Review: In Bed With

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). Book cover illustration for In Bed With

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.

Categories: gender & feminism, Sociology

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13 replies

  1. I’m certainly not about to race out and read it based on this report, Beppie!
    How disappointing that “edgy” once again just means reinforcing salacious stereotypes that are merely mildly taboo. I see it in stand-up comedy all the time as well.

  2. Wow! Great post, great review. You gotta know when the cover of a book caters to the male gaze, that’s a Bad Sign.
    It would be nice to have consistent reviewers we could trust for erotica.

  3. I agree with tigtog. It’s a pity, that quote you mentioned really hit me too as basically explaining my feelings about pr0n.

  4. I’m really disappointed in Lette (even though her recent writing is fairly piss poor).

  5. Thanks for the review.
    Oh dear, is this the first tale?
    ”The whole bottom half of me melted like ice cream right there and then.”
    I should have stopped there.
    A small waist, a decent rack and a more-than-adequate derrière can
    take a girl a long way

    Wargle. (Trigger warnings apply to the link. Not only is there no safe word in the opening part, but it’s clearly sexual assault played for titillation. No “grey area” here.)
    Here’s another cover, from here.

  6. it’s clearly sexual assault played for titillation
    Thanks for pointing this out, Lauredhel– I took it as a given that any BDSM without a safe word is sexual assault, but I should have stated so explicitly.

  7. I took it as a given that any BDSM without a safe word is sexual assault

    I think maybe I was going overboard on the benefit-of-the-doubt before I looked – like, maybe, they didn’t actually have the safe words, _in_ the story, but they were implied ‘off-screen’? Then the story itself rapidly disabused me of that notion.

  8. 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).

    Ah, I think that’s your problem right there. “Let’s have some established women writers write about sex…”, this is not the same as having skilled writers creating pron.
    I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my wardrobe boasts about half a dozen ‘Black Lace’ novels, designed as pron for women, usually by women. Quality of writing/plot/politics tends to vary so you have to pick and choose but there IS product based on strong female leads in a vast range of settings. I certainly found them a lot more titillating than my mothers ‘mainstream’ historical romances which usually contain 3-4 sex acts, at least one of which will be rape and the remainder passive and phallocentric.
    Deus Ex Macintosh’s last blog post..Clarkson drops self in Brown

  9. A thoughtful review, Beppie.

  10. Well, all of the writers are published authors, DEM, although I take your point that that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re skilled at writing sex (or, hell, skilled at writing at all).
    Just thinking about this some more– we have here a text that is written for women and by women, yet, much like the mainstream romance novels that DEM mentions above, it replicates the power structures that privilege men and disempower women. I think it’s reminscent of the way that this happens with the gaze in, for instance, women’s fashion magazines — the whole “women watch themselves being looked at” thing. It’s still a matter of us watching ourselves being interpellated into a power structure, rather than actively participating in it.
    I have to wonder if this might have something to do with why there are so many feminists active in slash fiction communities — because, in spite of the fact that the fiction itself is male-centred, it focuses on the only type of sex from which your average heterosexual male is expected to turn his gaze. This is not to say that heteronormative patterns and misogyny aren’t replicated in slash fiction (they are, very much so), nor that all slash writers are feminist, but that there is at least that starting point, insofar as the straight dudes definitely aren’t looking (at least, not unless they’ve done some serious work to overcome their social conditioning).

  11. That’s a really interesting point about slash, Beppie. I may have to ponder that for a while.

  12. One of the things I’ve found after years of being interested in porn (yes, I’m female; yes, I like porn; no, I’m not damn well apologising for it, so give up already) and looking around in bookshops, newsagents and other places to find decent writing at the same time, is that the realm of fanfiction, oddly enough, tends to have some very good erotic writers. I don’t just mean the standard PWP (porn without plot; plot, what plot?) stuff – there’s also a lot of writers who do some very good sex scenes in well-written stories which cover multiple chapters and have *lots* of plot. It’s intriguing, particularly since a lot of published writers show they’re clearly uncomfortable with writing the hot stuff by the way it’s sort of shoehorned in around the edges. In published works, unless it’s written purely for the erotica market, there’s not much attention paid to the quality of the sex writing given, so long as it doesn’t make the censors throw a pink fit. In fanfiction, however, there’s more people out there willing to say “that works” or “that doesn’t work at all”.
    There’s also the whole phenomenon of slash and yaoi writing, which I find interesting. I find it fascinating because the stuff I like best is often about a different version of *masculinity* – I’m not a fan of the “flaming queer” stereotype, so I’ll tend to turn away from something showing that kind of characterisation. Instead, I’ll look more at something which shows male characters as both able to be conventionally “masculine” (strong, silent, etc) but also able to express tender emotions. I’m also into egalitarian pairings, where there isn’t a power imbalance (which is why I’m not so keen on yaoi, oddly enough – the power imbalance between the uke and seme roles tends to irritate me). I suppose at least part of my enjoyment of these is that I’m pleased we’re able to imagine them – imagination is always the start of social changes. Now we just have to try and figure out ways of making these dreams come to life.
    It’s worth noting one of the things which I enjoy in most of my reading is the notion of a world which isn’t this one – somewhere where the starting assumptions aren’t the same as those from Western culture. Masculine sexuality takes on a different perspective when you realise there’s no social taboos against homosexual pairings, or bisexual group relationships. Heck, masculine sexuality takes on a whole new dimension if you just remove the assumption of compulsory heterosexuality.
    But anyway, my point is that writing erotic stories, like writing anything else, is a skill which needs practice. Fanfiction writers get that practice, because quite often they’re writing for an audience which is only there for teh secks (and often for an audience which is at least 55% het female, if not more). Published authors generally don’t write for such an audience, which is why when they’re asked to write erotica, they’re floundering in the standard cliches and images of the porn industry (which is still aimed almost 100% at heterosexual males). All of which is my way of saying I’m not too surprised the collection turned out to be less than the reviewer was expecting.
    Meg Thornton’s last blog post..Things I find in my RSS ticker, part 2

  13. Meg, I definitely hear what you’re saying there. I think that one thing with fanfiction (whether slash or not) is that it’s very easy to click on the “back” button, and thus avoid the 90% that is crap. With dead-tree fiction, it’s sort of assumed that there’s an editing process in place, and that the willingness to publish should weed out the crap, even though that’s clearly not true.
    I think you also raise a good point about the community-based nature of fanfiction — it’s not just that authors are more directly accountable to their readership, but it also allows like-minded groups to band together a bit, so that while (as I noted above) you do get an awful lot of fic that reinforces heternormative misogynist relationship models, you get little (or big) sub-groups of feminists who try not to do this and tend to write for each other — and usually these writers will be more willing to examine the way that their porn can be problematic, either within the stories they write themselves, or in the comments/reviews later on.
    Heck, masculine sexuality takes on a whole new dimension if you just remove the assumption of compulsory heterosexuality.
    Yes, I agree with this, although it is a huge shame that a lot of slash doesn’t actually do much to remove those assumptions, either by using the “only gay for him/each other” trope, and/or by making one partner the perpetual “girl” in the relationship (scare-quotes used because it’s about invoking a misogynist and often infantalising schema of femininity that doesn’t bear much resemblance to the actual experiences of actual women and girls).
    Having said that, however, I do think that implicit in the notion of women being able to re-write masculinity, in the way that men so often attempt to write femininity (as per this post from tigtog) is the recognition (perhaps subconscious) that compulsory heterosexuality works to prevent all women, regardless of sexual orientation, from claiming ownership of our own sexuality. And when you do get feminists writing slash (and femslash), who are aware of these issues, and who are willing to really engage with their feminist readership, then yes, you definitely get some good things happening — not necessarily unproblmatic, but stuff that can nonetheless be taken in really positive directions. And it’s hot.

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