Does Erotica Empower Women? Or Do Empowered Women Read and Write Erotica?

From my childhood through my young adulthood, my mother wore the mask of the “Perfect Mother, Girl Scout Troop Leader, and Sunday School Teacher.” But her behavior when at home, away from the scrutiny of other adults, was anything but perfect. One of the first short stories for which I won an honorable mention from Spinetingler Magazine (yes, horror!) was called Goody Two Shoes. It was my first public foray into exploring the roles women play and the masks women wear.

My full length erotic romantic suspense novel, Desire and Deception, explores these same themes. Similar in heat levels to noir movies like Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice, my story differs from these notable examples because it ends on an upbeat note. In Desire and Deception, polar opposites sex siren Isabel (Izzy) Ramirez and goody-two-shoes Sarah Wright-Rosen become fast friends and seem destined to be BFFs until Izzy’s terrible secret is unearthed–literally and figuratively. Convinced she is unworthy of redemption, because she believes she cannot be anything but the “bad girl,” Izzy goes down a take no prisoners’ path, halted only by her younger lover, Sean Richards.

For her part, having been raised by an alcoholic in a “you’re-only-good-if-you-enable-me” paradigm, Sarah discovers shades of gray in her formerly black and white world. She also learns the powers of forgiveness and love can transform not only how she sees the world, but also her own self-image. In the end, Izzy becomes more like “good girl” Sarah–and Sarah becomes more like her “bad girl” friend. Izzy is the larger than life embodiment of all that is forbidden to “good girls.” Izzy embraces her sexuality and desires, takes control of her life and the men in it, and pleases herself. Sarah is “everywoman;” she works hard, plays by the rules, collaborates and facilitates consensus. She believes she can only be “good” one way, i.e., by constantly trying to please others.

This binary, yes/no reasoning is faulty, but I believe many women struggle with this duality in our lives. The question is not to be or not to be, but who are we supposed to be versus who do we want to be? Our role models may or may not be good ones, depending on how healthy our parents’ upbringing was. If you come from a dysfunctional household, one with crime spoken daily, can you break out of that mold? Or are you ever going to be able to explode from those constraints? Likewise, if your home appeared to be the epitome of perfection to the outside world, but was hell behind closed doors, can you ever overcome the damages of a self-righteous hypocrite?  Izzy and Sarah discover their true selves through the redemptive power of love and realize that they can be what they want to be, in spite of their pasts.

In writing Desire and Deception, I wanted to tell a sexy suspenseful tale about smart, powerful women and the men who love them. I wrote about society’s expectations of what a woman should be versus what a woman wants to be. And since the standing advice to writers is to “write what you know,” I then placed these characters into the setting I knew well, the rigidly hierarchical academic world where tenure and promotion are the duo brass rings. With Isabel and Sarah chattering at me the entire time, Desire and Deception is a story that practically wrote itself.

I am fascinated by powerful women. By making her the pampered princess, daughter of a Mexican crime boss, I was able to make her a modern day woman warrior who lives by her own rules. In her non-fiction book, The Warrior Queens, Antonia Fraser analyzes the lives of real women who led in times of war. Fraser looks at the historical data, legends and myths surrounding these women through a modern lens. She gives a list of adjectives and categories that men create for these astonishing, strong females, one of which is the lustful “Voracity Syndrome,” aka the “Man Eater.” Izzy is the archetypal Man Eater: smart, sexy, sassy, funny and deadly. Female and male readers can live vicariously through Isabel because she embodies all the things women are told not to do. Don’t be too smart. Don’t be too aggressive. Don’t put your desires ahead of other people’s wants and needs. Don’t talk back. Don’t enjoy sex. Don’t be in charge in the bedroom. Don’t be in control of your life. In other words: DON’T BE EMPOWERED. I made Isabel over-the-top on all of these traits and more, because she had to be strong to endure her early life and to lead her troops.

Like Meadow Soprano, Izzy grew up with all the privileges of being the mob boss’s daughter.  She was given the best of everything: nannies, schools, clothes, cars, horse-riding lessons, whatever her parents thought would make her more cultured. She was also given the worst of everything: horrible role models, a Machiavellian world view, and a very dark childhood secret that no child should ever have to carry with her. Because of this complex background, she becomes a female warrior in her own right. Where others would collapse, she survives and thrives. She is a flawed heroine–with redeeming qualities and compelling reasons for her behaviors.

Here is an example of Isabel’s empowered behavior:

After swinging by the daycare center, Isabel headed to the grocery store with the three kids. Ramon pushed a grocery cart, and the girls ran up and down the aisles shrieking. Enamored with all things chocolate, the twins stood in the middle of the candy aisle, yanked bags off the shelves and tossed them into the basket. Serious-faced, Ramon placed boxes of kid tested, mother approved cereal on top of the candy. Sometimes that boy looked like an undertaker. Isabel shook her head, pushed another cart with the adult purchases, and ignored the pointed stares of the other shoppers.

An elderly woman approached her with a dour expression. “Young lady,” she shook her finger at Isabel, “Don’t you know how harmful all that sugar is for children?”

Isabel gave the crone her favorite look reserved for morons and meddlers. “Old lady, don’t you know how harmful it is to interfere with a child’s self-expression? Who wants to grow up and be an uptight rectal sphincter like you?” She laughed out loud at the woman’s face, an excellent impression of a fish gasping for breath. “Dictionaries, aisle ten.” Isabel turned on her heel and continued shopping.

The woman sputtered behind her. “Why you cheeky–”

Isabel flipped the bird in the air and kept walking. She arrived at the checkout and turned to Ramon. “Pick out three boxes of cereal and one bag of candy. Ditch the cart in the produce section.” Now on their third lap around the store, Sherry and Ruby appeared to be slowing down. “Get your sisters. We’re outta here. I have to make another stop.”

I bet every mother who reads this has been there. Your kid(s) are rambunctious, but not really evil, you’re minding your own business and some busy body decides to give you a lecture about child-rearing. Can you honestly say you never wanted to respond that way and give the meddler the finger? And I love the scene from the perspective of the character’s growth. Izzy has had a nanny for her brood for quite some time. Now she’s forced into taking care of them and is becoming more attached to them and more protective of them. She has a maternal side to her that she never expected. She grows and continues to grow. In her own weird way, Izzy is protective of her brood and is working on being a good mother.

Looking back in your lives, have you seen yourself in either of these roles: people-pleaser or empowered woman? How do you think you were encouraged (or programmed) for these roles? Do you think erotica helps to empower women? Or do you think empowered women read and write erotica? Which came first? The chicken or the egg?  What do you think is the best way we can help ourselves and other women to become empowered?