When I was twelve, I found a paperback book jammed into a clump of chicory in a vacant lot. The cover was gone and the front page soiled, so I had no clue to the contents, but as an omnivorous reader who devoured everything from Dickens to Shakespeare to the backs of cereal boxes, I naturally opened it and began to read. I soon discovered that it was a pornographic novel, apparently intended for men.
This was in 1960; porn of that quaint variety, consisting entirely of text, must surely be unavailable now except as collectables. Later I learned that a friend of my mother’s, a professor and a science fiction novelist, had once survived a lean spell by writing some of it. He said he was set to typing in a room full of other hacks, with a certain amount of freedom as to the characters’ names, occupations and personalities (or lack thereof) but required to adhere absolutely to a list of the frequency with which various sex acts should recur.
That vacant lot was a long meadow overgrown with flowering weeds, bordered on one side by an extremely noisy and busy street; my brother and sister and I found it pleasanter to walk through it than beside it. lf my sibs accompanied me to the store, we were all children together, running and shouting, wishing on dandelions, pressing the rust red beads of pigweed flowers to our skin and exclaiming, “Look! I have measles!” But if I was alone, I allowed myself a quarter-hour with the book, tucking it back into the chicory when I was done. Heaven knows my mother was used to me dilly-dallying; if I hadn’t had that book stashed in the weeds, I would have taken one from home to read as I walked, and so been even slower in completing my errands.
Every time I returned expected to find the book gone, but it was always still there, and in the Midwest midsummer there was no rain to dissolve this pulp fiction into literal pulp, so nothing interfered with these sessions. Frankly, though, I was bored by much of it, and took to skipping long passages. It was badly written, whch mattered to me already, and the sexual incidents struck me as both ludicrous and grotesque. I do, however, still remember the conclusion. After the hard-drinking protagonist had enjoyed various encounters to console himself while trying to win back his estranged wife, the wife arrived on his doorstep one rainy night in a dripping trenchcoat, high heels, fishnet stockings and—as she soon revealed to him—nothing else. “Now, darling!” she cried. “Darling, now!”
As I said, the book’s cover was gone. I can only speculate as to what sort of illustration it might have had—and whether it would have drawn me in or repelled me: probably the former. I was a late bloomer, who didn’t hit puberty until the following year. Had I been older. . . well, it might have attracted me—as long as I was alone.
The degree of sexual arousal in response to visual stimuli is subject to gender differences and cultural factors—but not as much as the degree to which that response is acknowledged.
It has long been accepted that response to visual sex-related stimuli is strong in men and weak in women. This belief, supported by scientific studies, informs the design of advertising campaigns and has far too often been employed to justify male rapists and blame their victims.
But women increasingly refuse to buy the idea that rape is caused by provocative clothing. Some have organized “slutwalks” in which women parade holding signs reading “It’s a dress, not a yes.” and “This is what I was wearing when I was raped.” In fact, psychology now recognizes that rape often has little if anything to do with sexual desire, and everything to do with the will to dominate, humiliate or terrorize the victim. The view of men as the helpless playthings of their lustful urges has lost credence.
At the same time, studies show that women respond far more strongly to sexual imagery than is generally known. Though women’s self-reported interest in sexual images is much lower than men’s, women’s brains actually respond faster and more strongly to images of sexual poses and activities than to images portraying immediate danger, long before they have consciously processed what they are seeing. This suggests that women are self-censoring in response to cultural standards–and those standards are changing.
The best evidence for changing standards may be found in steamy romances’ cover art. These books want to be judged by their covers. Explicit sex inside is promised not just by half-clad couples embracing passionately but increasingly by photos of bare male torsos, often without any faces to distract the eye from the gleaming musculature. Romance novels are by far the fastest growing genre in e-publishing, and it’s been suggested that this is because an e-book reader does not expose women’s choice of reading matter as steamy paperback cover art does. But those steamy covers are still getting printed too, and sold, and even on the e-book sites, those cover images are still the guide to what lies within.
Some links of interest: