Tomoé Hill

Erotica: A Liminal Manual

September 18, 2019

The truth is, I don’t know where to begin because in the beginning was flux. But perhaps the stories born of chaos are the ones we relate to the most.

Write about writing about sex. What if I told you that I wrote my first fantasy, a threesome with two men, at the age of 9 or 10? Or that I didn’t have sex with a partner for six years, even though I was with someone—what satisfaction there was to be had, I had with my fingers and fantasies? Or even when freed into a kind of non-freedom afterwards, that sex existed only within a keyboard and emails with someone I had—have—never met? If I write about writing about sex, it is because sex was anything—everything—but the penetrative act with someone else.

Now, existing in a semblance of what you might recognise as normality, writing about sex is as solitary as ever. The truest form of myself—insofar as one may know the self at any given time­—exists when I write, because I am aware of how people turn away from the idea of the sexual woman who strays from the boundaries of what a sexual woman should be. If there is a struggle with understanding a world that wants to keep women from writing themselves in a manner that is true to who they are, perhaps that is because it is a world that has only wanted women to be hidden, even within their own words.

‘I don’t approve of The Sexual Life of Catherine M. But I am grateful she has written it’. A blurb on the back of a book by a woman writing about her appetite. Shocking, scandalous, amazed by her honesty. The rare times a woman is allowed, given permission; given, indeed, the blessing of a publisher who deigns to capitalise on and exploit a story which is that of many, but treated with the garishness of a carnival sideshow—this is the language used. Millet, Nin, Desclos, Violette Leduc: this too, is telling. It is the French woman who is esteemed enough to tell the tale, a stereotype which shows no sign of dissipating.

Where are the rest of us, who write ourselves as we are; not daring, simply relating part of what it is to be hungry and have no shame in it? ‘I don’t approve’. At first I refused to find the review the line was part of, because I did not wish or care to know the rest. When I did, it was conveniently behind a paywall, and so I left it there—but still I wondered. Was the reviewer a woman, grateful that someone else exposed herself like the dirt on the bottom of a rock so she need not soil herself, or was it a man, salivating at the explicitness whilst dismissing the honesty in yet another tedious tale of womanhood?

It was a woman, but it also hardly mattered. It was enough to read: ‘I don’t approve’. Had I been the author with any power, I would have declined to have it printed on the book. What is a comment like that but one that serves to reflect the moral magnanimity of the reviewer, benevolent in her (or his) tolerance for a woman not writing—not living—according to a set list of approved narratives? In the context of the book, a woman choosing to live her life by indulging her varied appetites, the very nature of ‘I don’t approve’ becomes another form of the policing of sexuality. It asks the questions: do you not approve of any woman whose sexual life doesn’t conform to the rigidity of a heterosexual, monogamous relationship? Are women who live outside of standardised socio-sexual constraints, like sex workers at any service level, not ‘approved’ of? The questions that single line trail in their wake suggest there is in place for the reviewer a complete hierarchy of womanhood, categorised by deviations in behaviour. How is this in any way positive? It can’t be—unless the publishers felt that gathering ‘shock’ reviews would be of benefit to sales. But even then, it seems to diminish the very idea of the book and the agency of the author.

‘Short fiction should address mature and sophisticated themes … [W]e do not normally publish … erotica’. Nin, Desclos, and Leduc all wrote what can be designated as erotic fiction (though saying it in the same breath as “literature” may be too much to hope for), some of which can be considered autofiction by today’s ongoing and tiresomely argued opinions.

How much cunt is too much? When does a fantasy cross the line into unladylike? Erotic/Erotica are words too loaded in a sentence such as that submission guideline for a London literary magazine. Erotica means mainly women writing about sex. When men do the same, it is seen as part of a literary whole, as if such writing—regardless of whether sex forms the basis of the plot, or is featured in compact scenarios—must be divided categorically according to the author’s sex. Logically, in this context erotica is neither mature nor sophisticated, thence unliterary. In spite of relatively equal literary fame, Anaïs Nin is described as a writer of erotica; Henry Miller is not. So at what point is sex allowed to be intelligent when written by a woman? The answer is too often that it only is in moderation, that is, Claire-Louise Bennett’s lonely ‘vagina’ in Pond —a polite description, a hazy reflection of desire that might have been. Beautiful, but also acceptable, a partially revealed fantasy which draws the curtain on itself in literary modesty. In my head I keep coming back to ‘I don’t approve’. Why would I want your disapproval, or your gratitude? Imagine having that said to you: I’m glad you wrote this, but I think you’re a slut.

Ottessa Moshfegh writes in The Observer of playing at an older literary man’s attempt at a sexual trade for mentoring when younger. She plays, but declines to participate in the way he expects and gets what she wants anyway. The social media response from some other well-regarded (that is to say, Twitter blue-ticked) women journalists and writers: she has no self-respect. This is the peculiar hypocrisy towards the woman writer, and towards the woman who lives in a certain manner and who opts to make it public: agency is for all women until a woman’s agency does not conform to their particular kind of womanhood. Had she been assaulted as a result, the response would have been radically different: she would have been reduced to a victim, regardless of whether or not she chose to admit to a degree of responsibility—and, from what I’ve read, she seems to me tough and assured enough to have a kind of cold, if cynical, clarity regarding her actions. The end result, hypothetically speaking, becomes solidarity by way of completely stripping the woman of agency, because it benefits the narrative to do so: another kind of hypocrisy, and possibly the worst a woman can visit on another. We are all sisters in victimhood, but not in agency.

I don’t advocate for a blanket approval when it comes to women’s writing on sexual experience because it shouldn’t need to exist: you can disagree with a person’s choices—and so the above quote, had it been said outside of the context of a review, is not problematic in the least for me. However, the quote/opinion framed as damning praise forces the question of a certain kind of critique. Is it literary to critique the lifestyle or actions the writing is based on? Is it even relevant? And yet, the quote chosen by the publisher highlights the critique of the sexual life, not the (quality of the) writing of it. Even the oft-used favourite word for positive reviews of women’s sexual writing—subversive—seems a way of washing one’s hands from actually dealing up-close in such narratives. Saying it is enough to acknowledge that it is dangerous in the right way; a fuck-you to the patriarchy, whether it’s The Man, or just a man. Either way, it’s an apathetic condescension that refuses to get its hands or minds mired in the complexity, which does no justice to writers who are literally experiencing the physical and emotional messiness that comes with the duality of wanting to enjoy and analyse their sexual being.

Where we stray into hypocrisy is when something that might be as simple as ‘I don’t think I’d make x choice’ becomes ‘you are y for making x choice, therefore you can never be z’ —a deliberate structuring to mark someone as other. The idea that it benefits us to pretend solidarity regardless is untenable—to be tolerant is different. Part of agency is knowing where I stand in relation to other people’s views, how I navigate and write the world as a result. If there is a patriarchal complaint about the woman writer of sex, its counterpart exists within its own ranks and is no better or more valid a critique than the other—we see it often enough when sex is seen as acceptable in publishing if presented in the guise of theory, as a feminist cultural critique stripped and analysed rather than fully fleshed and conversational. It is impossible—or simply unrealistic—to theorise on the cunt, ass, or cock, the white or poc straight, queer, or trans body, without the messy human experience of it: good, bad, or indifferent. To pretend that type of writing constitutes a more highbrow or exalted view of the world, and therefore reveals a better —as it were, more civilised— class of person, amounts to nothing more than a kind of gender-class literary snobbery. Lacan probably masturbated to L’Origine du monde and, if he didn’t, it seems a shame that such a sensuous work was not appraised in an appropriately carnal manner. It doesn’t preclude more reflective acknowledgement.

Lauded sexual writing has mostly equalled being fucked as opposed to fucking in a mutual, much less female-forward, scenario—hence the permanently erect cocks in Miller and Mailer, the erasing gaze of Gass. It also goes some way towards explaining the occasional popularity of some women’s sexual writing. Even if no one is saying it outright, the message is clear: she writes about fucking and wanting to fuck like a man. You’re either a man or an animal (which is to say, a slut), never a woman. An old poster for The Barefoot Contessa with Ava Gardner —as a ‘wild and hot-blooded’ dancer who is discovered and elevated into a famous actress, meeting her end when her impotent husband murders her after finding out she is pregnant— announces her as ‘the world’s most beautiful animal’ (it isn’t clear if they mean Ava or Maria, the character, which was probably deliberate). It isn’t that I have a problem with the use of animal in itself, as I frequently use the term. It is that I refer to myself as a woman above all, and the use of animal comes about in play or as an acknowledgement that appetite is not just for the opposite sex, and that the animal element exists in not all, but many people. It is an important distinction, but one still employed almost solely as an alpha status in sexual descriptions of men or of the ever-available mate or sexually abnormal female outlier.

While James Baldwin is celebrated for his portrayals of gay desire, one of the most moving (heterosexual) sex scenes I’ve read by a man is from his Just Above My Head, where the act is written from the male view, but treats the woman not as something to be fucked, but with a kind of reverence. She opens, she invites his entry in the knowledge it is one of mutuality:

‘… I moved toward her, I turned to her, I clung to her, catching my balance; somewhere between sleep and waking, I began to caress my wife. With my eyes still tight closed, I clung to my woman, and her sigh, her moan, dragged me up from the deep. I was trembling … her thighs encircled me, her feet tickled my ass, the hairs in the crack of my ass. She opened; I entered; I entered and she opened. She stroked the dream out of me, she brought me to her … she dragged the dream upward from the base of my belly to the edge of my sex. I was so grateful, grateful, I felt such a gratitude …’

It is hard to imagine, in the face of a certain brand of white literary machismo, that this passage could be written by anyone not free from those constraints. The recognition of a woman not merely as a hole or a set of holes, but as a partner in emotional interaction, a piece of the puzzle of oneself, create something that moves beyond the mere writing of sex and into an understanding of the symbiosis of sex and identity. What Baldwin writes in Hall Montana is more important than a characterisation: it is a masculinity that fully acknowledges its own vulnerability and non-toxic dependence on other lives to be a sexual whole; human.

And if we think that this is something that has passed into relative obscurity over the years, my own experience as an editor of sorts, and as a reader, has shown me there is still an overflow of male sexual writing that relies on the women to be at least half the age of an older male protagonist; symmetrical in feature, short in skirt, and wanton specifically to fit that male’s fantasies. Ex-wives (they are never women, as if ‘ex-wife’ were a negatively gendered category of its own) are caricature bitches; frigid and bitter. Casual sexual violence and misogyny in the style of Tarantino is rampant, and cultural stereotypes, focusing on Jewish and non-descript Asian exotics as favourites, abound. I have also seen the vile black-man-as-sexual-predator/fantasy stereotype written by a woman and, if it was meant with any irony, there isn’t enough in the world to justify writing a white woman on safari, fantasising about being raped by her guide, and considering it good or literary writing. From what I have read, it seems that there is an attitude towards this sort of writing that tries to excuse itself on the grounds that the writer be from a marginalised group, something I disagree with completely: while I’m open enough to think anything could, in theory, be successfully written—provided the writing itself and the context serve to prove a greater point—the writing of it as is does not somehow magically imbue it with validity.

But validity in writing sex as a woman—especially when it comes from experience—requires giving up on the idea of it to an extent. While we have all the time in the world for the narratives of the sexually abused (this is, of course, a generalisation—there are many we do not acknowledge, mainly non-white/Western), we have almost none for the sexual, which is part of the problem. Women cannot exist if they do so only as victims, and to show them only as such to a large part erases any hope they have of being perceived as sexually joyous and varied in their appetites. Writing sex has become like Shklovksy’s Zoo where, instead of writing about love without mentioning it, one writes about sex in the same evasive manner: by skirting around, alluding to, allowing others to inscribe their fantasies on your libido. Above all, avert your own gaze.

If I find it relatively issue-free to write about sex or my own experiences, it is only because I lived, to paraphrase Leduc, in the prison of my skin, desiring constantly with such force despite being in a situation that did not allow any healthy desire to be acted upon, or only unhealthily. It knew if this was something I survived, writing about it or sex would be like breathing: automatic and unconscious, at least most of the time.

Here I will turn myself inside out if it helps illustrate a wider point about women’s writing on sexual experience. I don’t offer it for sympathy, though it causes me infinite frustration and sometimes anger. I simply offer it in the context of the rest of this piece.

Roughly five years ago I started to write semi-seriously as a means to escape an increasingly untenable relationship of almost fifteen years functioning on lies: that we were still married, when we had actually been divorced for years; that we were happy and as normal as society wishes their couples to—at least superficially—be. I was rough in style and knew nothing practical, writing in the dark metaphorically and otherwise, as I did so in the early hours when I couldn’t sleep. There were many rejections; rightly so, as I started mostly in fiction, something I have little to no talent in. But among them were a few acceptances which gave me something to, as with Baldwin’s Hall, cling to.

With no real understanding of anything but reading books, re-reading my own work as well as others’, and re-writing, I tried to make myself a better writer. Upon my exit from the relationship, I found myself completely on my own. I had no friends, and was estranged from my entire family except my mother, my father having died some years before. I always have to re-stress this part: I had no friends, or even acquaintances of my own. I had lived via my ex-husband/partner, partly through fear of the world, partly through fear and loathing of myself. When I left, there was no support system—the purest (insofar as it is the only), most painful expression of what it means to be solitary. There is no way to explain how it is different to the person who chooses to isolate themselves but who, somewhere, has friends. At that point I had even distanced myself from my mother, unwilling to tell her precisely what was going on until months later, and then, a modified version.

I would get up, go to work—where there was only my ex and a few of his devoted employees. I was lucky in that, as long as I kept on top of my responsibilities, the rest of my time was my own. So I wrote, bent over the laptop screen, happy not to look at or engage with anyone—I already had a reputation as standoffish for not wanting to talk about myself or make small talk. At home, I did the same. There was nothing else to do, but read, write, and consider my position: a Sisyphean repetition that I, too, was convinced was some sort of punishment.

About six months into my new exile from life, I met someone you may know online as XY from our reviews of erotic literature for Minor Literature[s] and later, for The Amorist. Like most things in my life, he was an accident, a virtual meeting that began as nothing more than a polite exchange reaching a point of recognition which opened up how and why we communicated. Even in the most mundane of words can we sometimes feel the unsaid and, in that, a hope that we will be understood, while not quite daring to express that wish lest it be misconstrued. But there was no misunderstanding, and we plunged into each other—for there seems to be no other way of explaining it—and wrote, with the kind of guileless pleasure that comes from having nothing to lose; or, maybe, just having nothing or not enough in a certain regard. The discovery of a certain hunger in both of us led to not just the writing of sex but the writing about writing sex: thinking about it, the loneliness and joy of it, the constraints of good and bad and everything in between. It brought me something I hadn’t had for years—the feeling I was needed and wanted, but also that it was the freest and fullest exchange of such thoughts I might have ever had. Whatever else the letters were, they formed a structure that, with added flesh and blood, would have been another kind of relationship.

It was he who encouraged writing myself, for at that time I still struggled with what I wrote and how I wrote it, being but vaguely possessed of the idea of ‘voice’ despite having found a direction in writing non-fiction. But when I found this voice—or better put, heard it—its force took me by surprise. Loneliness and longing became amplified to the point of realising that, when I wrote, I wrote myself in an attempt to understand the long years before, who I was, past and present, while remaining fully cognisant that I might never succeed in this unraveling. So much of it was inextricably bound with sex, even the most mundane things, that I began to sense it was perhaps the key to the most insight. I wrote, he wrote, day in and day out, over the years. It seems hard to believe it’s been almost four years with almost no days where we don’t speak, and if the sex is not as present in writing then it is simply a presence, because it is a part of us. I think he would demur if pressed to admit he helped write me into life—a real life, with friends and a partner—but I have no issue with saying it. Of course it was me in the end who had to walk out and meet people, but there is no doubt I would never have done it had it not been for him there, letting me—in that he listened and never judged—rediscover myself as a person and, more importantly, a woman.

It may be too easy to dismiss this as well, he wants something from you. I gave him everything, freely, within the mutually agreed boundaries of our space, with no expectations of return. In return I received everything. The reality is I will never meet him, never speak to him in person—perhaps that is the impossibility of this situation, absurd in a world where we can gratify those desires through cheap airplane tickets, Skype, telephones. But these have always been the self-imposed constraints: what this is, until it changes—and neither of us plan for change—is words, thoughts; the gaze mutual and internal, turned into something where power is shared for the benefit of both.

I often look back at these emails and experience a brief disconnect: for a moment or two I think I am reading about someone else before I remember that it was—is—me. It feels both distant and too recent and I find myself replaying my life, or at least the last twelve years or so of it, in a kind of daze in my head, before forcing myself once again to read another email or two and remember that there is no prison anymore—whether in skin or relationship—though memory is an incarceration I will never be free from. I console myself that if I must remember those long years, at least these new ones have allowed me life again.

So I wrote about writing: writing sex, XY, the people and experiences I have come to know since, what feels like so much in such a short period; but when you have not lived or fucked for so long, you are ravenous for everything when you emerge. Like random things are wont to do, they lead to other random things. I found myself with a literary agent. As plentiful as acceptances were before, in this new writing world there was nothing but rejection, and the feeling there was something irredeemably wrong with how and what I wrote, despite assurances to the contrary—and so it is a short jump to start thinking there is something wrong with you. It is a paranoid business for writers: the easiest thing to believe is one is just not good enough. And this is both true and untrue. There is an x you are required to have or to be and, without it, you go nowhere. But no one can tell you how to achieve x: it is in the eye of the beholder-publisher, whether you have it or can be moulded into it. I once sent a letter to my agent saying I quit, that I couldn’t do it anymore. I meant it. It was the response that stopped me short—their door, they said, was open to me if I chose to leave. I could not, do not understand why: in a world where to succeed is to get deals, win awards, I had nothing to my name. I don’t even have the relative kudos of multiple degrees or a field of expertise, unless you count my physical body. I stayed, because only two other people in my life had wanted me as I was, with nothing.

Almost a year later, I left, this time unclouded by the gratitude of that desire. To stay would mean to cling to a lottery-like hope of being chosen, and while there might be the slimmest chance of that happening still, I knew that chance would be reworded and reshaped until what I was, was no longer; that I would be someone who only existed in comparison to others, such as when I was told I was ‘too focused’ for the Maggie Nelson fans, or that I was like Han Kang, but ‘unsellable’. You are unsellable until you sell, of course: then you were always sellable. But how could I be that falsity—a future measurement for writers after me, knowing they are good enough but that people are scared of what they offer, who they are, unless there is tangible proof ‘they’ can sell and be swallowed? I didn’t and don’t want to be anything but myself, and the irony is I was noticed as no one. To ignore that would have erased everything.

What struck me most of all was that I realised any attempt to sell me would be to a largely white feminist, possibly quasi-academic audience, a group that I have never by and large met with response from. This is not an accusation, but acceptance that things do not change as much as we think they do: if I was never white enough as a child to be part of certain groups, so I remain as an adult, bemused that my features ‘pass’ more than my writing—even though it is those features (in which beauty and its hierarchies play no small, if unconscious, role) that dictate who gets visibility when writing on sex and desire. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is an example of how the white female narrative is lauded as brave and groundbreaking in its exploration of desire: real-life, in the literary sense, is limited to a white female demographic. It would be easy enough to say the women whose lives Taddeo chose to follow were chosen simply because she found them fascinating, but the lack of diversity—the deliberate decision that sexual desire be only viewed through this lens—does nothing but continue to exclude and, what’s more crucial, to delegitimise the desires of all others. Would the book have received praise from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow if some of the narratives were by black, mixed-race, trans, queer or disabled women? It’s unlikely, as it would be deemed too risky: again, unsellable. White sells because, despite the growing visibility of women, to be a white woman is still the ne plus ultra of womankind.

I am in-between in both identity and writing. How could I be understood by those who have their places saved up front, where they are fully visible and heard? The answers to my questions were always to be found in my rejection feedback, veiled in the supportive language of the gatekeepers of what women are allowed to tell, what stories are acceptable to a particular world that want inclusivity, but of the right kind. The right kind are mirrors. I have never been right, nor a recognisable reflection, and to bring sex and desire into that becomes impossible—the impossibility of selling is also the impossibility of accepting.

So I removed myself from the idea of the former, since I have never had the latter. When I realised Three Women was about three white narratives, I fluctuated between depression and pointless anger. White, in the literary sense, is for everyone. To write Other is to strive to be white, or at least an Other that has been approved. I have read one half-hearted acknowledgement of the lack of diversity in the book, swept aside under the rug of praise. A slight embarrassment, surely understood and forgiven by all. But when can I stop understanding, stop forgiving erasure? I think of Yemisí Aríbisálà’s perfect Longthroat Memoirs, combining cooking and female desire in Nigerian culture, its humour and wisdom portraying a woman I identify with more, though I have had more of the actual negative experiences featured in Taddeo’s book. I wonder if Paltrow knows this book exists. I suspect Aríbisálà doesn’t give a damn. I wish I could too.

Cynical by nature, while I wanted to believe the flattering things told to me on rejection—despite knowing now that these are stock phrases, issued almost exactly word-for-word by every editor and agent—I found it hard to. For if I was as good as they said, I would be able to advance to the next stage (which I thought of like a platform game, because some days it was the only thing that kept me sane). All but for x. And I can only really suspect it is the sex, because I haven’t enough stomach to consider it might be my strange name or my face. I talk about appetite: my fantasies, my experiences, my hunger for men and women. If I write about sex, I am not writing sex so much as writing to discover how sex has shaped me and why. Why, if I am like that, I should have found myself without it for so long. Why I cannot to this day look at myself and know who I am in a way that satisfies me. Why these fragments make a life that is almost solely internal, when these thoughts are actually sustained by thoughts of flesh. Maybe I think if I come, my body will reveal to me a secret of being I have not otherwise been able to discover; that if I write it, it will bring me certainty. The reality will most likely be that I will never be given a chance to progress like so many other writers, but especially like those whose narratives are deemed to be too interstitial, too shocking, too unrelatable by those who must feel clean and orderly or, if chaotic, restricted to the kind of chaos that yields a uniformity of quickly-forgotten solidarity or sympathy.

And to be honest, I have hit a wall: I think most writers cannot see past their own work beyond a certain point, and I have reached mine. I do not know where to go from here because there are no signs. But I wrote blind once, and perhaps I may be able to do so again. So I write this—writing about writing and writing about sex, in the hope that opening myself here may lead to an opening through which to continue there. Not in the mainstream world—for it is already distant, somewhere I was allowed to view from afar—but in my own ability. Sometimes the hardest place in which to feel welcome is your own blank page.

In my more desperate, I have thought, perhaps the French would want the manuscript. I am still reading too much Leduc, you see. The reality—the irony—is that my first publication in a book will be in an anthology on Paris and its literary myths, as held by the rest of the world. My piece, about sex. There is cunt and reflection. There is hunger and loneliness.

But is it erotic? For all my joking about it online, I just call it writing. Or thinking. They are one and the same to me. It doesn’t require any other qualifier. Nor did it come about through an agent. Instead, I was asked by someone who seemed undeterred by my lack of prestige or mainstream published work. Random, like the other good things in my life that have inevitably led me to others. So I have decided to let go as much as I can—from everything in the literary world I inhabit the fringes of, and everyone bar the one or two I can confide in. I have decided to accept the in-betweenness and the incompletion. Maybe someday there will be a manner of security or permanence in what I am and do though, as with most things, it is probably illusory—even if achievable. Perhaps the best writing is only possible by being in an ever-present state of flux. For now, I will write as I live and continue to live as I write: as a drifting in-between thoughts and worlds that are neither set nor accepted, knowing that anyone who also inhabits that space can still be seen and wanted, and without the token gratitude of those who only want to read their own reflections.

Tomoé Hill is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. Besides previously appearing in Lapsus Lima, her essays can be found in Empty MirrorBerfrois3:AM, and Numéro Cinq, as well as the anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books) and Azimuth (the Sonic Art Research Unit, Oxford Brookes). She lives in London. You can find her on Twitter @CuriosoTheGreat