Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Confessions of A Literary Streetwalker: What Is Sex ... And How Much?

So let's ask the question: what is sex – especially what is sex when it comes to writing erotica? 

I will not begin with a dictionary definition ... I will not begin with a dictionary definition ... I will not begin with a dictionary definition ...

It's a very common misconception that erotica is supposed to turn the reader on ... or to be exact, that it is supposed to be written to turn the reader on. 

There's a huge problem with that, though: mainly that you, as a writer, have no idea what turns a reader on.  Even getting the cheat sheet of writing for a specific anthology there is no way you can possibly cover every permutation of that theme. 

Let's pick anal sex, just to be provocative: some people like anal sex people of the pure sensation receiving, or giving; while others have their desire mixed with domination or submission, etc., etc, etc.  Bottom line – sorry about that – you, as an erotica writer, cannot cover everything, erotically, when you write.

So how do you know how much sex to put into a story – and how to approach what sex you do put into a story? 

What's odd is that the answer is in two parts – but boils down to what you are writing: and, no, I don't mean your audience but rather the format of what you are writing.

The good news first: when writing stories for a specific anthology you can be pretty easy-going with your erotic content – depending, of course, on the anthology editor's demands according to their call for submissions.  This is because anthologies, by their nature, will have a wide range of content and approaches to whatever the book is about.  

Back to butt sex: let's say my antho is underway and I'm picking stories.  To give the book an appeal to a wide range of readers I, as the book's editor, will pick stories that (you guessed it) cover all kinds of approaches and all kinds of levels.  That way whoever buys the book will, more than likely, get what they want in at least one or two of the stories.

Some of these might be very light, almost romantic, with only a bit of explicit content while others might be classic bumpy-grindy kind of stuff.  Typically if an anthology's theme is ... well, let's say 'deep' for lack of a better word than a simple anal sex book, the editor will be looking for stories that say more than insert object A into anus B – and, that being the case, sex would be less important than being able to tell a good and touching story.

Personally, when I edit an anthology I always look for stories that tickle my mind more than my libido.  In fact (trade secret here) my most common reason for rejecting a story is that it is just porn: in other words the author is saying nothing but sex sex sex sex sex over and over again.   Sure, this is just how I operate but a lot of anthology editors have confessed to me the same: the amount of the sex in an erotic story counts a lot less than the story itself.  

So when you write a story, how much sex is really very (ahem) fluid.  But the game changes when you write a novel – but even then the amount, and kind, of sex you put into your book is totally up to you.

But keep in mind that publishers want books that are what they are supposed to be – by that I mean that if you are writing the wildest BDSM book ever written then you'd better have a lots of ropes, canes, Sirs, Mistresses, and the like. 

The reason is obvious: a publisher wants to be able to market a book very specifically – and nothing annoys a publisher more than being told a book is not what the author says it is.  This doesn't mean the publisher is a villain, but rather you, as an author, need to be honest about what the book is – and, most importantly, whom it is written for

You cannot know what turns on your reader on, but if you are writing a book that is more story that sex then there's nothing wrong with saying that your work is, say, erotic romance rather than hardcore when you submit it. 

There are no formulas, no rules, no magic percentages of how much sex needs to be in an erotic novel – except for the obvious fact that you should know who will be reading your book and why.  A publisher who gets a book that is described as "literary but with several explicit BDSM sex scenes, written with female readers interested in romance with some hot male dominant spice" will make a book publisher very, very happy.  They may not be able to take it – for a wide variety of reasons – but at least they'll know what they are looking at without having to read it cover-to-cover to find out what you wrote. 

Similarly, you should be extremely aware of what that publisher or anthology editor cannot accept.  It’s always a good idea to be up front with anything (ahem) provocative about your story or novel (age of the characters, non-consensual sex scenes, beastiality, incest, violence, pee or poo, etc.) as many editors and publishers have issues with these kinds of things – and don't react well to reading submissions that, halfway through, they realize they cannot accept.

So to answer the question of what is sex – or, more precisely, what is sex to an erotic writer – the quick and dirty answers are that for short stories you should approach your writing with thoughts of telling a good story that still meets the erotic demands of the anthology editor; and with novels you can write whatever you want ... but be able to submit it knowing what you have written and the audience for who you have written it.

As with any genre, there are no absolutes as for what makes an erotic story erotic – but, also with any genre, try to develop what could be called literary street smarts: the intelligence to know that it’s not how much sex is in a story but being able to navigate the often stormy seas of what it means to be a professional writer.  


  1. Excellent post, Chris!

    I'm not sure I agree about short stories, though. Different editors definitely look for different things. I'm like you. I look for variety, originality, a thought-provoking premise and a certain level of depth, more than for wild sexual activity (though I'm certainly not opposed to crazy monkey sex). For me, eroticism begins in the mind, so a story can be a turn on even when it contains no actual sexual acts at all. (I'm reminded of your wonderful diner story, nothing but erotic fantasy...)

    I think that there's a worrying trend in erotica, a tendency to believe that the more sex ACTS a story or book contains, the better it will sell. Unfortunately, at the moment, this might even be true.

    What do you think about this?

  2. Hi Chris,

    Because I deal with relationships and sexual issues all day as a Clinical Sexologist, I read erotica for the story and the HEA factor.

    A short story that's all about sex and skimps on the actual story line is boring to me. I want a good is just icing on the cake.

    It's amazing to see all the hoops fiction authors have to jump through. I thought writing non-fiction was torture. *smiles*

    Live with passion,

    Doctor Charley...

  3. Hi Chris,

    I harbour the same fears as Lisabet. And the strange thing about it is that only the other day I was having a convo with a reader about books and their arousal values. He said: "I don't mark the sex scene, I mark the couple of pages leading up to the sex scene. They're always hotter than the scene itself."

    I think that erotica has the capacity to offer a wide spectrum of heat settings. And for me, as a reader, the most exciting part of reading is when the heat arrives from unexpected places.

    You really can't do that WITHOUT a solid, intriguing story.

  4. I've been working on that myself, trying to target my stories more to a specific type of reader, rather than putting in something for everyone. Great post with some very good points. Thanks!


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