Heleen van Royen’s Sex Diary: Femme Fatale or media culture maven?

13 minutes to read
Cintie Rooijakkers

The Dutch novelist Heleen van Royen launched her Sex Diary (Sexdagboek) in 2018. The book that contains 365 days of sex, from ‘experimental’, ‘hard’ and ‘passionate’ sex to ‘tender’, ‘lazy’ and ‘wonderful’ sex (Van Royen, 2018). It not only discusses sex in great detail but also themes of womanhood and growing older. Van Royen's most important motivation for writing a book about her sex life with her twenty-two years younger boyfriend was to break a taboo. According to the fifty-four years old novelist, discussing one’s sex life is not done and is accompanied by much shame (Berkeljon, 2018).

“In this diary, I will reveal my sex life. You may know what I do, what I think, what I fantasize. I hope to do you a favour with this. (…). Above all, I hope it frees you. That it gives you the space to look at your own sex life without any shame” (Van Royen, 2018, p. 18).

Sharing private stories with the public is not new to Van Royen. In 2014, she combined intimate selfies of her body, sexuality, and mood, she had posted on social media into the book Selfmade (Van Royen, 2014). Eventually the selfies became an exhibition where visitors got the chance to admire her intimate self-portraits on canvas, including the much-discussed ‘tampon selfie’ (Berkeljon, 2018). Furthermore, in 2006 she appeared naked on the cover of Playboy and a year later wrote the non-fiction book Stout ('Naughty') about flirting, success, power, lingerie and eroticism with lingerie designer Marlies Dekkers (Trouw, 2006; Van Royen & Dekkers, 2007).

One could say that her Sex Diary was a ‘logical next step’ in her career. After all, the reveal of her personal (sex) life has brought the novelist fame and success. For instance, various selfies from the Selfmade exhibition were auctioned off, with the ‘tampon selfie’ garnering 1900 euros (AD, 2014). Furthermore, her fictional novels such as De Gelukkige Huisvrouw ('The Happy Housewife'), Godin van de Jacht ('Goddess of the Hunt') and, De Ontsnapping ('The Escape'), which contain erotic elements, all became bestsellers (Lebowski Publishers, n.d.).

By now, Van Royen knows that ‘sex sells’. This raises the question of whether she wrote about her sexual experiences due to the fact that writing about sex (personally related or not) has brought her success before, especially given that ‘success’ plays an important role in today’s media culture (Bax, 2018). Media culture is characterised by ‘unwritten rules’ which literary writers must follow in order to be successful.

Van Royen is also part of this culture. Yet this does not mean that ‘gaining or maintaining success’ was her main motivation in writing Sex Diary. One could also say that Sex Diary enables Van Royen to reveal who she is, how she wants others to look at her, and what public role she wishes to perform. For instance, the role of the 'Femme Fatale,' a public identity that is known by her beauty and mysticism who is seen as a devourer of men (De Klerk & Schalkwijk, 2005).

Therefore, this paper will explore how we, the audience, could look at Heleen van Royen's Sex Diary. This diary could possibly be the result of her performance as a literary writer in our current media field, in which unwritten ‘norms’ and ‘rules’ affect how authors behave themselves. On the other hand, through this diary, Van Royen can also give substance to her role as a Femme Fatale. Therefore, this paper will first look at the characteristics of a Femme Fatale. This role first appeared in the Greek mythology, but took on a new dimension at the end of the 19th century, when it became popular in art and literature (Von der Thüsen, 1993).

After having explored the characteristics of a Femme Fatale and to what extent Van Royen coincides with this role, this paper will then concentrate on the characteristics of today’s media culture and how determinant the unwritten rules for literary writers are. By focussing on both fields, it will become easier to answer why Van Royen wrote her Sex Diary. This will eventually also lead to an answer to the following research question of this paper:

How should the audience read the Sex Diary of novelist Heleen van Royen?

The Femme Fatale of the 19th century

The Femme Fatale is mainly a fictional role. Beginning in Greek antiquity, there were ‘fatal women’ (De Klerk & Schalwijk, 2005): think of Circe, who turned her enemies into animals, and Clytemnestra, who murdered her husband (RoSa, 2005). Furthermore, the Egypt queen Cleopatra and biblical figures like Jaël, Judith, Lilith, Eve and Delilah are also seen as Femme Fatales (RoSa, 2005).

At the end of the 19th century, the Femme Fatale was revitalized. During this period, the Femme Fatale reappeared in the works of painters and literary writers. Decadence is a trend in art without any ‘social, religious or moral ties,’ in which the Femme Fatale played an important role (Bel, 2003, p. 55). The Femme Fatale is, for instance, visible in several works of art of the Norwegian painter Edward Munch, such as the Red and White Woman of 1894 (Von der Thüsen, 1993). Whereas previously women were often victims and men sadists, during this era women in various novels, paintings and operas challenged this by playing dangerous and threatening figures (De Klerk & Schalwijk, 2005).

The Femme Fatale thus gained much popularity in art and literature at the end of the 19th century. Moreover, the emergence of women’s emancipation also played a role in the increasing popularity of The Femme Fatale. Whereas previously women were not part of the public sphere, during the 19th century women gained more and more visibility in society since they were allowed to practice certain professions, such as teaching and being secretaries (Von der Thüsen, 1993). Moreover, at the end of this century, male scientists discovered that women were masturbating and had sex with persons of the same sex. For a long time, the prevailing idea was that women were ‘self-sacrificing and asexual creatures’, but the opposite turned out to be true (De Klerk & Schalwijk, 2005, p.111). Women had their own sexual needs and were sexually independent of men.

This was in contradiction with the predominant worldview and the church’s view of women, who were seen as less important human beings (Von der Thüsen, 1993). Women were only allowed to have sex for men's pleasure or to become pregnant. The sexual unfolding of women was seen as a threat. Women were no longer subordinate to men, and men considered this a loss of status. Therefore, the 19th century Femme Fatale is ‘fatale’ in the sense that men have lost their control over women. She no longer underestimates herself but believes that she has the same (sexual) rights as men. This also makes her a 'devourer' of men because she chooses men for her own pleasure, not theirs.

Heleen van Royen as Femme Fatale

Taking the sexual unfolding and independence of women in the 19th century into account, one could say that Van Royen’s Sex Diary is a way to give substance to the role of Femme Fatale. An important reason to write this diary was to help women improve their sex lives. In her diary, she discusses that 95 percent of men have an orgasm during heterosexual sex, whereas only 30 to 50 percent of women do (Van Royen 2018). Van Royen argues that women ‘deserve’ more:

Close your eyes and think of England is what women were told before their wedding night. I would say open your eyes and take what you need” (Van Royen, 2018, p. 18).

Women not only deserve the same pleasure as men but are entitled to it: “If he [boyfriend] would have an orgasm 95 percent of the time when we had sex, I wanted to have the same” (Van Royen, 2018, p. 85).

This also applies to the Femme Fatale, who wants to fulfil her own sexual needs and instincts rather than those of a man. Van Royen addresses that this is a task for both men and women. Women are not used to ‘claiming’ sexual pleasure but must do so if they want to improve their sex life, according to the novelist (Opzij, 2017). Again, this also applies to Femmes Fatales, who discovered through masturbation that a man is not needed in order to achieve sexual pleasure. Masturbation also plays a large role in Van Royen's sex life, and the reader gets much information about the various types of vibrators the novelist uses. She uses her ‘toys’ not only during masturbation but also when she makes love with her boyfriend. This demonstrates that her partner is often not able to give her an orgasm during sex, only Van Royen is capable to do so. Her partner is not enthusiastic about these ‘lawn-mowers’, but she does not lend an ear (Van Royen, 2018, p. 144).

Another feature of the Femme Fatale is her beauty. The French poet Baudelaire compared Femme Fatales with Les Fleurs du Mal (Harsh Flowers), (Koopman, 2010). Women are often compared to flowers because of their beauty and sexual passivity. Yet, behind this beauty, there are other, harsh, characteristics. This enables women to confuse men with their beauty.

Van Royen also transforms into a 'fleur du mal’ during one scene in her diary. She wears erotic clothing while cooking, seducing her partner. Instead of having sex, Van Royen first wants to have dinner, after which she wants to watch a movie. When her boyfriend finally thinks that ‘the moment’ is there, Van Royen decides to do some training exercises. Eventually, they go to bed without having had sex. This scene shows that Van Royen seduces her boyfriend with her beauty, but at the same time she confuses him.

Media Logic

Taking these characteristics into account, we might say that Heleen van Royen fits the role of the Femme Fatale - her Sex Diary confirms this. Is this the reason why she published her Sex Diary? It is nearly impossible to answer this question without also looking at our current media culture, in which the determinant ‘media logic’ has transformed the position and behaviour of today’s literary authors. Van Royen is also part of this media logic, which is why she must deal with the accompanying ‘rules’ as well.

Altheide and Snow (1979) argue that the media create and operate from a certain ‘logic’ that affects how others orient themselves to the media. Politicians, for instance, need appear on the news and need to ‘behave’ according to the ‘norms’ of the media logic in order to be heard. Literary writers are subject to these standards as well, which can change their attitude and the way they work.

Moran (2000) argues, for instance, that being a literary writer in the United States has developed into literary celebrity. In order to be a ‘famous’ author, you have to be present. This can be achieved by appearing on talk shows, providing ‘in-depth’ interviews in newspapers and magazines, and attending literary festivals and public debates. Authors are thus part of a commercial system where they have to promote themselves and their books. He even speaks of a ‘meet the author-culture’, meaning that authors have become a brand.

Bax (2019) also notes that literary writers and their appearances have changed. Whereas the literary writer in the 20th century was characterised as ‘extraordinary’, ‘independent’ and ‘selfless’, the literary writer of the 21st century has to obey the ‘unwritten rules’ of the contemporary media culture (p. 7). The first ‘rule’ is success, which is accompanied by facts and numbers. The second one is ‘authenticity’, because the mass media and the audience have a desire for ‘realness’, ‘intimacy’ and ‘true stories’ (Bax, 2019, p. 9). This is also argued by Moran (2000) who clarifies that personality plays an important role. The third ‘rule’ is that authors have to be involved in politics and topicality.

Heleen van Royen’s media logic

Van Royen is not free from the media logic. Just like other writers, she has to obey certain rules. With her Sex Diary, Van Heleen fulfills Bax's rules: firstly, before she published her Sex Diary, Van Royen was already a ‘successful’ author. Many of her novels are ‘bestsellers’ and have been translated into various languages. Furthermore, her strong feminist statements engage with public debates and topicality.

Moreover, many of her novels have ‘non-fiction’ elements. For instance, her first novel, De Gelukkige Huisvrouw (The Happy House Wife), is based on her father's suicide and her postpartum depression after the birth of her first child (Zwagerman, 2005; Opzij, 2017). As Bax (2019) argues, this fits the contemporary desire for 'realness' in the literary landscape. Van Royen knows that realness ‘sells’ from her success with Selfmade (Van Royen, 2014). Van Royen herself has become a brand, with the result being that her novels cannot be seen independent of her.

Bax (2019) also emphasises that a novel has to be part of the authors’ media strategy to become successful. Therefore, it is ‘logical’ that Van Royen herself is the main character in her Sex Diary. It has become impossible for Van Royen to not write about herself, because she has turned her personal sex life into a trade name. Furthermore, with her ‘success’, ‘strong and feminist opinion’ and ‘true stories’, Van Royen ‘obeys’ the unwritten rules of today’s media culture. Arguably this is why she wrote a Sex Diary, because she knew beforehand it would be successful as she ‘obeyed’ the rules. It became a bestseller and (RTLBoulevard, 2018) will also be adapted for the big screen (AD, 2018).

Yet, van Royen finds it necessary to emphasise that it is not about the money: “This Sex Diary feels as a liberated task. (…). It has nothing to do with money since I won’t get rich with it”, (Berkeljon, 2018). This is a smart strategy for Van Royen, because apart from the fulfilment of current media standards, she also needs to maintain some elements of the 20th-century literary writer, such autonomy, independence and selflessness (Bax, 2019). However, her wealth in 2017 was estimated at around three million euros (Smits, 2017), thus, she does get ‘rich’ from her novels.

Femme Fatale or Literary writer?

It is hard to say how the audience should read Heleen van Royen’s Sex Diary, or whether she wrote this Sex Diary as part of her role as a Femme Fatale or her role as a literary writer in the current media culture. Firstly, the novelist would never truly be open about it. Secondly, the ‘unwritten rules’ are not called such without reason - literary writers still want to give the impression that they are independent.

Therefore, the best answer to this question would be a combination of both. In her Sex Diary, Van Royen (2018) states that she always enjoyed writing about sex. Moreover, as a feminist, she thinks that every woman deserves to have the same sexual pleasure as men. An important aspect of the 19th century Femme Fatale was that she sexually unfolded herself. Additionally, the chance is small that Van Royen only wrote her Sex Diary in order to fulfil the standards of today’s media culture, since sharing your personal sex life is an intimate topic. Yet, this does not mean that her fulfilment of the media ‘standards’ did not contribute to the success of the novel. Likely, an unknown novelist without any previous success and no visibility in the media landscape would not have reached the same success.


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