Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Friday, March 18, 2016

Once A Slut Always A Slut?: Why Fallen Women Can’t Get Up





When I first began the research for my novel set in the 1910s, I expected to learn about the past—ideals and attitudes and fears about sexuality a hundred years ago. Since then—it’s been almost a year now since I started this project--I have learned a lot about how sex was discussed in that time, but I’ve also realized how much of these same concepts and feelings inform our current attitudes toward sexuality.

One of the many time-honored mythologies about sexuality is that it is a natural, physical act that lies beyond the reach of culture. There is some truth to this, of course, but sex is so much more than bodies. As erotica writers we know it’s about stories we tell ourselves.

One historical reference that has really stayed with me is Lynda Nead’s Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain. Nead’s book focuses on images in the visual arts, in particular the image of the “fallen” middle-class woman. The painting above is “Misfortune,” the first in a triptych known as “Past and Present” (1858) by Augustus Leopold Egg, which hauntingly portrays the downfall of a respectable wife and mother. In this painting, the woman has literally fallen down on the floor in her emotional anguish at the discovery of her adultery.

Like HEA’s and HFN’s required in a marketable romance today, stories about women who strayed from the path of virtue in Victorian England had to follow one accepted trajectory. A wife who had sexual relations outside of marriage would be expelled from polite society forever. Inevitably abandoned by her wicked lover, her only recourse was prostitution. While she might enjoy the luxury of a first-class brothel for a while, after a few short years she would be walking the streets, infected with venereal disease and clutching the body of her illegitimate child who died in her arms. Her own death came soon after, either by starvation, illness or drowning herself in the river, as we see in Egg’s third painting in the triptych, “Despair.”



In other words, ladies, don’t seek sexual gratification with anyone but your husband. It won’t end well. Or will it?

William Acton, author of Prostitution Considered in Its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects in London and Other Large Cities; with Proposals for the Mitigation and Prevention of Its Attendant Evils (1857), disagreed. In his sociological study, he found no organized progression between the stages of prostitution. Many women, although admittedly of the working class, had sexual relations that involved the exchange of money, but went on to marry and have families. Prostitutes at higher-class brothels sometimes married their patrons and claimed they made attractive mates because they knew what men wanted. Acton asserted that most prostitutes died of the same diseases ordinary people did. Comparing the health of a prostitute at age 35 to that of a married woman or a working seamstress, he wrote:

“We shall seldom find that the constitutional ravages often thought to be necessary consequences of prostitution exceed those attributes to the cares of a family and the heart-wearing struggles of virtuous labor.” (Nead, p. 148)

But why let reality get in the way of a good story? It was true enough that a woman suffered far more social opprobrium for extra-marital sex than her spouse. An unfaithful husband could discreetly step out of the bounds of propriety, then step back in again if he so chose, with no loss of status. His wife was expected to look the other way.

Ironically, although women suffered more for an affair, it was assumed they had no sexual desire of their own. Her husband’s negligence was presumed to lead to a woman’s weakness to the overtures of a seducer. A commentator in The Westminster Review (1850) summed up the contemporary understanding:

“In men, in general, the sexual desire is inherent and spontaneous, and belongs to the condition of puberty. In the other sex, the desire is dormant, if not non-existent, till excited; always till excited by intercourse... If the passions of women were ready, strong and spontaneous, in a degree even approaching the form they assume in the coarser sex, there can be little doubt that sexual irregularities would reach a height, of which, at present, we have happily no conception.” (Nead, p. 6)

Sir, I do agree, you had no conception indeed.

It would be nice to say this is all in the past, but we face many of the same issues today, albeit in a moderately altered form. Women are still divided between good girl and slut. The sexuality of good women is focused on one partner. The slut asserts her sexuality and is thus regarded as degraded, dangerous and uncontrollable. Kim Kardashian’s nude selfie brings out offended sanctimony worthy of the church ladies of yore (although a good number of finger-shaking critics were men).

Many people in the United States oppose not only abortion but birth control. As in Victorian times, only the female’s situation receives censure and punishment. I personally am quite confused as to why men rarely (I can’t think of an example) speak up about the consequences of a governmental restriction of birth control. Don’t men care if female contraceptives aren’t covered by insurance or, if things proceed along the desired trajectory of some extremists, are outlawed as they were from the mid-nineteenth (1873) to the mid-twentieth centuries (1965)? Surely, gentlemen, this will affect your intimate lives to an extent that merits protest?

More to the point, what are the stories we tell ourselves today about sex? Moral and religious restrictions have been loosened, but instead our public expression of sexuality is constrained by aesthetics. Only slim, beautiful people between the ages of 18 and 30 are considered worthy to be sexually active in our imaginations. The media portrays older or “ugly” people being sexual as gross and ridiculous. Marital sex is depicted as dull or nonexistent. Attractive unmarried people, on the other hand, engage in abundant hook-ups via Tinder, indulging in unrestrained anal and oral sex and threesomes. Women still seem to get the short end of the stick, so to speak, vulnerable to date rape and selfish lovers who don’t “give” them orgasms. Still it seems everyone is having more and better sex than you are. What can you buy to improve the situation?

The most obvious example of the continued degraded status of sexuality is the attitude toward erotica. Erotica writers are still considered “lesser,” not good enough to write “real” literature. We do it for the money--remember, I didn’t say these concepts were based in reality, did I?--and there is no art to our stories. We simply write down our own experiences, being sluts and all, because who else would be shameless enough to write about sex? Aesthetics come into play, too. I’m often told that I “don’t look like an erotica writer.” This suggests a rigid conception of the profession to say the least. Oh, but we’re also frustrated housewives who have to resort to fantasy unlike the capering nubile folk on Tinder who are getting the action. There is no winning this game.

I’m feeling like I have to provide an antidote to all this, but of course I can’t. Sex eludes our control, especially when a partner is involved. It threatens the work ethic, because who feels less like serving the capitalist machine than a person who has just had a satisfying orgasm? Still, I can’t help but think that studying the history of sexuality, talking and writing about our sexual experiences, thinking about new ways to express sexuality both in public and in private, all of this creates stories about sex that are fresh and true and real.

That’s got to make a difference. And surely, in some of our tales, the wife will get up from the floor, dust herself off, and take control of her destiny.

Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a 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

15 comments:

  1. Great post! And too true, Victorian morality is not dead. In the 1970s, my ex-husband spread the word that I was a slut who "got myself pregnant" while married to him. Any evidence that I had had sex at all, even within marriage, was a sign of my "fall." Since then, I've heard other unbelievable rumours from ex-husbands.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ugh. The toxic twists of logic used against women would be laughable if they weren't so damaging. It boils down to a male refusal to take any responsibility for sex at all. In men it is a natural urge. Women are the problem--too sexual, not sexual enough, totally responsible for pregnancy. Plus until a few decades ago, the public discourse was all controlled by men. We need the other side of the story!

      Delete
  2. These paintings are amazing--and appalling. Thanks for sharing some of the results of your research. I look forward to the novel itself!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The paintings are a treat. I didn't have time to go into the symbolism, but it's worth taking a closer look at the details. The girls building a house of cards on French novels, the playbills for adultery melodramas posted under the bridge. It all supports the tragic story and it's useful moral lesson!

      Delete
  3. As a writer of erotica who has actually lived through two thirds of the last 100 years, (I am 66), I can certainly vouch for the changes in attitudes regarding women and sex throughout that time. The Sixties coincided with my teenage years, when the Pill became more widely available, thus reducing the numbers of unplanned pregnancies, although I can recall that at the age of 24 I visited my Doctor for a prescription for the Pill, and he refused to let me have it on the grounds that I wasn't married. (Hard to believe now.) When I was at school, girls used to disappear from school for several months, during which time they were made to live in a mother and baby home to have their illegitimate child, which was then removed for adoption in most cases. It was a brave young woman (usually with a supportive Mother) who kept their child and took on society's disapproving title of 'Single Parent' (as though the baby was conceived by immaculate conception). The only other course of action was a hasty marriage, if you were over 16 and the boy stood by you. My sex education consisted mainly of 'Men won't respect you if you give them what they want' and 'Once they have got what they want they will leave you high and dry'. In other words, keep your legs tightly crossed and marry as a virgin. Thankfully I escaped all that by leaving home for the capital, London, and then travelling the world, but I still occasionally see someone I knew who married young and pregnant, who says 'I wish that I had had the chance to do something with my life before I settled down.' I would like to say that this attitude to women and sex has all gone, but in Moslem communities in Britain, young women are still being denied the freedom to choose their husbands, and are often sent back to Pakistan at 16 to be married to a man they have never met. So we still have a way to go before women can truly say that they can behave sexually in the way that men always have. I do not condemn all men for this. I have met many decent men who do not judge women in this way, but sadly there are still those misogynistic males (and sadly some women too) who accept differing moral standards between the sexes. An interesting and thought-provoking post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Rachel, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and perspective! This is the kind of herstory we all need to hear more about. I came of age in the 1970s when the prevailing fantasy was that the sexual revolution had swept away the double standard and women now had control of their bodies and libidos. Surely society would progress to full sexual equality in a few years. Obviously in the US this is not true, beginning with reproductive choice restrictions in many states. What I find really sad is that sexuality is still regarded as dirty and dangerous. Grants for the scientific study of sexuality are hard to come by. Honest public discussion is rare beyond "ten tips for a better orgasm" types of magazine articles. And yes, in many countries sexual equality is a non-starter. It's a much longer and more difficult journey than we thought it would be in 1974.

      Delete
  4. Unfortunately true. One unsung hero of the Victorian Age was Richard Pankhurst, lawyer, who was married to famous feminist Emmeline and father to her equally famous daughters, Sylvia and Christabel. Apparently he gave the crusading women of his family his unqualified support.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There were definitely some heros in the history of the struggle for sexual equality. We could use some more of them!

      Delete
  5. And it's not as if Victorian women could escape from sexual harassment or abuse by entering "respectable" occupations. Actual prostitution probably paid better.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In my research, I've read that it was very common for poorly paid working-class women to supplement their wardrobes and stomachs with "treats" from their boyfriends, which was essentially amateur pay for play. Shopgirls were notoriously underpaid (as were all women from teachers to factory and office workers) and the male department store managers would openly encourage them to find a male "friend" who would buy them fine clothes so the shopgirls could look nice on the job. So they worked a double shift so to speak.

      Delete
  6. I recently read that true gender equality isn't expected until 2133, generations from today. I believe that parity in the boardroom won't happen until we have parity in the bedroom. We need to move past this vision of sex and shame and accept a gender neutral view that celebrates rather than shames the human condition and all of its quirks and pleasures too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely agreed. And really, gender equality is a huge shift from millennia of habit. There are plenty of people around still making the rules who were raised in the old-fashioned way. Still, we can all do our best. I think erotica writers are in a good place to make some difference because speaking out about the "shame" is a good way to change the dynamic for the better.

      Delete
  7. I was a teenager in the '70s also, and I, too, thought all of this BS would be behind us by now. But instead, here we are, with women still being thought too dumb to control their own bodies, and those with nothing else interesting in their lives wanting to control how much sex everyone else is having, because they KNOW it's more than they are getting...or at least more enjoyable.

    Women, having been gifted by nature with the one organ on the body created for the sole purpose of sexual pleasure, are still considered to be dangerous if they try to control their own sexual satisfaction. They are to keep their legs crossed until marriage, then suddenly become a whore for their husband, who presumably has enough experience for both of them. This stereotype would be laughable if it wasn't so sad. I learned from my mom and others of her generation how much of a disappointment that kind of thinking led to. So I took matters into my own hands (ahem) and never looked back.

    And my husband of over 30 years, bless him, told me that he didn't care how many there were before him, as long as he was the last. I've used that line in some of my books. Needless to say, I don't write about virginal young women, nor do I write (or read) alpha-holes who are judgmental.

    Only men who are terrified of a woman discovering that they're no damn good in bed, want to have a virgin...or control what every other woman does with her body. It's no one's business. We are not "here for your pleasure," nor are we here to be incubators for your sperm. We are fully equal human beings with sexual desires of our own. If you can't accept that, then I feel sorry for you...and doubly sorry for the women in your life. And I humbly suggest you check your calendar, and stop trying to return us to those halcyon days when men were men and women were property. It's the 21st century!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fiona, I am always so inspired and heartened by your posts! I also love that sentiment--it doesn't matter how many came before, as long as I'm the last. Now THAT'S romantic, truly :). I was reading a sex advice book that focused on female orgasm (long story, might write a review) but one of the many sad stories in it were from men who were so delighted to finally be with women who were turned on. Sex was so different when the woman was aroused, they said. Which makes you wonder, with great sadness, what sex must have been like before. So men don't really benefit from the shell-shocked virgin partner either. There is very little to lose from an equal partnership in pleasure!

      Delete
    2. Thanks, Donna. I'm glad to know that some people have noticed my comments. Since I'm not a famous author, sometimes I feel so invisible on-line. Since I'm brash and loud in person, that's not something I'm used to. Thanks for making me feel a bit less invisible!

      Delete