The Vibrator-Light-o'-Truth: Selling a Sex Positive America

In recent years corporate publishers have had some deep marketing insights such as:
a. sex sells, and
b. consumers, both female and male, who would never enter a porn shop will buy sex-oriented books in non-threatening places and in packaging that doesn't make them feel "sleazy" (i.e., like they just purchased a masturbation aid).

Thus the contemporary saturation of bookstore chains by "erotica": a small word for mankind, but for corporate publishing, a billion dollar genre category. This hip, four-syllable, pseudo-European-sounding, word-o'-gold throws seven veils of sophistry, uh, I mean "sophistication", over what would otherwise be just good old monosyllabic smut. See how "pornography" is dumbed down to the crass-sounding, "porn", while "erotica" keeps its snooty, multi- syllabic form and is never shortened to a crude "er", as in "Where is the er section?" or, "Do you have any er?"

Erotica's manifest destiny can be seen in the flood of corporate subsidiaries and femme-friendly-sounding genre publishers like Blue Moon Books (classic and modern erotica), Silver Moon Books (erotic female submission and bondage), Circlet Books (erotic sci-fi and fantasy), Red Sage Publishing (erotic romance), Alyson Publications (gay and lesbian erotica), Etchings Press ("the thinking woman's erotica"), and in the glut of women-edited erotica collections like Susie ("America's favorite X-rated intellectual") Bright's endless volumes of Best American Erotica, Herotica (volumes 1-3), and other collections all featuring the diamond-studded E-word and Ms. Bright's "intellectual" blessing. The demand for "thinking people's" erotica has also fertilized the Internet with women-oriented erotica sites like Dare, Clean Sheets, Scarlet Letters, Her Curve (lesbian), the Femmerotica Network and the inevitable SusieBright.com.

So much of the wattage of the erotic realm is expended upon establishing a relentlessly enlightened, tasteful, educational and morally pioneering ethos that there is sometimes little energy left for eroticism. The halogen glare of Susie Bright's ego, for example, is an instant passion killer: "Why do I write about sex? Because no one else has the balls to, I guess ... I often get called 'guru'. I think people have given me that name because there is an absence of leadership and charisma in affairs of sex ... People look to me for answers about the most intimate parts of their lives ... men and women of every age, who feel like they were lost in darkness and painful propaganda, and that I was the honest woman with the flashlight/vibrator who came in and said something that finally made sense.'

Yet thousands put up with Susie, because in her hectoring way she has pioneered the role of the Sex Positive Woman whose task it is to assure us, the guilt-ridden masses, that our desire for smut is OK. It's as if the Statue of Liberty were to sit America down and say, "Kids, jacking off to juicy stories is perfectly healthy. Why I've been doing it for years! See -- here's my vibrator collection." Although Susie sometimes feels like, "a reluctant sexpert ... intimidated by the burden it takes to expose sexual dishonesty and illusions," she makes us, the blushing, sweaty hordes who are "lost in darkness and painful propaganda," feel that we have a purpose: we can also lend our fumbling hands to Susie's illusion-shattering labor. As we turn the pages of her anthologies we are not groping in shame and darkness. Au contraire, we are helping to illuminate the puritan gloom: masturbating our way to enlightenment!

More Women-Friendly Erotica

Susie Bright is by no means the only female figurehead of women-friendly erotica. Marcy Sheiner, who took over the Herotica series (vols 4-6), also edits the copy-cat Best Women's Erotica series and has, like Susie, diversified into the equally lucrative "How To" (be erotic) genre with her modestly entitled Sex For The Clueless: How To Enjoy A More Erotic and Exciting Life. Hipper than Susie and Marcy is Tristan Taormino, editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series, and also author of The Ultimate Guide To Anal Sex For Women. Of course authors like Anais Nin, Collette and Pauline Reage were writing erotica before Susie, Marcy and Tristan were born, but previous women authors of erotica tended to be lone, bohemian figures: sexual and cultural outsiders.

What is unusual about the recent women's erotica movement is its mainstream character and its obvious sense of itself as a sweeping initiative to spread the erotic gospel. This new truth is couched in a rhetoric strongly reminiscent of Playboy in its early golden age. A sales campaign becomes a grandiose movement to enlighten and educate society and the creation of a new market niche for the risqué is represented as a moral and sexual revolution. The intent of the early Playboy campaign was to de-marginalize erotica and normalize its marketing and consumption among men; the intent of the contemporary women's erotica campaign is to do the same thing for women, but also for a timid and rigidly PC male audience whose correctitude would not allow them to buy Lesbian Heat 2, but might permit them to own a copy of an "intellectual" and legitimately women-edited-and-penned, Best Lesbian Erotica 2.

In the wake of the success of women-edited and women-authored erotica, the woman-authored guide to kinky sex has also developed into a popular genre. Fetish Diva Midori's The Sensual Art of Japanese Bondage, Gloria G. Brame's Come Hither: A Common Sense Guide To Kinky Sex and Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission, Patricia Payne's Sex Tips From a Dominatrix, Christine Abernathy's Miss Abernathy's Concise Slave Training Manual, Claudia Varsin's The Art of Sensual Female Dominance: A Guide for Women, and Mistress Lorelei's The Mistress Manual: The Good Girl's Guide To Female Dominance are just a few current titles. These manuals open the middle class frontiers of sexual possibility to kink, bondage, fetish, and BDSM, via the representation of these lifestyles by impeccably middle class role models such as Dr. Gloria G. Brame: author, sex therapist, and dominatrix.

Women photographers are also becoming major contributors to the once overwhelmingly male realms of erotic and fetish photography. Femmes (Thunder's Mouth Press), a new anthology of erotic photography edited by Michelle Olley, features nine women photographers, including Iris Brosch, Emma Delves Broughton, Amanda Eliasch, Lola Flash, and Katrina Webb, alongside male icons like Penthouse's Tony Ward. Doris Kloster has published two books of fetish photography, and took the photographs for The Illustrated Story of O (St. Martin's Press). Doralba Picerno's fetish photography is featured in Skin Two and Sex: Take a Walk on the Wild Side (Thunder's Mouth Press). Natacha Merritt's Digital Diaries (Taschen), a photographic record of the upper crust Ms. Merritt's sexual exploits, brought a decidedly aristocratic, "mother-if-it-makes-me-famous-it's-ok", attitude to the field of sexual exhibitionism.

So much erotic discourse by women makes it seem odd that in 1992 Delma Heyn would publish a study entitled The Erotic Silence of the American Wife. Yet it is partly within the context of the long erotic silence of white middle class American women (who wrote, edited and photographed all the books mentioned here) that we must interpret the recent tendency toward erotic expressiveness. Women in the last 10 years have been articulating the erotic with a boldness and diversity never before witnessed in American society. But why so? Why now? It is tempting to answer these questions in an upbeat Susie Bright rhetoric of heroic, taboo-smashing, truth tellers, but if this were really the case, women would have been at the forefront of literary erotica, alternative sexuality and erotic photography since the 1960s, when the "sexual revolution" supposedly began.

Deep Throat and Anti-Porn

In fact, over the last 40 years women have played an ambivalent role in expressing the erotic. Adult bookstores in urban centers have been selling mostly male-authored sexually explicit books to an almost exclusively male audience since the 1950s, but the McCarthy era, and obscenity cases like the Roth trial of 1955 kept a tight lid on the publishing and distribution of explicit books. In 1964 the Supreme Court decision in John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure v. Attorney General of Massachusetts, defined obscenity as that which is "utterly without redeeming social value". After this point, nudity and erotic literature began to circulate more freely in America, since it was simple enough to fashion explicit content around "educational" or "artistic" hooks on which could be hung the all-important concept of some "redeeming social value".

By the 1970s, the very success of sexually explicit literature, photography and films in evading censorship started a backlash among some of the educated elite who had fought censorship in the '50s and '60s. When the books the courts were banning were by D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, William Burroughs and Vladimir Nabokov, intellectuals came out in unified opposition to censorship.

However, when the same laws that liberated the work of "serious artists" also liberated hardcore magazines and films like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones, some feminists began to express serious reservations. Deep Throat, the first full-length hardcore feature film, was a major catalyst for the feminist anti- porn movement. The film gathered national publicity and an audience that included intellectuals and sophisticates (even Jackie Onassis was said to have seen it), but its central image -- a woman on her knees repeatedly performing fellatio -- seemed to feminist critics to blatantly affirm the chauvinist culture of male dominance and female sexual subjection.

When Linda Lovelace claimed to have been coerced and manipulated (by men) into acting in the film, and lent her support to anti-porn campaigns, the demonization of the porn industry began in earnest. All women hardcore models and actresses were suddenly characterized as abused and exploited victims of a cynical, male-dominated industry. The year 1981 saw the publication of two major feminist attacks on pornography: Susan Griffin's Pornography and Silence and Andrea Dworkin's Pornography: Men Possessing Women.

Griffin's study drew parallels between the porn industry's exploitation of women and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Andrea Dworkin stated her case in the stereotypical and absolutist terms that would soon characterize the second wave feminist anti-porn crusade: "all pornography is made under conditions of inequality based on sex, overwhelmingly by poor, desperate, homeless, pimped women who were sexually abused as children."

The last figure in the equation of pornography=women-hating was the idea that pornography was entirely produced and consumed by men with women as its hapless victims. According to Catharine MacKinnon, pornography is produced for, "men to masturbate to women being exposed, humiliated, violated, degraded, mutilated, dismembered, bound, gagged, tortured and killed."

Pornography, particularly of the fetish and BDSM variety, was accused in the Meese commission's biased and unsubstantiated report of 1986 with expressing and reinforcing male violence towards women and was directly equated with rape and sex-murder. By the mid-1980s, the feminist anti-porn crusaders were allying themselves with arch conservatives like General Ed Meese and his commission, and with the Christian fundamentalist right on the shared agenda of censoring pornography.

Going to Extremes

As the feminist anti-porn movement moved towards an uncompromisingly censorship-positive extreme, the image of a monolithic "feminism" began to disintegrate partly around issues raised by the anti-porn campaign. Feminism which had been imaged (often by the conservative media) as a single, unified philosophy, now revealed itself as a complex coalition of highly differentiated individuals and interest groups which had achieved unity on a narrow spectrum of civil rights issues, but was internally divided by class, ethnicity, education, sexual orientation and on a multitude of issues, including censorship, freedom of speech and the right to diverse sexual expression.

Lesbian feminists, who had already splintered from the heterosexual center of feminism, found themselves fragmenting from within into groups like the leather dyke community. This group tended to view pornography tolerantly and flaunted dominant/submissive and sadomasochistic relationships involving much the same theatrical imagery of female subjection found in heterosexual BDSM.

At the same time, many feminists were alienated by the extremism of the anti-porn movement. Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse argued that beyond the sadism of pornography, heterosexual intercourse itself should be unacceptable to feminists because the act of penetration is a hostile invasion, heterosexual sex always involves the domination of a woman by a man, penises by their very nature cause pain, and thus, "fucking is inherently sadistic". Third wave feminists increasingly distanced themselves from the anti-porn feminists. Katie Roiphe criticized Andrea Dworkin's attack on pornography as a thinly disguised attack on men. "It makes men into objectifiers, sleazy brutish creatures only interested in sex". Pat Califia saw the problem more broadly in, "the shame cast by feminists on sex". Several feminist writers admitted to enjoying pornography, while statistical studies revealed that up to 50 percent of pornography was bought by women.

Meanwhile, sex workers, including prostitutes and porn actresses, were organizing themselves into unions. Although women sex workers often supported and borrowed from feminism's liberationist ideals and activist strategies, they also challenged the patronizing attitudes of feminist anti-porn crusaders towards women in the porn and sex industries. Sex workers reminded their often more privileged "sisters" that all women have the right to choose to capitalize on their bodies, that a few women writers and academics had no business trying to "save" sex workers from their chosen field of employment, and that when exploitation occurs in the porn industry, it affects men as well as women.

The Great Porn Debate

As the porn debate unraveled, distorted images remained of the women's movement as a group of sex-phobic neo-puritans and of pornography as a cultural form that should forever remain abhorrent to culturally sensitive people. Frozen ideological spaces remained, particularly for middle class boomers who had lived through the debate, thereby blocking sexual communication between men and women. How did one express the erotic when porn was sexual abuse and men were to blame, when to wear black lingerie was like putting on a sign saying: "Mindless Sex Object," when every sexual gesture was a sleazy signifier of domination, manipulation and control?

Women had become hypersensitive to their sexual dignity and impatient with men's attempts at controlling their sexual behavior. Men had become hypersensitive to the crudeness and blatancy of their sexuality, an aspect that had been relentlessly spotlighted by the anti-pornography rhetoric. Hurt feelings and resentments multiplied on both sides.

The distinction between pornography and erotica is ultimately a class distinction that is communicated via the distinct standards of aesthetic and intellectual content attributed to each form, standards which also imply distinct degrees of taste and intelligence in the consumers of these forms. There is no intrinsic superiority of one form over the other: both are essentially aids to sexual arousal and masturbation. The attribution of higher or lower standards of taste to aesthetic choices is significant mainly as a class-code, as Pierre Bourdieu argues in Distinction. Even more useful to understanding the cultural implications of the division between erotica and pornography is Peter Stallybrass's and Allon White's reading of the "high-low" division that traverses culture at every level.

The metaphoric oppositions of the penthouse and the gutter, upstairs and downstairs, high and low classes, elite and popular culture, are all thought through the same high-low metaphor, whose ultimate form is the human body. From the "heads" of church and state, to the "seedy underbelly" of society, we think socio-cultural oppositions in bodily metaphors. As Stalleybrass and White put it in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, "body images 'speak' social relations and values with particular force".

Erotica: The 'Thinking Person's Form'

Although pornography and erotica both concern themselves with sexual sensations, erotica images itself in heady terms as the "thinking person's" form. Erotic photography images itself as an "art", appealing to the intellect and aesthetic sensibilities, as opposed to hardcore photography, which is seen as having no aesthetic value and being solely and crudely aimed at stimulating the genitals. In the same way, erotic films like Last Tango In Paris, described by Pauline Kael as "the most powerfully erotic movie ever made", are evaluated in artistic and intellectual terms, while hardcore features are criticized as having no plot, no dramatic value, no style, no acting or directorial talent; nothing, in other words, to appeal to the head.

The content of erotica and pornography conforms to the same symbolic bodily division. Erotica is "fantasy" woven by the imagination, expressed in language and focusing on a mental experience of sex. Pornography is genital close-ups of penetration, intercourse and orgasm. In hardcore, the faces of the actors soon disappear from view, the head and its organs of communication are replaced by the "dumb" lower orifices, and language is replaced by grunts and groans.

The creators and consumers of pornography and erotica are also socially divided between low and high. Pornography was traditionally imagined as being produced in back rooms by shady, mob-affiliated, ethnically dubious and socially marginal men on one side of the camera and low-life, semi-criminal women and men -- prostitutes, drug addicts, strippers and sex addicts -- on the other. The 1980s porn movie titles like Beaver and Buttface typify the idea of pornography as crude, lowbrow, infantile and aesthetically barren. Pornography was also traditionally seen as being consumed by uneducated, immature or maladjusted males, who were either too ugly or too inept (or both) to sustain a sexual relationship, or who were attracted to perversities that no "normal" or "healthy" woman would engage in.

The creators, heroes and consumers of erotica, on the other hand, are imaged as upper crust, socially adventurous types, artists and free spirits or wealthy sophisticates with the imagination, money and time to devote to sexual experimentation. Anais Nin, for example, inhabited a world of trans-continental intrigue, art and sexual adventure similar to that of her heroines.

Elizabeth McNeill, author of the '80s-defining Nine and a Half Weeks, claimed that her story of a sophisticated sadomasochistic affair between a New York art agent and a wealthy Wall Street broker was autobiographical. It is noteworthy that sexual preferences such as fetish and BDSM, which are seen as pathological, sleazy and perverse in pornography, become "decadent" and sophisticated when they are practiced by the sexual aristocrats of erotica. Erotica is articulate porn with better hairstyles, nicer décor, and more expensive lingerie. But though the distinctions between the two forms, like all distinctions of taste, are arbitrary and superficial, these distinctions codify and express powerful social divisions.

When the mainstream market was deluged with hardcore in the 1970s and '80s, the social polarities contained in the opposition of pornography and erotica became confused on every level. The sudden availability of hardcore provoked the curiosity of highbrows, who began to slum in what were once the depths of depravity. The legend of Jackie O attending Deep Throat, true or not, attests to this sense that social boundaries were being transgressed by hardcore. At the same time, the previously anonymous underworld of porn models gave way to a world of celebrity "porn stars" as hardcore became a multi- billion dollar industry.

The sudden fame of Linda Lovelace for her performance as a fellatio queen in Deep Throat was as unprecedented and revolutionary in its way as any other sign of the "sexual revolution". Suddenly women who ten years previously would have been social untouchables not much different than prostitutes were mixing with the glitterati and getting their pictures in the papers next to high society types. As Jackie O sought out the lower depths and Linda Lovelace rose to glitzy heights, the world turned upside down.

The rise of porn stars to celebrity status also coincided with the rise to social prominence and media access of second wave feminists: another chaotic intermingling of high and low cultures. For feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, struggling to be taken seriously as women and as intellectuals, having to share the media with Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers must have seemed a bitter irony. These garishly incompatible images of the New Woman and the New Sexual Freedom clashed in a cultural landscape where class and taste boundaries were dissolving. The reaction of the anti- porn feminists to the figure of the porn star was more an attempt to reinstate essentially conservative social boundaries than it was an expression of sympathetic sisterhood.

When Andrea Dworkin describes porn actresses as, "poor, desperate, homeless pimped women", she sounds like a nineteenth century tract-writer calling for the moral improvement of fallen women. There is the same, superior, downward gaze of the middle class lady from her high moral platform on the street harlot below, who "knows no better". There is also the same underlying fear for her position motivating the urge to reach down and improve the position of the low other. The women's moral improvement movements of the nineteenth century hoped to clear the streets of prostitutes whose services they knew their husbands used, and whose public presence negatively reflected their own position as legitimate, kept women.

The anti-porn feminists wished to cleanse the culture of an image of female success that mockingly reflected the feminist goals of women entering as equals into the legitimate middle class economy. In her patronizing description of porn actresses, Andrea Dworkin draws an implicit line between the educated, autonomous, middle class feminist woman and the low street whore, and advocates a system of censorship that will protect the latter category not only from the exploitation of men, but from their own apparent inability to make appropriate choices.

Where class distinctions were concerned, the anti-porn feminists showed their conservatism, an alignment also exposed in their disregard for aesthetic distinctions. In its ardor to stamp out pornography, the anti-porn movement erased the possibility of what, for better or worse, are regarded as legitimate (middle class/erotic) sexually expressive forms by destroying the distinction between pornography and erotica. (Feminists constituted only a small minority of the anti-porn movement, which was largely made up of members of the conservative and religious right.

Blurring the Lines

Anti-porn feminists also constituted only a tiny minority of feminists. Sex-positive feminists like Colleen McEneany, Katie Roiphe, Pat Califia, and yes, Susie Bright, were instrumental in turning the tide of American public opinion against the anti-porn/pro-censorship movement.) Andrea Dworkin described Playboy in this way: "Underlying all of Playboy's pictorials is the basic theme of all pornography: that all women are whores by nature, born wanting to be sexually accessible to men at all times ... Playboy in both text and pictures promotes both rape and child abuse". Playboy is thus defined as pornography, rather than erotica: it is no different than hardcore S&M in its degrading message and its encouragement to sexual violence.

The Meese commission report similarly blurred the lines between erotica and pornography by featuring the testimony of witnesses who claimed to have been sexually abused by adults who read Playboy and by adults who watched hardcore pornography. The implications of the Meese report were that pornography promotes sexual abuse and that there is no difference in this regard between mild forms of sexual representation and hardcore representations.

The message of the anti-porn feminists and the conservative right anti-porn movement was equally unequivocal: all sexual representation is bad. From this point it is not a great leap to the conclusion that sex itself is bad. As Colleen McEneany eloquently put it, "Pornography has been in existence since the beginning of time for the mere reason that humans, like all animals, are sexual beings. Censors try to suppress the production, distribution and consumption of pornography. In doing so, they try to suppress that which is innately human".

Neither men nor women were content with the cloud that lingered over sex at the close of the 1980s. The attitudinal darkness was exponentially increased by the reality of AIDS, but AIDS and the fundamentalist hysteria it engendered only increased the urgency of restoring the positivity of sex. Sex's saviors, however, could not be male. Men's interest in explicit sex was too suspect after the pornography debacle. Only women could restore the love that had been lost to gender politics. And so it was that in the early nineties, the term "sex positive" entered the cultural discourse, and Susie Bright began to advertise herself as "America's favorite X-rated intellectual."

It was ultimately a marketing problem that Susie Bright and her successors solved. Sold by nice, intelligent middle class women (instead of sleaze balls and sluts), sex could be welcomed back into good homes everywhere and thoroughly accessorized from impeccably feminist outlets like Toys in Babeland: "Feisty, Feminist and committed to getting you off in style". Economic as much as social and relational imperatives put women's erotica on the bookstore shelves. Sex sells. Eventually the debates of the last forty years may appear as a long struggle over how to make us all feel good about buying it.

Michael Stephens is an editor and columnist at PopMatters.com

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