urban75 is proud to welcome Kerri Sharp - a top writer with a non-nonsense, straight-for-the-jugular style that's right up our boulevard. Read this blistering excerpt from her book, which explores how punk helped define her sexual identity.
Chapter one - OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS!
Good girls, bad girls, and why fantasies matter
When I was seventeen years old, a woman called Ruth lent me her copy of Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden. I had never read anything like it, and it would be fair to say that the book changed my life. It affirmed something I had long suspected but had been unsure of discussing - that women had elaborate sexual fantasies which were not always about romance, and which were sometimes shocking and 'not nice'. I saw the book as a vindication of my rights, although I didn't express my feelings in such confident terms at the time.
I grew up aware that sexuality was channelled through images of women. To my young eyes, to be sexy was synonymous with being female; images of men held no fascination for me, but I would gaze for hours at pictures of beauty queens: Miss Worlds, Bond girls, and high-fashion models of the 1970s. I knew that sexy women had Factor X, and that men wanted it.
I thought an exciting world of adult fun lay ahead of me. I didn't want my future relationships with men to be a copy of the drudgery the women of my mother's generation seemed to endure. I was aware that my life would be different. I would take control of my desires, explore all the possibilities of a modern life. I would have fun! What I found when I was old enough to have fun, though, was a narrow-minded view as to which kinds of sexuality were acceptable.
It was OK to be a sexy woman with Factor X as long as you were physically stunning and, above all else, had an unthreatening personality; your sexiness had to be palatable to men. If it didn't conform to their ideal - or if you were unsure whether you were gay or straight - it was best that you kept your sexuality to yourself.
Like many young teens, I'd accidentally stumbled across porn mags but, because they didn't cater to a female audience, there seemed to be little about them that was empowering or entertaining. After the initial reaction of giggling at something naughty had subsided, I began to feel cheated - it was as if my gender wasn't being allowed to share in that exciting world of adult fun. The only voice being heard was the male voice. The only erotic images being displayed were the images men had chosen.
As women, we were the ones who were there to be looked at - the ones who took the passive role. 'Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,' writes John Berger in The Ways of Seeing. 1
The idea of being the gender which did the looking, or of producing explicit material for a female audience, was revolutionary, and had to wait some fifteen years before coming into being. Moralists and feminists told us that women didn't want such a product; it was off-limits. We would have to be happy with our romantic novels and dreams of ideal homes.
I thought it unfair to be told that we didn't like or want material which was sexually explicit. This notion seemed far more sexist than the pornography we were being told was the big bad wolf. There was little cultural evidence around at the time to support my belief, and this is why Nancy Friday's book was such a revelation.
In the working-class milieu in which I grew up, single girls who liked sex were 'slags', and if one was to embark on a journey of sexual discovery, you would pay for it with your reputation. Words like 'holistic' and 'empowering' weren't in the general vocabulary of East London in the mid seventies, and to be open about your sexuality was to invite ridicule and disrespect from boys, and scornful finger-wagging from feminist friends.
I was confused. I was a strong-willed young woman who wanted equal opportunities; I knew where I stood politically. But I was being told by the people I admired that my sex drive was a false consciousness, my desires were misguided, and that I'd been brainwashed by men. I didn't want to contradict these people as they were the ones fighting for equal opportunities at work and taking steps to combat racism. I felt trapped in a paradox. It was drummed into me that a young woman couldn't pursue an active sex life without being exploited.
At the same time I was adamant that my desires were nobody else's business. I felt sure there was a way around this, but until I found what that route was, I was going to investigate as many alternative lifestyles as possible and investigate some of the history of sexual thinking.
Reading My Secret Garden had created in me a fascination for reading explicit material in text form. I wanted to see what else was out there. I sought out the works of Anais Nin, Colette, and Erica Jong. Like many of the women who contributed fantasies to this book, I read The Story of O. I learnt about SM practices, and how the theatricality necessary for their performance was a way of having sex on a different, more elaborate, and somehow more artistic level.
I was steered in the direction of literary erotica; to the works of Georges Bataille and the surrealists; I was fascinated by the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and the fin de siècle hedonism of Beardsley and the decadent aesthetes. I believed there was more to sex than snogging boys at the disco or having an unsatisfactory fumble on the sofa. I was interested in the part the imagination had to play in sexuality. In my personal life, I kept coming up against men's shock, resistance and disbelief. One thing became clear: women with a strong sexuality were threatening to men.
At the age of seventeen I was studying art history at college, and much of the discourse was taken up with analysing that ever-popular subject of European art: the nude woman. She was nearly always passive; laid bare for man's pleasure, her gaze directed at the viewer, awaiting his approval.
As John Berger points out in Ways of Seeing, 'It is worth noticing that in non-European traditions - in Indian, Persian, African and Pre-Columbian art, ... when the theme of a work is sexual attraction, it is likely to show active sexual love between two people, the woman as active as the man, the actions of each absorbing the other.' 2
There was nothing to parallel this interpretation in the art of the Judeo-Christian world, and I couldn't find any pornography which showed men and women enjoying each other's bodies.
Western art has consistently portrayed the sexual woman as slothful, indulgent, vain, and fickle - the antithesis of all that is godly, good, or wholesome. Throughout the history of the past two thousand years, women have been encouraged (through varying degrees of force) to present a face of modesty. Our sexualities are treated with fear or suspicion unless they conform to rules of good behaviour. Our desires will be tolerated only if they are perceived as 'safe' and unthreatening, forever wrapped up in notions of romance, love and nurturing.
A more voracious female sexuality is seen as an aberration, and likely to transform into an anarchic force if it is given free rein. 'It seems absurd,' as the artist Lydia Lunch points out in Suture, 'that we live in a society where it's legitimate to use a woman's sexuality to sell everything, but she can't sell her own body, or even use it in the way she wants to.' 3
Western society's relationship with the sexual woman has a history of being rooted in hypocrisy. Take for example the women in the American film noir of the 1940s and 50s: the female characters who have chosen to not conform to the ideal state of being a caring wife or mother are the bad girls, the ones who will wreck the home and steal your husbands and get involved in larceny and murder.
But they are also the most magnetic; the ones who demand our attention and who are the most desirable. In the mainstream Hollywood narrative, this type of female character almost without exception meets a grisly end, unless, of course, she renounces her sins and becomes a born-again good girl. To me, bad girls are far more interesting as characters.
Their refusal to conform; their defiance of patriarchal finger-wagging; their love of late nights, dancing, flashy clothes and fast cars, make far more attractive role models than the dutiful servants and loyal wives who find fulfilment only in servicing the needs of others.
In the latter half of the 1970s, it seemed the dominant message to women via mass culture hadn't changed that much from the seventeenth-century painting or the film noir. We were still being told to behave ourselves and conform if we wanted respect and an easy life. Luckily, the punk scene exploded in London in 1977 and began to shake things up a bit.
Being an enfant terrible became synonymous with producing interesting new forms of art, music and literature. Breaking the rules and upsetting the conformists became fun. Shock and outrage were good reactions to what the kids were doing. It was a time of unparalleled expression of defiance. Across the country, young people were turning their rebellion into an art form. Anger was an energy, and life was very exciting.
Attitudes did change a little then, and the feisty women of punk music, such as Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex gave young women alternative role models who were spiky, talented and had strong opinions. This was the first time that pop culture had given us women who created themselves in their own image - women who wouldn't stand for being told to look pretty and sing nice songs.
A few years later, female sexuality became closely linked to the 80's obsessions with power and success. Capitalism reappropriated the strong woman for itself. To have an active, satisfying or risqué sex life, you had to be like Joan Collins' character in Dynasty - in other words, privileged. We could escape into a world of glitz, where lovers were desired, devoured and spat out, and where women were glamorous and exciting.
At least we could now vicariously enjoy an adventurous sex life even if our day-to-day reality was located in the supermarket and the office, rather than country clubs, glittering parties and Texan boardrooms. The woman's 'blockbuster' novel - such as those by Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins - established itself as the place where 'women's issues' were tackled through narrative; they found a huge audience. Feminist discourse was worthy and necessary, but it portrayed a puritanical face to women who wanted a bit of escapist entertainment.
Books such as Lace by Shirley Conran, offered what Avis Lewallen called 'a mini-encyclopaedia of female sexuality', dealing as it does with 'loss of virginity, sexual desire, sexual satisfaction and frigidity, to prostitution, rape, adultery, lesbianism, transvestism. [It] also deals with pornography, alcoholism, plastic surgery, childbirth, miscarriage, and abortion.' 4
Lewellan entitled her essay: 'Lace, Pornography for Women?' although the pejorative tone implicit in the word 'pornography' was more a reference to the suspicion with which many feminist writers viewed the women's novel than her own analysis of the genre.
She concluded her essay with the point that through novels like Lace, feminism managed a small but valuable intervention into the mass market, for the simple reason that women were portrayed as striving for their own financial independence. 'Men and sex and love [were] important to the female characters, but money - their own money - [was] more important'. 5
Society was about to be shocked into reality in the early 80s, and a sexual issue began to dominate the headlines. Everyone was made to sit up and take notice, regardless of social status. The slogan was, 'Don't Die of Ignorance' - the reason was AIDS. It would force us into discussing previously taboo subjects in the public arena.
If one good thing came about from the panic around how the virus was contracted, it was surely the emergence of a new realism about sexual behaviour. Apart from the tiny but vociferous minority who wanted to use the tragedy as a soapbox on which drone on about family values and the virus being punishment from God, most people recognised the need to face up to the facts: young people had lots of sex - some had lots of partners - and failure to address the consequences of unprotected intercourse could prove fatal.
A new awareness began to appear: sales of condoms multiplied, lovers began to talk to each other, and safe sex was the only sex to be having if you didn't have a regular partner. Safe sex became groovy, condoms were suddenly fruity and colourful and available in both men's and women's washrooms. Also, the emerging loved-up dance culture of the late 1980s pushed the focus further towards sensuality and non-penetrative loveplay.
People were learning to be more creative around sex, and communicating with your partner was not as embarrassing as it had been in previous decades.
The 90s has seen a period of greater tolerance emerge; we're less shockable but more cynical about sex. However, it's not a good idea to get too complacent. While informed, media-literate types in London and San Francisco debate sexuality in terms of self-expression and fashion, in law - at least in the UK - the definition of what is obscene is as clear as mud, and is rooted in Victorian ideas of what is liable to deprave and corrupt.
As we approach the twenty-first century, many politicians and moral crusaders are still having a problem dragging themselves out of the nineteenth. The pro-censorship lobby seem unable to accept that humans have a fantasy life which is liberating, pleasurable and harmless, and is just one facet of the multi-faceted beings we are. Being sexual is one of the many things we can be; we don't have to sacrifice our rights as women, employees, citizens, or consumers because we sometimes like to allow our imaginations free rein.
It's easy for those who have a vested interest in censoring free speech to whip up hysteria over material that is sexually explicit. I must stress that by this I mean material which is produced by adults, featuring adults, for adults.
To say customs have seized a shipment of 'hardcore pornography' plays on the fears of ordinary people, and conjures up worst-case scenarios of snuff movies, violence, and brutal imagery which no healthy person would get off on. In fact, 'hardcore' is an umbrella term for images which feature erections, and penetrative intercourse. Images not that different to the non-European art of previous centuries: the Kama Sutra; the pottery of Ancient Greece, the Pillow Books of Japan.
Recently, at the Erotica exhibition in London's Olympia, colour portrait photographs - very much in the 'art' vein, which featured men with full erections - had stickers slapped over the 'offending' parts by the Vice Squad. Other photographs featuring the semi-hard penis were allowed. Twenty degrees makes all the difference when you run the risk of prosecution. The exhibition was open only to persons over eighteen years of age, and the subject of the images were definitely adults.
Now, as has always been the case, censors lack sophistication in that they are alarmist, reactionary and, more often than not, uneducated in the history of art. And visual irony escapes them completely.
No genre has had to defend itself as vigorously against accusation as erotica, and erotica produced by women is viewed with most suspicion of all. It is always guilty until proven innocent. And we have to justify every nuance, every storyline, every fantasy, because we're constantly reminded that pornography is for men and women shouldn't want it. And if we are allowed to have some then it has to be somehow 'nicer' than what men like because, after all, we are women, and women are the guardians, the mothers, the teachers, the vulnerable, and the protectors of all that is vulnerable. We cannot be seen to be actively sexual and concerned with self-indulgence.
We should be caring and nurturing, and not contributing to moral anarchy by flaunting our sexuality. What is particularly depressing is hearing patriarchal dogma coming from the mouths of young people; disadvantaged young men, mostly, who seem unable to realise that these outdated misogynist concepts of good girls and whores don't benefit anyone. The greatest way to defeat our disadvantages is by recognising who wields the power in our society, and stop making moral judgements about people who make up our own peer group, whether we're black, white, unemployed, working too hard, under stress, or undervalued.
Moral panic is a distraction. Our planet is blighted by poverty, war, genocide, prejudice and pollution - things far more destructive and damaging than sexually explicit material, be it videos, magazines, books, strip shows or stories. I would challenge anyone to convince me that women have a better time in countries where pornography is banned.
The happiest and kindest people I meet tend to be those who are tolerant. The inevitable consequence of intolerance is political extremism - which serves the benefit of no one except a few self-appointed dictators and their lackeys. This may sound alarmist, but we don't have to look very far into history to see what happens when book-burning and censorship gets out of hand.
Over the course of the past five years - since Black Lace books have been around - myself and some of my authors have regularly been asked to appear on TV programmes. Usually it's the same old chestnut of a question: do women really want to read pornography? When I answer that yes, some women sometimes want to read explicit material, the stern-faced opponents are ready to point accusatory fingers at me; to tell me that feminists have fought for years for women's equality, for fair practice in the workplace, for changes in the law which benefit women and so on, and that by producing books such as Black Lace I am in some way letting the side down.
No other series of books has been accused of 'corrupting the morals of the nation's women and betraying civilised values', as one Sunday tabloid put it in 1993. These words still make me smile. Far from uniting the country against the 'degrading filth', reactionary articles like this ensured that the first four titles went into seven reprints apiece.
Authors can write crime fiction, murder mysteries, horror, SF or romance but never are they made to justify the existence of their chosen area of interest - and neither should they be expected to. It's fantasy. It's fiction. The works are novels. Going against the prescriptive formula that says we are meant to find fulfilment only in servicing the needs of others makes us the bad girls. My authors are guilty of the sin of indulgence and I am guilty of paying for the fruits of that indulgence.
As Avedon Carol notes in Bad Girls and Dirty Pictures, 'By choosing to write or read explicit material, or to seek our own pleasure, we're guilty of committing that greatest of female sins: selfishness.' 6
She continues, 'Sex for pleasure is treated as a male vice, and women who like sex and are expressive about their sexuality are seen as victims of male propaganda. If we admit to taking pleasure from sexuality expressed outside of a 'loving, equal relationship, or in unconventional acts, we are seen to be legitimising male violence rather than acting assertively.' 7
In the UK, female sexuality is still treated with either suspicion or derision. Back in 1973, Nancy Friday was accused of making up the fantasies in My Secret Garden. In 1993 many journalists thought men using pseudonyms wrote Black Lace books. The late 1990s has seen a proliferation of features in women's magazines concerned with 'great sex and how to get it', but those glossy pages show us a very sanitised variety of our sex lives. The accent is firmly fixed on fashion. The message says it's all right to have lots of good sex - but it'll be so much better if you're wearing designer clothes.
Nice if you have the cash. It's important to remember that the escapism of sexual fantasy is available to us all, and need not be governed by the predetermined values of a culture which rewards only the privileged or conventionally beautiful. This is why collections of real women's fantasies are important. From Nancy Friday's books to this Black Lace collection, they validate the diversity of the imaginary experience and remind us that difference is good.
If you are attached, I hope you are lucky enough to have a boyfriend, lover or husband who realises he is blessed to have a partner who is open-minded and at ease with her sexuality. Women are just beginning to be allowed sexual autonomy.
The emergence of women-only sex shops such as SH! In the UK and Good Vibrations in America are an essential alternative to retail outlets which have traditionally catered exclusively to men. Sex shops - in the UK at least - have always seemed seedy, unwelcoming and off-limits to females. Often shabby and shy on decor, the atmosphere in such shops has done nothing to encourage openness or a sense of fun around the whole business. Again, things are changing.
Events such as the Erotica exhibition and numerous clubs where being sexy go hand in hand with dressing up and having a good time mean that many people are beginning to recognise that sex as entertainment is a human interest, nothing to be ashamed of, and the idea that it should be restricted to one gender is absurd. Women are also becoming more involved in the production side of things. I hesitate to call it the sex industry; rather I think of it as one aspect of the entertainment business. As society becomes more sophisticated, more visually literate, we expect better product - in all areas. Who would have thought, fifteen years ago, that you would be able to choose from a staggering amount of conveniently packaged foreign meals and twenty different types of olive in the local supermarket?
What this illustrates is that we are becoming used to having a huge amount of choice when it comes to spending our money. This choice should be allowed to extend to the adult market, too. The obscenity laws need to keep pace with cultural change. The antiquated notion that printed material or film is liable to 'deprave and corrupt' is a nonsense in a society where access to any information is available via the internet . Until the day when rationality replaces alarmism around this issue, we shall continue to play those X-rated images in our minds.
No legislation can probe into our imaginations, and the thought police of Orwellian dystopia shall thankfully, remain a fantasy which will never come true.
Kerri Sharp, August 1999
» Also by Kerri Sharp: Prada sucks!
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