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Do women need erotic literature?

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Before 50 Shades was steaming up commuter Kindles, before Jilly Cooper, even, Shirley Conran gave us the gift of Lace, the original bonkbuster par excellence.

A Mills & Boon-y whirlwind of Swiss boarding school chicanery, bed-hopping champagne heirs and sleazy Parisian photographers, Lace was surreptitious sex-ed at its most entertaining.

On the occasion of this major classic's 30th anniversary and republication, Conran tells Stylist's Amy Grier what women want from erotica.

Words: Shirley Conran / Amy Grier

"I wrote Lace in the days when most men thought the clitoris was a Greek hotel. It started life as a non-fiction book for young girls, explaining sex from their point of view but women respond best when there is a story involved, and that’s how Lace took shape.

Back then, female erotica or pornography was almost non-existent. It wasn’t something people spoke of – men were the ruling class and most of girls were completely bewildered by sex. One of my favourite passages of Lace is when one of the characters remarks on what she thought of a man’s penis the first time she saw it. “It was very ugly, she thought” was what I wrote. Well, it’s not the most aesthetically beautiful object in the world is it?

It was a subversive book to have written and women responded to it in their thousands. To write a book saying ‘look guys, you haven’t got it right’ was controversial. People called it ‘the book that taught men about women and women about themselves’ but I didn’t set out to smash any boundaries. I set out to inform.

I think that’s my main issue with 50 Shades of Grey; you don’t learn anything from it. The heroine is not empowering, Christian Grey’s history is never properly explained, and you have to wait until page 200 until the first spanking with a hairbrush - until page 400 to see her get walloped with a belt. I was interested in the description of the dungeon; but then I’d be interested in a description of Prince Phillip’s bathroom simply because I’ve never been in it.

The amazing financial success of that book though shows what I’ve always known: literature is the form of pornography that women respond best to. But that’s only because visual porn for women hasn’t been properly explored. All we get at the moment is cheaply made male fantasies. The one exception I think was the TV adaptation of Belle de Jour. I found that very erotic.

Women are sensual creatures and the aim of erotic literature should be to create situations that women respond to but also feel empowered by. Lace was about getting women to trust themselves: if they feel it’s sexy, then it is sexy. If they don’t – it isn’t."

The new edition of Lace by Shirley Conran is out now priced £7.99 (published by Canongate).

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