It's a dirty job. And everybody is doing it

Men don't like a story to interfere with a good pornographic read. Women on the other hand are buying porn in their thousands, and there's barely a naughty picture in sight. Clare Bayley talks to readers and purveyors of pulp erotica.
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The Independent Culture
It can give a girl quite a tingle, to be transported from the Northern Line on a grey Thursday morning to the high seas of 17th-century Spain where, on a heaving galleon, Carlotta's "breath came faster as he flicked the tip of his tongue up and down her pleasure bud." (I have omitted the sentence that follows, but suffice to say the heavy breather doesn't stop there.)

The exquisite sensation this kind of reading can induce can happen anywhere, any time, now that both Hodder Headline and Little Brown have joined in where Virgin Publishing boldly went first, producing erotic fiction for women. "I was waiting in a queue in the Post Office," confirmed Jane, 29, businesswoman. "I picked up this book not really knowing what it was and started to read. It was quite steamy, I can tell you. I got quite engrossed, until I realised that everyone in the queue was watching me."

The market for pornography for men is dominated by photo-magazines but attempts to introduce female-oriented versions have failed, for the very obvious reason that it is still illegal to represent an erect penis. "I did try looking at some of those magazines for women when they first came out," said Anne, 26, a designer. "But there's really nothing sexy about it when the pose is all about how all turned on he is, and yet his penis is flaccid. The whole fantasy is about there being a possibility of sex happening, but that penis makes it very clear it can't happen."

Fiction, of course, is subject to none of these restrictions. Open a page of The Crimson Buccaneer (Black Lace, Virgin) at random and this is what you get: "Manitas had the biggest phallus she had ever seen. It reared up from the nest of curling black hair at his groin and lay almost flat against his stomach reaching beyond his navel."

And this, of course, is only the beginning of that particular adventure.

More and more "respectable" writers since Anais Nin have been experimenting with erotic literature: Yvonne Roberts' Every Woman Deserves an Adventure, Helen Zahavi's True Romance, Shirley Conran's Lace, Rachel Silver's Where Their Feet Dance and Maureen Freely's Under the Vulcania. But when women turn to erotic pulp the response in the press is almost exclusively scoffing. There is a strong desire to dismiss it as Mills and Boon with knobs on. (although Mills and Boon now provides these under the Temptation list.)

"...Matronising trash which seems designed to solace those who lack independence of mind and sexual confidence. If real women want real pornography they usually know where to find it," fulminated Martin Cropper in the Daily Telegraph earlier this year. He's missed the point. Nobody who writes, edits or reads 'popular' erotica is claiming it as anything serious in political or aesthetic terms. But the fact that it sells so well (the Black Lace list sold half a million copies in its first six months) proves that it does its job for women in libidinous terms in a way erotica aimed solely at men does not. And now, like it or not, it constitutes a genre.

The genre so far consists of two main types: the swashbuckling historical bodice-ripper and the thoroughly modern adventures of independent-minded women. Both types differ from male erotica in terms of attention to detail (clothes, landscape, food, musky intoxicating perfumes), character (she could see a trace of hurt / diffidence / humour beneath the cool exterior) and plot: there is one. The swashbucklers quoted above do not in the end differ much from the independent woman types, only in the latter we're on the 18th floor of her luxury office block. The stories, while providing myriad opportunities for sexual encounters, keep you turning the pages. The relentlessness of gratuitous bonk after gratuitous bonk without a story might make the sturdiest heart fail.

Few women, though surprisingly many men, would disagree that what women want is different to what men want. The first task of the writers was to develop a new vocabulary of explicit words which were not offensive to women. Cleo Cordell, author of the rumbustious Crimson Buccaneer finds using historical settings has added advantages. "Some women don't feel comfortable with the c-word, even though it's one of the oldest words in the language, because for so long it's been the worst swearword. Some don't feel it's possible to reclaim it, but I came across the old spelling which is coynte, which is quite a good alternative. Pussy is a bit too American. Otherwise I tend to use description terms - Mount of Venus, Mons, labia is OK, vagina of course and vulva. The trouble is it's difficult not to over-use them."

Cleo Cordell, a Northamptonshire librarian in her mid-thirties, was one of the first Black Lace authors and now produces erotica prolifically. She is part of a nexus of erotic writers who were all part of the same women's writing group before pornography scooped them up. Three out of five of them are now commercial purveyors of porn. Cordell's first Black Lace novel was The Captive Flesh, a tale of two French aristocratic ladies rescued from pirates and put into a sort of harem where they are forced to "surrender to the ecstacy of pleasure in pain."

"I did get some stick from feminists about exploring the pleasures of submission erotica, but it's not as if that's all I do. It's an exploration of one kind of sexual enjoyment. It's not reality, it's fantasy," she says.

Crimson Buccaneer, her latest, has a very different heroine, however, the feisty Carlotta who knows what she wants and invariably gets it.

The same path from helpless submission to healthy assertiveness can be traced in the work of the X-Libris (Little, Brown) author, Nina Sheridan. By her own admission her heroine, Maggie, became "quite subjugated," in a relationship with two bisexual men in Black Orchid, but by the third book in the series Maggie has become her own person. This is partly the influence of X-Libris editor Helen Goodwin, who encourages her authors to write for and about independent modern women freely exploring their sexuality. But it's also an indication that, as the genre matures and becomes more confident, so do the proclivities of its heroines.

Both Sheridan and Cordell researched their early books by reading male erotica - Sherdan works part-time as a proof reader of male porn - and the early novels seem to be influenced by more than a whiff of male sexuality. Since explicit erotic material, either in writing or pictures, has until now been created mainly by and for men, it's inevitable that women attempting it for themselves should be influenced by it. The Story of O, the great mystery of erotica which turned out to be written by Dominique Aury (allegedly to revive the attention of her editor-lover) proved what women can produce when they think it's what men want.

Sheridan thinks that both sexes have submission fantasies: "Out of sheer laziness."Everybody wants to have things done to them rather than doing them themselves." Kerri Sharp, the editor of Black Lace, believes submission fantasies provide a get-out: "Submission is sex without guilt. 'He made me do it.' That is essential to fantasy. Also, submission is employed for both sexes. The dominatrix is just as popular in male erotica because it takes away responsibility."

But it's interesting that the submission becomes less pronounced in stories as the authentic female voice becomes stronger. Perhaps if Nancy Friday (author of Women on Top) compiles another collection of women's fantasies in 10 years time, there will be fewer about domination and more about guilt-free pleasure.

Black Lace has a strict injunction against men writing the novels. If they do, they are ejected when discovered. Other publishers and less scrupulous. X-Libris claims to have entirely female authors but allows men to write under pseudonyms (Graeme Grant reveals all, below). This seems an unnecessarily dishonest step. Liaison (Headline) which aims at "both men and women to be read alone - or together with your lover" has a mixture of male and female authors. There's no reason why women would not read an erotic book by a man, though every reason to resent being tricked.

It's said, too, that as many as 70 per cent of Black Lace readers are men, a statistic that delights opponents of the genre. But as Cleo Cordell points out: "If they're reading it at all I'd rather women were in control of what they read. By working in a library, Cordell gets to see exactly who takes out her books. "It's mainly young women with pushchairs and a lot of elderly gentlemen, though my favourite reader is a 70-year-old lady. She loves them," she says. And how does she feel about the effect her book has on readers? "I'm no sexologist but, having said that, I think they're quite liberating. I'm all for masturbation. So many women still think it's taking something away from their husbands. Perhaps by reading these books at least they'll acknowledge something for themselves."