Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Monday, September 10, 2012

Confessions Of A Literary Streetwalker: What's Erotic?

It's one of the most common questions I get asked – by budding writers via email or in person during one of my (ahem) Sex Sells: Erotica Writing classes: what makes an erotic story ... erotic?

But before I answer [insert suspenseful music here] a bit of exposition is in order: there is a huge difference in writing for yourself, such as when you are first dipping your ... toes into erotica writing, and when you've made the very brave decision to throw your work out into the professional world.

If you are writing for yourself then you really don't need to be thinking about sex (or the amount of it) at all: you're writing for your pleasure, or just as practice.

But if you do decide to send your work out you really do need to be pay close attention to where you're submitting: when a publisher or editor puts out a call for submissions they are often – or should be – quite clear about the amount of sexuality they need or want from a writer.  If you're sending a story, say, to a site, anthology or whatever it's always a good idea to scope out the territory, so to speak: read what the editor has accepted before, take a gander at the site ... and so forth.  That, at least, should give you a ballpark feeling of what (and how much) they are looking for.

But [insert dramatic drum roll] as far as the right, perfect, ideal, amount of sex for a story that isn't just for your own pleasure, or a very specific market, goes ... well, what's sex?

Far too often beginning (or even seasoned pros) have the idea that there's a required amount of sex, of detail, of activity, that makes a story erotic: they occassionally even have a percentage guide – or a shopping list of required activities (oral followed by penetration culminated by mutual orgasm, etc). 

There's also the belief that unless a story arouses them – or a publisher, editor, random reader, whoever – then it isn't sufficiently erotic ... and so needs more sex.

But both of these views are, frankly, wrong.  Erotica can be a remarkably flexible genre: it can be about anything to do with sex, sensuality, eroticism, whatever ... there isn't a set rule of amount or variety of sex that has to take place. 

I've sold (as a writer) and bought (as both an anthology editor as well as a book publisher), work that has a wide range of both quantity as well as assortment of sex and sensuality – though, once again, unless the project is upfront about requiring a certain kind, or amount, of sexuality.

And as for turning anyone on, I always remind people that there is absolutely no way to know what will turn anyone on – so it’s impossible to judge the amount of sex in a story by anyone's (not to be sexist) Peter Meter.  Once again, as a writer I've sold, and as an editor and publisher I've bought, many stories that I personally wasn't aroused by – and many writers and editors feel the same way.

So ... sex.  What I meant by what's sex is that sex can be a lot of things to a lot of people.  The erotic content in a story or book can be page after page of bumpy-grindy or lyrically sensual where actual penetrative sex (of any kind) never actually takes place.  Sex can be fantasy, without any reality.  It can be sense memory.  It can be masturbation.  It can be pleasure from extreme sensation.  It can even be bittersweet, disturbing, or even sad. 

Sex, in short, can be anything.  Speaking as a writer, I love to play with what sex can be about – often trying to really push the literary envelope.  Speaking as a publisher, I love it when a book or story crosses my path that says something – that really plays with the idea of what sex can be in a new and surprising way.

Erotica, to wrap it up, can be anything (caveats for specialized markets, of course).  There is no magic formula for amount or activity, arousal is no judge of quality or quantity: your erotic writing playground is as vast as your imagination–

–as vast as sex itself.  


  1. I love this post and wholly agree. One of the most erotic things I've read in recent memory was a scene in The Secret Life of Bees in which the main character (age 14 if I remember correctly) and her 15-year-old love interest are gathering honey (that is not a euphemism), and the older character holds his finger to the main character's mouth so she can taste the honey he just pulled from the hive. To me, it's written with such tension and precision that I simply felt the intense—and unspoken—attraction between them.

    I remember finding it amazing that I found such a simple and utterly un-explicit passage so erotic. As an author, it quite reminded me of what you say here.

    Thanks for this!

  2. Thank YOU - so glad you liked it! I completely agree with you ... so many writers think that sex has to be ... well, sex (physical, literal) when it can be almost anything with tension or sensuality. More than anything I want to encourage writers to think outside the (ahem) box ;-)

  3. Hi, Chris,

    I think eroticism is more about desire than about physical sex per se. And I have the highest admiration for authors (like you, in fact) who can arouse without including explicit sex. You have one story I remember (I'm terrible with titles!) about two people meeting in an all-night diner. Each one is fantasizing about the other, and those fantasies are intensely erotic - but they don't have sex at all, just part and go their separate ways.

    I loved that tale. It touched me, because I'm hyperaware of how individuals can drift in and out of your life, changing you and then moving on.

    Also - I believe that a professional writer can deliberately adjust the "amount of sex" in a story - but only to some extent. We each have our preferred styles. Maybe you like to write page after page of blow-by-blow sex acts. Maybe you like to just hint at things. As I wrote at the Grip this week, I have a great deal of trouble writing characters whose sexual priorities are physical rather than mental, because that's not how I'm wired. For other authors, it might be a piece of cake.


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