Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

They're Taking Over, Again

by Jean Roberta

Earlier this month, there was a thread in the Writers list of Erotic Readers and Writers about whether the association is “straight” in any sense.

Originally, this term seemed to mean conservative or mainstream. People who share a love for (or an addiction to) certain consciousness-altering substances refer to stone-sober outsiders as the “the straights.” People who identify as any shade of “queer” (gay-male, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, bi-curious, etc.) describe heterosexuals as “straight.” Those who are into bondage, discipline, Dominance, submission, sadism, masochism or fetishes distinguish themselves from the “vanilla” mainstream, and this means approximately the same thing as “straight,” even though a sizable section of the kinky crowd is heterosexual, and many have a sensible rule against getting high when they intend to “play.”

Considering that people join the ERWA lists because they like to read and write sexually-explicit literature, and considering that this taste is definitely not conservative, it could be argued that no one in this group is “straight” in the narrowest sense. Erotic writers have been discriminated against in various ways when they are openly identified, and this gives them something in common with all other victims of social prejudices.

By now you can probably see the problem with labels. A person who has one identity which is not universally accepted may be perfectly “straight” in another sense. From the outside, all “queers” may look similar, but I know enough transpeople to be aware that as a white lesbian married academic, I am much more privileged than someone whose sexual plumbing doesn’t match hir (his/her) outward appearance.

And then there is racial and cultural identity. Despite some very real, tangible signs of “advancement” for “the colored” (as in the name of a venerable organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), racism in various forms persists. Are those of us who look white therefore relatively “straight?” Is a kinky, polyamorous brown person who grew up in a privileged family in a Third-World country more or less “straight” than a white vanilla queer professional, raised in an urban slum, who likes crystal meth as a recreational drug and lacy lingerie as a secret indulgence? Does it make a difference if one of them is male and one is female?

In organizations that aim to be fairly diverse, there are always rumors that “they” are “taking over.” When I was on the board of a major, government-funded feminist organization, I heard from my mother, of all people, that someone who didn’t know she was related to me had warned her that the lesbians in the group were taking over. This was news to me. The past president, a married woman with much organizational experience, still seemed to be setting the tone in much the same way that the feminist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was influenced by Emmaline Pankhurst (in England), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (in the U.S.) and Nellie McClung (in Canada) while all three had husbands and children. Anyone who believes that votes for women were won by a perverse, male-bashing cabal of bitter dykes needs to do some reading.

Years ago, someone in “Parlor” here at ERWA complained that the BDSM crowd seemed to be changing the tone of the group – for the worse. The complainer waxed nostalgic for the “good old days” of a few years before when, presumably, everyone in ERWA shared a common view of sexuality, and it did not include leather. Several long-term members referred her to stories and posts with a kinky flavor, some of which dated back to the founding of the group in 1996.

As an old-timer here (since December 1998), I haven’t seen any sudden change of the culture due to the invasion of any particular community. If anything, the charge that the group as a whole is “too straight” seems more credible than the suggestion that a hot chili-pepper clique is quietly spiriting the vanilla beans away and keeping them bound and gagged in a cellar. “Straightness” could be defined as a default category. Anyone who is not familiar with a community or a lifestyle that doesn’t get much airtime in the media is, by default, relatively “straight.” The price of diversity is a shortage of in-group familiarity and the need for education. (Those who don’t understand need to learn, and those who aren’t understood are often called on to teach, for better or worse.)

There are times when those who are alternately ignored and singled out for attack prefer the company of their own tribe, and this is understandable. Some members of ERWA probably feel more at home somewhere else, at least occasionally. However, a diverse group that attracts new members is one that can survive over time. The greatest degree of general acceptance (short of accepting injustice) seems like the key to sustainability.

I think of ERWA as a hub for overlapping categories of writers, some of whom have added sex scenes to their romances, mysteries or literary stories, while some have learned to expand sex scenes into whole plots, or poetic meditations. This place is the Times Square or Speakers Corner of the erotic writing world. Even when I lurk, I can’t imagine dropping out entirely. There is just too much going on here, and I wouldn’t want to miss it.
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8 comments:

  1. I thought that was an interesting thread too.

    The first story I posted to storytime years ago (2003?) was (I didn't realize at the time) an extreme fetish piece about a woman who took surreptitious pictures of older woman's legs in a specific pose and used them as wank fodder. Guess which part of that got the most outraged comments? Not the non-consensual part. Not the fetish. It was the "gay" content. Do you remember when we had to put warnings at the top of our stories for content, and LGBT content was one of the big warnings? So yeah, ERWA used to be really, really, really straight. But over the years, it's become less and less of an issue, just as it has in the broader culture. Yes, people in writers assume heterosexuality when they are heterosexual. But that doesn't mean they'd blink an eye if someone stated they were queer, or feel sexually threatened by reading a same sex story in Storytime. So to me it feels as if its grown into an inclusive place. That being said, I know what it's like to go to a LGBT writer's conference and for the first time not have to self-censor about what I considered basic and central parts of my identity, because in that room, it was the norm. It was so freeing and affirming. So I get what the OP meant.

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  2. The person whose comment initiated that discussion has clarified what s/he meant in subsequent posts. As I understood it, the gist was that s/he felt ERWA members did not devote much time to alternative sexualities, especially the experiences of people who consider themselves in some sense "trans".

    Meanwhile, by some people's standards, none of us is straight. After all we write smut/porn/erotica or whatever you want to call it, hardly a mainstream activity.

    Still, we do take some things for granted these days. Kathleen, I'm finally digging into "Gay L.A.", which you recommended a long time ago. It's incredibly enlightening, and pretty scary, too. Who would have believed that in the fifties, women were harassed and arrested for wearing trousers?

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    1. I have this terrible reaction to much trans erotica I read since it comes of as creepy fetishization. In the hands of a deft writer with a good take on their character's humanity, a trans character is as fascinating and complex as any other well-drawn character. Maybe the reason more writers don't attempt to write trans characters is that they've never felt an intense disconnect between mind and body. It's hard to capture that if you've never seriously thought about it how it affects a person. And, for many "straight writers, they don't want to get it terribly, terribly wrong and play into stereotypes that have been thrown at them through media. (Are all trans people drag queens? You'd think so from TV. What's the difference between a butch lesbian and a FTM person? etc.)

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    2. You make a good point, Kathleen. And I have to agree with you on the trans erotica, but I'd add that unexamined fetishization of any kind is pretty creepy. Mostly because the writer hasn't gotten past the 'object' or 'state' that's being fetishized to examine the engine that's powering the fetish. Someone, I can't remember who. said that behind every fetish is a story. And that's the point - you have to get BEHIND it to tell that story.

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  3. Jean, I have written elsewhere on your's or Lisa's blog about my views on labeling. I don't care to repeat myself. Why the need for labeling in the first place? To/for whom is it directed? Who decides on the label and by what standard, if such exists. Who is the arbiter? We readers of erotica, smut, call it what you may, are hardly turnips off the truck. I assume we are a sophisticated lot, with an "inner-eye" (and sometime "ear" as to our tastes and wishes.

    I will repeat an earlier saw of mine. Labeling is for the academics and journalists and other media conveyors who apparently require a short-hand or code to talk to each other. I find labeling patronizing if not condescending, (is there really a difference?).

    It seems to me that well constructed, truthful and meaningful log-lines may be useful. I have no objection to them. Actually, I welcome that. I wonder if you or others might agree.

    irwin

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  4. There are a number of people I interact with via my day job who have nostalgia colored glasses on most of the time. 'Back then' is almost always better than 'now', even if they are leading happier lives. Kids were more respectful, death didn't happen, etc etc. I like to point out the bad parts of 'back then' but usually things like facts get brushed off because things just felt more innocent back then. I am just assuming that this is a phenomena that isn't limited to my coworkers.

    Bonus points for the Hot Pepper vs. Vanilla Bean comparison since capsaicin is a vanilloid. Or maybe that was too geeky of me.

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  5. I refer to the longing for the "good old days" that probably never existed but still remain in some people's minds, as longing for the "halcyon days of yore." When white men ruled over everyone, and by right got the best of everything: jobs, promotions, salaries, etc. White women were under their thumbs and not allowed to work, (think Doris Day's "pillow-talk" movies--her "coin" was her hymen, her price was a ring) so there wasn't that pesky competition angle for jobs, that didn't allow the men to just fantasize about all women they met...after all, who'd want to be with a woman more powerful than them? Hmmm...

    Anyone of color/different nationality/differing sexuality, or any other kind of difference was marginalized and knew their place was to to stay there...out of sight, out of mind. Unless the white men deigned to go looking for a little "kink" they could enjoy, knowing that it wasn't as if it was "real people" they were doing those disgusting things to.

    That kind of attitude is behind a lot of the ills these days. Many white men feel threatened and worry about what their place is now that they have to compete with everyone. The only ones still enjoying the "good life" are the 1%, who've always had it great. Probably always will, because no one will stage a revolution when it means having to turn off Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/whatever new thing they're into these days, and turn off the TV, and pay attention to what's going on and do something about it...in real life...in real time.

    As for me? I'll keep coming back here to learn. Only by being exposed to things outside of one's personal realm of experience, do we learn and grow. I don't presume to have any answers, but I do enjoy hearing everyone else's questions and paths to knowledge.

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  6. I think that ERWA has always had two personas. One is a learning and support creche, where you have nascent erotica writers just learning to get a handle on the structure of storytelling and the complexities of grammar within an erotica framework. The other is that of an organization that has staunchly supported good erotic writing - of any kind, representing any sexual orientation or proclivity.

    I was quite active on the list at the time the complaint emerged about BDSM writers 'taking over' the list. I've never really considered myself a BDSM writer, but I am intrigued by the power dynamics that can, like other aspects of sexuality, help drive the conflict of a good erotic story.

    The truth is, I hate labels. As you said, Roberta, there are times when people want the comfort of their own tribe. However, I think that in a writing group, that can sometimes lead to the diminishment of an individual writer's voice; for me that stands as a sort of inviolate singularity that transcends all classifications of gender, sexual orientation, fetish, etc. For me, that singular human voice always takes primacy. And I think, on the whole, ERWA has done a pretty good job of celebrating that.

    The older I have gotten, the more I have come to realize that, for better or worse, privilege is relative. Being a reasonably twisted Jew, I have come to understand that one of the most powerful vehicles for transcending barriers, both individually and as a group, is the capacity to tell one's story well. There have been many minority groups whose plight has gone unrecognized because few people within that group have been eloquent enough to communicate that plight eloquently.

    I acknowledge that eloquence itself can entail the privilege of a reasonable education and the ability to write in a language that many other people read. It is not a perfect ladder. But it is an achievable ladder. Unlike skin colour or sexual orientation, you can change your status from silent to storyteller. You can acquire the skills to tell a story eloquently.

    If we lived in a Levinasian world, where people accepted, in an instant, all the heavy complexity of an individual human experience with one glance in the face of the other, it would not be necessary to learn to be eloquent. And perhaps it is an unfairness that we have to. But it is, I think, a lesser unfairness than many others.

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