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The Naked Reader Book Club: Ars Erotica, Part 1

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In 1978’s The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault coined the phrase “Ars Erotica” (a.k.a. “the Art of Pleasure”) to differentiate between the “Eastern perception of sex as an art form” and “the Western approach of laboratory and statistical.” Erotica, as old as the human race itself, has evolved on a parallel course, and like the society from which it springs, continues to be a work in progress.

  Things that Rhyme with Sex…

The fact that the history of erotica is tied with furry handcuffs to the history of censorship makes it even more exciting that one of the most well-known works of love in literature comes from the Bible itself, “The Song of Solomon,” written around 950 BCE.

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” it begins, “for thy love is better than wine.” Adelle M. Banks, of Religious News Service, writes that the work has been interpreted as many ways, but it’s beauty is obvious if its target is not.

About 300 years later, an equally graceful writer, Sappho of Lesbos (late 580-610* BC) broke new ground in Greek art by writing about her heart rather than about kings and legends. What was in Sappho’s heart was sometimes women, giving the English language two words with the same meaning: sapphist and lesbian. Her poem “It was you, Atthis, who said,” encompasses both her gift for sensuous description and a sharp wit that makes us as able to understand her as clearly if she’d posted her stuff on YouTube:

It was you Atthis who said
‘Sappho, if you will not get
up and let us look at you
I shall never love you again!
Get up, unleash your suppleness,
lift off your Chian nightdress and,
like a lily leaning into a spring, bathe
in the water,”

and then a few lines later:

“But you forget everything.”

(Clearly Atthis took this advice from Futurama: “Make up some feelings and tell her you have them.”)

Around 200 BCE the Greeks really got the balls bouncing with the Milesian Tales by Aristides of Miletus, “plainly pornographic and sensationalist stories with an amusing twist in the tail,” according to this treatise from Oxford University. However pornographic and twisted, they didn’t get anyone exiled from Rome as the poet Ovid was exiled for his Ars Amorata, (The Art of Love. This link offers great and contemporarily relevant chapter titles like: “Don’t Forget Her Birthday!” Here he tells how to get the inside skinny from your beloved’s Maid:

“She’ll tell the time (the doctors would know it, too)
when her mistress’s mind is receptive, fit for love.
Her mind will be fit for love when she luxuriates in fertility,
like a crop on some rich soil.”

Ovid was banished for carmen et error and though the error is uncertain, Ovid traveled in swanky circles and it could had involved the Emporer's daughter.—circles that included the Emperor’s daughter.

Centuries later, Boccacio’s Decameron (1352), which tells a variety of tales including those of monks, nuns and royalty in spicy situations would be banned on and off for hundreds of years, causing it to suffer the same fate banning usually does: it became a classic.

In the 16th century intimate poetry enjoyed the wit of John Donne and his metaphoric verse “The Flea,” which features a young man trying to persuade his virginal girlfriend to give in since they’ve both been bitten by the same flea and since “the mingling of blood” was how sex was seen they might as well have already done it.

A century later, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” tried some other virgin’s will:

“Had we both world enough and time
this coyness, lady, were no crime”

only Marvell took the “life’s short” tack:

“The grave’s a fine and quiet place,
but none, I think, do there embrace.”

Less genteel was John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, whose salacious and scandalous play, Dr. Bendo, got him banned from court (and whose lifestyle would later get him a bio-pic starring Johnny Depp, so it was probably worth it). And he was a funny guy. Enjoy this exert from his poem “Signior Dildo” published in 1673:

The pattern of virtue, Her Grace of Cleveland,?
Has swallowed more pricks than the ocean has sand;?
But by rubbing and scrubbing so wide does it grow,?
It is fit for just nothing but Signior Dildo.”

This poetry was all well and good, and frankly, still is, but erotica was about to take off in two new directions that would change it dramatically.

  The Novel Approach & the Birth of BDSM Lit

In 1748, while he was in debtor’s prison (where most writers would be if it still existed) John Cleland wrote Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, considered to be the first erotic novel, and destined to become what was to become one of the most famous, banned and adapted books ever (I remember being giddy over the Russ Meyer film version in the ’80s).

Fanny, an orphaned teenager, ends up with a full life which will eventually include in varying amounts, voyeurism, lesbianism, masturbation, true love, lots of sex, prostitution, fetishism, gay male sex, and erections…

perfectly well turn’d and fashion’d, the proud stiffness of which distended its skin, whose smooth polish and velvet softness might vie with that of the most delicate of our sex, and whose exquisite whiteness was not a little set off by a sprout of black curling hair round the root...”

I hear ya, sister.

The same year Fanny was published, there was a little boy growing up in France who would change everything. As Sappho gave us the gentle word “sapphist,” the Marquis de Sade’s work, and the behavior that backed it up, gave us a word as well: sadist.

TruTV’s Tru Crime Library’s Douglas B. Lynott offers a fabulously detailed and compelling account of the world's best-known pervert, including, funnily enough, the hours he spent among the erotic works in his clergyman uncle’s library which included titles like Nun in her Nightdress, and John the Fucker Debauched, which were “meant to be read with one hand.”

The Marquis was arrested numerous times for his sexual cruelties towards servants and prostitutes, his final confinement resulting from a six-week orgy wherein he used young teenage servant girls to satisfy his namesake desires. It was while he was confined that he wrote his erotic works under an assumed name, but far from being remembered only for his brutality, he would be endlessly written about and analyzed for his keen insight into the necessity of acknowledging our sexual nature and understanding it.

The following century would give us the other half of the sado-masochism equation, Austria’s Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose novel Venus in Furs chronicles the loves of Severin, a man so besotted with a dish called Wanda that he will do anything to be with her. He becomes her willing slave, subjecting himself to ever-increasing humiliations.

While de Sade and Sacher-Masoch shed more light on both subjects, one type of erotica doesn’t seem to be more trendy than another at any given time, notes erotica writer (and cupcake queen) Rachel Kramer Bussel, editor of such collections as Do Not Disturb: Hotel Sex Stories and Tasting Her: Oral Sex Stories. “For the stories I see, it’s not usually driven by pop culture,” she says—that happens more with the non-fiction series Best Sex Writing, which she also edits.

“I think because often I’m working with very specific themes, like spanking or cross-dressing or BDSM, the pieces are more tailored to fit within those categories.”

The role of the artist isn’t to follow a social trend, then, but to bring ideas above ground, to relate them to the public…even while society might be trying to push those ideas further below.

Welcome to the Victorian era (1837-1901), a time of totally restrictive prudery and abundance sexual abandon that only repression seems to bring. An excellent, detailed and wittily written overview of some of the erotic of the period is provided by here by Michael Perkins including The Pearl, a hugely popular sex magazine that folded for inability to keep up with demand, My Secret Life, an anonymous record of a man’s sexual experiments and escapades in, Flossie the oral-centric love story of a teenage girl and an older man and Henry Spencer Ashbee’s overview of the period, concluding with a glimpse of sheer Victoriana: “EXHIBITION OF FEMALE FLAGELANTS.”

We are too amused.
To purchase the Naked Reader Book Club selections, visit the Naked Reader Book Club Store.

The Naked Reader Book Club Selections for April 2010
Best Sex Writing 2010
Edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel
Best Fetish Erotica
Edited by Cara Bruce



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Join venerated erotica publisher Cleis Press, EdenFantasys and SexIs in an ongoing online book club for inquiring minds who love to read about all things sexual—from the politics of pornography to the erotically evocative boundaries of desire.

News, meeting announcements, reviews, book readings and more can be found on The Naked Reader Book Club Blog.

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