Article by: Merri Lisa Johnson, Staff Writer

7/29/99

Scarlet Letters: Women Rewrite the Erotic

Guess I'm not the only one who thinks Hester Prynne was a babe. Most people take Nathaniel Hawthorne's nineteenth-century American classic, The Scarlet Letter, as a tale of morality, a parable of repression, a bedtime story for wayward girls. That's not what stays with me, though. I remember the important parts about Hester: that she screwed her preacher, that she thumbed her nose at her punishers by turning The Scarlet Letter (an "A" for adultery) into an elaborately sensual ornament with her bad-girl embroidery, made it a fetish, that she remembered how to play even when they closed her up in a cottage and called her a whore.

The editors of Scarlet Letters: A Journal of Femmerotica (editor's note: the journal is "adult" stuff--18 years or older) seem to remember the same things, taking the image of The Scarlet Letter originally meant as a talisman against the evils of sexuality and reinscribing it as pro-sex, linking Hester's story with modern-day "femmerotica," a set of truly scarlet letters. An e-journal of erotic writing and artwork, Scarlet Letters describe their mission as presenting "the best in positive women's sexuality and erotica with the goal of eradicating sexual taboo and stigma through exposition and education and to open a forum through which readers and viewers can come to understand sex as sacred and positive." A far cry from the Puritan setting of Hawthorne's text, this journal works to bring women back in touch with our bodies, to explore and revalue pleasure, physicality, and of course, sex. The link between letters and sex--a link I have traced in detail elsewhere with particular attention to Hester's embroidery on the "A" as a coded image of masturbation and adult female sexual pleasure--emerges in unabashed terms in this late twentieth-century webzine edited entirely by women.

Each issue of Scarlet Letters includes a photo gallery of erotic images by top photographers from around the world. Exploring the lines and composition of the erotic body in a way men's magazines have not proved capable or interested, these photographers leave behind the standard passive female body, mouth shaped in a silent "O," preferring instead to represent women enacting their unique sexualities. Various photos surprise the viewer with unconventionally erotic details, catch us up on waves of sensual movement, give us pause over the strange sexiness of a woman drinking from a water faucet. The female body is renewed in The Scarlet Letters gallery, rescued from the objectifying scripts of art history and re-membered as a subject--unruly, angular, alive. Here we appear not as body parts but as body-stories, written for and by ourselves. Borrowing the words of one photographer's biography, these artists are "student[s] of light, form, and sensual intrigue." The result is a stunning new angle for looking at the female nude, bringing us another view of Hester, another view of ourselves.

The most recent issue features food--the edible erotic. Past issues explore bisexuality, S-M, and the intersection of sex and spirituality. Poetry and fiction appear regularly, along with the soon-to-be-syndicated column, "Ask Miz Scarlet." But my favorite part of this journal is the nonfiction, the expository reflections on the erotic in women's lives and American culture. Editrix-in-chief Heather Corinna is the "woman writing" at Scarlet Letters that I want to feature here on our own webmag Women's Writing. Her rants at the beginning of each issue, a column called "Between the Sheets," offer insightful and informed commentary on each theme treated by her zine. In the premier issue, Corinna answers the question: What in the hell is erotica anyway? "And why on earth is it all done by women here, and why do I want to read it?" Acknowledging the fact that "one person's erotica is another's cold cereal," Corinna nevertheless asserts the value of sharing erotic tastes among a community of open-minded pro-sex women. She sees the journal as a space for "the work of women kind and bold enough to share," an environment for contemporary American women to contest our cultural heritage of repression, silence, and Scarlet Letters pinned on our chests rather than penned at our desks.

In fact, Heather Corinna directly addresses the problem of American culture for women and for sexuality in general in her "Between the Sheets" introduction to the issue on sex and spirituality. With a straightforwardness neither Hester nor Hawthorne could afford, Corinna declares:

There is some seriously shitty conditioning in this country, and it's of the most pathetic and dangerous proportions. Thing is, if we all really loved all the parts of ourselves, we'd all be pretty happy, well-adjusted individuals, and I hate to be the bearer of the real news, but happy, healthy people threaten absolutely everything. Happy people don't need a lot of things. Mass-marketed religion, government, therapy, or a bevy of consumerist nightmares we call 'products.' Getting the picture?

All too clearly. This is a country where we do not touch each other, where preachers sweat like Jesus from yelling at young girls not to touch their bodies and not to let anyone else touch them either. Corinna rewrites the erotic to include a dimension of life that is particularly neglected in this country. She writes that "sex is sacred," which is not to say "that you should only do it under the full moon, or after making offering to sixty-seven different gods, or that you can't laugh about it," rather "that sexuality is an integral part of our spiritual lives, of our personalities, of who we are," and "that when we celebrate sex, we celebrate ourselves, and one of the great joys of living." In this virtual "room of our own," women gain a "latitude of speculation" not unlike what Hawthorne suggests the original scarlet letter gave Hester Prynne, a passport to a place where we can speak freely and desire actively. A conceptual capaciousness where we may stretch our limbs and minds, begin to define for ourselves a sense of the erotic outside the boundaries of manners and church pews and other displinary structures from childhood.

Her position brings to mind the famous essay on the erotic by feminist of color Audre Lorde. In "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," Lorde defines the erotic as "our deepest and nonrational knowledge." I should clarify that in her essay, "erotic" does not equal "sexual." "Erotic" operates as the opposite of "rational" or "intellectual." "Erotic" refers to knowledge that comes from the body, sexual and otherwise. Many feminists explore the concept of "thinking through the body," or "writing the body," phrases that relate to this idea of erotic knowledge, a way of knowing what you know based on your lived experiences as a marked (gendered, classed, raced) body in this world. An acknowledgment that knowledge cannot, should not, be separated from our bodies (see "Mother Writes" on this webzine for more on this point). Lorde's words illuminate for me the importance of making space for exploring women's erotic (in the sense of sexual as well as embodied) writing:

This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.

Heather Corinna provides a model of a woman pursuing her erotic knowledge in each sense of that phrase, exploring her sensuality and doing work in accordance with her own personal joy. Suggesting we do the same.

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