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Before I made a living as a writer (I mean, *cough*, as an erotic novelist writing under a pseudonym) I was a TV producer, mostly for public television. In my 20+ year TV career I’ve sat in on countless meetings on the subject of “how to attract younger audiences.”
“How do we make public TV fun?” That's a question I remember clearly. I probably contributed a number of lame ideas myself, not understanding at the time that younger people don’t generally watch public television, Sesame Street notwithstanding. That’s because I was young myself. I worked in public television, but I didn’t watch it much.
Now I do. Why? Because I’m in my 40s. I can’t take all the colors and sounds and bells and whistles and slants and biases of your basic network news program. Don’t even get me started on cable. Context matters to me now. Slower, wider, broader stories matter to me now. I need my information to come at me unadorned, simply and clearly told.
I was thinking about this evolution as I am about to publish the second installment of my erotica trilogy, S.E.C.R.E.T. Shared, which has been labeled a “feminist take” on the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. One critic placed S.E.C.R.E.T. in the same category (not literarily, mind you, but thematically) as Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. That’s because in in my books women are in charge of their sexuality and how they express it. They recruit and train people, mostly men, to have sex with them the way they want sex — but only if it’s something that appeals to the men as well. No one’s forced, no one’s manipulated, and S.E.C.R.E.T. candidates maintain complete autonomy over their sexual fantasies, even if that fantasy includes being completely dominated, to have no autonomy.
By definition, does that make S.E.C.R.E.T. “feminist erotica”? Sure, and I welcomed the label. But then I asked myself: what about those readers for whom “feminism” and “erotica” are mutually exclusive terms? How do I make them realize that the feminism in my book is, well, fun, not to mention sexy?
I didn’t grow up a feminist. In fact, the “f” word wasn’t uttered in my house, despite the fact that our household was helmed by a workaholic single mother who often held down two jobs. And like my public-TV-eschewing self, I shrugged off the label in my twenties, this despite working in a bar where showing your navel was mandatory, booze flowed freely, and making out with your older married boss was mostly optional.
Over the years, my own feminism crept up on me. I first felt it when I was competing for jobs in my prime fertile years, when the question of whether I planned to get pregnant was not thrown at the candidate in the room who owned the penis part of making babies. My feminism showed up when I bought my first house, and the realtor was worried I wouldn’t get financing because I didn’t have a husband. (He said “husband,” too, not partner.)
And my feminism hit its vivid apex a few years ago when I learned that a male colleague with whom I’d been working side-by-side on an onerous project was being paid more money than me. A LOT more. We had the same level of experience--in fact I had more years on him, yet he cashed a bigger check. Worst part? He rubbed it in my face. If that shit doesn’t make you a rabid feminist, I don’t know what will.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t specifically set out to write feminist erotica. That’s because by the time I sat down to tackle the subject of women and sex, I was already a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, so themes of empowerment and equality naturally surfaced in my plot and characters. They are embedded in the DNA of my dirty books.
Here’s what I believe: all erotica — in all of its 50,000 shades — is feminist. Why? Because it exists. Yes, even Anastasia Steele, the so-called “quivering virgin” at the center of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, is a feminist. In fact, her stubborn refusal to completely bend to the will of Christian Grey is often cited when women are asked to defend a book that received such a critical drubbing, even in certain so-called feminist circles. (Why women have to defend their book choices is a whole other article!)
One of the most important ways for a woman to understand how she wants to be treated is to know how she does not want to be treated, especially sexually. And some women only navigate that terrain in their imaginations. That’s the purpose of erotica, and that’s what makes writing and reading it an inherently feminist act.
But are themes of empowerment and sisterhood inherently unsexy, un-erotic? And if so, what should be done about it? I say nothing, because feminism isn’t fun. Most causes that matter aren’t. They’re born in injustice, so when you’re trying to get people in power to change policies to make them fairer and to reverse the tide of oppression, it’s hard work. But it’s necessary work. And it’s in the doing that you find that deep sense of purpose, which in and of itself is enlivening, potent, joy-filled and inspiring. That to me is sexy. That’s where the juice is. That’s where you find the fun.