You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

New Feminist Erotic Women’s Lit Is Not as Subversive As It Thinks

Photography by Henrik Purienne

When Sarah Nicole Prickett—the New Inquiry editor perhaps best known for being called “internet girl” in an epic 2012 interview with Aaron Sorkin—sent out an email inviting “you and your lover(s)” to the launch of her new, feminist “literary and erotic magazine Adult,” expectations were high for a sexy, subversive magazine created from a female perspective. With its cover sporting a close-up of a woman’s face and a “not for sale to minors” disclaimer, Adult seemed poised to be genuinely transgressive.  But now Adult, which Prickett and creative director Berkeley Poole launched last weekend in North America, has hit newsstands. And the most surprising thing about it is just how traditionally masculine its view of female sexuality is. 

Historically, fantasy erotica has often been male-centric: Anne Rice’s 1980s The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy is erotic BDSM that is set in a castle and trades in master-and-slave relationships and orgies. Its riff on a Sleeping Beauty-style opening (instead of a life-giving kiss, a prince has sex with a woman to wake her up) seems designed to cater to male ideas about the sexiness of submission. At the time, this was genuinely transgressive, a world away from the lyrically sensual sentences of Anais Nin. But now sadomasochism is more mainstream than ever. Fantasy fiction like Fifty Shades of Gray and anthologies like Best Women’s Erotica 2014 feel fully predictable, full of breathy sex scenes. In May, the DSM-5 finally changed the wording around sexual deviance to distinguish kinky sex from harmful sex. The social network Fet Life currently serves 2 million fetishists. In our age of exhibitionism, there is nothing inherently shocking about kinky imagery. So while Prickett’s Adult masquerades as subversion, it actually reinforces male ideas about women and power and sex.

Photography by Nancy Reyes
"Catching Reyes"

The women photographed in Adult, some in bondage, are as kittenish as Beauty, seemingly waiting for someone to take them or appreciate them. There are, for the most part, mere objects. The women in the photos seem to be performing their sexiness for an imagined male audience, coquettishly pulling at their underwear and posing bare-bottomed on beds. There are only a few naked men in the magazine (though Prickett says she wants more) and the women are all young, traditionally beautiful, and slim. 

Adult’s highly stylized imagery, with women looking wistful or beautiful—or alluringly submissive—suggest that women are gorgeous playthings for men to do with as they wish. A photoshoot of the curvy model-artist Myla Dalbesio, with its softly rendered style and earthy palette, could be a high-end fashion ad. Long-limbed models masturbate facing away from the camera or recline serenely while tied up in bondage gear in a gorgeously staged shoot by Nancy Reyes. The portraits are misty and sensual.  Prickett and her contemporaries may have grown up desensitized by porn and flooded with photoshopped images of beautiful women, but their feminist-erotic aesthetic is as sultrily coy as an old-school issue of Playboy.

Photography by Kava Gorna
"Fiona." Auto Erotic, Moments Imagined and Real in the Bedrooms of Friends.

Like Playboy, the first issue of Adult is a mix of luxe smut and personal essays. It includes an impressive range of material, from painterly art and fashion photography to more documentary-style shots that fix a simple lens on its subjects without much orchestration. It has standard, not particularly sexy interviews with filmmakers Ryan Coogler, David Cronenberg, and Deborah Kampmeier, along with fiction, poems, and essays. Experimental hardcore fiction, including Dodie Bellamy’s excerpt from Cunt Norton (“Come inside me, you cocksucker”) a humdrum piece about a father driving his babysitter home (you get the picture) both read like an MFA grad writing a Penthouse Forum letter.

In a recent interview, Prickett explained to me that she is more interested in shame than in guilty pleasures; her stated plan is to make Adult darker and riskier, and to deal with more subversive issues such as shame, as it evolves. And there’s a conceptual split between the feminist mission and the male gaze as defined by Adult’s photo editor Jai Lennard, who is a man. (Prickett has publicly stated that she wants more visual editorial control.)  “Much of what’s out there lacks blood,” Prickett told me, about the current landscape of erotic literature.

Courtesy Adult magazine

But for now, the real erotic writing in Adult is not about sex. The most intimate section is the prose poem-like story Nature Preserve by John Trotta—whose tiny, tender accounts of his relationship with a younger girl named Sophia are sprinkled throughout the magazine. She’s dying of cancer and wants to sleep outdoors. The elegiac, slow-paced eroticism of their day together is not expressed by what happens but by the way the sentences are paced and the mood is conveyed: “I took her there once, just before the summer swept in, around the time the dogwoods were in bloom, when things were just gathering momentum.”

Adult’s best expression of its sexual identity is similarly not traditionally “sexy”: a short feature with nude photos of and writing by Samantha Leigh Allen, a young transgender woman who’s undergoing hormone replacement therapy. The photos of Allen are loosely based on the avant-garde photographer Deborah Turbeville’s then-scandalous 1975 Bathhouse series for Vogue, in which models pose languorously, with indifferent, hard, drugged-out gazes. “When I read a piece of writing about a trans woman, it’s usually about being a trans woman—as if they’re not allowed to speak other than to justify their position in the world,” Prickett said. “So I wanted her to talk from the gut.”

And so the most genuinely transgressive parts of the issue are not its most pornographic. Auto-Erotic, Kava Gorna’s photos of people masturbating—accompanied by text inspired by Harry Mathews’ 1988 vignettes about masturbating, Singular Pleasures—feels particularly vulnerable because Prickett’s friends are the ones masturbating, not porn stars or models. But it’s the idea of the photos that jolt you, rather than the photos themselves, which hide more than they show. For all the cultural expectations about sexiness, here’s where Adult hits its mark: It straddles the mundane and the shocking in a way that feels natural and even awkward, a far cry from the rote format and structure of traditional erotic writing. And more importantly—and unusually—it features women fully owning, enjoying, and empowered by sex. 

Diane Mehta is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow @DianeMehta.