Sunday, April 22, 2012

Why I Read Erotica That Doesn't Turn Me On

You read erotica because you want to get off, right? Right?

Not necessarily. To me, this is at the heart of the perennial question: Is erotica porn?

I watch porn when I want to get off. I do not think I have ever turned on porn just for fun, without a vibrator in my hand or a horny partner by my side. I do not expect that I ever will.

Erotica, on the other hand, is a more varied experience. I have some favorite stories. Sometimes, I go to them when I'm in the mood to come. When I'm reading a collection, sometimes there's a story that really gets me and I find myself moving my reading from the desk to the bed. But blogger Donna George Storey raises very valid questions about "the wet test" at the ERWA blog:
Over the years, I’ve noticed another aspect of the popular approach to reviewing erotica—the primacy of the “wet test,” or using personal arousal to evaluate the quality of a story. Go to any Amazon page for an erotic anthology, and you’ll see that a good portion of the reviewers makes a point to list their favorite stories. A few will also finger the stories they don’t like (pun intended). It’s almost as if someone passed out a template on “how to review erotica anthologies,” with a final exhortation: “Don’t forget to mention at least three stories that got you tingly/hard!”

She goes on to say:

It would be helpful to other readers and writers if reviewers gave more context for their opinions. Tell us why a story turns you on or intrigues you or disturbs you or lingers on after you put the book down. Treat erotica as a crafted tale as well as a masturbation aid.

This makes a lot of sense to me because if I evaluated erotica based on the wet test, I would have to discard entire anthologies (full of writing by authors I love). A long time ago, when I first discovered erotica, I was so turned on by seeing words like "cock" and "cunt" on a printed page that I was aroused by everything, no matter what it was about. But very quickly, I zeroed in on what really gets me off. I have a few very specific fetishes -- and I mean that in the technical sense of the word, as in there are things that are required if I am going to reach orgasm. To make matters worse, I favor nonconsensual stories if I want them as a masturbation aid -- which are banned by most publishers of erotica. This shunts me over to decidedly less well-crafted but admittedly effective free stuff a lot of the time (though there are some really well-written nonconsensual stories, too, such as Remittance Girl's incredible novella Gaijin).

If I read erotica only to get off, I wouldn't read most professionally published erotica at all.

That said, here's a list of collections I've recently read and enjoyed: D.L. King's Carnal Machines, Rachel Kramer Bussel's Best Bondage Erotica 2011, Debra Hyde's Back Door Lover: Erotic Tales of Anal Sex, Alessia Brio's Coming Together: By Hand, Tabitha Dulla and Cecilia Tan's Like Heaven and Hell. The vast majority of the stories in those collections would never make me come, but I still liked reading them.

I'm going to talk a little about why.

First, sex fascinates me. Sex is characterization in a very pure form. I like to read descriptions of how people fuck. I like to know what they do and what they focus on.

Sex and the feelings around it are a significant part of human experience. Now that I am used to reading erotica, I am profoundly annoyed by how frequently mainstream stories ought to be talking about sex but are instead dancing around it. Erotica pulls off the covers and gives access to the whole person -- parts of the psyche that are all too frequently ignored in other literature.

Erotica gives a window into perspectives that I would never otherwise get. While I always considered myself liberal, and identify as bisexual, it was reading and writing LGBT erotica that really committed me to equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation. It's probably a post in itself to explain that, but I think erotica turned it from a political issue into a human one.

Erotica gives me a sense of camaraderie that's really important to me. The bravery of other writers has set me free. I remember reading a story on Oysters & Chocolate about a pantyhose fetish (Hose in the Cold - From My Skin to His by Tao Mitts). In this story, the narrator is ambivalent about her friend's pantyhose fetish. The writing sometimes takes on a sensual tone, and sometimes a revolted one. I definitely did not come from reading it, but I was fascinated psychologically. The story gave me a lot of insight into how fetishes look from the outside (and, being a person with some heavy fetishes of my own, I found this significant and, despite the disgust, reassuring somehow).

There's also just a lot of damn good writing. I go on and on about Remittance Girl, but I would proclaim her artistry and craft to my last breath. But let's be fair. Let's take a story that would never get me off (since many of Remittance Girl's do): I am left pretty cold by femdom. But when I read Kathleen Bradean's "Lair of the Red Countess," a femdom story in Carnal Machines, I actually jumped up, grabbed a pen, and started writing exclamation points next to my favorite bits. I'm going to string a few together:

"Who are you?" the woman asked. That time, her low voice caressed the nape of Archie's neck like incense smoke wreathing a sinner's prayer.


"So it is torture!"
"Something far worse. Something almost unbearable." She bent close to his ear and spoke as if relishing the word rolling over her tongue. "Pleasure."


"There is a small matter to settle before you leave, Mr. Fraser. You have needlessly wasted my time. I demand..." Her hand made a gesture as if she expected it to snatch the word she sought from the cloying air of the room. "Satisfaction."

Each of these parts stunned me with their beautiful turns of phrase. Bradean's story created a powerful sense of atmosphere that was hot as hell -- even if I didn't want to masturbate.

Here's a comparison: I don't need to actually fall in love with the male lead of a traditional romance in order to appreciate the story. I just need to buy that the female lead is in love with him. Bradean's story totally sold me on the countess being the hottest thing the male lead had ever encountered. I appreciated that.

There's a lot I love about where the genre is going. I like the trend of steampunk erotica, for example. I read non-erotic steampunk stories, too, and sometimes I like to read erotic ones.

I couldn't agree more with Storey's suggestions for alternative ways to evaluate erotic stories. I weep to think of all I would miss if I applied only the wet test.

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