A Response to Eimear McBride’s TLS critique of DESIRE

No one wants to live in a sexually violent society; but equally who would wish to live in a society that censors our sexual fantasies?

The Marquis de Sade tells us that his epic catalogue of perversions, The 120 Days of Sodom, should be treated like a vast banquet. Enjoy the breadth of what’s on offer, pick what you enjoy, and leave what you don’t. Criticise neither the host for giving you such wealth of choice, nor your fellow diners for picking what you find unappetising. Appreciate that dishes which might seem the same to you are, in fact, delicately nuanced. In short, don’t be prudish at the table: be philosophical.

Admittedly, advice from Sade should usually be taken with a large pinch of salt (I’m no advocate for abduction, cannibalism, and baroque torture machines myself). Yet we could do worse than adopt his approach to explicit literature. Sex, like eating, is invariably a question of taste. So while Eimear McBride’s critique of Desire: 100 of literature’s sexiest stories is undoubtedly well intentioned, I can’t help but think she would make a judgemental dinner guest.

McBride’s problems with Desire are basically twofold. She objects first as a reader and critic, and then as a feminist. Notwithstanding McBride’s historically inaccurate view of “pornography” as devoid of intellectual, social or philosophical ambition (a point disproven by the swiftest glimpse at satirical eighteenth-century filth, for instance), both of these objections leave much to be desired.

Desire is, she tells us, repetitive, full of the same heaving bosoms and tumescent members. Yet she also admits this is not only the result of what she is reading but how she is reading. McBride’s boredom is perhaps an inevitable product of an editorial demand to read the entire text in one go. One hundred short stories of any kind is a lot to swallow and enjoy; 700 pages of sex, of which the last 200 are the heaviest, would cause anyone listless indigestion. Picking and choosing from Desire according to her taste and mood might have had more gratifying results.

More problematic, however, is McBride’s moral outrage. She begins by admitting she was shocked when a friend revealed that she likes reading sexy books. She goes on to describe the stories in Desire as ‘the Good, the Harmless, and the Horrible’, and closes by lamenting that it is hard for her to find erotic writing that she enjoys. Anecdotally interesting, perhaps, but hardly demonstrative of a dispassionate critical distance that respects varied forms of sexual expression.

McBride objects to Desire as a feminist. She is disturbed by the eroticised and gendered sexual violence that Desire offers its readers: in short, too many men doing nasty things to women. As a feminist, I am disappointed by her objections.

McBride highlights five specific (and decontextualised) sexually violent passages from Desire. Four of these are written by women. By McBride’s reckoning, repeating this theme amounts to the eroticisation of rape, and results from internalised misogyny and patriarchal oppression. Even if this were true, quite apart from erasing a woman’s capacity to request and enjoy the submissive role in a fulfilling, respectful sexual relationship or to fantasise about this on her own terms, it begs a significant question: should a victim of patriarchy or internalised misogyny be denied access to writing that gets her off? Is a sexually submissive woman – in fact or fantasy – an ideological inconvenience unless mitigated by an equally submissive man?

Rape, rape apologism, abuse and sexual violence are, of course, abhorrent. These acts seek to strip individuals of their agency and personhood. But the acts of reading and writing can allow for the assertion and reclamation of power. The personal, imaginative process of reading for pleasure (of whatever sort), allows a reader to collaborate with a text, make of it what she wishes, and close the covers if she wants.

Like McBride, I do not want to live in a society that normalises sexual violence. But nor do I want to live in a society that condemns or pities women who have the agency to determine what they find arousing, what they want to read, and what they want to write about. Maybe Desire could do with a couple more ‘women on top’, but we shouldn’t forget that many women make empowered, autonomous decisions to engage in (or fantasise about) consensually violent sex behind closed doors.

Do I find every story in Desire sexy? No. Do I want women dominated with whips and chains in my bedtime reading? That would be telling. But should a good anthology of erotic fiction give me that option? Absolutely.

No story in Desire will be to everyone’s taste, but Frostrup and Erotic Review serve up far more than the relentless blood, spunk and tears that McBride would have us believe by the end of her piece. Appraising “erotica” and/or “pornography” is a tricky business. It requires a dash of moral relativism (or at least an open mind), and an eye for pure fantasy as well as good fiction. We might not all have the same palate, but Desire puts on a spread diverse enough that many of us can find something to enjoy – even if we don’t all venture to the extreme end of the table.

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