“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.
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
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.
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
I just finished Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!: Of Playboys, Pigs and Penthouse Paupers, An American Tale of Sex and Wonder by Mike Edison (Soft Skull Press, 2011). It was a quick read and a nice change of tone from my usual research for my historical erotic novel these days. The book is about the history of sexually explicit magazines for men; the tone is funny, fearless and conversational, which you don’t usually get in studies of the apartment house in New York in the early 1900s. The familiar, cozy tone is no doubt due to the fact that over the years, Edison worked at Hustler, Screw and Penthouse, so he knows most of his stuff from the inside (and which may be why Hugh Hefner is presented with less affection than the other publishers).
I bought my first Playboy in a bookstore in downtown Washington, D.C. while on lunch break from my summer secretarial job at the IRS between high school and college. Yes, I was self-conscious as I stood in line to pay, although I wasn’t worried I’d be carded or anything. Eighteen wasn’t the hard cut-off it’s become in this day. The middle-aged guy behind me seemed bemused, but hey, it was the “Women of the Ivy League” issue, and I was headed to Princeton. Granted my later purchases have been a few vintage issues from the 1950s, and my enduring interest is in the mass presentation of erotic fantasy and the sensibilities of the men who made fortunes feeding on the sexual desires of men in our fairly repressed society. But frankly, I was thrilled to have my work published and generously compensated for by the Playboy Cyber Club and the print version of Penthouse under its new owners in the 2000’s. I wish I could tell that guy behind me in the bookstore what my brave purchase would lead to….
So, maybe I am unusual compared to the average woman, but I would argue that even though these magazines were not aimed at women as consumers, we, too, were profoundly affected by the new availability of erotic images and especially the manner of their presentation. Playboy, Penthouse and others defined what was sexy in a woman in our culture. It taught us what red-blooded straight men “really wanted.” Over the years I’ve had talks with men about their responses to these magazines, and it’s certainly more complicated than mere slavish acceptance of what Hefner or Guccione liked. However, we must acknowledge that these nationally distributed magazines helps shaped the erotic imaginations of millions, whether we like it or not.
There’s a lot I could say about Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! It rightly points out our debt to the men’s magazine honchos for battling for our First Amendment Rights with their sweat and treasure, for example. But I’ll mention two things that I’m sure I’ll remember, the takeaways from my reading. First, I got a new insight into the role of Hugh Hefner in the grand story of moving the heterosexual erotic impulse from the closet into the public sphere in the twentieth century. I’d always felt Hefner was a good example of how money and power make you weirder than you might ordinarily be, and it’s not just the round-the-clock pajamas. Edison spared no report of Hefner’s weirdness. He even had an epiphany while watching an episode of Playboy After Dark—which aired way back in 1969-1970–and that is: Hefner “hates women.”
Which of course is ironic because someone who celebrates the female form and has slept with thousands of women might be assumed to “love” women. Edison’s epiphany made a small light bulb go on in my head as well. I get where he’s coming from but the word “hates” is a blunt instrument. “Fears” is closer. Hefner created a world where real women are kept at a distance, controlled, their beauty airbrushed into a safe, predictable, tasteful form. By packaging these smooth, clean, unthreatening girls-next-door with decent journalism and “the best” of contemporary literature (every one of the “great” authors Edison mentioned as appearing in Playboy are men), Hefner allowed America to dip its toes in the shallow end of the pool. Hustler and even Penthouse were too raw, low-class and possibly honest about the fantasies of the Average American Male. History shows us that middle-class self-indulgence always seem less threatening to society. We know that proper upper-class men can handle mistresses, French postcards or a glimpse of Pompeii’s brothel art without going mad and raping every woman in sight, unlike their working class brothers whom we must keep carefully in line. So that’s what Hugh did for us: he eased the door open for the millions with a generous greasing of “good taste.”
Bravo Mike Edison for giving me a new look at Playboy. But I have a beef with him as well. When describing the many business mistakes made by Penthouse publisher and chief Pet photographer, Bob Guccione, Edison pointed a big fat finger at Viva magazine, co-edited by the Gooch’s wife, Kathy Keeton. He described Viva as “a porn magazine for women (always a bad idea).” He hinted that the main readership of Viva was gay men, as is often claimed of Playgirl as well, and this is why it failed.
Sorry, Mike, I think you and society at large may be guilty of the very same failing you attribute to Hefner—that he never listened to real women or cared what they really wanted. We hear it over and over again. Women don’t like pornography. Women don’t respond to erotic images. Don’t waste your time trying to make tons of money from women’s sexual fantasies. It’s a mistake.
I loved Viva as a teenager. Maybe gay men were buying it, but so was my older sister, who made no effort to keep her issues from my curious hands. I didn’t question the magazine was meant for women to read. I figured young, worldly women were interested in the content: sexual fantasies and sexuality itself and feminist politics and sophisticated articles about the waning glory of England’s Royal Family and other provocative discussions of the early 1970s. I spent some very enjoyable summer afternoons perusing the articles, the “analyzed” sexual fantasies, and the pictorials. I learned a lot about myself and my desires.
Now I will agree the photographs of nude men didn’t do it for me the way Playmates and Pets apparently seared into the libidos of my male peers. But one very important reason may be that all the penises were flaccid. Even in my state of inexperience, it struck a false note. Looking back through the issues now, I get anxious when I see these beautiful young nude men and women embracing (including Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson as very young lovers) and the guy’s dick is soft. Something is wrong here and it’s hard, so to speak, to get drawn into a lustful fantasy when the man clearly is not aroused.
On the other hand, I have to admit if Mike Edison means the type of pornography produced for men is unlikely to be profitable if the exact same thing is slapped with a label “for women” without deeper inquiry, then I agree with him. But “women don’t like pornography” suggests we don’t enjoy erotic images at all. That is not true for me. Is it true for you?
So instead of saying all women don’t like pornography, how about this? Maybe women don’t “like” or buy what has been on offer, because it’s a spin-off of the recipe for males and we respond to a different sensibility? Women don’t buy jock straps or mustache combs because they aren’t made for our needs. Has there ever been mass-distributed pornography that has “listened” to women’s wants and desires without fear? Who and what in our society are threatened by the idea that women might genuinely get turned on by erotic images?
Instead we get Fifty Shades of Grey. It certainly made plenty of money and caused nearly as much to-do as Playboy and Penthouse in their day. The heroine of the Fifty Shades is the special one-and-only rather than the endlessly replaceable pet of the month. The woman’s experience is important and she gets lots of orgasms, perhaps not won honestly for a virgin who never masturbated, but still. Oh, right, and those muscled torsos on erotic romance covers, which seem rather too literal of a riff on the Playboy centerfold, all unnatural bulges and oiled tan skin. Perhaps we need our own female version of Hugh Hefner to get that revolution going, with or without the twenty-four-seven pajama look?
I guess what I really take away from Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! is that the public acknowledgement of our culture’s sexual desires is still in its infancy. We have so much more to learn about female and male desire, if we can resist the temptation to retreat to worn formulas and truisms—women all like this and don’t like that, men want this and never want that. Each story we write or cover we choose can take that exploration further. In some sense, that discovery is what’s kept me writing for almost twenty years now.
Let’s keep making history!
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
Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica,
erotic romance, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her
husband, son, and three cats. Visit her web
site, her Facebook page, and her Amazon
I read “50
Shades of Grey” when the book first came out since the feminist e-zine ON
THE ISSUES had wanted me to review it. I felt the same way lots of people felt
about it. I thought it was poorly written. It started out as
“Twilight” fan fiction so it wasn’t even an original idea. It was not
a realistic depiction of BDSM, and I had read better erotic books with BDSM as
a major theme. Although some disagreed with me, I thought the relationship
between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele was abusive and stalkerish. This is
a very polarizing series of books. You either hate them or you love them. There
seems to be little middle ground.
Now that the movie
has become a huge box office hit, “50 Shades of Grey” is back in the
news again – with a vengeance. The books and movie are a cultural phenomenon
that has brought erotic fiction and talk about sex into the forefront. Make no
mistake – women have been reading erotic fiction for aeons, but they read
furtively. The Kindle helped bring about increases in sales of erotic fiction
in part because of the privacy the device gives the reader. Woman no longer worried about getting the hairy eyeball from strangers (or friends or family) who saw a
strapping, shirtless man on the front cover of the book. “50 Shades of
Grey” expanded on this. Sexologist Dr. Patti Britton wrote on her blog
that the book series “normalized the
discussion about sex and especially about the holy grail of BDSM: Bondage and
Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sado Masochism. It allowed kinksters to
come out of the closet and claim their orientation.”
What “50 Shades
of Grey” also did was bring the average straight woman out of the closet. Women
aren’t hiding their love for the series and movie as if they are ashamed of it.
It’s wonderful women feel comfortable enough thanks to “50 Shades of
Grey” to be so open about the sexual needs and wants. It has also
introduced an entirely new population to BDSM, despite critics accurate assertions
that the books and movie are not accurate depictions of the lifestyle. When the
first book initially exploded into public consciousness, sex toys sales skyrocketed
by 400%. According to an article in Cosmopolitan, ben wa balls (sex balls) in
particular became popular because Christian Grey gave a pair to Anastasia
Steele. Check out this description from the book: “He
holds out his hand, and in his palm are two shiny silver balls linked with a
thick black thread … Inside me! I gasp, and all the muscles deep in my belly
clench. My inner goddess is doing the dance of the seven veils … Oh my … It’s a
curious feeling. Once they’re inside me, I can’t really feel them—but then
again I know they’re there … Oh my … I may have to keep these. They make me
needy, needy for sex.” Both men and woman wanted to re-enact the sexy
scenes the women read in the book.
online have talked about the effect “50 Shades of Grey” has had on
their sex lives. They’re enjoying sex toys more often. Some have found new and
creative uses for household items such as chip bag clips in place of nipple
clamps. They’ve discovered the joy of bondage tape, including humorous
astonishment at the fact that the tape sticks only to itself, not to skin and
hair. That stuff isn’t electrical tape, which sticks to everything. Keep in mind most of these women are very vanilla, and
this book series and movie are their first exposure to BDSM. Two subscribers to
the kink website Fetlife hand-crafted a paddle and flogger. Other fans
described their favorite scenes in the books.
have even felt compelled to re-enact scenes from the book. One man on Fetlife
who is new to the BDSM lifestyle with his wife talked about how his wife has
introduced a wide variety of sex toys to their play since reading the book,
including dildos, vibrators, hot wax, and ben wa balls. He and his wife planned
to see the movie, and he wanted to prepare a sexy surprise for her once they
returned home. He asked for advice on how to proceed. One person recommended
acting out a scene where Christian tied Ana to the headboard and blindfolded
her. He put headphones on her ears so she couldn’t hear – opening her to expand
her horizons through using her other senses.
Fetlife subscriber described enjoying being spanked. Like Ana, she enjoyed the
sting but leaving marks was not okay. One thread discussed songs that reminded
fans of the book, including Lucinda Williams’ “Sweet Side”, “Dark
Side” by Kelly Clarkson, “Love Is A Battlefield” by Pat Benatar,
and “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. The books and movie have introduced
the general public to BDSM, and Fetlife offers tips on exploring the lifestyle
to anyone who’s interested.
are writing “50 Shades of Grey” fan fiction, which is ironic since
the first book started out as “Twilight” fan fiction. Storylines
range from pure sex to loving relationship to even marriage between Anastasia
and Christian, complete with a baby. Here’s an excerpt from one of the stories
I know she loves
it when I tell her how much I lover her and need her, it gets her all riled up
and she will do anything “You’re so ready Ana. I love it when you’re so
ready for me.” I slide two fingers into her as my thumb strikes her
clitoris and I can see her building. “Not yet Ana. Not yet.” She
moans and I can’t help but let out a little giggle “be patient. Not long
now.” I move my fingers in a rotating motion to build her up even more and
she arches her back to push her breast in to my hand and lets out a cry
“oh. Please Christian. I. Need. You!”
are openly discussing what they want from their partners when it comes to sex.
This book series and movie have fired up imaginations, resulting in an uptick
in purchases of sex toys and erotic fiction as well as the creation of fan fiction.
Despite criticism, “50 Shades of Grey” must be recognized for the
positive effect it has had on women’s expression of their sexual likes and
|If we wore these everyday, no one would think they were sexy.|
The term ‘normalization’ (and the verb ‘to normalize) has become very popular of late. It has a number of meanings, but its most current use in the media refers to a process by which exposure to something renders it ‘normal’ in the minds of those who are exposed. For instance, it has been proposed that the preponderance of photos of women’s legs, showing them with a gap between their thighs has ‘normalized’ a body type that is not normal (Jones, 2013), and video games ‘normalize’ violence against animals (Hochschartner, 2013).
Of course, we’ve spent years hearing about the way pornography – any kind of pornography – normalizes the view of women as sexual objects and encourages violence against them (Horeck, Days, & Don, 2013). Attempts to verify this through research have resulted either in highly ambiguous results, or actually contradicted these claims. A literature review of a large number of studies has concluded that porn is not even a co-relational factor in violence against women (Ferguson, 2013). In fact, there is good data to suggest the opposite; that the more widespread the access to pornography, the lower the violence to women (Amato & Law, n.d.).
As of January, 2014, it will be illegal in the UK to possess material that contains eroticized depictions of rape. Not possession of photographs or videos of actual rape – that was always illegal, but material containing fictional depictions of rape (Zara, 2013). According to many sources, including the Prime Minister, David Cameron, exposure to this kind of pornography ‘normalizes’ sexual violence against women (Morris, 2103).
My problem with the word ‘normalize’ is that it has been widely interpreted to mean that exposure to whatever it is that is currently offensive to us will cause us to think that it’s okay. They’ll stop having negative feelings about it, and embrace it as part of their everyday lives. I’m not disputing that constant exposure to something will change the way we think about it – that would be cognitively impossible for that not to occur. What I’m disputing is our assumptions about two things.
The first is a widespread assumption that fictionalized versions of horrific realities are interpreted by the brain in the same way as witnessing or experiencing those realities. I can accept, for instance, that small children might have difficulties telling the difference between a fictionalized, mediated version of war and war itself. But adults reading “War and Peace” or watching “Saving Private Ryan” don’t believe they are actually experiencing war. Admittedly, we do suspend disbelief when we read or view fiction, but we don’t mistake it for reality.
The second assumption is that repeated exposure to mediated forms of real horrors will cause us to feel neutral or even positively about them. This has no basis in fact either. Indeed, in the last century, we have been exposed to more mediated versions of reality than in the whole of human history. More war, more death, more rape, more everything. And as much as the media would like you to believe you live in a terribly dangerous time, the truth is that we are safer, healthier and longer-lived than we have ever been.
As a woman, a writer of erotic fiction and a questioner of received wisdom, I do believe that the widespread availability of explicit sexual imagery must, indeed, be having some effect on us. I just don’t accept that it is either wholly positive or wholly negative. For instance, I’m pretty sure that far fewer people today feel that there is anything fundamentally evil about sex; I think porn has played a part in this. I think the quantity of mediated sex out there has allowed many more people to admit to watching and enjoying it.
I also believe – although I have no hard evidence of this – porn has served to ‘model’ what sex should look like. After all, for many people, it’s the only sex they see (other than their own). And porn sex is, by its nature, exaggerated and dramatized. I think there are people who may (because they aren’t having the sort of sex that looks like the sex in porn) feel a greater sense of dissatisfaction with the sex they do have.
In the Middle Ages, children learned what normal sex looked like by witnessing it – either seeing it, or hearing it in a darkened room because private space was at a premium. Today we’d call that child abuse. These days, other than porn, the only way to see real sex between real people is by being a voyeur, which is loaded with its own taboos. It’s hardly a wonder that amateur porn became so popular. There is some sense that this is real sex. Sadly, because of the fact that it needs to stand up against produced porn, more and more commercial porn memes creep into amateur porn. Conversely, commercial porn producers have sought to make their product look more ‘amateur’ in order to appeal to amateur porn viewers. They tend to fail miserably.
What I’d really like to dig my inquisitional fingers into is the idea of ‘normalization’ as it applies to the erotic. I want to make a distinction between the sexual and the erotic, because I am increasingly coming to believe that there is the biological urge to scratch the itch, which requires nothing other than a relatively functional body and no imagery or semiotics at all, and something else. This something else is the intersection between that biological imperative and language. Not language in the sense of words, but language in the sense that, as our brains mature, we process reality through the veil of language. There is nothing fundamentally sexy about a black, patent leather, high-heeled shoe. It is language in the larger sense, in the way we make relational linkages and chunk feeling and meaning together, that has made the ‘fuck-me-pump’ the iconically sexy item it has become.
I’m going to call this ‘the erotic’ as distinct from ‘the sexual.’ The erotic is heavily dependent on limits: on what is allowed and what is forbidden (Bataille, 1962; Foucault, 1980; Paz, 1995). There is a reason for why the adjectives we use about the erotic ideas that turn us on are negative: naughty, filthy, dirty, forbidden, nasty, sinful, obscene, perverse, wanton, illicit, etc. We want, most passionately, the things we shouldn’t want. It doesn’t mean that we act to get them, or need to transgress socially accepted behaviour in order to be sexually satisfied, but our mind goes there. Of course, positive things can also be erotic: beauty, love, devotion, affection, perfection, purity, faith, truth… but even as I type these words, and even as you read them, it starts to become obvious that erotic desire feeds more voraciously off the forbidden than the allowed.
Here’s the paradox: things that become ‘normalized’ can no longer be the stuff of erotic fantasy. So, I’m not arguing that normalization doesn’t occur. I’m suggesting that it is a self-limiting phenomenon. I’m suggesting that we are twisted little creatures who don’t get off on the ‘normalized’. And so our fears as to its consequences may be somewhat hyperbolic.
My greatest antipathy towards the ‘normalization’ of the erotically forbidden is that it will lose its power to be erotic. I believe that our inner, transgressive, politically incorrect and ugly erotic desires are part of who we are as human beings. Our ability to understand that these things we want, things that when acted out in the real world would be atrocities, are part of the mechanism that preserves our inner and outer worlds as separate. Like fantasy, fictionality affords us a playground for our deeply unsocial selves. It doesn’t school us in what is acceptable in the real world. It underscores and helps to contrast between the two.
- Bataille, G. (1962). Death and sensuality: A study of Eroticism and the Taboo. New York: Walker and Company.
- D’Amato, A. (2006). Porn Up, Rape Down. Northwestern University School of Law: Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper Series, 1–6. Retrieved from http://anthonydamato.law.northwestern.edu/adobefiles/porn.pdf
- Ferguson, C. J. (2013). Pornography. In Adolescents, Crime, and the Media: A Critical Analysis, Advancing Responsible Adolescent Development (pp. 141–158). New York, NY: Springer New York. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-6741-0
- Foucault, M. (1980). A Preface to Transgression. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (pp. 29–52). Cornell University Press.
- Hochschartner, J. (2013, November 29). Video Games Normalize Animal Cruelty. Retrieved December 8, 2013, from Counterpunch.org: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/11/29/video-games-normalize-animal-cruelty/
- Horeck, T., Days, S., & Don, B. (2013). Public rape: representing violation in fiction and film. Routledge.
- Jones, A. (2013, November 22). Sexualization Thing Gap Retrieved December 8, 2013, from TheWire.com: http://www.thewire.com/culture/2013/11/sexualization-thigh-gap/355434/
- Morris, C. (2103, November 17). ‘Rape porn’ possession to be punished by three years in jail, David Cameron to announce. Retrieved December 8, 2013, from Metro.co.uk: http://metro.co.uk/2013/11/17/rape-porn-possession-to-be-punished-by-three-years-in-jail-david-cameron-to-announce-4189512/
- Paz, O. (1995). The double flame: love and eroticism (p. 84). New York: Harcourt Brace. Retrieved from http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=AeKEAAAAIAA
- Zara, C. (2013, November 18). Rape Porn Ban Comes To UK: Possession Of Images Depicting Simulated Rape To Be Punishable By Jail. Retrieved December 8, 2013, from International Business Times: http://www.ibtimes.com/rape-porn-ban-comes-uk-possession-images-depicting-simulated-rape-be-punishable-jail-1474952
|Justine by de Sade, the first two editions were in 1st person,
the final version in 3rd.
I took a quick poll last night on my twitter stream to find out which point of view was the preferred one for both readers and writers of erotica. As you might imagine, no one behaved themselves and I didn’t get a definitive answer.
Now, you’re asking yourself why this question might not pertain to other genres equally. Of course, POV is always significant to the reader’s experience of the narrative. But there are both historical and cognitive reasons why it is of greater interest to erotica writers than it would be, say, to murder mystery writers.
Before the 20th Century, much erotic writing was written in first person and often presented to the reader as a candid confessional. The choice of this voice is significant because it was, in literary terms, the equivalent of the money shot. First person was felt to convey veracity and solicit reader empathy.
Narrative theorists, novel critics, and reading specialists have already singled out a small set of narrative techniques–such as the use of first person narration and the interior representation of characters’ consciousness and emotional states–as devices supporting character identification, contributing to empathetic experiences, opening readers’ minds to others, changing attitudes, and even predisposing readers to altruism” Suzanne Keen writes, leading to narrative empathy. (1)
Certainly confessional memoires like ‘My Secret Life,” by Walter, strove to create the effect of a confidence being shared between ‘men of the world’ about the forbidden landscape of sexual experience.
The firmness of her flesh impressed me, whether I put my finger between the cheeks of her arse or between her thighs I could with difficulty get it away; she could have cracked a nut between either. (2)
This approach survives to this day, with the same strategy to convey genuineness and confidentiality to the reader in letters to the Penthouse Forum.
She started out by telling me that she loved me, then asked, “Honey, what would you say if I told you that I wanted to have sex with some other guy?”
I was thrilled with the thought, but needing to act like I was maybe too macho for that, I asked, ‘Where did you ever get an idea like that?'” (3)
But before you start to think that first person erotica just results in downmarket pseudo porn, it’s worth remembering that Henry Miller wrote “The Tropic of Cancer” in first person:
At any rate, I had not yet come to the end of my rope. I was only flirting with disaster. … I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love. (4)
Interestingly, de Sade’s two first versions of Justine were written in first person, but for the final publication, La Nouvelle Justine, he changed it all into third person. (5) Considering how long it is, this must have been quite task. It should tell you something about how important he felt the POV was to the way he wanted the story read.
In an interesting meta-strategy, although the stories in Anais Nin’s “Delta of Venus” are in third person, the collection starts off with an intensely first person narrative prologue in which she talks of how the stories came about and how she wrote them, which cleverly assures the reader of the author’s personal erotic investment in the work, while presenting the stories as her own intensely narrative sexual fantasies set at a distance to allow the reader into her lascivious world.
She was a very, very clever writer. She gains the confidence of the reader in the same way that first person narratives do, but her use of the third person POV in the actual stories works an interesting magic. First person erotic narratives work very well when the reader finds it easy to empathize with the narrator. Walter, de Sade and, I would hazard a guess, Miller, all assumed their readers would be men. Men like them.
Nin not only set out to write beyond her lived and (perhaps) autobiographical experience, but take the reader into erotic fantasy and position both she – the writer – and you – the reader – as voyeur. Third person narratives allow the reader enough distance so as not to be put off by the gap between fiction, the fictional characters, the erotic fantasy and the reader’s sense of self. Moreover, the third person narration makes it possible to present male protagonists without jarring the reader with the reality that the writer is female.
“Now the Baron, like many men, always awakened with a peculiarly sensitive condition of the penis. In fact, he was in a most vulnerable state.” (6)
Some erotic writers find themselves compelled to tell a story and it presents itself with a voice in which to be told and they remain faithful always to allow the story, in essence, to ‘tell itself.’
However, after I’d been writing a while and I began to get stalled on stories that didn’t seem to slither off my fingertips with the fluidity I had hoped for, I began to take more notice of POV. I realized that sometimes a story wasn’t working because it wasn’t being told by the right character. This is what really prompted me to think deeply about POV.
I realized that sometimes my stories didn’t have the level of conflict I wanted because I had started out writing the story in the POV of the character who was least conflicted. This gave me a more reliable narrator, but a less exciting story.
When I began to venture into writing male protagonists, I stuck to third person for the same reason Nin did. I wanted to acknowledge my unmaleness as a writer, and underscore the fictionality of the story. But more recently, in stories where I felt I really could truly empathize at a deep level with the male protagonist, I have attempted first person.
It is often said that ‘literary’ works are usually written in third person and, if you take a look at the literary canon, a large portion of them are, but by no means all of them.
I think one of the reasons for the perpetuation of this myth is a legitimate one. Literary fiction attempts to ask the reader to, in a way, be conscious of the writing while reading. It asks the reader to split themselves in two – immersing in the narrative but also always remaining a little distant in order to afford the reader the opportunity to read critically at the same time.
You might think this has no relevance in erotic fiction, but I would argue that there are times when it can be very effective. Say, for instance, you are writing a story involving a paraphilia or fetish that the vast majority of your prospective readers might not share. You want to tempt them to glimpse in at the eroticism of it, but you don’t want to assume their compliance, from a literary perspective. Third person affords readers the space and distance to intellectually acknowledge the eroticism of something they might not want to do in real life but might be aroused by in fiction. So, if you want to write a watersports story that is not aimed at readers who you know will get off on it instantly, third person is a great way to afford them wiggle room and allow them to indulge in the erotic descriptions of it without feeling like they’re living it personally.
On the other hand, I have at times wanted to intentionally disorient the reader, to prompt that fine line between disgust and lust, and a first person narrative can be much more immediate and immersive for this, forcing them into the world and the scene for narrative effect. In a way, intentionally violating their comfort zone.
Most people who have been writing a long time make POV decisions very consciously. They’re well aware of the pros and cons of each voice. If you haven’t tried to go against the grain of your instincts yet, give it a try. Even if, after a few attempts, you decide to return to your favourite POV, at least you will have had the experience of wielding the power that the decision of POV can offer you.
1. Keen, Suzanne. “A Theory of Narrative Empathy.” Narrative. 14.3 (2006): 207-236. Web. 13 Oct. 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/narrative/v014/14.3keen.html>.
2. Walter. My Secret Life. 1. Amsterdam: Privately Published, 1888. Web. <http://www.horntip.com/html/books_&_MSS/1880s/1888_my_secret_life/vol_01/index.htm>.
3. T.P. “A Fucking Good Time.” Penthouse Forum Online. GMCI Internet Operations Inc., 28 Apr 2013. Web. 13 Oct 2013. <http://penthouseforum.com/2013/04/a-fuckin-good-time/>.
4. Miller, Henry. The Tropic of Cancer. New York: Grove Press, 1961. Print.
5. “Justine (Sade).” Wikipedia. N.p., 18 Jul 2013. Web. 13 Oct 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justine_(Sade)>.
6. Nin, Anais. Delta of Venus. OCR. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. Web. <http://optimisinglife.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/nin-anais-delta-of-venus.pdf>
Sexual fantasy is dangerous.
Or so you’d think if you look around at the way this common human indulgence is handled in the media. My first realization of the way sexual thoughts were treated as incendiary was the uproar over Jimmy Carter’s confession in Playboy:
“I’ve looked on many women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. God knows I will do this and forgives me.”
In retrospect, I’m not sure if the hubbub was just about Carter’s mental adultery or his rather chummy understanding with God to give the lustings a pass, but even as a freshman in high school, I sure remember the buzz. This was way back in 1976, but our attitude towards sex in the mind has hardly changed. We’ve all read how internet porn is highly addictive, destroys real-life relationships and has created an upsurge in pedophilia (fears not born out by statistics), but even a happily married woman, as reported in Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want? can be faithless enough to fantasize about baseball star Derek Jeter while in bed with her spouse—proof indeed that all women are naturally polyamorous.
In her recent Kinkly column, “Fifty Shades of Abuse?” Rachel Kramer Bussel discusses a study published in the Journal of Women’s Health, “’Double Crap!’: Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey” in which the authors studied the mega-bestseller for evidence of intimate partner violence and concluded that the novel “adds to a growing body of literature noting dangerous violence standards being perpetuated in popular culture.” Even friendly sexual self-help books, which nominally accept the healthy existence of sexual fantasy, abound with advice to cleanse the mind of any self-indulgent imaginings and be with your partner in the moment. It’s as if having sexual thoughts that aren’t explicitly about how much you spiritually love and honor your partner somehow taints the encounter with, well, something dirty like eroticism.
I’m willing to admit that an actual sex act could have serious consequences. Infidelity can stress or destroy a relationship. Power is often abused in human relationships whether sex is involved or not. And totally erasing your partner’s existence in bed probably indicates some intimacy problems that would best be addressed. But let’s remember that other kinds of fantasy itself can have negative consequences. The lottery, the diet industry, and pretty much every advertising campaign out there feed our fantasies about being effortlessly rich, thin and lovable while they slip their hot hands into our wallets.
But what’s so scary about merely thinking about sex?
The assumption seems to be that fantasies represent something we actually want to do and would in the blink of an eye if given the opportunity. Once we imagine, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, being intimately massaged by eight nubile members of the opposite sex all dressed in matching loincloths, we’ll jump up and start recruiting a merry band for the weekend’s pleasure. Maybe you’ve heard the story that all of the feed stores in Iowa sold out of rope after Fifty Shades hit the bestseller list–clear evidence of monkey read, monkey do.
Let’s just say I won’t believe it until I see the inventory statements.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that not all fantasies are treated so literally. If we experience an urge to eat a whole pan of brownies, but don’t, the guilt stops there.
In pondering the reasons why sexual fantasy is regarded as so dangerous to our souls, I remembered an observation in Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, volume 1 concerning the evolution of confession in Catholic Europe. (As an ex-Catholic, this passage made an impression— the book is dense, but I do recommend the book for anyone interested in the topic of sex, language and power). By the 17th century, priests were urged to use indirect language when questioning the penitents about sex, even as the scope of the confession increased.
“According to the new pastoral, sex must not be named imprudently, but its aspects, its correlations, and its effects must be pursued down to their slenderest ramifications: a shadow in a daydream, an image too slowly dispelled, a badly exorcised complicity between the body’s mechanics and the mind’s complacency: everything had to be told. A twofold evolution tended to make the flesh into the root of all evil, shifting the most important moment of transgression from the act itself to the stirrings—so difficult to perceive and formulate—of desire.” (History of Sexuality: 1, 19-20).
All the major religions have figured out this trick—make a natural human experience sinful, and the believers will always be sinning and on their knees in need of forgiveness. And no doubt, the confessions of their more articulate congregation members provided a forbidden pleasure of its own to celibate priests. But where does that leave erotica writers, who create sexual fantasy for shameless public consumption? Are we hazardous to the mental and moral health of decent citizens everywhere?
My answer? Nah.
In fact, I’d argue that fantasy offers a healthy outlet of expression for desires and dilemmas that are otherwise repressed from ordinary discourse. Too many ostensibly responsible, educated people read fantasy like a road map when it’s usually more like a fable, a fiction that offers us a coded story of our deepest desires. And here I’m talking especially about the weird stuff that embarrasses us, the dark and “dangerous” fantasies. I’d also argue that the erotic appeal in Fifty Shades and Derek Jeter fantasies is the power more than the sex. While sexual attraction doubtless informs many of our interactions throughout the day, as human beings, power informs all of them. In the highly indirect language of fantasy, the pleasure in being ravaged by a powerful man is less about rape than the desired object’s own power of attraction in trumping his worldly might. Imagine—a pretty, naive college student can captivate one of the richest men in the world and make him focus all of his billionaire attention on the humblest details of her life. Fantasy of every kind delights in overturning certainties, violating taboos, weaving images of absurd abundance, relieving us of all obligations and restrictions. As much as we might wish, rarely does it come “true.” For most of us, the pleasure lies in watching the transgressions unfold in our heads.
I find it interesting that as the legal and social restrictions placed on sex acts are loosened, the attempts to control sexual thought seem to be increasing. Fifty Shades of Grey, whatever its flaws, opened up the world of erotica to millions of readers. In response we have an apparently serious scientific study that tells us a fantastical novel promotes delusions about the romance of BDSM that could harm female identity. Surely there are more effective ways to improve female self-esteem on a societal level. Studies showing the benefits of equal pay? More status for female-dominated professions? The benefits of treatment for both partners in actual cases of abuse?
And last but not least, don’t we all have enough trouble switching from the stresses of daily life to passion in bed with our partners without having to worry that a fleeting hankering for a sweaty baseball star is the equivalent of a full-fledged affair? Attention sex journalists and self-help gurus: leave my imagination alone!
On the other hand, if sexual fantasies are so powerful, well, my fellow ERWA writers, that means we can and are changing the world with our stories. That’s a power play we can all enjoy.
By Donna George Storey
that’s a title sure to sell books. Especially if said book promises to
answer that question with “the latest scientific research” by
“paint[ing] an unprecedented portrait of female lust.”
mostly overcome my old bad habit of feeling compelled, for the sake of
my professional development, to read every article about sex that
catches my eye—from Cosmo covers offering secret bedroom tricks that fulfill every man’s deepest desires to more serious journalism like Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. Yet an enthusiastic review of Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire
proved just too provocative, so I put my name of the hold list at my
local library. Granted I was equally wary and amused that the mystery of
female sexual desire was to be answered by a male author, but the
“science” in the title promised at least a certain amount of objective
reportage and possibly some useful up-to-date discoveries.
finishing the book, I think I’ll go back on the wagon as far as “read
this and you’ll understand sex” come-on’s are concerned.
Bergner’s book left my raging intellectual curiosity about sex sadly
unsatisfied. However, I did gain some valuable insights into issues of
importance for erotica writers: namely, the constrictions on the way
we’re allowed to write about sex in mainstream publishing and our
endless human quest to seek a simple explanation for our very complex
and powerful urge to merge (or the lack thereof in married women, which
was Bergner’s unacknowledged focus, not to say obsession, in the book).
Let’s start with the writing style of What Do Women Want?
Published writing about sex is generally divided into two comforting
categories. First we have the “scientific” approach, which is deemed
acceptable for review in the New York Times (indeed Bergner even nabbed a nonfiction spot
in that venerable publication to promote his book). This is either a
sex guide by a credentialed doctor or a journalist’s reportage of what’s
going on in the underfunded labs of sexologists. The emphasis here is
on the “facts” tastefully and maturely presented with the aim of helping
us understand our biological drives. The tone may be humorous, like
Roach’s, often pointing out the ridiculousness of sex, but there can
never be any obvious intent to arouse lust. That goal is left to erotica
and porn, where the author is at liberty to use every trick in the
book—dirty words, loving descriptions of sex acts, vivid, taboo-breaking
fantasies—to inflame the reader’s libido. The price for this freedom is
that such works can’t be taken too seriously, even if some do prove
I’d always wondered what would
happen if someone tried combining these two forms, intellectual
seriousness with vivid, evocative prose. Many erotica writers do so
quite successfully in my opinion. Bergner makes a certain kind of
attempt by juxtaposing reportage of scientific studies and the search
for a “female Viagra” (which is apparently much harder since it requires
a change in brain chemistry rather than just blood flow) with decidedly
flowery accounts of women’s experiences and fantasies. The experiment
derails because Bergner’s heavy-handed prose requires the reader to
either submit equally to the reportage and the personal fancy or to
doubt both. For me, What Do Women Want? has been falsely
advertised as the kind of “scientific” book that we’re supposed to
respect when there is a buried personal agenda at work throughout.
Perhaps the book would be less of a con if it were advertised as memoir
or creative nonfiction, but then again it would lose a good portion of
an audience that craves “objective” answers to the mystery of sex.
an inquiry into what women want could result in a very long book
indeed, Bergner’s main focus is stories of women who have lost desire
for their sweet, loving partners, but feel excitement for men who treat
them like, well, Christian Grey treats Anastasia Steele. Yet, rather
than quoting the women in their own words, he freely indulges his own
writerly impulses. In the following excerpt, he’s describing the
experiences of a “real” woman named Isabel:
dressed with urgent, ungoverned need for the desire of men could set
off, inside her, a flurry of disdain, like an instinctive aversion to a
weakness or wound. Yet whenever she walked into a restaurant where
Michael waited for her at the bar, his focus seem to pluck her from the
air, midfall, and pull her forward. His eyes held a thoroughly different
kind of constancy than Eric’s later would. Eric adored her. Michael
admired her. She was a possession, the heels of the boots she picked for
him taking her across crowded rooms toward her owner. The boots were
like the frames and pedestals he chose for the photography and sculpture
in his gallery. He had specific opinions about how she was best
If the book were fiction, I might be more
willing to allow myself to be carried along by the strongly flavored
sensibility of Bergner’s prose. But in many cases I felt manipulated, as
if he were imposing his voice on Isabel among others, making her into
his character, for the mere sake of showing us he can write in a Best American Short Story style.
Bergner does describe some interesting results of studies—did you know
that in speed dating whichever sex sits still is pickier about partners
than the one forced to get up and rotate? But far too many studies he
mentioned dealt with women’s boredom with nice guys. Basically Berger
argues that traditional evolutionary biology got it wrong. It’s not the
men who are the promiscuous sex, sowing their seed far and wide while
women wait for a nurturing mate, but rather the women who are even
hungrier for sex with strangers, thus explaining the much touted desire
gap between married men and women. By the time he attributed Adriaan
Tuiten’s search for a drug to restore female desire to a broken heart
when his first girlfriend lost sexual interest in him, I suspected
something else was at stake for the author as well. And indeed, turning
back to the acknowledgements, Bergner rather wistfully thanks his
ex-wife for the faith she offered for many years.
or not Bergner’s ex-wife left him because her sexual desire for her
tender mate faded, his choice of highly personal writing style and a
notable focus on one slim aspect of female sexuality demands that he be
honest with his readers about where he comes from on the issue of
marriage and the loss of desire. Yet he maintains the opacity of the
traditional journalist throughout, in spite of his revealingly biased
choices in language.
Now is the perfect time for me to
be honest. While I am all for revising the rigid story of a natural
male promiscuity and the female preference for monogamy, in my personal
experience, I have always had better sex when I know and care for my
partner and he cares for me. Thus, I did not in any way feel that the
book illuminated the mysteries of my desire. Which leads me to the
second lesson of my reading. Bergner insists we have to replace the old
story with an equally simple one—it’s not men who have insatiable
appetites, it’s women (which is actually the view of earlier Christian
philosophers, so it’s not exactly new). But what if we human beings,
male and female, all have our own ever-evolving stories about pleasure
and sexual desire? Might not we all have different reasons, genetic and
cultural, for behaving and desiring as we do, narratives that might also
change within a single person’s life course as well as varying among
different people? What if there are no rock-solid eternal truths to
comfort us about what is natural in sex (or any other human behavior)?
inherent in these “scientific” studies is the assumption that there is a
normal or correct sexuality. Yet I’ve never seen a real-life example
offered of this envied normal state. (Therapist Marty Klein maintains in
his book, Sexual Intelligence, that the only true normalis
that most adults have sex when they’re tired.) Bergner does not
interview a promiscuous woman who has found happiness indulging her
natural urges like the rhesus monkeys in the lab. Even one of the few
sexually frisky married women Bergner mentions is not a poster child for
happy monogamy by his definition:
“The abruptly, she
mentioned something hidden. She was a baseball fan, and when she had
trouble reaching orgasm, or wanted to make love with Paul but felt that
arousal was remote and needed beckoning, she tended to think about the
Yankee’s shortstop Derek Jeter. She smiled at the comedy of this
confession. It was only sometimes that this extra help was required, she
explained. ‘Jeter is the ultimate Yankee. Tall, all-American, everyone
loves him—he’s it. He comes home to me after winning the World Series.
He’s still in his uniform, and he throws me onto the bed and kisses me
in a frenzy all over and thrusts right into me without me being really
prepared for it. He just ravages me.’”
Yes, the secret
is out, the wife “sometimes” has to cheat in her fantasies to feel lust
for her husband! Both Bergner and the wife seem to find such fantasies
embarrassing and comic, but more to the author’s point, the fantasy is
described as “hidden” (But from whom exactly? She told him about it,
should she advertise it on a tattoo on her face?) and conforms to the
rape-by-a-stranger fantasy that several of the scientists he interviewed
claim arouses women more than any other fantasy. Bergner does not
really explore the wisdom of taking fantasies literally. He allows that
these women probably don’t actually want to be raped, but he does seem
to assume that a mere fantasy about another man is a form of infidelity
and proves his case about women “wanting” lots of sex with buff, selfish
strangers in alleyways.
Okay, I’m going to get
personal again, but at least I’m being transparent about my point of
view. I’ve never fantasized for more than two seconds about a specific
person or celebrity, nor does rape, which we’ll define as nonconsensual
sex, ever play a role in my rich and varied married-woman fantasies,
although the partner usually takes the lead because, damn it, I get
tired doing everything out there in the real world. Still my preferred
fantasy partner is a faceless drone, used and discarded for his sexual
value alone. I like it that way. Does my fantasy prove anything more
than that my imagination does not follow society’s rules for
proper female focus on the man’s personhood? And how is it that
Bergner’s list of women’s sexual fantasies, told with a sort of
breathless titillation, can be seen as news decades after Nancy Friday’s
My Secret Garden shocked the world? Alas, the book is mired in
not-very-unprecedented assumptions and judgments Bergner claims to be
challenging. In the end he does admit it is “just a beginning,” in spite
of the promotional copy’s promise to a potential reader that he or she
will get some interesting answers to the title question.
yes, the book is mostly a waste of time if you are expecting to find
out what all women want. Yet even its failures remind us that there is
plenty of room for a nuanced, clear-eyed inquiry into the stories we
tell ourselves about sexuality and desire. Daniel Bergner has
unwittingly made his own contribution, though not quite as he intended.
His book does give us a coded look into the interests and passions of
one particular man, but undoubtedly a more honest What Do Women Want?: I Don’t Really Know Either would not sell nearly as many copies.
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com