Rereading Woman’s Erotica: Empowerment of Smut?

The search for truly enlightened erotic literature may not be a lost battle, but it certainly is a mission. With all the so-called liberation of erotica following the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon, the question is begged, is the contemporary erotica really putting women and our sexuality in a better place than the written word (and, for that matter, the pictures) in Penthouse magazine?

It would be almost sacrilege to begin a discussion of contemporary woman’s erotica without a tribute to 50 Shades. Erotic it certainly is, and obviously it speaks to women. Book sale records attest to that. But feminist it certainly is not. Empowering, I think not. This critique is not coming from a place of sanctimony; rather, from a sex education perspective because the 50 Shades commotion is taking us 40 years backwards. It undoes a generation and a half of sexual empowerment when it returns all the gender stereotypes to the heroine and gives her a multi-orgasmic Cinderella ending. As if princes, instantaneous orgasms and complete sexual compatibility come to all girl-next-door virgins on cue.

Having said that, print trumps electronic where the imagination is concerned, more so for female sexuality. In a porn-scorched world, we need to retrain our sexual beings to our own tastes and styles, embracing our real bodies and our actual abilities.

E.L. James did not erupt out of nowhere. Her riding crops and fluffy handcuffs were being sold in well-lit stores on main streets years before she hurled her shady trilogy at us. She may have written it in a fairy tale way that so many women in frustrating relationships and sexual comas cannot resist, but she is a new member of a very large club of erotica writers, all thinking that they are writing for new women, about new women. Herein lies my peeve.

Erotica, not unlike porn, tends to be produced prolifically. More contemporary writers use the short story format than novels, because time constraints run our modern lives, even out sex lives. Sometimes, sadly, we just need to get to the point. James’ 50 Shades beguiles us with seemingly endless episodes which are stylishly similar – conversationally and sexually. Even heroine, Ana Steele would be starting to notice the white heads on her lover’s nose if she were a real woman, having to stomach more of the same and dish it back out in return. An anthology of short stories, on the other hand, provides a world of different perspectives, fresh characters and diverse circumstances – the way fantasy should be allowed to flow.

What is on offer is by no means all good. Even the better quality collections* serve up a potluck of witty, smart and alluring stories along with recycled plots. All too often we are sold stories that could have been written by any male wanna-be who has read too many Playboy confessions. But having a range means that you can ditch the ones that make you wince, and also mix and match according to your mood on a given day. The better, perhaps more responsible writers accept the challenge of producing erotica around long-term relationships, safe sex behaviour (condom use, sometimes even discussions on sexual histories), full-figured and disabled heroines and with women who embrace their sexual expectations and who live out their own fantasies. Female-centred erotica comes without the triteness of traditional male fantasy that ultimately serves male-centred outcomes, notably intercourse and fellatio.

Erotic books does not have to be a solo sport; it is a highly entertaining way of initiating sex with a partner. Most readers will agree that you do not have to be engrossed in the beauty or wisdom of an erotic tale to be turned on by it.


* A recommended collection for starters is Best Erotic Romance (Cleis Press, 2011). A person with known preferences can then seek out more specific collections, such as stories around bondage, cowboys, girl-on-girl and more.

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