Some of us write for love. Some of us write for money. Either way, we authors are hungry for reader approval. Perhaps there are some out there who toil away for the pure sake of their art and who honestly don't care whether anyone reads their books or not, but nobody I know personally falls into that category.
As for me, I want to be loved far more than I want to be rich. I want the people who pick up my books to be swept away into the worlds I create – to live, breathe, suffer and lust right along with my characters and to feel satisfaction, even joy, when my story winds to its close. Positive reviews send me to the stars, not because they'll increase my sales (they probably won't), but because they suggest that I've succeeded in seducing at least one reader.
If you worry about your readers' opinions, though, then you can't help but think about market sentiment, which after all aggregates their views. Then you find yourself making choices based not on what you want to write, not on instinct or on passion, but on your perceptions of what is likely to sell. And that truly is a slippery slope. There's a thin line between adapting to the market and self-censorship.
Much of what I write these days gets labeled as erotic romance. I constantly have to sit on my characters so that they'll behave according the expectations of this genre. In particular, no matter how tempted I am to introduce F/F interaction into my stories, I have to resist. I frequently find my heroines wanting each other, but I don't dare let them consummate their desire because it will alienate my audience. Both my readers and my publishers have told me in no uncertain terms: the majority of people who buy and read romance actively dislike any depiction of Sapphic sexuality.
For example, I remember the experience of writing The Ingredients ofBliss, which includes some fairly wild BDSM ménage scenes (M/F/M). Halfway through the book I came up with a kick-ass secondary character, a female police detective named Toni. It soon became clear that Toni had her eyes on my heroine Emily. In love with Toni myself, I desperately wanted to see what would happen if I allowed her to express her interest in a physical way. Emily could easily have been open-minded enough to go along. Instead, I ended up including only the faintest hints of mutual attraction – and then my editor wanted me to scrub those as well. (She objected to some of the other extracurricular sex, too.)
Why is there such a bias against F/F relationships in the erotic romance world? Especially when the majority of readers are female? I took a poll once, in the guise of a contest, to find out how my small coterie of fans felt about F/F fiction. The responses ranged from “It just doesn't interest me” to “It's icky.” (I'll admit that one or two replies indicated an enthusiasm for lesbian stories that equals mine. The population for this impromptu survey was after all a self-selected set of people who already like my work!)
I can live with the “doesn't interest me”. After all, my husband has zero inclination toward BDSM, even in fiction, in vivid contrast to my own fascination with power exchange. The “ickiness” factor really bugs me, though.
This isn't sexual conservatism or general homophobia. A big slice of my readership adores gay male erotic romance, especially when the heroes are tall, handsome and intensely masculine. These readers fantasize about such men themselves. It seems only natural they'd expect such men to be drawn to one another.
In contrast, I have the creepy feeling that many women don't find their own bodies attractive enough to be erotically appealing.
That's an ugly, scary thought. I hope it's not true. Given how mercilessly the media beat us over the head with images of impossible beauty, though, I can't rule it out. Most of us don't measure up to the artificial ideal, no matter how much money we spend on cosmetics, clothing and gym memberships. Meanwhile, we're told that anything outside that ideal is unacceptable. Our hairy pussies are disgusting; we'd better go get them waxed. A tummy that's not flat as a board, breasts that are too big or too small, flat feet like mine that can't handle the high heels required to be truly gorgeous – we're conditioned to dislike our physical selves.
How many women do you know who truly love their bodies? And how can you love another, naturally imperfect woman, when your perceptions are colored by these constant messages of female inadequacy?
Of course, there is a market – possibly growing – for F/F erotica and erotic romance among lesbians and bisexuals. In those books, though, market wisdom suggests you should avoid any straight sexual interaction. This literary segregation really annoys me. My characters tend to reflect my own omni-sexuality. I want to write about women with men, women with women, men with men, multiples and chains, in the same book (as I did in my first novel fourteen years ago, when I was still a marketing innocent).
Anyway, there's nothing I can do about market pressures, except to resist the urge to self-censor and try to remain honest. When I'm tempted to let my female characters explore one another, I should yield. I'll never be a best seller, so what have I got to lose?
Just for the fun of it, I thought I'd include an excerpt from the very first F/F scene I ever published, in my debut novel Raw Silk (which is going to be re-released, newly edited and expanded, soon!) My heroine Kate is in the process of learning about submission from Gregory, who owns a sex bar in the Bangkok red light district. He brings her to the bar, disguises her as Asian, and “forces” her to participate in a live sex show.
Gregory handed her a silk kimono. ‘Put this on, and wait behind the curtains until you hear the music. After that - you'll know what to do.’
‘I know that you won't disappoint me, Kate,’ he added. Then he was gone.
Standing in the dim hallway, Kate fought the urge to run. She fantasized about sex in public places, she acknowledged; she had enjoyed the risk of discovery in her recent, outrageous experiences with Somtow. This was different. How could she fuck a stranger, surrounded by strangers, who were watching purely for their own entertainment? Being discovered in the midst of passion was one thing; deliberately exposing the most private of acts to public view was something else altogether.
She had no choice, she told herself. Marshall had required this of her, and she was bound to obey him. She knew she was lying to herself, though. Mixed with her trepidation was a secret, shameful excitement.
The first wails of the saxophone reached her from beyond the curtain. She recognised the tune. Kate pulled the kimono tight around her, swallowed hard, and stepped into the spotlight.
In the brightness, Kate could see nothing. She moved toward the stage, feeling light-headed. It seemed that she floated up the stairs.
Her partner awaited her.
It was the sweet little vamp who had been Uthai's companion in the previous performance. A woman! Gregory was diabolical.
The Thai woman caught her eye. Kate saw kindness in her face, and amusement. Slowly, she began to untie her robe; Kate did the same. The silken fabric slid from their bodies at the same moment. A low murmur rippled through the audience.
The woman held out her hands to Kate, beckoning, inviting. Kate glided across the stage, the music reaching her despite her fear. They clasped hands, standing face to face. We could be sisters, thought Kate. They were exactly matched in height, and like her, the young woman was more generously endowed than was typical for a Thai
Still holding Kate's hands, her partner encircled her and kissed her, open-mouthed. Kate felt a shock at the woman's soft lips and probing tongue. For a moment, she struggled against the invasion. However, her arms were pinned at the small of her back; though seemingly gentle, her partner was remarkably strong.
Perhaps Gregory has instructed her, thought Kate, surrendering to the strange and delicious sensations of the woman's kiss. There was a faint taste of peppermint. The woman drew back and smiled at Kate.
‘Please,’ Kate whispered. ‘You'll have to help me, tell me what to do. This is all new for me.’
‘Mai khaojai,’ the Thai returned in a whisper. ‘Pood pasa Angkrit mai dai kha.’
Kate knew little Thai, but she understood the gist. Her lovely companion spoke no English. They could communicate only with their bodies.
The woman's hands were on Kate's breasts now, stroking and fondling. Her touch was unlike anything Kate had known, delicate yet focused, savoring both the smooth skin and the swelling flesh beneath. Kate's hands hung at her sides, awkward. Her partner's nipples, pert and upturned, seemed to wink at her. Come, don't be shy, they seemed to say. We long for your touch. Hesitant, Kate cupped the twin mounds in her palms, felt the silkiness under her fingers. So strange it was, like caressing herself, but with an extra spark. After a moment, she brushed her thumbs ever so lightly across the woman's nipples. Electricity ran up Kate's spine, as the Thai stiffened and then relaxed, throwing her head back and thrusting her breasts forward.
The music changed, moved into a bridge, and the Thai woman regained control. She half-danced with Kate over to one of the poles, so that Kate was leaning back against it. Then she sank to one knee in front of Kate and used both hands to part the hair hiding Kate's sex.
Panic rose again in Kate's throat. With the spotlight in her eyes, she could not see the audience, but she heard their hot breathing. This passionate dance was too private for their gaze. Yes, she wanted this woman, but she would not, could not, allow herself to be so taken under their crude inspection.
Then thought was erased by sensation, as her partner's tongue swept through her sex in one long, hard stroke that ended with a flick to her clit.
(If you happen to be one of that rare breed of readers who loves F/F erotic fiction, by the way, I urge you to pick up a copy of HerOwn Devices, my collection of lesbian erotic stories.)