Let me start this review with a warning: this post contains vulgar, sexual language of the cringe-inducing variety. Also lots of discussion of sexism. My humorless feminist critic came out in this one.
This spring, Cleis Press announced it was teaming up with Penthouse Variations to release a series of erotic anthologies. Edited by the Penthouse team but published by Cleis, it sounded like an unlikely but potentially brilliant pairing. Sex-positive, queer, feminist Cleis Press working with boy’s club, sleazy, mainstream Penthouse? Cool! This seemed genuinely cool. Their first title in the series, Penthouse Variations on Oral, came out this October.
I really wanted to like Variations on Oral. I really, really did. Because Cleis Press has a great legacy of producing challenging, feminist, queer-friendly erotica, and while I don’t like every title that comes out of their house, I’m a loyalist. I’m less familiar with Penthouse because, um, I’m not exactly their demographic. But I also don’t hate all mainstream porn on principal, and Variations on Oral has a female editor, Barbara Pizio. Penthouse meets Cleis wouldn’t be a sex-positive, feminist fantasyland, but it had to be a cool mash-up of these two erotica bastions, right? Plus I’m currently obsessed with the notion of dude-friendly erotica right now, and Penthouse is predominantly mainstream man porn. Maybe a Cleis/Penthouse collaboration would hit the sweet spot of smart, considerate erotica for straight male readers.
As it turns out, my hopes were too high. There is very little Cleis in this book, other than the wonderful cover art. The writing is unimaginative, a litany of physicality and body parts, and I found myself forgetting stories entirely because they were so similar to each other. But usually I wouldn’t write a negative review just because the quality was lacking or it was heavier on action porn than people porn. That could just be a matter of personal taste, and I like to give erotica the benefit of the doubt.
As coincidence would have it, I was also reading Gone Girl while working on this review. It took me a while to discover the link between the two books, which on the surface have very little in common. Gone Girl is a whodunit electric with female rage and complexity; Variations on Oral is a lighthearted collection of oral sex short stories. But when I finished Variations on Oral, Amy Dunne’s legendary speech about “Cool Girls” wouldn’t let go of my mind. It wasn’t the uninventive and repetitive writing of the anthology that bothered me so much—that was disappointing but not infuriating. It was the characters, or lack thereof. Because the women of Variations on Oral are all Cool Girls.
Cool Girls are the new male fantasy in the sheep’s clothing of gender equality. They’re the messy, effortless, wild and patient girls of this decade’s rom coms: gorgeous, smart, one of the bros, never demanding and always fuckable (no pesky, needy emotional attachment here!). Cool Girls do not need anything, for they are dude-adjacent, plot line free.
Some of the women of Penthouse Variations on Oral barely have names. They are interchangeable aside from their hair color—lots of platinum blond and raven curls—and the exotic locations in which they suck off their men, or offer their juicy pussies to be devoured. They are stylish but willing to fuck on the floors of greenhouses or in dirty airport bathrooms. They are determined to please their men, to tease them but remain attainable, to wake them up in the morning with blow jobs and always, always swallow their partner’s “geyser” of cum. Some of them have careers or hobbies, but only to modify their sexiness (“If you’d seen her right then, lying sprawled on the covers like a big sexy cat, you’d never have believed she’s an accountant”). Their breasts are “large and firm” and their legs are “long and lean” and their pussies are tight and hairless and their asses are “generously plump” and they exist to fuck and be fucked without being “promiscuous.” They are the perfect male fantasy for 2014. They are Cool Girls.
For the uninformed, here’s a highlight from Amy Dunne’s Cool Girl monologue from Gone Girl. You can read the entire section here:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.”
And here’s the beginning of “Fine Dining,” the second story in Penthouse Variations on Oral:
I’ve always said life is full of surprises—but so is my girlfriend, Sonia. A vivacious blonde with an upbeat personality and a hot body, she always finds little ways to thrill me, like getting us courtside seats for my favorite basketball team or leaving flirty notes in the last places I’d ever think to look. However, the thing that astonishes me most is her boundless creativity regarding oral sex.”
Look, I knew this anthology would be an assortment of stories about hetero couples having oral sex. I’m not saying blowjobs are sexist, or 69-ing is sexist, or casual sex is sexist, or anything like that. And yes, unfortunately not all erotica is going to have well-rounded characters or plotlines. But if oral sex was the only prompt, there was so much opportunity to get creative! Two of my favorite short stories are ones I’ve written focusing on oral sex, my ebook Memory Foam and my contribution to the forthcoming Chemical [Se]X. Those stories are both about real people with real brains having really good sex. And oral sex is great, seriously. Thumbs up for giving blow jobs. When there’s a feedback loop of pleasure, of taking pleasure in giving your partner pleasure, a feedback loop of respect and generosity, I’m down for a story to go down.
Anthologies are also fantastic as a format because they—in theory—allow for diversity of representation: of experience, of race, of sexual orientation, of everything. When there are twenty-two stories in an anthology, they should not all be the same thing. Unfortunately there were maybe five stories tops I enjoyed in Variations on Oral, stories that deviated from the pattern of “attractive woman and bland man give each other oral sex in an interesting location.” Alison Tyler’s contribution is delightfully crass and tongue-in-cheek, and Sonia Choi’s “O is for Orgasm” mixes up the pattern of positions the other stories are rooted in, incorporating the prostate play I was surprised didn’t feature more in the anthology.
But a smattering of originality does not an anthology make. I’m just gonna go there and call this book sexist. How can erotica be sexist? Funny you ask! This is the first anthology I’ve read that places so much emphasis on the physical appearance of its female characters (the same attention is not paid to the male characters’ appearances, except for their gigantic penises). The male gaze is real, my friends, even in fiction. But Ella, this book also features scenes of women receiving oral sex from their male partners! Isn’t that progressive? And many of the women seduce their men, are the sexual aggressors! Sure, that’s great, but let’s raise the bar a little. This is pure macho fantasy. Yes, take me on a biking trip through the woods and then suck my dick just off the path. Choke on it. And you better fucking swallow. Happy anniversary.
These characters do not develop. They face no challenges. There is nothing at stake. They are, above all, simple.
I’m not saying pure escapist fantasy shouldn’t be written, because I know there will be plenty of readers who get off on this book. And I’m not saying it’ll turn them into misogynists either. One anthology of erotica isn’t going to turn the tide against sexism in either direction, and half of the contributing authors in this anthology are women. But I wish it didn’t have Cleis’s name on it, even if the proceeds go into other, better books seeing the light of day. I hope these weird corporate partnership anthologies aren’t the future of keeping small independent presses alive. I don’t want erotica to sell out in order to remain commercially viable. If I learned anything from Gone Girl, at least the novel if not the film, it’s that how we depict women in the media matters. Dude readers deserve better, ladies deserve better, and gender queer folks definitely deserve better. This book wasn’t sexy to me—it was awkwardly funny, a little sad, and intensely quotable in the worst way (seriously: “She worked me like a powerful sucking engine.”)
And I’m done trying to be a Cool Girl. I don’t want to read erotica about Cool Girls. I want women in my porn and I’m demanding it, god damn it.