How women’s roles in erotic writing have increased as social attitudes change

by Lucy Felthouse

For many women today, erotic literature is not a taboo subject. It is
discussed openly between friends, lovers and colleagues. Women’s
magazines advertise erotica and recommend bookshops and websites
from which to buy it. This is mainly due to the relaxation of social attitudes
over the last century. Gone are the days of “Lie back and think of England.”
It is now widely accepted that sex is for pleasure as well as procreation,
and it sells.

The increase in female erotica readers and writers has been substantial,
or perhaps women have always been involved in erotica, but because the
current attitude is relaxed, they now feel they can be honest about it. Either
way, social change means that it is open to discussion.

Going back to the Victorian period, it was almost impossible to find any
female erotica authors. Women were portrayed very differently then. There
was a divide between women on the streets, the prostitutes, and the
housewives. The housewives were seen as pure and clean, and their
bodies were not for pleasure, but for reproduction. So the married women
would be unlikely to read or write erotica as they did not see sex as
pleasurable, and the prostitutes would not be educated enough to read
and write anyway.

After the reign of Queen Victoria, the Edwardian period began. It was
during this period that women’s rights were examined. Technology
advanced, and in the years following we were graced with radio and then
television. World War One meant women’s rights were once again looked
at, as they’d helped tremendously in factories and so on when their men
were away fighting. U.S. women got the vote in 1920, and the U.K. followed
in 1928. This was a step in the right direction for women’s equality.

Following this, there were peaks and troughs in economy. This affected
the populations’ attitude. If they were in a depression they would be
thinking of where their next meal was coming from, or if they were
prosperous they would be concentrating on having fun.

In the forties, fifties and sixties, psychologists and scientists in the U.S.
wanted to know more about the human body with regards sexual
orientation and arousal. Particular studies, namely those conducted by
Alfred Kinsey (see the Kinsey Reports in the Appendices), William Howell
Masters and Virginia Eshelman Johnson (see Masters and Johnson, also
in Appendices) brought to light differing sexual preferences, i.e.
bisexuality, and physical responses to arousal. This showed more choice
when it came to sex, and also that the female body when aroused does
prepare itself for penetration and orgasm.

The really significant changes came along in the sixties, with the sexual
revolution. The contraceptive pill was introduced, which meant couples
could have sex without always worrying that the woman was going to get
pregnant. The manufacture of rubber meant modern condoms were
introduced, which lowered risks further for couples wishing to have
intercourse, although education on STI’s was not very good at this point.
Many of the people I interviewed said their sex education did not mention
STI’s at all, it was just the ‘baby making’ side of things, the absolute bare
essentials. Advances in abortion technology and its legalisation also gave
more freedom to women wishing to experiment with their sexuality without
fear of ruining their lives with an unwanted pregnancy.

There was also a period of rebellion. People who hit their teens around
the sixties were often used to their parents being uptight with regards sex
and sexuality. Particularly religious households hit it home to their children
that sex before marriage was wrong, and that they would go to hell and be
considered a bad person if they did it. Therefore teenagers often did it just
to rebel. They wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and just to prove
that they could do it, and that they wouldn’t be struck down or go to hell.

Gay rights and feminism came along in the late sixties and continued into
the seventies. “The Stonewall Riots,” a huge gay awareness campaign
served its purpose, meaning ‘different’ sexualities were discussed more
freely, and this had a knock on effect inasmuch as sex in general was now
talked about openly. It was no longer such a taboo. This meant young
couples would be likely to have a more mature outlook on having sex. If
they could discuss it, they could talk to each other, find out their true
feelings and thoughts, rather than just doing it through peer pressure, and
they would feel more comfortable talking about contraception. So although
the older generations were highly disgruntled at how sex was becoming
an open issue, it meant their children were actually being more

Women also became more independent in general. Feminism and the
fact that more women were entering the workforce meant that they were
slowly beginning to become more equal to men. This included the way
they saw sex, for pleasure not just making babies!

The sixties and seventies saw an increase in sexual literature in general,
and also by women. Two of the most popular female authors in this period
were Anaïs Nin and Nancy Friday. Friday started a miniature revolution in
the U.S. Her book, My Secret Garden was full of women’s sexual
fantasies. At this time, psychiatrists were of the opinion that women who
had such fantasies had a mental illness of some description. The majority
of women in this book remained anonymous, but many women reading
this book realised they were not alone in having these fantasies, and
Friday’s next book in the same format had women who were willing to
have their names and even addresses printed and passed on. (For more
information on this change of attitude see pages headed “Nancy Friday  
Forbidden Flowers” in the Appendices). This begun a change in attitudes,
as it became apparent that women did in fact have sexual fantasies and
saw sex as more than just pro-creational.

This attitude slowly came to the U.K. and in the seventies the Ann
Summers chain opened, although the company was originally headed by
a man, it was aimed at women only. It was a women only sex shop,
selling lingerie, sex toys and things for couples to share. This was a
revolution in itself as many women had never seen a sex toy before.
Nowadays, though, it is common practice for couples to introduce a toy
into their bedroom antics.

In the eighties and the nineties, the media had a massive effect on social
change. Mass media meant that sex and everything to do with it was
heavily advertised. The Internet meant users could contact likeminded
people much more easily, and share their thoughts and opinions. Internet
shopping also meant people could procure sexual aids without the
embarrassment of going into a ‘seedy’ sex shop. Ann Summers had
removed this ‘seedy’ image, but not the embarrassment. This came later.
TV, what with Sky and Cable, meant easy access to premium channels,
so audiences were exposed to sexual material, whether it was soft
pornography or documentaries.

Feminism had another boost in the nineties, and it meant it was now
more fashionable. The Spice Girls sung about strong women and girl
power, and also they placed emphasis on safe sex in the song 2 Become
1. The Spice Girls used their popularity to hit this message home and
make it cool to be smart about contraception. The launch of Sex and the
City saw a huge increase in the purchases of the Rampant Rabbit vibrator
seen in the series!

People were now exposed to sex in their everyday lives and the younger
generation took this for granted. They had no problem discussing it with
friends or partners, and women’s attitudes in particular became more
selfish. They would no longer stand for substandard sex. It was now
viewed as a means to pleasure which women were constantly striving to

Literature followed suit. Women, although they were now more interested
in pornography, thought it catered only for men and their tastes. Sage
Vivant, founder of Custom Erotica Source website said  -

“When I grew tired of reading about scenes and situations that didn’t quite
hit the mark for me, I started writing my own stories.”

Men are much more visual when it comes to sexual arousal, so a porn
film would be suitable to turn them on. However, women use their
imaginations much more, so literature was a natural medium to use for
their pleasure. It had many uses. It meant that they could stimulate their
imaginations by reading and writing erotica as opposed to having to make
do with media aimed at men. Black Lace was launched in the 1990’s;
finally, a publisher which concentrated on literature “Written by women, for
women.” This was a huge turning point, because now there was erotica
catering for women only, they did not have to make do with what had been
created for men, and therefore it would be much more effective. Since
there was a publisher specifically dedicated to such material, ordinary
women realised it was OK to be reading it, and many also experimented
with writing it. Even if they had no intention of having it published, they
used it as a means of exploring their own fantasies without endangering a
relationship, a means of escapism and to express their thoughts without
any danger of embarrassment. Answers from my questionnaires indicate
that many readers of erotica use it for the same reasons; with the addition
of getting ideas for their own sex lives, to make up for a lack of intimacy in
‘real life,’ and some even read these stories to ‘get off’ without
endangering themselves by acting out some of the fantasies in them!

The literature itself has changed with social attitudes. Books that were
once considered erotic or controversial now would not even raise an
eyebrow now. Colette’s Chéri, first published in 1907 was then
considered quite a shocker, but on reading it, it is simply a love affair.
There are no sex scenes or anything remotely sexual in the novel, so it
does go to show how differently we view things nowadays.

Anaïs Nin’s novel A Spy in the House of Love, first published in 1954 has
sex scenes in it, but they are very different to what you would see in a book
published in the last ten years. An example:-

“…no words by which to possess each other, no music for serenades…
but only one ritual, a joyous, joyous, joyous impaling of woman on a man’s
sensual mast.”1

We know exactly what Nin is getting at, but it is incredibly subtle compared
to the following from a Black Lace novel:-

“He saw that Julie’s gaze was latched on the thick, swaying heaviness of
his engorged prick…”2

Writers are using more obvious and modern language, with blatant
descriptions of parts of the anatomy and of sexual acts because it is now
acceptable. There is no need to use the ‘language of flowers’ because
you are afraid of offending someone.

Attitudes have continued to relax. The younger generations are
comfortable with discussing their sex lives and experimentation.

They were brought up differently; religion does not have a place in many
households now, so the old ‘no sex before marriage’ morals have all but
disappeared. Sage mentions that some of her family don’t know about her
career in erotica –

“and those who do know are rather uncomfortable with the notion. (Most of
my relatives were raised in strict Italian Catholic households, unlike my
own, which I would classify as more of an Italian semi-religious one.)”

It is acceptable nowadays to have sex simply for pleasure, not just to have
children. Black Lace and Ann Summers are household names; women
share their books, and hold Ann Summers parties, passing vibrators
around a room to test the sensations on their noses! These attitudes now
mean that you can walk into any bookstore and find an erotic novel and
purchase it without the cashier blinking an eyelid, just the same as going
to the chemist and purchasing condoms. You can in fact walk into Tesco
and buy a Blaze book. Blaze are an offshoot of the Mills and Boon
publishing house, that specialise in erotic romance novels. In the next
month or so you will be able to purchase Scarlet magazine from Tesco
also, a women’s magazine which focuses on sex and sexuality. It is so
acceptable now, that women will think nothing of putting it into their trolley
next to their toilet rolls and oven chips!

Black Lace are publishing roughly two new books each month. Websites
have hundreds and hundreds of adult titles available. There are websites
totally devoted to erotica (see Bibliography); women’s fantasies, short
stories, all freely discussed in an environment where everyone is
comfortable with it. Women are invited to send in their own fantasies or
stories, and share sex tips, all with the idea of improving their sex lives.

We now have same sex marriages, and homosexuals are ‘coming out’
earlier in their lives as they will no longer receive the problems and grief
they would have generations before.

So erotic literature has the perfect market. The genre is increasing as the
demand for it is growing. People are open with discussing sex and
sexuality. Women want to read literature to get ideas, to relax and escape
from everyday life. They want to read about other people’s fantasies in
order to reassure themselves they are not alone. Erotica is increasingly
being used as a tool in the bedroom, with partners reading it to each other.

So you see it is becoming part of everyday life, and will continue to do so
as our children and their children adopt our relaxed attitudes towards sex
and sexuality.

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Lucy graduated from
the University of Derby
in June 2006 with a
degree in Creative
Writing.. It was in her
first year at  the
University of Derby that
one of her friends
persuaded her to have
a go at writing erotic
literature. Lucy  
continues to write, both
erotica and other

Please visit her