December 20, 2018


New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, & Equal Pay. By Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer. Plume. $14.

     A political screed disguised as a humor book, essentially a pamphlet expanded to nearly 150 pages of hectoring, New Erotica for Feminists has one good idea that it repeats nearly endlessly before getting to its real, distinctly unfunny call to arms. The four authors’ idea is clever: take the tropes of mildly erotic literature and reinterpret them to deal with distinctly non-erotic matters such as workplace issues, societal wrongs, parental realities, even – okay – some sexual/erotic matters, since they too are a part of modern (and all) life. At its best, the vignettes resulting from this idea make their points very well, as when two people hesitantly decide to call in “that woman we met” even though the narrator writes, “I hesitate. We’ve never done this before. It feels so dangerous and forbidden, but a part of me is dying to say yes.” It turns out that the woman is a babysitter and the two people are parents who finally are seizing the chance to spend some time together without their baby.

     Another good example of creating and deliberately undermining expectations has to do with “my every intense craving” for “the many sacraments of this lustful worship,” resulting in walking “up to a woman in red, feeling her knowing gaze pierce me, see me.” That woman turns out to be ringing up the narrator’s purchases at Target.

     This creation and undermining of sort-of-erotic expectations is what New Erotica for Feminists is about on the surface – but it is not the point or purpose of the book. The true rationale for this little paperback comes through directly in some of the vignettes, such as the one about being “catcalled on the street by a construction worker. He says he can see that I’m smart because I have enormous books.” Or, even more directly: “’No, I don’t want to have sex right now,’ she says firmly. ‘Okay!’ he says cheerfully…” In other words, this is a book about women being in control, women getting back at men, women – self-described feminists – who may think they are onto something original and clever in their way of expressing themselves, but who cannot hold a non-erotic candle to Geoffrey Chaucer, whose “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from more than 600 years ago says (putting the words into modern English) that a knight, sent to discover what women most desire, states “with manly voice, so that the whole court heard,” that “women desire to have the sovereignty/ As well upon their husband as their love,/ And to have mastery their man above.” Women want to be in charge – of men, yes, but above all of their own lives.

     The Wife of Bath is one of the great creations in English-language literature, but inconveniently, Chaucer was a man, and whether any of the authors of New Erotica for Feminists knows who he was, or has read any of his works, is an open question. It is also a moot point, since the desire of these authors goes beyond “mastery” into matters strictly societal and political. That becomes abundantly clear after the seven short chapters of forms of “new erotica” that include, among other things, Juliet turning Romeo down and living to be 98, Rapunzel getting a buzz cut, and Sacajawea “proving that for every two men who ‘discover’ something, there’s a woman giving them directions” – that last happening to be darn close to the truth. After those chapters, though, comes what the authors really care about: a chapter called “14 Ways to Make Our Fantasies a Reality,” which tells people details of how to Read, Volunteer, Speak, Listen, and so forth. That is, take action and man the barricades – sorry, woman the barricades. Everything in New Erotica for Feminists builds up to this final chapter and is used to highlight it. The authors’ point is that they came up with funny (OK, sometimes funny) twists on erotic scenes for the purpose of urging readers to get socially, societally, politically involved in the causes in which the authors believe. It is all a bit of bait-and-switch, but obviously Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, and Carrie Wittmer do not see it that way: they see themselves putting their talents to use to draw people into a cause that is far greater and more important than undermining standardized somewhat-erotic scenes. Surely some readers of New Erotica for Feminists will be energized – non-sexually! – by the admonitions and recommendations that are the book’s real reason for being. Equally surely, some will find the book’s concept to be essentially a single joke with multiple variations – along the lines of the 2005 movie The Aristocrats, featuring more than 100 comedians telling, retelling and revising a dirty joke ad infinitum or, perhaps, ad nauseam. Political pamphlets can certainly inspire, but they can also bore. The same is true of multiple variations on a theme, very definitely including an erotic one.

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