Trust me to discover something cool online by reading a paper mag. But it was in Vanity Fair that I read about photographer/director Clayton Cubitt and his project “Hysterical Literature,” which features women reading favorite books aloud while being erotically stimulated by Cubitt’s unseen female “assistant” (his partner Katie James).
Toni Bentley, author of The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir, wrote about her experience as one of Cubitt’s subjects. The women who participate choose their own clothes and makeup, as well as their reading matter (in Toni’s case, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady). They are filmed in black and white, sitting at a small, plain desk. At first the women read calmly, but after a page or two, they begin to smile at odd moments and to pause unexpectedly. Their breathing speeds up, and their fingers move restlessly over the book. Their voices break down at points, then they resolutely continue. Eventually, anywhere between four and twelve minutes from the start of the video, each one has an unmistakable orgasm.
Someone should have thought of this a long time ago. It’s simple, but brilliant in so many ways, as a commentary on the relationship between literary pleasure and libido, as an exploration of female sexuality in the modern world, as an antidote to the usual media depiction of women as idealized collections of body parts. These women are fully clothed, clearly not acting, and individuals with distinct personalities. The videos are profound examples of portraiture. They’re also amusing, witty and erotic. And they raise certain questions. I found myself wondering whether men even find this kind of material sexy. After all, real female orgasm generates very little interest in the porn world (or so far as I can tell, in any other area of media, haute literature or popular culture). Even “women’s fiction” tends to distort the picture with unrealistic depictions of vaginal orgasm. Of course, porn has plenty of women faking it. But everyone knows they are faking it.
Another question was how Mister Cubitt (actually Katie the assistant) is able to produce such reliable and (relatively) speedy orgasms. Not surprisingly, it’s because Katie is down there using a Hitachi Magic Wand, also known as “the paintbrush” or “Big Buzzy,” a vibrator so famous that it has its own Wikipedia article. Toni Bentley told Katie that she was a Hitachi virgin, never having used a vibrator.
I never really understood the point of vibrators, particularly if there was an able-bodied man around– so she offered to touch the side of my knee with the wand before filming as a preview. Holy Mary Mother of God.
That’s right, Toni. A vibrator is not a substitute for something else. It is its own unique thing, like miso or Jon Stewart. Admittedly the Hitachi is a bit intimidating (and has a power cord!), but there are other choices. Gentlemen, if you have not yet added one of these little gems to your sexual arsenal, hie thee to http://www.adamandeve.com. And yes, there’s an app for it.
The other burning question this article raised for me is of course: What would I read? There are several possible approaches.
The first thing I thought of was Jane Eyre (“You examine me, Miss Eyre. Do you think me handsome?”… )
But that’s too obvious, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be better to choose something not overtly sexy, so as to create a pleasing contrast between what is taking place above the neutral grey desk and below it? I might pick one of my old favorites like I, Claudius by Robert Graves, A Clockwork Orange (which was indeed selected by Cubitt’s subject Amanda) or anything by Robertson Davies.
Then again, I might be a bit more sly than that. Nabokov’s Ada, for example, or Sigmund Freud’s Studies on Hysteria.
How could I pass up the opportunity to read about food whilst being pleasured? Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, or Transcendental Gastronomy. Anything by M. F. K. Fisher (also the able translator of Brillat-Savarin). Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Finally, it would be delightful to select a comic novel. Wodehouse, David Lodge, Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. The possibilities are endless.
The French have an expression for it, la petite mort. And who doesn’t want to die laughing?