Erotic women’s literature; a critical review of objects of beauty

This research critiques and models the gendered/ sexualized object as illustrated/ defined within both material culture and contemporary/ historical women’s erotic literature. Below is an initial literature review.

Jones, R G (1995) The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women, Penguin.
The anthology’s introduction refers to the fact that some feminist scholars object to the term ‘erotic’ as homo-patriarchal in its nature. Women authors are found to largely absent from previous collections of erotic fiction. The Catalogi Librorum Eroticorum (Deakin, T 1964) includes only one female. Simone de Beauvoir (1949) states that ‘her eroticism and therefore her sexual world has a special form of their own’. Perhaps there remains a need for women to write in order to define cultural responses to women’s attitudes to sex.

Cleveland, J (1748), Fanny Hill, Penguin
Fanny Hill is a seminal erotic text, however it is authored by a man. Does this invalidate its relevance to women’s literature? John Cleveland was educated in London, having lived in India. This may hold some relevance to the exoticism of the writing. Fanny Hill was written in prison and published prior to his release (Cleveland was confined to debtors prison). Following publication, a warrant was issued for the author, printer and publisher (1750). This is his most successful piece of erotic fiction, he later attempted to write medical sexuality research which was not highly regarded.

The style of writing could be characterised as a stream of consciousness, where the author is disclosing intimacies in a confession style. The lead character is cited as Francis Hill (page 16), why then is her name abbreviated to Fanny? Was this abbreviation sexualised before or after 1750? She is said to be a woman of poor parentage from urban England. Her father is depicted as a disabled labourer therefore of honest and reliable descent. She speaks of knowing nothing of vice in her early years, orphaned at 15.

La Marquise de Mannoury d’Ectot (1882), Violette, Brussels.
This is a seminal work written by a french noblewoman, published in Brussels in 1882. It is known that the marquise entertained poets and artists of her day, before falling upon hard times. The story is set in contemporary Paris, written in the first person, narrated by a male friend of 15 year old Violette. Given that the narration is male, this in itself represents an interesting premise: the female author perhaps writes through the idealised eroticism of the male.The first sexual exchange is told largely in dialogue.

‘I placed my hand on her bosom by chance and I felt a living globe of marble. the mere contact sent a thrill through my veins.'(page 3)

‘[the room] it was hung all round in nacarat velvet; the window curtains and bed curtains of the same material. The bed was covered with velvet also… A looking glass occupied the whole of the wall beside the bed and corresponded with the mirror placed between the two windows so that images were reproduced ‘ad infinitum’…. a large bearskin made the pretty feet which rested on it looks still whiter’ (page 7)

Wilson Kovacs, D ‘Some texts do it better: women, sexually explicit technology and the everyday’, Chapter 9 in Attwood, F (ed.) (2009), Mainstreaming Sex

This article draws a clear distinction between pornography and erotica as defined by women. It proposes that pornography is incorporated into women’s lives in response to requests from heterosexual partners. The article discusses the symbolism of underwear as an emotional pursuit prior to sex, for women. It describes how women may wear sexually inappropriate or pornographic underwear when gifted by their partner. It also debates how women may use text to storytell prior to sexual intimacy with their partner. Quotes show that women verbalise guilt over seemingly non-feminist enjoyment of pornography. Women included felt discussion of pornography was not a suitable topic with friends or partners, demonstrating that (as they may feel) the woman knows ‘too much’ about sex.

Within this article, women challenge the formulaic character of pornography and the lack of nuance. Erotica is characterised as suggestiveness and imagination: women express the difference between suggestion and explicit representation. Erotica is seen as more lavish in character, attention is paid to details. Erotica that combines autobiographical and fictional stories is felt to enable or disinhibit the reader.

Erotica is understood to be read largely by women on their own, therefore the intimacy and privacy is more profound. Print media is widely available and therefore does not include any of the social prejudices of purchase.

This article is interesting in the subtleties of differentiation between erotica and pornography. It enables clarification of the relationship with visual and textual aspects of consumption. In moving between these three different genres, the importance of context of consumption is of critical importance. The taxonomy of discussion will be critical in recognising the contextual reading of artefacts/ texts.

I am also reminded of a BBC documentary (2010) which discussed the reasons why men enjoy pornography. Within which, it summarised that men between 16 to 24 watch for sexual experience, men between 24 and 45 for fantasy and stimulation/integration within the relationship, men above 50 largely found pornography less relevant. Finally, it also summarised that men with creativity and empathy engaged more with pornography.