Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sex and Power, Night and Day

Dreams and fantasies—we treat them as if they’re night and day. Night dreams speak to us in inscrutable codes that require the interpretation of Sigmund Freud or a book on dream symbols. On the other hand, our daydreams, sexual fantasies included, are generally read as transparent, a simple expression of will and desire. If you fantasize about being tied up by a billionaire, your husband had better get nervous the next time Bill Gates happens to drop in on your monthly book club meeting.

This literal view is often applied to erotica, sexual fantasy’s bookish sister, as well. Erotica writers (who we all know don leather corsets and thigh-high stockings every morning whatever their sex) write stories about their own experiences. Erotica readers in turn are highly disposed to act out these stories at home. I’ve been told by two different people that all the farm supply stores in Iowa sold out of rope soon after 50 Shades of Grey soared to fame. I suspect it’s an urban legend, but it proves my point. Our society is rather blinkered and literal-minded when it comes to sex.

This might be one reason why some people are hesitant to write erotica or openly share their fantasies. A woman who gets turned on by an aggressive lover obviously wants to be raped in real life and is ambivalent about sexual equality in society at large. If a man likes dominatrix stories, surely the only thing stopping him from signing on with an official domme is the cost. I haven’t yet seen a quick-n-easy explanation for the M/M boom of fiction by women for women (hmm, good old-fashioned penis envy times two?), but maybe that proves my point, too.

By simplifying sexual fantasy in this way, it may seem we succeed in transforming our uncontrollable, mysterious imaginations into something safe and explicable, while reminding us that unbridled sexual urges are weird, transgressive, and often illegal. In any case, it keeps people quieter about the steamy dramas in their heads.

Except erotica writers.

The apparent danger of a more complex, nuanced view of sexual desire is yet one more reason why sexually explicit writing must be denigrated as filth and trash. However, if you read an erotic story (which includes daydreams and fantasies) with a careful eye, I’m sure you’ll find it as rich and elusive and worthy of analysis as any literary short story. Freud already showed that can be done. But the recent attention to (and many would say misunderstanding of) BDSM got me thinking about how power infiltrates this process of reading and writing erotica at every level, even without rushing out to buy up the rope supply at your local feed store.

If you think about it, sex and power have something very important in common. From childhood on, we’re forbidden to discuss either openly. I hardly need elaborate on the fact that sexual information is deemed harmful to minors, but our society’s power structure is equally off limits. As children we’re not supposed to question the authority of our parents, teachers or other adults. Those who do are punished, if not physically as in the past, then by diagnosis of a behavioral problem and medication. And besides, we live in a democracy where everybody is equal, and if anyone is losing the race up the ladder, it’s their own lazy fault, so what’s to critique?

Nevertheless, in the media and our lives at school, home and church, we constantly witness the workings of both sexual feelings and power play, but we can’t acknowledge them honestly. At best, they’re hidden behind safe cliche. Thus, I would argue, these two forbidden elements of human interaction are forced below the surface, into the darkness of night, if you will, and can become suggestively entwined in our imaginations. Erotic stories break one taboo. Erotic power play stories battle two—which is why they may be so compelling.

Equally appealing, for me anyway, is the true pleasure of considering the possible “meanings” of a sexual fantasy and its power dynamics. There are no right answers in this exercise, of course. Rather the more possibilities you can come up, the better.

Take the ever-popular femsub story. The simple reading is that women naturally liked to be dominated by the superior male, and these fantasies are an honest expression of a timeless female desire. I’m a feminist, but to be fair, maybe there’s something to this (especially if you replace “female” with “human”). But take a closer look at someone else’s story or your own, and what else could be going on? Wow, the subordinate partner seems to possess power—less obvious but critical to the game. Because the dominating partner—whether boss or billionaire, duke or doctor—desires the sub and aims to know and please her.

But why stop there? I’m reminded of the controversial scene in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina where Bone transforms her step-father’s sexual abuse into masturbatory fantasies. Could femsub fantasies be a way to work through the subordination and repression women still face today? If the authority figure is ordering us to be sexual, then we can be obedient good girls by complying while also enjoying sensual pleasure. Could it be that a cool, distant dom also gives us permission to get off without the prescribed romantic relationship making us honest women?

For men, I’ve noticed that delayed ejaculation is a common power play device in erotic stories. What might be going on here? Might it recreate a man’s experience of sexual scarcity and helplessness, his satisfaction fully subject to the only important question on earth—will (s)he or won’t (s)he? Does it play with the reality that everyone, men included, are punished and ridiculed for sexual feelings outside of a very narrow scenario, and god knows exhorted to wait, wait, wait? Yet, doesn’t it also show a very macho self-control over a powerful desire? And the payoff is that we all know when the tension has been building for a long time, the release is all the more powerful.

Of course every fantasy and every story will have its own unique elements—my goal is not to endorse another form of simplification. Rather, I’d like to encourage erotica readers to enjoy power’s slippery lubricant along with the other more visible and tactile varieties. To me erotic stories are much more than a masturbation aid. They are windows to our unspeakable desires within and our complex relationship with our culture’s sexual values and myths without. The mystery of night and the intensity of day all mixed up together.

So bring on the billionare and let the fun begin.

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

10 comments:

  1. Hi Donna, great post that raises some interesting questions. It's also worth remembering that every relationship, BDSM or not, has some sort of power dynamic going on, so maybe in reading about more open power exchanges readers are finding a way of exploring the power struggles in their own relationships. I don't know...

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  2. Donna - good and interesting insights that I'll enjoy mulling over.

    My current take on femsub is that the popularity hinges on the idea that through the story, the male concentrates on how the woman is responding. Closely concentrates. As if he's listening with his whole being. And no matter if he withholds, delays, or allows orgasm, he at least knows how to get her there.

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  3. Thank you, Tamsin. I absolutely agree that every relationship has a power dynamic that the partners don't necessarily feel comfortable discussing openly, or maybe they aren't even conscious of what's going on. So the more open fictional/dramatic treatment would be satisfying to read!

    Kathleen, I also agree with you (I'm very agreeable) and have thought the same thing. It's the intense attention and caring required of a dom that fits with the ideal romantic hero. And indeed, I don't suppose a clumsy, ignorant dom would be much of an escape from reality, lol.

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  4. Donna - don't get me started on real life doms. They all (okay, all but one I've met) seem to be aerospace engineers.

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  5. Aerospace engineers, really now, Kathleen?! I would LOVE to get you started on real life doms actually. And does the engineering background bring a detail-oriented, how-does-this-thing-actually-work approach? Again, not that there is a "right" answer for everyone, just, a good dose of reality would both illuminate and complicate the prevailing fantasy.

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  6. Donna - If we ever meet for drinks, I'll tell you what I've observed from social encounters with this particular breed.

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  7. Hi Mistress Storey!

    Thinking about your post makes me want to pull out my copies of Nancy's Fridays "My Secret Garden" and "Forbidden Flowers". Those were the books where I first came across women's sexual fantasies and I find the subject endlessly fascinating.

    The funny thing I've always found, maybe you too, I don't know, is that it's easier to talk conversationally in real life about our sexual experiences than it is about our sexual fantasies. At the OGG blog I've posted in the past the story of how I lost my virginity, but I've never been able to write about my sexual fantasies even though by and large they're pretty bland stuff. I don;t know why that is, but I suspect this is universal.

    Garce

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  8. It's a date, Kathleen!

    Garce, it takes a lot of courage to talk about sex in an honest, personal way, of course, whether real sex or fantasy sex. Although most (all) of my erotic stories are a kind of sexual fantasy, and whether I start out that way or not, I do find aspects of them arousing, it would still be hard to sit down and describe in any detail my sexual fantasies. Which are pretty run-of-the-mill, too.

    It could be that it opens us up to "analysis." I well remember Dr. Robert Chartham who would actually analyze people's fantasies in Penthouse and Viva in the 1970's. (Peeking at my sister's Viva's was my intro to sexually explicit magazines). Even at the time I was horrified by the good doctor's arbitrary responses. Well, maybe not so arbitrary. He would praise the women for being so open and sexual and scold the men for being male chauvinist pigs with serious mental problems. But I identified with the men, too, I guess. Anyway, there does seem to be this immediate impulse to judge a fantasy for dangerous tendencies, so best to keep quiet!

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  9. There's another dynamic working in the appeal of femsub fiction, at least for some. Many women in fact exercise considerable power - or at least control - in their daily lives. They're stuck with an excess of responsibility. Submission allows them to let go of that responsibility for a while, to enjoy the rare pleasure of having someone else make the decisions.

    Then there's also the case where a woman can't comfortably own her fantasies or desires. For instance, she may want to experience anal sex, but feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit that. A D/s scenario allows her to imagine her taboo fantasies becoming real, without having to explicitly choose the forbidden actions.

    Excellent article, Donna!

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  10. Great points, Lisabet. I am definitely on board with the liberating power of the male "voice" ordering a woman to be sexual, when that same authority was warning her not be for as long as she could remember. It's a fascinating and limitless topic of inquiry!

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