Sexual amnesia

When it comes to kinky sex, why do we always think we’ve invented the wheel?

AMONG my peers there was much sadness over the recent death of Sylvia Kristel, star of the 1974 erotic film Emmanuelle — a film we grew up with, and which became so popular that it made soft-core erotic cinema fashionable. The film received widespread prominence in the US when Columbia Pictures agreed to distribute it after noting that its audiences in French cinemas consisted mostly of women, which meant the movie could not be regarded as ‘‘mere pornography’’.

In the film and its spin-offs there are explicit lesbian and sadomasochistic scenes, submission and pornographic images. I was a tweenager when the original film was released in Australia but somehow snuck into the R+ cinema. I remember sneaking into a range of similarly erotic films in the same era, such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris with its famous, unspeakable ‘‘butter’’ scene, and a few years later would discover The Night Porter, about a sadomasochistic relationship that develops when a concentration camp survivor encounters her Nazi commandant years after the war, and begins an affair.

There were also books that my mother and her friends were reading in those days that I managed to get my hands on, finding them hidden in our bookcase behind War and Peace: Erica Jong’s 1973 classic Fear of Flying, with its exploration of the infamous ‘‘zipless f . . k’’, and sexologist Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies. These books hailed an era of sexual liberation and freedom of expression that took my friends and our mothers on an erotic journey that has never ended.

The point of all this is my amazement at the commentaries about Fifty Shades of Grey and claims of the advent of ‘‘mummy porn’’, implying that women embracing erotica is a new phenomenon. To feminist sexual liberationists such as myself, my girlfriends and our mothers, this claim is laughable. We were wild, erotic, adventurous women decades ago; what’s more, our grandmothers or great-grandmothers, who lived through the decadent fin de siecle in Europe, were probably equally so; as were some of our ancestors in 10th-century India, when erotic art flourished.

Why do social commentators on sexuality always claim we’ve just invented the wheel? It’s not that sex and S&M doesn’t titillate and that a new generation of women haven’t rediscovered the delights of naughtiness. It’s just not original, not outrageous, and if anyone thinks it is, then they have yet to watch Kristel on all fours in an opium den or read the Marquis de Sade’s 120 years of Sodom from 1785, or the Kama Sutra, from as early as 400BC.

I say vive la dark side. But new for women audiences? Pleeeeeze.


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One Response to Sexual amnesia

  1. Karen Darby 29 May 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    Ruth, I enjoyed your column about the rubbish bins. It reminded me very much of a broadcast my grandmother gave over national radio in 1947 for the ABC Women’s Session which ran twice weekly.
    I would send it to you but not sure how to do that. I have collected all her broadcasts under the title “Rose of Tasmania”, a name taken from her fanmail. They would be just up your alley.

    Karen Darby

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