For most young women, romantic and sexual awakening starts from the likes of a Mills & Boon novel. Stereotypical and heteronormative, the average Mills & Boon follows a set template wherein there is an experienced hero, a naive heroine and a series of tropes. After a while it can seem tiresome.
For me, the first proper romance I picked up was a historical one, specifically a Regency Era novel. Until then, I was completely unaware of a world such as that one. But that too, with all its chiselled, manly men and simpering missish women seemed removed from reality, something not anybody would experience. Confident women, willing to assert themselves sexually were rare, if ever mentioned.
It was then I discovered that these tame books masquerading as romances were only gateway literature. For those who are willing to take a step into the risqué world that is erotic literature, there is an enormous amount of both good and bad writing out there in both the vast horizon-less space that is the internet and in real life.
I had finished reading Watchmen and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and wanted another graphic novel by him. It was then I found Lost Girls in a bookstore. Moore and his wife Melinda Gebbie wrote something that could destroy childhoods for some, and manage to entice a whole number of new readers into erotica.
Lost Girls is about Alice (of Wonderland fame), Dorothy (who isn’t in Kansas anymore), and Wendy (Peter Pan’s little friend who is now 30 and married to a 50-year-old named Harold Potter, no relation). The girls together, and separately experience almost everything that sex has to offer, including bestiality. Needless to say, it was impossible to look at Moore’s work the same way after that.
Next was the Story of O. This was, in a way my first foray into BDSM literature.
Story of O was also the first erotic book I’d read written by a woman. The story behind its publishing goes like this — Jean Paulhan, who was the Anne Desclos’ lover admired the Marquis de Sade's writing and told Desclos that no woman could write that way. Desclos took it as a challenge and wrote the book. And now, it has served more than its purpose in not just admitting the existence of female sexuality, but spawning several works of literature and films about the same.
There is a misconception that erotica is only for the reader’s titillation. That isn’t true. Titillation is usually not voluntary, unless you are someone who has complete control over yourself. The strangest of things arouse some really unconnected feelings in you sometimes. The true test of good erotica is not if it titillates, but if it contributes to the reader’s sexuality in some way, and at the same time, making sure the reader enjoys the book. It is after all meant to be read as any other book is.
While it is easy to dismiss erotica as pornography, there is quite a bit of literature that has changed the way we think about human sexuality.
1. Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
The inspiration for Bjork’s Venus as a Boy, Story of the Eye is told in vignettes, about a teenage boy and his sexual partner(s). There is exhibitonism, some involuntary bloodletting and some gratuitous auto-erotic asphyxiation.
2. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Regarded as an important masterpiece of the previous century, Tropic of Cancer is an account of Miller’s life in Paris, the squalor, hunger, homelessness he endured. Events of a sexual nature receive descriptive passages, with a visceral effect.
3. Story of O by Pauline Reage
Dealing with themes such as dominance and submission, Story of O is a set of letters on bondage that Anne Desclos (the author’s real name) sent to her lover after he told her women cannot produce works like the Marquis de Sade did.
4. Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
Originally written for the private consumption of a person known only as “Collector”, Anais Nin manages to explore themes beyond the act itself and create a layer of ideas that are far larger than pornography.
Nin was one of the first to differentiate male and female sexuality in the mainstream.
5. Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie
A graphic novel that is, well, graphic, is the best description of Lost Girls. Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Wendy Darling from Peter Pan and Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz meet as adults and share their erotic adventures with each other.