Erotic Literature; A Platform for Feminism
Recently I took to re-watching the TV show Mad Men, which takes place primarily in the ‘60’s in Manhattan. One aspect of the show that makes it so enjoyable – but often so difficult – to watch is the way it calls out the sexism of the time period by portraying strong female leads being held back by the strongly patriarchal environment. In one scene in the third episode of the first season, titled “Marriage of Figaro”, two female leads, Joan and Peggy, as well as two other female receptionist characters discuss D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. As Joan hands the book over to one of the secretaries she borrowed it from, she says, “I can see why it got banned!” to which the secretary responds, “you don’t have to be so shy about it, it’s literature!” She continues, “it’s sad really, because even with its reputation, men won’t read it – and they really should.” This scene got me thinking about the role of erotic literature as a platform for female sexuality and the inherent questions of feminism behind it. What merit does a book like Lady Chatterley’s Lover have as a feminist text, not only in its content but also in its influence?
One way of examining this issue would be to look at the book’s reception. The “ban” Joan speaks of in the scene refers to both the initial reaction to the text as well as the trial against its publisher, over thirty years later. When Penguin published the book openly in 1960 they were put on trial under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 in the case known as ‘Regina versus Penguin Books Limited’.
The case was closed with all charges against Penguin acquitted after the chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, caused controversy when he asked the jury, “Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” Griffith-Jones’ sexist remarks may have closed the case against his favour, but his words raise an interesting notion of autonomy in regards to literature. The banning of the book surely had less to do with its potential offence towards the perceived ‘delicate sex’, and more to do with a male fear of women’s sexuality. A fear that “daughters” and “wives” would be able to connect and take example from sexually-liberating literature that reads as an expression of sexual freedom.
This theory proved to be true based on the novel’s wild success immediately following Penguin’s win. According to an article by The Telegraph, “In 15 minutes, Foyles sold 300 copies and took orders for 3,000 more. Hatchards sold out in 40 minutes; Selfridges sold 250 copies in half an hour”. Sure enough, attitudes towards female sexuality took a drastic change in the years following the trial. Phillip Larkin’s 1967 poem Annus Mirabilis begins and ends with a testament to the text’s role in this change:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP
In a class I’m taking this term, Shakespeare and the Renaissance, we discussed the five attitudes towards sex in Shakespeare’s comedies: elimination, repression, sublimation, uncontrolled freedom, and control. While it is clear how the “R v. Penguin Books” trial took an attitude of elimination and opened the doors to a sense of sexual freedom, it is noteworthy to look at the role of erotic literature as a whole in regards to these attitudes.
There has been much debate as to where erotic literature stands in regards to feminist ideals of sexual liberation. On the one hand, it has acted as a means of freedom by allowing women a means to explore sexual liberation, but on the other it has been used to control and dictate ideas of female sexuality in a way that is similar to maneuvers of the pornography industry. However, I prefer to trust in Gloria Steinem’s assertion that “erotica” and “pornography” “are as different as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain.” Steinem holds the view that pornography focuses on “emphasizing dominance and [erotica] emphasizing mutuality.” So then, this begs the question, if erotica is not a route to rampant promiscuity, as the prosecution in the Penguin trial maintained, but it is not a means of controlling or repressing sexuality, what is it?
One idea is that of sublimation. Sublimation is defined as “a mature type of defence mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behaviour”. It could be argued that although erotica deals with sexuality in a very obvious manner, it still creates a socially acceptable venue – literature – for which this sexuality is explored. The discussion of sublimation is often a tricky area when it comes to feminism. Freud argued that it provides a healthy outlet for people to channel their sexuality – often into religion or art – in situations where acting on that sexuality could be dangerous or socially frowned upon. Yet in another light, sublimation can be seen as just as unhealthy as repression as it is a means to diminish sexual urges by re-channeling them into a means other than sex, which goes against humankind’s natural behaviour.
However, weather or not erotica is considered a product of uncontrolled freedom, controlled sexuality, or sublimation, it is vital to consider its impact on women from a female perspective. Audre Lorde, a prominent writer, civil rights leader, and feminist, wrote in her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”: “The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling”. By viewing the erotic as a feminine power, it becomes a means of feminist expression as a way of combatting the repression of female sexuality. Lorde attests that as a result of being “in touch with the erotic, [one] become[s] less willing to accept powerlessness . . . such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial”. For Lorde, erotica is a powerful means of self-expression. She writes, “for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.”
Due to the vast landscape of opinions on the matter of erotica in relation to sexuality, it is often difficult to decide whether the genre supports feminist ideals or acts against them. Yet regardless of erotica’s subjective role as a feminist platform, there is no doubt that the study of erotic literature as a means to empower, control, and normalize female sexuality is important to how we view literature as a whole. Thinking about the influential erotic works of female authors in particular, such as Chrystos, Sappho, and Vanessa Duriès, there is no denying the vital nature of the genre in relation to literature as a medium. Above all, we must continue to consider the impact of these works in a social and academic context.
Leah Girvitz is a Torontonian poet and topical writer, in her third undergraduate year at UBC. She is an English literature major and creative writing minor. Leah’s interests and aspirations include working in the field of entertainment law, and abolishing the patriarchy.
- Kevin Dooley, Getty Museum: Venus Reclining on a Sea Monster with Cupid and a Putto via Flickr [CC by 2.0]
- “Contemporary book burning” by LearningLark via Wikimedia Commons and Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
- Gloria Steinem: public domain
- Sappho (Alexandre Isailoff): public domain