Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Trouble with “Safe” Sex

By Donna George Storey

Sometimes life throws a humble monthly blogger a last-minute topic that she simply can’t resist.  A friend forwarded an xoJane article to me called “The Audacity of Lena Dunham, and Her Admirable Commitment to Making Us Look at Her Naked.”  The author discusses how actresses who do not meet the contemporary standards of “beauty” (read: super skinny with large breasts), such as Lena Dunham in Girls and Kate Winslet in Titanic, elicit passionate disgust for refusing to hide in a corner covered by a tarp because they don’t fit into a size 0.

As a female who has not escaped the pain of dealing with body image issues myself over the years—and if you have avoided our culture’s toxic messages, please let me know how you managed that miracle so I can pass the wisdom on to women young and old—I was angered by the insults lobbed at Dunham.  Popular assumptions about female sexuality and attractiveness unfortunately have not evolved since I was on the dating scene.  Yet I began to see that these same issues apply not just to my imperfect body, but to my scandalous profession: writing about sex.  For example, in this quote from the article, we can easily substitute “genuine sexual experiences” for “ thighs”:

“We expect, weirdly, to be protected from Lena Dunham’s thighs -- as if Dunham herself must be made to understand how uncomfortable they make us, how DANGEROUS they are, to a media consuming public that doesn’t want to appreciate the variety intrinsic to reality, but who are happy to only see people and bodies that we instantly recognize and which do not challenge us. This goes for thighs, sure, but also for a wide array of other things as well, from race to age to disability. Don’t make us look. We don’t know how to process it. It’s HARD.”

Do readers who buy erotica expect to be protected from “real” sex?  Sometimes I think so.  Talking and writing about real sex is dangerous.  Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable.  Sometimes it’s difficult to process.  It seems the market calls for gorgeous, almost freakishly toned bodies to decorate the covers, partners who have mutual and multiple orgasms, and a miraculous absence of shame, inhibition, or disappointment among other familiar elements of sexual encounters, especially with strangers.  This is the safe and predictable way to write and read about sex.  Of course, many readers are doubtless trying to escape difficult issues from real life when they turn to erotica, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But surely there’s something to be gained by allowing for variety, challenge, and a potentially healing identification with the complexities of real sex.

Not that there aren’t editors and writers who do take on these challenges.  For example, Joan Price has taken on the radical task of presenting “senior sexuality” (that is, partners over—gasp—fifty years old) in a positive light.  Just for a giggle, count how many positive images of sexuality involving older people you see in the media over the next few days.  Indeed do you see any images at all?  Since, hopefully, we’re all going to get older and have great sex for as long as possible, why wouldn’t we all want to see inspirational examples of this?  Why must sex between older people be presented as ridiculous and disgusting?  Or at best channeled into a fantasy of past youth?  Is it perhaps that “senior sex” reminds us that our parents and grandparents and so many older, ordinary people around us are sexual beings?  That might indeed be hard to process, but fascinating, too, if we have the courage to take the leap. 

While I applaud the relatively recent trend of portraying nude male torsos on the covers of erotic books targeted at women, I also feel a pang that these naked men are invariably buff to the extreme.  Any actual person with that level of muscle definition must do little else but work out and take steroids.  I’m not naive enough to argue publishers switch to regular guys with beer bellies and atrophied biceps, but frankly I’m more turned on—or rather less turned off—by a more realistic image, just as I am by nuanced, believable stories.

I’m sure on some level we all take it for granted that our collective erotic imagination is corseted into a very narrow range of possibilities—young, predominantly white people with exaggerated secondary sex characteristics.  But perhaps if we begin to question what society—and we personally—are pushing away when we settle for these cliches in our images and our stories, we might come to a deeper understanding of what we personally desire, and how those desires have been shaped and distorted to keep us “safe.”

Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at or


  1. Very good points, Donna. In the first draft of my current novel, I wrote the initial sexual encounter as being good but not great. Through the book made it better as they got to know each other. I changed that in the second and third draft. Maybe I should go back to my gut feeling about the truth of sex rather than the fantasy. (but what will my editor say?)

  2. It is a tough call whether to go with the initial impulse or listen to the seasoned editor (rather than the mean editor, finally I'm friends with a nice inner editor at times!) I do write with the expectations of the market in mind myself, although I also try to insert some sly elements of reality. And alas, there is that editorial opinion, plus the cover choice over which we often have no control. It's definitely a process, but being aware of it is an important first step.

    Your first version sounds very good to me, though!

  3. Hi, Donna,

    As a former anorexic - don't get me started about body image!

    With regard to writing about "real sex", in the sense of sex that's not stellar - maybe we brighten up the amorous landscape in order to counteract the negative associations with sex in so-called serious literature. Readers turn to erotica at least partly to be aroused, and in many cases to experience the kind of sexual satisfaction they may not have in their own lives. I think that's part of our contract with our readers.

    Does this mean that we need to write stereotyped, perfect characters or sex scenes without a single misstep or embarrassment? Of course not. But fantasy *is* our stock in trade. If we can make those fantasies feel real, all the better.

  4. Outstanding post, Donna. I have always found real people, or at least people who "feel" real in the reading, are sexier. I've always felt that was my place in erotica: Women with stretchmarks, people with a little extra weight or perhaps too skinny. People self-conscious trying to break from that tendency. And so on.

    But, to Lisabet's point, many people turn to erotica to be aroused, and if we want to resonate with these readers, we have to find a sweet spot.

    I don't think I ever found that sweet spot as a writer, but I had fun trying. As I look back, the least satisfying of my stories were the ones where I tried too hard to craft my tone to make the story fit this image.

  5. I haven't had the opportunity to read your marvelous post until now.

    As much as I admire and adore Lisabet (and I do, and in person at times) I think that Lisabet and I will probably never see eye to eye on what our obligations are as writers of erotic fiction.

    I think 'fiction' is our stock in trade. 'Fantasy' is what readers create with our fiction. And we can either hand them something to compare themselves to and excoriate themselves with, or we can offer them something that allows them to take their own, very real bodies and very real sexual experiences on the fictional journey with them.

    It's a 'red pill / blue pill' issue for me. And being the unpopulist, arrogant, elitist cunt I am, I just don't think it's fundamentally moral to keep feeding readers the red pill. Mostly because there is just so much erotic value to be found in realism, in the imperfect body, in the hiccuped sexual encounter.

    We have a deeply ambivalent relationship with sexuality and the body in our culture. And frankly, I don't care how much many readers crave total escapism - especially from the problems of their own body image. I don't feel in any way obligated to perpetuate their desire for the crap that ultimately reinforces their already well-tuned appetite for the impossible. There are already enough images, narratives and messages out there underscoring the gap between a normal woman and the 'ideal'. Ultimately, it serves a capitalist economic model that wants you to feel imperfect so you'll buy crap to make you more perfect.

    Now, the reality is, as a writer, you're probably not going to sell a lot of books if you don't offer that fantasy. But I can live with that.


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