Erotic literature, a powerful tool for the emancipation of women

“If you tie her up sometimes, if you whip her a little, and she enjoys it, no. What is needed is to go beyond the time when she will enjoy herself, to get the tears. This passage is not taken from “Fifty Shades of Grey”. It was written well before the release of the famous EL James saga… by another woman: Dominique Aury, better known under the pseudonym of Pauline Réage.

We are in 1954 when the woman of letters, secretary of the Nouvelle Revue française, publishes her erotic novel “Histoire d’O” with Pauvert editions. At the time, it seemed so little accepted that a woman could write such raw sex scenes that the work was first attributed to several male authors, such as André Malraux and Henry de Montherlant. Assigning certain literary works to men rather than women has always been commonplace. Even recently, Lolita Pille experienced this when she released her book “Hell” in 2002. But for women writers of erotic literature at the time, the likelihood of that happening was even greater.

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A heteronormative schema

In fact, literary eroticism has long been practiced “by men and for men”. “In the 17th century, gallant poets and writers were under the pressure of having to conform to the many codes of the bourgeoisie, explains Alexandra Destais, author of the essay “Eros au feminine”. Licentious writings, like those of Jean de la Fontaine, were then a means of escaping the civilization of mores, of claiming a space of freedom where it was possible to externalize one’s sexual fantasies. Sex and feelings were well dissociated. »

It was not until after the Second World War and the publication of “Histoire d’O” that women really entered the field of erotic literature. “Pauline Réage has recovered all the codes of black eroticism from male authors, displaying a great deal of violence and mistreatment of the female body, but at the same time she has integrated a completely new element, namely motivation. in love”, analyzes Alexandra Destais. Indeed, in “Story of O”, the author stages a young woman who agrees to be locked up in a castle and to undergo the worst sexual abuse to satisfy her lover. Sex is no longer dissociated from love as in the books of the Marquis de Sade, on the contrary it becomes a means of obtaining the love of the loved one… partly because Pauline Réage herself, through writing this erotic and violent book, sought to please her lover, Jean Paulhan.

“Certainly, the woman finally has the possibility of putting her sexual imagination into words, but it is not autonomous, explains Alexandra Destais. It stems from the desire to please a man and go in the direction of his fantasies. For me, it’s the counter-example of female emancipation, because the character of O is totally dispossessed of herself. We find in this book all the stereotypes of the male vision. “A scenario that is reminiscent of that of” Fifty Shades of Gray “, where the heroine, in exchange for a little attention from her rich lover, will agree to be initiated into sadomasochism to satisfy her fantasies. of dominant male.

The release of the book “Emmanuelle” by Emmanuelle Arsan, five years later, marks a new step forward, since the author is one of the first to get out of the heteronormative scheme. She shares a hedonistic vision of sex where it is a way of life in its own right, for both women and men – for example, women are encouraged not to limit themselves to a single partner. But there again, even if the heroine appears liberated, we find the pygmalion effect of the man. “It is he who will initiate it and will transform its spontaneous sensuality into an active practice of sex”, insists the doctor of literature.

Colette and Anaïs Nin, an ode to true female pleasure

Is female erotic literature ultimately only intended to satisfy male fantasies? No, fortunately. In her short story “Lilith” written in 1940, Anaïs Nin stages a female character who is prone to nervous breakdowns because of her overflowing but restrained sexuality. Like her author, Lilith is stuck in a romantic relationship where she is bored and where she cannot fully express her sexual potential. But beware: there is no question here of brutal sex, nor of pornography. “Anaïs Nin approaches a much more sensual vision which is not limited to the sexual act. We are less focused on the phallic sexuality dictated by the man, but more on the emotions, the sensations, the glances, the preliminaries… everything related to desire, finally”, explains Alexandra Destais. The author thus offers a richer version of sexuality and solely focused on female pleasure, as Colette was able to do before her with her “Ingénue libertine”, published in 1900, which allows herself to live different experiences to grasp the mechanics of his pleasure. Or as Marguerite Duras, Régine Deforges or Lucia Etrebarria would later do.

Obligation of decency and censorship

While abandoning the cliché which would consist in saying that women are by nature more sentimental and softer, the specialist in female erography believes that the authors have made it possible to approach sex in a different way from their male counterparts. “The erotic register is more marked in women by an attention paid to desire, to what happens before but also to what happens after. More often than not, the language is less crude. There is a desire to put into words and images the sensations and the emotional charge of the encounter with the other. It’s a much more human approach,” she explains.

If the authors of the time learned to compose their own literary language, it was also due to a lack of choice. For a long time, it was not considered decent for a woman to write about the mechanisms of desire and pleasure…or to publish these texts. The famous publisher of erotic literature Régine Deforges, who has fiercely opposed all censorship since the law of 1949, was forced to file for bankruptcy after too many trials and fines. Certainly, she is not the only one to have defied the censorship of the time. The publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert, the first to publish the books of the Marquis de Sade under his name as well as “Histoire d’O” by Pauline Réage, also suffered numerous trials for “contempt of good morals”. But according to Alexandra Destais, she was judged more harshly and constantly referred to her status as a woman. “During her trials, she was told that it was not moral for a young woman to publish erotic literature in broad daylight. We infantilized her and we did not consider her legitimate to work in this literary field”, explains the speaker.

An antidote to pornography

A quick look in the shelves of bookstores is enough to understand that today things have changed and that erotic literature is everywhere and much more feminine. According to an Ifop poll relayed by Current wife, 57% of the women questioned had already read an erotic novel. “At one point there was a real commercial niche. In the Maghreb countries, it has even become an issue. The book “L’amande” by Nedjma, for example, was presented as the first book of erotic literature written by a Muslim woman. All of this contributes to the fashion phenomenon, ”explains Alexandra Destais. The most telling example is certainly the success of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” saga, which has sold more than 125 million copies worldwide.

However, this type of very popular book perpetuates the Pygmalion approach to men, where “the inequality of sexual roles is very marked and where the objectification of women is presented as a desirable thing”, analyzes Alexandra Destais. These books seem to be considered more as manuals to spice up your life as a couple than as literary works in their own right. Besides, a survey of readers of “Fifty Shades of Grey” shows that despite “the sometimes repetitive or awkward literary style” of the volumes, 93% appreciated them very much because it allowed them to “discover their couple from another angle”.

Heteronormal or not, in love or not, gentle or violent, according to Alexandra Destais the essential thing is that women finally dare to take up the pen to share their sexual imagination and that they raise themselves as a bulwark against the pornographic industry, so disrespectful of pleasure and female desire. “Female erography offers an excellent antidote to this predominantly male industry that is very disrespectful of women,” she believes. Literature offers an alternative where women carry a singular imagination and construct their own codes. That doesn’t mean that women don’t have the right to more violent and trashy speech. Authors such as Virginie Despentes play an essential role in moving towards a certain form of equality… and stopping limiting women to their legendary sweetness.

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