Several weeks ago I hosted an author who made some statements with which I strongly disagreed. I figured it wouldn't have been polite for me to engage her in an argument (although at least one commenter expressed opinions rather similar to my own unvoiced objections), but now that the dust has settled, I'd like to talk a bit about the issue, which actually bothers me a lot: the tendency for some people – some authors of erotic romance, in particular - to view erotica as somehow inferior to their own genre because (they believe) it's “just sex” - empty, meaningless, without the emotional impact one finds in the loving relationship that defines a romance.
In this post I want to try and correct what I see as some serious misconceptions about erotica as a genre. Of course, I recognize that these are my opinions and my definitions. However, I can back them up with at least some evidence from my own stories, which you can read online.
This particular guest wanted to draw a distinction between ménage (a commonly used term for erotic romance where more than two individuals are involved in a sexual or romantic relationship) and polyamory, which implies a long term, committed relationship involving three or more individuals. According to her, most romances with three or more participants should be called polyamory. The term ménage should be used to refer to “a tale that is nothing more than erotica, a string of artificial acts that really has no basis in reality”. It is “simple three (or more) way sex. Nothing more.”
The hair-splitting terminology is not my problem. I've written three way, so-called ménage, romances (for example Truce of Trust and Wild About That Thing) that I'm happy to call polyamory instead. No, what bugs me are the implications that:
- Erotica is nothing but sex acts;
- Erotica does not concern itself with emotions or relationships;
- Erotica is somehow less worthy or serious or important than romance.
I've been publishing erotica (as well as erotic romance) for nearly fourteen years. While the lines between the genres are not nearly as clear-cut as some would like to believe, I agree there is a difference in focus. Romance focuses on love. Erotica focuses on the experience of desire, which may occur within or outside a romantic relationship.
However, there's nothing simple, superficial or “artificial” about desire. It can be as potent and transformative as love. Lust – satisfied or denied – can change a characters just as profoundly as love.
Contrary to what some people think, quality erotica is not primarily a description of inserting tab A into hole B. I'll agree that for the most part, anatomical accounts of sex acts are not, by themselves, particularly interesting. That's true of real world sex, too, at least for me. The intriguing, intoxicating, puzzling, mysterious aspect of sexuality is not what we do but how we react – what sex does to our minds and emotions. How do we feel about our partners, ourselves and the acts in which we are engaged? Joyful? Guilty? Desperate? Confused? Daring? Frightened?
Consider, for instance, a classic erotica trope, the bar-pickup-and-fuck-in-the-alley. How many stories with this plot have I encountered? Quite a few. On the surface this looks like nothing more than scratching an itch. The protagonists are strangers. There's no emotional or personal connection, right? It's all about physical attraction.
But look more closely. Why is this scenario erotic? It's arousing exactly because the people involved are strangers. There's an element of danger that adds to the excitement, not to mention the heady sense of breaking the rules. You're not supposed to fuck strangers in alleys. The transgressive aspect is part of what makes this a hot starting point for an erotic tale.
Look even deeper, though. Who are the two individuals and why are they doing this? Just lust? Unlikely. Perhaps the woman has just learned that her husband is having an affair and is out for revenge. Perhaps the man is terribly lonely, but this is the only way he knows to connect with another human being. Maybe they're irresistibly drawn to one another, with that weird chemistry that really does occur every now and then. Maybe he told her stories about what he planned to do to her, stimulating her fantasies, long before they stepped out the back door to actually the deed. And how will the story end? How will these two people be changed, after they've wiped away the spunk and the pussy juice, pulled their clothing back into some semblance of order, gone their separate ways?
Erotica explores these different possibilities. Unlike romance, which is constrained to have a happy ending, anything might occur. They might never see one another again – but remember the encounter for their entire lives. They might meet by chance on the street the next day, go for coffee, end up moving in with one another. The woman might decide to divorce her philandering spouse. Encouraged or energized by the experience, the guy might work up the courage to talk to his female co-worker the next day. You just don't know. Erotica explores alternative universes – fantasies that readers perhaps imagine but would never act upon – and then considers a whole range of possible denouements.
Is this simple? Artificial? I don't think so.
I promised you evidence. You can find plenty in the free reading section of my website. Consider, for example, the story “Perception”. A workaholic psychology researcher recovering from a painful divorce finds herself attracted to one of her experimental subjects. They have an intense sexual interaction, then he disappears. No happy ending – though there are hints. But Jessie is deeply changed by the experience.
Or try reading the bittersweet paranormal tale “Twentieth Century”. Sexy and sensual, but not at all trivial, at least not in my opinion. No happy ending - Beth's lover may not exist - but the encounter moves Beth into a new phase of her life.
Then there's “Butterfly”, about a young man who finds himself lusting after a dancer, only to discover that she used to be a he, and that he can't deal with that notion. Difficult. Probably realistic. And still very erotic.
As it happens, many of the free stories on my website are more romance than erotica, simply because that's my bread and butter. However, I assure you that if you buy a copy of my erotic mystery Exposure, or my short story collections Just a Spanking and Spank Me Again, Stranger, you'll find many more examples of just how complicated desire can be.
I sometimes think that romance authors who denigrate erotica do so because they're embarrassed or shocked by the notion of sex removed from love. Erotica is “dirty” because it permits the characters to have sex outside of a societally-sanctioned “relationship”. It's just a shade away from – heavens preserve us – porn! No self-respecting author would lower herself to write such filth. And yet as soon as the characters are “in love”, anything goes.
This strikes me as a bit of self-delusion, personally.
Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, of course. However, I feel more free reading – and writing – erotica, because there are more options. I can write about love – or guilt, disgust, anger, rebellion, a million other emotions that are all entangled with our sexuality. And whatever ending I choose, I know it won't necessarily be simple.