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A Confession. A Resolution. And a Rant.

First the confession. That I’ve gone a little gaga over a recent modest spike in Carrie’s Story‘s Kindle sales.

Have I been getting a little 50 Shades of Grey action for my own smart-girl-meets-moody-older-guy BDSM, w/a Molly Weatherfield, and going amazingly strong for a small-press book first published in 1995?

Maybe. But since checking out those numbers is a terrible timesuck, I’m herein also posting a resolution to cut the clicking.

And also to stop Googling “Carrie’s Story” “50 Shades” – even if the search did yield this exuberantly hilarious post that called 50 Shades the “choir-singing younger sibling to Carrie’s Story” and then went on to get a little raunchy.

The point being, as we all know, that it’s hard enough to do actual writing. Of novels. And that I’m one of romance and erotica’s slowest writers even without all that time-consuming clicking. Which makes me think that I ought to make a final resolution. To also stop gnashing my teeth about the stupid stuff I’m reading about women and kinky fiction.

Hell no. And herein beginneth the rant.

A feminist rant. Because it’s as a romance-writing feminist who’s spent a lot of quality time with my erotic fantasy life that I’m so mightily pissed off by the self-serving dumbness that’s being written about the vexed attractions of un-PC sex and sexuality. The tipping point in this case being Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek cover story a few weeks ago, which purported to let us in on a couple of big brave surprising secrets.

  • That young successful working women might have erotic fantasy needs social equality can’t satisfy.
  • That feminists are “perplexed,” and “outraged” by this situation.
  • And that therefore feminism is some clueless, useless, irrelevant call back to some mythical “barricades.”

Pretty standard Roiphe, I discovered when I checked out some of her other work: like a girl Columbus, her thing evidently is to “discover” something that’s been there all along, and then to congratulate herself for her boldness while conveniently forgetting that anybody – least of all any of those irrelevant feminists – had ever had similar (if not braver, more honest, challenging, nuanced, and radical) thoughts on the subject.

In this piece it’s as though smart women – from feminist sex educator extraordinaire Susie Bright to romance superstars Jenny Crusie and Susan Elizabeth Phillips – haven’t been exploring this vast continent for decades. As though the brilliant staff of Good Vibrations – San Francisco’s pioneering feminist sex toy, sex education, sex everything store – haven’t changed the lives of countless women and men by helping them find their physical, bodily ways to the wilder (or for that matter the safer) shores of desire. As though there hasn’t been a generation of wide-ranging discussion and debate among and between feminists about the pleasures and dangers of our own desires.

As though the huge market in erotic romance hadn’t even existed before someone told Katie Roiphe about 50 Shades of Grey. Or that romance readers haven’t been making their own forays into non-PC fantasy at least since The Flame and the Flower hit the shelves in 1972 (first printing: 600,000).

The story of how women got our own erotic reading still has yet to be told in its entirety. But if I were to try I’d begin by positing two distinct yet subtly related sources, both pretty contemporaneous. The advent of the bodice-rippers and of the sex-positive feminist discussion I cut my writing teeth on. I’d note the amount of queer and leftwing influence on sex-positive feminism and pay close attention to fascinating instances of crossover in the case of the bodice-rippers, beginning with Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ indispensable essay about her own feminist experience of romance fiction, collected in Jayne Ann Krentz’s anthology Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women.

I, alas, am far too slow a writer and untrained a researcher to attempt this (not to speak of hoping someday to produce another novel by Pam Rosenthal or Molly Weatherfield). But while I dearly hope someone takes it on — romance scholar friends, perhaps? Susie Bright, please? — in the meanwhile I don’t want anybody thinking that the advent of 50 Shades and all sorts of other stuff had nothing to do with feminism. For better and worse, it has everything to do with it, and I’d love to see this discussion.

And if this all makes me sound like a hundred-year-old scold who thinks younger women have to worship at the shrine of our earlier struggles — well then, don’t think of this rant as coming from the Pam Rosenthal who once belonged to the same proud pioneering Second Wave Feminist organization that produced Our Bodies Ourselves, but from the Pam Rosenthal who gets stares of disbelief when readers find out that “YOU?! Wrote Carrie’s Story?” And who relishes the moment of confusion when they discover that I don’t have piercings or wear torn fishnet.

Take it from the Pam Rosenthal who, a couple of decades ago was more than a little “perplexed” (though never “appalled”) by my own wayward erotic imaginings, but who was lucky enough be living in San Francisco during the years when feminists, feminists, were talking sex and sense, sexuality and sensibility.

If you weren’t there – or even if you were – you might want to check out either or both of these books:

Sallie Tisdale’s Talk Dirty to Me,  a gracefully written, personal take on the very scene that changed my life. Learning life skills like how to speak up when asking for what you want at the the porn video store or how to sell the right customer the right vibrator at Good Vibes, Tisdale learned how to find out what she needed to know about her own erotic self, during a more joyful era than this one.

Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader. Just published, this is a collection of meticulous, high-powered feminist essays by an anthropologist, theorist, and activist who changed the face of feminist academic studies and was one of the strongest influences on me when I was considering I might be able to write BDSM erotica.

Rant over. I feel so much better. Time to write some fiction.

But also do come say hi at the BDSM-apolooza at the Smutketeers blog next May 9 and 10, when Molly Weatherfield joins them for their BDSM-apalooza.






  1. Yay, Pam! Well said. I’ve been wondering if I was the only person confused by this ‘discovery’ reaction to BDSM erotica. By the way, it’s great that “Carrie’s Story” has such long legs.

  2. What you describe here? I just sent an application to the NEH pretty much with that as the proposal for one of the chapters of the book I want funding for so I have time to write it. 🙂

  3. Thanks, you guys, for the support. And Sarah, I’m thrilled that you’re working in this area. Best of luck with your funding.

  4. The story of how women got our own erotic reading still has yet to be told in its entirety. But if I were to try I’d begin by positing two distinct yet subtly related sources, both pretty contemporaneous. The advent of the bodice-rippers and of the sex-positive feminist discussion

    Why start with the “bodice-rippers”? Kimberly Baldus has an essay in the latest issue of JPRS on eighteenth-century amatory fiction written by women, and the novels of Jennifer Crusie.

  5. Chiming in late hhere, Pam, (just saw your note on romancescolar loop) but really terrific essay! Thanks!


  6. Hey Andrea and Milena, thanks for the kind words.

    Laura, thanks for the link. I did, in fact, think about 18th c amatory fiction, though I confess I haven’t read a lot of it. My husband has studied it, however, so I know how fascinating it is. But — tho I could be wrong about this — I believe that when we discussed it, he said that the evidence was that its intended (or main) readership was men. Which makes it a different kettle of fish, since I’m particularly interested in the question of how we get dirty books of our own.

    Will read the article with interest, however.

  7. I probably know even less about eighteenth-century amatory fiction. But what about E. M. Hull’s The Sheik (1919) which, according to Q D Leavis, was “to be seen in the hands of every typist”? Or Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks (1907)? I haven’t actually read it, because it’s more romantic/erotic fiction rather than romance, but

    With hindsight it can be argued that Three Weeks broke down a great deal of Edwardian sexual prejudice and hypocrisy: it can, however, also be seen as a wildly titillating fantasy and a foray into voyeurism. (Mary Cadogan, And Then Their Hearts Stood Still, page 75)

  8. Your recent examples are great, Laura, and probably very appropriate. I’m not sure why I want to begin my history in the 1970s, but it has something, I think, to do with a sense of a conscious discussion and aspiration among readers, as in the SEP essay. Perhaps the Shiek also inspired such a thing.

  9. I get the impression that the public reaction to The Sheik was quite similar to the reaction to 50 Shades:

    the publication of the novel and the release of the film starring Rudolph Valentino in the eponymous role unleashed “sheik fever” in the western world. In the U.S.A., the book went through fifty printings alone in 1921, and it was the first novel to appear on the bestseller list for two consecutive years (Leider 153). It was continually reissued in paperback throughout the 1920s to 1960s, while it sold 1,194,000 copies in hardback by 1965 (Blake 67). The New York Telegraph estimated that over 125,000 people had seen The Sheik within weeks of the film’s opening in 1921. It screened for six months in Sydney, Australia, and ran for a record forty-two weeks in France (Leider 167-8). (Teo)

    As far as readers are concerned, though, “Hull’s papers tell us little about what influenced her to write The Sheik, while definitive information about specific readers’ responses to the novel is non-existent because of the lack of reader surveys carried out” (Teo).

    Teo, Hsu-Ming. “Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film,” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

  10. It’s a vexing question — readership as a self-conscious phenomenon. Or not? And how this affects the texts in question. In my brief forays into romance scholarship, I’ve always been interested in this question, largely because romance readers do have so much consciousness of themselves as a group. And then there’s all the synergy and interaction between readers and writers, and a lot of interesting stuff about readers becoming writers (again, I love the SEP essay). And because of all this synergy and interaction, romance fiction grows and changes — and its relationship to eroticism changes, deepens (or sometimes doesn’t).

    And why doesn’t the San Francisco Public Library have a copy of THE SHEIK? Or even our interlibrary loan facility, Link+ …./!

  11. Pam, I posted a comment about your wish to link “two distinct yet subtly related sources, both pretty contemporaneous.” It seems to have vanished, but it occurred to me that the novels in the earlier period I mentioned, published in 1907 and 1919 are contemporaneous with Marie Stopes’s Married Love or Love in Marriage (1918).

    I’ll leave out the link and hope the comment gets through this time. Re copies of The Sheik, it’s available online via Project Gutenberg.

  12. Sorry about the lost comment. I’ve had some technical difficulties.

    This is so interesting; it seems to me you’re associating these earlier novels in the context of a period of sexual reform (not to speak of the Women’s Suffrage movement). Which — on an extremely speculative level — would suggest that potboiler popular erotic fiction for women is likely to be associated with an intellectual climate where reform issues are at least being fought out.

  13. Yes, and having taken a proper look at Sarah Wintle’s article on The Sheik, she puts it, as you say, “in the context of a period of sexual reform”:

    To flaunt this book in the early 1920s, Alexander Walker suggests in his biography of Valentino, was to flaunt your emancipation and daring; to enjoy openly its primitive sexual fantasies was to show a truly modern insouciance in the face of the fashionably shocking vagaries and transgressive energies of human feeling celebrated in modernist and jazz-age primitivism. Such energies and drives had recently been highlighted by Freudian psychoanalysis and by the popularizing of the new science of sexology which had led to the publication, in the same year as The Sheik, of Marie Stopes’s manual, Married Love. In one way at least the book’s open treatment of female sexuality contributed to its popular version of modernity. (Wintle 294-95)

    And here’s a bit about audience reactions to the film sequel toThe Sheik:

    In 1927, Valentino starred, just before his death, in the much more firmly directed and beautifully photographed Son of the Sheik, based on Hull’s own sequel. A scene in which the breeched, booted and bare-chested star was strung up and whipped caused delirium and fainting among the female audience. (Wintle 293)
    Wintle, Sarah, 1996. ‘The Sheik: What Can be Made of a Daydream’, Women: A Cultural Review 7.3: 291-302.

  14. Carolyn Jewel sent me over here, and I’m glad she did, because this is such a powerful and timely discussion.

    I think the description of Roiphe’s pathology is spot on, and I wonder if it’s just that so many women gravitating to books like 50 Shades are too young to remember the 70s, or just not educated in the history of second-wave feminism. I was way too young to catch the likes of Nancy Friday and Erica Jong when they emerged, but I still think they’re notorious enough to be visible to more women than they seem to be today. And that’s curious to me, in the same way as the breathtakingly widespread and systematic rollback of women’s rights. I think Gloria Steinem was correct in scolding all of us who benefited so directly from 70s feminists but who have not done enough to ensure that those same hard-won rights are available to generations yet to come. I fully admit that I had a sense of entitlement about those rights, and watching them being stripped away is frightening and overwhelming.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying that IMO, until women truly comprehend the extent to which our freedom of sexual fantasy is intertwined with our general political freedom in socially tangible ways, and until we find a way to keep the momentum of this re-awakened awareness going, we’re going to continue to cycle through these periods of battle, forgetting, and rediscovery, with only sporadic forward movement.

    As for the historical record, I highly, HIGHLY recommend Sharon Marcus’s Between Women, which casts what will be, for many, a whole new light on Victorian womanhood: Another wildly misunderstood era is that of the Colonial Puritans, although Richard Godbeer’s Sexual Revolution in Early America is helping to unveil the fascinating truths there (especially when read alongside Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives, which is still a staple for understanding the role of women in Colonial America). If you’ve ever read the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, you can feel the erotic undercurrent of her spirituality, and it’s not exactly hidden.

    Within the Romance community, I do think quite a few of us are discussing these issues — I know we’re having some good conversations at Dear Author. One difficulty is that there are still some schisms in the community regarding what is perceived as unfair criticism of the genre for being too feminist/not feminist enough, and there are also some powerfully negative perceptions of feminism. Even the split between second wave and third wave feminism figures in (I’ve gotten my third wave self involved in a few scuffles).

    One thing I do wish we’d move away from as a community, though, is the construction of the issue in terms of PC/non-PC, in part because I’ve gotten oversensitized to accusations of PC from those who are trying to defend a patently offensive position (e.g. to defend outright racism or sexism). But also because I think even the non-PC label suggests that there’s something deviant or abnormal about sexual fantasies for women that, statistically speaking, are not only extremely common, but of longstanding origin. I think we need to re-frame the whole discussion to start from a place where female sexual fantasy is normal and common, rather than feeling like we need to defend certain fantasies or certain Romance tropes/devices. I don’t know if, when, or how that’s going to happen, but I think it would go a long way to challenging real-life patriarchal resistance to female sexual autonomy.

  15. Wow, Robin, thanks so much for writing. I’m thrilled and slightly overwhelmed by this passionate, smart, thought-provoking comment.

    Where do I start?

    Well, with an easy one. Thanks so much for mentioning Sharon Marcus’s extraordinary BETWEEN WOMEN. Do you discuss this book anywhere online or in print? I’d love to see it. I once blogged about her first book, APARTMENT STORIES, which I also loved.

    I met Sharon, and learned about her work, btw, when she was my son’s professor at Columbia — and let me also say that she was one of the most committed, energetic mentors a graduate student could have, as well, of course as a gifted teacher. But even if she weren’t all that, dayenu, it would have been enough simply that she wrote BETWEEN WOMEN, which seems to me some kind of high water mark of engaged feminist scholarship — knowing where she comes from and striking out for something new.

    Might she be an example of what you call Third Wave feminism? Tell me more, feminist grandmas want to know. And my bad for not hanging out more often at Dear Author to hear the arguments (If you’d like to link to any particularly interesting ones, I’d be delighted to follow them).

    As for fantasy — I think you’re dead-on right that we need to talk about it in itself, and not simply or always in relation to romance. For starters I’d point to some of the brief, provocative remarks in Eve Sedgwick’s A DIALOGUE ON LOVE.

    And as for how the whole enchilada/war on women thing goes together… oy, so huge, another time for that…

  16. Pam,

    There are a number of resources online that discuss the different “waves” of feminism, and a good one can be found here: Not only does it present the three waves, but it also discusses the various objections to using that terminology (much of which I agree with, but still find the labels handy for situations like this, where we’re illustrating with broad strokes).

    As for discussions of the topic. Angela Toscano wrote an article on the narrative function of rape in Romance for the JPRS: Liz Mc2 wrote an interesting blog post about the female body: And I’ve composed a couple of articles for Dear Author, which contain numerous links and some fantastic discussion. The first is my theory of reader consent: I also wrote on last week in response to the AAR fracas: There are others, as well, but that’s a start.

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