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?