A few nights ago, I sent my ex-boyfriend a text telling him I was reading an Italian erotica novel, I Watch You. He and I, now close friends, often joke that I'm a bit of a prude when it comes to talking about sex, so it seemed natural that I should let him know that while reading a scene in which the female protagonist pleasures herself while sitting on top of her lover, I began to gag. Masturbation isn't gross — it's natural and I'm a sex-positive woman — but I had never encountered such a graphic scene in a book before. My personal hang-ups aside, there are millions of women in the world who find erotica liberating. Because I learned what I like in bed from supportive partners who never shamed me for wanting to experiment, it never occurred to me that perhaps women with different backgrounds might turn to erotica for their sexual awakenings. It makes sense now, however: If you're ashamed of masturbation, a book that puts the experience in such clearly pleasurable terms normalizes the practice.
In this particular bestselling trilogy written by Irene Cao (disclaimer: I've only read the first installment), our protagonist Elena is an art restorer working in Venice. She's passionate about her job, the aspect of the book I enjoyed the most. After a series of sexual adventures, she must choose between two men. The first is her long-time friend Filippo, tender and considerate, with whom she can sit on the couch and eat pizza in her jammies. He's more of a missionary position type guy.
Then, enter Leonardo: He's a handsome playboy who introduces Elena to kinkier, more adventurous sex after Filippo moves back to Rome. Leonardo fulfills all the fantasies she didn't even know she had, but whether it intends to or not, Cao's story perpetuates the idea that the way for women to discover their bodies and their sexuality is through the help — no, the coercion — of a man.
I genuinely hope that every woman has the chance to have sex with a partner who makes her fall "into the whirlpool of her own orgasm" (if that's something she wants, naturally). Figuring out what makes you feel satisfied is an important right of passage that can be difficult and scary, and if there are books out there that help women in that process, that's a positive. Even I read scenes in the book that caused me to make a mental I have to try that note.
And, if this book were only meant to be something of a sex manual, then I would be its staunch advocate.
But helping women feel less ashamed of their sexual desires is not all that is at work here. Cao doesn't allow Elena to be in touch with her sexuality, or to even admit to her desires, without the permission or guidance of a man.
When Elena meets Leonardo for the first time, he sees the painting depicting the rape of Persephone that Elena is restoring, and mentions that the scene "looks sensual." Elena corrects him immediately, but then he proceeds to explain Persephone's story to Elena. She blushes and feels embarrassed that she corrected him because he "knows his Greek myths after all." But that's not true. He incorrectly identified a rape scene as consensual between two mythical figures. Not even Elena's obvious intellectual superiority is safe here. The set up is that she needs to be taught, corrected. Later, Leonardo ties Elena (whom we know from an earlier scene doesn't drink) to a chair in the dark and leaves her there for an hour with a sheet over her lap. She begins to cry. He returns and pours liquor down her throat and then they have sex. She's into it for some reason — I'm unclear on why. I don't find it sexy when a man ignores my choices just to make me orgasm. That sounds more disrespectful that anything else.
In another scene, they have sex outside, and Elena tells him to stop. He pushes her up against a wall and has sex with her, and she ends up enjoying it. I'm flabbergasted by that for that scene to be a turn on, the reader had to be reassured that Elena was still pure and innocent enough to reject Leonardo's dirty advances — if she actively sought her own pleasure, she would have power and control over a man, God forbid. In an erotica novel about and for women, women aren't agents in own sexual activities. Let's get one thing straight here: I have been tied up, talked to dirty, and experienced a few other things I'm going to politely gloss over here. There is nothing wrong with BDSM, kink, or whatever other fetish you have or you want to try. The explicit nature of this book is not what I take issue with, but rather with the presiding social structure on which this book and others like it rely.
Elena has to be, to some degree, forced to enjoy sex with Leonardo. And she does enjoy it. She can't get enough of it. I'm aware that it's pretty normal to be scared during a sexual awakening, not sure at every moment that you're ready. But the underlying idea at hand is that men know what's best for women: Is it inherently sexy when Elena says no, and Leonardo makes her orgasm anyway? Maybe, but it's also possible that the expectation in our culture is that only when women submit to men can they find fulfillment. How about an erotic novel in which a person wants to try something new, so she sits down with her partner and asks for it, or picks up a stranger at a bar and asks for it — or whatever she's into! (A good place to start is with these picks.) Let's be done with the "sexy stranger waltzes into town with a gag and a vibrator and decides to teach a naive, sweet girl about her mysterious vagina" narrative.
But that's not hot, you may say. Maybe you're not turned on because we live in a society in which women aren't allowed to ask for what they want. Maybe the general attitude about women is the issue here, not the actual sex within the pages. If the lesson of erotica is "try something new," then I think it's time erotica novels do the same and start writing their own stories differently.