Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Sex or Science

From the New York Times's Thursday Style Section of June 12:

...scientists at the frontiers of research on the eternal question of what women find erotic... [say it's]... not naked guys, or at least simply naked guys.
You can read the whole thing here. But for me the central point is the study by Dr. Meredith Chivers at the University of Toronto, wherein she "showed people video clips of naked men and women in various sexual and nonsexual situations and measured their genital arousal," and during which:
Heterosexual women... were no more excited by athletic naked men doing yoga or tossing stones into the ocean than they were by the control footage: long pans of the snowcapped Himalayas.
When straight women viewed a video of a naked woman doing calisthenics... their blood flow increased considerably.

On the one hand, this was hardly a surprise to me -- or probably to anyone who came up through the heady days of second-wave feminism when we discovered for ourselves that images of women could be hot. And that, in any case, what wasn't hot was a passive, objectified male body, no matter how gorgeous (at least short of St. Sebastian -- where passive makes its way to active) .
And when Dr. Chivers asked her subjects to rate their own arousal to the videos they watched, the women, whether gay or straight, tended to give higher ratings to films showing women.

My experience exactly, and those of my commadres who were beginning to write our own porn in the 80s and 90s. We simply weren't like the boys with their Playboy spreads, we congratulated ourselves, and que vive, we said as we went out to write hotter stories -- at least for the small press anthologies like Cleis, which has been publishing my Carrie's Story and Safe Word, through several years and through multiple reprintings now.

Fast forward to the current mass erotica and erotic romance market.

Well, the money doesn't lie, does it? Or so one must assume, from the constant prodding from romance marketers like BGI's Sue Grimshaw that male torsos sell? Not to speak of those repeated exhortations (I expect more of them this summer at RWA National) to cut the f-f episodes (straight women will be turned off) and double the testosterone, as though the animals on George Orwell's famous farm were bleeting in chorus two pecs good, four pecs be-e-e-ter.

But here I can see that I'm getting the covers confused with the prose. Only two pecs per cover, I believe is the rule -- even if I'd make a beeline for a book sporting this graphic, copped from a wonderful earlier tea party post by Kate Pearce.

Lord that picture's hot -- because, I think, of the emotionality implied, and the fascinating play of dark and light, likeness and contrast. To me, it's the extremes of activity and passivity -- the implied narrativity in a non-narrative form -- that's arousing, and that just might circle us back to Professor Chivers' study results.

Except that the cover thing's not supposed to be about arousal.

As a close reading of this discussion at Dear Author makes clear, it's about... well, I'm not sure what gets triggered in the three minutes you have in which to make a choice at an airport bookstore, but I don't think it's arousal. Something more like genre recognition, making sure the customer got the kind of book she was looking for. I don't think cover art is supposed to bewitch, bother, bewilder you or make you miss your train stop -- I think that's what the prose inside is supposed to do.

But the problem for me here is the implication that a customer knows what she's looking for. Because when I'm the customer, what I'm looking for is the unknown. Reading always has this yummy masochism for me: what I want is to be seduced by a new, confident voice and taken helpless wherever that voice might want to lead me. As the first page of Sarah Waters' lesbian Edwardian romance Tipping the Velvet did for me, when I opened it in Modern Times Bookstore several years ago...
Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it. Some quirk of the Kentish coastline makes Whitstable natives -- as they are properly called -- the largest and the juiciest, the savouriest yet the subtlest, oysters in the whole of England. Whitstable oysters are, quite rightly, famous. The French, who are known for their sensitive palates, regularly cross the Channel for them; they are shipped, in barrels of ice, to the dining-tables of Hamburg and Berlin. Why, the King himself, I heard, makes special trips to Whitstable with Mrs Keppel, to eat oyster suppers in a private hotel; and as for the old Queen, she dined on a native a day (or so they say) till the day she died.

Did you ever go to Whitstable, and see the oyster-parlours there? My father kept one; I was born in it. Do you recall a narrow, weather-boarded house, painted a flaking blue, half-way between the High Street and the harbour? Do you remember the bulging sign that hung above the door, that said that Astley's Oysters, the Best in Kent were to be had within? Did you, perhaps, push at that door, and step into the dim, low-ceilinged, fragrant room beyond it? Can you recall the tables with their chequered cloths? The bill of fare chalked on a board? the spirit-lamps, the sweating slabs of butter?

I'd like to quote the whole thing, the richness, the irresistible, unstoppable onward movement that took me past the sweating slabs of butter to our heroine Nancy, but it's too long already for a blog post. Read it here, though, at Powell's Books.

And then tell me if I should beg for a mantitty cover for some future book. (Or worry that the cover art of The Edge of Impropriety, gorgeous as it is, just isn't going to cut it sales- and display-wise, among all those hunks of meat that yell erotic romance.)

Or tell me what sort of response you have to a mantitty cover. Is it fleshy or financial -- ooh or ka-ching? Perhaps for you it really hits the spot (you know which one) even if it doesn't for me -- because anyway, it would hardly be the first time that a scientific researcher was wrong about something.

And then -- even though it's way too long and even though it's insane for me to put my own stuff in the same post as the sublime Sarah Waters -- here's a bit of f-f for straight girls (or for anybody else) from my erotic novel, Safe Word (w/a Molly Weatherfield), in which our intrepid heroine finds herself in...
..a nursery. Well, that’s what it looked like, anyway -- like that enormous Edwardian dormitory where Wendy, John, and Michael Darling had slept, in Peter Pan. I guessed that whoever owned the house had hired a decorator to create it for their kids, in a fit of upscale retro Anglophile whimsy. It wasn’t a fancy sort of room; it was big and clearly expensive, but the decorator had gone for a sort of shabby, aristocratic, cold-showers-and-beef-tea asceticism. All the more dissonant, then, as a setting for Sylvie and Stephanie and me -- naked in our collars and cuffs. Sylvie was lying on her belly on one of the small white iron beds, carefully making up her face in a mirror propped against the pillows. No smiles from her, not even evil ones. Just calm concentration on the mirror, a brief glimpse at me, and a determined glance at Stephanie, who nodded firmly, shutting the door behind me. The children’s hour, I thought, gulping.

The room was full of toys, too, though not the kind the original owners had imagined -- these toys were were made of leather and latex and brass and iron. There were big wicker baskets filled with whips and restraints of various sizes and shapes. There were high-heeled shoes lined up at the scuffed powder-blue baseboard, and black corsets and garter belts hanging from hooks on the wall that once must have held sweet little smocked pinafores from Laura Ashley and overalls from Baby Gap and OshKosh B’Gosh. There were latex cocks on harnesses, too -- a large selection of them, in all the colors of the rainbow. There were two-tone jobs, marbled ones. And some were translucent as well, with glitter embedded in the latex. All sizes and shapes -- I mean besides your traditional naturalistic ones, there were twists and bumps and spirals. I watched warily, as Stephanie chose a handful -- a bouquet -- of them, strapped one on, and tossed another to Sylvie.

“I’ll go first,” she said to her, blowing her a kiss, “unless you really want to.”

“No,” Sylvie answered, coolly, “you go ahead.”

But first Stephanie just walked around me, critically. “She’s really not all that terribly pretty, is she?” she asked.

“Oh, no,” Sylvie answered, “but, well, she does have something, you know. Even Kate says so.”

“Attitude, Kate says. Makes people want to hurt her.”

"Umm, well, I can see that, yes. Too bad we only have permission to fuck her.”

“Well, her ass is her best feature after all.”

I started to look around nervously, for the grease. I mean, they were going to grease that cock, weren’t they, before Stephanie stuck it up my best feature? And I wasn’t at all reassured when Stephanie positioned herself squarely in front of me, her voice icy. “Suck it, Carrie,” she said.

I hesitated for a heartbeat. Did she mean that the only lubrication I’d get was my own saliva? And then, just before she had to push me down to my knees, I got down quickly, opened my mouth, and inhaled the monster, watching its shaft, in its obscene fuschia color, disappear down my mouth to my throat.

Sylvie had gotten off the bed and was watching closely. “Deeper,” she said to me. She smacked my ass with the cock that she hadn’t strapped on yet. “Don’t imagine you can hold back on us.”

No, I didn’t imagine I could. And yes, she was right. I could open my throat a little more widely. I could keep from retching, if I tried, gave it everything I had. I felt the latex fill my throat, in hollows that nobody usually touched. My eyes filled with tears, but I kept going down on that cock as though were my life’s work. I was frightened, disoriented. I mean, I’d known I wasn’t their favorite person, but this didn’t seem like Sylvie or Stephanie at all—more like their evil top twins. It was like getting to see the dark side of the moon. And then they blindfolded me—in soft, thick black velvet—and I couldn’t see anything at all.

A hand grabbed the ring in the back of my collar (“silly-looking collar,” I heard one of them sneer) and dragged me to one of the beds. I scrambled onto it, banging my shins, and raised myself up on my knees. And I breathed an enormous sigh of relief when one of them shoved some grease up my asshole.

They took turns fucking me—speeding up and slowing down, squeezing and slapping my breasts, and commenting dryly from time to time on my form, my looks, my performance. “Well, she can do this okay, anyway,” I think that was Stephanie, very grudgingly—and from Sylvie, a giggled, “I should hope so, or I’d lose all my respect for Jonathan.” They tried different cocks, commenting on some of the more exotic ones, and giggling about how they looked in them. They kissed and stroked each other, too, I think, though I could only feel and hear it, rather than see it. I began to cry out—it was painful, and it was also arousing—but when I felt the tears soaking the blindfold, I knew I was crying because I was lonely. I wanted one of them to kiss or stroke me.

They didn’t, of course. They left me kneeling on the bed and I guessed that they’d gone to one of the other little beds, where I could hear them giggling and kissing, hugging and poking and playing. And then deep moans, and I supposed that they’d taken off the cocks and were happily eating each other, crying out, and then ending with creamy sighs of contentment.

And whispers, then. “Oh, well, she took that pretty well, anyway,” and [...m]ore ominously, “She’s probably not going to have an easy afternoon, after all,” and then lots of stuff I couldn’t hear, until Stephanie called out to me, “You can come into bed with us if you want, you know.”

I tore off the blindfold. It was difficult not to take a flying leap, and it was delightful to have them touch and kiss me. But, “Kate lets you make love to each other?” I asked.

Stephanie laughed. “Well,” she said, “not all the time. But for treats, yes, she does[.... She... says] it’s a male thing, that business of being so stingy with a slave’s sexuality. Because it seems to us there’s always enough to go around—well, we never have any problem with it, anyway.”

And Sylvie added, “And neither does Randy."

They giggled at that, and so did I. The evil twins had disappeared, leaving me rolling around in bed with Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge....


Kate Pearce said...

I always love your posts, Pam-they make me go away and think! I loved both the excerpts, both very sexy in their own ways. I think your covers are beautiful and I think they identify 'you' as an individual very well-you don't need the mantitty :)

Jane Lockwood said...

Huge, thoughtful, entertaining post, Pam. Where to start...
Actually I do find pics of the Himalayas sexy--just kidding. I think; I do like mountains. But I definitely find female nudity interesting and arousing because, gosh, I have something like that (fatter and older, generally, but it used to be thinner and hotter; and even now it still works)--and frankly I'd far rather see some real (female) breasts on the front of a book rather than mantitty.

And why the big fear of f-f? Doesn't make much sense to me either.

But don't you think a lot of the appeal of romance is validation?--by which I mean reinforcement of a fantasy world with HEA and alpha males and so on. You can challenge the conventions and subvert them, of course, but at a certain point you'll take readers out of their comfort zone.

And I love "Tipping the Velvet" which I've just re-read, and that opening is such beautiful writing. And thanks for letting us visit Carrie again.

Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the kind words and support, Kate and Jane.

Yes, it was huge, wasn't it -- while I don't have any deadlines I'm getting addicted to saying everything else I damn please -- am even setting up a real live blog on my website -- debuting next Tuesday.

But I'm still curious about the whole mantitty alpha thing. For a while, I thought those covers were sort of a way of giving us our own Playboy aesthetic -- like, see, we can be just as raunchy as guys... I was gonna say "objectifying," but actually, I've always liked "objectifying," as Carrie definitely did in my excerpt.

And then I sometimes think that it's a way of saying "Lesbian? Not ME. Not in the littlest, teeniest bit, oh not me ever..." Which would also be a way of differentiating oneself from second wave feminism, which in its heyday went through some stupid hero-worship of lesbians...

But now I simply don't know... and would like to... so anybody out there who is not so enamored of what I used to call equal opportunity erotica -- I'd love to hear from you.

Sharon Page said...

I loved the BBC (I think/assume) version of "Fingersmiths" by the same author. I have always intended to pick up her books--and now I must. Loved your excerpt--the setting and the interactions between the women made me think of boarding schools, where women have to learn to survive each other, in a way. To deal with different personalities, and power struggles, jealousy, love, hatred, etc. Sex adds another layer to that.

I agree with Kate, your posts always leave me thinking and pondering.

Pam Rosenthal said...

Fingersmith is my favorite of Waters's books, Sharon, though the fearsomely smart Professor Sharon Marcus (who writes about Victorian friendships and sexuality -- among many other things) recommends Affinity, which makes that book a must-read for me.

But I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Tipping the Velvet, because it was such swoony fun to be so thoroughly and masterfully seduced by Waters's wonderful words.

And such leisurely fun. I mean, I know that it's conventional romance writer wisdom to come up with a snappy opening sentence or two -- but (talk about female sexuality!) give me an opener that goes on and on and on like Waters's...

Meanwhile, thanks for your kind words on my post. "Alive and thinking" is the subtitle for the blog I'll be unveiling this Tuesday on my website, so please come by, everybody.

And good catch about the boarding schools -- I probably got that from French erotica, where that experience is often mentioned.