Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why Sex Writing Shouldn't Always Be Nice

I recently started reading Jean Roberta's Sex Is All Metaphors, and came across a great passage on the issue of "sex-positive" writing. As she explains, many editors ask that erotica be sex-positive, which generally means avoiding a certain standard list of squicks (including things like very extreme violence). Sometimes, the sense of "sex-positive" is extended to mean a general attitude about sex within the story -- that it should be empowering, pleasurable, and so forth.

I like to write and read sex-positive stories, certainly. I have a story for another time about how sex-positive erotica is actually what made me understand feminism and become willing to call myself a feminist.

However, not all of my writing and reading is sex-positive, and there are a lot of complicated reasons for that. Roberta gives a nice account of why sex writing needs a range that includes the very unpleasant:

If sex is all metaphors, it can't always be a simple way to get happy. Sex can be a desperate, doomed attempt to bridge a gap in credibility or understanding. It can be an extreme form of exploitation. It can be the event that turns a high school girl who is desperate to fit in into a target for contempt from everyone she knows. It can be an attempt to prove something improvable. Sex can be an act of self-hatred, or hatred of the other. It can be the means by which invading armies literally colonize the bodies of civilians, hoping to impregnate as many "enemy women" as possible. Sex, broadly defined, can destroy both body and soul.

Should erotic writers avoid saying anything disturbing about sex? The terms "adult" and "mature" are often used as euphemisms for sexual content, yet to avoid mentioning any negative emotions (guilt, hatred, rage, fear, despair, regret, etc.) in connection with sex is to limit oneself to a fairly childish view of the world.

I started writing erotica because it's the genre where I feel most honest as a writer. It's the subject on which I really have something to say. And I'd definitely be lying if I pretended all my experience with sex has been pleasant or positive. Sometimes, I feel strange about the range of my work. I worry that some of my dark work for Forbidden Fiction, for example, would freak out readers who enjoyed, say, my light piece in the Cleis erotic romance anthology, Passion. I also worry that readers who like the dark stuff will find my happy endings fluffy. But I need that full range to say all of what I have to say about sex, and I try not to censor myself in either direction.


  1. But I don't think erotica always needs to be paired with romance. I sometimes shake my head at this new perception that if there's sex involved, there has to be a romance and you cannot stray from the OTP of the story. Fuck that -- yes, give me sex in erotica, but more than that give me a story to match the sex and not just some formula relationship because you think you have to.

    One of my first exposures to erotica was about a woman who found herself involved with a man who turned out to be a rapist. I can't remember the exact details, but the boyfriend was a rapist "off camera," and the main character's sexual experiences with him were so gritty it made the reader (me) flinch. While it was certainly an interesting book, the first paragraph in your quote certainly describes the book -- by the end, the main character was absolutely destroyed by this man but still using sex to hold onto him. Was it erotic? Mostly. Was it sex positive? Almost never.

    While this example is the extreme, it is a good example of how broad erotica and its readership is. Unpleasant sex can still move the plot along in an otherwise hot novel. While not erotica, Diana Gabaldon's books come to mind -- while a servant, Jamie has sex with his master's daughter because she told him to, and later in the series, Claire sleeps with the king in order to free her imprisoned husband.

    And I can't count the number of Black Lace historicals I've read that involved someone in a position of power coercing the innocent heroine into sex acts. It's a part of her sexual awakening, but if she had less of a good time it would probably kill the mood for the reader who doesn't want the heebie jeebies with their masturbatory aids.

  2. Good point about how erotica and romance can be decoupled.

    Any chance the book you're describing is Jenny Diski's Nothing Natural? I read that one when I was younger (and the plot is certainly similar), and I remember being floored by it. It was a great read -- definitely erotic from my perspective, and definitely not sex-positive. I liked the book.

    I will add, however, that I think part of the push toward sex-positivity is out of an effort to help people accept their sexuality, whatever it is. The hotness and negativity of Nothing Natural certainly contributed to the shame about BDSM that defined my early adulthood (in Nothing Natural, the sex between the MC and off-camera rapist is kinky -- lots of spanking, etc). It took me a long time to figure out that kink and criminality did not have to be linked, and I can credit sex-positive erotica with that. Once I got a good dose of healing from sex-positive erotica, I became more able to read all kinds of portrayals for what they are worth.

    Ha, I guess I've confused myself again. These days, I can read whatever I want without shame, but it's taken a long time to get this far.

  3. That's it! And thanks to you for giving me the title so I can hunt it down again. Unless I'm thinking of another other erotic book I owned at the time (I owned a total of three when I was 18), I think the only sex positive experience in that book was the lesbian scene, and even that was a pathetic moment by the MC who was just feeling like shit.

    I agree about helping people accept their sexuality, and generally taking erotica out of the taboo. I still have a copy of "The Pearl," but so much of those stories make me cringe with their content and ultimately I appreciate the book not for its content but for its controversy. What used to be taboo is now the norm, getting erotica off the top shelf in the Big Box and onto the "recommended" tables in the middle of the aisle.

    While I don't think The Book That Shall Not Be Named is entirely sex positive, what with a hero who is a sexual abuse victim (full disclosure: haven't read it), it's nonetheless a great gateway drug for mainstream readers to discover stories where characters engage in BDSM for no nefarious reason other than being turned on. It's about damn time.