By Donna George Storey
I thought I’d have to write a really depressing post this month. In recent weeks, the election-year War on Sex has escalated, and things were looking bleak for erotica writers, supporters of women’s autonomy, and anyone who thinks sex outside of a heterosexual union blessed by an established religion, preferably Christianity, can be something other than evil.
Fortunately, the past few weeks have brought some victories for sex-positive forces. Rush Limbaugh is hemorrhaging sponsors after his slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke for speaking out about the medical uses of the birth control pill. Female legislators, such as Ohio state senator Nina Turner, are sponsoring bills to regulate Viagra, declare sperm cells persons, and require unnecessary, government-mandated rectal exams for men. I find this both a witty and brilliant way of bringing the point home to men, many of whom seem to be unaware that restricting women’s sexuality and access to contraception will impact their intimate lives in any way.
The sweetest news of all is that Paypal’s campaign to censor books on topics they found distasteful, by forcing publishers and authors to silence themselves, was successfully overturned by the admirable efforts of authors, readers and progressive activists, ERWA’s own Remittance Girl being a notable figure in the fight. Of course, the cynical part of me suspects the back-down was due less to a new understanding of the importance of free speech than to the huge profits Paypal and the credit card companies would lose, especially given the recent media attention to the BDSM novel Fifty Shades of Grey. But I’ll accept the HFN ending anyway.
Even if the immediate danger has passed for the moment, the Paypal edict raised an issue in in my mind that is still worth examining for erotica writers. As I understand it, portrayals of rape, incest, and underage sex were not allowed if the work was classified as erotica and thus was assumed to be written with an intent to arouse sexual feelings. However, “pure literature” with those themes were fine—A Thousand Acres and Bastard Out of Carolina (underage incest), The Kite Runner (the anal rape of an 11-year-old boy), or fiction in other genres such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (rape and child abuse) being just a few famous examples.
The distinction between sex scenes meant solely to stir your loins and those that have a higher redeeming purpose is assumed to be clear to all readers of sound moral character. Yet many of us, myself included, found ourselves questioning the criteria used to determine the two categories. It certainly couldn’t have to do with the quality of the prose, because frankly, I find that the work of many erotica writers is more thoughtful, sophisticated and redemptive than much of what passes for literary fiction.
Here’s my theory as to how the distinction is generally made. In “literary” or mainstream fiction, sexual themes, while sometimes written with the same language used in erotica and possibly the fodder for secret sexual fantasy for many readers, are kept safely circumscribed by making sure whoever has sex, whether victim, aggressor or willing participant, is somehow punished. Death, insanity, lifelong sexual dysfunction, social ostracism, divorce, any of these horrible consequences will do, as long as the emotional message is not so different from what it was in the nineteenth century, “Have sex outside of heterosexual marriage and you will die!” As long as the “pure” writer is on message, he is free to cook up all kinds of plot twists that feed on forbidden desires and acts, and in fact might arouse the reader as much as any officially designated erotica. Then he will redeem himself by showing how sex is harmful. It’s a brilliant move by those who want to capitalize on sexual repression. Use our natural human curiosity for the forbidden and our natural sexual impulses to draw us in, but impose highly conservative justice on the characters, so we’re left feeling that sex is dangerous and damaging to our bodies, souls and reputations.
Erotica, on the other, often, although not always, portrays sexuality as enjoyable. Sometimes it eroticizes the power relationships inherent in our society, and thereby transforms and complicates these relationships. This is clearly a very scary idea to the guardians of social order.
The truth is people read all fiction to be aroused. Erotica is assumed to focus only on sexual arousal. Literary and mainstream fiction are supposed to stay above the waist to arouse love and hate, our sense of justice and morality, and an identification with the fate of the characters. I can’t count how many times I’ve read advice for literary writers to give your poor protagonist as many trials and conflicts as possible, the better to create a sense of pleasurable release when she prevails. Eroticists are accused of manipulating their readers for a low purpose in that perhaps—or even hopefully [gasp]—the story will lead to what has traditionally been referred to as “self-abuse.” However, I personally have felt emotionally abused by some of our most celebrated and/or bestselling authors.
As a mother, I am horrified at how many times child abuse or a child’s death is brought into the plot for emotional impact. It certainly brings tears to my eyes and sick knot to my stomach. And of course, these terrible things do happen in real life. However, when I started looking at this phenomenon as a writer, I began to get suspicious. If you read literary fiction, you might begin to think toddlers drown in pools as often as smokers die of the complications of their addiction in our country. There’s no doubt the victimization of the innocent provides an instant punch to the reader’s gut. Some authors handle it well and explore the consequences with sensitivity. But too many, in my opinion, go straight for our vulnerabilities and fears in a cheap way. And, for the record, I admire works of fiction and nonfiction that deal with these issues responsibly. The brilliant and moving The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by journalist Rebecca Skloot involves horrifying child abuse in private and institutional settings, but within a context that exposes the costs of poverty, racism and a misguided trust in the medical establishment. Henrietta Lacks was harrowing, but one of the most memorable and important books I’ve ever read.
Sure, it might be easier for me to choose reading material if Paypal established a panel of “experts” to review all literary fiction to determine if the trials of its protagonists were edifying to the reader or merely created a sense of fear and danger more in character with the horror and action-adventure genres. But even at the risk of my sensitive soul, I must continue to support free speech no matter what my personal tastes. Some authors may betray our trust, but we can always stop reading or go write a scathing review on our blog!
So, fellow erotica writers, the next time someone tries to shame you for aiming to incite lustful feelings your reader, remember that all good writers try to arouse their readers' emotions. Some of us are just more honest about what we do.
Donna George Storey is the author of the erotic novel, Amorous Woman. Her short stories have recently appeared in Best Women's Erotica 2012, Best Erotic Romance, and The Best of Best Mammoth Erotica. Learn more at http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor.
Sunday, March 18, 2012
By Donna George Storey