Pornographers in black
Is the female pornographic eye dangerous? Or is it just another male fantasy? Anna Friman about what happens when women write about sex. An award-winning and winding essay on posh porn.
I. Use me
Powder-white snow, cold birch trees outside the cottage, sweet music on the radio, and the darkness. The wine is reflected in the window, glowing cheeks, the aroma from the oven. I’m reading my naughty book. I’m reading:
The expression on her face said, use me.
“Use me” – this is no easy book to stomach, but that is what I want: Use me. Fill me. Narrate me.
Do something to me.
Reading is searching – what am I searching for?
What are you searching for, you? In this text, in these words I am writing while the radio plays nice music and I write about naughty books? What are you searching for here? Are you searching for what turns you on? For what turns me on? Is it the same thing, or am I writing this to please you, so that you can use me? Because I think this is what you want to see?
I believe, I believe in summer… (radio)
There is so much I’m searching for. There is so much I desire. What I believe in, I don’t know. I’m never modest –
A nineteen-year-old girl rapes a fourteen-year-old girl in a pub toilet. That’s what I’m reading about in the book Brass – Liverpool slang for a whore – by Helen Walsh (2004).1 I read the paragraph again to make sure I’ve got it.
On the radio:
The fiddler plays his violin… the lad with the lass’s hand in his whispers and gets a reply…
In the eye, in the brain:
I suddenly saw women through the eyes of a pornographer.
In the body?
Brass is the story of nineteen-year-old Millie O’Reilley, the daughter of a man who is a professor and a mother who has left. Millie herself is remarkably brilliant: she is beloved, beautiful, and admired by men. Her closest friend is a somewhat older man, Jamie. Millie gets drunk, does drugs, smokes, pukes, and fucks her way through days and nights in Liverpool – a tawdry odyssey indeed.
The Guardian adapts a clearly moralizing perspective in its review of the book: “Not pretty, is it?” asks the reviewer, after having stated laconically that this hardly is the first time that sex is described in detail in literature written by women.
Not pretty, is it? Ding. And then my metallic laughter. Just kidding. A spoon up against your skull, so gently. Clunk. Just playing.
Cling. Let me tell you the truth. The truth about my brain. It’s a game. Play with me.
We’ll go skiing tomorrow. I’m expecting monotonous, metallic thoughts. I like to ski, especially now that the snow is ultra white and sparkling, but it is a fact that monotonous activities encourage monotony in my head. It goes on and on and on and on. The truly white wide-open spaces and then the utterly monotonous thoughts. Like pornography. Like smacking a dog.
II. Lick the eye
Helen Walsh, this paperback triviality, doesn’t give me any peace. What is she doing? Why is her writing so raw, charged with such detail? How dare she? What is her agenda?
I have Sara Stridsberg’s book Drömfakulteten [“The Dream Department”] beside me on the table.2 It’s about Valerie Solanas, in spite of it being a “fantasy”. Drömfakulteten is a book I admire. Or rather, it is Sara Stridsberg I admire; her project, her perseverance, her skill, her heart and intellect. Her language. And not least, her bravery. I’d thought it would be Drömfakulteten I’d be thinking of during these skiing trips, that was how I’d planned it. I’d consider how Valerie Solanas wanted to be the world’s first intellectual whore and how prostitution is the only answer because at least then you’re not selling your soul. I thought, here I have some intellectual fodder to chew on, a bone for monotony to gnaw at.
Instead, it is the utterly improper first-time debutante Helen Walsh who occupies my thoughts. I don’t admire the chick who smiles with bright eyes in the newspapers, while claiming to have been both a pimp and a druggie in Barcelona. But she’s the one who represents monotony. In Brass, Millie buys whores to sleep with. Millie rapes a fourteen-year-old girl, Suey, in a pub toilet. Millie has lesbo sex in cemeteries and anal sex in cars. Millie smokes, drinks, and does drugs non-stop, despite being a nice girl from a family of academics. Not pretty, but who’s looking for pretty?
It isn’t pretty – in fact, it’s downright ugly. Take the rape scene: Millie has promised to take Suey home from the pub, but instead she rapes her in the toilet. Suey’s back is full of bruises – she’s beaten at home. Millie still can’t control herself.
“Pleathe don’t thtop that. Pleathe.”
That’s what she said. I swear. And her eyes they were filled with so many conflicting emotions – fear, guilt, relief, yearning, all struggling to gain momentum but the yearning burned hardest of all.
Take me, her eyes were saying, take me. So with gentle hands I take her.
Helen Walsh does something to me. This is wrong, it is – these are the wrong people, but the situation is perceivable and archetypical, I realize something about the anatomy of rape. That it is Millie, 19, who rapes Suey, 14, reveals the essence of rape itself:
She’s letting me do this to her.
Millie justifies her actions in the same way rapists have from time immemorial: She wanted it, I saw it, she said it. But here the truth looks different in the great afterwards.
She looks round and her face has me gasping again. It’s wide open with terror and shock and hurt. She buries her head in her palms and slumps to the floor.
No! She loved it!
She did – she enjoyed it.
Later on, Helen Walsh describes a relatively ordinary sex scene between Millie and a grown man, but still with the same brutal fervour and honesty as in the rape scene. It is thorough, detailed, powerful, and brutal. She’s doing something to me, I think. This Walsh person really does have a message, whether she wants it or not. There is a message built into this story.
Publicly, Walsh claims just the opposite. Like, she just writes. Like, like it is.
And I’m not entirely sure what message is being communicated. If anything, I’m completely confused.
III. Let me introduce:
Nothing between us but raw physical need and theft. The pain scalds through my whole body, like a chainsaw scouring out my insides and I can’t take much more of this pain, this tearing and burning and violation but then slowly, inexorably, it relents and dissolves into something alien and needy and so fucking lovely that it brings tears to my eyes and from nowhere, these explosions in my head, one after another and I forget where I am and when I remember, he’s coming inside of me.
That, my good people, is what is new. This is posh porn, pornographic literature in a more sophisticated package, stories about awakening, with eroticism at their core, often with clear literary qualities. Posh porn is for those who aren’t attracted by sweaty magazines and films – it is brutally erotic literature for a large audience with money to spend: women who are keen to read. The authors of posh porn are themselves women. They write about sex as they please, without agendas, and judging by the applause in the marketplace, they are the successors of the economically successful authors of chick lit. And chick lit too is literature by women, for women, it too is about young women in an urban environment, but it is about the quest for great love rather than a great lay. The women who show up for posh porn authors’ readings are under and around 30 – a group that resembles the chick lit audience. Nevertheless, posh porn authors find themselves miles and miles from chick lit authors and their Bridget Jones-like characters. “As a publishing trend it might best be summed up thus – from big knickers to no knickers,” writes the Observer wittily in March 2006.3
As it happens, the text cited above describes an act of anal sex. Straight up, pulling no punches, no euphemisms. You see, in posh porn we get to know the characters based on what kind of sex they have.
For Bridget Jones, the goal was romance, not lust. Hundreds of thousands of readers devoured Bridget and her neuroses, sympathized with her as she sat in her bed and wrote in her famous diary. She sat there crying. Alone. In big knickers. Now, instead, the books that end up as bestsellers and mainstream are driven by meticulous descriptions of sex from the woman’s point of view.
My first acquaintance with this genre came by way of Asia. The Chinese author Wei Hui wrote about sex in her debut, Shanghai Baby, which of course was banned in China (a fact that was put to good use in the book’s Western marketing campaign).4 Shanghai Baby was followed by other authors and titles, such as Beijing Doll and Candy. Later, the Japanese author Hitomi Kanehara exploded on the scene with the sadism-doused Snakes & Earrings. The West has consumed these Asian goodies with great enthusiasm, some have raked in riches from this fare, and the whole industry has become as morally dubious as can be. But what about the literary perspective? In Shanghai Baby, for instance, the perspective is as new or fresh as in any book styled after the True Confessions genre. The main character, Coco, is beautiful, intelligent, pleasant, and sexually voracious. She is writing a novel, and the writing process – along with a sexual liaison or two – provides the story’s sinful continuity. For a Western reader, the pages are flat and cliché-ridden.
In Brass, Millie too is beautiful – that much is clear. But the text is multidimensional and has a fair amount of hollow-eyed self-irony, as when Millie goes to a masquerade party and dresses up as a prostitute. No one notices – they think she’s in her usual get-up. And as she continues her filthy ramble through a Liverpool with a low sun and neon nights, she buys, rapes, bleeds. Just like a male anti-hero.
Brass says a great deal about female sexuality. In this respect, too, it differentiates itself from its Asian sister books, which rather enthusiastically confirm the already dominant image of female sexuality. The book can be read as a portrayal of a woman who tries to conquer her own sexuality by accepting and consuming images, representations, and stereotypes. Nobody should be able to “take” Millie: she wants to do the taking. She is the one to gain control, she is the one who conquers, she isn’t conquered. Brass also notes that female sexuality can be raw and in-your-face. Female sexuality can be evil, it can injure. Moreover, Brass says that pornography has an influence not only on men’s view of women. What exists for the male gaze permeates the public field of vision – and women share that public field of vision – women learn to look at women as men do. Speaking like our heroine, Millie O’Reilly:
I reduced girls to bodies or bits of. I saw them in terms of tits, legs, and arse. I undressed every girl that I met, bending them like plasticine – this way and that way into every possible position.
Millie doesn’t see herself as one of these objects even if she is conscious of her power of attraction:
I never saw myself as an object though, I neither identified with the women I objectified or the men that objectified them. I saw myself as something entirely different, as some sex-crazed genderless freak.
The readers – that is, women around thirty – are part of a generation that can differentiate between sex and love. That’s the opinion of Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail, the British publishing house that has published one of the most talked about posh porn books, Taming the Beast, by Australian first-time author Emily Maguire.5 Chick lit isn’t for them, because chick lit doesn’t correspond to their lives. “Here are writers who, like them, have casual sex which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with their emotions,” Ayrton comments in the Observer.
He is also the first to admit that posh porn is a financial lifeline for the publisher.
IV. Sex or Shakespeare?
Despite the daring scenes in Brass, despite Millie’s violent habits, I am somehow a bit fond of her and her book, exactly because they communicate something important about female sexuality as it may appear, especially today. Posh porn, okay, I think generously, as the radio plays and the wine gleams in the dusk.
But Taming the Beast makes it difficult again. I close up.
Emily Maguire mutedly raps my head with her silver spoon. She drags the spoon along her teeth – it’s me in the ski tracks, sweaty, it’s that monotony, those thoughts that won’t leave –
What are they doing, these authors, these young women who are the publishers’ swank lifelines?
What do they want with me? What do they want to do, with whom, with which reader, what am I supposed to think about anything after Taming the Beast?
And it feels like it will never end, this skiing. Powdery white snow, hare tracks, glittering open spaces, and look, a white-tailed deer has passed by here, but this goes on and on and on… What should we do with it?
“The female zip-lessness was characteristic of its age,” Trygve Söderling writes in his essay Att älska som en man [“To Love Like a Man”].6 He is referring to Crème Fraîche and Fräls oss ifrån kärleken [“Save us from love”] by Danish author Suzanne Brøgger, as well as to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. The utopia of the 1970s – the zipless fuck – was all about avoiding the “difficult consequences of intimacy: feelings, responsibility, loss…”
The zipless fuck could also be the slogan for Taming the Beast and Brass, but in a considerably more soiled sense. Sexuality here is hardly healthy or free, but rather a sick sign of the times.
The Australian Taming the Beast has many similarities to the British Brass. One could almost say that they are written with the same formula. Sarah Clark is the same age as Millie for most of the book, but in the beginning she is just fourteen and starts a sexual relationship with her much older male English teacher. From the cover one learns that Sarah is a “very modern heroine as keen on sex as she is on Shakespeare”.
Sarah really is remarkably brilliant and beautiful, just like Millie. All men want her, and after her teacher leaves town, she wants all the men. We understand that the reason for her inflated and destructive sex life is to be found in some sort of deficiency. One of those famous voids has appeared in Sarah, that much we are allowed to know. Both Millie and Sarah have problems with mothers who have failed them and both happen to have a best friend named Jamie, a somewhat older man. The tension between Millie/Sarah and Jamie is an important element in both books. Neither Millie nor Sarah has a female friend. On the contrary, they despise other women: other women are giggling weak-tits who are clueless about sex; they are childbearing cows, jealous clowns, or – in Millie’s case – sexual objects.
Brass and Taming the Beast position themselves as far away from the happy abandon of 1970s porn as they can get. There is nothing bold or free about sexuality here. We are talking dark, heavy sexuality that causes harm.
We’re talking sad porn.
V. Write worse!
Use me. Do something to me, use me. That’s what most authors want, they want to do something with their readers, with me. Some years ago, Swedish author Mara Lee wrote a kind of protest against this: she wrote her Kom [Come]; a drawn-out, chafing sex act on a beach. In Kom, there is no climax and no catharsis.7 The narrative refuses to follow the classic dramatic curve.
Posh porn makes use of seductive dramatic turns: often employing as arresting a sex scene as possible at the very start (for Walsh, girl-on-girl sex with a prostitute on a gravestone; for Maguire, the more conventional teacher and student), followed by sex at regular intervals so it doesn’t get boring.
Both Brass and Taming the Beast are well written, and this has clearly been a problem for some reviewers: they should have been clumsily written. These porno chicks with peaches-and-cream skin shouldn’t be able to write! Sarah Adams of the Guardian tries to but can’t find any great weakness in Helen Walsh.8 Instead she states: “It is a very noisy piece of writing indeed.” She ends her piece with the wish that Walsh should “begin writing, not shouting, a second novel”.
Reviews in expressly feminist forums are often more open to posh porn. This is noticeable in several contexts. It is a misconception that feminism is opposed to pornography in general – many feminists advocate so-called “feminist pornography”. On the American feminist website feministing.com, the reviewer is accordingly much more generous than the writer for the Guardian: She bemoans the fact that no American publisher has been willing to publish Brass and focuses on the book’s “authenticity”.9 Then it dawns on me: it is thanks to the authenticity that I could take in the scene in the graveyard and the anal sex – that’s how I could understand something new when Millie raped Suey. It is possible that Helen Walsh writes to get attention, but she also has, in a literary sense, a valuable authenticity, and that is rare among bestsellers.
In the Observer‘s article on posh porn, American author Matthew Firth notes something important about sex in literature. For starters, he points out that sex in modern fiction is completely different from the genres “erotica” and “romance”. Of course the new literary posh porn sex wants to be exciting, and of course it often consists of standard material. But, Firth maintains, it isn’t about staging unbelievable situations for their own sake. “Sex fiction is writing about sex by accurately portraying how people fuck. The goal is authenticity,” says Matthew Firth. (On a non-literary level one might say that it’s interesting, then, that posh porn is marketed with the help of the young women who have written and let it be understood that these sweet flowers have had these experiences, imagine!)
French author Christine Jordis, who in her book La chambre blanche [The White Room] portrays a secret erotic affair between two adults, says in an article in the Guardian that she only wants to describe sex as she had experienced and felt it. “I wanted to describe the love-making,” she explains, “but I wasn’t trying to shock or provoke or attract attention.”
Authenticity. Is the authentic automatically feminist? Is that why I have this growing interest in posh porn? The authentic is, of course, real, however ugly it might be, and isn’t that reality what feminism wants? Isn’t feminism trying to get away from the constructs?
But it is hard to know what is real. Eroticism is a collection of signs. We can’t escape.
Can’t we escape?
I want us to escape. Pornographers in black, you have the knowledge and the tools. Release us. Give us new images. Give us new eroticism.
VI. Lick the Brain
Both Maguire and Walsh are conscious of the clichés of pornography: they play with them, utilize them. Not necessarily to play anything down with humour or its alternatives, but as a frame of reference, a background, a cultural backdrop.
“The 1950s: Henry Miller is exciting. 1970s: Jong and Brøgger are exciting. What is exciting today?” Trygve Söderling asks in his essay. He believes that what was exciting when the text was written in 2004 is “what many call ‘queer-culture’. This is where the front lines, the movement, the coming-out processes reached the strategic, seductive stage: right up close to the mainstream but still ‘slightly dangerous’.”
Is the female pornographic eye dangerous? Or just another male fantasy, a way of being accommodating? Is posh porn exciting?
– In what way?
– It is so depraved. So corrupted.
– Posh porn is mainstream. Mainstream isn’t exciting.
– Ok. This is mainstream. It isn’t exciting. But it is still important.
Brass and Taming the Beast are two of the best-selling posh porn books. They are representative. And I have read this before, I have looked masochism in the eye, even though the themes were different. There is one theme especially: eating disorders. How many books about young women’s masochism haven’t I read? In these books women deny themselves to death. At best they eat a little cabbage and they vomit, they run, they stuff themselves, and life is utterly cheerless.
Cheerlessness is also central to Walsh and Maguire. The sexual acts are as serious as a heart attack, they are bloody and they hurt. Sex should hurt. As the heroine Sarah says in Taming the Beast:
Sex should be urgent and aggressive. It should be raw. If you know you want someone, why would you bother wasting time lighting candles?
Sarah has sex with hundreds of men: old, young, for money, and for free. She doesn’t care a bit about morals and ethics, she doesn’t care a bit about her health. The only thing she cares about is that she should be the one to decide who, when, and where. She decides to get raped so she goes to a bar and provokes a man until he rapes her. She is the one who decides. (Is this the peak of women’s liberation?)
But in the ultimate sexual act, she is powerless, a victim. The act goes on for several days and it’s a mix of physical abuse and sex. Sarah’s great love, the older teacher Daniel who has returned, bites her, beats her, burns her, strangles her half to death so that she can have more intense orgasms. She appreciates his thoughtfulness.
She remembered again the day in the hotel room, how she thought she was going to die in there and didn’t care at all so long as he kept doing things to her. That had been eight hours. She tried to imagine what she would be like after two days alone in a room with Daniel. After a week with him she would surely be nothing but a pile of sticky dust. Maybe that was what Jamie sensed. Maybe that was why he looked at her like she was already dead.
Sarah explains to Jamie that everything is ok:
“I was never the fragile creature you thought I was. I loved you for taking care of me, but I always felt… cloistered. I’ve always had this need to… push things as far as they’ll go. Push myself. You always stopped me right when I got to the edge. Daniel doesn’t stop me. He binds my hands and feet and throws me right over.”
This is what our Australian heroine says while she cries and looks like “a twelve-year-old junkie”. And it is obvious that what threatens Sarah isn’t sex. The danger in her life is love, because Daniel is the only man she has ever loved. Love makes her lose control. Love is the most dangerous thing.
Let me make the following claim: if posh porn is the mainstream successor to chick lit and if the target audience is the same, then posh porn is still literature far more complex than books by Helen Fielding, Anna Maxted, and Marian Keyes. The dream of love lies on the edge of new precipices.
VII. The Woman’s Frontal Bone
And then again: the headlines. Porno magazines thrust up in my face when I go into the local newsstand. The willing, willing, willing woman: breast, holes, shiny eyes – use me, use me, use me. The victims, not only “sex workers”, but also the others. Women as commodities. Male sexuality that desecrates, devastates, and declaims, male sexuality as a “human right” that commits one act of violence after the next.
Far away from the warm cottage, the comforting smell of food, my piquant red wine, and my piquant broad-minded feminist reading, headlines and things that never make the headlines are created.
Shouldn’t I take a position on this?
Shouldn’t I find myself in a moral panic?
Erotic literature needs its female branch, but I hope this is the farthest that the pendulum swings, I hope that the pendulum soon swings the other way and that its movement will be a different, less monotonous one; I hope the pendulum will stop its damn banging against women’s hips, against their frontal bones. I hope that the posh porn authors, after they have puked up the worst of it, will find a never beheld and revolutionary type of erotica.
There is no point in trying to apply morality to eroticism – but I’ll give it a try:
I don’t believe that the ultimate eroticism is in teenagers who rape each other, I don’t believe it exists in bloody anal sex or images of women who “get what they want” by the hundreds. I don’t believe that the ultimate eroticism exists in the violated woman, even if it is she herself who violates. I don’t believe that the masochistic woman is the definitive female sexual liberation. I believe that masochistic women are part of a serial backlash. Because, truth to tell, we learned a long time ago that women can have sex without love.
It is a great sadness and a great refusal that works under the name posh porn. It is a giant NO masquerading as a YES. It is bloody, powdery snow and bruises. The pornographers in black have spoken.
Helen Walsh: Brass, Edinburgh 2004.
Sara Stridsberg: Drömfakulteten, Stockholm 2006.
Louise France: "Bedtime Stones", Observer, 5 March 2006.
Wei Hui: Shanghai Baby, Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Emily Maguire: Taming the Beast, London 2004.
Trygve Söderling: "Att älska som en man". I: Det öppna rummet -- Festskrift till Merete Mazzarella, Helsingfors 2005.
Mara Lee: Kom, Stockholm 2001.
Sarah Adams: "Where there's muck ...", Guardian, 3 April 2004.
Published 16 November 2006
Original in English
Translated by Susan Larson
First published by Ny Tid
Contributed by Ny Tid © Anna Friman/Ny Tid EurozinePDF/PRINT