Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Confessions Of A Literary Streetwalker: What's Erotic? By M.Christian

It's one of the most common questions I get asked – by budding writers via email or in person during one of my (ahem) Sex Sells: Erotica Writing classes: what makes an erotic story ...erotic?

But before I answer [insert suspenseful music here] a bit of exposition is in order: there is ahuge difference in writing for yourself, such as when you are first dipping your ... toes into erotica writing, and when you've made the very brave decision to throw your work out into the professional world.

If you are writing for yourself then you really don't need to be thinking about sex (or the amount of it) at all: you're writing for your pleasure, or just as practice.

But if you do decide to send your work out you really do need to be pay close attention to where you're submitting: when a publisher or editor puts out a call for submissions they are often – or should be – quite clear about the amount of sexuality they need or want from a writer.  If you're sending a story, say, to a site, anthology or whatever it's always a good idea to scope out the territory, so to speak: read what the editor has accepted before, take a gander at the site ... and so forth.  That, at least, should give you a ballpark feeling of what (and how much) they are looking for.

But [insert dramatic drum roll] as far as the right, perfect, ideal, amount of sex for a story that isn't just for your own pleasure, or a very specific market, goes ... well, what's sex?

Far too often beginning (or even seasoned pros) have the idea that there's a required amount of sex, of detail, of activity, that makes a story erotic: they occassionally even have a percentage guide – or a shopping list of required activities (oral followed by penetration culminated by mutual orgasm, etc). 

There's also the belief that unless a story arouses them – or a publisher, editor, random reader, whoever – then it isn't sufficiently erotic ... and so needs more sex.

But both of these views are, frankly, wrong.  Erotica can be a remarkably flexible genre: it can be about anything to do with sex, sensuality, eroticism, whatever ... there isn't a set rule of amount or variety of sex that has to take place. 

I've sold (as a writer) and bought (as both an anthology editor as well as a book publisher), work that has a wide range of both quantity as well as assortment of sex and sensuality – though, once again, unless the project is upfront about requiring a certain kind, or amount, of sexuality.

And as for turning anyone on, I always remind people that there is absolutely no way to know what will turn anyone on – so it’s impossible to judge the amount of sex in a story by anyone's (not to be sexist) Peter Meter.  Once again, as a writer I've sold, and as an editor and publisher I've bought, many stories that I personally wasn't aroused by – and many writers and editors feel the same way.

So ... sex.  What I meant by what's sex is that sex can be a lot of things to a lot of people.  The erotic content in a story or book can be page after page of bumpy-grindy or lyrically sensual where actual penetrative sex (of any kind) never actually takes place.  Sex can be fantasy, without any reality.  It can be sense memory.  It can be masturbation.  It can be pleasure from extreme sensation.  It can even be bittersweet, disturbing, or even sad. 

Sex, in short, can be anything.  Speaking as a writer, I love to play with what sex can be about – often trying to really push the literary envelope.  Speaking as a publisher, I love it when a book or story crosses my path that says something – that really plays with the idea of what sex can be in a new and surprising way.

Erotica, to wrap it up, can be anything (caveats for specialized markets, of course).  There is no magic formula for amount or activity, arousal is no judge of quality or quantity: your erotic writing playground is as vast as your imagination–

–as vast as sex itself.  


  1. Actually, Chris, that's what I love about your writing--the recognition that physical sex isn't necessary in order for a story to be erotic. Or looked at another way, that there's no systematic relationship between either the amount or type of physical sex in a story and the degree to which it is arousing or erotic.

    One of my favorite stories of yours involves the fantasies of two characters, a night owl and a waitress doing the midnight shift at a city diner. They're just imagining what being together might be like--and it's incredibly erotic.

    I like to do that too. I have a number of stories with no physical sex whatsoever.

    However, I echo your recommendations to aspiring writers - find out what the editor and the publishing venue are looking for, and decide accordingly. Your decision might include not submitting at all, if what they want doesn't really match what you like to write.

  2. I'm reminded of your story "Nighthawks" (mentioned by Lisabet, above), as well as "Orbiting in Retrograde" by Kathleen Bradean (which appeared in an earlier edition of The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, edited by Maxim Jakubowski) in which an innocent man from Earth is guided around another planet by an Earth woman who has lived there for awhile, and she knows that all sorts of apparently non-sexual transactions count as "sex" to the local inhabitants. It's brilliant.


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