Thursday, November 14, 2013

Just Sex?

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:
  1. Erotica is nothing but sex acts;
  2. Erotica does not concern itself with emotions or relationships;
  3. 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.


Annabeth Leong said...

Thanks so much for this post, Lisabet. It means a lot to me, as you know.

I completely agree with many of the examples you give above about the depth of good erotica. I'd also like to add that erotica can be politically and philosophically transformative as well. I think of the stories in Coming Together: By Hand, for example. I loved your story in that, which showed how sex could burst out of the seams of dystopian control (a theme that Orwell also called upon in 1984). Another one that lingers for me is Allison Wonderland's story from that collection, about a woman masturbating for the first time on a birthday somewhere in her 50s. That story moved me so much because it was about overcoming what she'd been taught about what good girls do and don't do and claiming her body for her own.

Also, I've been trying to push myself recently to admit how much my life has been helped and improved by erotica that many people would be quick to name "sick" or "twisted" (and I've seen the goodreads reviews to prove it). For example, Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye changed my view of myself. I wouldn't recommend that book for the faint of heart, but it's the book that made me understand the difference between "things I want to fantasize about" and "things I want to do," which allowed me to make great strides in accepting my own brain and the way I think. (See also the work of J.G. Leathers, which I know is deeply disturbing to some but helped me to explore and understand the darkest spaces of my particular kinks). For a lighter, more explicitly sex-positive version of this, there's the stuff Lana Fox has been doing lately, which plunges into some of the taboos that we often see outlawed on submissions pages.

I'm fierce about this subject because I truly believe that the transformative, self-discovery aspect of reading and writing erotica has helped to make me the person I am today. It's helped me to own what I think about and desire and to admit and seek out what I actually want. As a woman raised in the kind of place where girls are expected to wait hand and foot on the men of the family, it's absolutely politically transformative for me to do those things--I spent so much of my life thinking that I was messed up and that it was wrong for me to speak up for myself.

Love can be part of it (in erotica or erotic romance), but sex is an important and fascinating topic that encompasses the whole spectrum of human emotion. I care so passionately about having a genre that's open to that. In any case, I've gone on my own soap box now. The main thing is I'm so glad you wrote this. :)

Remittance Girl said...

I can't express how glad I am that you wrote this, how much I agree with what you've written. Nothing to add, really. Just... yeah. Spot on, Lisabet.

Jacqueline Brocker said...

Excellent post and well said. Thank you. Nothing else to add but yep, I agree.

H K Carlton said...

Well said!

aureliatevans said...

The romance writers denigrate erotic romance. The erotic romance writers denigrate erotica. Often, erotica writers denigrate porn. (Not EVERY writer of the genres do this, just a general observation.)

Can't we all just get along?

Annabeth Leong said...

@aureliatevans I've observed something similar, and I think it's a defensive measure. "What I'm doing isn't bad. It's [something nice], not [something awful]," where [something nice] is whatever you do and [something awful] is something farther along the spectrum toward explicit. I'm not comfortable with this phenomenon, though, because I think sex-negativity is at the bottom of it all. Many, many people are not comfortable with fully embracing that they're interested in/enjoy writing/thinking/reading about sex. Or they're comfortable with writing about [something nice] sex, but not [something awful] sex. So, the distancing begins. This is part of why I've been trying to own my more extreme tastes. I am doing my best to embrace the sex that's at the heart of this for me, but that's a scary thing to do. It feels as if it opens me up to a lot of judgment about sluttiness, valueless work, etc.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Wow. It was your comment that spurred me to write this, but your passion takes my breath away!

Thank you.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Well, I figured that you'd agree ;^) I'm sure you could have made the same point more eloquently.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Thanks, Jacqueline.

I suspect that people who don't agree are being quiet - which is too bad, actually. As long as everyone is civil, I believe that discussion is a good thing.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Thanks, H.K.!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Aurelia,

Thanks for dropping by, and for speaking out. I think you're right - some authors of erotica DO denigrate the romance genre. And I'll defend romance against those individuals as heatedly as I defend erotica here.

In fact there are erotica authors who believe that romance hasn't developed since the days of closed doors or purple prose. There are romance authors out there who are really taking risks and trying new things - and I love to see that. In fact there's a synergism between the two genres, under the best of circumstances, and more overlap than some would think (or want to think, perhaps).

Kate Deveaux said...

Right on Lisabet! I'm spreading the word and we love you for your post and your books:) !

aureliatevans said...

Large genre infighting isn't a phenomenon exclusive to sex-driven prose. In fantasy, there's tension between high fantasy, urban fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, etc. In science fiction, I'm sure there's tension between dystopia, utopia, and apocalypse fiction. In horror, there's tension between the fans of gore vs. the fans of atmospheric horror. And so it goes.

However, Annabeth touches on something in her reply to me that suggests the infighting in the romance and erotica circles comes from an infection that's culturally systemic, a general wariness around sexuality and sexual power in general that manifests itself not in just tension but outright shame...shame that is continued in the mainstream and not just in genre circles.

It really is a shame, because we could be supporting each other as writers of genres generally considered fluff (mindless and frivolous) or smut (in the sense of being dirty and disgusting).

Instead, we're too busy saying, "I'm not as bad as [more explicit section of the genre]. Go witch-hunt them, not me."

Killarney said...

Thanks for sharing this with me Lisabet! I have 9 historical romantic adventures under my belt and two short and very tame eroticas. One of my novels, The Courtesan really pushes the boundries of romance vs erotica and I wondered if I could make that leap. I embarked on my recent wip that flowed from 8,000 wc to 57,000 in just 4 days! Though the sex moves the story on I'm finding the emotional connection of my characters is what is really engaging me to write it. You see, I read 50 Shades because I was curious about what all the fuss was. I found it engaging, BUT, I had 3 main issues with the plot that I thought I could write better, it inspired me to go for it. I did fear going over the top and crossing the porn line but your blog has reaffirmed that I am on the right track, I think. Thanks!

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