There is no nature; only the effects of nature. Jacques Derrida, Donner le Temps
“While Eastern societies created a sophisticated and impersonal ars erotica, modern Western culture developed a scientia sexualis more intent on personalized control than on skilled pleasure.” (Merquior, 1985: 121).
Why is sexuality such a big deal and has been a big deal in our society? Foucault argues that the development of the scientific study of sex, the attempt to unearth the ‘truth’ of sex is a phenomenon peculiar to the West and this scientia sexualis has repeatedly been used for political purposes (Foucault 1981). Human sexual pleasure unlike pleasure from food has been used as a device to regulate, monitor, normalise and police society, categorise the human experience and as an apparatus of oppression and division, first in visible forms of power in religion (Christianity in western culture) and then invisible and internalized techniques of power since the 16th century to regulate, in medical, biological, psychiatric ‘truths’ as the ‘nature’ and ‘essence’ and consequently the morals of the human. Biopwer then has been an indispensable element in the development of capitalism to repetitively construct, re-invent and reproduce (the illusion of sexuality as the subject of the self as fluid is beneficial for capitalism as sexuality is not a preoccupation with sex but with the political technologies of life.
But why exactly sex? Asks Foucault. Why is it that sensual pleasures and sexual activities are so often the object of moral concern, far more than other, hardly less vital experiences, like feeding oneself? (Foucault 1981) Because sex, sexuality and gender can be used infinitely as a device of power: by binding gender and sexuality to sex, to activity, behaviour and prohibition, and with transgressive behaviour produced from masculinist discourse, the possibility of using it as a power tool are endless, first in religion as main ideology, then biology and medical discourses, and in advanced capitalism as an endless cycle of exploitation, production and consumerism. Capitalism and mass consumerism is a hidden reinforcement of religious and discursive oppression by offering us ‘liberation’ from rigid stable identity categories by offering us multiple choice of products that shape, produce and define identity: you are what you wear/eat/buy. It seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, demands only to surface. The whole idea that we need to throw off taboos and enjoy our sexual ‘nature’ is itself a new kind of power/control. In going for liberation we see ourselves escaping a power understood by the old model. Instead we are playing its game and assuming the shape it has moulded for us.
Butler (1993) has written about how sex and the materiality of the body is as discursive as gender, and we need to understand how ritualized repetition of such norms produce and stabilize not only the effects of gender but the materiality of sex. “It is not enough for feminist scholars to argue that the discourse of construction means that there is no ‘prediscursive’ or ‘natural’ sex. To claim that sex is already gendered and constructed does not explain how the materiality of sex is produced. Sexual difference is not simply a function of material differences but difference marked and formed by discursive practices” (Butler, 1993: xii). The materiality of the body (the basic function of female as womb to give birth; male of sperm to impregnate) has been used to confine her first by God’s word as ‘nature’ to specific role and location (wife, mother, home) then by the birth of human sciences, the hidden form of the reinforcement of religion as the dominant ideology to her ‘natural biological’ role.
But this isn’t just an ‘artificial’ and dispensable social construct and to think that way would be to presume that there is a ‘natural pre-discursive’ I. There is always an agenda it has benefitted. Capitalism? Gender roles for production? Women wanting the vote posing a threat to the structure of family coinciding with the ‘truth’ production of penis envy in psychiatry? Prohibition of ‘abnormal’ sexualities for the heterosexual procreative couple to remain as model of ‘normal’ for property, population and acting as factors of social hierarchy, guaranteeing the effects of hegemony?
In this essay I will look at how literature has been used as a device to legitimise and strengthen essentialist concepts of what is masculine/feminine sexuality by what I believe are exemplars of female/male erotica/sexuality in the works of Anais Nin and Henry Miller and Pauline Reage’s Story of O (Reage 1954) and resistances to female ‘natural’ sexuality in the form of Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1978). And finally Katherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M (Millet 2001) as a representation of female sexuality in the 21st century.
Female sexuality has always been bound in cause and consequence. There must be a reason why a female is sexual: Childhood sexual abuse? Mental instability? Drugs? Prostitute? Low self-esteem? Because of course there is a reason for this ‘anomaly’: female pursuit of sexual activity and pleasure. Is female sexuality only legitimate when spoken though the intellectual upper class rich woman? To be a female human has always come with side effects. It has been hazardous, bound in repercussion, controversy and limiting. Science and ‘nature’ and later on psychiatric discourses reduce the human to his/her reproductive system (The ovum, nurturing, passive is a biological expression of female characteristics and the sperm, active is characteristic of the male) justify social norms. For Foucault the category of sex is a “regulatory ideal as it not only functions as a norm, but a productive power to produce—demarcate, circulate, differentiate—the bodies it controls” (Butler, 1993: xii) The universal ‘truth’ of the caveman having higher testosterone and more muscle mass and greater physical strength to hunt bison, buffalo and mammoth to keep the cavewoman alive has been used as a ‘biological truth’ to confine male/female roles in history. As gender was not politicized and discursive in Stone Age society and man as having stronger physical strength and woman being able to give birth would not have defined men as ‘better’ or ‘superior’ to women but both equal in ensuring the human survival. “Butler’s project has been to make us realise that sex is as culturally constructed as gender and motherhood is a socially constructed institution regularly used to legitimize women’s oppression and to take sexual difference to be determined by reference to the potential reproductive function of the body”. (Moi, 1999: 41)
The universal ‘natural’ model of the male/female reproductive couple in antiquity was not bound in desire and sexuality. Individuals weren’t categorised by their sexual practices or desires and the distinction between heterosexual or homosexual did not exist. Marriage was a social and political arrangement and the model of desire and noble love was pederasty. Men in love with men was where the Eros manifested; sexuality in Greece meant primarily the pursuit of boys and any sexual dialogue was purely a male affair as there was no concept of female sexuality.
As Foucault examines in the History of sexuality V.1 (1981) sexuality has always been used as the model of the ‘truth’ about selfhood and instead of prohibitions, the Greeks’ development of the self as sexual subject was from ‘self-techniques’. Immorality in sex lay in excess, not in the thing itself. And too much sex was viewed as danger to health rather than as an intrinsic evil. But again all of this dialogue on sex and passion mastery was eminently a male affair and concerned with members of the ruling class: free men.
Women’s sexuality became more public and visible with Christianity when the devil made an appearance. From being ostracised if she was a prostitute of performer in the Roman Empire, Woman went from marginal category to a satanic force. God and nature had given the female human a role and deviating from this natural role and the family structure would be a crime against nature and God. This dichotomy between good and evil as the model of ‘truth’ was used as a political device to manipulate societal, economic and climatic factors.
During the Medieval period the concept of Satan had become prominent, with many believing that his activities on Earth would soon begin appearing. The witch trials in Europe of 16th-18th century are a great example of how woman was used as scapegoat for internal panic-driven reaction to external historical events and/or economic turmoil that posed a threat to Christianity: military threat from the Vikings, Mongols and Turks that would weaken and destabilize Christianity as well as a method of social control to cement the elite’s dominance over the poorer sections of the population (Scarre & Callow 2001). Ultimately it was the woman (75 to 85% of those accused in the early modern witch trials were women from the lower orders) who were used as scapegoats to embody the threat, the satanic force, the danger to humankind, God, stability, nature, family and health during a massive period of disruption as a response to socio-political turmoil as a reaction to a disaster that had befallen the community such as crop-failure, war, or disease. (Scarre & Callow 2001). Women who were accused of hindering men to perform sexual acts (impotence would have been the fault of woman/witch), not being able to conceive (witch) or ‘slaying the infant in the mother’s womb (abortion) and women with a quarrelsome and aggressive nature, unpopular anti-social women and unmarried women and those with birth mark, boils, moles had made a pact with Satan. Even the change in the weather was attributed to women as diabolical forces. King James VI suffered from storms whilst traveling to Denmark in 1590 and fearing that witches were planning to kill him subsequently wrote a book Daemonologie (James VI 1597) about the menace that witches posed to society.
Hunting witches and annihilating them was also motivated for financial profit. The witch finder general Mathew Hopkins’ aggressive witch hunts of 1644-1647 was hugely motivated by the commission he made from each hunt, confession and execution. Thus the number of women picked at random to be accused rose significantly during Hopkins’ activities as did extreme barbaric methods of torture in order to produce more confessions, more executions and thus more commission for Hopkins.
Christian morality continues to regulate human sexuality to the present day, with the procreative monogamous heterosexual man and woman as the universal model from which to define the ‘other’. Biopower’s rationalist and then scientific confessional models of psychoanalysis, medicine and the multiplication of sex therapies in the 20th century was not only an indispensable element in the development of capitalism in order to organize/exploit bodies into the machinery of production, this ‘science of sex’ used since the 18th century as the ‘truth’ about the self is an innovation that opens up endless possibility for class, gender, race oppression.
Female sexuality became public in the early 20th century when the ‘liberation’ of desire became attached to capitalism in the West in the 1920s. After the First World War where millions of lives had been lost, the women’s contribution to the war effort challenged the concept of women’s physical and mental inferiority and made it more difficult to maintain that women were unfit to vote which also helped to dispel the fears that surrounded women’s entry into the public arena (Hume 1982). Women’s role bound to their biology had destabilized. Advances in medicine such as the first effective treatment of syphilis in 1910 also helped with ‘freeing’ sexual desire and letting it loose in the 1920s. In culture, art forms were used to solidify phallogocentric gender norms.
Using woman as a sinister force that is in cahoots with the devil has been transferred into woman as hysteric, craving a penis and psychologically disturbed if pursuing and engaging in sexuality ‘like a man’. The childless or unmarried woman is incomplete, the sexually active woman so because of some abuse in her childhood. Art forms of literature in the 20th and 21st century have been used to strengthen these ideas, especially banned erotic literature which enhances its appeal, establishing it even more powerfully as the speaker of ‘truth’ that is breaking free from the shackles of the old Victorian order and as symbol of resistance/ liberation.
When Henry Miller wrote the autobiographical Tropic of Cancer, it was published in Paris in 1934 and not in the USA until 1961 and quickly became regarded as a classic of 20th century literature. It was the voice of a man who spoke to the post-depression era working class man; the angry, bitter, starving, poverty-stricken white heterosexual male. His philosophical and political observations of life in Paris as a struggling writer are told with acerbic humour, crude language, and graphic sexual encounters and with a beat poetic flow to a voice who is intellectual, cultured, well-read and socially astute. Living among a community of bohemians in Paris, he intermittently suffers from hunger, homelessness, squalor, loneliness throughout his many graphic sexual encounters.
The setting of 1920s Paris is a multi-textured poetic concoction of prostitutes, pimps, intellectuals, writers and poets, artists, nobility, poverty, despair, art, gutter and sperm, adoration, listless lives, whores in doorways, unrequited love and hungry bellies, Jews and pimps, bed bugs, nobility and syphilis, cinemas and brothels, epileptics, food (he’s constantly starving), renaissance, sparrows pecking at a fresh turd, loose cunts, unwashed anuses and big stiff cocks and body lice and the clap and cumming on gowns and faces. The first person narrator is socially conscious, reads Dostoyevsky and appreciates Van Gogh and is using his voice for social criticism, philosophical reflection, sexually explicit language and activity and character study. Speech is guttural and raw-the use of cunt, cum, cock, fuck, pussy and the clap are abundant in the book- and characters even though sometimes caricaturized with hilarious farcical situations and dialogue, have a history and humanity to them. The destitute, fetid, louse and roach-infested, syphilitic, malnourished Paris is rich with tons of sexual activity. “Thick semen floods the gutters, and women in satin pumps stagger through the filth and vermin”. (Miller, 1934: 15)
His belly is constantly hungry as is his cock. The rabid desperate craving for food features heavily: hams cushioned in white fat, fried liverwurst and sweetbreads, even the reek of rancid butter are explicit. There is also explicit detail of poverty: the make-shift toilets and the shit floating, “…the earth is smeared with frozen grease, and there is a thick acrid stench of chemical burning. Over the Seine I see mud and desolation, street lamps drowning, men and women choking to death. Everywhere I go people are making a mess of their lives, everyone has his private tragedy, misfortune, grief, suicide, the atmosphere is saturated with disaster, frustration, futility”. (Miller, 1934: 12)
Cushioned in intellectualism, the phallus is the centre of all activity. Through the daily comings and goings: there it is at the centre of all life’s dramas and goings on: the stiff cock. This is the male human, the ‘natural’ male human. The eternal preoccupation: cunt. And the cunt is good for use but maddening and disgusting and it is a big hole that just wants to be filled up with any object; the bigger the better.
“O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. After me you can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. I am fucking you Tania and you will stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris’s chin.” (Miller, 1934: 5-6)
“Llona lay in Tottenham court road and fingered herself. She used roman candles and door knobs. Not a prick in the land big enough for her. Men went inside her and curled up…her tongue was full of lice and tomorrows. She had a German mouth, Russian ears, cunt international.” (Miller, 1934: 7)
Sexual activity is accessorised with: bed bugs crawling on the bodies, fear of the clap, being hungry, body smells and mildewed mattresses, women washing their pussy in the bidet before sex and cocks being examined for syphilis. Women are desperate for cock but they’re useless: a) when they are older than 30; b) when they are too fat or too skinny; C) when they are poor and d) when they fall in love with you. This blueprint for the ‘real’ ‘natural’ masculine has been ingrained in culture.
Women are constantly referred to as bitch, whore and mainly, cunt, described as caricatures and their bodies are criticised in detail. The weight and shape and buttocks and breast are often the wrong shape (too fat, or saggy or lopsided) and only the hole is of good use. There is not much mention of a woman’s mind, intellect or emotions (even a talented female musician Elsa is ‘a cunt) and female orgasms are non-existent. Women are extras hidden in the shadows and only fleshed out by their cunt, or fat bodies. Cunts (women) are only good for fucking or to get money from. The sexual engagement of women is only because of money and poverty. Miller’s intellectualism has the effect of legitimizing him as the definitive voice of authority so his thoughts and language on women and sex are taken as the voice of an intelligent, worldly scholar and solidified through literature into public consciousness. This working class male who despite starving and living in squalor emerges as a hero for his sharp intellectual wisdom and insightfulness into the human condition so his voice on women and sex becomes the voice of reason: establishing a phallus-centred cunt-chaser who is immune to the hardship of his surroundings and conditions as the definition of male, the natural male.
It was long after a male representation of sexuality- Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939) and Sexus (1949), and Plexus (1953) that a representation of female sexuality crept into the mainstream: Story of O (Reage 1954). Where Miller’s was a pornographic style bound in everyday language with sexual activity’s consequences of STDs, unwanted pregnancies, the intricacy of characters, poverty and intellectualism, the first female representation of sexuality in the mainstream was a fairy-tale-like story of a consensual sex slave and masochist who is the property of a group of elite wealthy men.
If Story of O had been written today in today’s language-words for the vagina in the book are belly, womb, sex, membranes (labia) and narrower passage (anus) – it would be seen as a ropey BDSM book. In 1954 when it came out pseudonymously it was to define the essentialist/phallogocentric concept of the male as the creator, drive, and initiator of sexual activity and the female as passive, her sexuality bound in psychological abnormality and neurosis; damaged, incomprehensible, hysterical and craving rape and dominance by men. For even though Nin’s flowery, genteel lace and satin erotica had already been written, it was not published until the ‘60s and ‘70s, making Story of O the first mainstream female sexual narrative to seep into the psyche.
It is an account of a female named O, who in the name of devotion to her lover, René consents to his wishes to let him prostitute her as a sex slave with ownership of her three orifices and bodily movements given to him (and subsequently joint ownership with his brother Sir Stephen) to a group of wealthy elite men, to be used for anal, vaginal and oral rape, torture and violence and for housework. Her gaze, her desire, her voice, her hands and legs, her pain, her pleasure (she is reprimanded by a man when he gets an inkling that she might just have gained a shred of pleasure as he was raping her) her breasts and all of her orifices belong to men to use when they want. Even her death (alternative ending to the story is when O, seeing that Sir Stephen is going to leave her, asks his permission from him to kill herself to which he gives his consent) belongs to the man.
Her body is represented as a sort of play-doh flesh as her anus is stretched by plugs for training, her buttocks branded by initials with a hot iron, and two heavy metallic rings sunk into her labia lips. It is uncontested slavery as O looks at her thin and painful body with pride. She gives consent to rape and having her anus ripped apart even though she is in utter agony. And even though she consents to being the property of her lover Rene and Sir Stephen for them to prostitute and use at will, to “…dispose of her body as they saw fit…to keep her in chains, the right to flog her as a slave, the right to ignore her pleadings and outcries…” (Reage, 1954: 102), she does not enjoy or want the physical pain. The shame she feels when the men hurl abuse at her and the loathing and revulsion from being anally raped is still not in any way an end to submitting herself to this role. “…what of himself [his sperm] he had left inside her anus was going to seep out gradually…mixed with the blood from her gashed flesh, that his gash would go on burning her so long as her behind refused to accommodate itself to him and he was going to tear it until it did”. (Reage, 1954: 121) O tells herself that she is heartily putting up with the torture and rape so that Sir Stephen might end up loving her and respecting her a little and she can be more to him than just sexual desire. She is doing all this to make men love her (first Rene then Sir Stephen) and constantly wails throughout the book: ‘I love you Rene, I love you, do what you want with me, I am yours, but don’t ever leave me, My God, don’t ever leave me,’ she begs.
Whilst the story of O is outwardly presented as a woman willingly seeking pain and as a consenting slave who responds to pain, degradation and suffering with gratitude (an active participant of BDSM) in reality she is only doing it to gratify Rene’s sexual fetish: prostituting her as a wretched three hole shit/piss/cum toilet. The story sells the idea that a woman’s devoted love must mean sacrifice and suffering that will catapult the woman into a spiritual pleasure resembling religious ecstasy. Whether it is seen by feminists as inciting rape and violence to women is irrelevant because its hidden form of power is in the tools it employs to legitimize the essentialist notion of female human as the sexual receiver and passive and a malleable body to be shaped, defined and manipulated. Firstly by cushioning it in fairy-tale settings of mystical castles, opulent chateaus, four poster beds, with wealthy noblemen (using the wealthy luxury life as a selling point to women: this is the reward you will get for giving your body’s ownership to men); and then by explicit detail to dress: laced bodices, silk stockings and satin bustled skirts, perfumed and powdered hairdos. It is the flowery prose blended with melodrama to make appealing the handbook of what the 1950s woman was being sold: you must yield, submit, be exposed, be defenceless; the theme of many mass produced female romance/erotica.
The most explicit form of legitimizing female as doll object is in the story’s explicit use of dress. O’s malleable body (anus stretched by plugs, skin ripped by crop, gaze never higher that floor level etc.) is justified by history’s use of fashion to restrict movement and time and O is only allowed to wear things that make the men’s assault and rape easily accessible. The whalebone corsets that throughout history have manipulated the waist to shrink to the 18 inch ideal size, the bustled multi- layered drapery skirts to make the female buttocks cartoonishly exaggerated and the bust, pulled, pushed, (in the 1920 taped down with gauze, and thereafter in the 1950s onwards inflated) to similar exaggerated cartoonish swollenness. This detailed use of dress to appeal to the female reader is to solidify and embolden the essentialist concept of female passivity and submissiveness.
What mainly legitimized this concept was the book’s preface written by book critic Jean Paulhan, titled Happiness in Slavery, in which he argued that women in their truest nature crave domination; that it is in women’s nature to want to be dominated by men and beaten by them. That a woman’s happiness is only produced as the result of men’s attention to them and that men must always be ready with a whip in hand when going to visit a woman as “…the woman yearns for this conquering violence, this rapacious eagerness to suffer…few are the men who have not dreamt of possessing a Justine (Paulhan, 1954: 273). In 1954 this is a handbook for women to learn of true female ‘nature’ and for men to legitimize further the notion of ‘natural’ masculinity as dominant, the creator of eroticism and how he has the natural right to shape, define, defile, use at will the female body and desire.
When feminists like Susan Sontag in her essay The Pornographic Imagination (Sontag 1982) defined the book as “authentic literature as opposed to trash over the counter fiction produced for mass taste” (Sontag, 1982: 206), they are automatically devaluing any erotic words or stories written by a ‘non-intellectual’; one from a working class uneducated background whose sexuality is not legitimized by literary elite. Sontag’s views are not only snobbish and classist but reinforcing patriarchal/misogynist gender constructs.
Like Reage, Nin located female sexuality in a fairy-tale world, a fantasy-like setting encapsulated in a utopian realm of divine, omnipotent men; of wealth, lace and satin and free of STDs or consequence. If Miller’s autobiographical literature was the bolting liberation of the ‘real natural’ male sex from the old Victorian model of locked down silenced conjugal sex into this revolutionary confessional art form of ‘truth telling’, then Anais Nin was the female counterpart. Nin is known by sex positive feminists as the pioneer of female sexuality. Nin who was a fixture in 1920s Paris artist/intellectual scene was considered an underground writer and only became a ‘star’ when she was 63 years old with the publication of The Diary of Anais Nin in 1966. A feminist icon worshipped by young women who believed she had provided the first real account of how a woman could thrive in the male-dominated world of literature. The collection of mini stories in Delta of Venus is her most erotic work written in the 1940s for a private collector who commissioned Nin to produce pornographic fiction for a dollar a page and was published posthumously in 1977. As the client’s requirements was explicitly for an emphasis on the pornographic and to leave out the poetry of the language, in the preface to DOV Nin says that she as she was getting paid to write with these requirements, she began to write exaggerated, outlandish caricatures of sex fully aware that these were mechanical repetitive accounts of sexuality that Nin herself considered to be a joke (Nin 1977: vii-xiii).
From the preface Nin makes it clear that there is a natural male/female sexuality and must always be established as such in erotic writing. Acknowledging that there exists so far only one model of erotica-the writing of men-she makes it her mission to bring to the world and to the public what female sexuality naturally is: women can never separate sex from love of the whole man, women’s sexuality is fused with emotion, with love and monogamy, rather than promiscuous like the man’s. (Nin, 1977: xiii). She says that she is using women’s language in the book. So even though this is a book written purely for a client’s pornographic requirements, Nin establishes that this is a text that represents true feminine sexuality and language.
Whereas Miller’s sexuality was out in the streets, accessible to the masses, bound with STDs, Nin’s female sexuality is located in fantasy-land, reflective of what it represents in public consciousness: female sexuality belongs to the unrealistic and invisible. Within silks and satins and perfume, inexperienced, sweet and passive young women await the penis to come make them whole. The big distinction is class by its settings and language: dream-like and slow in rhythm, “…skin is as luminous as the finest sea shells , eyes greener than the sea, the vulva is a tulip, the odour of it that of sea shells, the pubic hair a golden honey tone, the penis a big polished wood baton, the eyes almonds and hair a flowing silky waterfall, the vulva roseate with a secret milk of salty honey” (Nin, 1977: 13, 15,29) . Within this watercolour bubble of purple prose with tactual palpable adjectives, the penis is central to all narrative. The men aggressively shove penises in mouths and vaginas and the women swoon and shudder at the wonder of the penis as the lay back waiting to be filled with ‘honey’ pouring out of them. In this world there is no fuck or cunt or cock or STDs or pregnancies, emotional hurt or betrayal and the vagina is referred to as her ‘sex’.
It’s a world where the ‘other’ is an exotic object: Arab, Cuban, African men are exotic ornaments thrown in to garnish the adjectives of sexual activity. The hermaphrodite also, thrown in for titillating curiosity as is the homosexual. Disease and illness like TB is casually mentioned and races are Disney characters, and being different isn’t a negative even when adults rape children. Everything is a soapy pink bubble where Arabian women wear jewellery over their naked bodies in the streets, where the cities are adorned with Chinese lanterns and silk hangings as women of all races lie around languidly on Persian rugs waiting for a penis to enter their holes. “Take me, Antonio, take me, I can’t wait… by this time the hunger in her womb was like a raging fire. She was now the slave of this enormous brown man. He ruled like a king “(Nin, 1977: 30). The male characters are an all-powerful presence in all the stories, whether they are nobility or an artist or just a younger brother, they possess a lionesque sexual prowess with the intricate sexual skills of a Kama Sutra expert. And all have a natural male uncontrollable urge to unleash their penis out so that women swoon, faint, melt and even cry when being violently possessed by force by a male because they need it. The penis is as central to the text as Miller’s narratives, driving the story and so driving the world, culture, society. Phallus worship.
In this utopian fairy-tale world where everyone has sex with everyone and is constantly in the throes of orgasms, the eroticization of paedophilia features prominently. Firstly in a story about sexual activity between a father and his two 10 year old stepdaughters and son, (Hungarian Adventurer: 1-7) who ride his torso and grab his penis until he orgasms. He fondles them everywhere to their delight and as they get older he rapes them until they weep but he has taught them to kiss each other when he has sex with them and inserts his penis in his son’s mouth. Then in a boarding school where a priest molests boys and a ‘delicate blonde’ 9 year old boy is gang raped by older boys in detail as the boys reach great shuddering orgasms as he weeps and screams (The Boarding School: 19-21) .
If the contraceptive pill had destabilized the ‘biological’ role of woman and given her access to sexual activity equal to men, DOV and Anais Nin’s diaries establishing her as a feminist icon quickly reigned in this sexual revolutionary euphoria for women and put them back in their place. This feminist icon whose word young women clung onto as the champion of women, defined women’s sexuality as passive, craving to be taken by force, and bound in wealth and luxury. It was a classist, misogynist, racist, paedophilic ‘feminist icon’ who celebrated and promoted paedophilia, the female as passive and subservient to the phallus, and the non-white ‘other’ as a curiosity shop trinket.
The mass produced female-focused erotica that followed mimicked this concept, keeping the tradition of Mills and Boon books alive with wealthy and powerful chauvinistic male aggressors and delicate inexperienced female supporting roles in romance/erotic mass produced literature. The feminist backlash to this phallogocentrism was embodied in Kathy Acker’s self-conscious work, to challenge the universal I, reason, and even the coherency of post structuralism, especially in Blood and Guts in High school (1978). The book was a deliberate anti narrative, an anarchic act of deconstructing phallogocentrism, smashing the rigid heteronormative essentialist concept of the West’s obsessive capital-driven social values. So that even analysing it would be to defeat its purpose as we cannot but help to engage in phallogocentrism itself as they are the only theories available to us so far. It is a self-conscious attempt to disengage with language, to destroy the consistency; the narrative of social inequity and undermine and deconstruct dominant narratives that construct and maintain social norms.
The central character is ten year old girl Janey, who is having an incestuous relationship with her father and actively pursues traumatic sexual encounters, is phallus-obsessed, and enjoys rape, pain and suffering. The theme of the book seems to repeat a series of traumatic returns using collages of dream maps, disruption, repetition, plagiarism, visual art, patches of thought, poetry, drawings, a satirical letter from Erica Jong, a beast-fable, a grotesque of Jimmy Carter and Egyptian mythology. The text is multivocal, switching back and forth between first person narrative, third person narrative and dialogue in third person to not let us get too comfortable with the reading experience. Acker’s explicit engagement with the poststructuralist modes of critique brings to the foreground at least three main threads of poststructuralist discourse including: phallogocentrism, language, the oedipal family, capital and the imperial through Janey’s repetitious narrative of oedipalization and abjection.
Acker attempts to illustrate how the human subject has been constructed as a coherent and consistent, living organism, but only patriarchal systems and phallogocentrism have given it order, structure and meaning. Rather than refusing to write on the grounds that all writing is subject to the authoritarian logic of the oedipo-capitalist schema, Acker prefers not to write coherent narrative. Acker’s anti-narrative shows the reader their complicity with a set of cultural norms but so is her method of deconstructing the dominant order as she is herself engaging in masculinist psychiatric discourse: pursuing the phallus/father/trauma obsession. Also Acker’s alternative structure/ resistance to dominant norms is bound with trauma experiences as outwardly all paths end in suffering, illness, psychological torment, sexual violence and death. But why are her resistances all engaged with the oedipal narrative, by enjoying rape and incest and pain?
Normalising the experience of father/child sexual relationship and the pursuit of sexual trauma by a child through various fathers: Pimp, Mr Dimwit, President Carter, Jean Genet and so on can be seen to discursively enact a feminine identity in constant negotiation and to engage in and triumph over this phallocentric discourse. Is Acker successful in her indictment of classic psychoanalytic discourse if Janey’s perpetually oedipal phallus-obsessed voice repeats desire again and again for the father? Despite her constant attempts at revolt, at life as a criminal and possible terrorist, Janey cannot get beyond this need which is atypical of psychoanalysis of trauma and proves that Acker is actively engaging in what she contests. This triumph over trauma depiction just means that we are again engaging in the oedipal script discursively.
In her essay All in the Family: Blood and Guts in High School (2004) Susan E. Hawkins says: “That Acker should perceive phallic power as monolithic and all pervasive, places her historically and culturally within a late seventies, radical feminism which has been critiqued for its essentialism and for its failure to distinguish the many cultural and racial differences between women”. (Hawkins, 2004: 645). I would also argue that because of the time it was written in (in the ‘70s) Janey’s repetitive and constant phallus obsession and pursuit of rape, trauma and abjection would have been represented by second wave feminists as the hetero desire that drives Janey’s nightmarish existence is the root of female destruction. It is Acker’s failed attempt to think outside patriarchal oppression and phallogocentrist culture, because the only alternative presented to us is transgression that is bound in criminality, trauma, abuse, rape, prostitution, disease and death. The desire for hetero sex is further demonized by having profoundly sinister consequences.
With advanced capitalism the proliferation of sexuality has been presented to us as liberation: Liberation needs to be purchased with sex accessories, sexual image, and dress and body modification. Female sexuality continues to be bound in oppressive discourse: was she abused as a child to be so sexual? Is she a drug addict? A prostitute? What is the reason for a woman to be actively in pursuit of sexual pleasure and activity as it is not female ‘nature’. Mass consumerism presents the illusion of female sexuality as active, free from the old shackles of being passive with the condition that it is bound in material goods, something to be bought; liberation equals consumerism. Popular narratives such as Sex and the City (HBO 1998-2003) promote and ingrain this to the public consciousness. Women are legitimized to be sexual and pursue and engage in unlimited sexual activity and pleasure when they can afford to engage in being consumerists of designer brand lifestyle: clothing, accessories, luxury restaurants etc.
What has been lost in all female sexual literature is ‘what is eroticism?’ We only know of eroticism from the traditional heteronormative texts of Nin, Reage, Mills and Boon, Miller etc. Mass consumerism and the proliferation of pornography and commodification of sexuality have been the antithesis of eroticism if eroticism is dependent on mystery and the forbidden to make it elicit and erotic. So when writers like Katherine Millet write their sexual memoirs as the definition of contemporary female sexual liberation they are also complicit in eliminating eroticism as they are presenting sex as just perfunctory, as a bodily motion like hunger and defecation.
With her memoir The sexual life of Catherine M (2009) Katherine Millet became lauded as an exemplary voice of contemporary feminine sexuality because of its perfunctory nature of conveyor belt of faceless males who fill Millet’s three holes one after the other, page after page, in groups or gang bangs or threesome or solos in a repetitive cycle. The critics’ legitimization of it as the voice of a unique feminine sexuality (as if only a very rare number of women are so sexually uninhibited): “…the opposite of lurid…tells the truth about desire…a Parisian intellectual… keeps crudeness at bay” (Various 2009) further inferiorized female sexuality by making it a class-specific category only accessible to a few. If Millet had not come from an upper class educated so-called cultured background and not been a Parisian intellectual would she still be able to voice feminine sexuality? Would she be unable to ‘tell the truth about desire?’ Is female sexuality only legitimate if it comes from the voice of the moneyed, educated, upper class and the ‘intellectual’? And what of the crudeness and luridity? Why do women have to ‘keep crudeness at bay’ for their sexuality to be legitimate? Do working class women from a council estate with less education or ‘culture’ who want to talk ‘crudely’ or ‘luridly’ like Henry Miller or Bukowski not have legitimate sexual experiences?
So if this so-called ‘truth about female sexuality’ is about being a mechanical ‘lie on my back’ and take a crowd of guys one after another and never see them kind of person” (Millet, 2009: 71), not about sexual attraction to a person, not one for seductions or flirtations and faceless men who are just objects for vagina/mouth and ass filling, and sex without permission (71), will anything other be deemed prudish? What if you are not attracted to a man you are having sex with? Does that make you non-liberated? What if you don’t want old or an ugly man to fuck you in all three holes? Does that mean that you have yet to be a strong sexual female?
I don’t believe that Millet has a duty to have a political/ feminist duty to represent female sexuality as she is merely a person relaying her own experiences, but I believe it is the disturbing repetitive cycle of dominant orders who speak through cultural critics that define what is legitimate female/male sexuality and their agenda is classist, racist and misogynistic in order to maintain the white Western wealthy as the elite of the world and female sexuality as problematic. First by its passivity in Nin, then with all her good intentions by Acker’s trauma-abuse-bound representation lauded as feminist revolutionary, and with Millett by the upper-class robotic going through the motions.
The female erotic book has always been only that: a category; a book about sex. Never have we had like Miller, a female book that depicts accounts of female sexuality within a book about life itself: maybe a refugee fleeing her homeland, a female detective giving us an insight into her work etc. No, female sexuality must be a category and sexual activity must be confined to its own category of location. As Foucault says:
“Illegitimate sexualities (those not tied to reproduction) were confined to places of profit: the brothel and mental institution…Only in those places would untrammelled sex have a right to (safely insularized) forms of reality, and only to clandestine, circumscribed, and coded types of discourse.” (Foucault, 1981: 4)
On bookshelves, the category of erotica is confined to its own category of location. Only in this location can sex have a right to safely insularized forms of reality and coded exchange. When Roxana Shirazi’s The Last Living Slut: Born in Iran, Bred backstage (2010) was published, its account of graphic sex interlaced with accounts of the Iranian revolution and war, account of racial and cultural prejudice and the wold of rock n roll caused mainstream bookshops an extraordinary degree of angst as to where to put the book: war and Iranian revolution memoir? Erotica? Rock music book? It was the graphic sex that would not allow it to be in the regular non-fiction section. Because accounts of sexual activity must have its own confined insularized location. Mitzi Szereto is an editor and author who wants to see the term ‘erotica’ removed from novels and anthologies that include depictions of sexual activities. Other authors celebrate the term ‘erotica’ but also question why literature ‘with the sex left in’ should be considered outside literary fiction.
We still live in a world where women are demonized for their sexuality when men are idolized for it. Foucault’s strong culturalist position prevented him from ever opposing anything remotely like ‘natural sex’ to the figures of modem eroticism. To him discourse does not so much tame sex as it ‘invents’ it: “We have had sexuality since the eighteenth century, and sex since the nineteenth. What we had before that was no doubt the flesh.” (Foucault, 1981: 197). Gayle Rubin (1984) argues that instead of describing behaviours as feminine or masculine we need to think of behaviour without thinking of them as sex-specific. As long as a person’s sexual activity is tied to their humanity, intellect, education, class, capitalism and the class system will continue to use sex for its political purposes.
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