Melissa Panarello’s teenage sex diary shocked the adult world for all the wrong reasons, argues Irina Lester
I always look for books written by women about their sex lives. First, I have natural curiosity, fuelled by my conscientious rejection of the sanctimonious attitude to sex of the Russian culture I was brought in.
Second, as a feminist, I am interested in how other women manipulate the complex world of sexuality, given not only that double standards still existing in our society, but also expectations of what they should find pleasurable or how they should express their lust. I wonder to what extent women internalise these external pressures, or whether they manage to carve some sexual autonomy and discover what works for them or how they want to behave sexually.
One of the books I have read on the subject, One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, by Melissa Panarello, tells the story of the sexual initiation of a teenage girl and her attempts to find herself, both sexually and emotionally.
The book was published in 2003 in Italy and immediately became a national bestseller. It was translated into over 30 languages and adapted for the big screen. Both its popularity and the uproar it generated were down to a few facts: it was written by 17-year old girl, from small, quiet and conservative Sicilian town. It was based on her real diary covering span of two years. And it speaks in frank, de-romanticised language about penetration, masturbation, sperm, lesbian and group sex, chat-room sex, sado-masochism, cross-dressing and sex with older married men.
Turning the pages of a book which strays far from what many to be the usual, innocent content of a teenage girl’s diary, yet which the author claims is entirely based on her personal experience, some adults were shocked and repulsed.
According to a report in the International Herald Tribune, the Milan newspaper Corriere della Serra didn’t even write about the book in its culture section, instead choosing to revile Melissa as a negative role model for teenagers. Calling her “less brazen, more trash”, its psychologist embarked on a rant accusing contemporary sex education of promoting sex “without emotions and without love”.
Some intellectuals have turned their noses up, but I can’t help but wonder if their dismissal of the book’s value can be explained by a very commonplace distaste towards girls’ sexual activity that exists in our society. Melissa admits in an interview with the Observer: “Teachers couldn’t stand me. Some of them would not speak to me and others told me I was trash.” And, of course, as we could guess, among the general lather the Pope chirped in about necessity of staying chaste before marriage.
Naïvely using a familiar old trick – to pity, patronise and belittle – many critics aspired to protect themselves and their prejudices: Melissa is constantly called “precocious” and “promiscuous”. In the words of Entertainment Weekly, she needs “a psychiatrist, not a publisher”. More hilarious is that some even didn’t believe that it was written by her – either from a pure ostrich-head-in-the-sand attitude, or out of a narrow-minded idea of teenage sex life (and that’s when she came out, as her book was originally published under the name of ‘Melissa P.’)
“I broke a taboo in Italian society,” she is quoted as saying in the New York Times. “Before my book, sex wasn’t talked about in this way. The book opened the floodgates of reality. I showed the hypocrisy of Italian society and therefore people are afraid of the book and are claiming I didn’t write it.”
However, on a positive note, many welcomed the book and the author, and applauded her honesty. Her friends didn’t shy away from her, while her parents, after overcoming the shock, are now proud of her success. It is good to hear that Melissa says: “I will never feel ashamed of what I did.”
One is reassured by her attitude: “I always thought sexuality was normalissino,” she said in the Observer. “If people are shocked … they have got a problem with their sexuality.”
But is her book a positive take on a woman’s sexuality? I am afraid not.
At the first glance, its impact is limited to the grand feat of offending some pompous sexist pricks, by mere fact of a girl writing about sex.
But the book is more an illustration of the brutality with which the world meets a young girl’s sexuality, than a reassuring read that feminists will delight in.
Our heroine is far too much lead by the men, gives in too much and tolerates a lot of shit from them. For example, she sticks with Daniele, a slightly older boy, although he grabs her head, shoves his cock in her mouth and comes. When she asks, bewildered: “Is this really the way it is done?”, he answers, “Of course.” Sex for him means a girl gives head, and he even cannot grasp what Melissa wants when she says she wants to make love to him. She runs away and calls him an arsehole, but then returns and waits for him in his room – listening as he tells a friend on the other end of the phone that he plans to screw her in couple of minutes. He doesn’t care if sex for the first time hurts her or not. Yet still she doesn’t tell him to fuck off.
One reads on and on, and is amazed at the attitude boys can have towards girls: they are in fact simply masturbating in the female body, as Germaine Greer once correctly said. It is not sex. But girls are expected to think it is. So, when Melissa doesn’t feel pain, it is considered bad: the simpleton concludes she is not a virgin and therefore treats her like dirt. The sad thing is that, although she admits that he’s rude and patronising, she still hopes to win him over.
There are also some good bits in the book: I like her self-admiration, as she looks at herself in the mirror and enjoys what she sees. I find it great that she is unashamed of such narcissism – at a time when millions of women on a daily basis are encouraged to find flaws in their looks.
It rings true with my own experience at that age: I remember suddenly seeing in the mirror not a 13 years old girl, not a child, but the beautiful, quite noble-looking features of an adult. It was different from what I read and heard about teenagers thinking they are ugly; for me it was the first time I become aware of my beauty.
Melissa also writes about masturbation and the pleasure she derives from it. Her love for and amazement with her own body, the slow process of sexual self-discovery, honesty about it and a healthy lack of guilt are both beautiful and pure.
But, unfortunately, enjoying that beauty is her only source of joy, while the rest of her life is unsatisfactory and dull, and she is dying for new experiences, new feelings, affection and excitement. I know well this intoxicating mixture of sexual and emotional longing.
And that is the beauty and power of the book, because it depicts this longing so accurately and then shows how it is smashed to pieces by an attempt to live it out in reality – where otherwise decent-seeming boys see stay-ups as a permission to treat a girl as a ‘slut’, where older men drool over nymphets in chat rooms and a birthday treat involves swallowing the sperm of five boys.
What is so deeply shocking in the book is not group sex as such, or the fact that a teenage girl took part in it, but the fact that our culture makes it possible for boys and men to exploit girls sexually, and for girls to accept sex entirely on men’s terms. The boys’ utter disregard for Melissa’s sexual needs and even comfort are really disturbing. Instead of moralising and decrying teenage sex, one should ask what makes these boys so brutish and inhuman, and where sex education fails if boys hold such atrocious attitudes towards girls.
I cannot help thinking that such attitudes very much resemble sex-stereotypes from the porn which infiltrates mainstream culture: women are seen as dirty and dispensable, not to be reckoned with, mere inanimate tools for male sexual gratification. Without porn mags ever being mentioned in the book, it is still possible to detect their influence: several boys ask Melissa why she doesn’t shave her pubic hair and advise her to do it; others get inflamed by her wearing stay-ups, so verbal abuse and desire to cause her physical pain duly follow.
Having stopped short of admitting in the book that she is exploited (after a harrowing experience with a stranger that fits the definition of a rape), in the press she insists that she wasn’t passive and was fully aware of what she was doing, and we must believe her. However, it seems that in her active search for experience and sexual fulfillment, Melissa also falls into the trap of commonplace and oversimplified sexual scenarios.
She searches for her individual and unique sexual self through through clichéd, porn-like means. In a culture where sexuality is heavily scripted in porn-terms, it is unsurprising that a young searching person assumes certain roles and stereotypes as her own.
But they don’t fit. The role of a prostitute is promoted by mainstream porn as the image of a sexually-liberated woman, but for Melissa involves being raped by an ugly stranger (she is confused if money is left by a bloke, so brutal and weird was an act inflicted upon her) and even with a nice man, “boyfriend material”, it results in him physically hurting her and calling her “Lolita”, thus seeing only a stereotype and not a real person behind a sexual body.
Despite being so young, Melissa is emotionally mature and complex enough to see all the shortcomings of the men she meets: to them only her sensuality exists, which permits them to treat her as a dirty thing, while for her sex is a way to express love, a bigger and wider all-encompassing feeling within her, and to find a matching love in the outside world.
She says: “Nobody ever taught me how to express the love I kept inside… I tried, flinging my desire into a world from which love was banished.” It is this world, an unsafe and ugly place, that should worry the critics of the book, not the fact that a teenage girl has sex.
In search of somebody who sees her as “a person, an essence, not an object, a body”, she came across nothing but “wickedness, filth and brutality”. The very next thing a “nice guy”, her tutor, does, after reading her letter in which she explains in a beautiful and powerful language that she has two sides, sensuality and soul, is invite her to an adult swingers’ party.
Despite the often tragic, depressing flavour of the book, amazing thing happens there as well: Melissa turns the tables and hurts those men back. Not only does she see that her adult internet lover, a married man with a daughter of her age, is a “worm”, she punishes him, expressing her anger at being used and taken for granted, and dumps him without looking back. She also sees the vulgarity of men and women at that swingers’ party and leaves: for the first time her self respect wins over the perceived urgency of male sexual needs.
In the book she constantly balances, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, on a thin line between glimpses of her true sexuality and, in further search for it, acting out somebody else’s fantasies, which inevitably leave a nasty aftertaste.
Although sex is tied with love in Melissa’s mind, the book doesn’t become just “beautiful and erotic”, and it is not pretentiously arty in a shallow way. If it was, no doubt it wouldn’t be criticised so much, as women, it seems, are allowed to write about sex as long as it is done in a beautiful way.
It is interesting here to see Melissa’s rejection of Catherine Millet’s portrayal of sex in her book The sexual life of Catherine M.. In an interview with Three Monkeys Online, she said: “I read it and didn’t like it. I don’t think of sex as intellectual of philosophical. I believe that sex is flesh and blood.”
But while learning about herself and separating this knowledge from the crust of modern sexual stereotypes, in refusing to write a sterile account to appease sanctimonious critics, and in the asserting at the end her sexuality and right to pleasure, she doesn’t speak in feminist terms. On the contrary, her view of feminism is, I’d say, is in line with mainstream misconception. In the Times she said: “I can’t stand all this feminist and post-feminist nonsense… because feminism is all about women feeling they are victims, and it’s just stupid. It pains me. But I don’t feel I’m a victim of anyone or anything. Women have the same right to respect and choice as men. It’s a question of taking charge of your own destiny – and that is what I have done.”
Yes, but with “feminist nonsense” and more awareness of what’ going on, taking charge of your destiny may be less painful, I would add (think Abby Lee, for example). Still, if you read the book with both mind and heart open, you will see there more than even the author herself intended, and definitely more than some critics saw, before dashing to their keyboards and fuming in the press.