A Sexy Cycle: The Normalizing Power of Erotica

venice, romance, italy, blue
Image by Gnuckx, used under CC license.

Last week, fellow Scribe Kristin McFarland wrote about this being the golden age of smut. She of course referred to erotica, and described it (very aptly) as romance without the fade to black.

No curtains drawn, no blurry watercolors to be found. Erotica takes you not just into the bedroom, but underneath the sheets with the protagonists. It’s no secret that erotica has existed for a long time. Kristin wrote about how this golden age has come to be, and as I read her post and chatted with her about it, we both realized there was more to say on the subject.

50 Shades of Grey has been credited with bringing kink out of the closet. Detractors (myself included to an extent) will remark that its story is far from a normal, healthy BDSM relationship. Safewords ignored, consent in the titular shades of grey when it’s something that ought to be black and white, stalkerish behavior, and abusive red flags are all reasons I agree with that — but I will give it credit for one major, major thing: its normalizing power. Because of its success, many other authors have followed in its wake. My new rave is one Kristin already mentioned, Abigail Barnette’s The Boss trilogy. For me, that series is what 50 Shades wanted to be — Barnette created characters who have their issues but who deeply love and respect one another, for whom consent is first priority, and whose kinks are not acted out in an abusive manner. Also, her characters have lives and goals, friends and families and all the nuance that comes with them.

Erotica as a genre is something I’ve come to love. Over the past few months, I’ve read Mina Vaughn’s How To series featuring the elusive Dommes (or FemDoms) in a market saturated by male Dominants. Her books are often funny and lighthearted, but they depict BDSM in a down-to-earth way that gets me coming back for more. Tamara Mataya writes books with women who know what they want. I was fortunate enough to get a sneaky beta peek at her newest project, also centered in the BDSM world, and lemme just say — you want to keep an eye on her. I’ve also been reading Sylvia Day, Tiffany Reisz, and Amanda Byrne — all women to watch.

One thing that has struck me about the erotica genre is the power it has. It not only can erm…move you in unexpected ways…but in a world fraught with sexual shame and dichotomies and Madonna-whore complexes, erotica is a refreshing look at what things could be. Today I wanted to look at how erotica could very well change the world.

1. Turning Shame to Sex Positivism

Women especially are taught from an early age that our bodies don’t belong to us. “Don’t wear that; people will think you’re a [slut, whore, easy, tramp, floozy].” “She’s asking for it in that.” “Aren’t you just a pretty little princess?” “Don’t touch yourself! Dirty!” It’s reinforced in myriad ways through a culture that objectifies women’s bodies. Even Meghan Trainor’s smash hit All About That Bass is centered around the message that having curves is good because boys like women with booties. Not because your body is right and perfect as it is just because it is — but because of how men relate to it. It took a whole bunch of listens for me to put my finger on what bothered me about it, and since then it’s lost a bit of its empowering punch for me, also because of some backhanded jabs at women who happen to be slender. “And no I won’t be no stick figure, silicone Barbie doll…..I’m bringing booty back, go on and tell them skinny bitches that/Naw, I’m just playin’ I know y’all think you’re fat.”

There’s been enough shame, thank you. Let’s agree that all body types are worthy and that no matter what you look like, you’re a fucking 10 just because you’re YOU.

Erotica has the power to depict sexual relationships in a way that is positive and reverent — even when it gets right down to the sweat, the fluids, and the tumescent members. (Heyo, 10 Things I Hate About You)

In erotica, women are allowed to own their sexuality, to be the sexual instigators, and to be the ones with the higher sex drives. For me, reading stories where that was the case was more true to my own experience in several of my past relationships, and if I’m any indication, that can be a massively validating thing for any reader.

Sex positivism is something I long to see more of in the world and in fiction, and erotica not only allows for it, but it celebrates it. Stories have power to change the way we think. Seeing a protagonist take ownership of her body, her sexuality, and her desire can make others feel good about doing the same.

2. Exploring Kink

When even basic “vanilla” sexuality is colored with the marker of shame, exploring other proclivities can be even scarier for people. Erotica is a glorious safe space. As Kristin mentioned, with the advent of e-readers, anyone can read anything anywhere without the fear of someone scoffing at the cover or calling them out.

Beyond that, erotica is a place where readers can live vicariously through protagonists who might be into things we’ve never tried. From light bondage to caning, fisting to anal play, erotica is a safe space to engage with ideas and see how they can play out. One of the most awesome things about erotica for me has been to see writers who ensure they are depicting kink in a way that celebrates the kinkster code of Safe, Sane, and Consensual. (Or, alternatively, Risk-Aware Consensual Kink.) This means erotica writers who don’t shy from condoms and other barrier methods, who frankly discuss risks, and do it all with flair that makes even escapism something to emulate in real life.

Even if you don’t want to rush out and buy canes and spreader bars, beyond all else, erotica is a safe zone. You can pull the pages up to your chin and learn more about what you like without any pressure to actually try it until you’re ready. And bonus — unlike in pornography, you don’t have to worry about any chance of humans being exploited.*

Another major tenet of erotica’s magic is communication — especially in kinky erotica, I love seeing partners who make sure they speak their needs, use their safewords when necessary, and check in with each other to ensure that things ARE safe, sane, and consensual. It’s beautiful. Even for those who are not kink-inclined, there are many lessons to be learned from that.

3. Normalization

Finally, erotica has enormous normalizing power.

One of the biggest landmarks in the study of human sexuality was Alfred Kinsey’s reports on human sexual behavior. His studies took taboos to task and revealed that many things that had been seen as abnormal or overly risque were, in fact, incredibly commonplace. Masturbation, homoerotic feelings, female desire — his study shone light into previously darkened corners of how humans behaved in bed (or wherever else they happened to get their grind on). It created a conversation out of the realities of human sexuality, and that conversation helped lay the groundwork for the sexual revolution.

Erotica has that same power. Depicting female masturbation, fun with toys, kink, etc. — all of those things allow readers to see themselves on the page. By depicting equal, consensual, communicative relationships all across the spectra of kinks and and vanilla lovin’, erotica can show us something to aspire to in our own personal lives.

What do you think about the genre? How has erotica taught you about yourself, if you don’t mind sharing?

 

 

*I’m generally porn-positive, but I’m incredibly cognizant that there is always a chance that, especially in the jungles of free internet stuff, there could be some serious exploitation issues. This is one reason I advocate paying for it; you can generally find out from pay sites how their actors are treated, etc. Plus, compensating people for their work is good.

A Golden Age of Smut

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of smut. What do I mean by smut, you ask?

You know, erotica. Romance novels with no fade-to-black. Lady porn—though I’ll ask you not to call it that, please and thank you. I call it smut with great affection: most of the books I’ve been reading, I view as the readerly equivalent of chocolate candies. They’re delightful while they last, but they have little nutritional value. More than bubble gum, say (you know the bubble gum books), but less than the kale smoothies that we sometimes have to read for classwork.

I go through smutty reading phases every year, and this latest one can, as so many things are, be blamed on my bosom friend and fellow Scribe Emmie Mears, who recommended to me Abigail Barnette’s The Boss.

“Try it,” she said. “It’s FANTASTIC, a great alternative to 50 Shades of Abusive Assholery. It’s a D/s relationship in a similar vein, billionaire dude, not-billionaire woman. But she is independent, intelligent, has agency and real thoughts, her character is FUNNY and insightful.”

And I thought to myself, “Self… you deserve some chocolaty goodness.”

Reading erotica allows us to explore our fantasies, even if those fantasies are something we’d never want in reality, and it gives us a safe space to be purely sexual creatures in a world where women especially are often discouraged from thinking of sex as an arena for play rather than competition. In other words, chocolaty goodness allows us to fully realize our capacity for delicious taste sensations.

So I promptly bought, devoured, and enjoyed all three books in Barnette’s series. And afterward… I wanted MOAR. Goodreads lists with titles like, “Smut for the Smart,” “Taboo Reads,” “Hot List.” Buzzfeed lists. Google searches. I plunged in with wild abandon. I’ve been reading Tiffany Reisz’s The Original Sinners series, which has been on my to-read list for ages, and I may take the leap and try out The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by Anne Rice, writing as A. N. Roquelaure.

Yep, there’s a theme to my smut reading. We’ll get to that.

It got me thinking about how lucky we are to be reading smut right now, at this moment in publishing history. Self-publishing has lowered the gates, and the aforementioned Fifty Shades of Yawn has paved the way for festishism to go mainstream.

It’s a new era of sex positivism, and I think that’s fantastic.

I see a few contributing factors. One is the gatekeeper thing: self-publishing has allowed more people to put work out there, and women are eating it up, perpetuating a healthy cycle of growth. But let’s look at some of the factors more closely.

1. E-readers make it possible to read whatever the hell you want without judging eyes seeing a half-naked man/woman/vampire/alien on the cover. When we don’t have to worry about others think, we feel confident exploring our fantasies, even when those fantasies are taboo. Although some people worry that e-readers and digital books are eroding the quality of published work generally, I think digital reading devices are an excellent “power place” for skittish readers: they allow us to read what we want without having to make a public statement about it by brandishing a cover at whomever is sitting opposite us on the bus.

2. The 50 Shades Phenomenon (arguably an offshoot of the Twilight phenomenon) has proved that women (and men!) want to read loving, graphic, sex-positive stories about female characters who aren’t afraid to own their own sexual needs and desires. While the publishing industry made 50 Shades a financial juggernaut, women are the ones who responded to what it offered: it wouldn’t have made umpty-million dollars without an eager audience. And the fanfic that launched a thousand similar novels, despite its own less-than-great quality, is in itself a fantastic thing because it opened the door to legitimizing that audience’s desires.

3. The resultant glut of erotica on the market in the wake of 50 Shades has provided for audiences a veritable smorgasbord of fetishes, fantasies, and filth. (Sorry, I had to.) Once publishers and writers realized audiences wanted these types of work, the market exploded with new material. While some might point out that it’s difficult to choose among these many options—the chocolatey goodness is spread too thin, if you will—I say it’s great because there’s something for everyone, and that helps to normalize sexual desires someone might otherwise be reluctant to explore. Because of the popularity of the genre, I’ve been able to find a number of D/s stories that are well-written and portray well-rounded individuals in healthy (and occasionally troubled) relationships. And because it’s fiction, just words on a page, the threat levels are lower than they would be in life or even pornography.

4. Finally, the work of previous generations of writers and educators has culminated in a new generation of women (writers AND readers) who are able to partake of these new resources with discernment and creative synthesis. Women of my age have grown up in an environment that says we can do and be whatever we want, even if we have to fight to make it happen. Because of a previous generation’s work, we’re mentally equipped (empowered, if you wish) to own our desires and our choices. We recognize that those choices help to shape the world when we vote with our dollars or our vocal support. Further, though, we’ve cultivated in ourselves a capacity to separate our fantasies from our politics: just because a given woman wants to be dominated in the bedroom, it doesn’t mean she wants to be submissive in life.

All combined, these things have added up to a market for erotica that means we can pick and choose literary treats that suit our tastes, feel safe reading them, and explore our sexuality in a healthy way.

What do you think, dear reader? Have you read any good smut lately? What do you think of the current trend for fetish erotica? What do you think has contributed to that trend?