Female Erotica in Post-Franco Spain: The will-to-Disturb

Alison Maginn

Monmouth University

The study of literary sub-genres can shed a great deal of light on the workings and drives of a society, especially a changing society such as the Postfrancoist Spain. As Janet and Genaro Pérez argue, popular literature lies close to the collective consciousness and desires of a nation, providing "an implicit chronicle of cultural intangibles, those factors Unamuno termed ‘intrahistoria’…" (139). The explosion of erotic literature in 1980s and early 1990s Spain is particularly interesting to the observer of contemporary Spanish culture since it is one form of expression that deals with that "dark" area that was forbidden and repressed in Franco’s Spain: the "low" and "lower-half" of the body, to use Stephanie Sieburth’s terminology (1). That this long-forbidden area was finally spot-lighted in a society’s literature is in itself worthy of attention, but even more interesting is that women writers began to cultivate this hitherto male-dominated genre, representing female sexuality and desire in a way that had never before been seen in Spanish literature. This paper will examine how the erotic—especially female erotica—is represented in narrative form in the new, postmodern sensibility that began to manifest itself in Spain after Franco’s death.

Erotic literature has a long and controversial history (1) and is a genre still considered by many critics to be aesthetically worthless, morally reprehensible and misogynistic. Given the polemics involved in the textual and sexual politics of this genre, writers who produce literature categorized as erotic necessarily implicate themselves in a debate that centers on either the repetition or the re-figuring of certain conventions. This debate becomes even more intensified when women writers explore areas of female subjectivity, sexuality and gender through explicitly erotic (some might say pornographic) representations. After giving a brief account of the development of women-authored erotic narrative in post-Franco Spain, I will focus on two works, Ana Rosetti’s short story "La noche de aquel día" (1991) and Almudena Grandes’ Las edades de Lulú (1989) which, in my view, deal with the erotic/pornographic in a transgressive way, presenting themselves as unsettling texts even within the sexually liberated climate of contemporary Spain. While all literary genres develop and change over time, most readers and critics can agree about what constitutes say, a science fiction or detective novel. The erotic, however, has never belonged to any stable or consistently defined category because its classification has always depended upon social mores influenced by religious beliefs and moralistic convictions, which, of course, change from generation to generation. Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century the debate continues about whether certain narratives are erotic or pornographic, or whether they are literature at all.

When talking about erotica in past centuries the figure of the Marquis de Sade comes to mind. Although not all critics would agree, some literary scholars have located a radical, transgressive force at work in some of Sade’s narratives. For Jane Gallop, the radical force in Sade is the disruption of the Sadian system itself. Referring to 120 Days of Sodom, Gallop claims that "Sade’s text is scarred by breaks in its obsessive structure . . . [t]he real, untamed violence in Sade is the persistence of a bodily enigma which can never be definitively interpreted" (16). In spite of Sade’s desires to "contain the body at its most violently passionate within the categories of logic" (18), as Gallop sees it, he fails because the body in his texts constantly defies the idealizing categories of the mind. For this reason Gallop argues that Sade’s writings in fact broaden the limits of philosophy which has "tried to render the body transparent and get beyond it" (4) because his texts, much as they try, cannot get beyond the body, cannot contain it, and the final result is that the split between the body and the mind, so precious to enlightened Reason and to puritanical thought, is dissolved. Coming from a different perspective, Wadda Ríos-Font has argued in a similar vein with regard to the pseudo-scientific project of turn-of-the-century writers such as Felipe Trigo. Trigo’s objective was to legitimize and bestow literary quality upon his erotic narratives by claiming them to be part of a social reform, but, as Ríos-Font argues, this was a self-defeating project as the anxiety to possess literariness cancels out any potential liberating or reformative force. (2) In keeping with the vision of the erotic as a discourse of pleasure and potential subversion, I am interested in exploring how Rosetti and Grandes have dealt with the areas of female desire, subjectivity and gender and what Gallop calls the "bodily enigma". Have these women writers merely repeated the well-worn formulae of their (mostly male) predecessors, or have they created something significantly new by pushing the erotic genre past its own apparent limitations, thereby contributing in a meaningful way to the development of erotic literature in general?

The deluge of erotica that burst forth after Franco’s death led to the launching of two different literary series of erotica in the late 1970s. Under the auspices of the prestigious Tusquets publishing house, the Sonrisa Vertical series, dedicated to erotica, was set up in 1977 awarding a yearly literary prize. The creation of the Sonrisa Vertical editions by respected publishers such as Tusquets did not lessen the impact nor tame the erotic/pornographic investment of these texts, on the contrary, it drew attention to this traditionally marginalized literature suggesting that even what may offend some morally and politically (I am talking about sexual politics) must be taken seriously as an important literary and cultural phenomenon. In 1977, Bruguera also launched its series Clásicos del erotismo offering for the first time translations of many of the so-called "classics" of the genre.

The fact that women have made incursions into a hitherto male-dominated genre would suggest that the overwhelmingly male, voyeuristic perspective commonly presented in this literature may be challenged and that the typical objectification of women and female sexuality may be looked at afresh. I say "may" because we cannot presume that just because a writer is a woman, she will give a non-patriarchal or non-conventional view of the erotic. One scholar has argued just such a point about Mercedes Abad’s Ligeros libertinajes sabáticos. (3) Nevertheless, I still contend that it is significant and worthy of scholarly attention that Spanish women writers, so long silent and silenced regarding their own sexuality, did at last appropriate a genre in which they have dominion over, among other things, the representation of female sexuality, desire, fantasy and the female body. As the first woman prize-winner of the Sonrisa Vertical series, Susana Constante, explains, "La mujer es un ser deseante . . . pero no estaba segura del territorio de su propio deseo" (quoted by Jorge Barriuso, 65). Whatever these women writers have to say on these matters, whether or not their views conform to a feminist politics of eroticism, should be heard and discussed.

In 1990 Castalia and the Instituto de la mujer published a collection of erotica written by women, Relatos eróticos, edited and with an introduction by Carmen Estévez. The publication of this anthology with contributions from seven different women writers was important for two reasons. In the first place the collection showed that women—both writers and readers—were still taking the erotic seriously, that they wanted to write about it, read about it, hear about it, and talk about it. In the second place, the anthology is important for the development of the erotic genre in general, particularly within Spain. A reading of the stories in this anthology then, along with some of the narrative of other women writers, would lead me to agree with Jorge Barriuso that "la mejor literatura erótica en España es cosa de mujeres" (64). While fully aware of the dangers of making value judgements about popular genres which have been marginalized and relegated to the lower echelons of the literary hierarchy, one cannot fail to notice how these women-authored texts engage the reader on a multitude of levels without neutralizing or weakening the erotic content. The stories from Relatos eróticos and a good deal of other women-authored erotic narratives are invested with the potential to provoke interpretation and challenge established and traditional gender representations. From her analysis of the stories, Janet Pérez noted certain characteristics which she believed to be specific to female erotic literature. These characteristics can be summarized as follows:

While these characteristics would link Spanish women writers of erotica to women writers of the genre elsewhere, there is still an important difference, in my opinion, between the Spanish women’s prose and that of women in other countries. The celebration of self-discovery and the exuberance of female sexuality witnessed in female erotica produced in other countries (5) is not so immediately identifiable, at least not uniformly, in Spanish erotic narrative written by women. In fact, if I had to choose one adjective to describe a good deal of this new literature it would be "disturbing". While Spain’s new erotic literature is very much part of the whole postmodern phenomenon of consumerism and the popularization of culture, and while the subject matter and sales figures of these books (they tend to be best-sellers) confirm their place in the realm of mass culture, the textual maneuverings and pervading mood of the literature appear to be far removed from what has been considered "mass" criteria: light entertainment and, where the erotic is concerned, immediate sexual stimulation. In the texts I have chosen to analyze in this study, although saturated with erotic—some might say pornographic—scenes, the overall tone is neither celebratory nor light. Quite the contrary, as shall be seen. The fact that these widely read texts are also intellectually demanding does not mean that they pass from mass culture to the "high-brow" but rather that the whole notion of mass culture and its traditional relegation to the realm of the "low" falls apart.

The Erotics of Repression

One of the stories from Ana Rosetti’s prize-winning collection of stories Alevosías (1991) entitled "La noche de aquel día", rather than celebrate the joy of female sensuality and pleasure, on the contrary narrates the protagonist’s initial sexual awakening which is then followed by a life of sexual repression, jealousy and finally a loss of knowledge.

We join the protagonist, Eva, on a train as she leaves her family home where she has just attended her sister Rosa’s wedding. A mood of anger and frustration is immediately established as we are told how Eva is annoyed that she has not been able to reserve a sleeper compartment, that she did not change into more comfortable clothing, that a long train journey awaits her and that her sister made her come in the first place. The narrative continues: "Aparentemente estaba muy fastidiada pero, en realidad, estaba dolida, celosa, amargada y llena de resentimiento" (37–38). The reason for Eva’s frustration and anger is slowly revealed to us as the train journey progresses and the narrative presents Eva’s fantasies and childhood memories. At first it seems that Eva is suffering from the loss of her sibling with whom she was very close when they were children. We hear, for example, of how she wanted to imitate her mother and breast-feed her younger sister:

Mi nenita, mi nenita, y le ofreció el pellizquito canela que hizo asomar de su toalla: toma leche rica de mamá. Y entonces sintió un aliento calentito, y luego una lengua nerviosa chasqueando, lamiendo, y le pareció que en la boca de Rosa, quería verterse, desembocarse un intenso escalofrío que le serpenteó desde el vientre por la espalda arriba y por los muslos abajo. Y deseó crecer dentro de los pétalos de Rosa, y ocupar sus paredes suaves y rebosarlas y henchirlas. (41–42) Here we see the beginnings of Eva’s sexual awakening, a process that becomes inextricably linked to her sister and to her unimpeded access to her sister’s body. We do not continue to hear about this sexual awakening without interruption however, because unlike much popular erotica, this narrative does not progress in a straightforward chronological manner, rather it shifts constantly from the present to various stages in the past as Eva remembers different episodes at various stages of her childhood and adolescence. Back in the narrative present, Eva moves from her compartment to the dining car where she orders food and red wine. Lost in her memories, she mourns the loss of intimacy and sexual experimentation that she had once enjoyed with Rosa, "[d]ónde estaría su pezoncito de niña marcado con los dientes de su hermana" she asks herself, and from this question the reader learns how, at a certain stage, the two sisters grew apart and ceased their sexual games. What had once belonged to Eva and offered her an endless source of exploration and pleasure suddenly moved beyond her grasp to become the delight of another person: "Porque Rosa era como un jardín con sembrados nuevos y sus estrenadas delicias tenían un recién llegado como huésped y dueño" (43).

It is only after hearing how the sisters’ intimacy ended that Eva’s memories jump further back in time so that we resume the narrative of Rosa and Eva’s sexual explorations. One notices immediately in these sexual scenes the abundance of metaphors, similes, and in general the poetic imagery used to describe the female sex and the excitement felt by the young girls (at this time Eva is nine and Rosa, four): "Y Eva recubría su dedo con Bálsamo Bebé y empezaba a extenderlo por la diminuta camelia de su hermana. Por fuera ocre como el almíbar y como el melocotón, por dentro fresca y resbaladiza como una concha encarnada" (44). These memories of happiness and carefree sensuality are constantly counter-balanced by Eva’s present state of frustration and anger. Also, from the beginning of her train journey, Eva is plagued by the words spoken to her by her nanny: "Ay, niña, . . . qué malo es pasar por esta vida sin gozar de la carne fresca" she had said to her, and as the narrative progresses we learn why these words carry such force for Eva. As the two sisters had explored each other with their fingers and other objects, Eva discovered the hymen that protected her sister’s virginity and, prompted as much by the desires of Rosa as by her own curiosity, she pushed and pushed a sugar candy stick into her sister’s vagina so that she finally broke the hymen causing her sister to bleed. At the time she did not realize what she had done, but at some later stage (presumably when she and Rosa no longer share an intimate relationship) her interpretation of the event reveals a great deal not only about her jealousy and repression, but also about the hypocritical moralism of the repressive society in which she lived:

Cuando Eva estuvo en edad de comprender que la sangre vertida por el bastón de caramelo guardaba mucha relación con la enigmática sentencia: A ésa la han desgraciado, se alegró pensando en que su hermana no podía ser de nadie sin divulgar un anterior amo; . . . Ella la había desprovisto de su garantía: nadie más penetraría en Rosa como en una selva virgen . . . (50–51). Although we are given no direct clues as to when the story takes place, it would not be illogical to surmise that the narrative present corresponds to the real present, that is, the early 1990s, and that Eva and Rosa were children during the final years of the Francoist dictatorship. Since they had a nanny we can also deduce that they were of, at least, a middle class family, and given Eva’s moral convictions concerning her own virginity we can see that she was profoundly influenced by the sexual puritanism and repressiveness of Francoist Catholicism. So conditioned is she by the sexist moralism of the patriarchal system that she actually believes her sister to be at an enormous disadvantage because she does not have her virginity intact. Eva, on the other hand, went against her own awakening libido and forbade herself any further sexual experimentation, believing that she was safeguarding her own future. It is obvious that she is more than happy that her explorations left Rosa deflowered, as she feels compensated for her jealousy, loneliness and frustration by her conviction that Rosa, although prettier than her, will never be able to marry well, whereas she, virginal and untouched, will have every success. The narrative shows that Eva’s plan backfired: Rosa married while Eva, at 25, is still a virgin, sexually frustrated, and unmarried. The irony is that by unintentionally deflowering Rosa, Eva released her from the grips of a repressive and hypocritical society, merely adding to her own bitterness and jealousy: Rosa estaba acogedoramente abierta, precisamente porque no tenía nada que defender. Y se entregó a la vida sin despreciar ninguna de sus emociones, se consagró a la belleza acatando todos los trastornos y dedicó a su juventud un trato preferente y un cuidado exhaustivo. Y Eva, tan cercada, tan vigilante, al final malgastó todas las ocasiones obstinada en una avaricia estúpida (51). Her agony now is that she sees the irony and knows that her nanny was right: "Qué agonía, como decía la tata Bibiana, no disfrutar con tal de no dar. Conservar, guardar qué. Eva ni siquiera se pertenecía a sí misma" (51).

As I mentioned above, these events are not related chronologically nor in a linear fashion. Interspersed with the narrative of Eva’s memories are descriptions of her fellow travelers, one of whom, a young man, she obviously desires. Perhaps as a result of the red wine, Eva falls asleep in the dining car and begins to dream that she is a voyeur of the couple in her compartment who are engaging in various sexual activities. Eventually she follows her desires and reaches out to touch the man. As she begins to reach climax she is suddenly awakened by the waiter who sees that she is in a state of disarray and confusion and leads her back toward her compartment. Before they get there, the waiter begins to kiss and fondle Eva much to her physical delight, but she is fearful of what the waiter will find if he penetrates her: "Si esto inminentemente fuera a suceder, se desvelaría su umbral infranqueado, la certificación de que nunca había sido amada hasta el final; la derrota de no haberse entregado . . . la certeza de su estéril felicidad, se sabría" (55). Since she now feels her virginity to have been a futile sacrifice and revealing of the fact that no one had given her pleasure, she interrupts the waiter just when he is about to penetrate her and tells him to wait. She enters the train toilet and with the high-heel of her shoe, takes what she believes to be the only viable action:

Se quitó las bragas. Se quitó un zapato. Empuñó el zapato con el pie y comprobó la contundencia del tacón. Apoyó un pie en la taza. Se inclinó hacia adelante. Se aferró con una mano al lavabo hasta que los nudillos se volvieron márfil. Con la otra, de un único y certero golpe, clavó el tacón en la angosta membrana virginal (56). In this story the reader sees what happens to the female subject when she imposes upon herself and other women the tyranny of a patriarchal value system which categorizes woman as either virgin or whore. Interestingly the character’s name Eva incorporates both representations: Eva—the fallen woman from "Genesis", and read backwards Ave—immediately calling to mind the Virgin Mary as it is the beginning of the invocation in Latin "Ave Maria". Indeed this division constitutes a form of repression that women have faced for centuries; worse still, women themselves have helped perpetuate this binary thought by accepting that their own sexuality can only fall into two camps. In the 1980s, American feminist Deirdre English pointed out the dangers of unintentionally colluding with such a thought system: Feminists should take care not to enact the role they’ve been cast in, defensively retreating into an old-fashioned moralism; because what we’re being offered (again) is the choice between virgin and whore. Women who implicitly accept that distinction have missed what I believe should be the whole point of the feminist politics of sexuality—not to have to choose (22). This text is critical and transgressive on a political and literary level. In the first place it stands as an imputation of the sexism and double standards practiced in the Franco dictatorship in which many women, brain-washed by the politics of puritanism, internalized a repressive and hypocritical code of morals wherein male promiscuity was unofficially acceptable whereas female sexual expression was confined to procreation and the fulfillment of the husband’s conjugal rights. (6) It is not so surprising that many women accepted and perpetuated this repressive code of behavior given that they were at the receiving end of what John Hooper has called a "double oppression" (152), that is, Church and State as he explains: What really distinguished Spain from other Catholic countries such as Italy and Portugal, however, was that for almost forty years the Church was able not merely to advocate but to enforce its ideas with the assistance of a regime that depended upon it for its legitimization. (152) The story, which at the beginning narrates the sexual awakening of the female subject, shows not the progressive learning and opening up of the young woman but the closing up of her mind and violation of her body which finally results in a loss of consciousness: the story ends with these words as Eva exits the train toilet: "—Cuando quieras, amor . . .—dijo todavía antes de perder el conocimiento" (56). Eva’s ultimate act of violence where she violates herself in her confusion and desperation to be accepted, can be read as symptomatic of the confused, neurotic subject who no longer knows how to think or act in the suddenly promiscuous post-dictatorship society.

As an erotic text (let us remember that Alevosías is published in the explicitly erotic series La Sonrisa Vertical) the story transgresses and thwarts the conventions of the genre on a number of levels. The plot is not monothematic, a characteristic that tends to plague a good deal of erotic literature. On the contrary, the narrative presents the sexuality and many other aspects of the characters and obviously offers a critique of repressive patriarchal systems and their oppression of women. As for narrative structure, the story avoids the repetition so typical of the genre by interspersing the sexual scenes with descriptive passages that inform the reader about the characters’ background and psychological reasoning. The narrative is also non-chronological and non-linear and the narrative voice slips in and out of third person omniscient to free indirect style requiring concentration and active interpretation on the part of the reader, a role not usually required of the reader of "traditional" erotic texts. Linguistically one remarks the abundance of circumlocution when describing sexual scenes, and the highly metaphorical language in general invites the participation of an active reader. The text transgresses its own genre expectations in that the sexual is not presented in such a straightforward and graphic way so as to provide mere arousal and gratification. Moreover, the reader has to make his/her way through the linguistic maneuverings, narrative shifts and Eva’s memory text rather than simply observe the female sex exposed. Finally, the text brings together the sexual and the political as it narrates the results on one woman of the sexual oppression and hypocrisy of a political system in which chauvinism and male honor were exalted while women were controlled and divided by a binary logic into whores or madonnas.

After hundreds of years of such gender bias and forty years of a repressive political system, the post-dictatorship society in Spain undergoes a "desmadre" which leaves many dazed and damaged. While Rosa exemplifies the active desire and agency of the empowered female subject, who is capable of going with her body-flow, Eva, on the other hand, exhibits the reactive desire of the neurotic, desempowered woman, who was taught to desire her own oppression.

The Erotics of Liberation

Las edades de Lulú, the Sonrisa Vertical prize-winner of 1989, occasioned controversy even within the context of the "desmadre sexual" that was unleashed in post-Franco Spain. Unlike Rosetti’s story which presents a critique of the oppression and hypocrisy of patriarchal moralism, the socio-political criticism of Las edades de Lulú is not so apparent and the graphic representation of a young woman’s sexual coming-of-age and subsequent adult behavior is extremely unsettling, from a feminist point of view, for what it seems to be saying about female desire and submission. The novel relates in first-person narrative the coming-of-age of 15 year-old Lulú and her turbulent relationship with Pablo who is 12 years her senior.

For many feminist readers this novel would be regarded as a fully fledged pornographic, sadist, misogynistic, and anti-feminist text. (7) At the age of 15 Lulú is initiated sexually by an old family friend, Pablo. On the spur of the moment, Pablo invites Lulú, the younger sister of his best friend, to a concert. She goes in school uniform, they have drinks and while he drives her home he makes sexual advances and persuades her to perform fellatio. This is Lulú’s first time to engage in a sexual act and she has confused feelings: "Objetivamente no extraía ningún placer de aquella actividad, y sin embargo estaba cada vez más excitada" (35). This initial ambiguity on Lulú’s part is repeated in many other scenes of the novel where she rationalizes in one direction and yet her body reacts in a contrary direction. The persistence of the body over the mind is what Jane Gallop has called the "bodily enigma" (16). It is this enigma in the erotic text that I believe has caused many feminist critics to reject the genre as a viable form of expression and representation of women, a point to which I shall return later. Since Pablo and Lulú both enjoy their encounter, Lulú agrees to go home with him where they have sex but not before he shaves her pubic hair so that she will look like a child. When Pablo leaves Lulú at school the following morning, his parting words to her are: "Adiós Lulú, sé buena y no crezcas" (67).

Having always loved Pablo in, as she says, "una manera vaga y cómoda" (23), Lulú is now completely smitten by him. She will not see Pablo again, however, for another five years since he, a poet and professor of Golden Age literature, leaves shortly after for Philadelphia to take up a teaching post. In his absence Lulú follows her desires and launches herself wholeheartedly into one sexual adventure after another. All the while, however, she thinks of Pablo and cultivates the fantasy of the teacher/pupil, father/daughter paradigm. On his return from Philadelphia, Pablo and Lulú resume their relationship, continuing to play out the roles of the child and the pedagogue/pedophile. When the narrative jumps ten years ahead (in fact the narrative begins at this point of their relationship when Lulú is in her late twenties) we find that they have married and have a four-year old daughter. Their maturity and marital status do not tame their sexual permissiveness, nor bind their relationship to any conventional sense of "normality". On the contrary, Lulú (accompanied by Pablo) begins to frequent the most unsavory areas of the city’s red light districts in order to find the right people with whom to act out her fantasies and fulfill her desires.

At some stage in her late twenties, Lulú decides to leave Pablo so that she can break out of the role of eternal child that she has played with him since their first meeting. She hurtles toward real danger now as she becomes addicted to indulgences with male prostitutes, and eventually finds herself in a dangerous and violent situation where she loses all control. Pablo saves her from this hell at the last moment and takes her back home after reprimanding her for going too far in her adventures.

These scenarios call to mind the typical pornographic relationship and Sadian system of sexual power and desire in which the pedagogue doubles as pedophile and teaches the innocent child a hard lesson. How can the representation of a relationship based on domination and abuse of power lead us to a feminist politics of eroticism? What are we actually dealing with here: is it eroticism or pornography? Is it practical or relevant to even make a distinction? These questions lead us into what, from the early 1980s, became a minefield of debate in feminist theory, a debate nonetheless which has been well rehearsed and which I am not going to repeat here. Although Gloria Steinem argued that there is "a clear and present difference" (35) between erotica and pornography, I am doubtful that such a distinction, even if it were possible, is of much use, since there is no accounting for personal taste or distaste. Obscenity, as much as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Diverse factors such as class, race, culture, religion and sexual persuasion will influence how any one person views a sexually explicit image. In an essay entitled "Desire For the Future: Radical Hope in Passion and Pleasure", Amber Hollibaugh voices the importance of "difference" in analyzing the representation and reception of sexuality and desire. As she points out:

Sex is not the same for all of us, and a movement that is primarily white and middle-class (or includes women who aspire to middle-class values) cannot afford to decide who or how women are made victims in a sexual system built on class and race mythologies equally as damaging and vicious as sexist ones. (404) Among some feminists, there is still the concern that the pornographic imagination is pre-established and defined by male desire and the patriarchal will-to-power, so that women who are interested in its images either as consumers or producers are not really making their own choices but are, rather, merely buying into the endlessly repetitive paradigms of submission and domination, victim and conqueror, wherein woman is always in the position of powerlessness. I would argue that this view ultimately infantilizes women rather than liberating them as it suggests that women are incapable of thinking, desiring or acting for themselves. Let us suppose for a moment that women’s pornographic fantasies did not go beyond the limited repertoire of dominating male subject and submissive female object. Is this scenario symptomatic of the patriarchal brainwashing of the female consciousness? Such a fantasy in Las edades de Lulú, while still unsettling, does allow for an alternative reading. Lulú fantasizes that her lover Pablo comes to take her away from the boarding school from which she has been expelled for her sexual degeneracy. In the recurring fantasy Pablo is her father and lover, and either rewards her for her promiscuous behavior with his own sexual advances or punishes her by locking her up in a dungeon where she is left without food and prey to guards and servants who beat and rape her. Regardless of the variant, she always achieves orgasm. From the viewpoint of some feminist quarters this is an inappropriate fantasy. However, if we accept the Freudian pyschoanalytical model that fantasies are symbolic and reveal our repressed desires and fears, to fantasize is surely an efficient and even essential mechanism for dealing with lack and repression—a refuge where one stages a scenario in which the forbidden, the denied and the taboo can be expressed. Lulú, one of nine children, spent a lonely childhood, her parents either absent or too busy with the other children to pay her much attention. She barely mentions her father, but it would seem that he died some time in her childhood, and on various occasions she expresses deep resentment towards her mother for having interpreted her prettiness, studious nature and good behavior as a sign of confidence, and emotional self-sufficiency: Me habría gustado gritarle que mi aspecto físico y mis buenas notas no significaban que no necesitara una madre, sacudirle y chillarle que no podía seguir así toda la vida, con un hermano como única familia, me habría gustado abrazarla, refugiarme en sus brazos, y llorar . . . decirle que la quería . . . pero . . . era . . . demasiado tarde . . . (132) Pablo plays the role of father in Lulú’s fantasy and his presence can be read as the replacement of the absent parents. Whether he is spoiling her or punishing her, he is fulfilling her desire for her parent’s consideration. In her fantasy Lulú behaves badly and is smothered with attention, a reversal of the reality in which she behaved well and was ignored. Lulú’s recurring fantasies of the master/schoolgirl relationship may appear to unfold within a typically masculine economy of desire but, far from being brainwashed by patriarchal exigencies, she constructs fantasies that address and fulfill her personal needs and desires on a variety of levels. Furthermore, Lulú does not restrict herself to this single fantasy, or indeed to any one recognizable patriarchal, sexual model.

In other instances in Lulú’s relationship with Pablo the roles are reversed, and it is she who adopts the dominant, protective role traditionally proper to the male. At this stage in her life she has a penchant for transvestites. Pablo does not share this particular taste but he accompanies Lulú on her night-time cruising. On one foray a male transvestite, enfuriated by Pablo and Lulú’s teasing, punches Pablo in the mouth. Lulú immediately jumps out of the car and pursues the offender and slaps him around shouting: "Tú, hijo de la gran puta, ¿cómo te has atrevido tú a pegar a mi novio? . . . te advierto que como le vuelvas a tocar un pelo de la cabeza te voy a sacar los ojos . . ." (97). Pablo, his honor avenged, watches on from the car. At a later stage of her life when she and Pablo have separated, Lulú explains why she derived so much pleasure from net-working with pimps to set up sexual encounters between herself and various other characters (many of them male prostitutes). As can be seen, it is not merely the physical pleasure that she finds fulfilling but the sense of power and confidence that she acquires from independently organizing her own sexual life:

Yo me lo había preguntado ya muchas veces . . . qué sacaba yo en claro de todo aquello, qué me daban ellos, más allá de la saciedad de la piel. Seguridad. El derecho a decir cómo, cuándo, dónde, cuánto y con quién. Estar al otro lado de la calle, en la acera de los fuertes. (197) It is the first scene of the novel that offers one of the pornographic text’s most radical subversions of its own conventions. In pornography, it is usually the male subject who watches the female object perform or be violated. In this opening chapter Lulú watches a porno video, depicting two homosexual males and one female in a variety of sexual exchanges. From the distance of her remote control, Lulú constructs and controls her own fantasy as she rewinds the tape over and over again to re-present to herself the scenes that arouse her. As one of the men gets on all fours and waits to be penetrated by the other, Lulú expresses her own surprise that she should be watching men do what women, and she herself had always done for men: Aquella era la primera en mi vida que veía un espectáculo semejante. Un hombre, un hombre grande y musculoso . . . hincado a cuatro patas sobre una mesa, el culo erguido, los muslos separados, esperando. Indefenso, encogido como un perro abandonado . . . tembloroso, dispuesto a agradar a cualquier precio. Un perro hundido, que escondía el rostro, no una mujer. Había visto a decenas de mujeres en la misma posición. Me había visto a mí misma, algunas veces (9–10). This spectacle arouses Lulú to fantasize about sodomizing the man with the high heel of her shoe—a brutal and seemingly masculine fantasy of violation. Lulú rewinds the tape over and over hoping to familiarize herself with or even identify one of the men (she is by this stage operating in the bajos fondos herself) but she gives up as she realizes that they are only actors and that she is watching a mere representation, which probably means nothing to these characters. This initial scene of voyeurism and representation then, reminds us from the outset of the difference between representation and reality and sets the stage for the unfolding of a variety of sexual performances ranging from masochistic victim/object to empowered subject/director.

Although this scene takes place at the beginning of the novel, it does not correspond to the beginning of Lulú’s story, but rather depicts her when she is in her late twenties. Unlike much pornography, this text does not progress along a linear narrative structure. Without any indication on the narrator’s part we jump constantly from one moment in Lulú’s life to another, from four years old to thirty-one. This constant narrative shifting upsets the dynamics of erotic stimulation. Climaxes are reached when we do not expect them, and when we do, the narrative takes a sudden turn, delaying the orgasm. On other occasions it interrupts a sexual scene with one of total domesticity and "normality". For example, when Lulú and Pablo meet for the first time after his return from Philadelphia, they retreat to the privacy of his bedroom where they undress and engage in some sexual foreplay; he then gives Lulú a present of a vibrator. After examining it carefully, she unwraps it, puts in the batteries and feels how it vibrates against the palm of her hand. We expect the scene to progress toward orgasm. Instead Lulú, delighted with this new toy, immediately thinks of the joy of children on the morning of the Epiphany when they discover the toys that the Three Kings have left: "Era divertido, igual que en la mañana de Reyes, de pequeña, cuando después de cargar dos pilas en su espalda, una muñeca normal y corriente, inerte, comenzaba a hablar o a mover la cabeza. Me di cuenta de que estaba sonriendo. Miré a Pablo, él sonreía también." (149). The fact that Lulú associates a vibrator with Christmas toys is unsettling, humorous in an uncanny way. But within the context of woman-centered eroticism/pornography it is interesting that she moves easily and automatically from the sexual to the domestic and associates both with joy. Locating the sexual in the domestic diminishes the taboo and reinforces the familiar of sexuality. Sex becomes as proper to women as it is to men.

Following Jane Gallop’s deconstructive reading of Sade’s Justine in which the creation of closed systems is constantly dismantled by the character’s breaking out of them (16), I believe we can also locate a transgressive and subversive force in Las edades de Lulú. While the predominance of closed and restrictive structures would seem to suggest that the novel remains firmly within the patriarchal tradition of erotica, Lulú’s response to and negotiation with these structures reveals a persistent resistance to control and gender categorization. We first see Lulú restricted by her family structure as a child: she is lonely and frustrated due to the lack of attention from her parents and the difficulty of acquiring privacy in her large but uncomforting family. Her reaction to this is to rebel by fantasizing her liberation and creating her own world where she does feel attended to and fulfilled. When she experiments sexually with a flute, for example, her mother does not know how to deal with her and her brother and his friend, Pablo, are fascinated by this little girl who behaves like a boy, taking care of her own sexual needs. Her relationship with Pablo also appears to develop within a closed and restrictive structure as she fulfills his fantasy by playing the role of eternal child to his father-figure. We must remember, however, that Lulú is not forced or brainwashed into this role but, rather, goes along with it willingly and derives great personal satisfaction from it. Even in the scenes of sexual violence, Lulú feels excited and usually achieves orgasm. Her taste for violent sex is, after all, announced at the beginning of the book when she is watching the video of the woman with two men. The scene reminds her of when she was a child and the little tortures she exacted upon herself: "El dolor es instantáneo. El placer es inmediato" (14), she claims. When their marriage is no longer to her liking, Lulú separates from Pablo breaking out of what has become a restrictive structure to pursue her own desires independently. It is only when Pablo intervenes in her life by setting her up for a dangerous encounter with real sadists (as opposed to the role-playing in which she had indulged previously) that she becomes really hurt and loses her power.

The most problematic and unsettling part of the novel, following the line of thought described above, is that it comes to a close with Lulú happily agreeing to return to Pablo. This is difficult to come to terms with, at any rate for the feminist reader, who has been following the sexual liberation and identity-formation of this young woman. While Lulú appears to achieve the greatest degree of freedom and sense of subject-hood when she is separated from Pablo, she nonetheless relinquishes this freedom to return to him and their family unit. In her final adventure as a single woman, she finds herself in a hellish torture scene where she knows no one and is not in control of events. Pablo, who probably orchestrated the whole encounter, finally rescues Lulú, chiding her for having gone too far in her sexual experimentations. In spite of the fact that Lulú knows of Pablo’s intervention in her private life, she accepts once again his patriarchal protection and her own role of eternal child, which is how their relationship began. Whether we like it or not, as feminists we have to accept that some women’s sexual desires do not conform to a feminist political agenda. Some women (and men, for that matter), regardless of how intelligent, independent and powerful they are, desire the domination of another—another man or woman. Consider Lulú’s happiness when she discovers the morning after her rescue that she is back in Pablo’s bed and that she is once again wearing the embroidered blouse that makes her look like a little girl: "Sólo entonces advertí la presencia de un signo infinitamente potente, una familiar tensión en la cintura, me palpé instintivamente el escote y sonreí" (259).

Although the novel may seem to end with closure and conventionality, it in fact ends with non-conventionality, and leaves an unsettling mood in its wake, as it brings us full circle to the beginning again, where anything can happen. "Normal" family life for Pablo and Lulú in the frenzy that is post-Francoist Spain, is a far cry from the "normal" family life that Lulú endured as a child in the patriarchal, Francoist era. Given the behavior patterns established in the novel it would not be outlandish to assume that Lulú will once again break out of any structure that oppresses her.

Las edades de Lulú subverts the masculine pornographic model because it goes beyond the repetitious conventions of pornography. Lulú is presented as a desiring subject and a desired object and is a willing participant and, in many cases, the orchestrator of the fantasized and real scenarios in which she finds herself. In her reading of Las edades de Lulú as a sexualized Bildungsroman, Silvia Bermúdez has argued that Lulú’s agency is constituted through her desire to know and willingness to experiment with flexible and diverse gendered positions. As Bermúdez points out, "Lulú’s sexual empowerment comes, then, not by her establishing an "integrated" self, as certain notions of the novel of development may suggest, but by constantly positioning herself at the crossroads of incoherent, clashing, and unstable notions of identity and sexual pleasure" (175). One witnesses in Lulú’s behavior the persistence of a "bodily enigma": Lulú’s sexual energy is explosive, her body and desires enigmatic. She cannot be definitively categorized or contained within any particular literary or political model. Likewise, Almudena Grandes’ sex-text, while clearly erotic/pornographic, at the same time presents itself as an enigma: neither can it be definitively categorized or contained within genre norms. The novel thwarts the apparent predictability of the genre on the level of narrative structure, plot and the representation of gendered behavior and sexual practices. If, according to Charles Newman "genre is a way of signifying meaning in advance" (133), Las edades de Lulú breaks that contract because the reader gets more and less than he/she bargained for: more complexity and less cliché; more diversity and less convention.

In my opinion the erotic fiction analyzed above is groundbreaking for the new textual spaces it opened in contemporary Spanish narrative. Both Rosetti’s and Grandes’ texts respond to the postmodern sensibility that came alive in post-Franco Spain; consequently their works, although best-sellers, cannot easily be "consumed" as they ask many questions but provide few answers. They are troublesome, unsettling texts for what they suggest about female sexuality in postmodern times. In Rosetti’s text the dangers of female collusion with patriarchal behavioral models come to light when the arrival of a postmodern culture renders such models anachronous. The result for the woman is loss of identity and self-destruction. In Grandes’ novel we see the wild force of female sexuality, which cannot be contained within any one behavioral model. At times Lulú is dominating, at times she is submissive; at times she associates sex with love, at times the two are completely dis-articulated. As I mentioned above, the Spanish erotica written by women differs from that of other countries regarding self-affirmation and the celebration of female sexual awakening. This is no doubt due to the fact that these countries have not shared the same cultural and political history as Spain, especially in the last sixty years, so that female expression, and in particular sexual expression, is at a different stage for women in those countries that have enjoyed democratic traditions. It is hardly surprising, then, that this new area of female subjectivity should be politically and psychologically fraught. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Spanish women were still struggling with the novelty of their freedom and with the absence of that omnipotent father-figure who made decision-making in general, and sexual expression in particular, an almost impossible mission for women.


(1) See James Kearney’s study in which he traces the development of the reception and eventual censorship of erotic literature. He points out the common mistake made by many bibliographers and researchers of erotic literature to include in their studies writers such as Chaucer, Boccaccio and Rabelais. While the sexual representations of these writers may seem lewd and offensive to present-day readers, they were not considered especially erotic or graphic in their own times. As Kearney explains, "The notion that Chaucer and others, such as Swift, were disgusting was born in a later age when everything was considered disgusting, chair legs included" (8). The first legal prosecutions for publishing obscene material began in the 1680s in England. It was after this date (in England and in France where most of the writing and publishing of such material took place) that erotic texts were written, published and purchased under covers, as it were, and the whole industry came to be associated with sordidness and debauchery (18-19).

(2) As Ríos-Font argues "The erotic novel’s status as literature depends on an . . . assemblage of boundaries. Given the generally upheld antithesis between intelligence and libido verbalized by Unamuno, it must take care not to be engulfed by the latter and to remain part of the collective intellectual project assigned to the truly literary at the end of the nineteenth century. Thus, paradoxically, while its very topic (sex) defines it as progressive, the fundamental impulse of erotic narrative is that of artistic self-legitimation through participation in the control and restriction—or at least the acceptable channeling—of the sexual that is ultimately limited by the model of the literary they submitted to as turn-of-the-century intellectuals" (362).

(3) James Mandrell argues that Mercedes Abad’s Ligeros libertinajes sabáticos "stays well within the gendered systems of pornography as a genre. Despite being written by a woman, the volume supports and reinforces traditional male fantasies about women, and nothing with respect to the linguistic and narrative female subjectivity in the individual stories indicates otherwise" (24–25).

(4) Interestingly, Lennard Davis has also noted similar traits in American erotica authored by women. There is, he says, "an emphasis on cunnilingus, fingers, homosexual/lesbian sex and a de-emphasis of phallic penetration and the traditional missionary position". We also witness, he continues, "the dethroning of that king of male pornography, the erection. In its place the clitoris is represented and glorified" (418).

(5) See, for example, Laura Chester’s introduction to the anthology of female erotica Deep Down in which she welcomes the "self-affirming" aspect of the writing (1). See also Lennard Davis who presents several collections of female-authored erotica from the United States. Summing up, he remarks very positively that "[f]or those who feel that pornography or erotica degrades women, these new anthologies provide empowering scenarios for female sexuality" (420).

(6) For a more detailed discussion of Spanish machismo, honor and the sexual double standards by which men and women lived in Franco’s Spain, see John Hooper’s chapter "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" in The New Spaniards. (164–65).

(7) For discussions of Las edades de Lulú in this light see Lou Charnon-Deutsche and Barbara Morris; and Kathleen Glenn.

Works Cited

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