Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Sunday, March 18, 2012

All About Pleasure: The Politics of Arousal

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.

6 comments:

  1. Beautiful, thoughtful post, Donna. I especially adore the last line.

    Expounding not so much on erotica but other perceived "literary" fiction struck me as such an interesting angle for this post and topic. So much so that it has elicited in me the inclination to reflect and not say much more right now. Thank you very much for sharing.

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  2. Donna,

    Your point about the line between acceptable and unacceptable sexuality in "literary" stories rings true on so many levels.

    I recently watched the movie "Blue Valentine" which received an NC-17 rating at its first pass by the MPAA, but on appeal, managed to get an R. I believe one aspect of what made it able to get that ratings change is that the story is, at its core, tragic.

    Nudity and sexuality have always crept into the mainstream through horror movies where the practicing protagonists end up on the wrong end of the axe. John Carpenter's Halloween being a notable example.

    I do believe that, in our society, it is much more acceptable to make sexual pleasure a punishable offense. I hope that the ultra conservative sort that is currently trying to bring their brand of false morality down upon society falls flat on its face.

    And yes, we all do read to be aroused; what is at the heart of the issue is what sort of arousal is "acceptable" and what context it is framed in.

    Thanks for this thoughtful, very resonant post.

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  3. Well said, Donna!

    I've previously encountered the argument that literary fiction is allowed to portray non-normative sexuality only as long as such behavior is punished, by society or fate. However, your additional point, about the intent of fiction to arouse emotion - and the sometimes cheap tricks played by so-called literature - is an eye-opener. Thank you for pointing this out.

    I hadn't heard about sperm being declared persons. I love it!

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  4. Well said, thanks for writing and sharing.

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  5. I agree with everything you said in the post. The actual "literary" field has taken things to the extreme so much so that I don't read many books out there due to this type of stuff in them.

    Most "literary" authors forget that these emotions and feelings can bring back so much for so many that might have had these things done to them. My question is how is this different from violent porn in their books?

    It isn't only books that are doing this now. Movies are also doing this which I see as more horrifying than in some books. They can suck you into the movie in hopes of seeing a good outcome but many are showing the worst outcomes possible. I recently watched the movie based on fact called "The Girl Next Door." I had never thought they would allow things like this even in indie films. However I will say they handled it well, but I wouldn't watch it ever again or recommend watching it to anyone.

    It makes me wonder if all these authors in the "literary" field writing this stuff are making it more main stream and hence making people think of these events more in real life. I wonder how many commit these acts due to reading them at times? For some that is all it takes to trigger them.

    Most all erotica I've read has dealt with love, tenderness and even some harsh BDSM but nothing compared to other non-erotica books. I think authors that write erotica are more aware of these emotions and feelings that we try to create in the readers. I'm very thankful there are books and authors that deal with erotica in this manner.

    Some things the government are doing are out and out, well I can't say even here except, evil toward all of mankind. I wonder what crackpots even make such bills in government. Those items you brought up are a total abuse of power and against all personal freedoms.

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  6. Thank you SO much, everyone, for your thoughtful comments. I am glad that my post resonated with you, and I also thank you for warning me away from a few more traumatizing movies.

    Damian, you make an interesting point about stories inspiring deeds or even just attitudes that is often leveled at erotic fiction and pornography. I have read about studies where people who see porn or fashion magazines judge ordinary women by higher standards of perfection (both men of women and women of themselves). But what about an engaging story with a depressing and helpless world view, where fathers and step-fathers can't control their sexuality around girls and most marriages are dead, despairing, sexless relationships, and... well, the list goes on. But I suppose if it's seen as a warning about the sinful nature of humans, then we all benefit?

    I do know that literary writers are encouraged to write stories that grab and shock readers just as much as genre writers are. I think if more of us speak out about what we see, we can deconstruct the false distinctions :-).

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