Donna George Storey

We’ve lived in our house for 28 years, and with both kids in college, we decided to give the entire inside of the house a much-need fresh coat of paint. Our project has also given us the opportunity to take stock of our belongings and clear out things that are moldy and rusty and definitely don’t spark joy. I know Marie Kondo is getting both love and hate these days, but I first read her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, back in 2014 and am finding it useful for this massive home overhaul.

This is a photo of the office where I do my writing, cleared of everything but the heavy furniture. The walls, once beige, are now sky blue, and I plan to perk up the room with a colorful rug to replace the old gray carpet. I’m looking forward to getting back to work in my refreshing new environment!

As I cleaned out the filing cabinet, I was expecting to toss a lot of files, but the biggest surprise for me was the rediscovery of a pink shoe box of love letters written to me over the years, some dating back to the 1970s. I was thinking I would recycle most of the early letters, but once I got to reading through a few, I realized they were gold for an erotica writer. One correspondent in particular seemed a perfect match for a character I’m developing in my novel. Both are older men who swerve dramatically between protestations of love and patronizing scolding of the younger women for our “ruthless” innocence. I hadn’t intended to model my character on an actual lover, but the emotional manipulation clearly impacted me back then, and I drew upon it to create a character who was both glamorous and frustrating. When I read the real letters from, let’s call him “Art,” I immediately thought, “This is just what my character Charles would do!”

So Art’s letters are not going into the recycling bin quite yet. Instead a voice from forty years ago will inspire a character living in my fictional world of a century past.

I will post a photo of the reassembled office next month so you can see the finished space. As for the manipulative older man—my character will now glow with authenticity. Of course everything is material for an erotica writer, but if you’re contemplating a deep office clean, you, too, may discover hidden voices from the past to enliven your writing.

The New Year is starting off right for me with two appearances at ERWA. In addition to this column, I have the honor of being this month’s ERWA Awesome Author. Choosing a story and writing an updated bio got me thinking about why I love erotica writing and ERWA, which has been and continues to be an awesome group of writers. Thus, I decided to take a break from time travel and talk about the power of point of view.

The story I chose, “Frank and Eva” published in Alison Tyler’s Sudden Sex, presents a sexual encounter from the different points of view of each partner. I think many readers enjoy experiencing the same situation through the eyes of different narrators—I certainly do. My appreciation of that approach in erotica dates all the way back to 1997 and one of the very first literary erotic anthologies to inspire me to write: The Mammoth Book of International Erotica, edited by Maxim Jakubowski. In the story “Watching,” by J.P. Kansas, we first take the husband’s perspective as he comes home early from work to discover his wife masturbating to one of his pornographic videotapes (hmm, maybe we are going back to the distant past after all?). The husband watches, thinking he is unobserved, but in the second part of the story, we learn from the wife’s perspective that she knew he was watching and in fact was performing for him. The couple’s responses to pornography and their curiosity about the other’s responses are explored to fascinating and humorous effect.

She-said-he-said stories are often assumed to present mutually exclusive versions of the truth of an event. We think we must somehow take sides—one person is more “right” than the other, or at least their worldview fits more closely to ours. But a story like “Watching” reveals that when we experience the sensibilities of both partners in an encounter, the result can be as rich and layered as two people making love.

“Frank and Eva” was really fun to write. I don’t often write stories from the male point of view, but when I’ve dared to do so, I’m always particularly engaged in the task. It’s exciting to imagine what it’s like to be another person with different experiences, all the more so in intimate circumstances. Of course, I always check my male POV stories with a male friend for any glaring inaccuracies just in case I’m way off base!

The challenge of crossing that distance reminds me of the discussion of “social distance” in Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. In his exploration of they ways groups feel alienated from each other in our society, author Christopher Hayes identifies two types of social distance: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal occurs between people of roughly equal social station. The examples he gives are members of different races or religions who might live in the same city but occupy different worlds. Vertical social distance is the gap between those in authority and the people who are affected by their policies and decisions. These days many people, whatever their political views, feel our leaders are out of touch and unresponsive to the needs of ordinary citizens. (Twilight of the Elites, 184-186)

However, Hayes’ model doesn’t really capture the special form of social distance between different genders. We live in close proximity, often intimately, yet male privilege and the very different ways genders are socialized mean there is always a distance in how we experience the world.

She-said-he said stories are a way to cross that distance in the reader’s and writer’s mind. If we approach the exercise with empathy and sincere curiosity, I believe we help close that distance between us. Why not give it a try?

Happy New Year and best wishes for a creative year ahead!

“You’ve got the world to discover here in San Francisco, boys, every size, shape and color of woman you can imagine.”

Joe’s uncle asked the old bartender to tell you and Joe a thing or two about having a good time on the Barbary Coast, and this fellow sure has plenty to say. It’s your first night on the town after your first whole week of work. You wired half of your wages back home this morning and felt pretty fine about being able to help the family. You had been planning to spend the evening at the boardinghouse catching up with the newspaper, but Joe’s uncle insisted on treating the two of you to a few rounds.

“Chinese girls, Japanese girls, French girls, Mexican girls, girls from back east and everywhere else in between. You can find ‘em all here, boys, and you don’t even need a passport!”

Joe leans forward. He’s always up for adventure. “Where do we go to find the pretty ones?”

“All the girls on the Barbary Coast are pretty—and mighty friendly. Just look for the lines on a Saturday night and that’ll lead you right to the prettiest ones. Walk on by the little row houses in every alley of the Coast and if the girl is free, she’ll be hanging out the window dressed in something frilly—or hardly dressed at all—calling out to you. But everyone says you can’t go wrong with the Municipal Crib over on Jackson Street. It’s a whole big building full of the best girls in the city. If there are no ladies on the trolley, the conductor hollers, ‘All out for the whore house!’ and every man clears out as if it’s the end of the line. I’ve seen it many a time. The police’ll send you there, too, if you ask ‘em where to go for a good time. Half the profit goes into the pockets of the City Council is why. But that means the boys in blue won’t ever give you any trouble when you go there.”

“How much does it set you back?” Joe asks. You’re happy just to listen. This old fellow’s giving you quite an earful.

“Well, now, it depends on what you’re in the mood for. Over there at the Municipal, they’ve got four stories. The basement has the Mexican girls for twenty-five cents. They always have a shrine to the Virgin in their sitting rooms, but you don’t have to see nothing like in the back where you do your business. The Negresses are up on the fourth floor—fifty cents with a discount for two or more, which is why it pays to take a friend. It’s seventy-five cents on the second floor, and a dollar on the third. Most all of those are the French girls. Seventy-five cents will get you the French special. You have to try that at least once to see how you like it.”

“What’s that? The ‘French special’?” you ask. Your curiosity is getting the better of you.

“You are green, sonny! Why, they use their mouth on you instead of the usual way. Like I said, you have to try it once. Most fellows don’t settle for just once.” He winks.

You try to put that dirty image from your mind. Seventy-five cents is half a day’s wages. But then again, it doesn’t cost a cent to think about it, you suppose. You’ve never met a French girl. They must be real pretty. Dainty like a doll.

“Now the guys with money in their pockets, they favor the red-headed Jewesses. They say they’re the most passionate girls on earth. A fellow who knows these things says there’s a young beauty with auburn tresses to her knees who just arrived at the Municipal. The line outside her door winds down the stairs and wraps around the block. She’ll run you two dollars at least, but she won’t let you dawdle. Five minutes tops—but five minutes you won’t forget.”

Your mind is really painting pictures now as fast as the bartender can prattle. You see yourself standing in a long line, waiting for your time with that beautiful red-head. Florence Riley back home had a reddish glow in her hair in certain light, but you’ve never seen hair you’d call full red. Yet wouldn’t it be queer to know that the man in front of you and the man behind you would be sharing the same girl?

“Two dollars? That’s awfully dear,” Joe says.

“There’s pleasure for every wallet in the Barbary Coast, boys,” says the bartender, handing you both another round. “If you’re looking for something you can’t find back home, the Chinese girls will give you a ‘lookee’ for fifty cents. If you’re brave enough to prowl around the darkest corners of Chinatown, you can get the same for one dime.”

“Now you have to explain that to us country boys. You know we’re green as the grass in springtime,” you say.

“Every man is curious, don’t you know, to see if those Chinese girls are made the same as the whites. They’ll show you for a price. Look, but don’t touch. Touching will cost you more.”

Are they made different?” Joe asks.

“Well, now, there was a professor who made a careful study and published his findings in a magazine. I forget now if he said they were the same or different. I reckon you have to see for yourself!”

“At least you won’t get the clap,” Joe says.

“Good news, boys! You don’t have to worry about the clap in San Francisco. There’s a clinic the city opened just last year. The girls have to go every week to be checked by a special doctor and they have a book the doctor stamps to show they’re healthy. No one gets sick in San Francisco these days, and the special wards for the scarlet women have plenty of free beds. It’s well nigh a miracle.”

Joe says. “So you can be sure all the girls are clean?”

“As sure as a man can be, sonny. But you still have to be careful. There are all kinds of crooks in the Barbary Coast. The Municipal is safe, that’s why I tell everyone to go there. If you wander around looking for fun on the cheap, you might be sorry. Here’s a tip for you. The honest crib girl won’t let you take off anything but your hat. Not even your boots. They put oilcloth on the bottom of the bed, so your boots don’t dirty the sheets. But an honest girl will make you keep everything else on you. And if a girl tells you to take off your clothes and hang ‘em in the closet, you turn right around and run right out of that crib. Because she’s got her pimp waiting on the other side of the wall and while you’re lost in your business, he lifts your wallet, and maybe even your boots, if they’re new. He takes all your hard-earned money and replaces it with nothing but a shiny new dime for your trolley fare home.”

Now your mind conjures a shady character lifting your wallet, taking out the money you sweated so hard for. Suddenly you realize it’s gotten mighty late. You stand and put a nickel on the bar as a tip. It was sure nice of Joe’s uncle to treat you, but you’re feeling the weariness of a long week.

“Heading out, boys? You have yourselves a fine time tonight and tell them at the Municipal that Harvey sent you. If you can’t find what you want in San Francisco, it doesn’t exist. This is the wickedest, wildest city on earth,” says the bartender. “Now, remember 620 Jackson Street is the Municipal. The conductor will let you know. ‘All out for the whore house!’ You see if I’m not telling you true.” The man laughs. “You all come back next Saturday and tell me how it goes.”

Joe nods and you both head out into the street.

“You wanna go over and see what there is to see?” Joe asks.

Truth be told, he doesn’t sound that keen to go.

“I’m going back to hit the hay. But you can go and tell me what there is to see. Maybe you’ll get a look at that new girl with the red hair,” you say.

“Nah, I’m mighty tired, too. Maybe next week?”

You nod, thinking that was quite a tale that old man told you. Was it true that the Coast was full of girls from every country in the world, all of them clean and willing? Did the trolley conductor really yell out the stop for the whore house without a speck of shame? And did a long line of fellows really wait for hours for five minutes with a pretty red-haired girl? Maybe next week you’ll just go to see, but not touch.

One thing you know for sure–life in the big city is sure different from back home.

Historical Note: All advice about a working man’s choices for a good time in San Francisco in 1912, including the racism, comes from The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld by Herbert Asbury.

The photo of “higher-class cribs with indoor plumbing” is courtesy of Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose (p. 170). Prostitutes in San Francisco, New Orleans and other cities rented specially constructed “cribs”—much like small partitioned rooms where prostitutes ply their trade in Amsterdam’s red light district today.

It’s been a while since you treated yourself to a night in the district. Work’s been busy and you’ve been watching your pennies. You know enough to go equipped with the proper change: a dollar to treat the girls in the parlor with wine, four quarters for the mechanical piano, a two-dollar bill for the girl you take upstairs, and two fifty-cent pieces for “extras.” You’ll see your Maker before you see them make proper change for any service in brothel.

Still, your blood is warming with thoughts about what lies ahead tonight. Since it’s been a while, why not splurge on a good two-dollar house where the girls are guaranteed to be pretty? You have your standards—those fifty-cent cribs are just too damned sad and it’s all over in five minutes. On the other extreme, well, they say the places that cater to the city fathers put on circuses where the girls do things God never intended for a decent man or woman at a ticket price of three months of a working man’s wages. That’s a sauce too rich for the likes of you. Good, fresh bread and butter will serve your hunger tonight.

Your favorite house has a parlor that reminds you of home. Neat and comfortable, except of course, back home you wouldn’t find three or four pink-cheeked girls lounging around in lacy negligees. The maid asks if you’d like to treat the girls to some wine, and you hand over that dollar-bill for a glass all around, because otherwise you won’t get your pick. You sit on the sofa and joke with the girls for a minute or two. They tell you their names: Violet, Lulu, Marguerite, and Maisie. You wonder what their real names are as you give a false name for yourself. Not that you have anyone at home to worry about. It’s part of the game.

One of those quarters starts up the mechanical piano, and you have a turn on the floor with the blonde on the loveseat. She presses herself against you and whispers in your ear that she can take you to heaven and, my, is she jonesing to be alone with a handsome fellow like you, the best-looking gentleman to walk in the door all evening. Now your blood is really running hot, but you want to give that brunette a try, the one lounging against the pillow with her stockings exposed. She has a mighty fine leg, if you do say so yourself. She called herself “Marguerite,” if you recall correctly. After a glass of that cheap wine, your head’s a bit fuzzy and you wonder if they put something in it.

Now this girl Marguerite is a handful, warm and buxom in your arms, but it’s what she’s crooning in your ear that tells you she’s the one tonight. It’s a dirty ditty about a man and a maid frolicking in the bedroom, a trip around the world with Frenching and doing it through the backdoor the “Italian way.” It’s just words, but she sure seems like a wild one. You decide to keep your two extra quarters from that hungry piano and take this gal upstairs. There’s always another night to sample the others.

Marguerite walks languidly up the stairs and you follow, admiring her lacy, hourglass form from behind. She leads you into a boudoir, turns the gas on low. She looks mighty pretty in the soft glow. You just want to gaze for a while. She seems to understand, for she stands there and smiles. The new girls are always in such a hurry. Marguerite clearly knows how to read customer.

You place the two-dollar bill on the nightstand. Her eyes sparkle.

“Say, Johnny, you seem like the kind of gentleman who likes undressing a girl for himself. It’s only a little bit extra.”

There goes one of those fifty-cent pieces. The girls usually keep their stockings on and you really want see her legs bare.

You promise yourself you’ll take it slow, but your hands are shaking and impatient, and she’s standing there just the way God made her in no time flat. She gestures for you to take off your shoes and trousers, which is all they’ll have in these places. Then comes the examination—a good, hard squeeze of your privates to see if you’re healthy. After that, a quick wash with water mixed with a purple tincture that’s supposed to keep the clap away.

She looks up at you, wash cloth in hand. Such a wicked gleam in her eyes. “Now you strike me as a fellow who likes a little adventure. Like maybe a cowgirl ride?”

The two-fifty on the table becomes three. She gestures for you to lie down on the bed. You don’t usually do it this way, and you’re excited at the thought of having her on top. You can see more that way and you like to look. With a sly smile, she climbs on the mattress. What she does next surprises you. She turns and mounts you with her back to you. Now that is a nice view. She rides you, up and down, slower than most girls, to your delight.

“Now, darling, wouldn’t you like me to turn around so you can see?”

Well damned if you don’t. She sees right through you. The two extra quarters will join the rest on the nightstand when you’re through.

Sensing she’s gotten everything she can, Marguerite pulls off, pivots and settles down facing you. And yes, right then, you’re glad for the “extra” look.

But then she does what they all do in the end. She takes over so you can hardly tell right from left or day from night and you finish faster than you’d like, because to be honest, you want this part to last all night.

In a wink, you find yourself back in your trousers and out on the street, pockets empty. Not half an hour has passed since you walked into the parlor. All things said and done, though, Marguerite gave you a pretty good time as those things go.

You see a fellow wandering past, glancing back and forth in awe. You guess he’s a stranger in this city. Some girl is going to give him a good fleecing tonight, although he looks a bit down in the heel, so she may not get much. Maybe he’s headed for the cribs where fifty cents will get you all of five minutes of heaven. You’ve heard some of those places have a secret panel on the back wall, so that while you’re at your business, the pimp can reach in and steal your wallet. Some even filch a man’s pants and boots to pawn, or so they say, and the poor rube has to go home barefoot in his drawers.

Greenhorns get wise soon enough.

You take the streetcar back to your boardinghouse, pour yourself a glass of whisky, and lie back on your single bed. It’s then your thoughts turn melancholy. Marguerite satisfied you in one way, for sure, but you’re still yearning for something more. More time, more laughter, better still, a feeling that you aren’t alone in the world. Maybe you’ll find a girl who will give you all of that some day. Maybe you’ll find her in the district, take her out of that life and marry her, make her respectable. You think of that imaginary girl lying beside you now, warm and smiling, with your whole life to spend together.

But why waste your time on something that isn’t real?

You think about having another whisky, but you’ve got work tomorrow, bright and early. A man’s got to earn a living.


This sketch of a working man’s evening in a middle-class parlor house was inspired by descriptions in Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District and Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918.

The photograph of Marguerite Griffin by Ernest Belloq is also from Storyville, New Orleans. If you’re interested in red-light districts in the early twentieth century, I recommend a copy of this evocative reference of a time gone by for your library!

Night has fallen, the gaslights are blazing, and pleasure inevitably calls a gentleman of carnal inclinations such as yourself to the part of town not spoken of in polite company. Shoulder your way through the drunken hoi polloi and step into the spacious receiving room of the town’s finest parlor house, quite like Madame Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, pictured above, the most famous high-class brothel in the most famous of American red-light districts, Storyville, New Orleans.

The furnishings are expensive, if more than a touch ostentatious, but a man of standing in the community will feel right at home amidst the luxurious carpets, gilt-framed oil paintings, and fragrant fresh flowers.

The maid will lead you to Madame, arrayed in silk, diamonds, and pearls, a sign that her establishment is thriving. She will welcome you warmly, knowing that you are a trusted regular customer or a friend of the same. Have no worry that news of your visit will reach the wrong ears. Madame is always discreet. She makes sure to provide the local police with a weekly “consideration” and keeps a doctor on call to spirit you away to a respectable location should you fall ill on the premises from your exertions.

Enjoy a glass of champagne and the toe-tapping ragtime tunes, courtesy of the “Professor” at the upright piano in the corner. While you chat with the gentlemen in your party, you appraise the lovely young women in attendance this evening. There are always pretty new faces to tickle your fancy, and the girls are sure to find you fascinating and admirably virile whatever your age. Their tongues are as silky as their negligee-clad forms.

Perhaps you are fortunate enough to attend on the night of a “circus,” which is much too vulgar to describe in words, although you can be sure young women of undeniable natural talent will sing and dance in various states of undress and perhaps make love to one another. Every act is designed to warm your blood for a trip upstairs after the show. For enjoying such entertainments, you may spend as much as fifty dollars.

Add a half hour in a bedroom upstairs with a girl of your choosing for five to twenty-five dollars, depending on her beauty. New girls demand a higher price. If you spend the whole night, it will set you back another thirty-five to fifty greenbacks. This luxury is denied to men at the humbler houses that cater to the lusts of the middle class.

Of course, money is no object for you.

Perhaps you’ve chosen a house that specializes in young things fresh from the countryside or “French” services involving unmentionable oral skills. According to its souvenir guidebook, the famous Mahogany Hall offers the attentions of charming octoroons, young women with one black great-grandmother and a white father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

If you’re in San Francisco, you might indulge in a bit of voyeurism in one of the French resorts on Commercial Street. The maid will lead you to a secret closet, where, for a mere five dollars, you can gaze through peep-holes to enjoy the spectacle of a greenhorn fellow deflowering a “virgin” for triple the usual full-service fee. Although the comely lass might seem shy and inexperienced, be assured she will repeat the same performance tomorrow as she did last night.

When you leave the premises well after midnight—your wallet much lighter or your running account with Madame well-padded with extra charges—you won’t bother yourself with plebian daytime considerations like honesty or authenticity. You understand that such establishments are like Carnival or Halloween all year round, a chance to indulge yourself in make-believe and express your forbidden desires.

You straighten your tie and toss away the boutonniere the night’s temporary companion pinned to your lapel to mark you should you stop at a saloon for a nightcap. The girls in the quarter watch out for each other, and even a high-class parlor house girl might as well save her poorer “sister” the trouble of flirting with a gentleman who has already been satisfied.

Your manly desires are indeed sated and you’re headed to your comfortable home in the finest part of town. It’s 1910 and life is sweet for a man in your fine leather shoes, if, to be honest, even a fortunate fellow like you can feel a bit melancholy in the wee hours of the morning.

A man brushes past you—a shopkeeper perhaps or a clerk by the look of his clothes—intent on his own escape from reality. Where is he going? Which girl will wrap him in her soft arms within the hour?

Join me next month to find out!

(This sketch of a well-heeled gentleman’s evening in the best parlor house in town was inspired by descriptions in Al Rose’s Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District, Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, and Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918.

The photographs are from Storyville, New Orleans. If you’re interested in red-light districts in the early twentieth century, check out this evocative reference of a time gone by!)

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 former, 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?

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