Erotica Has Added To The Conversation

eroticaOver the past decade or so, things changed. What was once dismissed as smut has suddenly become respectable as erotica. Librarians will tell you which erotic books gave them the greatest pleasure. On my last trip to Coles, I saw erotic books piled high alongside cookbooks and the classics – and the majority of them were written by women. I skimmed the shelves and found titles like Slow Hand, Fever, Touching Fire. The offerings were not only by famous writers such as Alice Munro and feminists like Susie Bright, but also insurance agents, farm women and teachers, all with provocative tales to tell.

In the past, erotic books and films were a man’s world. Men produced them; men read them and watched them. So why are so many women jumping into the fray? Curious, and not wanting to remain in the Dark Ages, I picked up a handful of books to sample.

That night, I cured up with The Girl Wants To, a collection of erotic stories, poems, illustrations and essays by women writers, published by a company supported by a Canada Council grant. With the Canada Council even remotely involved, I had expected restraint, but there was no overload of “nice” here. The stories were sometimes dark, startling, sometimes playful; they ranged from encounters with male strippers to fantasies about space-age blenders. Most were quite graphic. The heroines were sometimes heartless: the woman in Evelyn Lau’s “Mercy,” who seduces her lover standing over him, her stiletto her in his mouth, was about as far from a Harlequin heroine as you can get. But not all erotica is this bizarre. I went on to read Slow Hand and Fever, two books of short stories edited by writer/editor and Washington Post columnist Michele Slung. In these stories, the characters were more “normal,” a little less angry. In one poignant story in Slow Hand, an estranged couple in the midst of a divorce end up falling in love again – if only for one night – and having a passionate encounter in the house they once shared.

The stories in these books were warmed with foreplay and glittered with detail that had nothing to do with the sex act – although there was plenty of that too. In one story, “The Wager,” written by a woman who was six months pregnant and obliged to abstain from sex, the heroine takes a man home; they make a wager about a Rolling Stones song, which she loses. The stakes: for the rest of the evening, he does everything. She can’t kiss him or touch him, and as the story unfolds, the tension mounts.

I read some of the stories with the backs of my knees humming. But, perhaps because I found myself caring about the characters, I couldn’t imagine these stories in a porn magazine. Then, I realized I wasn’t exactly sure of the difference between porn and erotica, except that erotica is a gossamer-winged word, and porn sounds like smoking holes.

I put the question to Californian Susie Bright, editor of the first three volumes of the Hero fica series of erotic fiction by and for women. Bright, a prominent advocate for women’s erotica, claimed there’s a big difference. She pointed out that porn is, by definition, explicit material about sex and only sex. You don’t find too many porn stories where heroes and heroines face moral dilemmas or worry about work or the kids. “At its worst, porn says, ‘I know your sordid guilty secret, now pay up and get out.'” In erotica, according to Bright, story lines are not just a backdrop for sex; the characters are more developed, often people you can empathize with. And although erotica is sensual, it’s not always explicit.

What’s different about women’s erotica, said Bright, is that it focuses on the woman’s pleasure. Bright, like other women producing women’s erotica today, argues it’s time we women expressed our sexuality in our own words and images, not through male fantasies. In women’s erotica, the torrents don’t pour forth just to lubricate the male hero’s ego. And I have to admit, it was a relief reading books where heroines were normal women of all ages and sizes, not a lineup of impossibly radiant Hollywood stereotypes. Women who were 20 pounds overweight didn’t feel their bodies were temples of doom. Consider this description of a very real woman from Louise Thornton’s “Careless Love”: ‘Threads of gray framing a small round face…a great mound of a stomach…wide hips riding each side of her like wings….” Even when heroines were swept away, it was by choice. In “The Footpath of Pink Roses,” the handsome Cree the heroine encounters on the footpath “could have snapped my neck like a twig,” but she knows karate, and delivers a punch before deciding she likes the way he smells of potato chips. When they have sex, she looks him in the eye, “his equal, not his prey.” These were women I could respect, and they felt and were sexy.

If women writers feel freer to share their fantasies, that wasn’t the case just seven years ago. Susie Bright recalls “begging, screaming, hounding people for stories” for the first Herotica book. In those days, even best-selling novelist Anne Rice was writing erotica under a pseudonym. But after Herotica was published, dozens of stories arrived in the mail, from readers and from writers, enough for two sequels. Today, there’s erotica for every taste. Apart from the literary variety produced by women like Susie Bright and Toronto’s Lynn Crosbie, editor of The Girl Wants To, there are best-sellers like the Black Lace series, published by Britain’s Virgin and distributed in Canada by General. These books are self-described sexual fantasy with no literary pretensions, books that would put Jackie Collins to shame. And you can read them on the subway without hiding them in something else. On the covers, women and couples pose in tastefully dreamy passion; inside, fulfillment comes in floods, page after page.

A readership survey conducted by Virgin found that the main reason women buy the Black Lace books is to “enhance sexual relationship with a partner.” Apparently, titles like Cassandra’s Chateau and Gemini Heat deliver: the series, introduced in Britain in 1993, sold a million copies the first year – more than 100,000 in Canada alone, a best-seller by our standards. They now have about 53 titles. “Women tell me their partners love it when they read to them from the book,” says Montreal writer Sylvie Ouellette, author of Healing Passion in that series. “They haven’t been getting much sleep lately,” added Ouellette, a recent journalism school graduate currently at work on her second erotic novel.

Erotic books are one thing, but I have to admit that, like most women I know, I was more wary when it came to films and videos. Gritting my teeth, I headed for the adult video store to the beckoning call of Horny Henry’s Euro Adventure, Pocket Rockets and Anals [sic] of History, looking to compare erotic films made by men and women. In the store I wanted to shout, “I’m only doing research, folks!” I could feel flames of disapproval shooting from my ancestral tree. I was the only woman there, though the clerk told me that one regular woman customer had just left with a selection. (A survey of 500 video stores in the United States reports that women actually account for 25 percent of adult video sales and rentals.) I was looking for one film made by a man and one made by a woman, but it was hard to be sure which was which – I later read that one director, “Loretta Sterling,” is actually a guy named Eddie.

At home, my husband, Paul, and I sat down with a glass of wine and a bowl of popcorn, and started with the man-made version – Andrew Blake’s Hidden Obsessions, highly recommended by the salesclerk as “one of the 20 videos in existence worth watching.” I looked on with a faintly suffocating sense of embarrassment as women performing oral sex looked up pleadingly, and big bored guys stared off into space. I remembered how I’d shivered at a line in Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, “her sex curling like a leaf.” Here, nothing curled; it was Pam meets Teflon. Even with all that sex, it was about as erotic as a tofu cutlet. Store operators say that men fast-forward through the story line in porn films and women fast-forward through sex scenes. Well, both Paul and I were speeding through this one.

Watching Judy Blue’s Intimate Journey, we immediately sensed a difference. The characters connected with their eyes; there was seduction. Physically, the women weren’t as pumped up and unreal. Breasts, while large, didn’t look like huge, pink airtight haggises. But plot was still secondary: sex was the main event, and after a while, the scenes all seemed lewdly antiseptic – somehow like porn Swan Lakes set in dentist’s offices. Porn is pom, whether it’s made by men or women.

Then, Rhona Raskin, host of a national radio show on sex, pointed me to Red Shoe Diaries. The films in this series, all made with input from women writers and directors, are built around tight intricate plots and come in both R- and unrated (very explicit) versions. The one I rented was the original R-rated version, rifled simply Red Shoe Diaries. A tale of tragic obsession, its heroine is in love with an architect (played by X-Files star David Duchovny) and in lust with a construction worker/shoe salesman. The story unfolds in scenes of children’s birthday parties, basketball games, a discussion between Marlene and her lovers about what should be done about the sordid triangle. (The female touch was evident throughout – only a woman would include a scene in which bikers encounter the heroine in a dark alley and actually ride on by.) In the context of the story, the sex scenes, explicit as they were, didn’t seem gratuitous or disgusting. I felt turned on without feeling gamy or embarrassed.

But I couldn’t help wondering what other women thought of this stuff – was I the only one getting turned on? When I asked my friend Cynthia, she told me that the stories she had read did appeal to her. She liked erotic stories by women because they unfolded slowly, “instead of just hitting you in your erogenous zones.” My friend Kareen agreed. She liked the way erotica by women mirrored her own fantasies – which she confesses are full-blown soap operas. “Romance is erotic,” said Kareen.

Kareen’s daughter Petra, 25, begged to differ. “Romance is important,” she said, “but sometimes we want more: weird bizarre stories to let our sexual imagination run wild a bit.” The truth is, what turns each woman’s crank is incredibly personal. Some of us get turned on by stories about danger, obsessive love, being caught in the act; those same stories turn others off. And even if I’m drawn to stories about risk and passion, sometimes I’m just in the mood for a romantic love story. Women’s erotica reflects our own diversity.

According to psychiatrist Dominic McAleer, women’s erotica, apart from being entertaining, can be quite valuable. For years, women have never talked about their sexuality – about fantasies or hang-ups, about what they like or don’t like. My friend Liz recalled of her years in Catholic school: ‘We weren’t even allowed to think about sex. A nun tore me down before the whole class because I wore a striped blouse – it drew attention to one’s breasts. I thought it was bad I had breasts.” By contrast, the frankness of today’s erotica is liberating. It encourages us to accept and articulate what we like and don’t like – and can even help us learn about our bodies. One woman, a 32-year-old travel agent, shyly confessed to me, “After reading a couple of these books, I realized for the first time that I’d never had an orgasm.”

Still, not everyone is enthusiastic about the new wave of erotica by women. Writer Victoria Brandon spoke for many women when she wrote rather frostily in a Books in Canada review about sex in novels, “For most of my life, women have struggled to rid the world of it. … Our best male writers have abandoned this gunk, dear sisters. It’s not funny, it’s not stimulating; it’s monotonous and depressing.” Of the books and films I tested, I did find some monotonous and depressing. I was bored by the woman in Blue Feathers who explores her frenzied passion behind a feathered mask at Mardi Gras because I could see it coming (sorry) a mile away. And let’s not talk about the story in Fever about a bisexual woman in combat boots and a Donut World waiter who says stuff like “Uh-uh, girlie,” in the throes of passion.

Those exceptions aside, I have to say that most of the women’s erotica I encountered was different. Reading much of it, I felt a little freer, a little sexier. And the effects? When my husband told a friend I was researching erotica, the man joked, “You’ll be afraid to go home; she’ll be all over you.” Paul replied, “She hasn’t asked me to install any rings in the bathroom ceiling, but she seems to stand a little closer, touch a little more often, and be more aware of me as the male of the species. All of which makes me want to go home even sooner.”

Well, he’s a tasteful guy.

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