A couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued by an article in The Guardian, by columnist Libby Brooks, which discusses recent publications of erotic fiction written for and by women, focusing particularly on In Bed With, an anthology edited by Kathy Lette, boasting contributions from a number of well-known women (who nonetheless hide behind a “nom de porn”—name of first pet followed by name of first street).
Brooks’ article has a definite feminist slant to it, and she speculates that Lette’s project (and others like it) could be used to counter the “raunch culture” of which Ariel Levy speaks in her thought-provoking Female Chauvanist Pigs—a chance for women to represent sexuality on their own terms instead of simulating sexual arousal in order to achieve a false sense of “liberation” (which is in fact just as restrictive as earlier puritanical interdictions against women representing themselves as sexual beings). Brooks asserts that re-writing porn is a “good place to start”, insofar as women re-claiming their sexuality is concerned, and quotes Joan Smith (a feminist contributor to the anthology):
“The problem isn’t sex, but the fact that the industry that’s grown up around it is sadistic, humiliating and exploitative. And the vast bulk of its consumers are men.”
Smith’s words resonate very strongly with me, and based on that, and Brooks’ article, I decided to check this anthology out.
[Some information under the cut could be triggering]
As you can see from the picture, the cover of In Bed With hardly inspires feminist confidence—it depicts a woman, from the neck down (her head is completely outside the frame)—or, at least, it depicts her underwear in some detail. Her body, implied only in a few rough strokes around the thighs and hips, appears to be more typical of a fourteen year old than an adult woman. Certainly there are some adult women with bodies of this type, but I don’t remember it being the most common body type since my early years of high school (and even then it hardly represented everyone). Meanwhile, the pink tone implies that women of colour have, once again, been rendered invisible. Nonetheless, I am well aware that the writers contributing to this volume would not have been consulted regarding the cover-art, so I decided to look past it.
To be fair, the cover is not representative of the anthology, insofar as the women in each short story are quite varied in age and body type—there are larger women, smaller women, and all sizes in between, and the protagonists range in age from early 20s to early 80s, with the majority being in their 30s or 40s. Additionally, there is also no sense that women should be ashamed of enjoying sex in a variety of contexts, and the first story, “Twenty-Seven Mattresses” gets off to a promising start, with a protagonist who makes money by subverting fairy-tale notions of ideal femininity.
Unfortunately, that is pretty much where my praise for this anthology ends.
“Twenty-Seven Mattresses” quickly loses its charm when it becomes apparent that the sex is constituted of an extended BDSM scene with nary a safe-word in sight. And the two subsequent stories are absolutely horrifying from a feminist perspective. The second tale, “Angel Gabriel”, centres on a woman who believes herself to be frigid because, even though she enjoys masturbation, she’s never been able to enjoy sex with a male partner. She sees this as a flaw in herself (rather than considering that maybe her partners were just crap in bed), and the story does nothing to disabuse her of the notion—instead, it suggests that what she needs to overcome this, is to have someone rape her while she’s doped up on morphine. The author tries to get out of this by using the “and it was all a dream” twist at the end (seriously, don’t they teach you not to do that in high school level creative writing?), but it still remains that the rape, whether real or imagined, is portrayed as pivotal in the protagonist’s sexual awakening (which is only complete when she can have sex with men). Oh, and as an added bonus, there’s a distinctly hostile attitude to people with disability—the protagonist is disgusted by a woman in a wheelchair wearing shorts, and she refuses to spend the night in the same house because she doesn’t want to use a bathroom fitted out for a wheelchair.
Following on from this, we have the story of an OMG EVIL LESBIAN SCIENTIST (it would be funny, except that it’s not) who is developing technology to raise serotonin levels, which she uses to rape one of her young subjects. Oh, and she also claims that “women and gays” are hard-wired to be submissive. Right. No thanks. I’m sure that the woman who wrote this story thought she was being very edgy, but she simply manages to be homophobic and misogynist in the extreme.
As you can imagine, I was ready to stop reading at this point, but I’d bought the damn thing, so I continued. Fortunately, there is no more rape—instead, one is inundated with porn cliché on top of porn cliché, with far too many stories featuring bored housewives/girlfriends who have the gift of their sexuality bestowed upon them by the possessor of an almightly phallus—there are very few stories that actually convey the idea that a woman can (re)claim her sexuality for herself. A number of the stories are so badly written that they are painful to read, and while there are a few that have an interesting premise, they usually don’t really go anywhere with it. There is at least one more instance of safe-word-free BDSM and a plethora of stories that seem to have been rattled off in a spare fifteen minutes.
There are a few exceptions—stories that aren’t completely horrible, and, in some cases, actually quite charming. I rather enjoyed “The Peacock”, which sympathetically portrays a woman from South Dakota, married to a closeted gay man in the 1930s—it is not unproblematic (it still uses the “she needs a man possessing her to discover her sexuality” trope), but I genuinely enjoyed reading about the protagonist. And “The Come On”, a stream-of-consciousness style narrative about seizing the day is a cut above the rest (with extra points for portraying a queer woman without the use of homophobic stereotypes). Towards the end of the novel, “Pas de Deux” offers an engaging (though uneven) narrative about a dancer living in London in the 1890s, who isn’t afraid to enjoy her sexuality for herself—she has male partners, but her enjoyment is not dependent on men-as-initiators. That’s not to say that any of these stories are perfect, from either a feminist or a literary perspective, and I wouldn’t say that they really go to new places in terms of positive representations of female sexuality, but they are, at least, less bad.
Nonetheless, having read the entire volume, I have to wonder if Brooks had even opened the covers of this book before she wrote her piece. There is very little in there that could be said to subvert raunch culture in favour of a model of sexuality in which women have agency, and there are a good number of stories that uphold it. At best, the tales are inoffensive, and at worst… well, I described the worst ones above. I fail to see how any woman could come away from reading this book with a more empowering notion of female sexuality. And women of colour are pretty much invisible (most protagonists are clearly coded as white at some point).
Clearly, one cannot make sweeping statements about the potential for feminist erotic literature based on one volume (indeed, I do not think it is a bad thing for feminist women to write erotica/porn/whatever you want to call it that is informed by their feminism), but it is certainly disheartening to see a book like this touted as some sort of feminist breakthrough.