The Evolution of Female Sex Writers
I wonder how many 1940s housewives sat at their kitchen tables, glasses of iced tea sweating perfect O’s on the table, thumbing through their copy of Good Housekeeping, wishing that instead of reading about bed linens, they could be learning how to also achieve perfect O’s. Back in 1885 when Good Housekeeping was born, women had made decent headway in the publication world. Decent by standards of people who still couldn’t vote, at least. However, they definitely weren’t writing about sex. Sex was very hush hush for centuries, and when discussed was solely a man’s topic (aside from Sappho. Thanks, girl.) But progress was progress.
In 1784 the United States saw its first unisex magazine, Gentlemen and Ladies’ Country Magazine, which specifically requested submissions by female writers. In 1829 Frances Wright managed to publish an article about birth control (a wildly radical topic of the day). Jane Cunningham Croly became the first woman to obtain a desk job at a major newspaper, first sitting in her office chair of triumph in 1859. Unfortunately at this time, women were still largely encouraged to write from home and use pseudonyms.
As the publication industry grew larger under William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, more women were recruited for writing positions. While stories of national importance and impact were reserved for men, women were asked to sensationalize, write about social life, and pen advice columns.
So basically, women could write about everyone else’s problems but their own.
Women sat by as Playboy and Penthouse gained popularity and money by having an open, fluid dialogue about sexuality--a dialogue women were absolutely not allowed to have. Instead, they were expected to read cooking and cleaning advice. Then one day in the 1960s, a woman spoke up--Helen Gurley Brown.
Brown, who had just released her autobiographical novel Sex and the Single Girl, chose to revamp the general interest magazine Cosmopolitan to open the sex dialogue to women. According to Brown, “I wanted to tell the truth: that sex is one of the three best things out there, and I don't even know what the other two are." Her first issue as editor-in-chief discussed birth control, which still (130 years later) was a scandalous and taboo topic. Later issues focused on ways to meet, please, and keep men (married or not).
While Brown helped create an open platform for women’s sexuality, catapulting the discussion forward and fueling the era’s sexual revolution, the value of her contribution only went so far. Once society accepted female sexuality as an actual possibility, Cosmo’s purpose as a liberator faded away. It instead became a beacon of female insecurity and inequality: how to be sexier, thinner, and more pleasurable to him.
In 1966 Lynn Barber showed the world a new way for women to write about sex. For seven years she interviewed celebrities about their most intimate sexual desires for UK Penthouse, earning the nickname “Demon Barber.” She gained a reputation as one of Britain’s harshest interviewers and was one of the few women around the globe writing for a male interest magazine. Thanks to Barber, we now know that Salvador Dali had a particular fondness for fondling himself, especially with androgynous onlookers.
Also thanks to her, we are able to consider women just as capable, witty, and intimidating as male reporters.A London billboard once read “Doner kebabs. Tequila slammers. Being interviewed by Lynn Barber: You know you’ll pay.”
While Brown and Barber no doubt made strides, there was something missing from their dialogue: how women could reclaim sexuality for themselves, not for their men.
Candace Bushnell, known for her column-turned-TV-show Sex and the City, transitioned the sex perspective to reflect that women enjoy sex for themselves. From 1994 to 1996, Bushnell shared stories of sexual ambiguity with the world in the New York Observer. She told her audience that it was okay for women to seek out casual sex for the purpose of fulfilling their own needs (not mens’), and the show depicted that message to millions of women within the next decade.
However, readers still had no publication to turn to when they needed answers instead of inspiration and good stories.
Enter today’s feminist writers.
Gabrielle Moss, associate lifestyle editor for the online media site Bustle, spoke with me about the modern writing climate for women and why their voices are important--and why writing about sex in particular is important.
“Progressives say we’ve already accomplished equality and that we don’t need to write about it [sex] anymore, but that’s not true for everyone everywhere,” says Moss. “I enjoy writing about the grosser side of sex--the things that I thought made me a disgusting human, but then people write to me saying, ‘Oh, that happens to me, too.’”
Open discussions about intimacy do more than break down barriers for female writers; they open doors for their female readers. Now audiences have the ability to talk about the not-so-pretty things that would never make it to print in Cosmo--topics such as butt hair, semen drippage, and queefing. While many consider this information oversharing, some women take comfort in knowing that they’re not alone in these circumstances.
“I would have questioned the value [of sex writing] before I began writing so much of it,” says Moss. “But now I see that there are lots of things about the body we’re taught to think are wrong and that we’ve been taught to shame. I figure there’s no value in keeping this information to myself if it can instead be helping someone else. Not all sex writing is revolutionary, but a lot of stuff can open eyes and help women accept themselves. So it’s important we keep it up”
Of course, a girl can’t write about menstrual cups and condoms stuck in buttholes without catching a little flack.
“Men surely tell me I’m disgusting,” laughs Moss. “They tweet me saying ‘she’s disgusting,’ but interestingly, women never do. Some people just think of sex writing as frivolous, but I think it’s important to feminism.”
When wondering why men don’t have the same culture of online sharing, Moss responded, “Men always have written about sex--they’ve had centuries of literature to share their sex lives. Women don’t have that literary history, it’s our turn now.”