Machine

She glances at the dessert menu and then abandons it, despite the chocolate fondant.

He raises an eyebrow. ‘You don’t want anything?’

Her foot rests between his legs, caressing his stiffening cock through the fabric of his shorts. She smiles at him and draws her finger through the damp circle her wine glass has left on the table. She feels, for once, like she’s the one in control.

‘Not dessert.’

‘Oh?’

How does he do that? How does he flip the dynamic so quickly, so easily?

She holds his gaze. ‘I want you.’

This time, he’s the one to smile. ‘Likewise.’

*

He asks for the bill. The minutes seem endless. He only has a fifty, and the waiter takes an age to bring the change. She’s so wet she’s worried she’ll leave a mark on the canvas chair.

He leaves a tip, gathers up the rest, and deposits three euros on the table in front of her. ‘Your turn to buy condoms.’

‘But we have – ‘

‘I’d like you to buy them there.’

Next to the restaurant is a pharmacy. A pharmacy which is clearly open for business. A pharmacy whose flashing green sign indicates that the current temperature is 28°C. Her face feels at least ten degrees hotter. Because she knows he doesn’t mean her to buy them there. He wants her to use the machine.

It looks as if it hasn’t been used in years. Graffiti covers its rusting surface, along with the tacky remains of stickers long ripped off. There’s a lump of what she fears is chewing gum stuck to its side.

It looks dirty, nasty. Exactly how he likes her to feel.

She wouldn’t mind, late at night. Late at night, in a deserted street, she’d do it willingly. But it’s 14:24 on a sunny Saturday afternoon. People are watching, and that’s his thing, not hers.

She’s frozen to her seat. He reaches down, adjusts his cock in his shorts. She feels her cunt twitch in sympathy. She needs him inside her.

When she finally moves, the backs of her thighs are actually stuck to the canvas. The chair clatters against the concrete as she stands. A few people look up. He grins, half in amusement, half in malice.

In her clammy palm, the coins feel huge. She feels like she’s clutching something secret, or precious. Suddenly she’s reminded of her childhood: of begging to buy Minstrels from an equally tired machine.

‘No,’ her mum had said, dragging her away. ‘You don’t know how long they’ve been in there.’

She feeds the coins in as fast as she can. They clunk down into the depths of the machine and she glances round nervously, convinced the noise is echoing round the entire square. The maitre d’, who seated them a couple of hours earlier, catches her eye. He’s thinking about what she looks like in bed, she’s sure of it.

She presses a button, any button. It doesn’t matter what kind the machine dispenses, because the condoms aren’t the point. They probably won’t even use them. The point is making her burn hot with shame.

The machine doesn’t budge. She presses a different button. Still nothing. She tries the first one again, but to no avail. She turns to look at him, begs him with her eyes to come and help, or to tell her It’s ok, leave it. Instead, he stands with his hands shoved in the pockets of his shorts, visibly erect. He shrugs.

She turns back to the machine, and in frustration as much as desperation, she thumps the side of it. This time, people really do look up. She can hear titters, and somewhere in the crowd a man whistles.

She hates this. She loves it.

Finally, a packet falls down the chute, and she grabs it and scoots back to the table as fast as she can, eyes firmly on the ground.

He catches her arm, pulls her tight against him, grinds his cock into her stomach. He holds out a hand and she drops the packet into his palm, ridiculously proud of herself.

They kiss, all the heat and shame finally channelled. When they pull apart, and he takes her hand and leads her back in the direction of their hotel, she doesn’t notice him casually abandon the square packet on the table behind them.

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The Fallen Woman

‘I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet and falling head first into the office.

Double crap – me and my two left feet! I am on my hands and knees in the doorway to Mr Grey’s office, and gentle hands are around me helping me stand. I am so embarrassed, damn my clumsiness. I have to steel myself to glance up. Holy cow – he’s so young.’

– E L James, Fifty Shades of Grey

I didn’t get that worked up when Ana fell at the start of FSoG. According to a friend, that was as it should be.

‘Bella is clumsy in Twilight. That’s the whole point.’

Maybe it is the whole point of Twilight. I don’t know. I haven’t read/seen it. What I do know, though, is that Ana’s clumsiness is completely fucking irrelevant to Fifty Shades.

I’m not sure that E L James thinks it is, however. I think E L James thinks it might be how Christian spots that Ana would make a good sub. After all, there’s lots about BDSM that confuses E L James – the fact that it’s not born out of a disturbed childhood, the fact that the love of a good woman can’t ‘cure’ somebody of it, and the way no fucking helicopter can make up for the fact that nowhere in the book does Ana suggest she might have submissive leanings.

Anyway. I wasn’t that bothered at the time because it was just a book. Not a book that had sold millions of copies. Not a book that had changed the landscape of erotica. Just a book. And then this happened:

He sank into an elegant crouch in front of me. Hit with all that exquisite masculinity at eye level, I could only stare. Stunned.

Then something shifted in the air between us.

As he stared back, he altered … as if a shield slid away from his eye, revealing a scorching force of will that sucked the air from my lungs. The intense magnetism he exuded grew in strength, becoming a near-tangible impression of vibrant and unrelenting power.

Reacting purely on instinct, I shifted backward. And sprawled flat on my ass.

– Sylvia Day, Bared to You

I’m a big believer in the power of chemistry. But I can honestly say I’ve never sprawled on my ass due to a guy’s ‘elegant crouch.’

I did a bit of Google research earlier this year, when I first started thinking about this. Surely, I reasoned, women falling must be an established trope in romantic literature. I couldn’t find anything. And then it occurred to me that maybe falling/injury is a modern update of this:

“MY DEAREST LIZZY,—

“I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and, excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me.—Yours, etc.”

“Well, my dear,” said Mr. Bennet, when Elizabeth had read the note aloud, “if your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness—if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders.”

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Romance relies on a weak heroine almost as much as it does an alpha hero. In the past, illness was enough to create a situation in which the hero and heroine are thrown together. These days, it’s harder to convince the average reader that a woman ‘needs’ a man, and so romance does everything in its power to recreate that situation of old. There are various approaches – the heroine can be pregnant, sick, young, poor or just plain clumsy. Because if she doesn’t need rescuing, the author is (ostensibly) breaking the pact they have with the reader.

I’m a cynic, but I was a sucker for Mills & Boon in the past. I loved these women who needed saving so much, I didn’t just read them; I made some shoddy attempts at writing them, too:

He knelt beside her and kissed her gently. She opened her eyes and gave him a sleepy smile. “Bedtime?” he asked.

She nodded, but made no attempt to move. He stood up and gathered her into his arms. She kicked off her stilettos and snuggled up against his chest. He handed her the warm mug, and headed for the stairs.

In their bedroom, he sat down on the edge of the bed and set about undressing her. He slid the straps of her satin dress down and placed her briefly on her feet so that she could step out of it. He unsnapped her suspender belt, removed her stockings and unclipped her bra. As he pulled her white cotton nightdress over her head, she gave a contented sigh, still half asleep. He pulled back the duvet and laid her down.

I think I excelled myself with that particular piece (in my defence, I was eighteen when I wrote it). The FMC has a minor case of being a bit tired, but it affects her so badly that she gets carried upstairs by the hero, undressed by him, and even ‘laid down.’ She couldn’t be more passive if she tried.

Looking back, it wasn’t the passivity that attracted me to writing these kind of women. It was the bodies that they’d need for these kind of scenes even to work. Women who get carried up to bed must naturally be willowy and feather-like. Not only that, I think I thought they were also easy women – if you could simply scoop a woman up and literally put her exactly where you wanted her to be, she wasn’t exactly going to cause you many other problems. And god, I wanted to be that kind of girl.

Luckily, I’ve grown out of that. A bit, anyway. But I’m still writing women who fall.

Falling is seriously grim. I know that not only from my own extensive experience, but also because I’m hyper-alert to other people falling. When I did the Moonwalk back in May, I witnessed a horrific one – an elderly lady tripped over a tree root and gained momentum as she attempted to right herself. Just as I thought she’d regained her balance, she went absolutely flying. And the smack of body hitting concrete, of other people’s gasps, they bring back every fall I’ve ever suffered. I hate seeing it almost as much as I hate doing it.

So we have to stop writing falls as though they’re romantic. They’re not. They’re painful, humiliating, scary. But those things can all be sexy. There’s one particular scene that’s stuck with me from Unfaithful with Richard Gere and Diane Lane, where she falls and we see the aftermath as a series of vignettes designed to foreshadow the risks and pain inherent in the affair she’s embarking on. She eases her tights away from an oozing graze. There’s a flashback to a boiling kettle hissing as she does. It’s all a bit predictable, perhaps, but it turned me on.

I’m fascinated by cuts, grazes, bruises. And not just the ones caused by kink, either. Watching skin knit back together, or blood bead, waiting to spill. The stickiness of it as it clots. The metallic, iron-rich taste of it. I completely accept that these things won’t work for everyone, though. They’re fairly dark, I guess.

Essentially I feel much the same about falling as I do about disability. We need to write it, to see it in the media, to acknowledge that it’s part of many people’s reality. It’s not kooky, or adorable, or cute. What it could be though, if we wrote it well, is really, really fucking hot.

On curves

When I planned to write about labels, I planned to do it in relation to disability (a post that will still happen, eventually). I didn’t anticipate writing a post on other words I’d use to describe my body, because I didn’t realise I was so attached to them. I didn’t know that seeing them used to describe someone whose shape bears little relation to my own, would bother me quite as much as it did.

I’m talking about this:

Yes, she has great tits. And she has a beautiful body. But she’s not ‘gorgeously curvy.’

Before nearly every term to describe someone around the size 16 mark became a euphemism for ‘fat but unwilling to admit it,’ – curvy, voluptuous, OKCupid’s charming ‘a little extra’ – I owned ‘curvy.’ It’s a lovely, sensual word – for me personally, it speaks of boobs, of the hourglass shape that is my natural figure, of muffin top, of a softly rounded tummy. It’s beautiful, it’s feminine, and it makes me feel good.

But when I see women like the model in the photo above described as ‘curvy’ it ceases to mean all those things. Suddenly, I’m not curvy, I’m fat. Unsurprisingly, when I say as much on Twitter, it doesn’t particularly thrill women who are bigger and whose own self-identity is thrown into question when I feel forced to relabel my figure.

I’m not willing to disclose my weight here, but I will share my BMI, which is 28.6. By NHS measurements, that puts me at the upper end of ‘overweight.’ A doctor would say that I’m fat, as would my mum, as did one of my friends. But I understand why, when I use the term to describe myself, it gets people’s backs up.

The problem is that I don’t know how to describe my shape, if curvy ceases to have the meaning I always thought it did. And while I think that everyone ultimately has the right to label themselves as they choose, when I see the word ‘curvy’ captioning a photo of a woman who is more hollows and angles than she is curves, it makes me sad for three reasons. Firstly, because I don’t think we can both be curvy. If she is, I’m not, and if I’m not, I don’t know what I am. Secondly, because the publication that posted the image, Quite Delightful, is ‘designed by women, for women’ but I cannot see how, if that’s what they understand by curvy, their magazine can possibly represent me or many of the women in my life. And lastly, because it suggests to me that curvy is now the shape for everyone to aspire to, and that totally misses the point.

I love the softness of women’s bodies. But curves are not the only acceptable marker of feminine beauty. Think about those things that certainly aren’t curvy – a strong collarbone, delicate wrists, a flat stomach. Those things are beautiful too. As ever, when one thing has been portrayed as the norm for too long – size zero models, concave stomachs, a thigh gap – when the backlash comes, it has a tendency to turn abruptly against those things. It shouldn’t. What we need is a culture where fat and thin are equally accepted, where curvy is just something you are rather than the body shape everyone aspires to, and most of all, where perfectly valid words aren’t repurposed and used to shame people.

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The Questions We’re Actually Embarrassed to Ask

A week or so ago, I got an email from Marie Claire. One of the articles it linked to was 15 Questions About Sex You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask.

There’s not much about sex I’m embarrassed to ask, and when I canvassed my Twitter followers, it seemed that the same was true for them. The questions we were actually avoiding were about beauty or personal grooming – things that society tells us we’re inherently supposed to know. How to get a genuinely smooth shave. Whether it’s normal for hair removal to be something you have to do to your arse, as well as your cunt. What exactly we’re supposed to do with products recommended by magazines and/or other women.

I’ll hazard a guess it’s not just beauty that we’re ashamed to talk openly about. For me personally, it’s less about grooming and more about health. Why do I occasionally bleed after sex? The muscles down my left side don’t work properly: does that mean if I squeeze my cunt around his cock when we’re fucking he feels it more on one side than the other? And, the one that really bothers me: will I ever be able to have children?

This isn’t just a paranoid fear born out of the anxieties that seem to plague a lot of my generation. Many of us have at least one friend who’s struggled to get pregnant. We share stories of not knowing when the hell our periods are due, not only because we have more important things in life to keep track of, but also because the pill, diet and stress all have a massive impact on our cycles. And to me, it always seems weird to rock up at the doctor’s just because something’s niggling at you at bit: I guess I feel a bit like this. Plus, I’d rather worry about stuff than have my fears confirmed. I know, I know…

It was my beautician who first caused those niggling worries to turn into something more concrete. My hair is dark, and if I don’t get it waxed, you can see it on my top lip. That’s normal, I figure, and so that, and my eyebrows, are just one of those things I regularly have to get sorted, in order to feel like a proper girl.

But as she spread hot wax onto my lip a year or so ago, the beautician said ‘Oh. You’ve got a few hairs on your chin, too. That’s often a sign of PCOS.’

She’s right. It is. Along with growing hairs around your nipples, weight gain (which did happen all of a sudden in my late twenties), and that weight sitting low and all up front, making you look like you’re in the early stages of pregnancy. In the last couple of years, three complete strangers have asked me, out of the blue, when I’m due. Ugh.

It’s not just that I prefer to bury my head in the sand, although there’s an element of that. It’s also that admitting to the above makes me feel less feminine, less attractive, things which are already exacerbated by my disability. PCOS can be controlled, with diet, drugs or surgery. It would make sense to find out for sure if that’s what’s really going on. Instead, I changed my beautician.

For me

When I write about anxiety or depression, I always feel like I must surely have said everything there is to say. Or that if I haven’t, someone else surely has. I don’t ever feel like that when I write about sex. Anyway, for various reasons people have reminded me that I write primarily for me, so even if I have said it before, I’m going to say it again.

As a teen I was emotionally self-indulgent. I was often unhappy, and even more often in floods of tears, but the latter especially felt cathartic. I could come home from a really shitty PE lesson, throw myself on my bed, turn my supercool CD player up loud (it had space for three discs, and rotated them automatically as each album finished) and cry until I felt, well, cried out. There was nothing lonely about the emotions I felt as a teenager: I knew I could cry for as long as I liked, but at the end there would always be hugs from my parents, or intelligent conversation, or dinner on the table. That stability was pretty much all I needed from life.

Looking back, my life has been scattered with depressive episodes. I was first diagnosed at 26, but I’d now blame depression and/or anxiety for my failure to start work on my third year dissertation until a fortnight before it had to be handed in, the endless run ins with my A-Level French teacher, my reluctance to learn to drive, the fact I still can’t ride a bike …

I could go on.

Anyway. In the last year or so, it’s been the anxiety that’s plagued me much more than the depression. Panic attacks have become increasingly frequent, and now that sense that I can’t breathe, the hairs on my arms standing on end, the air around me getting colder and colder, the pins and needles … well, I recognise them for what they are, which takes away some of their power.

Plus, anxiety is so much worse than depression, right? Depression is just, well, sadness. And I can handle sadness (not heartbreak though, that’s different.) Sadness can be fixed with chocolate and wine and hot baths and long walks and time alone. Sadness is like a prompt to take better care of yourself: to eat properly, to get some fresh air, some more sleep.

I almost embrace sadness. I need that reminder to take better care of myself: for some reason it doesn’t come that naturally. When I think about it as an abstract concept, I think about rain on the skylights, about being tucked up in bed, about having an excuse to read all day.

Maybe that is sadness. It’s certainly not depression. Depression is what came back about three weeks ago now. I often do my weekly food shop before therapy, but the supermarket shuts at eight, which leaves me with half an hour to kill before my session. Ironically, in recent weeks the therapist has been explaining to me that lateness is often attributed to not wanting to have the time to think about what you’re going to, about forcing yourself to panic about the journey, rather than the destination.

So I park up (depression definitely has an effect on parallel parking, too – my definition of ‘parallel’ has become more and more loose) and I sit in the car. And I tweet, or I read or I reply to emails. Or I used to. Now, I sit and I feel this crashing sense of despair that things will always be this shit, so what’s the point? What’s the point of anti-depressants or therapy, when life isn’t going to improve? Why won’t everything just stop? Why can’t I just go to bed and stay there?

In that sense, depression scares me much more than anxiety. Anxiety might stop me going to Eroticon, but it doesn’t stop me going to work. Depression gives me a massive case of the fuck-its, and the fuck-its are dangerous. I cry a lot in therapy, which makes the therapist nicer to me than she used to be (plus, we’ve moved to a warmer room – one with red chenille armchairs and an embroidered wall hanging) and I ball Kleenex after Kleenex in my fist. I’m a mess of snot and tears and mascara, and I’m not me.

People don’t understand why depression is tiring, but that’s why. It’s tiring not only because everything seems so pointless, but also because I’m in constant battle with myself. I’m not this person who doesn’t have any determination to achieve stuff: I have a good degree, a good job, some fucking self-respect, for god’s sake. And my ability to give a fuck about any of that stuff has totally gone. Except it hasn’t. I still do give a fuck about it and so I beat myself up: I’m doing a shit job at work, I’m not socialising enough, I’m a lazy cunt. And the more I think and act on those feelings the closer I circle to burn out.

One of the statements on the Anxiety and Depression scale is ‘I can enjoy a good book or radio or TV programme.’ Already my ability to watch TV calmly is shot at: I jump between TV screen, laptop and phone and I piece The Apprentice together bit by bit after the credits have rolled. So far, my ability to focus on reading remains, and with it, my ability to write. Those two matter, and so, apologies if you found this indulgent, but I needed to do it. For me.

PS I’m a bit loathe to recommend good reading on this issue, but if you’re looking for something that goes into the issues in more detail, I found Sally Brampton’s Shoot the Damn Dog to be an excellent read.

Charlie x

Burning

I’m on my knees and it stings. Cold concrete and gravel dig into my skin. Am I hurt? I have no idea. I’m bleeding a bit, certainly. There are little red pinprick dots on my teal linen dress. There’s the shock factor, too: a second ago I was upright, sauntering across the road and now I’m a crumpled mess, all burning palms and tears welling.

I fall often, probably once a month at least. I’ve stumbled home with laddered tights, tripped off the edge of a pavement and landed sprawled across the road, right in the headlights of an oncoming bus, loose change and the occasional tampon spilt across the Tarmac. Women (it’s always women, and for that I’m kind of grateful) rush to make sure I’m ok, and I try not to cry. Please, please don’t be nice to me: I’m ok, I’m not broken, I’m just so, so embarrassed. I pick myself up, dust myself down and get on the bus (because that’s the second rule of buses, dontcha know: three come along at once, and if you fall over in front of a bus it’ll always be the one you subsequently have to get on, grit your teeth and deal with the driver’s concern. He did almost run you over, after all.)

In short, when I fall, the physical pain and damage is pretty much the last thing to register. The first is the shock, and the second, hot and unshakeable, is the shame. I burn with it for days after the event, inspecting the heels of my boots for unevenness, mistrusting my every step. If only no one had seen me do it…

And yet at home, tucked up warm in bed, shame is one of the predominant emotions I seek out. I flick through the pages of erotic novels looking for just that: the moments where a character not only submits but allows herself to be shamed, humiliated. Where that shame and humiliation makes her come.

It makes me come too, despite being my greatest fear in real life. Or perhaps *because* it’s my greatest fear. Either way, the burn of shame is both agony and ecstasy, all at the same time.

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