Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Monday, June 18, 2012

All About Pleasure: Erotica Writers in Bondage


by Donna George Storey

I always feel a flutter in my stomach when I sit down to write a new story.  Part of me is excited by the blank page, pregnant with potential to be the most sizzling, sexy adventure I’ve ever written.  But another part of me fears that I’ve “lost it,” that what comes out will be the same old rewarmed themes and scenes.  Once I get drawn into the the story, however, I’m usually having too much fun for such worries.  Writing erotica gives me a sense of freedom and possibility that I’ve never felt writing “literary” fiction or essays.  Exploring an important part of the human experience that has so long been silenced, showing that sexuality can be joyful and complex—no work I’ve ever done has enriched my mind and spirit as deeply.

The real constraints appear when it comes to putting erotic stories out there in the marketplace.  Just the other day I learned that one of my (non-erotic) publisher’s publicists refused to handle my book because she thought it would taint her reputation.  She hasn’t read the book, but in all fairness, it’s quite possible others would judge her harshly without full knowledge of the contents as well.  Far from being discouraged, such an attitude makes me all the more determined to write erotica, but it also reminds me that writers are not subject only to the whim of the muse. 

Of course, it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of books about sex, many selling phenomenally well.  It occurred to me, though, that the marketplace has certain categories and expectations of writing that involves sex, categories that literary erotica in particular defies.  Even if we disagree with these assumptions or intentionally subvert them as we write, the marketplace clings to what is comfortable for the society as a whole.  Thus, like it or not, erotica writers are bound by these conventions—and, unfortunately, I’m not talking anything as fun as rhinestone-studded handcuffs, suede paddles and safewords.  

I’d like to outline four of the most prevalent ways our culture “allows” us to talk about sex.  The first has the deepest and widest roots, the idea that sexual desire is the enemy of civilization and our higher nature.  Sex is acceptable only if properly controlled by the institution of heterosexual marriage for the purpose of procreation.  Otherwise the consequences of carnal activity are damaging, even deadly.  Not to deny maternal mortality rates over the centuries or the problem of sexually transmitted infections still today, but this fear of sexuality is expressed not just in abstinence education, but our popular and high-brow culture as well.  How many movies, TV shows and even literary novels rely on the rape and murder of a young woman to provide pathos and suspense?  Of those that don’t, how many involve ruinous adulterous affairs?  A “realistic” view of sex always emphasizes dire consequences.  This is how we are reassured the subject is being treated seriously. The Great Gatsby, for example, is considered one of the great American novels.  Its themes are complex and varied, but if we examine the sexual elements, well, doesn’t it all boil down to: “If you have sex with people above you in social class and outside of marriage, you will die”?

There are some exceptions—the Dutch movie Antonia’s Line comes to mind as a work that offers both positive and negative views of sexual expression.  However, in the main, the safest and easiest way to talk about sex and still maintain your reputation as a decent and concerned citizen is to emphasize its evil side:  child molestation, unwanted pregnancy, betrayal, sexual lust leading to the destruction of the social fabric and the breaking of the Ten Commandments.

There are places where sex can be portrayed as enjoyable, but only within the bounds of an erotic fantasy wonderland, the Pornutopia we find in most X-rated movies, Penthouse letters, and many erotic stories (including, I will admit, some of my own).  In this world, all the usual rules we learn in our ordinary lives are suspended.  There is no need to court a potential sex partner, they come on to us within minutes of first meeting.  There is no disease, pregnancy, judgment, regret or guilt.  Everyone reaches orgasm easily and often and is eager to try taboo acts.  At first blush this may seem an unfettered celebration of sex, but this fantasy world comes with restrictions of its own, which keep sexual pleasure securely within the realm of the impossible.  Any hint of ambivalence or complexity ruins the illusion.  My work was once criticized for this sin by a professional writer (not an eroticist).  He said every time he started getting turned on, I’d use a big, fancy word that would ruin the mood.  Pornutopia requires its own brand of purity.  Literary turns of phrase or any whiff of authentic complexity are the taboos here.

Some of the most enduring bestsellers in publishing are not fictional accounts of sex, but scientific studies of human sexuality.  In this case, safety and respectability are provided by an objective expert casting his cool, rational eye upon our base, animal urges.  Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, The Hite Report, Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, all of these books have escaped censorship, if not notoriety, because of their scientific credentials.  If the author doesn’t have a Ph.D. after her name, she must include a bibliography with copious studies and references to give the properly sanitized presentation.  Yet this mode of presenting human sexuality also has its distortions.  There is a temptation to transform human experience into numbers, focus on the bizarre extremes, and present a model of what is “normal” or at least average.  Objective it may seem, but even scientific studies should be viewed with a critical eye to the ways our cultural assumptions shape the “truth” about sexuality.

Comedy is yet another way that sexuality is rendered harmless.  In contrast to the tragedy and death in literature and melodrama, this view of sex focuses on the awkwardness, the farts, the hairy parts, the gaffs.  This is the typical approach of memoirists in magazines.  If the author and her husband attempt to act out a scene from Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, you can be sure the result will be ridiculous, and she will inevitably conclude she and her husband are too pedestrian (read “normal”) for such perversities.  There’s nothing wrong with seeing the humor in sex, or with getting in touch with our inner seventh-grader, but since the intended response is giggles and not something more dangerous like genuine arousal, the idea of sex as shameful, embarrassing and adolescent is dutifully preserved.

There are other strategies by which the disruptive power of sexual desire is neutralized while simultaneously used to titillate and seduce us to buy books and other consumer goods, but these four main approaches are the most common I’ve observed.  Of course sex actually does have negative consequences at times, but its pleasures can also help us transcend the restrictions of our daily lives.  Sex does deserve educated observation and analysis and can certainly be funny, witty, amusing, and even ridiculous.  Yet as artists who deal with sexuality, it can only benefit erotica writers to be aware of the deeply-rooted assumptions we face from the publishing industry so that we can challenge--or indeed utilize--them for our own benefit. 

So, the next time you see a sex scene on TV or read an erotic story, take a step back and question the implications of the story line.  What if, instead of getting raped and murdered, an adventurous and sexually curious young woman has a great time with that dark stranger? Could a couple try out partner swapping and decide they actually aren’t comfortable with other swingers, but be glad they had the experience anyway?  Are the questions asked in the survey of sexual activity you’ve just read in Cosmopolitan biased in a subtle, or not so subtle, way? And what if a suburban couple tries out bondage and ends up giggling, but also discovers the experience adds a new level of trust and excitement to their relationship? 

This level of realism has yet to be explored in the mainstream media, but as we sit down to write our next story or essay, with a fluttering stomach full of hope and uncertainty, we may indeed find ourselves taking a less-traveled path.  And, my fellow writers, isn’t that what the adventures of both sex and writing are all about?

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.

9 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I loved this article. It was the told about the very things that lead me into writing erotica.

    You are very true about how the mainstream views sex in general and anything outside of that is banned or cast out as evil.

    I find that the less traveled paths are constantly the easier ones to walk one without the trash of others before you.

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  3. Thanks, Damian. I love that image of the uncluttered path before us--who needs the garbage :-)?

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  4. Excellent observations, as usual!

    I find myself most "bound" by the assumptions of Porntopia. I like to write about the complexities of desire - confusion, regret, uncertainty, fear - as much as about the satisfactions. I spend a good deal more time on the build up to sex than on the sex itself. These days, however, that kind of story does not sell very well.

    The truth is that sex permeates all aspects of life. Sex is far more than mere recreation, as presented by Porntopia. Sexual connections DO have serious ramifications, but not necessarily evil or undesirable ones.

    Finally, you write what you're moved to write. Because bondage is consensual.

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  5. Brilliant, Donna—not to mention exquisitely articulated. Thank you so much for writing this.

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  6. And I, too, like that image, Damian!

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  7. Thank you, Emerald! And Lisabet, thank you for pointing out that bondage is consensual. I think one of the reasons I was moved to write this particular column was also because I was weighing what sells with what I've been wanting to write, and it's the same sort of complicated, ambivalent, "thinky," stuff that they tell us won't sell. Not that we can't do it all when we choose, of course. And the marketplace is constantly surprisingly the "experts" on sales. So, I guess it comes down to listening to that writer's voice within.

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  8. You've nailed it, Donna! And it is so hard to think outside the cultural "box," so to speak.

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