Wednesday, June 11, 2014
It’s difficult to write good erotica. Authors in any fictional genre have to master the elements of the craft: plot, characterization, dialogue, and so on. Erotica authors need to go further. They need to depict sexual acts, situations, and emotions that are believable and arousing. To do this, they draw on their personal insights and images. They delve into their imaginations, lay bare their sensual fantasies, and share those visions with their readers. Authors who dare expose themselves via erotica are brave souls, indeed.
To my delight, I find myself today surrounded by these fascinating people: the writers of sexually explicit fiction. These are the people who populate the virtual world of ERWA, the world we have built together over the past ten years.
In 1996, when I first plugged into the Internet, I admit that the first thing I looked for was porn. I craved sexy stories. Much to my disappointment all I found were boring, mechanical sex scenes, and a lot of “Oh my Gawd, I’m cumming” nonsense. It didn’t take me long to realize that much of the adult web was simply a digital form of male-oriented one-dimensional smut, a cyber circle-jerk. I was disappointed. As a woman I felt left out of the dirty stuff.
I thought that surely I wasn’t unique in my desire for well-written, hot erotic stories – real stories, not just bits and pieces of fuck scenes. So I hit the chat rooms and asked, “Where’s the quality sexy stuff?” That was like plastering a blinking “Who wants to screw me?” tag on my emails. Live and learn!
For my next attempt, I joined the Romance Readers Anonymous (RRA) email list. I thought that surely romance readers would be comfortable discussing erotic stories. In those days, though, we couldn’t talk about sex in our public posts, even though many romances were highly erotic.
A few of us listers took to chatting off-list about the erotic parts of romance. I suggested that we live on the edge and start our own list. Great excitement greeted my suggestion, and on June 5th, 1996, the Erotica Readers Association was born. ERA, an affectionate play on the Equal Rights Amendment, was a sister list to RRA, and the foundation of the current Erotica Readers & Writers Association.
At that time my children were in high school, and I had the opportunity to finish my degree in Anthropology. As a student, I had access to various online options and with the endorsement of my professor, the University agreed to host the ERA email list. My goal was to provide a private, secure online space where women could comfortably discuss erotic fiction and sexuality, away from the “hey baby, whatcha wearing” crowd.
Subscription was by request or invitation. Publicity worked via word of mouth. Within two months we had sixty women onboard – fabulous, fun, curious women who were eager to talk about sexy writings, and to discuss the joys, problems, or disappointments of their own sexuality.
It didn’t take long before these readers decided to try their own hands at writing sexy fiction. “I bet even I can write a sex scene better that!” was a typical inspiration. We quickly learned that writing good erotica wasn’t as easy as it seemed. The general assumption was that if you were capable of having sex, then surely you could about write it. Not necessarily true, but that didn’t stop us from trying. We were having a lot of fun, even when our fictional efforts fell flat.
Before long, a few brave men who were friends of ERA subscribers were asking to join. They liked reading erotic stories, and they liked the idea of smart discussions about sex. So I opened the door; ERA became inclusive rather then exclusive. Most women were pleased with the change. A few stomped off the list, sure ERA would crumble into a “hey baby” chat room atmosphere.
That didn’t happen. Men brought their unique sexual insight into ERA, and our horizons grew even more as people of all sexual persuasions requested subscription. ERA became a dynamic robust community of people interested in sexuality in the written word, and in their lives.
Of course, we had our fair share of narrow-minded confrontational types, rigid view points, and egos too big even for the World Wide Web. Overall, though, ERA-ers were non-judgmental, mutually respectful and more then willing to get along.
ERA grew quickly that first year. Subscribers suggested I started a web site to house all the material we were accumulating: book recommendations, hints about popular authors, discussions on where to buy erotica (at that time erotica wasn’t sitting on book shop shelves). A subscriber volunteered to build a site, and the domain “www.erotica-readers.com” became an on-line reality.
We decided to be really daring, and started putting subscribers’ original stories behind a password protected “Green Door” on the ERA web site. We felt so very sophisticated, and risqué, with our personal secret stash of erotica sitting right out there on the Web!
ERA continued to grow, and so did subscribers’ interest in writing erotica. Writers were taking a serious interest in helping each other improve. Stories were shared on the list, and critiques and suggestions on how to improve the works were cheerfully and willingly given. ERA was evolving, moving from its readers’ base to a writers’ base. More and more focus was on writers helping writers.
Around this time, erotica anthologies were becoming very popular. The Herotica series (Down There Press) had made a big splash, leading the way to The Best Women’s Erotica (Cleis Press), Best American Erotica (Simon & Schuster), The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica (Carroll & Graf), Best Lesbian Erotica (Cleis Press), and Ultimate Gay Erotica (Alyson Press).
Web site magazines were springing up like grass (and weeds). There was a growing market for erotic short stories, and many ERA subscribers were ready to try publishing their work. They exposed themselves, so to speak, behind ERA’s Green Door; the experience gave them confidence. With support and encouragement from their peers, ERA subscribers started to submit stories to various calls for submissions.
ERA already had a solid community feel. Subscribers really did care about each other. We were a virtual family. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised at how generous writers were in sharing calls for submissions. Rather than concealing the information to reduce the competition, ERA-ers said: “Hey everybody, look what I found! Let’s give it a try.”
At that time, the ERA web site was still a small dot in the adult web, but there was no doubt our growing resources and stash of sexy stories was drawing in a smart crowd. I took the plunge, and with a lot of help and suggestions from the community, gave the ERA site a new look that was sensual and classy, as well as easy to navigate.
I didn’t realize the obvious: being out in the Web made my private email list, nicely hidden and hosted by the University computer center, suddenly quite visible. Subscription was still by request or invitation, but now inquiries came pouring in. People landing on ERA web site liked the resources they found there, and wanted to know more. Subscriptions grew, the site grew, and soon ERA was pulling in more then 13% of the university web traffic. ERA had to go, they told me, and gave me two weeks to find another host.
Ah, the price of success! Fortunately, an Australian subscriber volunteered the help of her husband, who ran his own ISP service. Kevin hosted ERA for free for several years until we once again grew too big and had to move on to our present home, a major adult web hosting company.
By 2000 ERA had grown so large and had such a varied focus that things were getting out of hand. The sheer number of emails on the list caused confusion and havoc. Writers were frustrated in their efforts to have their stories critiqued because their works were lost in the deluge of chit-chat emails. Questions and concerns about publishing and marketing went unanswered because busy subscribers didn’t have time or patience to dig through hundreds of emails, and were simply deleting it all.
Meanwhile the amount of information on the site was overwhelming. The organization was on the verge of losing itself in too much of everything. It would have been an ironic death by popularity.
At this point I understood that ERA was no longer a simple hobby. Good erotica had become a worthy pursuit. Erotica readers were hungry for the good stuff, and publishers were geared up to provide it. I wanted the ERA web site to be the place where erotica readers and writers would come for the information they needed and where editors and publishers would come when looking for talented writers. I wanted ERA to be the premier web site for quality erotica. Finally, I wanted to continue to provide an email list where erotica readers and writers could network, and where people could comfortably discuss sexuality.
The first step was to change the Erotica Readers Association name to better reflect what we had become: the Erotica Readers & Writers Association (ERWA). The second step was to create a flexible infrastructure for the site and for the email list, a foundation with enough latitude for future changes. Here’s where ERWA subscribers came to the rescue, once again. Suggestions poured in, and I followed through. The evolution of ERWA was, and I suspect always will be, a community affair.
ERWA became three distinct parts that made up the whole: ERWA email discussion list, ERWA web site, and the humorous and informative ERWA monthly newsletter, Erotic Lure, currently written by the editor of this anthology, Lisabet Sarai.
The ERWA web site retained its basic design. The richness and utility of the site grew as publishers and editors recognized ERWA’s potential. No longer did I spend hours searching for viable markets. Calls for submissions now came to me.
ERWA’s story galleries became a source of quality erotic fiction. Editors routinely mined the galleries’ content for their “Best Of” erotic anthologies. Renowned erotic authors came on board as columnists, providing advice in our Authors Resources section. The luminaries of the adult literary world offered provocative articles on hot sexual topics in the Smutter’s Lounge pages.
I divided ERWA email discussion list into four opt-in sections; Admin (for news related to ERWA, calls for submissions, events, and other items of interest); Parlor (an open forum with a social ambiance); Writers (dedicated to authorship and related issues); and Storytime (an informal writers’ workshop where authors share their stories for comments and critiques). The very best of Storytime works are placed in ERWA Erotica Galleries, and many of them are showcased right here in this volume.
Currently, the Erotica Readers & Writers Association hosts an email discussion list of over 1200 subscribers. Our newsletter goes out to more then 5000 readers, writers, editors and publishers. The web site is accessed over six million times each month.
ERWA has been favorably reviewed by Playboy, Elle magazine, AVN online magazine, Writer’s Digest, and recommended in a host of books and articles as the premier resource for erotica readers and writers. Every month, we entertain, educate and inform millions people from all over the globe who are interested in erotica.
Although we’ve grown tremendously, ERWA’s strength is still in community. We are diverse and far-flung, but tightly connected. The result is an ongoing effort to understand and accept all persuasions, lifestyles, and expressions of sexuality. We want to bring the very best of erotica to readers, partly by helping writers excel in a genre that is making headlines and causing the entire publishing industry to sit up and take notice.
Personally, I’m amazed at what we’ve built together, and extremely proud. Now I can say to those frustrated folk who are searching, like I was, for sex writing that is simultaneously intelligent and arousing: here we are. Search no further. Welcome to ERWA. You’re home.
[This article is an afterword from the erotica anthology Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association (Running Press, 2006, edited by Lisabet Sarai). Of course this written was almost a decade ago, and a great deal has happened since then. Still, the spirit of ERWA remains vital and - dare I say it? - lusty as ever. ~ Lisabet Sarai, blog coordinator]