The video above is the first in a series by artist and film-maker, Clayton Cubitt, entitled Hysterical Literature. Shot in stark black and white, each of the eleven videos features a different woman seated at a table, who calmly introduces herself and then announces the chosen text from which she is about to read aloud.
So far, so ordinary. Eight or nine minutes in, however, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass gets noticeably breathy; after only two minutes, an extract from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho becomes strained and urgent; coming up to six minutes, Toni Morrison’s Beloved culminates in the reader’s head being thrown back and a fair bit of heavy breathing…
Ah, now we begin to see what’s going on. In addition to reading from a piece of literature of their choice, the women are being stimulated beneath the table by a Hitachi Magic Wand, a state of the art, pretty heavy-duty vibrator.
Cubitt’s project is a visual one, exploring ideas of portraiture composition as well as making for some (uncomfortably?) compelling viewing, but his comment that these somewhat scopohilic works - “put the art on the table and the sex under the table” - is more broadly thought-provoking.
The choice to have his sitters reading aloud rather than simply looking into the camera, as was the case in an earlier work (Long Portrait – based on a similar concept, minus the orgasm), imbues the piece of literature that they have chosen with a kind of context-specific, erotic subtext, and it is interesting to consider whether this idea of art on and sex under the table is common to erotic literature.
Of course, there always have been, and always will be, examples of erotic literature that proudly proclaim themselves as such – titillation is their primary aim and any semblance of plot is simply filler.
But what about literature that is openly marketed to the masses? By making his videos available on YouTube, Cubitt put female sexual pleasure in a very public arena, so perhaps it is productive to look at the kind of books that are advertised on billboards and sold in W H Smith. In these 50 Shades-style works, is it the literature or the sex that is front and centre?
Traditionally, expressions of female sexuality are stigmatised rather more than their corresponding male equivalents. In media, masturbation is something that is presented in radically different ways depending on gender.
If it concerns a man, we’re taught that it’s perhaps a little embarrassing but also reassuringly normal and, often, a source of comedy; if a woman is engaging in this though, it’s a different story – either it’s an appeal to male sexuality, or a means of portraying her as a character who’s a bit subversive.
Why, then, is it primarily women that popular erotic literature is marketed to? In part, this may be something to do with the fact that literature is not a visual medium, making it somewhat freer from the influence of the all-pervasive male gaze. Similarly, by not presenting something physical for the viewer’s inspection, the whole enterprise is rather less objectifying.
In mainstream porn, the primary concern is with getting ‘the money shot’ – everything is working towards the final goal of male sexual gratification. In comparison, an erotic novel is a more prolonged experienced with a narrative that fluctuates, rather than moving from point A to B with minimal deviation.
While the plot of 50 Shades of Grey (lifted as it is from Twilight) is hardly nuanced, the bare minimum characterisation of the book’s main female character, Anastasia Steele, allows women to more actively engage and identify with the sexual content.
However, for all the fanfare about this being a book that gives women licence to embrace and explore their sexuality, there are some discrepancies in this kind of rhetoric.
In a world where Page 3 is still something that people will leer at on the bus, a book that rapidly became acceptable (if amusing) tube-reading material is absolutely not a bad thing, but there are limits to how sexually liberating the ideas espoused in it are. Yes, there’s power-play and spanking aplenty, and yes, the book’s publication resulted in a startling spike in sales of Ann Summers’ handcuffs and nipple clamps but, in spite of this, it still feels a little prudish, cloaking the true nature of what’s going on in all sorts of worn-out metaphors, and refusing to call a spade a spade or, rather, a vagina a vagina.
Despite telling us how much she’s enjoying everything that’s going on, the trilogy’s heroine is strikingly reticent when it comes to identifying with and owning her own body. Only ever making oblique references to “down there” and, cringe-inducingly, “her inner goddess,” the book’s language is, for all its kinky shenanigans, surprisingly vanilla.
It seems then that widely-available erotic literature is not yet quite as free from – largely internalised – ideas of shame and the need for propriety as we may initially hope and, for all of Anastasia’s blackout-inducing orgasms, the book is still concerned with making something that can be messy and,
at times, unnerving, consistently palatable.
But this isn’t meant as a full-on feminist critique of 50 Shades – it’s too easy and has already been done countless times – so, instead, let’s look to other examples of literature that could arguably fall into the category of ‘erotic’.
In contrast, first published in its original German in 2008, Charlotte Roche’s controversial book, Wetlands, has a real sense of humour and it caused quite a stir when it initially came to public attention. However, despite reading the odd outraged/overjoyed article and registering a vague interest at the time, it wasn’t until I spotted it in a charity shop this summer that I actually delved into the ‘warts and all’, sexually-liberated and astonishingly body-positive world of Helen Memel.
Unlike 50 Shades, Roche’s book is anatomically explicit and beyond visceral. There’s tales of arse-depilation, there are enemas, and there’s period sex. And it’s kind of great, if occasionally stomach-turning. It’s not erotic literature in the sense that hearing about someone’s haemorrhoid-related hospitalisation is going to turn you on but, regardless, sex and an up close and personal account of the female body are the topics that constitute its main subject matter. So it’s still worth being considered here, particularly as a kind of foil to Anastasia Steele’s sanitised, socially acceptable sexuality.
Clearly, chick lit.-style erotica and works like Wetlands stand in very stark contrast to each other but, regardless of personal preference (and really, it doesn’t matter what you opt for – policing sexuality is dangerous territory so a ‘whatever works for you’ attitude is probably the best one to adopt here), it certainly seems as if erotic literature is becoming an increasingly prevalent genre in mainstream culture.
Of course, it’s not as if this is a new phenomenon; literature of this kind has been around for aeons. Lady Chatterly’s Lover is the classic example and, earlier than that, poetic works such as Thomas Nashe’s The Choice of Valentines, or ‘the dildo poem’ as it’s more generally known, has been scandalising students of English literature (and leaving them to desperately search for academically-appropriate adjectives other than ‘bawdy’) for years but, with the 50 Shades trilogy shifting an impressive 90m copies worldwide, it seems fair to say that it’s becoming increasingly accessible.
Branching out from the traditional format of a printed book, erotic audiobooks can now be downloaded from iTunes, targeting those who may feel too uncomfortable to purchase this kind of literature in a shop, and websites such as ‘clickforeplay’ which features erotic recordings, market themselves towards the blind and visually-impaired.
In combination with something of a ‘titillation-for-all’ attitude, this rethinking and adaptation of traditional formats means that erotic literature has now become increasingly socially-acceptable. While the general media trend of increasing sexualisation is absolutely something that should concern us, the kind of sex-positive affirmations that erotic literature can offer is of real value.