An Interview with Camille Emmanuelle
Camille Emmanuelle is a journalist, author and editor. Her book Sexpowerment was published to widespread acclaim in 2016. She has also written Le Goût du baiser (The Taste of the Kiss), a teen fiction novel on the subject of adolescent sexual encounters and most recently Ricochets, a book that focuses on the notion of collateral victimization in the context of terrorist attacks.
You describe yourself as a sex-positive feminist. Is this a difficult stance to hold in French feminist circles these days?
It’s easier today than it was eleven years ago when I started writing regularly on the subject. In those days, my academic, journalistic and artistic references with regard to sex-positive feminism were all North-American. In France I used to spend ages explaining what a sex-positive feminist was and I often got some dirty looks I can tell you! How could a feminist woman be interested vulgar issues like the clitoris, porn or hookers?! I would say that in the last four years there’s been a change of mentality in France when it comes to sexuality which has become much more of an integral part of feminism than it used to be. For example, the need for genuine sex-education programmes for teens and adults is now something that is gaining traction. This being said, most French feminists remain abolitionists when it comes to prostitution: talking about sex is alright, but prostitution is still very much taboo. It’s either condemned or brushed under the carpet. The way I see it, the conditions of sex-workers should be a topical issue.
Why do you favour pornography from the 1970s?
There was in my view a golden age of pornography in France which was very brief – it began after May 1968 and ended with President Giscard’s law: he overtaxed the porn movie industry and relegated it to specialized cinemas. In the interval, films that were beautiful, joyful, cool and kinky were produced. And these were sometimes graced by technical teams that came from traditional cinema. I like the bodies (they were less slick then they are these days). The scripts are often bungled but they’re funny and driven by a real libertarian vision. Before being commercial enterprises, porn was decidedly subversive.
What do you think of the concept of rape culture?
I had a little trouble with that notion to begin with, as I considered that rape was a universal phenomenon that wasn’t culture-based. It doesn’t matter if a society bans it or condones it; neither stops rapists from committing their crimes. What does change, however, from one society to another, from one era to another, is the way victims are considered, the way they are heard and helped. So in certain situations, I would prefer to use the expression “victim-shaming culture” or, on the contrary, “victim-listening culture”.
In what ways is your brand of feminism also a form of emancipation for men?
Some men are afraid of emancipation, especially when it comes to women’s sexuality. I think it stems from an ancient biological fear of not mastering procreation and in particular the origin of offspring (if my wife stays stuck at home, I can be sure my child is my own and not the neighbour’s). But sexual freedom benefits both genders. You need only read the books written before 1968: women were shackled by convention, but so were men (the obligation to be the domineering boss who has to mask his emotions, who has to perform both socially and sexually). By questioning gender roles, both in bed and in society at large, we’ve earned so much more freedom.
In Sexpowerment, you point out that countries like Britain, Norway and Holland feature sex education programs on primetime television. Why do you think France is so reluctant to engage in more elaborate sex-education programmes in schools and on television?
Yes, we’re lagging behind in that area. France’s image abroad is that it’s a modern, sexually-emancipated country. But that’s not entirely true. It’s not because there are lots of swing clubs in France that discussion of sexuality is forthright and open-minded! Libertinism is based on the codes of the bourgeoisie (secrecy, discreetness, the happy few). Why is France belated when it comes to sex education? Religion, which restricts all forms of sexuality, women’s rights and LGBT people’s rights still exerts a great influence. The fact that those in positions of power (television tycoons, etc.) are old men who don’t feel concerned by all that. When I think of all the ideas for TV programmes dealing with sexual matters that I pitched to various cable channels, I was brow-beaten and looked down on! “We don’t want to be vulgar” I was told. As if broadcasting words like “vulva”, “consent” and “period” could be considered vulgar.
Given the fact that gender studies are not as widespread as in the Anglosphere, do you think that courses in porn studies will become a staple of French universities in the near future?
None of this existed twenty years ago when I studied political science. I discovered that kind of course when I went to study abroad as a student in Canada. These days, you find more universities that offer courses on gender studies and even porn studies in France. Thankfully. The only downside is that gender studies are dealt with only by looking through the lens of the humanities. When in fact biology should have its say in these matters. There’s some fabulous research on evolutionary psychology which would deserve more attention in France.
In your book you argue in favour of sex toys. Why do they play a vital role in relationships in your view?
I’m not a wholesale defender of sex toys as consumer objects. It’s not necessary to have sex toys to have a fulfilled sex life. People are of course free to do as they please in that area. But in my view, the democratization of sex toys has opened the possibility of dialogue within the couple. They’ve removed the taboo on female masturbation and fostered a view of sex that is less phallocentric.
In recent years there’s been a noticeable decrease in the featuring of sex in films. Director Danny Boyle has called this “the Pixarification of the movie industry”. Has this also occurred in French fiction in your view and if so why?
I like that expression, “the Pixarification of the movie industry”. I think he’s right. I’ve noticed the same thing in French literature: fewer and fewer so-called traditional authors dare to include sex scenes in their writing. I think they’re afraid of two things: shocking backward-looking people, and/or shocking woke people, ha ha! But I would temper what Danny Boyle says by mentioning recent TV series like I Love Dick, Fleabag, I May Destroy You, Sex Education etc. They view sexuality in a contemporary light that’s so interesting. It’s an area that’s currently opening up.
Michel Houellebecq is known for his depiction of stereotypically modern pornographic sex. Who are the French authors who write most interestingly about sex in your view?
Those who write for Sex Appeal, my imprint! In all seriousness, the last French novel that made me think “what beautifully written sex scenes!” was Nicolas Mathieu’s Leurs enfants après eux (Their Children After Them). They’re frontal, but not cliché.
Are there any fiction authors in the Anglosphere who write captivatingly about sexuality in your view?
Since Philip Roth? Hmm… Yes, of course there are some, but I’m more interested in “non fiction literature”, Maggie Nelson in particular. Oh, and in Britain, Kae Tempest of course.
Kingsley Amis once opined that sex was so different and personal for each person that it was impossible to write convincingly about it. What’s your view on this?
It is actually really hard to get right. The way I see it, there are two pitfalls to avoid: being mawkish or falling into cliché (like erotic romance in the style of Fifty Shades of Grey), or else being uninterestingly trashy. Navigating a course between the two … is no easy task. Which is why I really admire those who manage to pull it off.
You edit an imprint called Sex Appeal within Les Editions Anne Carrière, and have expressed some dissatisfaction with the way sex is usually presented. What kind of writing do you wish to promote in your imprint?
Sex Appeal focuses on various kinds of sexual expression, gender, various kinds of feminism, with contemporary authors who often have a link to journalism. It’s a little unoriginal to say it that way, but I tend to choose texts that I’ve never read anywhere else. And I’ve read lots of books on the topic! Books ranging from the hilarious speculative short stories of Josselin Bordat, or the fabulous report on sex workers by Pauline Verduzier. I said to myself when I read these: that tone, that angle, that style is new, that’s the kind of thing I want to read.
Interview by Erik Martiny.
Camille Emmanuelle is a journalist who specialises in sexual issues, erotic culture, feminism and gender. She is the author of five books and numerous features for The Huffington Post, Le Nouvel Observateur, Causette and Play
Ricochets is available from Grasset.
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