Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Erotically Correct

By Lisabet Sarai


In her post a few days ago, Donna George Storey celebrated the fact that erotic fiction has become both more accessible and more accepted over the past two decades. Erotica and erotic romance might not be taken seriously by the literary establishment, but readers, shielded from the scrutiny of their neighbors by their Nooks, Kindles and Kobos, have embraced it. In most countries, the threat of official censorship has receded, at least for the moment (although commercial restrictions remain a concern, as demonstrated by #AmazonFail and PayPal's strong arm attack on independent booksellers). I wonder, though, to what extent the members of the erotica community are censoring themselves.

Erotic authors naturally want to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This is a strong motivation to produce fiction that does not offend – erotica that is politically correct. Several contributors over the past month have emphasized the need to avoid producing content that involves under-age sex. Incest, even between adults, is a definite taboo. Non-consensual sexual activity is another no-no. My main romance publisher recently required me to add an explicit non-con warning to my soon-to-be-released steam punk fantasy novel, because the heroine is captured and sexually “tortured” by the heroes (enjoying every minute of the process).

Any hint of bestiality also raises the red flag. In the same novel, the heroine allows herself to be penetrated by the werewolf hero in his beast form. Yes, you guessed it – another reader advisory there!

Differences in race and sexual orientation must be treated with respect at all times. Heaven help the author who depicts a white individual deriving sexual pleasure from abusing someone black (or even vice versa). Homosexuals must not be portrayed as “fags” or “pansies”. Stereotypes are pernicious and evil, especially when they derive from painful histories of oppression.

Religion represents another area where an author must tread carefully. One of my favorite short stories (“Communion”) was rejected by a well-known publisher because it includes sexual activity between a nun and a priest.

Then of course there are the more extreme fetishes – bodily fluids, erotic asphyxiation, blood sports and so on. Niche markets exist for such content, but I know from personal experience that these topics will bar an author from publishing in more widely distributed erotic channels.

Now, I usually write sex-positive, emotionally satisfying, spiritually uplifting, woman-friendly, equal-opportunity, eco-sensitive, organically-grown, healthy erotica – stories unlikely to antagonize or scandalize any reader who already accepts sexual desire as a legitimate topic for fiction. On the other hand, I'm occasionally tempted to adopt a less PC attitude in my choice of subject matter, because some of the most arousing scenarios I can imagine just aren't that nice. And I've realized that by censoring myself, I'm losing the opportunity to explore some erotic truths – possibly unpopular, even unpalatable, but genuine nevertheless.

Last week, I read (for a review) a collection of “extreme interracial erotica”. Many of the stories in this book involve Caucasians who crave sexual abuse and humiliation from dominant Blacks. The tales stereotype whites as undesirable, neurotic, self-deceiving, manipulative, small-dicked – secret sluts whose ultimate life's purpose is to serve their attractive, intelligent, well-endowed, ebony-skinned masters and mistresses.

A part of me found these tales disgusting, or at least distasteful (although I'm sure this was partially the effect of the less-than-stellar writing). At the same time, some of the scenarios turned me on. I'm enough of a submissive to react to the D/s dynamics, although I've never had a personal fetish about race. Furthermore, I could see how the racial elements heightened the erotic effect – as well as how some readers might be especially aroused by interracial tales that flipped the roles into even less PC territory, allowing whites to control, use and abuse black characters.

History has left deep impressions. We may like to believe that we're color-blind, immune to the residual mythologies fostered by slavery, but the eroticism of power cannot be denied.

Sex is not necessarily polite.

Rape is not an acceptable topic for erotica. Yet women (and some men) frequently report fantasies involving forced sex – 62% of over 350 subjects in a recent study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19085605). Why do we become aroused imagining an experience that would be aversive in reality? The scientific literature proposes a variety of explanations; exploring such fantasies in erotic stories would add another dimension to our understanding.

Some people fantasize about fucking their siblings or their parents. Some imagine sexual congress with tigers or horses or dolphins. Some of us are aroused by enemas or wearing wet diapers. Some dream of stripping the habit from Mother Superior and defiling her upon the altar.

These fantasies aren't politically correct, but they are, in some sense, erotically correct. They are part of the complex emotional and ideational tangle that is human sexuality. By not writing about these cravings, we're hiding part of the truth – and we're denying ourselves and our readers the opportunity to penetrate more deeply into the sexual psyche.

So what am I advocating? Stories that treat rape as titillation? Tales that feature mothers sucking off their teenage sons and daughters eaten out by the pet Doberman? You'll find such things on the Internet, of course – but I wouldn't necessarily categorize them as erotica.

I guess what I'm suggesting is a bit more honesty and a bit less self-righteousness when it comes to erotic content that doesn't fit within the range of what we'd consider “normal” or “socially acceptable”. I'd like erotica authors – and readers – to be more daring in the topics they're willing to consider. Most important, I'd like to see a clear distinction recognized between fantasies of exploitation, oppression, humiliation, violence, or degradation and the real thing. The latter might be dangerous, but the former can be exquisitely exciting.

It takes significant talent to write a taboo fantasy that's arousing without crossing that line. One author who excels in this regard is ERWA's Bob Buckley, for whom this contrast is a frequent theme. His story “Squandered Sins” (in Coming Together Presents: Robert Buckley), for example, deals with a city health inspector with a secret desire to dominate and abuse Asian women. Although he's basically a decent guy, he's prey to all the erotic stereotypes about passive Oriental females. In the course of his work, he is offered a Chinese girl as a bribe and is horrified to find that he's momentarily tempted to accept. Then he meets a Chinese-American policewoman with desires complementary to his own, and makes her his “chink bitch” - to their mutual satisfaction.

The sexual connection between these two characters burns up the page – precisely because they are enacting a scenario condemned by any right-thinking member of society. The hero's barely-resisted urge to make his fantasies real sharpens the tale, adding to his sense of shame. Some readers might find this tale offensive. I thought it was brilliant.

When you choose erotica – or it chooses you - you venture into dark and dangerous territory. In a previous post, I defended my tendency to write positive tales that would teach, by example, about the possibility of good sex. I still believe this. However, another lesson erotica can teach is that good sex sometimes goes beyond what's politically correct, that desire doesn't necessarily conform to the dictates of society or even morality. We can pretend ignorance of this fact – but we're simply lying, to ourselves and our readers.

17 comments:

  1. I think a lot of the challenge is that a taboo tackled well can be amazingly erotic, but a taboo tackled simply for the "ooh, look at this, it's taboo, isn't that hot!" might temporarily satisfy but at the cost of pulling down the genre.

    Incest erotica is probably the best example. "Ooh, she's my sister!" can get a rise, and a lot of poor quality porn stops there. However, the powerful stories go beyond that and address the emotions of violating the taboo, the push-pull of the attraction, etc.

    Of course, I say this as an author who's writing erotica about sexual addiction. How much self-censorship does our genre get into there? (rhetorical question).

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  2. I'm a reluctant advocate for ravishment fantasy (reluctant advocate, not reluctant fantasizer). I struggle a lot with the assertion by the dominating publishers that if I want to publish fantasies that some argue a majority of female readers have and enjoy, I have to do it through back channels, often by self-publishing, since no one else will take it. Thus, feeding into the shame game against any unacceptable fantasy, in spite of the fact that no one's getting hurt and no crime is being committed.

    I think that if some publishing companies rose up to the occasion and screened transgressive erotica for the same quality and literary merit as their erotic romance, there could be a place for it.

    In the meantime, I'm left wondering whether I'm the one in the wrong here, just because my BDSM isn't codified and I occasionally have a good day at my characters' expense.

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  3. What a great blog. I passed it around the web.

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  4. I also feel this self-censorship writing erotica. I also repeat that fantasies and reality are distinct. I also know that literary establishment accept only some erotic stories, while others (that no PC) go into internet free as anonymous stories of second, third, fourth level.
    In fact we can writing no PC erotic stories, but we cannot claim they are accepted, disclosed and sold by literary establisment.

    What do we want? Do we want that establishment accept some extreme sexual practices stories? If is this, we should explain to establishment why it should accept these stories.

    Explain why is a cultural initiative much large and hard.

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  5. the problem is that a lot of the taboo fantasies people have are not represented by mainstream erotic publishers because of the legal ramifications. so what we end up with is poorly written work that is the only option for those who enjoy such taboo fiction. the need for good underground taboo fiction has never been stronger. i have my own taboo fantasies & i find myself looking into the bowels of the internet to find them. it's frustrating to have no outlet to write & to read such.

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  6. fiction to me is fiction & should not be censored in any way. the fact that a bunch of literal-minded oafs with no imagination are the ones deciding what we can publish disgusts me.

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  7. Erotica is the most heavily self-censored genre out there, because the thought police are a real danger, not an imagined one.

    My Night Creatures is awash in blood. I await news from a potential publisher. We'll see if it passes.

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  8. And to add my previous comment, I jumped into erotica through my work in fanfiction. Now there's a hotbed of transgressive acceptance, so you just get used to it being okay. Then you come into the places where they give you money, and suddenly all those things that were perfectly fine are considered taboo. In fanfiction, all you need to do is put in a warning, and the people who don't want to read it ... don't read it. Novel concept, I know - no pun intended.

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  9. Thank you, Lisabet.

    "Squandered Sins" is one of my personal favorites because I was able to put myself into the hero's shoes, a simultaneously uncomfortable and exhilarating POV, but then isn't that the formula that fuels good erotica? We all have notions that stoke shame. Well, I have more than my share, being brought up in an Irish Catholic family.

    Taboos fade, but PC issues are a particularly resilient pain-in-the-ass. I might entertain the sensitivities of folks who have an actual claim to offense, but the ones who annoy me to the point of homicide are the self-appointed cross-carriers who loudly claim offense on behalf of others. I'll include in that category those who invoke the welfare of children when they condemn a book or a movie or TV show.

    The best defense against the cry of offense is to write intelligently. How profound is that? Duh.

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  10. Thanks for this, Lisabet. Inklings of it have occurred to me too, and I have encountered the same question in response of, "What exactly do/am I advocating then?" I don't really know. I do know that it has occurred to me that if professional writers of erotic fiction are not "allowed" to write/publish work on these themes or subjects, does that result in some sort of disservice (somewhat aligned with what Amanda said about the quality of erotica available to those who experience fantasies in these areas)? It's not as though these things disappear from our psyches or consciousness because most publishers will not allow them in their published content.

    It's an interesting subject and, I think, one worth considering. I appreciate your doing so and inviting others to as well in this post.

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  11. Great post, Lisabet. I think you've said what a lot of us have been thinking but afraid/unwilling to say.

    I've had one novella of mine literally shredded by some critical readers because it contained scenes of reluctant consent, white slavery and other such taboo subjects. My publisher got brave and put it out there, and I had to cop the flack. *shrugs* I maintain to this day that the scenes depicted were not rape they were RC. And the white slavery was contextual to the setting of the story.

    Ravishment fantasy, IMO is not rape for titillation, anymore than having a graphic murder depicted in a crime novel is meant to turn the reader on to go out and kill someone. Fiction is fiction, true, but it should also imitate real life and those taboo scenarios and fantasies occur in real life. Why disallow them then, in fiction?

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  12. Incidentally, my above mentioned novella sold better than almost anything else I have written!

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  13. Thanks to all of you for your great comments!

    @ Ed - You have an excellent point. Breaking taboos just for the sake of effect doesn't offer the sort of insight that I'm talking about. And to the extent that more "serious" erotic authors avoid non-PC topics, the world will be flooded with these cheap tales that don't go below the surface to consider what the taboos *mean* when they're broken.

    @ Aurelia - publishers like Republica and Freaky Fountain, who were brave enough to bring out quality books that pushed the envelope, have gone out of business. Very sad.

    @ Amanda - I sometimes wonder if the legal argument is just an excuse. Sure, kiddie porn is definitely illegal, but as far as I know there are no laws, at least in the U.S., against written portrayals of incest, or race games, or golden showers. Of course there is always that murky claim that something is "obscene"...

    @ Kathleen - not to worry. Any amount of blood seems to be okay!

    @ Bob - I hear you! And you do (write intelligently).

    @ Emerald - We need to refute the claim that by writing about something, we are advocating it. I agree that I'm uncomfortable writing, or reading, a rape scene in an erotic novel - but that's the way it should be. These topics *should* make you squirm. That's part of the point.

    @ Kalita - I get complaints from some readers simply because my consensual sex is too graphic or too rough. You've got to shrug it off and find your readership.

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  14. I love your phrase "erotically correct," because obviously, whether we are allowed to write about it or not, our sexual fantasies are nourished by taboo. I find it very interesting that as soon as we gain freedom in some area--as in the ability to publish erotica widely as we can today--other ways of control pop up to encircle the danger. Basically as you and others point out, it's that only a certain kind of erotica is "allowed," and, more frighteningly, thought and deed are seen as one in the same. However, I do believe that writing intelligent, carefully crafted erotica is still a rare and brave act, regardless of the theme. To declare "I'm smart and I think about sex" is still radical!

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  15. I have a question regarding the "underage sex" mentioned in the OP. Specifically how is "underage sex" defined? Is it two minors of a similar age (e.g., two sixteen year olds) having consensual sex? Or is it an older (legal adult) partner and a minor partner?

    Thank you in advance. Anyone with an opinion, feel free to answer.

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  16. Hello, Donna,

    I use the term "erotically correct" in the sense of genuine. There are of course many erotic fantasies that happen to be politically correct, but quite a few of the most potent are likely to trigger outrage, at least among some people.

    Anyone who is interested can read now read my review of the book that triggered this post, Minority Affairs, over at Erotica Revealed:

    Erotica Revealed

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  17. Hello, Deb,

    Sorry your comment got trapped by the spam filter and thus delayed.

    It doesn't really matter whether one is talking about sex between two teens or a teen/adult affair, you can't touch either of them. And though some people will be appalled, I think both scenarios have tremendous erotic potential.

    I'm not talking about pre-pubescent children, mind you. But I feel that a relationship between, let's say, a thirty year old guy and a sixteen year old woman should be allowed grist for the fictional mill.

    I was fifteen when I had my first sexual experience. My lover was twenty one.

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