Last month, Lena Dunham discovered there would be a porn parody of her show Girls, now in its second season.
It was an irony so rich, and so emblematically marking a cultural shift, that Dunham herself could have scripted it.
In one of the last season’s most notorious scenes, Adam, a thrillingly unstable amalgam of refreshing honesty and face-palmy fallibility, attempts to role-play with his new girlfriend. The fact that she is clearly uncomfortable with his commands that she crawl across his floor don’t dampen his ardour, and the scene’s “happy ending” is anything but.
“A big reason I engage in (simulated) onscreen sex is to counteract a skewed idea of that act created by the proliferation of porn,” Dunham tweeted after finding out about This Ain’t Girls XXX. Many female artists are beginning to address the results of this proliferation on our collective sexuality. But few are doing so as explicitly (in both senses) as Canadian author Tamara Faith Berger and German novelist Charlotte Roche.
Scenes like the one Dunham wrote, discomfiting as it is, are surely more common than the effortless online sex that kids are taking their cues from. The most reliable recent statistics say 70 per cent of men 18 to 24 years old access porn at least once a month, and one in three porn consumers is a woman. Yet for all its ubiquity, we have surprisingly little dialogue about it (beyond the unhelpful “Don’t let your kids see it!”).
Faith Berger and Roche offer us a starting point for a conversation on the topic. Both writers have spoken about their frank enjoyment of pornography, but both have clearly felt called to turn the genre on its head. “Porn needed fiction,” writes Faith Berger in the afterword to Little Cat. “I felt the fight.”
Each found notoriety with her previous work: Faith Berger’s Maidenhead, a sexual coming-of-age novel, won the Believer Book Award, while Roche’s debut, Wetlands, told from the point of view of a convalescent young woman whose descriptions of her body’s excretions and secretions would perturb even the most hardened proctologist, sold more than a million copies. In their follow-ups, Faith Berger’s Little Cat and Roche’s Wrecked, each revisits the topic of female sexuality (Little Cat is actually a reissue of two earlier novels, The Way of the Whore and Lie With Me). Little Cat is frankly smutty – one half is a collection of dirty anecdotes that reads like punk rock Anaïs Nin, the other the story of a young woman enslaved by her own lust. Wrecked more obliquely references sex – it is an escape from the death-obsessed, neurotic life of its heroine.
What the stories have in common, though, is their interiority. A sexual woman, in the common imagination, is a woman conceived of by men. We see her surfaces; she is, to use a throwback word, “objectified.” What, then, is the experience of the lustful woman from her own point of view? Both books offer answers to that question, and both, importantly, differ, denying the reader any easy generalizations about the female experience.
Little Cat is the more purely political book. Faith Berger quotes a 16th-century poet in the epigraph to The Way of the Whore: “Mira may be a slave, sister, but she herself chose whom to sleep with.” In this darkly vital work of fiction, Mira, a teenage stripper, shows us what it looks like from the other side of the male gaze.
It’s a complicated place to be. Freud wasn’t the first person to notice the proximity of the seat of pleasure to the …well, to the seat, period. Starting with our very anatomical makeup, desire and disgust are inevitable bedfellows. The object of Mira’s lust is a sex trafficker, a man who describes her as a “little hairy one” the first time he meets her. “I worshipped his body without my consent,” Mira says at one point. Her hookups are with men who disgust her – creepy, older men; men whose appeal is invisible to the reader (or maybe just to this reader). Only sex between two women is described as healing. The desire of a woman for a man, Faith Berger implies, is the desire of a slave for her master.
This essentialist view of things isn’t entirely convincing: Within the realm of desire, the balance of power is rarely so absolute. Besides which, reading about sex between a young woman and repulsive, piggy men – not just one scene, but for pages and pages – began to wear me down. Faith Berger’s impressionistic writing reads like it comes from a deeper, more lizardy part of the brain, and succeeded in lodging in a similar part of mine. But what turned Mira’s crank was merely repugnant to me, minus any erotic edge, and the scenes left me with the feeling of a bad-dream hangover.
Disgust is also a hallmark of Roche’s writing, although she is more interested in the body in all its porous, mortal glory. Wrecked is far less graphic than Wetlands, but fans of the first book will enjoy the scene where the main character, Elizabeth Kiehl, discovers she has worms – “nematodes” – creeping out of her anus. In Wrecked, the character provides a running commentary of what her body and her mind are doing, even (especially) in her most intimate moments. The meandering, free-associative quality of Elizabeth’s voice makes the reader feel the same way you imagine her therapist, Frau Drescher, must.
Yet the rambling allows us a window onto Elizabeth’s uncensored views of sex. As with Dunham and Faith Berger, there’s beauty in the writer’s fidelity to imperfection. No mythical, high-gloss, mutually orgasmic sex here. Intimacy isn’t conveyed through sexual ecstasy, but through all the human little negotiations around it.
For Roche, politics in the bedroom is a buzzkill. Elizabeth, all at once servile, adventurous and ashamed, is very much product of a very specific era. She’s a sexually liberated enough to have threesomes at a brothel with her husband, yet she blames her politicized mother and anti-porn crusader and second-wave feminist Alice Schwarzer for her inability to relax and mindlessly enjoy it.
Mainstream pornography, as “dirty” as it is, is also weirdly sterile and uncomplicated. The bodies portrayed are as clean and unnatural as the narratives. The great triumph of these flawed works is, in a sense, the flaws themselves. Mira and Elizabeth exist to remind us that sex isn’t just dirty, it’s also messy. It’s disgusting, it’s shameful, it’s human.
Lisan Jutras is the deputy editor of Globe Books.