When I was 14 I spent a Saturday night at the flat of my 19-year-old sister and her boyfriend. She’d moved in with him and embarked on a brave new world of adult independence, a world where you could watch what you want on the telly (it was in the days before every kid had their own TV or you got a call from social services for neglect), a world where you could have a meal at midnight, a world where your collection of porn magazines was out in the open, not hidden under the bed in a carrier bag (like my mum’s).
When they put me in the spare room, he gave me a stack of magazines to take with me and read, and made me promise never to tell my mum about it. It was my one night as an adult before going back home to the world of childhood, which nipped and chafed like a too-tight shoe.
Later, in my first job, I met girls who were like my sister (first job, first flat) and whenever the subject of porn came up I was always struck by the fact that they looked at the magazines with their boyfriends, they watched the dirty movies with them. They enjoyed pornography, they admitted, sometimes blushing, sometimes not. So, for me, porn was always something that was shared by couples as part of a healthy sex life. Imagine how surprised I was to find out later that it was only men who liked it.
Yes, the 80s happened, and with it came political correctness, and porn was the first casualty of the war. Fun wasn’t far behind.
Suddenly, pornography was so dirty and disgusting and, above all, degrading that you could hardly say the word, let alone watch the stuff. Everything was so terribly po-faced and right-on and worthy in the 80s that it’s a wonder anyone had sex at all.
I left home at 19 and got my first flat with my girlfriend and entered the adult world. But there was no porn. The sex was rubbish too: silent and guilt-ridden and clumsy. Something embarrassing and slightly shameful. God, the 80s were crap.
It wasn’t until the early 90s, when the PC orthodoxy began to be challenged, that I became aware of fun again, and sex, and the link between the two. I left the flat with the uptight girl and started seeing someone who enjoyed sex.
Suddenly I discovered it was okay to admit that I liked it, that it was important to me, that sex wasn’t just a clumsy inconvenience, but something passionate, a true meeting of souls, that in the act of fucking, you connected with someone’s spirit in the most intense and honest of ways. And with this came the discovery of erotica.
We read Anis Nin to each other and the delightfully naughty memoirs (probably all made up) of Frank Harris, and Story of O. Here at last was liberation, fulfilment, freedom. Here at last was (to use a much-maligned phrase, first discovered in the bedside table in my mum’s bedroom) the joy of sex.
Despite all this liberation and honesty and openness, the spectre of political correctness still haunted the Europe of our minds, and we split up over stand-up comedian Bill Hicks. No, really. I thought he was breaking down the walls of self-imposed puritanism; she thought he was ‘sexist’ and ‘dodgy’.
By then I was a student and surrounded by young women who called themselves ‘birds’ and had an aggressive self-belief that made me think the war was over: the war of political correctness, the war against sex. Here was a generation of women who accepted as of right their equality, who laughed at dirty jokes, who enjoyed sex and thought Bill Hicks was a genius. My sexuality as a man wasn’t under attack any more, and it felt good. Girls were writing essays on sado-masochism and not afraid to let us know they were practising it too, girls were reading out short stories about gang bangs… girls were actually calling themselves ‘girls’!
As a student with a few stories already published, I took the opportunity to work on fiction as part of my degree, and it was here that the sex in my fiction became more graphic. I ditched the painfully florid metaphors (waves pounding on beaches, etc) and got down to the, er, meat.
But there was always something not quite right about sex in literature; something that didn’t fit. Centuries of allusion and symbolism had created a world where fucking could never happen in literature. It didn’t matter how electrifying The White Hotel was, sex was still taboo. Take the sniffy attitude of the literary establishment to Lady Chatterley’s Lover. While they admit that it’s a serious novel exploring profound themes, it is still largely dismissed as an aberration, a mistake, the work of a writer whose internal censor lost the plot and spewed out a lot of rather embarrassing porn.
A similar fate greeted Michael Winterbottom with the release of his recent movie, 9 Songs. Critic after critic took part in an unseemly scrum to be the first to shout out that its sex scenes were patently unsexy, that nothing in it was a turn on, that it was all really quite boring and not a bit erotic. Like a parade of puritans lining up to testify that their penises never twitched once, no sir, honest.
Just what is it about our thinkers and cultural commentators that they find sex so embarrassing? That they run wailing whenever it’s shoved into their faces? Britain is supposed to have one of the most sexually liberated populaces in the world, but a glance through the arts supplements would make you think we were still covering up piano legs for shame.
This was the repressive attitude that had made me hold back the erotic novel I’d been writing, on and off, for the past five years.
I shared chapters with women. I wanted to know if they found it a turn on, if it worked, if the sex scenes were good enough. They all enjoyed it and encouraged me to submit it, but something always held me back. Did I really want my first novel to be dismissed as porn? Did I really want to spend the rest of my writing life being the porn guy? Like the misguided actor who does a skinflick to get a bit of experience in front of the camera and thinks it’ll lead to serious film roles instead of a lifetime of cocksucking. Did I really want to end up some sad old man churning out jiz-lit, bongo books, cliterature?
No, I decided. It wasn’t worth the risk. So my erotica stayed hidden, and the novel I was working on became a private hobby I pursued outside the respectable business of screenwriting.
So imagine my confusion when I opened the new catalogue of trendy publishing house Serpent’s Tail and read about their forthcoming ‘posh porn’ releases. Somewhere inside my brain, Homer Simpson cried out an almighty ‘D’oh!’
Here was a publisher of serious and award-winning literature (Elfriede Jelinek had just won the biggie, the Nobel Prize) unashamedly announcing its porno list. It turns out there’s a new wave a-coming. It turns out that Chick Lit is finished and Posh Porn is the new thing. It turns out it’s okay to write about sex again.
Melissa P’s One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed was published in translation this July after taking Europe by storm. It purports to be the diary of a teenage Sicilian girl detailing her sex life and fantasies. It could have been written by a 40-year old hack, of course, but everyone seems to be taking on trust the notion that it was scribbled by a 14-year old nymphette in-between enjoying orgies while bunking off school.
As we follow her through two years of underage shagging, we realise Melissa is looking for love, but all she can find is sex, and lots of it: with boyfriends, teachers, tutors, old men, girlfriends, strangers, anyone who’s up for it. She’s possessed by a deep hunger for defilement, a base need to be fucked in such extreme ways that it will somehow assuage the need in her for love. And like any princess who fucks enough frogs, she gets her prince in the end (interestingly, the book takes its name not from any S&M practise like I’d thought, but from the hair-brushing ritual of every proper princess).
What grates with this novel-cum-memoir is the judgemental tone she adopts for the men she freely seeks out and uses for her sexual needs. They are all, in that tired old cliché, utter bastards led by their dicks, because… well, they’re led by their dicks. Whereas Melissa P, our heroine, is a poor confused girl with no control over her misplaced desires. Having lapped up all the milk in the house, this little pussy spits at the milkman when she feels sick.
But this September Serpent’s Tail also publish Emily Maguire’s erotic coming of age novel Taming the Beast. Though, at first, it seems spookily similar to Melissa P’s debut (15-year old schoolgirl has affair with schoolteacher and becomes the town bike when he disappears from her life), Taming the Beast goes deeper, harder, stronger.
Heroine Sarah screws almost every man in South Sydney but always holds a candle for the man who set her off on her odyssey of lust, schoolteacher Daniel Carr. So when Daniel reappears seven years later, they renew their passion and take it to obsessive, scary new depths. What follows is a sado-masochistic mutual dependency that threatens to destroy them both. This is love as all-consuming, violent excess: love that is ‘not about happiness or security’ but ‘blood rushing through veins searching out its source. Flesh screaming to be joined with flesh.’
It leaves One Hundred Strokes asleep at the post and is thankfully free of that novel’s blame culture. Both Maguire and her heroine steadfastly refuse to point the finger at Daniel for his seduction of Sarah. He is as much the victim of her voracious sexuality as she is of his maturity.
So what’s the difference between novels like this and ‘porn’?
It seems to me that ‘porn’ sounds street and dirty and a little bit rough, but if you slap the word ‘posh’ in front of it it’s suddenly as much about the brain as the genitals. Pornography is working class and bestial, but pornography with ideas is, by definition, middle-class and respectable. What we have is porn that you can read on the train. Porn repackaged as a lifestyle commodity. Porn your mum doesn’t have to hide under her bed.
So it appears you can have your cock and eat it.
And about time too.
The Top 5 Read-On-The-Train Posh Porn Novels
Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence
The lonely lady of the manor, the surly gamekeeper throbbing with lust. Eeh lass, say hello to Mr John Thomas.
Story of O – Pauline Reage
Written by a very posh French lady who remained anonymous for years. A dizzying, poetic, dream-like sado-masochistic orgy. Whip crack away!
Fear of Flying – Erica Jong
1970s classic account of one woman’s search for no-strings passion, or ‘the zipless fuck’. Girls just wanna have fun.
The White Hotel – DM Thomas
Famous with self-abusers the world over for the two ‘Frau Anna Gastein’ chapters, one in verse, where she pours out her red hot erotic fantasies to her psychoanalyst… Dr Sigmund Freud.
The Fermata – Nicholson Baker
What would you do if you could stop time with a click of your fingers? Play with people’s underwear and write them filthy stories, of course.
Porn – The Second Coming was published in Scarlet Magazine Issue 13 and is reprinted here by very kind permission of Scarlet editor, Sarah Hedley.