Please be advised that this post represents my personal beliefs and preferences. Obviously, these are not universal truths and writers who don’t believe in them are selling a lot of books, too.
I have written a similar blog post about writing romance or women’s fiction but it is still something that weighs on my mind a lot. Ever so often, I write erotica – I also read erotica. Admittedly more short-stories than novels, but I do enjoy the occasional sojourn there as well. And unfortunately, I often don’t enjoy them for a couple of really simple reasons: I find them problematic.
Especially for the anthologies I write for, I am lucky to work with a bunch of incredibly wonderful women – who are all highly educated, politically aware, funny, gracious and generous – not to mention very talented. I consider myself fortunate to learn from them and to be able to hold them up as an example against the kind of erotica that makes my skin crawl.
Characterization and Objectification
Vastly important to me – both as a reader and a writer of erotica – are the characters. I feel like so often, they are a little on the under-developed side. This is particularly problematic when it becomes increasingly objectifying, especially on the side of the female character.
On the basis of pure reading enjoyment – unless the character is interesting enough to feature in any other book, with a backstory, dreams, a job, hobbies, opinions etc., I don’t want to read about them having sex. Of course, especially in shorter works this doesn’t have to be beaten into the reader with passages over passages of useless description but the reader is pretty smart. It is all in the details, the reactions, the clothes, the stories and thoughts.
I am only interested in reading or writing erotica about three-dimensional characters, characters that represent real human beings… not just puppets that play out some sex fantasy. Basically, if they aren’t interesting and enticing clothed and out of any sexual context, why would I want to know more about them naked?
Personally, when I don’t feel like I’m going to miss those characters terribly and have wild ideas about plot-less full-sized novels – then I know I did something wrong in the short and will revise.
And yes, this does have a feminist aspect to it as well. I have read that erotica and romance is supposed to be a fantasy that takes women on a journey out of themselves and their mundane problems. Like fashion is a fantasy and the general beauty industry, I suppose.
I disagree with that – I want to read about real women: with flaws, insecurities, opinions, humor etc. – not some fantasy of perfection. Or worse: a fantasy pulled straight out of Hustler.
I have also read that women are supposed to like reading about objectified men. You know the type: six-pack, perfect abs, tanned, millionaire, but still kind, sophisticated and with a lot of spare time and obviously perfect in bed as well… *hem*. Do we really? I know it is a trope in many books but do we? I always find that a terrible turn-off. I like my men real, too :).
You probably guessed that I can’t write a post like this without getting to talk about consent. There is an argument to be made that we are writers and not law-makers and social justice experts and we don’t have to worry about the nature of consent – but I don’t believe that.
There are still countless young men and woman who have no idea what consent means, who think that if a girl just says “no” once or twice but then gives up when you persist, that this is consent and totally okay behavior. A fifth of all women aren’t raped by hooded and cloaked mental patients but by college boys and neighbors – many of whom still firmly believe that a woman’s “no” doesn’t actually mean no.
I can’t change that. I’m just one person, but I can at least not contribute to that idea by writing stories with dubious consent. This is easier when writing about couples but even with strangers who get together, there is usually ample opportunity to make sure both parties consent, respect each other and enjoy what is going on.
Writing about reluctance is fine, too. It is after all, something that a lot of women would feel – but it has to be handled with care. If she says “no” and he persists and she ends up having a great time, the female character might be off fine, but the male character is still engaging in highly problematic behavior. Yes, even if he gets her off afterwards.
Another issue I often stumble across has to do with the use of language, especially when we are talking about a story told either from the male character’s point of view (whether first person or third person limited) or in third person omniscient. This becomes even more important when we venture into bdsm territory where consent and slut-shaming/humiliation issues are even more complicated than with regular sex.
So what about words like slut, whore or bitch? I am not in the business of censorship and I know they can be used to great effect. But without explaining a great deal, a man using them in narrative to describe a woman will always make me hate him. Always. That is okay, by the way, because in writing we sometimes have villains – but I get really angry at an author when they let a male character engage in really sexist and problematic behavior while still posing him as the hot sexy romantic lead.
Slut in direct speech is a whole different ball-game by the way. When we are talking about a bdsm story, there are certain genre ideas already in place and that word can be used to great effect… however direct speech is different. We say things we don’t mean all the time – especially during sex, we role-play and we engage in dirty talk etc. but we don’t mean that out of context. To have a man think it is far worse.
It comes down to respect – whenever I read any erotica, I need to feel like both participants mutually respect each other and consider themselves equals – no matter what kinky stuff they get up to, no matter how they talk to each other in the moment because it turns them on – deep down the respect has to be there. And if a man actually calls a woman a slut in his head, it’s over for me. Done. I’m not interested in reading erotica about pick up artists and misogynists.
Breaking the rules
Now, far be it for me to say you can’t write about problematic people – men or women. Not everybody has to be 100% likeable, people have prejudices and flaws and that is a good thing. The last thing I want is for people (who managed to read all the way here) to walk away from this with the impression that erotica should always be about perfect people. Flawed people are brilliant characters!
However, they have to be approached in such a way that the reader knows the heroine and the writer are aware of this. And depending on how flawed we are talking, her feelings, the sex, the dialogue and the ending might reflect it, too.
[Except please, please for the love of my sanity, let it not be the kind of resolution where the guy’s general misogyny stays the same but he realizes that this one girl is different from all the other ones and deserves his respect after all… *coughs up some vomit*]
If we’re writing romance or erotic romance, there has to be a happy ending, but you don’t have to write that. In straight up erotica, you can do what you want, and the bad guy can reach into the more taboo fantasies in readers and not get his happy ending, the hunky, hot alpha male badge. Here we might need an ending that feels like it resolves the issues and that shows the author is aware of them. It is just a matter of presenting it as a more taboo or problematic fantasy (which are totally valid!) rather than your average hot romp between consenting, happy adults.
It’s really not easy, and I think we all skirt that line all the time. I wrote a short story a while ago that is told from the man’s perspective and he thinks for the first third of the story that his girlfriend is about to break up with him. And yeah, that makes him pretty angry and ranty in his narrative, and I liked that perspective and that challenge – but I had my beta reader go over it and specifically ask her if it is too much and if the ending makes it enough obvious that he was just stuck in his own head with his own insecurities in the beginning.
Writing about slightly problematic topics is interesting and it keeps erotica fresh, but we have to be aware of those issues and approach them to the bets of our abilities instead of ignoring them.
Basically, for me writing erotica is empowering for women, who have spent most of their lives being inundated with sexual fantasies produced by men and male-dominated media. Just to be clear, male fantasies are not less important – but they are also not more important, and it is high time that women have a say in how we talk about sex and arousal, in how we see ourselves as equal participants in the act. That is in the end, why issues of respect, consent and characterization are so important to me.
This is our chance to be our generation’s sex-writers and I think we should try to do a conscientious and progressive job, whether we aim to write a best seller or a short story in an indie anthology.