Donna George Storey
One of the chief pleasures of writing a historical novel is discovering the details of daily life in the past so we can recreate the texture and flavor of the time. The clothing of the period is, of course, an essential focus of research to put our characters in proper attire. But because erotica writers carefully undress our characters as well, we must also learn exactly the sort of undergarments an impatient lover will encounter for full authenticity.
Most of us know about corsets, petticoats and pantalettes from historical dramas. However, mainstream movies and TV leave out one important aspect of ladies’ drawers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—they had no crotch. Indeed they were almost completely split from end to end, two free-standing leg tubes held together by little more than a waistband as you see below.
Frederick’s of Hollywood doesn’t even dare to go that far.
I first found out about this unspoken feature of female undergarments of the last two centuries when I was assembling a corset-friendly costume for a boudoir photo session a few years ago. I went to a local lace and antique clothing store called Lacis in the hope of finding a pair of old fashioned bloomers. To my delight, I found a pair in exactly my size for a reasonable price pictured in both photographs here. The open crotch was a surprise, but when I put the drawers on, the gap disappeared into a sort of short petticoat. Unless the wearer made an effort to spread the split seam, if you didn’t know, you’d never guess what did–or rather didn’t–lie within.
But of course, the women and men of the 1900s knew. I’ve read in several sources that working-class lovers rarely undressed fully when they had sex in Victorian times. Open-crotch drawers certainly support the logistics of that custom.
In An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality, Jill Fields provides further illumination about the history and sexual politics of open-crotch underpants for women. Until the nineteenth century, women didn’t wear any sort of protective clothing between their legs, although surely there was some provision for menstruation. (In the time period I’m studying, women wore diaper-like pants lined with cotton wool or rags; disposable pads were just coming on the market). Little girls and boys, who were dressed alike in feminine fashion until about the age of five, wore closed pantalettes under shorter dresses. Boys then were “breeched” and wore knee-length britches, then long trousers at puberty. When girls were old enough to put up their hair and lower their skirts—more or less at puberty—they also started wearing open-crotch drawers.
Fields acknowledges that the split crotch made it easier to answer daily necessities for a woman swathed in layers of undergarments and long, heavy skirts. Some experts claimed exposing the female genitals to the air was healthy. However, Fields also emphasizes the symbolic value of the female version of drawers. Women were not supposed to wear trousers—Joan of Arc’s cross-dressing preferences were part of her heresy. If a woman wore closed-crotch garments, she would be veering too close to the appropriation of male privilege, and no real lady would dream of such transgression. Thus, the gap at the crotch symbolized an adult women’s physical difference, her availability to men, and, ironically to our modern sensibility, her feminine modesty.
Around the late 1910s, the world began to change. Skirts shortened. More women were employed outside the home in offices and factories. Women went on “dates” outside the home, danced the tango in public halls and cabarets, and rode bicycles. Modesty in public now required closed-crotch step-ins, more like our tap pants, duly decorated with lace and wider at the leg to distinguish them from men’s drawers. From the end of World War I until the present day, open-crotch panties, once the sign of submissive and respectable femininity, became associated with naughty eroticism instead.
Fields writes: “The sexual access open drawers provided could coexist with woman’s propriety only in the context of an ideology of female passionlessness and social structures of masculine domination. When women publicly asserted their own claims to sexual pleasure, political power, and economic independence, an open crotch was no longer respectable.” (p. 42)
By the 1920s, ladies were now allowed, even required, to experience sexual pleasure in marriage to keep their husbands from straying. While I view this as a positive development, Victorian prudery did allow some women the power to control the number of marital sexual encounters due to their spiritual delicacy, as well as a desire to limit families. Now a woman “owed” her husband regular sex and an enthusiastic response. For the middle-class at least, with their greater access to birth control such as the new latex condoms and diaphragms, intercourse had fewer consequences to fertility than earlier.
Fields even describes a comic novel (1926) and film (1937) called Topper by Thorne Smith where the plot revolves around a prudish wife’s conversion to the modern underpants of a “forward woman,” which improves her sex life with her husband but deprives her of her power as the moral arbiter of the family.
Nonetheless, it would be several decades more before the average woman dared to wear slacks rather than skirts over her closed-crotch undies. At a family reunion last fall, my 96-year-old aunt described the momentous day she wore pants for the first time in her life during an evening stroll with her husband through the neighborhood–with his express permission of course. In the 1950s in the summer, small-town families still gathered on their front porches after dinner to seek relief from the heat. My aunt’s heart was pounding with anxiety as she wondered how the neighbors’ reaction to her brazen outfit. But there were no earthquakes or riots, everyone simply nodded and wished her a good evening as they had the day before.
Some revolutions are quiet, yet significant, like the closing of the crotches on ladies’ drawers.
What is the difference between erotica and porn? The classic reply is “erotica is what I like and porn is what you like,” which underscores the inherently arbitrary nature of any judgment. Some might challenge the need for this question at all, and I understand the appeal of taking each piece of writing on its own merits, classifications and hierarchies be damned. Still I’ve always found it rewarding to contemplate what makes certain kinds of sexually explicit writing more personally satisfying to me than others—what makes it my erotica, so to speak.
My definition has changed over the years and is still changing. Today, my favorite definition of erotica is that you still have an interesting story left if you take away the sex. As in my own life, what intrigues me is not the physical consummation alone, but the people involved and what they bring to the encounter.
The latter sentiment is starting to sound more like “romance,” another genre that has negative connotations for many due to its association with foolish women. Truth be told, my current project was inspired by a gendered coupling: my reading about WWI on its hundredth anniversary—hmm, the politics are fascinating, but what was sex and romance really like at that time?–and an unexpected dip into Fifty Shades of Grey—hmm, I understand why some love this story and some hate it, but what kind of romance would I write to please myself?
I like a good romance as much as anyone who likes a good romance, so I’ve enjoyed exploring the path my lovers take in deciding they must be together, despite obstacles of social background and religion. The values and expectations of an earlier time naturally raise the stakes, because romance and sexual intimacy had more serious consequences for one’s reputation and fertility than they do today. I’m especially interested in how courtship has changed—and remained the same—in the last century.
One of the pleasures of this project is hearing voices from the past through books written at the time and primary sources such as letters. James Joyce and his wife Nora, Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins and his fiancé Kitty Kiernan, Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenska, playwright John Millington Synge and actress Molly O’Neill, all provide insights into the passionate epistolary expressions of more-or-less famous artists and political figures. It should perhaps be no surprise that these correspondences have a bit more artistic panache than the emails between Christian Grey and Ana Steele. But the romances of ordinary folk are also revealing of their times. This month, I’d like to share a more humble sample from my archives, two letters exchanged by a courting couple, the first from John to Annie, shown at the beginning of this post. The text is as follows (my apologies for the quality of the scan as this blog won’t let me upload the highest resolution files):
April 25, 1915
Dear Friend Annie,
Hoping I am not taking to [sic] much liberty in addressing a few lines to you to ask you if I could see you some time reel [sic] soon to exchange a few ideas. Hoping you are not offended and if you wish to see me let me know if not please destroy this letter for old time’s sake.
From your friend, I hope,
John A. Smith
This letter is from Annie to John:
October 7, 1915
I received your letter which was more than a surprise to me, I surely thought you did not want to speak to me, but Johnie the way your letter read you do not want very much about speaking to me. I would like very much to talk to you, so if you care to see me and it is convenient for you please meat [sic] me on Friday evening after Service down at St Joseph’s, if not destroy this letter, if you please + excuse this writing and all mistakes.
I remain a friend,
Annie C. Hufnagel
I hold the originals in my hand, the paper yellowed and spotted, torn at the creases and fixed with Scotch tape. The ink is faded, and someone has traced over the writing in ballpoint pen with some indifference to the original. Perhaps some of the misspellings are the fault of the second writer? As for the content, my first response was amusement at the reserve in “see you sometime soon to exchange a few ideas” and the concern of both writers that their invitations might not be welcome, hence the pleas to destroy them, which I assume means burning them in the stove. Was this simply convention? Did courting couples in 1915 worry that an unwelcome written overture would be circulated among friends or posted in the town square to be mocked? Modern technology, Snapchat aside, can hold similar dangers of regret and discovery, but most people don’t beg recipients to delete texts. (Or do they?) I have also read that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century if a courtship ended, it was polite to either return the other party’s letters or assure them that you had destroyed them to save embarrassment. Perhaps we should revive that custom today?
Yet a second more careful reading of the two extant letters raised a new question. John’s letter is dated April 25, 1915 and Annie’s, which I initially assumed was a direct reply to his, was written on October 7 of that same year. Did she wait over five months to reply? Or were other letters exchanged in between? If so, there’s little evidence of the development of confidence in the relationship or ease between the two.
We might wonder if there was much of a future between these two people. Beneath the reserve, I do sense some yearning on both sides in those expressions of friendship. Fortunately, in this case as well as in my novel, I know the ending. John and Annie went on to marry in 1919, when he was 35 and she 29.
They had seven children; the girl on the right of the photograph standing next to John is their second-to-youngest, my mother. I am one of their 23 grandchildren. Thus in retrospect, the personal stakes for this relationship’s success are high, but we can assume John did indeed meet Annie after church on Friday and exchange some appealing ideas. The long courtship led to a marriage of sixty years, until my grandfather’s death at 95. My grandmother confided that on the morning of the day he died, my grandfather made a sexual advance, which I like to think represented a long and fulfilling life of romantic “ideas” between them.
It’s a nice thought for the future and an appealing inspiration for my novel set in the past. Whether you call it erotica or porn is your choice!
An erotic story–indeed any story–is liveliest when spiced with plenty of conflict, mystery and the subversion of everyday expectations. While I’ve made it a special project to portray hot sex between longtime lovers, I have to admit that an illicit affair brings built-in tension to an encounter, making the writer’s task much easier.
Naughty sex is all the spicier if your story is set in the early 1900s, when “respectable” people assumed that “respectable” sex occurred only between a husband and his lawful wife, in their bedroom, in the dark, and preferably with as little enjoyment as possible on either side. With polite society watching and judging every move, women in particular could be “ruined” by even the appearance of impropriety. In Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, socialite Lily Bart’s chances at a good marriage are fatally compromised when she is observed visiting a male friend at his rooms during a two-hour stop-over in New York on her way to a house party. Naturally, disgrace and suicide soon follow.
Gentlemen were allowed more leeway with their indiscretions if they chose extramarital lovers from the lower classes and didn’t flaunt their affairs in the better part of town. The parlor house or brothel was always an option, but by the early 1900’s, the anti-vice crusaders had achieved significant success in dampening the traditionally lively urban sex trade. Besides by the early 1900s, young men and women of every class were taking advantage of vaudeville theaters, motion pictures, amusement parks, and dance halls to fraternize more freely than their parents, whose courtships were confined to the front porch or parlor. For the upper-class, the fancy “lobster palaces” in New York’s midtown, or Jack’s and The Poodle Dog in San Francisco, now welcomed respectable ladies for dinner when accompanied by gentlemen. In The Way We Never Were, Stephanie Coontz quotes a study that showed men born between 1900 and 1909 were increasingly likely to have their first sexual encounter with a girlfriend than a prostitute—for this group, sex with prostitutes declined by 50% over earlier generations.
Seduction of the more modern-minded woman needed a proper setting, and for the wealthy men of New York and San Francisco, the restauranteurs of these glamorous metropolises provided a solution: the private dining room with accommodations for after-dinner indulgence. If you’ve ever seen Doctor Zhivago, you may recall that Komarovsky meets red-velvet-clad Lara in such a private room with both a table and a velvet daybed, one of many in a fancy establishment for the soon-to-be-imperiled Russian aristocracy. Funny Girl also makes use of this setting for the “You are Woman, I Am Man” number: “Isn’t this the height of nonchalance, furnishing a bed in restaurants. Well, a bit of dinner never hurt, but guess who is gonna be dessert?” (Apparently, both scenes stuck with me, because I’m gearing up to write my own version—sans Omar Sharif!)
In the New York of the early 1900s, gentlemen with money to spend and a hankering for a double life would woo a pretty chorus girl from a Broadway play and bring her to one of the famed lobster palaces such as Bustanoby’s, Rector’s, or Cafe de l’Opera (the drawing above is from the latter in Julian Street’s “Lobster Palace Society” Everybody’s Magazine, May 1910). If the man wanted to flaunt his conquest in the later hours when decent wives were already tucked in bed, the couple would stop in the public dining room for a “bird and bottle supper” of cold champagne and hot bird, a double entrendre as chorus girls were referred to as good-looking chicken or delicious squab (Lewis Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930). After dinner, if the chemistry was right, the actress and her suitor might then retire to a private rooms upstairs.
On the other hand, an established extramarital couple would more likely head straight for the private dining room. At Jack’s in San Francisco “men would have lunch with secretary upstairs and dinner with wife downstairs.” The fancier Poodle Dog’s top three floors held sumptuous suites where “wealthy patrons could easily indulge themselves secretly in whatever whims caught their fancy.” These secret pleasure palaces were reached by a side entrance with a private elevator. (Frances de Talavera Berger and John Parke Custis, Sumptuous Dining in Gaslight San Francisco, 1875 to 1915).
The American Menu, a fascinating blog for historical fiction writers, describes a turn-of-the-last-century “love hotel” called The Palette Hotel on West 52nd Street in New York City.
“A vice report in 1890 claimed that ‘only the misguided of the upper-ten (percent)’ frequented the hotel, succinctly describing its rich clientele as ‘women who in their homes, in churches and in society hold positions of honor and respect, and men whose loyalty to wife and family is believed to be absolute.’ In fact, getting into the hotel without being seen was important at a time when outward appearances greatly mattered. Following the typical pattern, a man and a veiled woman would emerge from the hansom cab as soon as it rolled up to the hotel. After running up the stoop, and quickly pushing the door bell (then a new electrical device), someone ‘almost immediately’ opened the door.”
With all of the talk of wealthy men and their mistresses, I was heartened at the suggestion that wealthy wives also explored the path of equality with regard to extramarital affairs. It would certainly make sense that fine ladies would shun the pre-coital public dining room display for a thoroughly discreet rendezvous. I was a bit surprised to learn that the same blog post assures us that hotels specializing in romantic encounters still exist. Keeping up a forty-year tradition, the Liberty Inn in the fashionable meatpacking district rents rooms by the hour for couples at a reasonable price. The photo gallery reminded me very much of the love hotels that are very common in Japan—fanciful and not a little tacky. Although who really is paying attention to the decor in such circumstances?
Although my novel only hints at erotic adventures in Paris, I can’t resist mentioning another example, mainly because of the title of the article: “Paris for Perverts: The Clitoris of Paris.”
“At Lapérouse, a romantic restaurant that still operates on Le Quai des Grands-Augustins, the tuxedoed maitre d’ took me upstairs to visit the original cozy chambres particuliers, private rooms where gentlemen could discreetly ply courtesans with champagne, delicacies, and expensive presents. The antique mirrors are still clouded with etched marks, when the ladies would test their diamond gifts by scratching them along the glass to make sure they weren’t being duped.”
Presumably, the “ladies” were determining whether their suitors had given them cut-glass or true diamonds (Remember “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, another tale of ruination? I vowed I would always ask the cost of the necklace first should the same fate befall me.)
However, we can’t really blame the gentlemen for trying to cut corners. The American Menu points out that The Palette charged more for champagne than lobster palaces and first-class hotels. Secrecy came at a price for the illicit lovers of the past.
But for erotica writers, it’s all gravy.
“When you write, you illuminate what’s hidden, and that’s a political act.”
So said Grace Paley in a 1985 “Fresh Air” interview. I came across her quote in a New Yorker review of the new collection of her work: A Grace Paley Reader. It’s hard to get more hardcore literary than the New Yorker, but even as I held that august magazine in my hands, I thought, “She’s talking about erotica writers, too! Actually, not ‘too.’ Especially us.”
After all, who is best at illuminating what is hidden from polite society than erotica writers?
Sexuality is, even today for the most part, segregated in private spaces or specialized commercial venues. Writing erotica in any dedicated, and certainly celebratory, fashion (bad, uncomfortable, or punished sex is more acceptable for literary fiction than a good, contagiously hot sex scene) “cheapens” a serious writer.
But most human beings do have sex. It has meaning in our lives. It elates and confuses, embarrasses and enlightens, connects and exploits. To explore this aspect of our existence honestly in our writing is courageous, and indeed political, in the sense that it “speaks truth to power” by refusing to obey the rule of silence around sexuality.
Yet for me, erotica’s illuminations go even deeper. I speak now as a reader of erotica, the twin pillar of our association’s name. When I first encountered sexually explicit writing, through Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden and Penthouse letters, I was fascinated by the frank discussion of these naughty acts that I’d yet to experience myself. It was an education in the possible, and in some sense, even when I knew better, I took the stories at face value.
Once I began to write my own stories, I came to realize that a creative depiction of sex (or anything) involves choices and crafting, but also an intuitive understanding of what our culture considers compelling so we can connect with readers. Many readers probably believe we simply write what we personally find arousing or have done in our real lives, but I’ve written stories for calls that have drawn heavily from my imagination. I also came to believe that any erotic story, even one based honestly on actual experience, is a fantasy of a sort.
Many dismiss “fantasy” as second best to the “real thing,” but for me, the revelation of the sexual workings of a person’s mind is much more interesting and intimate than the most athletically orgasmic of physical encounters.
It’s also possible that I’ve read too much erotica to find entertainment solely in the descriptions of sex acts. There is as much pleasure to be gotten from considering what stories reveal in terms of power exchange—and I don’t necessarily mean just BDSM. Take a very common theme in erotic stories of sexual encounters between authority figures–teachers, doctors, policewo/men, bosses—and those with lower status such as students, patients, and employees. Polite society defines these relationships as public, proper, and untainted by sex, so just adding sex to the mix is in itself a transgression. But sexualizing a teacher or doctor also humanizes her and creates a kind of equality or even a reversal of status. Certainly during an orgasm, we are all equal in our transcendence of the civilized. Erotica of this flavor is thus an illumination of the humanity and vulnerability of authority figures.
In another example, the theme of exhibitionism can be taken at face value as the desire to perform sexual acts for another’s gaze, but I also see it as a way to reach for validation and acceptance of our sexuality. The illumination here is how suppressed and shamed many of us are or at least were when we had to deal with our maturing erotic selves with so little social support.
A deeper look at our own writing can be illuminating. Which dynamics fascinate us? What haunts us? What soothes? As I mentioned in last month’s column, I’m realizing that I must have internalized the message that a man “wins” when he has sex with me, and I “lose.” I don’t believe that rationally, but that zero-sum equation still has power emotionally. Yet in the fantasies, I “win” because the man’s desire for me and his “domination” lead to my pleasure. My erotic mind transforms society’s message into a win-win.
Respecting sexual fantasy as transformative, healing, revolutionary. Isn’t that a political act if there ever was one?
Sexual fantasy is not usually considered worthy of serious reflection. It’s a use-it-once-and-throw-it-away sort of thing. Perhaps if we’re really perverted, a doctor should be called in to analyze us, but otherwise, polite society says erotic daydreams are best kept private—even as variations of the same are splayed across billboards and movie screens. The first-draft writer side of me hesitates to spend too much time on analysis or the big picture. Storytelling uses another part of my brain. But the reader in me delights in the illumination of secrets, including my own, and the personal power it gives me to make or re-make stories, the food of our intellect and our souls.
That’s a political act, too.
Last month, I talked about the forgotten story of Audrey Munson, the supermodel of the 1910s, whose form inspired many of the famous statues that still grace New York City today. Audrey was unusual in her comfort posing in “the altogether” as it was called in those days of euphemism.
Audrey was a consummate professional and claimed that she could easily tell a real (always male) artist from a fake. The latter usually dressed poorly, had paint or plaster dust in his unruly hair and kept a cold, plain studio. The true artist was so focused on creating his work of art that he barely remembered to let her pause to stretch her sore muscles. The fake playboy artistes of course had plush studios decked out in Orientalist frippery and spent less time on sculpting than on seduction. Their models spent plenty of time relaxing on velvet cushions under the influence of champagne. Audrey shunned such men, but some of her friends earned diamond rings and fine dresses for their services, while Audrey took home a mere fifty cents an hour.
In spite of her insistence on the transcendent motives of both professional model and true artist, one particular part of Audrey’s story has stayed with me. That is, the moment when her world changed forever, when Isidore Konti first convinced her—and her mother—that Audrey should take her clothes off for the sake of art.
“There was nothing wrong, [sculptor Isidore Konti] argued, with Audrey imparting her beauty to create a beautiful object in marble or bronze. Indeed, it was the duty of every woman, he insisted, to ‘contribute what she could to art and loveliness.’” (James Bone, The Curse of Beauty, 40).
For Audrey, especially, disrobing in front of a man was not a sordid act. It meant stepping beyond the limitations of earthly womanhood to become an immortal work of art. Yet while Konti’s eloquent argument persuaded Audrey and her mother, a voice inside me was skeptical.
“He’s lying his head off with that ‘duty of every woman’ malarkey. He just wants to see her naked!”
Biographer James Bone supported my instinct by reporting that the artists who employed Audrey would gossip about the beautiful dimples in her lower back. This suggests that sensual enjoyment of her unclothed form was not totally lacking. Yet Audrey’s relationships with many of the famous artists working in New York was apparently above board.
So where did my mistrust come from? As writers will do, I let my mind wander, through images and stories I remembered when my awareness of sexual politics took shape way back in the 1970s. Memories rose up—the strongest was of the two photographs at the top of this essay, of the same nude woman, side by side. One posed, artistic and boring, the other showing the woman’s sense of violation as if the photographer had burst in when she was changing into her bathing suit. I remembered, too, joking advice on how to convince a woman to pose nude, and the clear message that the male photographer was conning his female model into doing something bad, even illegal. The name of the magazine where I read this article was also clear in my memory: National Lampoon.
The internet is a boon for recovering long ago memories. I browsed the tables of contents of the early issues of National Lampoon online. With the July 1970 “Very Bad Taste” issue I hit the jackpot: “Art or Porno? A Photographer’s Guide to Naked Ladies” by Geoffrey Mandeville. For just a few dollars, the images that haunted me were before my eyes again. The context came flooding back. Summer vacation at the beach. Lounging around the motel room, lost in my older sister’s cool college magazine. Neither she nor my parents were at all aware the afternoon’s reading would leave such an indelible impression.
Just as I recalled, the humor of the article was entirely based on the tension between a man claiming to be interested in the female form as art and his “base” sexual instincts.
For example, the author suggests some Dos and Don’ts for your photography session:
DO refer to your subject matter as “art studies” or “figure composition.”
DON’T call your finished work “pictures of naked ladies” or “hot stuff.”
DO use such terminology as “bounced floods” and “stroboscopic timer.”
DON’T use such expressions as “Chilly, isn’t it? Heh heh,” and “Watch the birdie! Heh heh.”
My young self picked up on the message very well—never trust a man if he asks you to take off your clothes for art. It’s a zero-sum game. He wins, you lose. And if he says high-falutin’ things about Art and beauty and duty, he’s lying.
In the decades between my first reading and my recent revisitation, I arranged for my own nude photo session—with a female photographer. I knew at the time I was attempting to take charge of the gaze, to define my own beauty. Would I have done so without that issue of National Lampoon and the conflict born then that I felt an urge to resolve?
Today I am certainly better able to take a mature and appreciative view of erotic art than I was in 1970. And yet posing in the nude still has its dangers. Consider the current scandal where nude photos of female Marines have been shared without their permission by male colleagues. The excuse for posting these photos is that the women “cheated” on their Marine lovers and exposing their erotic photos is their just punishment. Some wonder if it’s not pure sexual harassment, to keep women who dare to aspire to what was traditionally a male role in their sexualized, objectified place.
Of course, we shouldn’t allow the Marines or National Lampoon to have the last word. The nude human form—male or female—can be a transcendent work of art. A response that belittles and degrades tells us more about the viewer than he might like to admit. Perhaps we all have within ourselves the dueling artist/artiste—the one who wonders at and elevates beauty and the other who seeks to dominate through defilement?
I admit it. I made a terrible mistake putting “Republican” in the title of my column last month. Could you choose any better word to dash cold water on a reader’s libido even if it was paired with the magically profitable and compelling duo of “Fifty Shades”?
I hope, however, to make up for my previous misjudgment this month by discussing a topic of timeless allure: a woman who takes her clothes off for the sake of art.
My inspiration for this column is Audrey Munson, the model for numerous artists and sculptors in the early part of the twentieth century. Interpretations of her nude form appear in New York City as Civic Fame atop the Manhattan Municipal Building, on the Maine Memorial in Central Park, as the Spirit of Commerce on the arch at the end of the Manhattan Bridge, and as Pomona in the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel. As James Bone writes in his biography of Audrey, The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous and Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, “Wherever you go in New York City, Audrey is looking at you.” (Bone, 3) In 1915, at the Pan-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, she was even more ubiquitous. Seventy-five percent of the statues and murals adorning the fairgrounds were based on modeling sessions with Audrey. “’America’s greatest sculptors are ready to admit that she is the most perfectly formed woman who ever posed in an American studio,’ the San Francisco Chronicle gushed.” (Bone, 110)
James Bone’s book tells the tale of the life of this early-twentieth-century supermodel, but also of the familiar challenges faced by a female muse in a world controlled by men: artists who projected their own visions of perfection on her body, wealthy playboys who collected models like trophies, theater managers who punished actresses for rejecting sexual advances, and unscrupulous film producers who publicized but never paid lavish wages. Audrey’s subjective experience of these adventures and misadventures is captured to a degree in newspaper interviews and memoirs, usually ghost-written by a male author. But after a career as a chorus girl, model and early film star, she spent the second half of her life in a mental institution, receiving only rare visits from family members until she died in 1996. In Bone’s biography, as in the marble likenesses of her body, Audrey is there–yet she is not there. All around New York, we may indeed gaze upon Audrey, but in truth, her eyes are, and have always been, blank and blind.
Still many aspects of her story felt surprisingly relevant today. Sexual politics are as timeless as the appeal of a beautiful body au naturel. There is much to discuss in her life about beauty, power and art, but for brevity’s sake, I’ve chosen two of the aspects of her story that struck me in particular as a female reader: the significance of the moment when an artist first persuades a young beauty to pose nude and the possible reasons for Audrey’s popularity among artists in the 1910s.
The artist’s model has been a stock character in erotic fiction from nineteenth-century tales of Bohemia and Anais Nin to steamy stories in multiple recent editions of Best Women’s Erotica. Sometimes, the model is a woman of experience who enjoys her work, has many lovers and feels no shame. However, the initiation of the innocent has always had particular power in erotica. Seductions often begin with the man convincing a woman to pose for a painting or a photograph in artistic drapery and then, with further coaxing, in the nude. Bone’s biography, although not erotica per se, dwells upon that moment of Audrey’s transformation from respectability to, depending on your perspective, fallen woman or transcendent muse.
Audrey’s modeling career began when she was approached on the street by Felix Benedict Herzog, a photographer who asked to make studies of her face. Her mother Kittie accompanied her to his studio to make sure her daughter’s virtue was not compromised. Kittie had divorced Audrey’s father over ten years before. After running several boardinghouses in Providence, Rhode Island, Kittie and Audrey ended up in Manhattan where Audrey found occasional work in the theater. Herzog took “artistic” photographs, but Audrey was always properly draped in costume and cloth.
It was Isidore Konti, a sculptor from Vienna, who first persuaded Audrey to pose “in the altogether.” Konti was working on a sculpture called Three Graces for the Grand Ballroom of the Astor Hotel, but had encountered sculptor’s block. The very sight of Audrey gave Konti the inspiration to continue—he would use her figure for all three of the Graces. But first he had to convince Audrey to take off her clothes.
“It cost Konti a Herculean effort to convince the stubborn Kittie that her tender teenager was safe in his care. Every day, Audrey would arrive to pose with her mother in tow, and Konti would explain to Kittie why artists did the things they did. There was nothing wrong, he argued, with Audrey imparting her beauty to create a beautiful object in marble or bronze. Indeed, it was the duty of every woman, he insisted, to ‘contribute what she could to art and loveliness.’ In those studio sessions, Kittie, as much as Audrey, was being inducted into a new way of life. The life of art.” (Bone, 39-40).
According to Bone’s accounts, artist after artist would be struck at first sight by Audrey’s potential and use her form to produce a masterpiece. Konti introduced Audrey to Adolph Weinman, who immediately asked her to take her clothes off. Still a novice, Audrey stood shyly before him, eyes downcast. Weinman asked her to raise her arms as if she were fixing her hair and made quick sketches of her pose. These sketches later became the sculpture Descending Night—renamed The Setting Sun for the Pan-Pacific Exposition (and pictured at the beginning of this essay).
Bone emphasizes that Audrey insisted she only worked for professional artists and was no “natural” exhibitionist. “She developed a mental trick to help defeat her shame at appearing before a stranger in the altogether. ‘In position, holding a pose while a sculptor or painter worked, I thought of myself only as a model—a mere piece of human flesh,’ she said. ‘The moment the artist dropped his brush or mallet or modeling tool I became the human young woman again, ashamed to have my body seen.’” (Bone, 41-42).
Note, of course, that none of the art works for which she modeled is called “Audrey Munson.” They are named after mythological figures—Three Graces, Venus de Milo, Phryne—or abstractions—Maidenhood, Spirit of Commerce, Mourning Victory, Star Maiden. The erasure of individuality and subjectivity was the price of portraying the nude form in early twentieth-century America.
“Audrey learned the unspoken rules of thumb for posing in the buff. ‘No model posing undraped must ever smile. If she does the representation of her becomes common, disagreeable, offensive,’ she said. Even odder was the widely held belief that motion itself suggested sexuality. Censors allowed static ‘poses plastiques’ in the theater but balked at any moving nudity.” (Bone, 74)
Nevertheless, other details of her story suggest a more complicated dynamic. Rather than a passive object, Audrey was an active advocate for her career. She tirelessly visited studios throughout New York to offer her services. Recommendations from other artists as to her professionalism helped secure more work. She claimed to avoid being entrapped into affairs with the pseudo-artists of Bohemia, best identified by their luxurious studios and expensive clothes. Real artists wore dirty smocks; their workplaces were cold and Spartan. In her interviews and memoirs, Audrey insisted that her work had a higher purpose: “That which is the immodesty of other women has been my virtue—my willingness that the world should gaze upon my figure unadorned.” (Bone, 41)
If the classic erotic scene in the studio–with the artist invoking “duty to art” as he charms or bullies his reluctant, maidenly model into disrobing–is not totally accurate in Audrey’s case, what about the reason she was chosen by so many artists as the “It” Girl of the 1910s? The press would have you believe it was for a simple, objective reason: she had the perfect female form, no argument allowed. Syndicated health columnist Dr. Lillian Whitney attributed her popularity to Audrey’s ample bosom. (Bone, 74) In our age of breast implants, Audrey appears rather middling in that regard. As for timeless perfection, would Audrey receive a second glance from photographers and artists in our modern age?
They’d probably say she has to work on her thighs.
In fact, if you examine more than a few of these statues, the figures and faces are not exactly alike. Sometimes the breasts are full, other times they are smaller. Arnold Genthe’s photograph of Audrey above shows a different figure in flesh than in the stone of Three Graces. Might it be that the artist projects his own image of beauty onto the model? That “perfection” is an agreement between male artist and male critic rather than an objective measurement? If so, can we “know” Audrey through a sculptor’s image of her? Or can we only know something of the artist himself, the concrete representation of his fantasies?
Again Audrey’s professionalism is downplayed. She clearly had the talent of posing for long hours day after day, not a discomfort every person is able or willing to endure. The emphasis on the artist’s agency—persuading the woman to disrobe with invocations of duty to high principles, creating the work of art from his vision and skill—also undercuts the fortitude and attitude of the model. The sensibility of early twentieth-century America did not allow for any celebration of Audrey’s professionalism. We will never really know if she had appetite for transgression or “natural” exhibitionism. Audrey herself had to cloak her posing in high-minded abstractions: Beauty, Art and Timeless Immobility.
In conclusion, I am reminded that erotic writing by, for and about women only really came of age at the end of the twentieth century, around the time of Audrey’s death. In modern interpretations of the artist-model dynamic, the subjective desire of the model is finally given a voice—indeed the artist’s gaze can even be a female. Best of all, women eroticists don’t have to be cajoled, convinced or fooled. We create art with our eyes open. That is something to celebrate!
By Donna George Storey
The movie Fifty Shades Darker was released just before Valentine’s Day. No one cares. The box office on opening weekend was slightly more than half of Fifty Shades of Grey. The quality of the second movie may be a factor. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson did not return to do the sequel, which lacks the humor and sizzle of the first film, critics say.
Then again perhaps we’ve lost interest in the fate of Ana and Christian because our nation is too busy navigating our own intimate BDSM relationship with a billionaire? “You’ll let me hurt you, because you love me, right?” he snarls gently. “Don’t resist! You’ll enjoy it. Now stop calling your Senators and let me put these handcuffs on you. Trust me, it’ll be something terrific…”
Not sure how that’s been going for you, but I’m learning a lot about myself from this experience.
Indeed I find it fascinating that the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon of just a few years past is suddenly painfully relevant to our everyday lives. This month I’d like to share some lessons from E.L. James’ erotic novels that illuminate the power of fantasy, BDSM and billionaires.
Don’t Bother Fact-Checking A Fantasy
Do you remember all the dire warnings about Christian Grey as a stalker and a dangerously controlling personality? Therapists and cultural critics alike worried that the female fans of Fifty Shades of Grey would be fooled into thinking that the relationship between Christian and Ana was desirable and that these poor women would then seek out sociopathic narcissists who would abuse them physically and psychologically. Many more criticized the bad prose, the passive heroine and the inane plot lifted from Twilight. Anna J. Roberts even analyzed the novels chapter by chapter to show how silly, embarrassing and wrong the story was at every turn (her commentary is highly entertaining). BDSM aficionados pointed out that James’ grasp of power exchange is misleading and amateurish—indeed she has little, if any, personal experience in the kink for which she has become famous.
In other words, Fifty Shades of Grey was fact-checked by therapists, experienced authors and editors, and BDSM practitioners. In every respect, it was found lacking. Four Pinocchios all around.
The fans of the series didn’t give a fig. They loved the story, even if it was “bad” and “wrong.” Adding to the huge audience of true fans were the curiosity seekers. Thanks to them and a celebrity-driven press, Fifty Shades of Grey became—and still is, because I assure you I will get at least twice as many reads for this column as any I’ve written without “Fifty Shades” in the title—a code word for “exciting, kinky sex.” So what if the actual sex scenes in the book are far more vanilla than advertised? E.L. James is still a rich woman.
Mind you, how many of us would appreciate our fantasies being fact-checked? What are the chances that any given neighbor spying on you while you undress is a gorgeous sexpot who somehow knows your pleasure buttons intimately without speaking a word once you finally beckon him or her over to your boudoir? Most of us know this is unlikely to happen in real life, but there’s no harm done if we merely imagine idealized encounters without consequences in moments of privacy.
Yet problems do arise when fantasies are taken so seriously that, say, you vote for someone who promises you a health care plan that covers everybody and costs less and offers more benefits except it’s not single-payer because that’s socialism–and you actually expect them to deliver on the promise.
Therefore, let us take note from the Fifty Shades example, that a “good story” trumps harsh reality when the desire to believe is strong.
The Strict Father and the Republican Party
The general consensus seems to be that Fifty Shades of Grey is just a standard Harlequin romance that wouldn’t have gotten a second glance except for the BDSM. Apparently the novels finally made it completely okay for the ordinary Jane to think sexual thoughts about cable ties and handcuffs. Unfortunately, this openness has also brought out a lot of misogynistic cultural “analysis,” which says as much about the commentator as the topic. The books’ popularity was seen by some as proof that women naturally want to be submissive because they find their new “equality” in society a burden from which they long to escape into the arms of a billionaire with a secret playroom full of canes and whips. In other words, the Freudians were right that women are intrinsically masochistic.
I’ll let Leslie Bennetts challenge this conclusion most eloquently in “Sex, Lies & Fifty Shades”:
“So when people pontificate about women’s intrinsic sexual nature, I find myself thinking: How do you know? How can we ourselves even know? From earliest childhood, women’s experience of sex is so inextricably intertwined with all forms of male control that submission is forever eroticized in more ways than we can possibly unravel. As females, we have been dominated physically, politically, socially, legally, and economically, and pop culture endlessly reinforces the message.”
So if it’s not that women just naturally like to be dominated straight from the womb, what could be the compelling appeal of BDSM to millions? I humbly present an alternate explanation for the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, and it has to do with the Republican party. I owe this insight to George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.
Lakoff argues that conservatives in America believe in the Strict Father model of the family and by metaphorical extension, the Strict Father model of our government. In this traditional, patriarchal structure, the father/president has the primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family/citizens. He also gets to whip their butts if they don’t follow his directions.
“He teaches children right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishment. The punishment is typically mild to moderate, but sufficiently painful. It is commonly called corporal punishment—say, with a belt or a stick. He also gains their cooperation by showing love and appreciation when they do follow the rules. But children must never be coddled, lest they become spoiled; a spoiled child will be dependent for life and will not learn proper morals.” (Lakoff, p. 66)
Under the Strict Father moral order, humans are more powerful and important than animals and plants and the environment, adults are more powerful than children, and men are more powerful than women. Thus, if a woman challenges this hierarchy by assuming male privileges, she is threatening the natural order and must be punished. This explains why those who oppose government regulations on almost everything else are quick to legislate to control women’s bodies–and also why the environment is fair game for whatever we humans want to grab and exploit.
The liberal family ideal, in Lakoff’s terminology, is the Nurturant Parent model. In this type of family, parents of both sexes embrace empathy, nurturance, social ties, fairness and happiness in the family relationship. Parents earn their authority by acting kindly and fairly and setting an example for their children. Children are encouraged to express their needs and opinions. Men and women are equal. This model of the family has been gaining traction, particularly among younger baby boomer parents. The downside of nurturant parenting–and government–is that it’s hard work and involves self-doubt, constant negotiation, and expensive social programs.
The majority of American voters today are likely to have been raised in a family more closely resembling the Strict Father model. This is why conservative rhetoric about family values touches deep chords in so many Americans. Fifty Shades puts the focus on women’s experience of submission, but men, too, must deal with power hierarchies in every aspect of their lives. Those with a Strict Father worldview are especially intimate with hierarchy, authority and punishment for disobedience. Yet while hierarchical power relations start in the family, we find them flourishing in schools, in the workplace, the doctor’s office, the military of course, and pretty much any setting that you’ll find as the unifying theme for an erotica anthology.
Speaking of erotica, allow me to call in another expert to support my argument: Jack Morin, the author of The Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Sexual Passion and Fulfillment. Morin introduced me to the idea of the “core erotic theme.” You can figure out your personal core erotic theme simply by identifying the sexual fantasy that is most likely to turn you on, especially when you’re having trouble getting aroused.
In my earlier review of Morin’s book, I mentioned that I found this quote relevant to literary erotica writers: “Many find it discomforting to tolerate the ambiguity of the erotic experience, to accept its mixed motivations, or to observe how the erotic mind has a habit of transforming one idea or emotion into another.”
Morin is describing the genesis of sexual fantasy. That is, our erotic minds take material from our actual experience–such as our family or religion-induced guilt about sex, our doubt about our desirability, or frustration about sexual limitations–and transforms it into arousing fantasies that address or redress or overturn the limitations of the real. In erotic fantasies, we are often freed from the restrictions that rule our behavior in real life. Lovers are abundant, orgasms even more so. Even in the submissive role, the dreamer is always, in some fundamental way, in control of the situation as she or he manipulates all of the characters in the sexual drama unfolding on the imaginary stage. Our minds perform the magic of converting desire, humiliation, confusion and powerlessness into sensual pleasure and release.
In real life, there are always restrictions upon our desires and thus feelings of anger and powerlessness to manage in one way or another. No matter how powerful a Strict Father might be, there are always women, profits, federal employees and deals that elude his control. Although men have social privilege in the abstract, millions of individual men don’t experience those privileges for reasons of economic standing or ethnicity or any other quality that might lower status. We each have a complicated relationship with power, and a mind that readily translates these ambiguities into the language of fantasy. Fifty Shades of Grey was the first popular novel to give ordinary people the cover to explore more fully the intersection of power and sex—whether to enjoy it, condemn it or both.
George Lakoff’s Strict Father model is very helpful in understanding the conservative approach to family and government, but we must remember that both the liberal and conservative family models are essentially fantasies in themselves. Human patriarchs are never unassailable towers of strength and rectitude, nor are real-life nurturing parents always perfect models of kindness and equality. Both kinds of authority figures wield power they invariably abuse and both disappoint us.
Our current political situation has allowed us a naked glimpse of the abuses of power in government that is a disorienting blend of reality and fantasy that all too often bleeds into the surreal. However, when you involve another adult partner in playing out your fantasy, it is extremely important to get her or his consent at every step of the way. This is the difference between a purportedly pleasurable BDSM scene and assault and battery.
Where indeed will this unfolding relationship between our Strict Father leaders and our many Ana-like uncertain citizens lead America’s democratic experiment? Might Fifty Shades of Grey have the answer?
Does America Get A Happy Ending?
After much self-inflicted drama and misunderstanding (spoiler alert), Ana and Christian end their travails as a deliriously happy married couple with two adorable children. Their chief problem in life is getting the kids to sleep. Ana, just by being herself and also saving Christian’s sister from an evil Princeton-alum kidnapper, has “cured” Christian of his kink and healed his heart.
That’s the fictional version. So what about our real-life power-kink tale? How will the American people deal with the unprecedented challenges presented by our billionaire Master? Will we live happily ever after in the end?
I’ve decided to be optimistic. In this, too, let’s take our inspiration from E.L. James and move this plot as best we can away from dysfunctional obsession and toward a supportive relationship between government and citizen that honors our Constitution and the rule of law. The “how” this happens is, of course, the most important question for every story.
Yet unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, the citizens of the United States are the authors of this narrative. The ending of the story lies in our hands. Let’s make it good.
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
by Donna George Storey
We live in a tumultuous time and few can predict the news each day will bring. However, we can be certain that under a Republican Congress and President and with a Supreme Court that is bound to become more “conservative,” the U.S. government will move to limit its citizens’ access to contraception and sex education.
When I say citizens, I mean both women and men.
Yes, men will be intimately affected by limited access to contraception. Why do so few of them seem to understand this?
Shutting down funding for Planned Parenthood is always presented in terms of its effect on women’s health. Reproductive choice is regarded as a woman’s issue, something that might sway the votes of women, but never men. It’s as if men don’t play a role in pregnancy at all.
Men may no longer have the luxury of ignoring the fact that they do.
Let me pause here to say for the record that my argument has nothing to do with abortion, which is about what happens after conception. I’m talking about the access adult men and women have to modern medical technology that will enable them to have sexual intercourse without conceiving a child.
But seriously, you say, who would take this access to birth control away from us? That would never happen!
Haven’t you noticed? All kinds of crazy and unimaginable things are happening these days.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of powerful male politicians who either actually want to take access away–especially from the young and people with low incomes–or who go along without thinking through how it might affect their male voters’ lives. Too many of us take for granted that contraception is part of our right to privacy. Birth control has nothing to do with government control. However, a look back in history shows that our government has zealously denied its citizens access to contraception for a period of over ninety years.
Before the Comstock Act, a federal law pushed through a tired, distracted Congress in 1873, birth control was legal in the United States. The Comstock Act cleverly prohibited sending any device or information having to do with contraception through the mail. Its pure-minded father, Anthony Comstock, was also appointed as a special agent to the post office to enforce his law, which he did with sanctimonious enthusiasm. He most often targeted small-scale, immigrant-run condom and “womb veil” producers, while letting Goodyear, a wealthy company which manufactured rubber condoms as well as other rubber goods, avoid surveillance and consequences. By the way, the Comstock Act also prohibited sending obscene materials through the mail—including sex toys, pornography and erotica, although the latter was surely not as well-written as erotica authored today!
The Comstock Act was terminated in 1957–that is, not all that long ago–although in 1936 there was a court ruling, United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries (the best court case name ever!), that the federal government could not prevent a doctor from providing contraception to his patients. In other words, those who were wealthy enough to have enlightened physicians who supported family planning could enjoy the benefits of reproductive technology much earlier than the common man.
In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution protected the right of married people to use birth control as late as 1965. Only in 1972 did Eisenstadt v. Baird allow unmarried people the same right. Estelle Griswold was the Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut who opened a birth control clinic in New Haven to challenge the state’s lingering Comstock law. William Baird purposely got himself arrested and convicted for handing a condom and package of contraceptive foam to a 19-year-old unmarried woman after a lecture on birth control. We must remember this didn’t just happen. These brave people along with many others (Margaret Sanger and her husband and many more) endured prison and hardship to win us our right to control our reproduction.
It might be a fight we have to wage once more.
Indeed some want to turn back the clock to a more idyllic time in America, before all these pushy women had the idea they were equal and wanted to have sex without consequences. I’d like to consider what such a renaissance of old-time values and customs would mean for men who want to have sex today.
Until the 1920s, when sexual intimacy was first acknowledged as an important part of a married couple’s happiness, an enlightened man would be considerate of wife’s health and abstain from sexual intercourse as much as possible. That was the only universally accepted way to control family size. The desire for sex was a bestial urge, and the civilized man would conceive a few children to help his wife fulfill her womanly nature, then nobly refrain—or visit a prostitute.
Now some men were not so noble, or inclined to visit prostitutes, and relied on other means to control family size.
Clelia Mosher’s survey of married women beginning in 1892 revealed that withdrawal was a fairly popular birth control method back when men were men and women wore corsets all the time and not just for fetish reasons. Planned Parenthood reports that if always done correctly, only 4 in 100 women will become pregnant each year using the withdrawal method. I was told it was a terrible form of birth control, so I’m surprised it’s that good. Of course, the rate climbs to 27 out of 100 if the man is not as conscientious, so it probably is not a great method for teenagers.
Back in the early twentieth century, many doctors recommended against withdrawal because it would make men weak and mentally infirm. The argument was no doubt self-interested, but most men today would probably agree. The rhythm method was not discovered until 1930. Before that, most physicians thought women were “safe” at the midpoint of their menstrual cycle based on studies of animals. The rhythm method might also be called “limited abstinence” because the couple might have to abstain as many as ten days of the cycle. If you don’t like sex during menstruation, the period of abstinence will be even longer.
Is traditional-values living sounding good so far?
Condoms were the most popular purchased contraceptive back in our glory days. Goodyear rubber condoms were so thick and sturdy they could be washed and reused. If we return to such a way of life, remember that recycling is good for the environment! Latex condoms were invented in the 1920s but men still had to purchase them under the counter in cigar stores, gas stations and saloons. Bellboys usually had a few on hand if you tipped nicely. Again we might ask—who would take condoms from the shelves of CVS? Can we take anything for granted in this crazy twenty-first century world of ours?
The other option was and is, of course, to have lots and lots of children. If followed to its logical conclusion, a policy which prohibits family planning and sex education means that someone with an active sex life will have twenty children. Since every other man with an active sex life will also have twenty children, that’s a lot of babies. And babies don’t die as often as they used to from diphtheria and measles as they did back in the day, although with an anti-vaxxer in the White House, infectious diseases might be great again, too. But let’s figure the world will be really crowded and competitive with all those kids running around. You think it’s hard to get into a good college now?
So in summary, gentlemen, if you don’t stand up and insist on every citizen’s right to reproductive options to your elected officials in the most vehement terms, you may well be left with the following choices of yore:
Then again there is one more option for sexual expression I forgot to mention: read erotic stories with your lover and pleasure each other manually and orally. Save the intercourse strictly for when you want kids.
Come to think of it, if we’re not slapped with a revival of the Comstock Act, the new era of reproductive restriction might be good business for erotica writers after all.
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
by Donna George Storey
In last month’s column, I discussed the implications of a comment by an elderly gentleman with a white mustache who imagined that “most erotica writers are fat and ugly, fantasy based [sic] women with a serious case of penis envy.” In particular I examined the long history of using “fat” as a way to shame people with less power in our culture and also discussed the denigration of sexual fantasy, which plays a significant part in the sexual experience of those of us with brains.
This month I’d like to talk about the implied opposite of “fantasy-based” sexuality—Real Sex.
Here’s the main problem. We have very little reliable factual data on humanity’s actual sexual experiences. Kiss and Tell: Surveying Sex in the Twentieth Century by Julia Ericksen with Sally A. Steffen discusses the obvious reasons why this is so. Both men and women feel shame in being honest about sex, because the tradition is still strong that “decent” people keep sex private and besides it wouldn’t do to expose yourself to accusations of abnormality. Equally importantly, it is extraordinarily difficult to get funding to do a comprehensive study of any sexual topic, unless it is related to the “problem of sex” such as teen pregnancy. And even studies that have been done such as those by Kinsey and Masters and Johnson are likely skewed by the design of the study (nonrandomness, how the topics are examined, interpretation of data) as well as the usual cultural factors affecting and reflected in the research. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this situation will change anytime soon.
And so, in the main, we are left with voluntary surveys in magazines, honest, intimate discussions with friends (if you’re fortunate to have such friends), and public pronouncements that reflect as much how the speaker wants sex to be as what actually happens.
I cannot help but conclude that Real Sex is the biggest fantasy of all.
In my study of sexuality in America one hundred years ago, Real Sex was understood to be as follows. A man had a natural sex drive, which he must strive to control, but a good woman did not until her husband awakened her on their wedding night. Her body had no sexual feeling until a penis was inserted into it. If she didn’t experience pleasure even then, it was because she was especially pure and above lustful concerns. This was a tribute to her fine character.
As the elderly gentleman with the white mustache’s comment illustrates, our culture’s view of sex is not so very different today. Women must have “penis envy” because only the penis possesses and bequeaths sexual feeling, not, presumably, because they wish they had boners at inconvenient times or ejaculated prematurely, for example. Female sex organs are, on their own, without sensation, desire or pleasure.
I’ll leave each individual reader to determine the validity of that view for herself.
But there are advantages to this antique approach. Men don’t have to worry about the details of an erotic encounter because just having a penis inside her is enough to drive a woman to ecstasy. Again, rather unbelievably, this is still a common presentation. I was dismayed that the most vivid sex scene in the Christmas special of Sense8, a Netflix original series I watch, consisted of a couple on a Tinder date who do it doggie style, with the man pounding hard and fast with no other stimulation to the woman but an occasional slap on her ass. “I love it!” she cries as her whole body jiggles from the assault. Oh, yes, I almost forgot, she is on top for a while but again with that super-fast up-and-down movement, which focuses on penetration and no stimulation of her clitoris or other body parts.
Sense8 is a cool show. It has lots of creepy supernatural stuff, artful orgies and tender gay sex, but heterosexual sex is presented as a porn cliché. Yet for many viewers, our eyes and the Tinder date’s enthusiastic review tell us we’re being shown Real, hot, casual sex, right? Clearly something is the matter with you if you don’t get off on such a vigorous, frenzied pounding of your cervix.
Another advantage of “the penis is sex, end of story” is that any complaints from the woman are covered. If she’s experienced enough to be picky about your technique, then she’s a slut. If she needs more, you know, that “fantasy” stuff like romance, a scenario where her needs are important and she experiences pleasure and orgasm in the encounter–like most erotica offers, by the way–then again, she’s being greedy, fantasy-based, high maintenance. This is problem sex, not Real Sex.
Naturally, this view does not benefit men if the man cares about “reality.” It only does if you measure your prowess in bed by the number of partners alone, believing that the insertion of your penis into a vagina—whether that vagina belongs to a cognizant, consenting partner or not–proves your manhood.
What if sex only “counted” if the partner genuinely had a good time? How many guys would still be virgins?
The fantasy informing traditional female behavior deserves attention, too. A variant on “the man awakens the woman” fantasy of Real Sex is that you expect the man to be “good in bed” and do everything right without a word or a false move. He knows instinctively how to pleasure your body in ways you’ve never even imagined. The problem is that if you believe that mutually satisfying sex comes naturally, then the best lover (male or female or nonbinary) never needs to ask what is pleasurable, or make a mistake and learn. If you believe that ecstasy is immediate in Real Love, the traditional female variant of Real Sex, then you’re as much a victim of fantasy as the guy who thinks his dick is the center of the sexual universe and everyone wants it hard and fast.
Good Real Sex requires time, communication, trust, understanding, and most of all, self-understanding. This was true one hundred years ago. It’s true today.
Here’s to speaking our truth in 2017.
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com
by Donna George Storey
The following quote is the sole reader comment on an article in Good E Reader entitled “Cleis Press, Penthouse Collaborate on New Line of Erotica Books” published on April 11, 2014:
“Looks like our hyper-sexualized culture is growing again. I’ll bet most of the authors in this genre are fat and ugly, fantasy based [sic] women with a serious case of penis envy. Rather than writing about anything scientific or useful in business, they’ll write to create boners and fake desire in readers. Trite content for the most part – even if it does make a few bucks here and there. I’m sad for all Americans who value this kind of crap in books.”
I copied the comment and filed it under “mean troll comment,” thinking perhaps I would use it as a discussion point for my ERWA column one day. From the information available, the commenter is (was?–he looked pretty old) a skinny, geriatric gentleman with a white mustache. Nonetheless, I was very impressed that he managed to include every negative stereotype lobbed at female erotica writers in an admirably concise paragraph.
Cleis Press as we knew it then is gone and perhaps the series of “quality erotica” for “’discerning’ readers” is history as well. However, the custom of shaming and insulting women who dare to claim a public voice still flourishes, today more than ever. Thus, it seems the perfect time to dust the cobwebs off the “mean troll comment” and give it a closer examination.
First let’s talk about the fact that all of us female erotica writers are “fat”—and the geriatric gentleman with the white mustache knows this to be true without seeing or meeting any one of us.
My historical research continues to lead me down fascinating byways, and this past month I happened upon a book called Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture by Amy Erdman Farrell. Farrell presents a compelling argument that our culture’s disgust for “fat” preceded the flapper-era craze for androgynous female bodies, which is generally seen as the start of dieting and weight obsession as women responded to externally-imposed pressure to look good in clothes meant for lanky frames. However, while in the pre-industrial period only a wealthy minority had the resources to put on flesh, with the rise of consumer capitalism at end of the 19th century, consumption of all kinds became problematic. Mass culture and industrialization meant that a greater segment of the population was able to buy ready-made “fashion,” processed food and entertainment. Merchants encouraged consumers to indulge their desires to make profits. But in turn, the unleashing of these new markets and longings threatened the established power structure.
Labor unions, the end of slavery, and feminism meant that people who were traditionally excluded from positions of power were speaking up to demand fair treatment. It is in this context that fatness came to symbolize a person who was out of control—a lazy, gluttonous, greedy, immoral, uncontrolled, ugly, primitive subhuman (Fat Shame, p. 27). In the media, fatness was identified with threatening (mostly Catholic and Jewish) immigrants, former slaves and women. Any white Protestant American-born man who was “fat” had shown a revolting lack of self-control and had thus fallen from the pinnacle of humanity. This view was fully in place long before the health risks of obesity became a focus of medical science (a view some fat activists question as skewed by cultural bias and the tyranny of arbitrary insurance charts). But of course, being “fat” still carries a physical and moral stigma in our culture today.
Thus, even in the twenty-first century, a woman who dares to write about sexuality, especially in a positive way that might turn a reader on, is indeed “fat” no matter what the scale says. May I say that I am proud to be so. I’m proud to be ugly, too, which is also an extremely common criticism of women who step out of their God-given people-pleasing role and have an opinion of their own. Because indeed, what the geriatric gentleman with the white mustache is really saying is that we erotica writers dare to take on an ancient taboo—speaking honestly about female sexual desire. That automatically add fifty pounds to any frame.
I feel as if I could write a seminar paper unpacking all the assumptions of my oh-so-economical mean troll comment—such as the fact that everything identified with the female in our culture is called “trite”–but I know you all have holiday preparations to attend to, so I’ll touch on just one more point: the terrible insult of calling us female erotica writers “fantasy based” [sic].
I’ve long taken issue with the denigration of fantasy and masturbation as an integral part of human sexual expression. Hurling insults at losers who masturbate and have to think about sex rather than have it starts with schoolboy bullies and continues unabated as a way to shame us and keep us all quiet about our actual sexual interactions with the world. Let’s examine the fantasy behind this taunt—because it is very much a fantasy of its own.
This view assumes that somewhere there exists a group of “winners” who never have to masturbate or fantasize because the moment they have a sexual urge, they are so slim and beautiful and high-status that a willing and equally attractive partner of the opposite sex (I’m sure the geriatric gentleman with the white mustache would insist that acceptable sex always be of the heterosexual variety) materializes to provide a satisfying sexual outlet that involves no mental activity whatsoever. The rest of the time, these supermen are thinking about scientific or business things, you know, important stuff like how Wall Street can screw over credulous investors and how climate change is a hoax. The boners of these ideal beings are always real, because, remember, there are “fake” boners, so be sure to invite the geriatric gentleman with the white mustache to evaluate your arousal next time to be sure that it’s the right kind or otherwise you’ll be a sad loser–and he’ll be sure to tell you so. Not to mention that you’re fat and ugly and trite.
And remember, if you’re fat or ugly, you have no right to speak.
I’m sure the geriatric gentleman with the white mustache thought he was being very perceptive and original in his critique of erotica writers, but of course, we at ERWA have heard it all before. However, we actually value and proudly enjoy “this crap,” otherwise known as the exploration of the full experience of human eroticism.
To be honest, I kind of pity this guy. Rejecting all the pleasures of fantasy, flesh and self-discovery–he clearly doesn’t know what he’s missing.
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