Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Measuring Eroticism

By Lisabet Sarai


A while ago, my main erotic romance publisher decided to institute a new system for rating the amount of sex in their books. Like most publishers in the genre, they were already rating each book for “heat”:

Simmering - The sweeter side of romance, but with just enough heat to get your pulse pounding.
Sizzling - Sexy, explicit, and highly imaginative but with an emphasis on sensuality.
Burning - Sexy, creative and hot, almost anything goes - not for shy readers.
Melting - Super X rated with risque and explicit plot lines. For the bold and the brave.
Taboo - Pure, unadulterated erotica, possibly covering extreme imagery - might push the limits of acceptability. Proceed with care, these stories might not have a happy ever after.

However, the powers that be felt that they needed to rank books on another, possibly orthogonal dimension, namely how much sex the book contained. They introduced a “sexometer” rating, running from 1 to 3:

1 - Slow burn with plenty of sexual tension leading up to an explosive climax.
2 - A delicious balance of erotic tension and sexy scenes. More than risque and less than relentless.
3 - My my, how do they keep it up? Non-stop sensual and sexual action throughout

In discussions on the publisher's author list, I opposed this new rating, for several reasons. First of all, I thought it was a rather superficial measurement, since it was based on the number of sex scenes in the book relative to the book's overall length. So was it better to have three short scenes? Or one extended scene?

Furthermore, there is the question of how you define a “sex scene”. My recent release The Ingredients of Bliss includes several sexual fantasy sections, in which the heroine is imagining various outrageous activities. Nothing is happening in the physical world at all. Do these count toward the rating? Do we consider sexual interactions between characters other than the main protagonists? Do the participants have to reach orgasm? I know these sound like dumb questions, but the sexometer concept seems to invite them.

I also worried that faced with the sexometer, authors would feel pressured to add more, and more explicit, sexual activity to their books, even when this didn't fit with the story. We all know “gratuitous sex” when we see it, sex that's stuck into the middle of a book without justification or narrative function. Personally I find that sort of sex immensely boring. People who don't probably aren't paying much attention to the plot or the characters in the first place.

My most serious concern, though, related to the implicit suggestion that the higher a book rated on the sexometer scale, the more erotic the book. I knew from personal experience this was just plain wrong.

I don't believe you can measure eroticism in any simple or mechanical way. A single glimpse of a girl's bare midriff or a guy's hands can propel me into a fever of desire. The same holds for fiction. Indeed, some of my favorite stories are those where the physical sex is held to a bare minimum – or perhaps doesn't occur at all.

A fine example is Amanda Earl's “Welcome to the Aphrodisiac Hotel”, originally published in the Cleis Do Not Disturb anthology and part of Amanda's imminent Coming Together Presents volume, which will benefit AIDS charity GMHC.

The narrator in this tale is having a drink in a hotel lobby bar while observing the other occupants and imagining their sexual lives. There's no sex in this story at all – only the promise of sex, the delicious potentials and pairings. Nevertheless, I found this tale incredibly arousing.

At this point the waiter arrives. He’s a new waiter and I haven’t had the chance to fantasize about him yet. Probably a college student, making money for school. I love his short curly dark hair, wonder what it would be like to see that luxuriant head of hair between my legs, as he licks at my cunt. Perhaps he enjoys older women. It’s clear he’s in good shape, thanks to the tight hotel-regulation uniform that displays his sweet little ass so well.

I want to rub my hands over the zipper, to watch how his erection flares at the mere touch of my hand through the fabric of his pants. In a soft and sultry voice, he asks the doctor for his drink order. The quiet tones of his syllables whisper over my skin. I can feel my nipples hardening beneath my silk blouse. I’m watching others but I look around briefly and wonder just who might be watching me. That thought sends a jolt of arousal to the damp cavity between my legs.

Another example is M. Christian's classic “Nighthawks”, which appeared back in 2004 in Alison Tyler's Down and Dirty collection. This tale, inspired by the Edward Hopper painting of the same name, is set in a city diner, in those dark and lonely hours between midnight and dawn. It's a luscious exploration of a love affair between a customer and a waitress that is no less ardent and tender for being entirely imaginary.

Just a few days ago, I read another brilliantly erotic tale where sex takes second stage to desire, Preston Avery's “Won't Last the Week”, which appears in Tenille Brown's anthology Can't Get Enough. The narrator meets the woman of his dreams at a party. They spend the night on the beach, so entranced by one another that they forget to exchange phone numbers. As the week goes on, dreams and fantasies of the lost woman consume the narrator's life.

It's clear that the protagonists have sex, but this is barely described. The focus is on the emotions the woman inspires, with her ripe sensuality and her openness to the narrator's desire.

She isn't skinny like the girls I usually go for, like my ideal “on paper” woman, but curved and soft and she fits me just right. Her breasts are big with a delicious slope to them, and I know they will overflow my grasp. I could bury my face in the valley between them and never come up for air. I could have seconds and thirds and fourths of her and die a gluttonous happy man. She does everything I lead her into. I don't ask – words are still lost to us. The first time I lower one of my hands to those gorgeous mounds, hidden between a thin blue cotton shirt, she doesn't protest of push me away- she arches into me, into my touch, and makes the most beautiful noise in her throat. That moment, those moments, are all that I can feel. The future is as unreal to me as a unicorn on the planet Saturn. That place where names and phone numbers matter is at least a world away.

The beautiful urgency of this story left me in wet wonder. And yet, on the sexometer scale, it probably wouldn't even make it to 2.

Much of my own recent work, especially my short stories, would score pretty low on the sexometer. “The First Stone”, coming out in a few weeks in Cheyenne Blue's lesbian collection Forbidden Fruit, has a single sex scene, maybe a page long, in a story of 4500 words. Most of the tale focuses on the build-up, the protagonist's struggle against her unseemly, implacable and completely inappropriate lust. (The heroine is a nun.) “The Last Amanuensis”, in Remittance Girl's anthology Written on Skin, barely has any sex at all, though it is shot through with frightening darts of desire. And even in the stories that do include a healthy dose of sucking and fucking, I tend to shine the spotlight on the characters' emotions and reactions, not on their genitalia.

Okay, so The Ingredients of Bliss received a sexometer rating of 3. Am I proud of that? Not particularly. This romp demanded frequent and outrageous sex, so that was what I wrote. But I'm not sure that it's any more erotic than (for instance) my short story “Just a Spanking”, which has orgasms but no sex at all.

Eroticism is in the mind of the reader. And I don't think it can be measured in any objective, cut-and-dried way, any more than you can measure hope, or humor, or God.


11 comments:

  1. Well-expressed, Lisabet! I've often had vaguely similar thoughts about publishers' "heat ratings," but I've never expressed my concerns this clearly. I can understand why publishers want to put labels on their "product" as a way of attracting the right target audience(s), but the best books tend to transcend labels.

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    1. From what I've observed, romance readers tend to be a bit timid. They want to be sure they won't be offended or upset by the book's content.

      Don't get me started about the "warnings" publishers add. My new book?

      "Reader Advisory: This book contains female dominance and submission, anal sex, public sex, ethnic slurs, threats of violence and a scene of attempted rape."

      The ethnic slurs? My villain calls the heroine a "chink". Yes, there is an attempted rape, but by the villain. And heaven help us if we run into unexpected anal sex!

      To be fair, I don't know if readers pay any attention to these warnings. I was disappointed that they removed my addition, "chopsticks used as instruments of torture"....

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  2. As both of you have said, I see the need for some type of labeling. However, I've flipped pages, half-bored, through multiple-partner anal sex scenes but been utterly riveted by a single kiss. There's a lot to how something's written that's hard to convey in a rating system.

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    1. Exactly, Annabeth. It's pretty impossible to capture the essence of eroticism in any sort of objective metric.

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    2. "I've flipped pages, half-bored, through multiple-partner anal sex scenes but been utterly riveted by a single kiss."

      YES! THIS!

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    3. This describes my experience as well. Which I think supports Lisabet's excellent argument about the dangers of slapping labels of both "quality" and "quantity" on a story.
      No better way to take all the magic out of it.

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  3. What a great post, Lisabet. I have to say, I find this so depressing it makes me want to cry. One of what I consider to be my very best stories has no sex in it at all, just the very tense run-up to it.

    I'm unutterably sad. I don't think I want to be in this genre anymore.

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    1. Well, you're not really in the romance genre ;^)

      Things are still a bit better in erotica, I believe.

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  4. I write each story the way the characters want it told. For most there are only a few sex scenes, some hotter than others. For my most recent book, since the heroine is a biker queen who regularly has sex with all the men in her gang, the hero had to use a whole lotta hot sex to convince her that, as the title goes, "Only One Man Will Do", and it had to be him. None of my friends have complained, but my husband, of all people, said he couldn't get past the 3rd chapter because of all the sex scenes! EX-CUUSE me! Everyone's a critic!

    And I agree that sexy differs from reader to reader, and from story to story. The ratings systems are ridiculous!

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    1. Exactly, Fiona! The characters, the theme, the point - that is what determines how much, or how little, sex a story needs.

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  5. I did enter a comment, but apparently it was not posted. :-(

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