“I write erotica.”
It took me a long time to say this with confidence rather than trepidation.
Living in a small Midwestern town, I never really know how someone is going to react when the topic of sex pops up, even fictional sex in books. Some people become ecstatic and chew my ear off for an hour because they so rarely find anyone else that enjoys reading smut. Other times I get a panicked lecture about how pornography is ruining marriages or how some aspect of sex/sexual expression will end up being the downfall of civilized society.
You know, it’s a mixed bag.
Most often, the reactions are much less dramatic. It’s either “Oh, cool” or “Oh, well, let’s talk about something else.” Which is perfectly fine.
Quite honestly, I’m not afraid of conflict or confrontation. I’d rather know where someone’s thoughts and beliefs are rather than covering them up with half-truths or silence. And since I’m a weird sex radical with both liberal and conservative views I’m fairly practiced at holding space for opposing viewpoints.
But growing up, I was surrounded by a lot of defensiveness around ideas. Half my family was ultra liberal, the other side was ultra conservative and neither of them liked new ideas. From an early age I saw the adults in my life dismissing or belittling any ideas that were different from theirs, and completely shutting down or exploding around different views. And this was before the internet.
Sex was also a topic that was immediately shut down on either side. I actually understood the conservative side that didn’t want to talk about sex because of Jesus and all that, but it’s tremendously confusing when the liberal side told me we don’t talk about that stuff “because we just don’t.” But that’s a topic for another day.
So when I started writing sexy fiction, I really wanted to make sure everyone knew there was sex in my books so they wouldn’t read it if they didn’t want to. If there was any sex in anything I wrote I stuck a million red flags into my work so PEOPLE WOULD KNOW THERE WAS SEX IN IT.
To which my early work received reviews that can be summed up as “What, I’m confused, this isn’t erotica??? At all??"
I combatted this mainly but pushing my own envelop and putting more eroticism in my work that I had previously been afraid to include. But I also started carving out my own style of writing smut, conveying a sensuality that was in my own unique voice and catered to those who were looking for different elements in their erotic fiction. It’s been working out really well, at least in my view.
Either way, I’ve always considered myself an erotica writer because sex is a part of my fiction. Without it there would not be a story and my characters would not be the same.
But I still wanted to know how much sex makes it into other books. If erotica and erotic romance are swept to the fringe of polite reading material, how much sex is in the books that Nice And Respectable People read?
I took my mission to the library. I knew the paperbacks section was a high-circulating area and many books were categorized as romance—not erotica.
I took a paperback off the shelf to gauge how much sex was in something before it was considered "erotica" and not "romance" and oh my.
There was a fairly graphic description of the hero’s erection by page 6 and a blow job started on page 10 that left little to the imagination. I was astounded and confused.
This took place when I first started delving into erotica around ten years ago. At the time, even mentioning that I was going to write in the genre people told me it was a bad idea. No one would read it, it wouldn’t get any respect, and no one would take it seriously.
And yet here I was holding a book that contained a scene as explicit as any erotic fan fiction I secretly read on the internet except I was standing in the middle of my small home town library.
I didn't understand then and I don't understand now how that book is not considered in any way an erotica book. Now, when you look at the card catalog at my library, for example, my books I've donated appear and the erotica anthologies I've requested appear, but not any of the books in the paperbacks section like the one I read so many years ago.
Of course, this is part of a much larger and complicated discussion of romance with a long, nuanced history that I simply cannot get into right now.
My point right now is that all those Nice and Respectable People I was warning about sex in my books still read quite a bit of sex in books without any warnings.
Another anecdote for you:
At a previous job, we had to share a very inconvenient room to eat lunch as there was no formal break room. Since I often wrote smut on my lunch breaks and my co-workers were nosy and had boundary issues, I ended up developing very small handwriting: as in two or three lines within one line of college rule. (I still handwrite very small to this day.)
One day, in the weird not-break room, my coworker was listening to an audiobook file on her tablet while she ate lunch, with the volume turned sort of down, but still kind of annoying of a volume to not have headphones in. I just ate my lunch and buried myself in my notebook, but was still able to hear that the book was a thriller crime mystery kind of book. Well, one chapter ended and the next chapter began to find the hero all by himself, thinking about the heroine. And he was a very lonely hero thinking about the heroine and all that thinking about the heroine made the hero decide to take things into his own hands... er... hand. Well.
My coworker just flipped and tried to stop the audio from playing but there must have been a glitch because the audio certainly did not stop playing. She pressed lots of places on the tablet and ended up smashing down the power button to get the thing to shut up, but even that took a moment. The hero was almost finished when she finally got it to turn off. She then grabbed her stuff and ran out of the not-break room.
Which, yes, I feel really bad about her feeling embarrassed about the sex bit in her audiobook. I really do. But I’m only human. We didn't get along and I'll admit at the time I was happy she left the room, no matter the reason.
But back to the point of this blog, it just jarred my mind that this mainstream crime type book had such a scene in it at all. Why was I freaking out about sex in my books, sticking red flags in my work, making sure people KNEW there was going to be sex in the book, when apparently readers like to know all about Mr. Detective’s Pleasure Pole before they solve the mystery in a crime book?
Of course, I do read books. I don’t just overhear my co-worker’s reading materials. And I know that there is sex, sometimes a little sometimes a lot, in mystery, fantasy, science-fiction, horror, and other genres. And yet here I am. I WRITE EROTICA.
Maybe one reason I feel the need to emphasize the erotic aspect in my work is because it is my desire and intention for the reader to enjoy that there is sex in my books.
It makes me wonder how many people enjoy the sex scenes in “main stream” books, like the surprise masturbation scene in my co-worker's crime book, or if they just read through those scenes from the corner of their eye (or edge of their hearing in audio format?) or just skip the scenes altogether.
It also makes me wonder if I write a novel length book that has some explicit sex scenes in it, do I need to label the book erotica at all?
Now, I do think there is a difference between an erotica novel and a novel that is erotic. While the sex scenes, sensuality, and chemistry in a novel that is erotic can be explicit, an erotica novel should (in my opinion) have more, longer sustained sex scenes and sensuality. That doesn't mean that the story or characters need to be dumbed or watered down. As for me, right now I do believe I write novels that are erotic rather than erotica novels. I am most comfortable labeling my work "erotic-romance."
My short stories, however, are erotica. The entire story is hinged on the sex that takes place in the story and the pacing of the buildup and climax are structured to be enjoyed as an erotic experience. Whether or not a given reader will read my erotica as an erotic experience is another blog post in itself.
Either way, I believe I will still continue to label my work as erotica.
One reason is because (as I wrote about last week) I don't write just one type of erotica. I'm a kinky polyamorous bisexual fetishistic multi-partnered bundle of joy. I've had M/F, F/F, F/F/M and M/M/F stories published in anthologies and other work of mine features pairings from M/M/M to F/F/M, M/M/F/F, M/F/M/F and even ghost sex. I've featured kinky sex, mind sex, disabled sex, vanilla sex, queer sex, straight sex, uncategorizable sex.
I don't want to squeeze sex in because "sex sells" or the only time we can enjoy sex in our fiction is if it's folded in secretively, shoved in as an extra little add on, or we just bash readers over the head with an oddly placed erotic scene that doesn't fit into the rest of the story.
I want sex to be a part of my characters, my stories, and my readers. I want the sex in my books to have integrity. And I want people to appreciate they are there. Whether I repeatedly hit someone's white-hot target of eroticism, or people read the scene with a mix of curiosity and "Mmm.... what if?" Even if people don't plan to have the types of sex they read in my books, I want them to have a secure place to try it on in their minds, see how their body reacts to things they have never considered they might be into.
And yeah, maybe they'll find stuff they aren't into. I've tossed a book down a time or two just out of reflex but I picked it back up again and felt more educated and well rounded for knowing *that* particular thing was out there whether I finish the story or not.
I certainly know not all erotica is good and in some ways I forget that not all erotica is nurturing and edifying, since I surround myself with such wonderful authors and publishers in the kinky/independent market. But in my mission to make sexual thoughts and fantasies better for everyone, we need to start combating the shame and stigma around sex. And that means acknowledging sex.
Sex is in books and it's ok if it turns us on. Reading sex in books can and is a wonderful sexual outlet that can make our lives better. I want to feed the curious. I want to nurture arousal. I want people to study their fantasies and know what gets them off and revel in those scenes, those stories, those books.
I write sex. I write erotica. And I absolutely love it. I hope from now on, when I say it out loud, people can hear my enthusiasm and might have a good experience talking about smut for the first time. Wish me luck.