Sunday, May 18, 2014

Writing Erotica Forces Me to Think About Society

Erotic writers have a reason to be social activists too, especially if they are any shade of queer. Freedom to tell the truth about feelings and lifestyles can’t be completely separated from freedom to live honestly. In some ways, however, writing is exactly opposite from social action. Writing is usually done best alone, in a quiet room. Public displays of protest or solidarity require groups that grow into crowds. Filling the streets in support of an idea is a statement in itself.
-- from "Politically Incorrect" by Jean Roberta

I've been mulling over this quote for several days. More and more, my work has made me realize that I can't separate writing from social action. The deeper I delve into erotic questions that interest me, the more I find myself forced to take positions on issues I've spent a lot of my life afraid to speak up about.

For example, I'm genuinely and truly interested in characters who are seeking sexual autonomy—people who are developing a sense of what they like to do in bed and who they want to do it with. Often, this involves a difficult learning process of speaking up about discomfort or becoming aware of how it is that they came to be adults without learning this. Or it involves some sort of radical action (or at least action that feels radical to the characters) to claim their sexuality as their own. But this often leads me to larger societal considerations.

I'll use an example from a very short story of mine, "Too Much to Give," published in Go Deeper Press's Dirty Little Numbers.

Raul bought me a butt plug because he wants to fuck my ass. In that final frontier of male fantasy, he sees a chance to gain indelible proof that I love him.

As far as he knows, I’ve never even dared to remove the toy from its silk drawstring bag. To him, it’s as untouched and virginal as my asshole.

In fact, Raul's impression of the situation couldn't be more wrong. The narrator of this story loves ass play, but she does it on her own, in secret, with the defiant declaration, "My ass is my own."

I felt bold when I wrote this story because I was claiming ass play as something a woman would do for herself. To people immersed in erotica, that might not sound radical because we're surrounded by sex-positive refrains and stories that focus on female pleasure. I can tell you with authority, however, that in my own life, given the way I was raised, among the people I've known, in the relationships I've experienced, that is a radical, radical idea. My first experiences with anal sex were about coercion, trickery, pressure, and various men demanding love be proven to them. The story isn't autobiographical in a direct way, but it's certainly drawn from autobiography. I am incredibly aroused by anal play, but most of it is masturbation because I'm still feeling the echoes of all that coercion. And it's taken a lot of exploration to be able to claim this sort of play for myself, to make that part of my body feel as if it really belongs to me.

But here's where the story starts to widen into social action. Sure, I could tell this in a personal growth frame, talk about getting over difficult memories, or my own journey into expansive sexuality. But as I've explored this subject in this and many other stories, I come up against something bigger than me or individual players. There are fantastic books out there about anal sex and how it can and should be pleasurable for everyone involved (I particularly love The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women by Tristan Taormino). I've read plenty of articles about how commonly couples enjoy anal sex together. On the other hand, that's not the mainstream narrative I hear. I often hear anal sex brought up as the punchline to disturbing jokes, the threatened fate for a criminal sent to prison, the thing a woman has to do to keep her man, and more stuff I can't really bring myself to repeat. Books like Taormino's (or Rachel Kramer Bussel's collection of anal erotica, Baby Got Back) are an important counterpoint to the mainstream narrative, but when I was growing up, the idea that anal sex was something a woman might herself enjoy and do because she wanted to—well, that didn't even exist on my horizon.

The idea of sex as something enjoyed by both parties, the idea of enthusiastic consent, the idea of being able to withdraw consent in the midst of a sexual act—those are all things I've learned by reading "radical" books as an adult. And I don't think this is ultimately just about sex. I think it's about the seemingly radical idea that every person should have dignity and choice. I think it's about the need to get out of tired narratives about how "men only want one thing" and what "nice girls" do and don't do. I think this world desperately needs a broader understanding of gender and sexuality (because if you start reading stuff about gender theory and start to really understand where phrases like "all genders" are coming from, that's going to blow huge holes in gender essentialist ideas absorbed from society like the ones I just listed).

For me, on the tail of those realizations, I started to want to speak up and make change. I listen to the radio or watch television or read a book or play a video game, and I cringe at all the poison being transmitted. I'm sure I'm still believing some of it, or transferring some of it myself, but I want to do better.

So, what's happened to me over time as I write is that I'm feeling Roberta's point more and more. I started out as an erotica writer by playing with my fantasies, claiming personal power, working out my own questions, and thinking about what I might enjoy. Then I came up against all the places I don't let myself look, and I started to notice how fenced in I'd gotten over the course of my life, and I started to think about why that is. As I tried to free myself, I found that it's not just about me. I want a different world. I started to understand and have more compassion for struggles other people are having. I started to realize that I can't stand by.

I've noticed that it's more comfortable to talk about these stories individually, as personal narratives only, as things I need therapy for. But that's part of what I've started objecting to. I don't think it's an accident that most people will recognize the phrase, "Men just only want one thing," and I think we all need to be thinking about why that is and the damage that belief is doing to people of all genders.

This is only one example of the path my writing has taken me down, and perhaps it's a clumsy one. But I've got a bunch of these. Writing erotica and really thinking about it (and also reading erotica and really thinking about it) has forced me to consider race, class, gender expression, sexuality, ideology—a huge list of social issues, basically. I never wanted to be a social activist—I don't like confrontation and I'm often afraid to speak up. I went to a protest in college once and left because I got scared.

The ideas are showing up, though, more and more—my zombie erotic romance, Run for Your Love, turned out to be about pacifism, domestic violence, and class warfare. Untouched, the book I just wrapped, could be described as a story about how one woman claims her sexual desires and needs as important and valid in their own right, even when they go against the desires of her super-hot, approved-by-society boyfriend (and if you'd like to have a very long conversation with me, sit me down and ask me why that was hard to pull off).

Whenever I talk this way, I'm afraid that readers will think I'm abandoning hotness for politics and that my work is going to become a series of treatises. That's not what's happening, though. As I explained in my post about revising for emotional honesty, this stuff is making my work hotter, more honest, more urgent. What's sexier than rebellion, after all? What's sexier than doing the forbidden, transgressing the rules, breaking out of what's always been and forging a path into something new, scary, and exhilarating?

I'm sure I'll be talking about this more, but for now I want to end with the question I've got about Roberta's quote. She contrasts writing and social action, saying writing is done alone and social action is often accomplished by filling the streets. But I find myself seeking community lately, discussing politics with other writers. I find myself wanting to fill the shelves with the sort of resistance I'm describing. I want to see a bunch of us writers making books that demand new and different cover art—people with different body types, people of varying races, people doing all sorts of things with all sorts of different people. Yes, I have to spend time alone to get the words down, but I've been wondering lately if writers ought to be gathering in groups more somehow. Should we be taking a page from social action?


  1. Can we change people's archaic attitudes about sex, one story at a time? Worth a try, I'll join you in the charge!

    1. I certainly hope so! You are very welcome to try along with me! :)