Blood and Black Lace

In the preceding pages, Rik has given us a introduction to life on the shelf, for at least the male side of the genre. The selection for the fairer sex is a lot more restricted, especially in the ‘pictorial magazine’ market. There are several possible reasons for this: the stigma attached to buying them, the plethora of women’s magazines which already deal with sex to a greater or lesser degree (no-one who has ever read the aptly-named “More!” could possibly need to find out any more about the subject), or the daft laws in this country which equate an blood pressure increase in a certain organ with obscenity. Whatever the reason, it’s a fact that the sales of the few titles there are do not come close to living up to their masculine cousins.

However, in one market, women’s “erotica” (god, don’t you love a good euphemism) has stormed ahead of men’s. In the paperback book world, series like ‘Black Lace’ have achieved highly respectable sales figures, and according to informed sources (hi, Mum!) evaporate off the shelves of libraries, even in the far North of Scotland. Again, the reasons are complex; women have always been avid readers of “romantic” books, the Mills & Boon imprint being merely the best-known, and this provides an easy jump-off point for something…harder.

In the interests of research, I subjected myself to reading one of them. I appreciate that to some extent this is a pointless exercise: I’m not the target market for this kind of literature, so it’s a bit like me carrying out a tampon trial. But curiosity finally overcame these qualms – anything that might help to get a handle on the psyche of the female race (an endless, fruitless task) deserves some attention.

And so one night, I settled down with a Wall of Voodoo LP, and started reading ‘Gemini Heat’ by Portia da Costa (I wonder if that’s her real name?). This was a random choice – it could have been “Fiona’s Fate” by Frederica Alleyn (ditto), or even “Avalon Nights” by Sophie Danson, (which does show a spark of punning ingenuity in its title, being about King Arthur and his men) – and I appreciate that a sample of one is maybe not statistically significant, but life’s too short. I wanted to find out if the publishers had succeeded in their quest to “provide the brightest, best-written, bonk-filled books you can buy”.

The first point of similarity between male and female porn is that bad writing seems to be a universal constant. Ok, I appreciate we are talking about a genre where implausibilities are as common as verbs, still…have a representative quote from the first couple of pages:

“Only an idiot or a masochist would come to an exhibition of erotic art when she was dying of frustration. But what else could you do when you were alone on your birthday and fed up?”

Oh, I dunno; take in a movie, get a carry-out, phone up some friends. As the rest of the book reveals, the heroine would seem to fall into both the categories mentioned: idiot and masochist. I say heroine, though as the title implies, there are two, identical twin sisters. The main male character is a bisexual, half-Japanese billionaire whom the girls take turns having sex with. As you do.

This lack of writing credibility is perhaps not surprising. At the back of the book is a questionnaire, where readers are invited to tick boxes and mark up their favoured characters and settings i.e. medieval, barbarian, Victorian, modern, futuristic. I can see these responses getting poured into the back of a computer somewhere, which then spits out plot synopsis to Portia, Frederica and Sophie for their next novels. Echoes of ‘1984’ may be ringing round your brain at this point; do the authors exist at all, or are they just the result of a Julia somewhere, pulling switches?

Ok, while they may not be the “best-written”, I can’t argue that they are most definitely “bonk-filled”. The trio go at it like knives from about page seven; without question, a task helped by the fact that the twins appear to be a single massive erogenous zone, and are capable of climaxing at the drop of a pheromone:

“And she orgasmed again from the intoxicating scent of his body and his intimate wild-flower cologne”

Never mind Linda Lovelace, this woman appears to have her clitoris stuck somewhere up her nose.

There are some significant differences in the type of sex scenes present here, from ‘male’ stories. The latter are fiercely heterosexual; in ‘Gemini Love’, a rather freer approach is taken. This isn’t necessarily a problem – I’m not averse to a spot of all-girl action – but the live sex show involving two men was skimmed over rather hurriedly, and I would also speed past a scene in any male-oriented story with detailed descriptions of the hero masturbating!

Perhaps the most startling point of note was the almost universal presence of what can only be described as rape fantasies. Virtually every sexual encounter in the book begins with the female partner being unwilling yet ends with her begging for more. In the world of ‘Gemini Heat’, “no” does not mean “no”, it’s far more likely to mean “yes…Yes!…YES!!”. Now, this is only a single book, and it is possibly just catering to a specific group of women who ticked the “Submission” box, but I still find it hard to comprehend. I imagine the major appeal is that with control taken away, you can do whatever “bad things” you want, without having the associated angst; it’s not your fault. Despite this, I confess to feeling a certain guilt myself, at reading these sections.

However, it’s all in the mind, and if there’s one thing which I’m sure of, it’s that any sane person will be able to separate reality from fantasy – despite the innumerable differences between the sexes, I’m sure this applies just as much to women as men! So I’m more than happy to write “Gemini Heat” off as harmless rubbish, no worse than it’s male equivalent – but certainly not any better.

But, as mentioned, I’m not what you would call the expected readership – so I passed the book on to a reviewer with the correct chromosomes…

If you want to have any kind of a sex life, there are two key pieces of information; what turns you on, and what turns your (intended) partner on. The difference between male and female eroticism has always intrigued me. Why is it that watching blue movies reduces women to fits of giggles, while the men sit there and discuss the quality if the shot ? And the giggling is nothing to do with embarrassment, it’s to do with the complete absurdity.

So. when Jim asked me to review ‘Gemini Heat’ for him, I willingly accepted…but purely in the interests of research you understand. What did I expect? Best case was that the book would be imaginatively and well written, focusing on mood rather than detail, with positive female role models to relate to. Worst case – a regurgitation of stereotypes, clichés, and male orientated situations, going for the easy marks.

What did I get? Two women, identical twins, and a charismatic and mysterious man who takes control of their lives – exactly whose fantasy are we dealing with here? The book is unimaginative and poorly written, stretching my patience with its absurdity to the limit. These two innocent girls, who are so awakened by the oh-so-wonderful Jake, just happen to have a collection of modern porn literature hidden on the bookcase… I think not, and that’s just one example.

Every time the writing was broad enough and simple enough to allow my own imagination to kick in, some absurd and out of place detail would intrude and bring me firmly back to reality (I did try to get into the book in the right spirit, honest, but it was hard work!).

At the end of the book there’s a questionnaire, a bit of a survey to check on what the readers want. ‘Gemini Heat’ seems to have taken the list of possibilities and tried to tick off as many as possible, even down to a small interlude written from the male point of view. It doesn’t work, and there’s absolutely no reason to suspend your belief and get involved.

There may be those of you who believe I read this book expecting it to abysmal (and I wouldn’t have been disappointed). These things often turn into self-fulfilling prophecies (singularly appropriate given the subject matter), but I can assure you I approached the subject with an open mind. I am happy to be tested on this; if you can suggest a book which would fit my best case scenario, I will undertake to review it in an open and honest manner, no holds barred (purely in the interests of research of course).

As for ‘Gemini Heat’, it’s written for people with no imagination – Jilly Cooper’s books are more erotic. I don’t know who the target audience is, but it’s not me.