your wisdom!

Share It With Your Lover. I’ve published over 150 stories, but my greatest joy is still that gleam in my husband’s eye after he’s read my latest story. A story is also a great way to suggest a new bedroom activity or introduce a fantasy. Use your judgment as some partners can be uncomfortable. If you think your partner might be open to it, start out gently, with a sketch of what you enjoy doing with him, rather than, for example, a hard-core BDSM scene.

Share It With the World. Today it’s easier than ever to share your work with a wider readership. Post your story on Literotica for appreciation and feedback. Self-publishing on Amazon is another popular option. For more traditional validation by professional editors, check out the Erotica Readers and Writers Association Calls for Submissions. Remember all writers face a lot of rejection, so keep trying!

Midlife brings a flowering of confidence and creativity for women. Writing erotica is a rewarding way to renew your passion as well.

I’ve always been a good student and a “good” girl. Or at least that’s what most people think, if they think of me at all. However, there is another side to me, one you here at ERWA know well, but that would surprise many: a woman who is deeply skeptical of authority and who dares to make my private pleasure public in prose, whether that be the joys of female sexuality or my delight in analyzing American history and culture.

In spite of myself, my “good student” ways led me to soak up the messages our society sends to girls and women. Even if I don’t agree with the values of the patriarchy, I know them and feel them and, I’ll admit, even live my life by some of these rules willingly. Still, sometimes I’m confused. How can men love their mothers, wives and daughters and still support laws and customs that harm women? How can so many men be against contraceptives? Do they want a future where they must either be celibate or have twenty children? Why do women as well as men attack the credibility of victims of sexual assault and harassment and make the assailant into the “true” victim? At times I wonder: If men didn’t need us for heterosexual sex, would they simply do away with all women since they seem to be so angry at them all the time?

I’ve been considering these questions for a lifetime, but just this past week, I actually got some interesting answers, thanks to Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Cornell professor Kate Manne. Professor Manne’s book is not a beach read, but it’s accessible and especially relevant in these turbulent times. It clarifies so many things about being a woman in our man’s world and about my own actions as an erotica writer, as well as the nature of what men want from women and why they’re so mad when they don’t get it.

I can’t do justice to Manne’s argument in a blog post, so I’ll try my flawed best with a summary of those points that directly impact my experience of writing and promoting erotica. First, Manne discusses the popular, or “naive,” conception of the misogynist as a man who hates all women irrationally, just because they are women, like the way Hitler hated Jews. By this definition, misogynists would be rare. After all, most men love their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters or some subset thereof. And many women are misogynists, too—could they hate themselves in such a way?

Manne then presents a more satisfying functional definition of misogyny as the means by which a patriarchal society polices and patrols female behavior. Sexism holds that women are naturally subordinate, or more euphemistically complementary, to men. Misogyny attempts to put wayward females back in their designated place by “condescending, mansplaining, moralizing, blaming, punishing, silencing, lampooning, satirizing, sexualizing, belittling, caricaturizing, exploiting, erasing, and evincing pointed indifference.” (Manne, 30)

Misogyny also valorizes women who behave properly. Manne’s framing of proper behavior was particularly enlightening for me, in what she calls a bad gendered historical bargain (from the female perspective, that is):

“Women may not be simply human beings but positioned as human givers when it comes to dominant men who look to them for various kinds of moral support, admiration, attention, and so on. She is not allowed to be in the same ways as he is. She will tend to be in trouble when she does not give enough, or to the right people, in the right way, or in the right spirit. And, if she errs on this score, or asks for something of the same support or attention on her own behalf, there is a risk of misogynistic resentment, punishment, and indignation.”

Thus women owe men of equal or superior social status their good will, what Manne calls “hers to giveor feminine-coded goods and services: attention, affection, admiration, sympathy, sex, and children; also mixed goods such as safe haven, nurture, security, soothing and comfort.

Masculine-coded perks and privileges are “his for the taking”: power, prestige, public recognition, rank, reputation, honor, “face,” respect, money and other forms of wealth, hierarchical status, upward mobility, and the status conferred by having a high-ranking woman’s loyalty, love, devotion. (Manne, 130)

If a woman tries to take what is “his,” she is “bad” and misogyny punishes her by calling her out as selfish, negligent, irresponsible, ungrateful, and unfair to men. (Manne, 87)

Manne compares our reaction to this “unnatural” dynamic of female self-regard to a situation where a waitress refuses to take our order, then asks us to serve her. Who wouldn’t be outraged by this betrayal of expectations? Where’s the service with a smile? (Manne, 50)

As I mentioned earlier, women, too, police the behavior of other women. Consider the female commentators who blame #MeToo victims for wearing the wrong clothes, not being strong or savvy enough to fend off a boss’s advances, and worst of all, destroying a good man’s career because she’s a whiny drama queen who wants attention and lots of money.

I also found Manne’s explanation quite reasonable concerning why some conservatives so vehemently oppose the ACA’s coverage of female contraception but not coverage of Viagra: “…We can now make sense of contraception coverage becoming a common point of contention, too. She is asking to be provided with an antidote to human giving—and in a way that often highlights her human capacities being deployed in self-development or geared toward financial success, that is, his province. The latter also threatens to turn her into a usurper.”

Whether this resentment of women who put their own pleasures first must lead all Americans to have families of twenty children is another matter, of course. But at least the outrage makes more sense.

As I was reading Down Girl, I also had some insights into the relationship between misogyny and my erotica writing.

As long as I can remember, I knew I existed to please others. I was supposed to be a good daughter and student and be as attractive a female as I could manage, given my natural limitations. The stares and catcalls of men on the street that began when I was 13 were a reminder of what movies, TV and magazines preached: I existed to please male eyes and egos. I learned to be careful when flirting because if I gave my attention to one boy, then another, the first would take it personally and punish me. While my actual relationships were not nearly as reductive as the messages bombarding me from the media, I knew that, rightly or wrongly, my chief purpose was to be a loyal girlfriend and wife, an enthusiastic sex partner, and a devoted mother. Public achievements were icing, as long as they didn’t interfere too much. As an empty-nester, I’m doing community service and baking cookies for the holidays to please the palates of my friends. Yes, I have my secret life as a rebel, a scholar, and a feisty truth-teller, but for the most part, I’ve chosen the safe route for a woman in a patriarchal world.

Writing erotica under my own name, of course, is the exception to my conformity. I have felt that I am a “bad” girl—the closest I’d ever come to hanging out in the smoking area in high school–for speaking frankly and positively about the female sexual experience. It has been mostly thrilling, although I have been occasionally attacked and shamed.

Manne’s book made me reconsider just how “bad” I am.

For indeed, am I not still a “good” girl in terms fulfilling my patriarchal purpose of pleasing men? I’d guess most of my readers are women, but I’ve gotten fan mail from a good number of men over the years. Many men read erotica because they are genuinely interested in women’s sexual experiences, and that’s a good thing. Still, as I’ve gathered from our cultural messages, sexuality seems like the only thing about women your “average guy” would be genuinely interested in reading about–with the goal of satisfying his own sexual desires. The type of erotica I generally write affirms the desirability of the heterosexual erotic experience (with some lesbian detours, but men like that, too). My work offers support and solace and might even serve as a surrogate partner. If I wrote instead on female friendship and quilting, I’d probably have zero male readers, no matter how eloquent my prose.

On the other hand, a “bad” female erotica writer would make male readers uncomfortable. Some writers I admire greatly do. While I sometimes challenge traditional sexual values, I tend to do it gently, with humor, and accompanied by a fundamental pleasure in male company. What’s there for a man to hate?

I’m not saying any of this is wrong. I just find it interesting how my way of being in the world has been informed by these time-worn values.

Manne also made me more aware of my internalization of the danger of trying to claim any position of privilege traditionally seen to belong to men.

When I published my novel, Amorous Woman, I found it hard to “toot my own horn” to promote the book. It felt dangerous, selfish, and stuck-up to claim for myself public importance as a Published Novelist. Who did I think I was?

I managed to overcome my reluctance by framing my book as my “child.” I had given birth to her and owed my newborn baby a good start in life. Thus I transformed myself from a selfish, egotistical artist into a self-sacrificing mother. That kept me going through many a cold call or excruciating snub from a “serious” bookstore that didn’t have the time of day for novels like mine. My little girl needed me to be strong!

To be honest, I sincerely do not see my work as a means to show the world how great I am. I see it as a way to connect with others, assure them they are not alone in their feelings and desires. I also felt a duty to present a view of Japan that engages with but also transcends stereotypes as a way of paying back the warmth, humanity, and hospitality of my Japanese friends.

So I just have to face the fact that I’m bad at being the bad girl. I’ve learned my good girl lessons too well: Stay safe in a man’s world by being the pleaser, the giver, the titillating, but reassuring entertainer.

Yet I won’t fall prey to another common misogynistic reflex—that anything a woman does is automatically devalued. Manne agrees that men still want women around because the comforts they give are “truly valuable: they are genuinely good and the lack thereof bad. Consider that, as well as affection, adoration, indulgence, and so on, such feminine-coded goods and services include simple respect, love, acceptance, nurturing, safety, security, and safe haven. There is kindness and compassion, moral attention, care, concern and soothing.” (Manne, 110)

I also happen to know many men who give these wonderful human qualities to me and other women–it’s just that it seems they’re allowed some time off now and then with no harm done. Still I’m proud to value those qualities and offer them freely to my family, my friends, my colleagues and my readers. Thanks to Manne, though, I’ll definitely examine my feelings of safety and danger and “good” and “bad” as I continue on my writer’s journey.

Write on!

“Have you seen Stella?”

It was a question everyone was asking on the streets of San Francisco during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair laid out like a glittering necklace across the Marina District from February to December of 1915.

Banners and lapel buttons added to the urgency of word-of-mouth dares (Laura Ackley, San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, p. 256). No red-blooded man could resist the temptation to gaze upon Stella’s charms. A reported seven million gave in to their curiosity and desire.

Stella was the surprise hit of the Joy Zone, or simply “The Zone,” as the midway of the Pan-Pacific Exposition was known. A dime got you a two-minute viewing of the fourteen-foot painting, displayed in a dimly lit room and gussied up with a bellows behind the canvas, which made Stella’s body appear to breathe.

A 1915 dollar is worth about $25 today, which means two minutes with Stella cost about $2.50. Ten cents could buy you breakfast at a workingman’s cafe. $2.50 might get you an inexpensive cup of coffee today, so I’m not sure the calculation is totally accurate. Nonetheless, the exhibitor, Edward A. Vaughan, priced his attraction just right. Investing $4000 to display a painting he had exhibited with limited profit for years, he netted $50,000 or $1.5 million in today’s dollars.

Stella is the work of a minor painter, Napoleone Nani of Verona, Italy, who created her in 1893. Critics judged the painting mediocre, remarking that Stella’s breasts had an interesting lack of relationship to gravity. Some observed that one could see more skillfully realized nudes on the walls of the official art pavilions or the statues throughout the fair for no extra charge. Audrey Munson’s lovely form was so ubiquitous that she was known as the Exposition Girl.

But, contrary to all common sense, Stella surpassed all other beauties in popularity.

Fifty Shades of Grey received a similar tepid evaluation from critics—and yet, the money still rolls in.

Indeed the millions who paid to see Stella were not interested in the artistic excellence of the painting. They embraced the anticipation, the titillation, the knowledge that every other man at the fair was partaking in the same experience, and a fellow mustn’t be left behind. A man paid for the dark corridor leading to the viewing room, the suggestively dim lighting, the ache of the two-minute limit, the illusion that Stella was a living woman displayed for his pleasure, not a distant figure, no matter how lovely and realistic, representing Beauty or Liberty or Patriotism. Stella allowed a man to gaze upon her with desire for those two minutes. She returned his gaze with an expression of accessible welcome (not to say vapid affability).

It would be almost ungentlemanly to complain that Stella was a con. She was part of the carnival atmosphere, like Coney Island, where vacationers knew they were being ripped off by the weight-guessers and barkers, but laughed it off as part of the experience. If Stella—and Fifty Shades of Grey—promised to transport us to a realm where we experienced sexual satisfaction that was unlike any before, but didn’t exactly deliver on its promise, well, we were all in on the joke.

Knowing what I know, I still want to see Stella.

As a woman in 1915, I probably wouldn’t have been allowed. A photo outside the attraction shows mostly males in fedoras and a few women, but I do wonder if any respectable lady would dare to be seen handing over a dime at the ticket booth? Perhaps at night, a brazen hussy might sneak in to be secretly disappointed yet emerge flushed with the thrill of transgression?

But I live in 2018, so I figured it would be easy to find a photograph of Stella online, now that Edward Vaughan is no longer around to demand his dime. Interestingly enough, it proved harder than I thought. After a bit of looking, I first found a postcard from a later exhibition on Pinterest and then a copy on a blog about San Francisco world’s fairs. The outside of the exhibit is different from the Pan-Pacific entrance, so perhaps it is from Vaughan’s later attempt to cash in on his treasure, hopefully calling Stella “one of the world’s masterpieces of paintings in the nude.”

I was disappointed in Stella the postcard. But again, the painting itself is not the point. What I really crave is the experience of viewing Stella in her fourteen feet of glory, her friendly face inviting me to dream of union with a fantasy (to be her if not be with her, to paraphrase Austin Powers). The rising and falling of her chest might make me wonder, in spite of myself, if she was alive and truly gazing back at me, unlike those cool, perfect paintings and statues outside. Best of all, I could tell others, with a twinkle in my eye, that I had indeed seen Stella.

I’m that cool and don’t you forget it.

Stella was a woman of a particular moment on the verge of destruction. World War I was raging in Europe during the fair. That war destroyed a way of life, and such innocent sexual diversions were outdated. But erotic titillation remained an important part of the fair experience. Sally Rand’s fan dance at the 1933-34 Chicago Century of Progress was the sensation of the Midway. The nudity was another illusion: Sally wore a body stocking, although little was left to the imagination. Her Nude Ranch on the Gayway at the 1939-1940 Golden Gate Exposition was again the most popular attraction at the fair, but there was real nude flesh to be seen. Scroll down for the most revealing photos of the Ranch I’ve found online. Again, the women seem so cheerful and friendly, like Stella.

Perhaps a naked woman with a smile on her face never goes out of fashion?

If your sexual partner didn’t have an orgasm, would you want to know?

It probably depends on who you are. If reports from the high school and college heterosexual hook-up scene are any indication, mutual satisfaction is not the focus in most encounters. In Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All, Jaclyn Friedman reports that men are three times more likely to have orgasms than female partners in a casual college hookup (p. 194). She describes a Saturday night liaison where the woman gave the man a blowjob and he reciprocated with one lick of her labia.

One.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many young men believe a woman feels the same level of pleasure from vaginal intercourse that he does, and given the abysmal state of sex education, the blame is not all on them. But you’d think anyone would realize there’s an imbalance between a blowjob and a single flick of the tongue. Is it ignorance or indifference? Neither speaks well for a man, but then again by the traditional rules of heterosexual male conquest, only his pleasure matters. She has been “conquered” no matter what she feels.

In a long-term relationship, add fear to the reasons for the pleasure imbalance, from fear of wounding the lover’s ego to worse. Friedman tells how her beloved first boyfriend, Andy, “taught me about my clitoris and threatened to rip out my uterus and shove it down my throat if he ever discovered I’d been faking orgasms with him” (p. 50). Friedman loved Andy, but, faced with evisceration, just never get around to telling him that she’d never had an orgasm, not even with herself. Unfortunately for Andy, wherever he may be, he may have known about the clitoris in theory, but his prowess was built on lies.

Women might hesitate to offer the truth even when the threat is less explicit or dire. The first partner I was truly in love with thought my genuine moans of pleasure meant I was climaxing over and over. I wish! I didn’t have the nerve to tell him the truth either. Fortunately I figured out how to have real orgasms with him before the lie by omission became too uncomfortable. The first time with was oral sex, but one fine day, by being on top, it happened during intercourse, too. Ironically, he commented that I came very quietly that time, but I didn’t set the record straight. My joy at achieving the “right kind” of orgasm was mine alone. After we broke up a few months later (officially I broke up with him, but as is often the case, he made it easy by having a fling with another woman), I vowed I would always be honest about my orgasms with my future lovers. And I was. Who says anger can’t have a positive result?

Beyond the hook-up scene, Friedman reports that straight men are almost 50% more likely to have an orgasm with a partner than straight women are (p. 3). Every sex survey I’ve read claims that one-third of women have orgasms every time they have sex, one-third have them sometimes and one-third never do. There may be reasons for the latter situation that are beyond anyone’s control and there may be no easy solution.

But it also might be true that if a man makes a point to ask about what gives his partner pleasure—and is willing to listen to and act upon her/his answer—this will lead to more intimacy and hopefully more pleasure. At least it would cut back on the lies. And again, wouldn’t any responsible, self-respecting adult want to know the truth?

I’d also like to humbly suggest that if you know you’re having orgasms, but it’s unclear if your partner is, it’s on you to do the asking.

Friedman puts it well:

“Those of us who sleep with men pay every time we encounter a man who treats us like interchangeable vending machines that will dispense to him sexual pleasure if he inserts the secret coin. Because these men think they know What Women Want, they pay little attention to the needs and desires and boundaries of the individual woman in front of them, and women’s sex lives suffer for it. And if we have the temerity to refuse to play along with the script in his head, we know we’re risking him reacting with violence or abuse” (p. 51-52).

I wonder how many men are afraid to even ask? Talking about sex, particularly your own “performance,” is scary. We’re too busy admiring the players to recognize such courage publicly. So I’d like to do just that right here and now.

If you ever asked, with sincerity, what you could do to please your partner and listened to the answer, you are awesome! Really awesome!

If you ever had the guts to explain what you need even though everything you ever learned tells you to shut up and do it like they do in the movies, well, I think your courage in communicating honestly and your respect for your partner’s pleasure—because sexual pleasure includes the pleasure of giving pleasure—is equally awesome!

While we’re on the topic, here’s another question for you:

When did you lose your virginity?

Now suppose the official definition of “losing your virginity” changed. You could only claim graduation to the status of the sexually experienced if you were not under the influence of alcohol or drugs in any way and your partner definitely had an orgasm because you could trust him/her to be truthful.

By that definition, does your answer change?

The time difference between the first and second definitions for me is two-and-a-half years.

For those sexually active years, I was pretty excited just to be desired by men, and I was having plenty of orgasms on my own, so don’t feel too sorry for me. However, it does make me sad for all of us that such an amazing aspect of the human experience is silenced, sometimes by directly saying “don’t talk about this, it ruins the mood” and sometimes because we just don’t have the examples, the practice, and the knowledge that it can be different or better if we just express what’s really going on.

We don’t have to reserve sex talk for our lovers. While always keeping a sense of what’s appropriate in any given relationship, I wish we could talk about it honestly with friends of every gender. I’ve had the honor of doing so, although I wish I’d done it more. How much could we all learn if we share our experiences, our joys, and our confusion about sex and listen to what they have to say about theirs? What if we all treated sex as a complex and important part of the human experience, not as a dirty joke or a shameful thing to deny?

I remember as a child giggling with my friends about the meaning of “knowing” in the Biblical sense. Now as an adult, I think reviving the verb “to know” about our sexual encounters is a pretty good idea. In the twenty-first-century sense, everyone would know if their partners are experiencing pleasure, and everyone would know how to express it and receive it on their own terms, not those of the media or anyone else.

For me, this is the ultimate sexual conquest of the twenty-first century: vanquishing our society’s fear and loathing of sexuality by talking honestly and respectfully about this very important part of the human experience. I believe erotica writers are well-positioned to take the lead.

What do you think?

Did you know, Dear Reader, that if you were writing erotica a hundred years ago, you could be sent to prison for sharing information about female sexual pleasure?

Of course, many still try to denigrate and silence our efforts in the twenty-first century, but we are, at least for the moment, allowed to practice our craft without immediate threat of arrest.

My historical research has introduced me to a woman who helped to make this freedom possible: Ida Craddock, a writer who dedicated her life to educating others about mutually satisfying marital relations. Since February is the month our culture has dedicated to romantic love–or at least lots of candy sales—it seems a fitting time to celebrate Ms. Craddock’s life and work.

Ida Craddock was born in Philadelphia in 1857 and raised in a strict, Christian fundamentalist household. According to her biographer, Vere Chappell, author of Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock, Ms. Craddock rebelled against her upbringing first by advocating for higher education for women and then teaching and writing a textbook on stenography, the one profession in which young women could earn decent pay. In her thirties, she became interested in the occult and theosophy. She also became sexually involved with two men. Both relationships occurred outside of marriage, a very radical act in the late 1880s and early 1890s.

Her first lover was younger man who took the “normal,” male-centered approach to intimate relations. Ms. Craddock might not have found her calling had she married this man. However, her second lover was older and so devoted to female pleasure, he trained himself in the art of delayed ejaculation. This man changed her world forever. Ms. Craddock’s discovery of the joy of sex inspired her to help women whose partners ignored their sensual needs. She felt that the general ignorance of human sexuality led to great pain and suffering and set out to share her knowledge with others. She toured the great cities of the United States giving lectures and produced pamphlets to reach a wider audience, specifically those constrained from attending a public event by modesty.

Ms. Craddock’s work came to my attention when I was researching early twentieth-century sex advice resources that the husband in my novel might consult in order to prepare himself for the defloration of his virgin bride. Being a considerate fellow, he procured a copy of Ms. Craddock’s pamphlet “The Wedding Night,” which provides advice that surely benefits my heroine:

“The very first thing for you to bear in mind is that, inasmuch as Nature has so arranged sex that the man is always ready (as a rule) for intercourse, whereas the woman is not, it is most unwise for the man to precipitate matters by exhibiting desire for genital contact when the woman is not yet aroused. You should remember that that organ of which you are, justly, so proud, is not possessed by a woman, and that she is utterly ignorant of its functions, practically, until she has experienced sexual contact; and that it is, to her who is not desirous of such contact, something of a monstrosity. Even when a woman has already had pleasurable experience of genital contact, she requires each time to be aroused amorously, before that organ, in its state of activity, can become attractive. For a man to exhibit, to even an experienced wife, his organ ready for action when she herself is not amorously aroused, is, as a rule, not sexually attractive to her; on the contrary, it is often sexually repulsive, and at times out and out disgusting to her. Every woman of experience knows that, when she is ready, she can cause the man to become sexually active fast enough.”

There is not one word that rings false to me in this excerpt, although it was written in the 1890s. Granted, each of us has her own sexual preferences, and some women may adore immediate penetration without foreplay and dick pics from men they don’t know (not any with whom I’ve spoken, but it’s a big world out there). Still, there are a lot of men today who could learn a few things from “The Wedding Night.”

Alas, a villain enters our story. A crusading U.S. Postal Inspector named Anthony Comstock decided Ms. Craddock was a menace to society after she publicly defended the belly dance show at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago as an art by which married women could improve their sex lives. Comstock almost single-handedly restricted access to “obscene” information in America beginning with the eponymous laws passed in 1873. The Comstock Laws enabled him to prosecute offenders for sending their products through the mail. “Obscene” material included not just pornography but pamphlets on birth control and sexual advice for married couples.

Comstock brought Ms. Craddock to trial in 1902 for sending copies of “The Wedding Night” through the mail. The judge refused to allow the jury to read the pamphlet upon which they would be passing judgment because it was so offensive to morals. Without leaving the courtroom, the jury—all men of course–found her guilty. She was sentenced to the workhouse, a place that invariably ruined the health of its inmates with its cold, damp quarters and rotten food. Ms. Craddock refused an offer to escape the prison term by pleading insanity. She did not consider herself insane (and knew the madhouse was surely little better than prison).

Instead of serving her sentence, Ida Craddock committed suicide.

Her final note was meant for the public to read: “I am taking my life because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has declared me guilty of a crime I did not commit–the circulation of obscene literature. Perhaps it may be that in my death, more than in my life, the American people may be shocked into investigating the dreadful state of affairs which permits that unctuous sexual hypocrite Anthony Comstock to wax fat and arrogant and to trample upon the liberties of the people, invading, in my own case, both my right to freedom of religion and to freedom of the press.” In a long note to her mother, she wrote: “I maintain my right to die as I have lived, a free woman, not cowed into silence by any other human being.”

Comstock’s methods of entrapment and shrill dramatics had been privately losing him support for years. After Ms. Craddock’s death, he received a great deal of negative publicity. Biographer Vere Chappell saw this moment as a turning point for Comstock’s influence, although he lived on to torment other sexual progressives like Margaret Sanger. Few mourned his passing in 1915. The Comstock Laws were rescinded after World War I.

In 2018, Ms. Craddock’s goal of educating the public about pleasurable sexual relations has not progressed as much as one would hope. Speaking honestly about our sexual experiences—good and bad and from the perspective of any gender—still deeply threatens those in power. Our work as erotica writers still requires courage.

With that in mind, the next time you sit down to write a steamy story that will inspire and educate readers about this repressed, but vitally important aspect of our humanity, remember Ida Craddock. We walk in her shadow.

This text exchange is the opening paragraph for Rebecca Traister’s “On the Post-Weinstein Reckoning” and is identified as “A partial text exchange between a Manhattan executive and his female protegee.” Following on this illustration of the sort of treatment women face in the workplace, the article makes many thought-provoking points about the opening of the “anger window”:

“In the shock of the house lights having been suddenly brought up — of being forced to stare at the ugly scaffolding on which so much of our professional lives has been built — we’ve had scant chance to parse what exactly is inflaming us and who. It’s our tormentors, obviously, but sometimes also our friends, our mentors, ourselves.”

Traister is always an insightful social critic, and the article is well worth reading. Yet I was surprised that what really stayed with me over the past few months was the text exchange.

Such lingering, mildly-to-very creepy slices of life often turn into a story or an essay. It’s my way of working out my own discomfort, transforming it into something I control. I could perhaps write my own text exchange as erotica, a story that I’d find genuinely seductive rather than just pathetic and unethical. In my story, I’d coax the guy to ask more interesting questions, because, let’s face it, his overtures are not particularly imaginative. The quantity of one’s orgasms mean a lot less than the quality. And I don’t have to “make” myself come. The sexy threesome of me, myself and I are always on the same page as far as orgasms are concerned, no coercion required. Although I get that the question is code for inquiring if the woman experiences sexual desire outside of the presence of a man who “makes” her reach orgasm. As for question #2 why limit erotic fantasy to actual sexual encounters with real people, past or future? Yawn.

Most importantly, in my story, the exploration of erotic desire would be consensual and the power dynamic more equitable.

In Traister’s example, the woman’s distraught reply makes it clear that the man has acted inappropriately. In that context, “I appreciate your trust in me!” is a conman’s trick. I’ve read enough books on the anatomy of a con to see that he is preemptively and falsely creating a relationship of “trust” with those words in the hope she will feel compelled to answer in kind. As a woman who has been there, I can guess what she was thinking beneath her text brush-off: “Aw, why did he have to go there? Now I have to do the emotional clean-up when I face him again and reset the limits while I massage his ego without too much self-compromise. God I need coffee.”

The male mentor likely had a whiskey or two before he made his overtures around midnight on April 7. Perhaps the wife was away or sleeping upstairs and he was hoping for some return mentoring with his own self-pleasuring project. He was clearly not in a frame of mind to admit to himself how damaging those texts would be to the delicate balance of a professional relationship between a man and a woman. Rather than creating trust, he destroyed it. Forever.

Did he ever understand what he had lost and for what gain?

But let’s not overreact. It was all in good fun, right? Why couldn’t the woman play along and give him the answer he was hoping for, which I imagine as more or less along these lines:

April 7, 2013 11:45 PM

Great questions!

1) I masturbate every day, especially after I have a meeting with you

I’m such a bad, horny girl, I think I need a spanking 😉

2) I always fantasize about you, so it’s future experiences I hope 🙂

btw, I’d love to see a picture of your hard dick ♥♥♥

Or could it be possible—we are very imaginative people here at ERWA–that the mentor’s questions came from a genuine interest in deepening his knowledge of the female erotic experience in an educational way? I myself am always curious about what’s really going on in people’s heads with regard to sexuality: the transcendence, the vulnerability, the connective humanity that I believe is at the heart of eroticism, female, male and every other color of the rainbow.

Today I’m going give this guy the benefit of the doubt. Unlike his protegee, who did exactly what she needed to do by refusing to engage, I’m going to answer him in the spirit of sharing my erotic experience honestly for the sake of male education.

So, Nameless Manhattan Executive Mentor, you’ve got some texts about a woman’s sexual fantasies coming back at you. And you’re welcome for my trust in you.

What do I think about when I masturbate, you ask? I know you want a steamy, explicit story to help you get off, and there are about 200 of mine floating around out there, so check those out for some ideas. What I’d really like to tell you is why I don’t think about past or future experiences. I never think about real people. My fantasy world is detached from the realities of sex in our society. That reality reminds me every day that it is dangerous, even deadly, for my reputation if not my life itself, for a woman to have sexual thoughts and desires, much less any presumption those should be respected as part of my humanity.

Here’s a story that I hope will convey this feeling. About twenty years ago, my sisters and I were driving to a spa for a sibling weekend getaway. My older sister had brought along several issues of Libido magazine, one of my earliest encounters with female-authored erotica (Anais Nin was the first, of course). I read the stories and we all discussed what we liked and joked about some of the scenes—one story I recall was an Orientalist fantasy about a man pretending to “sell” his blindfolded girlfriend to an Arab who turns out to be the boyfriend himself. Nice twist: transgressive but ultimately safe (and an old erotica trick, I’d learn). When we reached our hotel, I said, “Oh, I’d better not leave these magazines in the car. If someone saw them and decided to rape us, the police would think we were asking for it and the guy would totally get away with it.” Our lighthearted mood broken by that dose of common sense, my sisters agreed we had to hide the magazines.

Decades later, I still feel the truth of that message. Any shred of a sign of sexual desire, including wearing a form-fitting sweater, means a woman is broadcasting consent to the world and deserves whatever she gets.

Accordingly, my fantasy world must be carefully walled off from the real world where my sexuality is either protected by the ownership of one man (father then husband) or free pickings for any predator.

Inside the walls, well, that’s a different story.

The scenes I imagine are transgressive and explicit and mostly, though not always heterosexual. However, the partners are always nameless and faceless. They don’t have bodies either. They exist as job descriptions, voices, intentions, desire. In my Land of Sex, the strength of that desire erases past and future. There is only delicious Now.

And yes, these partners “make” me do those “naughty” things, things no “nice” girl is allowed to do. Basically it boils down to admitting I like sex and want everyone to know it. As we often read in erotica, they know me better than I know myself. They know exactly what to do to bring me to ecstasy every time.

These apparently “submissive” fantasies might seem like strong evidence I am yet another feminist secretly delighting in male dominance, but in thinking about this for quite some time, I believe it’s the opposite. The man knows me because he is me (pardon the grammatical incorrectness, it just feels right). As a dutiful daughter of my culture, I identify my proactive desire as male. My female self is desired but exploited in the usual idioms—except in this case by me. I control the scene completely. In my fantasy world, I am assured, as one never really is in the company of most actual men, that my pleasure and release are the highest priority in the universe.

It’s pretty awesome to be me in my fantasy world. In real life I have to worry about my executive mentors using me to get off and that doesn’t feel so good. I realize that with all my talk of keeping my sexuality “safe,” I do publish erotica under my own name. Yet the same fantasy rules apply to my writing—I control the scene and the woman always has her needs satisfied.

I probably have more male readers than I would if I wrote about tender, lifelong female friendships and quilting. Another message I’ve absorbed from our culture is that men really only pay attention to and care about women when they want to have sex with them or the women are their daughters. As in “if she were my daughter, I’d really show that sexual harasser what’s what, but she’s not so, eh, what can I do?”

May I make another confession? Maybe this is just a girl thing, but when it comes to sexual partners, I can’t help myself from caring about the mind inside the body. I’d like to think—and this is a fantasy of a different kind but no less heartfelt—that most men of any maturity actually do care about their partner as a person and that they care about her pleasure as more than just a proof of technical expertise. I hope men also want their partners to appreciate them for their unique humanity and not just their wallets. I’d like to think that women and men can work together to explore the things we have in common as desiring subjects without objectifying and demonizing each other. I wish we could all be more honest about the toll that our society takes on everyone’s sexuality, female, male, and every other flavor on the ice cream menu, too.

That’s a lot of fantasies. But you asked.

Jeesh, it’s after way midnight. Thanks for listening and I hope this helped. Oh, and I was joking about that dick pic. Please don’t send it. Ever. I appreciate your honoring this request.

See you at work, Boss!

A good sexy story offers us a glimpse into the secret lives of strangers. Through her sensibility and skill, an erotica writer enables us to expand our own sensual experience through the bodies and minds of her characters. That, for me, is the eternal allure of a well-written sex scene.

Perhaps this desire to pull back the curtain on hidden erotic pleasures is why I am especially drawn to find out more about what sex was like in the past. We know it happened, because children were born, but did our ancestors experience it as more than a furtive, shameful act for the sake of male sexual release and procreation? More to the point, did women ever enjoy it?

The process of researching historical erotic fiction allows us to uncover treasures that reveal that at least some people in the past had a hot time between the sheets—or elsewhere. I’ve been learning about everything from marriage manuals and Edwardian underwear to red light districts and contraception for my novel-in-progress set in the 1910s. The novel’s completion is a ways away, but I’m happy to announce the publication of a short story informed by many of my discoveries: “The Back Room at the Saloon” in The Big Book of Submission, volume 2, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel.

In the nineteenth century, female submission was regarded as a natural component of marital relations. As my protagonist prepares to fulfill her duty with her husband of a year or so, she repeats to herself the words of advice her mother told her the day of her wedding. This was likely the only sex-related information the young bride ever received from an experienced older woman:

“A good wife gladly submits to her husband’s desire.”

Like “Lie back and think of England,” these words suggest that the passionless bride has to suffer, while her husband selfishly takes his carnal pleasure with no regard for hers. But fortunately, as the story unfolds, we see that my protagonist’s husband, John, is genuinely concerned about his wife’s physical and mental gratification.

Would a man in the nineteenth century even know, much less care, about his partner’s sexual pleasure? We generally assume that because there was little public expression of sexual pleasure in the past, good sex didn’t and couldn’t exist. Still today we are encouraged to censor the enjoyment of sex and assume that a lack of public celebration signifies absence. The media demeans the sexual pleasure of anyone who isn’t model-gorgeous, young, and “cool.” Older people, married people, anyone who couldn’t make it onto a Men’s Health or Playboy cover and “nerds” (I must plead guilty to all four sins) are supposed to have dull or nonexistent sex lives. Even the suggestion that such unworthy folk might experience sexual pleasure is disgusting.

Of course, we unworthies know the truth about our own eroticism. The gulf between what we do in private and what we admit in public can be a Grand Canyon of difference. Was the same true of our corseted and suspendered nineteenth-century forebears? Did they ever experience a jolly time in the bedroom?

We do have a few illuminating glimpses of sexual joy in America in the nineteenth century. To name just a few examples, Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin, engaged in a passionate (and mutually orgasmic) three-way relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd and her husband in late-nineteenth-century Amherst. The diary of Mary Pierce Poor, the upper-middle-class wife of pioneer financial analyst Henry Varnum Poor (yes, of Standard and Poors), shows that the couple had sex approximately every five days and always right before he left for a business trip and right after. This frequency continued for the 27 years of their marriage and is consistent with that reported by married couples in the 1970s (Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America by Janet Farrell Brodie, 10-11).

Mary Hallock Foote, a writer and illustrator of stories of the Western frontier in the late nineteenth century, provides one of my favorite pieces of evidence that women in the nineteenth century had erotic impulses. Foote’s letter to a female friend in 1877 describes a spontaneous orgasm during a church service in the company of two male friends, Mr. Hague and Mr. Ashburner.

“’…The organ made me feel so strangely—Its throbbing seemed to stifle me and for the first time that pulse within me woke and throbbed so strong and it took away my breath.’ Seated between her two men friends, she felt faint. ‘Everything grew dark and I did not know anything for a minute—I don’t know how long—but came to myself with great drops of perspiration on my lips and forehead—Mr. Ashburner was looking at me very closely—Both Mr. Hague and Mr. Ashburner were delicate enough not to allude to it.’”

Foote went on to describe the interlude as the “strangest feeling,” that “double pulse—that life within life—I cannot get used to it!” (The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, vol. 1 Education of the Senses by Peter Gay, 351)

Ms. Foote was young and unmarried at the time, but in my opinion, even if one does get used to “that life within life,” one can certainly never get enough of it!

In “The Back Room at the Saloon,” I put my faith in the ability of lovers of the past to transcend their culture’s fear of sexual exploration. My highly respectable married couple not only achieves mutual pleasure, but actively creates it by pushing–within the privacy of their own home—against the many erotic taboos of their time. John’s willingness to teach his wife about male sexual pursuits encourages her to assert her own desires. At the time, a saloon was an exclusively male preserve where only women of ill-repute could enter. Just by stepping inside, a respectable woman was respectable no more–and thus free to do a lot more than she otherwise could as a proper lady.

I don’t want to give away all the good bits, but I would like to finish off with a historical note about “French love,” which plays a role in the final climax of the story.

Again we have little evidence from the nineteenth century that “respectable” couples engaged in oral sex. In the podcast “19th-Century New York City Prostitution,” Elizabeth Garner Masarik and Sarah Handley-Cousins inform us that a sporting man in New York would have heard all about the services available at Miss French’s on West Twenty-seventh Street and the House of All Nations, a brothel offering courtesans from Ireland, France, Germany, England, Asia, Africa or South America, all ensconced in rooms decorated with the appropriate ethnic decor.

“Many women who worked at the House of All Nations specialized in the ‘French’ style, which consisted of ‘unnatural acts’ – the code word for oral sex. Reformers often blamed Paris for these ‘unnatural acts,’ prompting one social reformer to complain that women working in ‘French’ houses’ stoop to practices that the ordinary American girl could not be induced to do.’ It is interesting to note however that a study in 1908 found that of 2,000 surveyed prostitutes, almost three-quarters were American-born.” (“19th-Century New York City Prostitution”)

If American professionals could “stoop” to give a blowjob for their trade, isn’t it possible that a loving wife, supported by her husband’s appreciation of her sensual curiosity, might attempt the act of her own volition? Indeed, is erotic contact “unnatural” if it is quite easily accomplished without any props or interventions?

“The Back Room at the Saloon” gives new meaning to the words “A good wife gladly submits to her husband’s desire.” The story is a work of my imagination, based on intriguing hints of from letters, diaries and frank marriage manuals by brave pioneers of centuries past. But I hope that I’ve also captured some timeless truth about what really happened behind closed doors so long ago.

As John reassures his wife: “It’s nobody’s business what a man and his wife do in private. Trust me, dear, and all will be well.”

Why didn’t she come forward with these allegations when they happened?

This is a common counter-accusation to women who speak out about long-ago sexual assault. The question implies that the victim is lying and presumes a justice system or human resources department that takes such complaints seriously.

Women know neither institution is rarely on their side. Their violation is likely to be compounded by speaking out. In the course of my research, I discovered some heartbreaking reasons why this has long been the case.

As I discussed in last month’s column, by 1920, determined female reformers were victorious in their effort to raise the age of consent in the United States from a prepubescent ten or twelve to sixteen or eighteen years of age with the help of a (relatively) sexually frank novel. As a result, teenage girls throughout the land were no longer assaulted by older men. The sexual double standard was destroyed forever with a silver stake through its heart.

Well, actually, that’s not how the story ends at all.

The new laws may have seemed like a way to protect young women from sexual harm. However, men had complete control of the justice system, and it fell to them to interpret and enforce the laws. Perhaps predictably given the culture’s patriarchal values, these powerful men took a law intended to protect girls and used it to protect their own interests instead.

What follows is a summary of who was actually punished for extra-marital sex in early-twentieth-century America. Spoiler alert: it was never, ever wealthy mill owners like Mr. Mansfield, the Sunday school teacher who raped a fifteen-year-old working-class girl, in Helen Hamilton Gardener’s Is This Your Son, My Lord? Laws or no, Mansfield and his kind continued to indulge their desires without legal consequence.

In Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920, Mary Odem studied the records of numerous statutory rape court cases in Alameda and Los Angeles Counties in California in the early 1900s to determine the effectiveness of the higher age-of-consent laws. Her findings are illuminating for our current grappling with sexual assault issues today.

Indeed in all of the cases Odem examined, those hauled into court were not wealthy men, but socially vulnerable ones. The accused male partner had a working class job—teamster, shop assistant, manual laborer—and was a teenager himself. In both California counties, over 70% of the relationships were consensual. Often the girl had run away from an abusive family and sought refuge with a boyfriend she planned to marry. In many cases, parents angry with the new freedoms of the time turned their wayward daughter in to the police. Given the subsequent treatment they received from the justice system, I doubt any of these girls would thank Mrs. Gardener for her efforts on their behalf.

Girls who were being “protected” by the age-of-consent laws were subject to a humiliating pelvic exam by matron who looked for evidence of sexual activity and further grilled the girls on their sexual experiences, including “self-abuse.” The matron wrote up a report for the judge including these intimate details. The victim then faced cross-examination by the prosecutor because if the girl consented in any way, even by not protesting enough in the men’s opinion, she was of bad character and the defendant would receive a lighter sentence. Male defendants were not required to testify. Odem provides a disturbing excerpt from an interrogation for Alameda case #5540 which took place in 1913. Clearly this particular case did not involve consensual relations:

“Prosecutor: And he got on top of you?

A: Yes, sir.

Prosecutor: How were your legs when he had this act of sexual intercourse with you, were they close together or apart?

A: They were apart.

Prosecutor: And how did they get apart, you put them apart yourself, didn’t you?

A: No sir.

Prosecutor: Sure about that?

A: Yes sir.

Prosecutor: Who put them apart?

A: He did.

Prosecutor: What were you doing when he put them apart?

A: Nothing.

Prosecutor: Where were your hands when he put them apart?

A: Down at the side.

Prosecutor: What did you say during the time he was putting your limbs, your legs, apart?

A: Didn’t say anything.” (Odem, p. 66)

Is it just me, or is the prosecutor, the man who is supposed to be protecting the young girl in society’s name, attempting instead with every question to bully her into self-incrimination and portray her as a willing harlot?

It quickly becomes clear that judges and attorneys were more interested in reinforcing male privilege than dismantling it. Odem concludes that court official interpreted the age-of-consent laws not as a way to protect women from sexual harm, but to “protect the interests of fathers, future husbands, and the state.” Men were sentenced not for harming a girl, but for depriving her father of a chaste daughter. The horrible treatment of the girl suddenly makes sense if the real task was to determine if she was a hazard to society.

“Judge Mortimer Smith explained that the ‘philosophy’ behind the law was ‘that the country depends upon its women to produce good citizens, and a woman who is debauched, that has its effect upon the mind of every child that is born to her and therefore, a sound public policy demands that no man shall have intercourse with a woman under the age of 18 unless he is married to her, and if he does so, that he interferes with the well-being of the community.’” (Odem, p. 71)

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is what Mrs. Gardener had in mind.

A friend recently observed that in a rape trial, even today, judges and juries favor the party who is more like them. Odem’s records show that more often than not, the lawyers and judge found the man to be the true “victim” of the teenage girl’s sexual wiles. The majority of the male defendants in these cases were given probation on the grounds that any normal man would find it hard to resist temptation, even if it was a forcible assault on her. There was one exception: African American men. All of the African American defendants in Odem’s study received significant jail time, although all were also consensual relationships. One man was told to plead guilty by his attorney because the plea in a case of consensuality usually led to probation under that particular judge. Instead, the man received ten years in San Quentin to serve as example for his race. (Odem, p. 80)

Does any of this sound familiar to today?

Of the 28% of cases that were identified as forcible rapes in Alameda County, 43% of the accused were fathers, stepfathers, uncles and brothers, 27% were neighbors or family friends, and 17% were employers of girls who were domestic servants. (Odem, p. 58) The treatment of these victims was even more horrifying.

“’The court scolded one thirteen-year-old who had been sexually abused by her twenty-seven-year-old brother: “Why did you let him do this, [Pearl], you knew it was naughty, didn’t you? Did you know that he hadn’t any right to do it to you?… Why did you let him?” Pearl tried to explain that the acts were committed against her will: “I couldn’t do anything against him. We were the only ones home.’ In cases like these, the victims of forcible rape were made to feel that they had done something wrong and immoral and had somehow invited the attack.” (Odem, p. 69)

A doctor called an adult housekeeper who helped a young girl bring charges against her known assailant “a dirty liar.” The court believed his evaluation over the testimony of the females.

If the justice system was in place to protect the patriarchal family as a pillar of social order, then any suggestion that this ideal was flawed was clearly too much for a poor judge to fathom. “Rather than deal with the problem, it was easier to deny it, to assume that the young women and girls who accused their fathers and other male relatives of sexual abuse were lying.” (Odem, p. 62)

This has been a very painful column for me to write—there are many more heart-wrenching examples I will spare you–but I think it’s important for those of us who write about sexuality in our culture to know that possibly until October 5, 2017 when the Harvey Weinstein story broke (and the jury is out on whether this will lead to lasting change), women and girls were long accused of lying about and ultimately being responsible for their own sexual assault in the courts and in public opinion. Any show of female sexual curiosity or desire was seen as evidence of a woman’s crimes not just against a particular man but against society. The hapless male was merely a victim of her temptation no matter what the circumstance. The drawing at the beginning of this column is supposed to be of a “white slave,” an innocent young woman who was drugged or tricked into prostitution. After reading Delinquent Daughters, I see it as more suitably symbolic of our justice system’s treatment of female sexuality. Contain it, punish it, and always put men’s needs first.

I must end on a more cheerful note. Even back in the 1910s, women did what they could. Lady reformers were often aware that their intentions were not carried out by the male-dominated criminal justice system. They would sometimes attend the trials to support the victims; the atmosphere in the courtroom changed under their watchful eye. (Women could vote in California in 1911, but could not serve on juries until 1917). They lobbied to have female social workers involved in the interviews and courtroom proceedings with some success later in the century. In 1913, women activists were successful in their campaign to recall Judge Charles Weller who had a record of dismissing rape cases even when there was good evidence. (Odem, p. 73)

In 2016, Judge Aaron Persky, a Stanford graduate and former athlete, gave an extremely light sentence to Brock Turner, a Stanford swimmer found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Persky is facing a recall for this decision, as well as other less famous judgments favoring college athletes accused of sexual or domestic assault. Determined female activists, led by Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, lead the recall effort.

The past is still with us. Attempting to make sense of how and why is an important step toward positive change for women and men.

We have the power to decide how the ending of this story. What shall it be?

 

 

The image of the “white slave” is reprinted from the cover of Ernest A. Bell, Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls, or the War on the White Slave Trade (1910) via Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 by Mary E. Odem (1995)

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