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That’s a No-No

February 14, 2014 | by

Choosing your own erotic destiny, or trying to.

Blog189_Secret Hearts_111_5

Panel from Secret Hearts No. 111, April 1966.

A few nights ago, I was in a world-class sushi restaurant, holding a radish shaped like a rose and contemplating my next move. Koji, the head chef, had carved the radish-rose for me moments ago, after a game of strip poker that ended with him fucking me in the dining room. Earlier that night, I’d adjourned to a lavish hotel suite to suck tequila from a rock star’s navel; a renowned fashion photographer had taken pictures of my genitals and gone down on me in his darkroom, where I’d blurted without thinking, “God, I’m so wet!”; and I’d indulged in a little tasteful S&M with my friend’s older boss, spanking his firm, muscled, George Clooney-ish buttocks with a schoolteacher’s ruler.

Now I felt trapped, denatured, and sort of bored.

A Girl Walks into a Bar is a new choose-your-own-adventure-style erotic novel in which “YOU make the decisions.” YOU, in this case, was me—I was calling the shots in this vale of thrills. I’d picked up Girl in pursuit of cheap gender-bending laughs, but I also had what you might charitably call an anthropological curiosity. In the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey, I wanted to see: What did a mainstream erotic novel look like?

Written by three South African women under the pseudonym Helena S. Paige, A Girl Walks into a Bar markets itself as an empowerment agent. “YOUR FANTASY, YOUR RULES. YOU DECIDE HOW THE NIGHT WILL END,” its cover says. (Another new novel with a similar conceit, Follow Your Fantasy, suggests, “Even if you choose submission, the control is still all yours.”) But by promising refuge for the powerless, the publishers reveal something much sadder—the subtext of these proclamations is that control, especially for women, is simply too hard to come by in the real world. One might as well get one’s kicks elsewhere. When you print “YOU DECIDE HOW THE NIGHT WILL END” on the front of a work of fiction, you imply that women are not often afforded the pleasure of doing so.

Unfortunately, they’re not afforded that pleasure here, either. On the face of it, the choose-your-own-adventure format seems like an ideal vehicle for erotica—it frees you from the shackles of linear storytelling, allowing you to choose the road less traveled, the orifice less penetrated, whatever—but in practice, it’s more claustrophobic than a conventional erotic novel would be. Someone else has invented all the prompts. What you can’t do becomes just as central to the experience as what you can; you’re more aware of the narrative cage when its nuts and bolts are exposed.

And so the book, nominally a tribute to free will, ends up enforcing a kind of erotic determinism. The fantasy isn’t yours at all—from page one, you’re predestined to act within its narrow parameters. The first choice you’re given, for instance: What kind of underwear do you want to put on before you go out on the town? You can choose a purple lacy G-string, “granny panties,” control-top underwear, or nothing at all. No matter what, though, you’ll end up in the purple G-string; pick any of the others and you’re greeted with a page of awkward exposition, the upshot of which is, you didn’t really want that, anyway.

Well, of course you didn’t. The authors will need to mention your underwear in later chapters, and they can’t produce four panty-dependent iterations of the same scene. Which makes you wonder: why bother to provide the illusion of a choice you intend to deny?

When it comes to the lovemaking itself, things are even more vexed. Tired mores come into play. In one scenario, Charlie, the drummer for “the Space Cowboys”—you’re spared, mercifully, the option of perusing their discography—invites you into his shower, which offers an enchanting view of the skyline. He asks you, gently, to pee on him. Not only are you denied the choice to say yes—you’re not permitted to decline gracefully. “You thought that was something people only did if they’d been stung by jellyfish.” Your only recourse is to sneak out, “laughing hysterically as you picture Charlie turning into a prune in the shower.”

That is not my fantasy.

Likewise, when Miles, he of the Clooney-ish bod, asks you to insert a ridged dildo in him, your assent leads only to a rebuke from the authors: “Noooooooooooooooooooo! Are you out of your mind? No way are you doing that!”

The last thing Girl really wants is for you to let your imagination run wild. The book presents itself as transgressive, but it delights in telling you how far you should want to go. Even among consenting adults, it suggests, there are certain thresholds one must not cross. And it’s not just your sexual palate that’s vanilla: Given the chance to try tuna eyeballs, a Japanese delicacy, your only response is, “That’s just too disgusting for words!”

* * *

The Choose Your Own Adventure concept was invented by Edward Packard; when he was telling his daughters a bedtime story, he found himself low on ideas, and asked them what should happen next. He wrote the first book in the series, The Cave of Time, published in 1979; the novels went on to sell more than 250 million copies, launching a long fascination with interactive entertainment: interactive movies, interactive video games, and plenty of interactive erotica.

The choose-your-own conceit is intuitive for kids, who have a nascent, flexible sense of themselves, and for whom the power to decide, even between simple binaries, can yield a deep satisfaction. And it has an understandable appeal for adults, who may yearn to escape, particularly sexually, from the people they’ve become. But it also reminds me of why the second-person perspective is such a literary gambit: its persistent you is unusually invasive. And if you don’t like who you are, it can come to feel like a bad body swap.

In A Girl Walks Into a Bar, my persona frustrated and disquieted me. I was not the kind of woman I wanted to be. I was materialistic: “You’re sure one of these is worth the GDP of a small country.” “You tap glasses and take a sip. It’s good. Tastes expensive.” “You’ve always wanted a chandelier in your bathroom.” And I’d cultivated no interests or skills; I’d learned them all from men. Though I could identify, and drive, a sleek, limited-edition sports car, “you only recognize it because one of your exes … subjected you to thousands of hours of sports-car porn.”

And then there was my taste in partners. My new you, my me, lusted only for trysts with wealthy, banal, hyperbolically successful, presumably white men. (The novel grants you the chance for a lesbian tryst, but the whole affair is pretty vanilla, and peppered with self-congratulation: “You have to admit that you’re fascinated. And her boobs are absolutely luscious.”)

I was plunged into an oubliette of rock-hard cocks, rippling abs, and oceanic orgasms. My night came to seem like one protracted counterfactual. It was everything I never would’ve done; it was everything I did. You’ve decided to take a shower with a rock star. You’ve decided to share a taxi with the sexy older guy. You decide to go with the bodyguard on his mysterious errand.

For readers of any age, gender, or sexual orientation, A Girl Walks into a Bar is a master class in one of life’s hardest lessons: no matter how many options you think you have, total control is always beyond your grasp. There are limits to who you can be. You may never pee on anyone. You may never eat the eyeballs or fuck an interesting person. You will always be constrained by life’s purple G-string.

But for Girl’s perceived readership, I admit, that might be the point: to uphold convention, to flirt with the unknown while still clinging to all that’s safe and solid. The original Choose Your Own Adventure novel boasted more than forty endings; this book has only two. In the first, you go home, make some popcorn—“the buttered kind, you’ve earned it”—and watch Bridget Jones’s Diary in your pajamas. In the second, you tuck yourself into bed with a vibrator. That’s your binary. You can watch TV or you can masturbate. Either decision yields the same final sentences: “Life is good. In fact, it doesn’t get better than this.” Let’s hope it does.




  1. Shane G | February 14, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    The word ‘erotic’ drew my attention because I am a young, lonely man and my imagination is easily stimulated. I really liked this post, very creative.

    In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, if anybody is curious of how famous Arthurian Romance characters, like Lancelot would sext their special lady follow the link below.

  2. Julian Gough | February 14, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    Good piece, well done.

    Jesus, the authors don’t know what the hell they are doing. If the underpants are the first choice, the reader will remember what she (or he) chose. You never need to describe them again. You just have the other characters raise an eyebrow at the sight of them (has different meaning for g-string and granny pants, but works for both), or say “Mmmm, nice pants.” (Likewise.)

    And imposing their own preferences on the reader? Do they understand even the basics of the choose your own adventure genre? Or erotica? Readers are revealing themselves through their choices, you don’t mock them or laugh at them. You might have to invent a plot reason for not allowing something (the book can’t have an infinite number of branches), but you don’t punish them for not being you. The authors should be made give back their advance for forcing disapproval onto the reader who would like to say yes to eyeball sushi, or peeing. There are really cool narrative branches possible for both of those.

    Sheesh. Prudes who don’t eat sushi, writing erotica set in restaurants. Someone commission me to do this properly.

  3. Ahad | February 16, 2014 at 3:38 am

    Interesting piece.

    Even though I am an avid reader, I have never properly investigating “choose your own path” books. I have though, had experience with digital “interactive novels.”

    Whilst reading this, I couldn’t help thinking digital ‘interactive’ novels could do this so much better.

    I have found imposition of authorial preferences in such ‘games’ is minimal and can be very exhilarating. The only thing they lack is the sheer force of a narrative, which is cut back on. Would really like to see what other people think.

  4. Nicola Jane | February 16, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Interesting article. I’m the author of Follow Your Fantasy (which has been named but I think not read) so I was curious to hear the review of A Girl Walks in, which beat me to publication, but, which I wrote before they had the idea – I gather from piecing together interviews with the authors.

    I think some of the points you make are things I overcame in the writing of mine. For example, I tried not to give the “You” character any overriding characteristics or opinions in an attempt to make her a neutral vessel for the reader. I (hope) I made her a bit more daring than most would be (I’m assuming most people wouldn’t consider pretending to be an escort for the night on the strength of one drink!) but gave enough lead in to allow readers to suspend their sense of self. I’ve found most readers choose the option they think is safer first and then get more curious.

    Funnily I have an underwear issue too, although a different kind of choice, and did exactly what you say couldn’t be done – wrote separate strands bearing the continuity in mind and thinking of the choice as one that leads You into a different mood and therefore different options.I also ended each option at the conclusion of its encounter – more like a collection of short stories, so there are twenty something endings.

    I absolutely didn’t make any choices or judgements on the readers’ behalf, although there is one choice where the reader decides if they’re turned on by something and then the story branches from there. I don’t make any assumptions or judgements about what a story means to or for the You character ie the reader because your imagination is not for anyone to judge!

    However, I take your point that the limitation of perceived free choices, only exposes the limitations. I wonder whether I’ve overcome that just by having come up with a story that works. I’d love for you to read it and give me an honest opinion.

    Also, the empowerment thing – well that’s partly a marketing tagline. You can’t know if a book will empower (although some reviewers have found that) but, for me, the empowerment aspect has a lot of truth in that I meant it as an alternative to waiting for sappy Ana Steele type characters to let the men dictate everything. In my book, again I hope I’ve achieved, the men are much more peripheral characters.

    Also there are some scenarios that don’t lead to earth shattering orgasms. That said, the nature of books, films and any other non reality is that of escapism – boring sex with no orgasm isn’t what an erotica reader is after, presumably.

    Anyway, I’ve plenty to say about this, am interested in the debate and an ongoing conversation about this and will email you directly to offer you a review copy.

    Follow Your Fantasy for me was just a sudden idea I had and was excited enough to write and finish. I write other things for the love of them too. I think that’s all any writer can or should do.

    So, either you’re sick of the sub genre already or might feel like giving it another go, at least to see if I have succeeded in overcoming some of the obstacles you state. I should say I’ve not read A Girl Walks In, nor will I until finishing writing my two follow ups.
    Thank you,

  5. VM Gautier | February 10, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    Haven’t read it. The real problem with most present day erotica is it’s dumbed down to the lowest reading denominator.

    Those of us who get off on words (or ideas) above a sixth grade reading level are stuck. Too many authors try for something completely different, which often involves doing it as or with a “wer” creature or monster in the literal sense. Sometimes vanilla is what we’re in the mood for, but with some sauce on top, and most of the sauces provided are prepackaged and flavorless.

    Mostly though the post has it right — women rarely have any agency, or maybe they do in some emotional-blackmail kind of way — which seems to be what happens in 50 Shades. She tops from the bottom by getting him to fall in lurve.

    Then again, if one wrote anything original, with lets say a powerful female super-being who could make her own rules — would anyone even want to read it?

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