Senta Holland, one of the new wave of erotic novel writers from heavyweight publisher HarperCollins, looks back at the generations who went before...
‘So here I was, in the second decade of the 21st century, having very spicy sex on five different continents, traveling alone around the planet to search for the perfect Dom (yes!), to explore my kinky sexual identity with, and finally falling in love in the most unlikely location….’
Sound like a fantasy? No, I did it.
Sound like a book? Yes, I wrote it.
Sound like a novel published by HarperCollins? Absolutely, out last month.
Compare and contrast:
60 years ago, a high class French secretary wrote an erotic novel so that her married lover wouldn’t leave her. Her book became a scandal, the courts tried to ban it, and her name remained secret until she revealed it on her deathbed in 1994. That book is ‘The Story of O’ by Pauline Réage. The only reason her book was published at all was because she worked for Gallimard, the prestigious Parisian publisher, and her lover was the boss.
‘The Story of O’, a novel about a French secretary who is abducted to a mysterious castle where she is kept captive to experience her kinky sexuality and be dominated by her lover, is now considered the ultimate classic in women’s erotica. It is certainly the first book written by a woman to enjoy this kind of success.
‘O’ broke the barrier, for all of us. I couldn’t have imagined myself as an erotic writer without her. But her book is still written for a man. (Although I can’t help thinking it must have been enjoyed by many women, too.)
A generation later, in the 70s, a US psychiatrist’s wife was traveling around an exotic continent, exploring her sexuality with different partners in a complex journey of self-discovery.
In ‘Fear of Flying’ by Erica Jong, we leave the world of fantasy and take our sex on the road. This book was liberating to many women, showing us that we can do what men have always done. The world is ours to discover, sex included, men included. (The exotic continent, by the way, for the American author, is Europe.) Recommended by literary superstar Henry Miller, who said ‘because of [this book] women are going to find their own voice and give us great sagas of sex, life, joy, and adventure.’
Erotic writing by women for women was a big feature of the 80s and 90s. But it came at a price: our books were pushed into a gender-specific corner of the bookshop, and often diminished as ‘romance’ while men’s books could contain as much sex as they liked and win literary prizes everywhere. Looking back, this seems strangely Victorian to me, as if men and women were reading completely different books about sex and then coming together to actually HAVE sex with each other. With predictable consequences, I suppose…
In 2003, a literary novel came out that explored sexuality AND took it on the road: ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ by Nikki Gemmell. Its core narrative is an imagined literary discovery, a message for women across the centuries. Its style is modern and authentic. This is writing about sex for adults, challenging our perceptions, creating new traditions, claiming our space on the same bookshelf as Henry Miller (but not quite getting there yet…)
From a different angle, a few years later, ‘The Secret Diary of a Submissive’ by Sophie Morgan dared to make BDSM very real by telling the story of her own real life submission. A book that normalizes women’s kink and claims it as a sexual orientation, in a matter-of-fact kind of way. Finally, we were leaving the secret castle of ‘O’ and moving into everyone’s bedroom.
As a writer from the next generation, I feel I owe a lot to all of them, the French secretary, the American traveler, the Australian bride and the British ‘submissive-next-door’. And I also feel that it is time to step out and step up. I feel it is time for a new sexual revolution.
Women’s erotica are ready to come out of the ‘Ladies’ Room’. We can write whatever book we want, unrestricted by conventions. We can put it on any shelf.
A book like mine, written in a fast, contemporary style, portraying sexuality and submission ‘from the inside out’ and telling the radical story of a woman deciding to fulfill her erotic dreams, for herself, not for any man, and looking everywhere around the world, would probably not have been published at any point in the past.
And now that I think of it, its title seems almost like the manifest of this revolution: ‘Out of the Shadows and into the Darkness’. Join me there!