Sometimes life throws a humble monthly blogger a last-minute topic that she simply can’t resist. A friend forwarded an xoJane article to me called “The Audacity of Lena Dunham, and Her Admirable Commitment to Making Us Look at Her Naked.” The author discusses how actresses who do not meet the contemporary standards of “beauty” (read: super skinny with large breasts), such as Lena Dunham in Girls and Kate Winslet in Titanic, elicit passionate disgust for refusing to hide in a corner covered by a tarp because they don’t fit into a size 0.
As a female who has not escaped the pain of dealing with body image issues myself over the years—and if you have avoided our culture’s toxic messages, please let me know how you managed that miracle so I can pass the wisdom on to women young and old—I was angered by the insults lobbed at Dunham. Popular assumptions about female sexuality and attractiveness unfortunately have not evolved since I was on the dating scene. Yet I began to see that these same issues apply not just to my imperfect body, but to my scandalous profession: writing about sex. For example, in this quote from the article, we can easily substitute “genuine sexual experiences” for “ thighs”:
“We expect, weirdly, to be protected from Lena Dunham’s thighs -- as if Dunham herself must be made to understand how uncomfortable they make us, how DANGEROUS they are, to a media consuming public that doesn’t want to appreciate the variety intrinsic to reality, but who are happy to only see people and bodies that we instantly recognize and which do not challenge us. This goes for thighs, sure, but also for a wide array of other things as well, from race to age to disability. Don’t make us look. We don’t know how to process it. It’s HARD.”
Do readers who buy erotica expect to be protected from “real” sex? Sometimes I think so. Talking and writing about real sex is dangerous. Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s difficult to process. It seems the market calls for gorgeous, almost freakishly toned bodies to decorate the covers, partners who have mutual and multiple orgasms, and a miraculous absence of shame, inhibition, or disappointment among other familiar elements of sexual encounters, especially with strangers. This is the safe and predictable way to write and read about sex. Of course, many readers are doubtless trying to escape difficult issues from real life when they turn to erotica, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But surely there’s something to be gained by allowing for variety, challenge, and a potentially healing identification with the complexities of real sex.
Not that there aren’t editors and writers who do take on these challenges. For example, Joan Price has taken on the radical task of presenting “senior sexuality” (that is, partners over—gasp—fifty years old) in a positive light. Just for a giggle, count how many positive images of sexuality involving older people you see in the media over the next few days. Indeed do you see any images at all? Since, hopefully, we’re all going to get older and have great sex for as long as possible, why wouldn’t we all want to see inspirational examples of this? Why must sex between older people be presented as ridiculous and disgusting? Or at best channeled into a fantasy of past youth? Is it perhaps that “senior sex” reminds us that our parents and grandparents and so many older, ordinary people around us are sexual beings? That might indeed be hard to process, but fascinating, too, if we have the courage to take the leap.
While I applaud the relatively recent trend of portraying nude male torsos on the covers of erotic books targeted at women, I also feel a pang that these naked men are invariably buff to the extreme. Any actual person with that level of muscle definition must do little else but work out and take steroids. I’m not naive enough to argue publishers switch to regular guys with beer bellies and atrophied biceps, but frankly I’m more turned on—or rather less turned off—by a more realistic image, just as I am by nuanced, believable stories.
I’m sure on some level we all take it for granted that our collective erotic imagination is corseted into a very narrow range of possibilities—young, predominantly white people with exaggerated secondary sex characteristics. But perhaps if we begin to question what society—and we personally—are pushing away when we settle for these cliches in our images and our stories, we might come to a deeper understanding of what we personally desire, and how those desires have been shaped and distorted to keep us “safe.”
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor