SA women dip their pens in saucy ink

A new anthology of erotic stories is in the book shops this week, but what sets it apart from similar anthologies is that it was written by award-winning—mostly literary—South African women writers.

Sex is a somewhat taboo literary topic. Not for reasons of modesty, mostly, but because writing about sex is a singularly difficult task.
Slips into cliché, pulp and porn are very easy. So what happens when respected—and respectable—South African women writers dip their pens into saucy ink?

The sexual revolution supposedly lightened us up about sex, but it remains—publicly at least—a mostly grim matter.

Magazines—usually quoting from serious studies—focus on the bits we’re ‘doing wrong’, while pornography perpetuates the idea that sex is a dour, serious, drawn-out, athletic business undertaken by balloon-breasted Barbie dolls and unsympathetic men with large penises, hammering away at some distant, screeching, insincere conclusion.

But while a sort of general standard of “the right kind of sex” informs our public perception, sex in its capacity for joy, fun and intimate vulnerability remains a sort of universal no-go area. Between the ancient sexual extremes of Virgin and Slut is the vast unmade bed of real, ever-changing sex.

The idea for a collection of erotic stories by some of South Africa’s best women writers sprung from my desire to present women’s intimate relationships with sexuality, as they really are, not as they are supposed to be, by some outside—often patriarchally driven—model.

Susan Maushart, in What Women Want Next, wrote that in the early days of feminism sex was not just a thing women did for babies or fun or to make a point.

“Sleeping around for the sisterhood was nice work if you could get it,” she says, “but it was hardly standard practice for any but the most politicised female. For most women, even I daresay for most feminists, sex remained a defiantly personal act.”

In the humdrum of everyday sex resists a single meaning for individual women. At different times of their lives it can be bawdy, subtle, comic, delicious, repulsive, missionary, lesbian, boring, powerful, dutiful, weak or solitary.

Johannesburg sexologist Dr Elna McIntosh says in Fabulously 40 and Beyond that women often only truly grasp their sexuality in their forties and later: “It’s at this point in a woman’s life when she discovers her tongue and uses it to ask for what she wants from life. No longer will [women] allow other people or dogmas to ride roughshod over what they hold as their own identities.”

Whether the stories can be labelled erotica or pornography lies in the realm of individual perception. The boundaries between one person’s gentle­ titillation and another’s smut are so vague as to be almost non-existent.

Should erotica—the vague notion of the kind of sex you find in literature and art—arouse? And if it does, why does the word have a happier connotation than pornography, the very raison d’ être of which is to arouse.

Perhaps it is about intention, about the producer of erotica or pornography’s tacit aim in the creative process, the chasm between hoping to turn readers or viewers on and not caring a dot about the their physical reaction to the sex presented.

Generally porn is seen as lewd, gross, indecent and exploitative, while erotica is seen as voluptuous, amorous and sensual. It is seen to arouse gently without the built-in guarantee of pornography’s usually tedious progression towards a predictable conclusion.

Towards the end of this project I realised that “erotica” and “pornography” were labels too limiting for what the writers had rendered and I prefer now to think of them simply as stories about women and sex.

In Open the received notions of the kind of sex women have or think about have been prised at.

The writers have created characters and narrators that are—in sometimes even the most oblique way—some aspect of any receptive reader’s personality at some point in her life.

This anthology opens not only the debate about the representation of sex in literature, but also a vista on the subtleties of arousal, the frank spectacle of the different forms of sex in women’s lives and the presentation of intimacy as both deeply mundane and vividly transformative.

Open: An Erotic Anthology (published by Oshun) contains stories by Marita van der Vyver, Tracey Hawthorne, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Lauren Beukes, Suzy Bell, Mary Watson, Helen Brain, Dawn Garisch, Nichole Whitton, Palesa Mazamisa, Joanne Fedler, Elizabeth Pienaar, Alison Campbell, Makhosazana Xaba, Helen Moffett, Lindiwe Nkutha, Sarah Lotz and Megan Kerr

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