Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Erotica and Sexual Culture

I’ve got an LGBT library near me that has some great old erotica. I like to rifle through the kink section now and then to dig up an older book, to get away from the current modern-day erotica.

And, while sex is sex and that never changes, gay erotica certainly has changed.

If anything, modern gay erotica is tamer. Like, honestly, the number of older gay erotic stories that involved shit play or shit eating just blew my mind. (I’ve put down a few books due to excessive brown play — I really can’t take it.)

A lot of the older stuff, understandably, is deeper into the cruising and hookup culture than you get nowadays.  And it’s more explanatory of cruising than I find in newer stuff — in a newer book, cruising can be as simple as two guys making eye contact or even a Grindr match and they just tumble in bed together — but in an older book, the characters tend to be shown lingering around washrooms and in parks for quite a while before the other man comes along.  It may be that he spends half the day riding his bike in circles in a park hoping to catch the eye of another young man on his way to the men’s room.  If anything, it sometimes comes across as an attempt to capture the “gay experience” of the time.

One thing that has definitely changed over the years is the source of tension. In the older erotica, it’s often set in a time and place where it is illegal or unsafe to engage in gay sex, and thus the stories have a natural tension to them.  Will they get caught?  Will they get away with it?  If they get caught, will the cop secretly be gay, too?

But in today’s world, at least in most of the world, it’s more or less safe to be gay and to live openly gay.  That natural tension is no longer present in current books — there isn’t necessarily a shared experience that all gay men have of gay sex being so forbidden they could end up in jail for it.  Gay sex is depicted on evening TV now and then — something that would have never happened in the time of this older erotica.

So, nowadays, gay erotica needs to find tension from other sources.  It could be a character’s internalized homophobia, it could be the fear of being spurned by his crush, it could be the danger of hitting on a very macho and possibly straight guy.  There are endless sources of tension, but now an author has to spend more time setting it up.

And the biggest difference, of course, is the use of condoms. Pre-AIDS, no erotica I’ve seen has used condoms. During the AIDS crisis and afterwards, almost everyone used condoms.  I don’t see them consistently in modern-day erotica, perhaps due to condom fatigue, perhaps due to something else. (Interestingly, in one modern erotica story, I came across the one and only reference I’ve seen to STIs. In the random hookup, the top sees that the bottom has anal warts.  He shrugs and fucks him anyway.)

Gay erotica seems to be an interesting time capsule of gay sexual culture.  (And I have no doubt that the same can be said of straight erotica reflecting straight sexual culture.)  I’m sure that in fifty years, someone will read through the erotica published today and find it wildly different from the erotica published in his present day.

Cameron D. James is a writer of gay erotica and M/M erotic romance; his latest release is The President And The Rentboy (co-written with Sandra Claire). He is also the publisher and co-founder of Deep Desires Press, a publisher of erotica and high-heat-level erotic romance. He lives in Canada, is always crushing on Starbucks baristas, and has two rescue cats. To learn more about Cameron, visit http://www.camerondjames.com.


  1. This does make for really interesting cultural commentary, and I appreciate the chance to read it! The time capsule idea makes a lot of sense to me, and I'm particularly fascinated by the way the stories you've been reading shift as far as condom usage. I wish I lived close to that library myself. It sounds like interesting reading, as well as a rich source of historical insight.

  2. You almost lost me at excessive brown play (I cannot take that either), but you make some really interesting observations. I have seen a lot of the same evolution on trans erotica, from the trashy old chapbooks to the ebooks of today. I think there is still tension there, but there is also a kind of acceptance that was missing from the old stories.

  3. Straight erotica has also taken twists and turns, largely due to cultural shifts. Back in the 60's, women in erotica averaged about 16. (And can you imagine a hit song like "Sweet Little Sixteen"?) Older women were only present to manipulate or trick the youngsters into sex. I was basically raised with the old Grove Press stuff, which, by the way is still available on-line. After buying a few of my old fave writers that I remembered from back in the day, I realized that many of those writers were true hacks, and much the stuff seemed not to have seen an editor's hand.

    1. much 'of' the stuff. Talk about the editor's hand! :>)

  4. Maybe lack of editing and clunkiness in general were (and maybe still are) regarded as features, not bugs. More authentic. Not glossied up. Like the market for "amateur" porn films which existed a while ago, and may still be around. Theoretically real people (with all their flaws) having real sex and filming it themselves.

  5. I've read some blog posts by older gay men that suggest some nostalgia for the old days of tense, forbidden hookups.One author suggested that the gay experience has been co-opted, sanitized, even distorted into a mirror of idealized straight sexual culture, where committed one-to-one relationships are viewed as the desirable norm.

    I certainly feel nostalgic for the years before AIDS, condoms and safe sex. Sex was never "safe", of course. There were always risks. Until AIDS, though, you normally didn't consider that you were risking your life.

  6. Cameron, I think I've read some stories from the "Golden Age" of gay-male magazine porn -- definitely different from more current stories! (To get the same atmosphere of risk and tension,I read the gay-male spec-fic anthologies from Lethe Press, which aren't specifically erotic.) The late Dirk Vanden, who wrote in the late 1960s/early 70s, usually showed men going through Dark Nights of the Soul before they acknowledge their sexual feelings for other men. And then they seriously wonder if they will die soon and go straight (so to speak) to Hell. And their idols are sometimes "straight" men who are willing to sexually dominate "pansies" while threatening to kill them. It makes for dramatic reading, but I like to believe none of the gay men I know have to take such risks now.