The Vagenda

Please, No More Porcelain Sex Dolls

As the summer of Fifty Shades of Grey staggers bow-legged to a close, a slew of imitators are popping up like the demonic little heads of a hydra. Demolish one of them on the grounds of anti-feminist principles, and ten more leap forward to take its place. And, working in publishing, there are hordes of such suitors mounting up (ew, everything is a euphemism now) on my desk.
I’ve read more of these erotica submissions than I possibly have had hot dinners, and generally I find them pretty appalling. It’s not just the prose style (‘he blinked at her, like a Christmas tree’ is particularly memorable), but the relationships that they depict. I understand the arguments about getting female sexuality and fantasy out into the mainstream. But it’s the nature of what this fantasy is that I find just a bit disturbing. In this respect, I’m yet to find a book I’ve loathed more than Gabriel’s Inferno. This is a self-published title, which has been picked up by Penguin USA. Even without a major publisher, it got to No. 35 on the New York Times Ebook chart, so you can probably expect it to be thrusting itself in your face before too long. It’s the tale of aloof Professor Gabriel Emerson and his hapless student Julia, both of whom have a thang for Dante. 
Julia is yet another heroine in the mould of the pale, emotionally stunted, shy virgin. She is depicted as so utterly useless that it’s a wonder she has actually learnt to wipe her own arse without a substitute father figure supervising. She is crippled by a sense of her own inadequacy, unable to make herself heard in class. She is terribly physically fragile. One of her love interests observes, ‘how small her hand was in comparison to his. He could have bruised it just by flexing his palm.” This makes me feel a bit sick. Julia’s most shameful moment? As follows: 
She winced and blushed from head to foot as several of the smaller contents of her bag spilled out, including a tampon that rolled under Professor Emerson’s desk and came to a stop an inch from his leather briefcase.
Why? Because he realises you’re an adult, menstruating woman, not a Victorian child bride? Btw, brave tampon, I salute you for trying to escape this woman’s clutches in your desperate bid for freedom. I would have done the same.
Julia then goes on to worry about “fouling” the entire interior of Professor Emerson’s stupid leather-clad car, when he gives her the obligatory lift home in his big metal penis extension. This is not by doing the decent thing and shagging him over the gearstick, or even by dangling a couple of tampons from the rear view mirror, but simply by sitting in it when she’s a bit wet from the rain. Just sitting: 
“I’m sorry I’m ruining your upholstery,” she offered hesitantly.
Professor Emerson’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “I have someone who cleans it when it’s soiled.”
Julia bowed her head, for his response hurt. Implicitly, he had compared her to dirt, but of course, that’s what he thought she was now. Dirt beneath his feet.
And then, after a whole book of this sort of thing – including an ongoing metaphor about how awful it is that Julia is reduced to eating couscous, that bastion of depravity – we get to the big lay scene. Key highlights are as follows: 
He smiled patiently and pushed back on one arm. “This isn’t a good position. I need to move you.”
“I thought—me underneath you, isn’t that right?”
“It’s the worst position to lose your virginity in,” he explained, planting baby kisses across her shoulder.
“I think I’ll like it.”
Gabriel pulled back. “Not for your first time; it would be too easy for me to hurt you without realizing it.”
Urghhhh. He goes on to explain: “I like being on top, I won’t deny it, but you’re very small, sweetheart, and very delicate.” 

Ah, that’s alright then. God he is such a considerate lover. I wish my first time had been like this. When she’s bravely endured the horror of penetration, and has had at least four of her requisite fourteen first-time-sex orgasms, Gabriel rewards her thusly: 
“I love you. I love you. I love you,” he chanted above her, in time with his movements.
Sex ain’t no time for beatboxing, Gabe. But it’s the aftermath of their “coitus” (as I’m sure Pro’ Emerson would wish to call it, as he is such a total scholar babe), that really takes the proverbial biscuit. Anyone for a bit of post-sex first aid?
“Just let me look, darling.” His whisper was hesitant.
She had no idea what he was asking, so she simply hummed her permission. Then tentative fingers grasped her knees and a gentle hand lifted one, angling and spreading her wide, but not too wide. Now her eyes were open.
Gabriel froze as their eyes made contact. “Just a quick look to make sure you’re all right.”
When he’d attended himself in the washroom, he hadn’t noticed any blood. The realization had relieved him more than he could express. His eyes flickered down and soon he was sighing, his shoulders relaxing. He pressed something warm and soft between her legs.
She flinched.
“I’m sorry.” Again he pressed the damp cloth to her sensitive flesh. There were a couple of pinkish spots on it, but nothing alarming. In truth, he wished there had been no pink at all, but pink was infinitely better than red.
“I’m fine. You just surprised me.” Julia’s voice shook, but only because she was still floating, and the feeling of him touching her there had intensified her sensations.
Gabriel picked up a glass of water from the nightstand and placed it in one of her hands, shaking out a little white pill from a medicine bottle into the other.
“Ibuprofen,” he explained, hastily. “For the pain.”
“It’s not that bad, Gabriel. I wouldn’t call it pain.”
“Please,” he begged.
She was puzzled by his overreaction but elected not to be stubborn, popping the pill quickly into her mouth and downing the entire glass of water. She was thirsty.
Mmm. With Julia now squarely in the role of a barely-conscious, swooning invalid, things proceed as follows:
When he’d soothed her and cleaned her up, he scooped her into his arms, kissing her forehead over and over. He carried her across the threshold of the bathroom.
Julia heard the water running before they walked through the door. “What’s happening?” she managed, holding her head up.
“Let me care for you, baby.” He kissed her forehead and gently placed her in the large and inviting bathtub.
The hot water and rose scented bubbles were comforting. She was still dreamy, but things were slowly coming into focus. She opened her eyes and saw Gabriel standing over her, still naked, still glorious, checking the temperature of the water with his fingers and adjusting the taps.
“Are you still thirsty?”
She nodded.
He disappeared for a moment and returned with a garnet-colored liquid in a wine glass.
“Cranberry with soda,” he said. “It’s good for you.”
She arched an eyebrow at him, wondering how he became an expert at warding off female problems, but once again, decided not to pursue the question. She drank greedily and passed him the empty glass.
Now then, this bit makes me want to do an Elle Woods moment, and – preferably in a packed American court room, in front of the world’s media – point out how, if anyone was an expert in female problems, surely they would not put an individual at risk of cystitis in a bubble bath, as anyone who is acquainted with the causes and risk factors of cystitis knows that bubble bath is terrible for fanny maintenance, seeing as it adversely affects the NATURAL PH BALANCE OF YOUR VAGINA REGION. YEAH, THAT’S RIGHT, EMERSON. TAKE HIM DOWN. 
But asides from that factual inaccuracy, there are so many things that I cannot bear about this book, and its ilk. The nature of these heroines’ attraction to Professor Emerson, Christian Grey et al seems to resolve around a crippling sense of their own inadequacy – a need to be validated as a person by the approval of these men. They gladly abnegate the challenge of self-discovery, of self-determinism, in order to be tour-guided around their own lives and own bodies by some control freak tosser in a white cashmere polo neck and designer glasses. 
Sex is portrayed as something they have to be terribly, terribly brave about enduring – it bears the possibility of physical risk and damage to them. Yes, they enjoy it (coming five times at the mere sight of a love sausage), but would they be able to speak out if they didn’t? Or would they lie there, beautiful and mute and fragile; a sort of porcelain sex doll, if you will. And the fact that they are ALL virgins creeps me out – it plays into the idea of sex as some sort of a reward for good behaviour. Is it only good, innocent girls who deserve to be adored? 
The saving grace with all these books is supposedly that the heroes are pretty much psychic when it comes to knowing what their heroines want, need, like, desire in bed, etc. They make no false moves. But really, is a relationship where a man knows you better than you know yourself really what we want to fantasise about?
- SA

23 thoughts on “Please, No More Porcelain Sex Dolls

  1. I think the fact that women are expected to worship such awful writing just because it is putting women having sex into the mainstream is more patronising and irritating than all of the pathetic female protagonists put together.

  2. Have you come across Snark Squad? Yeah, it’s deeply American, but also feminist, and the most hilarious interpretation of 50 Shades I’ve read:

    I’ve not actually brought myself down to the level of reading the books but now I feel like I have. Anyway, yes. Everything in this article is spot-on; the arguments seem to be that these books are mainstreaming female sexuality but they are simultaneously normalising the ideal that we’ve been trying to escape for so long, i.e. all men are uber-experienced, sex-crazed dominants, and all women are tiny, fragile, innocent flowers.

    Plus as a tall, chunky girl, I find it ever more disheartening when I get bombarded with these messages which say that all men really want is a tiny, delicate child-like creature, naive and innocent, wispy and stupid, which I categorically am not. I have nice hands which which look great with their nails painted, but they wouldn’t get bruised by a palm flex, that’s for sure. Does that make me unworthy of fantastic sex?! Jesus christ!

  3. Hoorah for Snark Squad! If you liked that, you will love this:

    It’s honestly one of the funniest things I’ve ever read on the interwebz (and I skive at work, like, a LOT).

    On a more serious note, amen to both the comments above but I also find it desperately sad that women (some of them friends of mine), are actually wanking off to this…bilge*. Women, search the internet! There is WAY better porn out there, both of the visual and written-down kind, and far more outrageous, funny, subversive and imaginative than Fifty Shades of Shit and its even poorer imitators.

    *That said, I am not trying to harsh anyone’s orgasms if this really *is* what gets them off. Each to their own. I just can’t believe you wouldn’t want to demand better. My clitoris knows bullshit when she sees it.

  4. My god, THANK YOU for this post. It literally stuns me that so many don’t see that these books are horrifically flawed – it’s like some weird worldwide conspiracy.

    And frankly the premise that these books “bring female sexuality into the mainstream” is complete bullshit. How can any of it really be about ‘female’ sexuality when it’s the mission of these books to locate all trace of female agency and annihilate it??

    All 50 Shades taught me was how to be passive to the point that I may as well be dead.

  5. Barf. And also, “she hummed her permission”? I’m gonna start doing that, like if someone asks if I want the receipt in the bag, or if I want fries with that, I’m just gonna hum.

  6. Great article!

    I don’t think there is anything wrong, generally, with BDSM erotica… However, what upsets me most about 50 Shades of Grey and it’s many doubles is the ‘traumatised male.’ Generally, traumatised women are portrayed in literature/film/mass media as weeping and hysterical or mad and dangerous. Men however, are instead portrayed as strong despite their weakness, or become enigmatic – the dangerousness is sexy rather than hysterical. Christian Grey’s sexuality is put down to an abusive childhood, and Anna’s role in life becomes ‘fixing him’. Their entire relationship is about his needs, which supercede all else (and especially Anna’s). There are various hints that Anna might also have some issues in her past(for example Anna living with her stepfather rather than her mother or her father) but these are ignored. A brilliant guardian article ( recently noted that Anna (as do many of these protagonists) ‘endure rather than enjoy sex. Certainly in 50 and its followers, it’s about the ‘man’s dark past.*’ Christian Grey never takes responsibility for anything he does, it’s all done to his trauma. Actually, having trauma in your past, being abused, having post traumatic stress disorder, may impact your relationship and it may occasionally and legitimately lead you to respond to something in a certain way. However, it does not (nor does any illness or experience) give you a free pass to be an arsehole to people. Anna is (in the first book at least, the only one I’ve finished) constantly contemplating leaving Grey, feeling that he treats her badly, and rarely seems to enjoy being with him. Whenever she gets close, it comes down to ‘if I could just free him from his past.’ This is really dangerous thinking! There’s nothing wrong with BDSM with two consenting adults, but the chain of thinking Anna goes through is much more close to an abusive relationship.

    Anyway, as you say, perhaps this so called ‘spot light on female sexuality’ is actually based around mainstream conceptions of feminity and just reaffirming the idea that women should be ‘fragile and delicate.’

  7. Don’t think I’ve wanted to hurl more since listening to Coldplay whimper about how they would “fix you”. As I’ve said before, at least Jackie Collins’ heroines would bust a few balls and heads whilst actually enjoying sex. The public view of female sexuality is being hugely damaged and demeaned by these books.

  8. Yes – 50SoG isn’t BDSM erotica. Grey hits her out of anger and jealousy in a sexual context and never because he loves her or because she wants to be hit. All the language is about how much she enrages him with her thoughts and actions and then his hands tighten on her a lot and he’ll start spanking her. BDSM is nothing like that. That’s just plain abuse.

  9. Why can’t I find porno books aimed at men written by Mr. Anonymous laid out on tables in full view, by the confectionery stand in WH Smith at Victoria Station? (Not necessarily that I want to, you understand). However, 50 Shades and all these others take pride of place. Yet women complain about top shelf magazines.

    The male (written word as opposed to photo) smut is sold on the bookshelves in some branches but it’s discreet, it’s not exactly waved in yer face. Is it really a positive move for humankind generally that this 50 Shades sh*t is hawked in every bookshop? This is just a race into the gutter for the sake of profit in the name of equality. Hip hip, fucking hooray.

  10. Eurgh Cringe! Are all the male characters in these books completely smug? It’s the least sexy thing in the world, some arrogant know-it-all thinking he knows more about my body than I do? Calling all the shots? That’s supposed to be sexy?

  11. Abso-fucking-lutely! It’s not safe, sane, or consensual… if it’s an attempt at BDSM, it’s a bad one.

    As for female sexuality – I don’t want to come over as kinkier-than-thou, but I’m willing to be the proportion of women who are actually into submission and pain is relatively small. Is this the sexuality of the majority? Sure, have fantasies, be curious, kink is fun, but I can’t help but feel that this is BDSM erotica for people who have absolutely no interest in BDSM… which is why they eat it up. Every person I know who’s into it finds the book absolutely appalling.

  12. Even if the books were well written, it wouldn’t change the fact that these characters are ridiculously flat. How has nobody ever told these ‘heroines’ that they need a kick up the bum and some self respect? I know I’m not the only one who sees the ‘heroes’ regularly practise abuse on these women but nobody seems to take me seriously when I point that out. Nowadays a confident woman is said to be sexy but it seems like that’s too much to ask for fiction even. Confident men on the other hand are taken seriously so they can act like control freaks and be as much as a dick as they want and somehow women fall at their feet for it? The relationship is unhealthy and abusive and must be a far cry from most practising BDSM

  13. “Btw, brave tampon, I salute you for trying to escape this woman’s clutches in your desperate bid for freedom. I would have done the same.”


  14. Thanks for these comments, you’ve articulated what I’ve been pondering for awhile. I have read 50 Shades, but I am interested in mild B & D (mild in the sense that I like to PRETEND that the man has the power, but I am not interested in REAL pain!). I’ve often felt guilty for wanting that power play in the bedroom, but that’s the only place I want it, and that’s why these sorts of genre give me the sh-ts; the power play saturates everything and it ISN’T FUN.
    Can anyone direct me to some good porn? I usually avoid it, but I would like to know other people’s top picks.

  15. This article is hilarious and so true. I find it terribly sad for men and women that these kinds of books are so popular. I just wish it could have been an actually empowering, well written, realistic erotic romance that could have broke it’s way into the mainstream not this ridiculous, depressing grown up Twilight crap.

  16. I’ve never had sex and I’m in the same age bracket as these ‘heriones’ and I find these depictions of women in my demographic seriously insulting. Why do these authors insist on equating ‘virginity’ with stupidity, naivity, voicelessness and submissiveness!?

    Suggesting that contact with a penis is necessary for a woman to be introduced to her own sexuality is ridiculous.

  17. Amen, Eliza101! I was a virgin for an unusually long time (I wanted to wait), and this idea that I was some disgusting, self-loathing moron in need of an older, arrogant man to gently wipe my vagina with a cloth because…I can’t do it myself(?) is just deeply insulting.

  18. Well Fifty Shades made me think twice about about the sex scenes in my ‘Deadly Prediction’. Personally I din’t think Fifty Shades had much of a story but clearly it has broken down barriers to S&M. S&M graphically amplifies relationships. However there was no back story as to why Anastasia found submission so appealing or why Mr Grey wanted to dominate. It’s usual for men in high places to want to be submissive in S&M, out of control, letting others take responsibility for once. It’s the weak and unsuccessful who want to act the master. Getting all of that right made Deadly Prediction so much stronger, because now my protagonist, Fiona Taylor, not only has a back story to explain her submission but it also explains her strengths, needed to survive. So adding S&M certainly made Deadly Prediction, which is basically a thriller, into a far stronger piece with plenty of places to go in the sequel. Don’t ask if I’m submissive, just read it and judge for yourself. Darcy Blaze