An orgasm of one's own: women who spank back

For the generation of women reared on Carrie Bradshaw's writings, the concept of female empowerment now stretches from the boardroom into the bedroom. Sara Sayeed talks to three women who have chosen to pursue careers in alternative sex industries: those of lingerie, therapy and the aptly named 'cliterature'

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For the generation of women reared on Carrie Bradshaw's writings, the concept of female empowerment now stretches from the boardroom into the bedroom. Sara Sayeed talks to three women who have chosen to pursue careers in alternative sex industries: those of lingerie, therapy and the aptly named 'cliterature'

"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." The crux of Virginia Woolf's polemic on female creativity--first declared in 1928 and walloped around the theoretical arena ever since--resounds today more than ever for the post-Sex and the City generation. Sure, the envisaged room is a "post-war Upper-East side walk-up" and the finances are limited by a substance abuse problem (expensive footwear), but the ethos remains the same: for women to create, they need agency.

In a twist on Woolf's argument, 'sexpert' and writer Emily Dubberley generates the "money" by writing about sex for the traditionally inscribed sex. Founder and Editor-at-large of both Scarlet magazine and Cliterati (not forgetting author of 12 books in the last four years), Dubberley's prolific career has centred on a process of "reclaiming". The magazine was originally supposed to be called Peach, but Dubberley eschewed this title as sounding like a "paedo or spanking magazine", and instead settled on Scarlet. "Personally, I'm a great believer in re-branding words such as 'slut' so that they become much more positive and liberating, rather than a 'keep you in your place' kind of thing. I thought we couldn't call it 'Slut' because that was too full on, but 'Scarlet Woman' was the old fashioned equivalent, so it was a re-branding in that way".

Reckoning with that feared taboo of the sexual woman, Dubberley's work seems an active reaction to when Woolf "burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex". Granted, Dubberley's writing facilitates the financial issue; but with a demanding 60- to 80-hour week, she admits: "The work pays well, but boy, do you have to work for it."

One aspect of Dubberley's Scarlet magazine is 'cliterature'--aptly named, in regards to Woolf's thesis, for its amalgam of that female space and fiction specifically for women. Cliterature is unique to Scarlet as the only example of erotic fiction in a UK women's magazine and is, in effect, a microcosm of Dubberely's first enterprise in 2001: www.cliterati.co.uk. She describes this as "the UK's first text-based sex website for women", which now boasts more than 2000 stories. Frustrated with the wealth of erotic material available for men and the comparatively destitute "wank-material for women", Dubberley declares, "I was pissed off and thought that there should be some out there. I chatted to about 200-300 women over a year, asking, 'What do you want in a magazine?', and they all came back with 'honest representations of sex'".

Both Cliterati and cliterature are amassed by "any woman adding her fantasy to the site." Whereas Woolf lamented that females were "locked in by the safety and prosperity of one sex and the poverty and insecurity of the other", Cliterati effectively reimburses women for all those Playboy and Hustler years, and has engendered a secure, safe forum to express their sexuality. Following Woolf's proviso, Dubberley encourages creativity in her sex--and while a part of this process is through sex fiction, the rest works to dismantle the fictions written by men about female sexuality.
And what tangled yarns do some of them weave. Leaving Hardy, Hemingway and Genesis on the back burner for now, one such male author who few, if any, of you will have heard of, is Ron Coleman.

When Jacqueline Gold first pitched her idea for what would become the £74 million-a-year Ann Summers Industry, to a wholly male-dominated boardroom, Coleman declared: "I don't care what you say, women aren't interested in sex." Apart from suggesting the world population was spawned via rape, this little remark almost cheated the Gold Industry of an extra £87.4 million in revenues per annum. Suffice to say, Ron no longer forms part of the Gold Group.

"Personally, I'm a great believer in rebranding words like 'slut' so that they become much more positive and liberating"

Sphinx-like as we are, the mystery that is woman is one rarely deciphered by men with much accuracy and is too often substituted to stubbornly-held, erroneous projections of their own imaginations. Dubberley encountered a similar situation. After graduating with a degree in Psychology, specialising in female sexual fantasies and sexuality, she moved to London and was soon shortlisted for the Cosmopolitan Scholarship. After enrolling on the Cosmopolitan programme she was asked to come up with two feature ideas based on the new influx of women into the Houses of Parliament. She offered up one on the last remaining Suffragette and another more controversial proposal: "Don't Tax my Tampax". The piece questioned whether, now that women had a more prominent role in the Houses of Parliament, the VAT on sanitary products would be eliminated.

The 17.5% tax mark-up on a three quid pack of tampons effectively meant that women were paying the equivalent of £16,000 in a lifetime for the sake of an inconvenient and unavoidable bodily process that debilitates you for a week all in the name of that imperative public service, procreation. "It's basically a tax on being female", comments Dubberley. Alas, the idea was shunned by the male editor of Cosmopolitan at the time who griped: "Well, it's a nice idea but we don't see it as an issue that is relevant to the majority of our readers." Indeed; it is a women's magazine after all.

Gold Group also found themselves misjudging the market before Jacqueline Gold stepped in. As she says: "The primary market was mostly the dirty-raincoat brigade as well as tourists and gay men", and the profits weren't dazzling by any means. However, when Gold began what she saw as her "mission to feminise the world of sexual pleasure", things started to change. Inspired by 'Tupperware', the first party-based selling business of '50s America, Gold set up Ann Summers 'party-plan', and their first year's gross turnover was £80,000. According to Gold, the reason the party-plan flourished with such triumph was that, at that time, "the sex business was biased in favour of men. There just weren't opportunities for women to buy products to enhance their lives. The concept of sexual pleasure was something that seemed to exclude the idea of women as consumers, [it wasn't] female friendly."

One explanation for why the parties worked so well, and still do, is because they are completely female zones, in which women don't feel the need to conform to a masculine perspective. Gold clarifies: "Our parties are a chance for women to escape their husbands, kids and careers, to forget being a mother or an accountant for a while, and tap into another side of themselves".

All in the name of research, I decided to allow my friends a chance to escape their boyfriends, books and degrees and host an Ann Summers Party myself. To ease the slight tension, party organiser Anne* started us off with a game of musical chairs. Grudgingly, we put our tightly clasped drinks and Cadbury's Mini Rolls to one side and took our places. The game was simple enough: Anne would ask us a question with a true or false answer, and if it was true we had to move one seat to the right. By the end of the game I think it is accurate to say that we were all quite physically and emotionally bonded, having been forced to clamber onto each others laps and let our sex secrets out into the ether of my Badger Hill living room. If only walls could talk, a dalek probably wouldn't be the only thing being aimed in my direction by my OAP neighbours en route to the corner shop. But the game unveiled some interesting points about women and their sexcapades. To protect identities as much as I can, I'll refer in generalities: "Have you ever been caught in the act?"--the majority moved; "Have you ever slept with anyone else's guy?"--everyone stayed rooted to the spot and indignant exclamations erupted; "Have you had sex this week?" --a few moved, the rest grimaced, scowled or surreptitiously reached for a voodoo doll; "Have you ever faked an orgasm?"--most smirked and nodded.

Ever since Harry met Sally, the faking of the female orgasm has been inscribed in cultural lore. Sure, Meg's climactic shrieking is never going to prompt sombre ponderings, but isn't the fact that over 70% of women fake an orgasm at some point in their lives just a little depressing? Admittedly, we can't all be like Samantha Jones, who declared, "when I RSVP to a party, I make it my business to come", but the stigma that we should and the weighty expectation of our arrival is a burden borne by many women solely to further nurture the male ego. Whatever happened to the ethos that when you turn up at a bad party, it's frankly okay to grab your coat, hail a cab and leave? Ann Summers has made it its business to create a different kind of party, where women not only stay till the end, but also leave satisfied.

Yes, the contentious vibrator. Ann Summers boasts a selection of some 50 vibrators, the most famous of course being the Rampant Rabbit. Most men, if you'll allow me to generalise, regard the vibrator either with discomfort and trepidation or just plain, no-holds-barred ridicule. My housemate commented, "Most men are shocked to learn that their girlfriends use vibrators. But why? It's a biological fact that penises don't vibrate." One of my friends exclaimed, upon being enlightened to the existence of 'the Bunny', "My girlfriend doesn't need a vibrator! I can satisfy her five times over!"--again, biological factors might dispute that claim. Notably, in Texas it is illegal to sell vibrators, but it is still legal to sell guns. Why the one sex is afforded the opportunity to gain tension release by shooting off, but not the other, is beyond me. The fraught relationship between men and the vibrator is due largely to the fact that vibrators allow women to access pleasure that has nothing whatsoever to do with men. It is literally in our own hands--and female agency, as always, is considered something threatening.

Interestingly, the one question that came up in the musical chairs game which posed a smidgen of discomposure was, "Have you had an orgasm this week?" The question was no more probing or outlandish than the others; if anything it was the most clinical of them all. The issue, I think, was that it was perhaps too intimate a topic for girls to discuss outright. Not because it was taboo, or because it had been contorted and subjected to patriarchal stigma, but simply because it was private. Whereas Samantha perhaps exemplifies the sexual aspirations of many woman, Charlotte may represent their sexual reality. Sweet, doe-eyed, Park Avenue-princess Charlotte--at least that's how many brand her. Of all the SATC women I feel she is the most commonly misconstrued, and I think that the majority of us are closer to Charlotte than we'd like to admit. Granted, she may not be as brazen as her friends, but she's certainly no prude. Many forget that Charlotte not only had sex in the show, but that she enjoyed it--who can forget that tumultuous reunion with the sorority girls who snubbed her for zealously off-loading her frustrations with her impotent kilt-clad husband? Or when her addiction to the Rabbit reached such heights that Carrie and Miranda had to intervene AA style and wrestle it from her? Charlotte was just as sexual as the other three women on the show --she just didn't feel like waxing lyrical on it so much.

Sex therapist Jo Woolf is more acquainted with the Charlottes of the world, the women who "don't seek out the information, who avoid the exposure TV and everything, because they have their own particular set of fears and anxieties". Like Charlotte, these women aren't silenced by the male-thumb, but just find it difficult to talk about their sexual problems. Jo began initially as a GP and then trained as a specialist in psycho-sexual medicine. She recounts how, "When I was in general practice, inevitably I would see women come in for smears, who had anxieties because there was something not quite right down below. I had a facility for listening and hearing and they would tell me stories. When somebody comes into the room, I'm going to listen to their story the way they want to tell it, but I'm also going to pick up other signs from the way they tell their stories, the non verbal communications. Through physical examination, I was also able to pick up fears and fantasies about the genitals."

Woolf's work demonstrates that a key aspect of sexual liberation is not, as some might assume, being comfortable enough to brandish your Rabbit in Vanbrugh Bar and burn your bra on your way out - it's having the confidence to talk about sexual issues, to "recognise that your sexual problems count as valid problems, and that it's acceptable to have them looked at."

Emily Dubberley elucidates a different facet of the sexually liberated woman - the one who has the confidence to say "no, thanks". "I hate the word normal. I'm completely anti the whole, 'to be a sexually liberated woman you must have had a threesome, had anal sex and dabbled in bondage.' It's about being sexually confident, which means you do what you want to do and you don't do what you don't want to do. It takes a lot more guts to say 'no' than it does to say 'yes'." She offers the example of a woman, lying in bed with her long-term boyfriend, who turns over and says "Darling, can we try anal sex?" Now she may really not want to, but "she'll feel pressured into saying 'yes' because she's been with him for a long time and by the media pressure of 'if you're sexual than you should'. Dubberley's suggestion in this situation? Say to him: "I will if you will - tomorrow we'll buy a strap on and I'll take you first. And if the bloke says 'no' to that, he has absolutely no right to keep on nagging you."
Few women realise the extent of sexual control they have over men in their lives. So often written into the roles of victims of an over-zealous male libido or the "lie back and think of England girl", many of us forget that at the end of the day, it takes two. As Frederike Ryder so succinctly put it: "When a man goes on a date he wonders if he is going to get lucky; a woman already knows."

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