Monday, July 10, 2017

A Glimpse of Stocking

Sacchi Green

“In Olden Days, a Glimpse of Stocking…” You know the rest of the song. The idea was how perceptions of what’s shocking change over time, and, while “shocking” isn’t exactly the same as “dirty,” it’s close enough. Or maybe those terms are closer than I thought. I’ve never reached any conclusion about what’s dirty and what isn’t, but I can see that a shock effect may be a major component. Is something dirty if you think it would shock, well, for instance, your grandmother? (Although I’m a grandmother, and I’m pretty hard to shock when it comes to sexual matters. I mean, duh, I came of age in the 60s. Ever here of them?) Is something not dirty enough to be fun if it wouldn’t shock most people? I can see that.

In terms of what I write, though, I only occasionally think about whether I could be shocking anyone likely to read my work. I did once, when I wrote about a stag beetle (a traditional pet for Japanese boys since they take up so little space) climbing over a girl’s naked torso as test of her submission, but the shock there wasn’t about the sex, it was about aversion to scary-looking insects. I admit that it was fun to write.

Getting back to dirty matters, I tend to think of dirty, sexy, and erotic as terms that are not totally interchangeable. My kneejerk impression of dirty sex (and this whole topic is entirely subjective) is that it’s unsanitary in some way—not that there’s anything wrong with that! I do know perfectly well that most folks don’t think of it that way. Dirty has more connotations of the forbidden (or shocking, which comes pretty close) than of germs. Sexy, on the other hand, doesn’t have to infer the forbidden, or shocking, it just has to inspire lust. So how are erotic stories any different from dirty or sexy ones? They’re not, of course, but in my subjective, irrational mind, erotic encompasses dirty, sexy, shocking, and various other grades of sensuality, but with—I hardly dare say it—a hint of the literary as well.

Of course I’d think that, wouldn’t I, since I call what I write and edit erotica. It’s a pitiful self-deception, I know, and I also know that some of the most lust-inspiring, sexy fiction is far from what I’d call the best-written in literary terms. I see some submissions to the anthologies I edit that are bountifully, shall we say, lubricious, but not particularly good as actual stories. I also have to admit that after years of editing I’ve become jaded. I look for settings, story arcs, concepts I haven’t seen before, and I’ll take well-written, evocative, even lyrical work with only a moderate amount of explicit sexual activity over stories overflowing with bodily fluids and Tab-A into Slot-B action. In fact I find often find that subtler depictions of sex, especially protracted sexual tension, can be more erotic than the whose-wet-body-parts-are-where-doing-what climactic scenes. (Those scenes get pretty hard to edit, in fact, when it’s not at all clear that said body parts could actually get into those positions.) Don't get me wrong; if a story is well-written and the sex fits in, I haven't yet found any level of of dirtiness that would rule it out.

Once in a great while, though,  I’ll even pick a story that doesn’t get to that sort of climactic scene at all. Sometimes I’m surprised that I get away with it. Maybe I won’t next time.

As an example, a story I chose for my next anthology (which hasn’t yet been approved by the publisher, so I may yet not get away with it—I’ll be getting the copyedits next week) stops just before the actual sex the whole thing has been leading up to. The distinctive voices of the characters are outstanding, the concept—shaving delicate areas with an heirloom straight razor—is startling and effective, but quite possibly I should have asked the writer to go farther. I know this writer, though, and I know she’d dig her heels in, thinking, rightly, that in story terms, in the flow and tension and rhythm of the story, where she stops is just right.

Getting back to the glimpse of stockings part from “Anything Goes,” I’m reminded of a scene from James Joyce’s Ulysses. The main protagonist, Leopold Bloom, strolling around Dublin, pauses to watch a young woman on a beach who teases him by gradually revealing more and more of her legs while he surreptitiously masturbates, climaxing when he finally glimpses her knickers (underpants.) It didn’t take stripping or pole dancing or revealing cleavage to get him off, because in the atmosphere of those times, a glimpse of knickers was shocking enough to ignite the imagination. In some other eras or places, stockings would have been enough to do the trick. That scene was certainly qualifies as erotic, if in a rather creepy way. But it can’t compete with a later scene when his wife Molly, alone, reminisces about a scene from her past:

“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

That’s a scene that we remnants of “olden times” don’t need to be dirtier.

Back briefly to my own writing. There are stories of mine that do need to be dirtier to qualify as erotica, and they weren’t originally written to qualify as erotica, but I’d kind of like to include them if I ever manage to get a second collection of my work published. One is a quite complex ghost story with characters who are clearly a committed couple having plenty of sex, but none if it is more than touched on gently. Mmm, gentle touches…ahem. The other is also a ghost story, in part, but with many other things going on, and some of it is pretty grim. I’ve had it rejected as pornography just because the characters are lesbian (and trans, in a science-fictional sort of way) but that a whole different issue. Here’s the closest it gets to erotica:

In the Flesh
Sacchi Green

   The fuchsia-topped cupcake was still there in the morning. Worse, so was I. No homicidal tendencies driving her as far as I could sense, but I could hope I'd been wrong. Last night some darkness all too close to my own had roiled beneath the surface of her mind, some pain as sharp-spiked as her day-glo hair; now she was all matted bed-head and muted mood. I didn't care enough to probe.
Waking up was all I could handle. Waking from dreams of Allison, vibrant, sensuous, teasing, her body warm against mine... But Allie was gone.
The message light on the phone pulsed in counterpoint to the throb in my head. Last night I'd ignored it; now I resigned myself to the inevitable.
"Lexie? You're still in New York?" I had a sudden, gut-wrenching hunger to hear Allie’s husky-sweet voice, but it was only Janet calling, trying for casual and not quite making it.
"You weren’t on the train last night. Let me know when to meet it again, okay?" She drew a long, shuddering breath. I dropped the receiver and burrowed under the pillow.
When I came up for air, last night's little distraction held the phone. I had a hazy memory of nudging her out of bed, expecting her to take a stab at my wallet once I'd zonked out. Maybe, if I were lucky enough, a stab at me. She hadn't even picked up the bills left deliberately on the dresser.
"Don't you wanna know what else she said?"
Great. An emotional voyeur. My head pounded without mercy. When Allie and I were young there was no such thing as too much wine. Or too much anything. I curled into a ball of black misery.
"If you don't get back today she's gonna come find you. And then she said, 'Lexie, you promised!'’
"I didn't promise her!" The musk of sex hung heavy in the air, my scent mingling with—oh God, not Allie's, but this stranger's. I lurched into the bathroom, hoping she'd get the hell out.
No such luck. When I stumbled out of the shower she eyed me in obvious hope of earning an honest bonus.
"I didn't think you'd be so...well, I've never been with a silver butch before."
"Yeah? You want a few references?" A year ago my hair had still been mostly dark. Six weeks ago, for Allie's memorial service, I'd let Janet crop it down to the new gray. The only touch I would accept from her.
"You must work out or something," the kid said.
"Or something," I said. "You don't get calluses like this at a health club. I split a lot of firewood."
A flush tinged her neck as she glanced at my roughened hands, reminding me briefly of Janet. Inconsequentially I wondered whether I'd left enough wood to keep the house warm through a Vermont winter. Janet is strong enough, and willing, but a klutz with an ax.
"The good life," I went on. "Right. You bet. Fresh air, organic veggies, exercise..." I'd spaded gardens, shoveled snow, hauled bales and rousted boxes; and all I had to show for it was the strength to carry Allison in my arms, when it came at last to that, and never stumble.
I had a right to stumble now.
"Get dressed...Nyx, is it?" Her body didn't particularly appeal to me. Fashionably bony, marginally perky. Perky leaves me cold. In Allison's bountiful joys I could lose myself... But Allie was gone.
Diversion had been my goal last night, not pleasure. I couldn't remember what impulse had driven me toward Nyx, but the kid had done well enough. In reward I'd impelled her to a mewling extremity that seemed to astonish her. By her look at my callused hands, she wanted more.
Then she astonished me. "You get into people's heads, don't you," she said with certainty.
"What, because I knew how to push your buttons?" Kids never believe in the value of experience.

That’s just the beginning of a long story, and there’s almost no reference to actual sex in the rest of it. While I do want erotica to have more than sex going for it, preferably to be about more than sex but with sex integral to the whole, this piece, with all the sex offstage, doesn’t qualify. I don’t think there’s any way that it can.

One more thought about how dirty a story should be. The sex should belong. Stories with extra heavy sex shoe-horned in where it doesn’t need to be in terms of the work as a whole leaves me cold, whereas a glimpse of stocking, in the right context and with the right build-up of sexual tension, could definitely heat me up.


  1. I don't usually use the modifier "dirty," because I'm wary of the pejorative or snickering connotations it can have—but to the extent it's in my useful vocabulary at all, I more or less equate it with "raunchy" (which I'm more likely to use, because it feels more purely descriptive without the potential baggage—and, like Sacchi, I acknowledge of course how subjective all this is). In my mind, erotica that's particularly raunchy/dirty has an especially uninhibited animal quality to the sex. The characters throw themselves into it so lustily that they might appear "undignified" to an observer, but they don't care: they thrust their crotches and asses in each other's faces, they sprawl with their legs open wide and touch themselves, they roll around with their underwear clinging to their knees, they howl and growl unmelodically with pleasure, they slap each other's asses and piss on each other... The narrative they appear in may be top-notch literary erotica, but the characters themselves are acting like amateur porn performers—and they're having too good and too horny a time to worry about looking unartistic.

  2. Sacchi, I really like what you said about the story involving shaving and where it stops. I've thought about this sort of thing a lot in the context of kinky stories, because to me a lot of times the kink itself is the climax, both in fiction and in real life. There are times when I think the sexual satisfaction comes more from the kink than from any other activity that comes after it. I'm glad you're letting that story stand as it is.

    Also, I really like the idea Jeremy puts forward about what "dirty" could mean.

  3. I think one goal in literary erotica is to make the imperfect (read dirty) perfect. What other genre holds so many psychological implications? What other genre can change our bodies so physically?

  4. Your examples really demonstrate how a narrative can be erotic without explicit sex, but as you explain, there are genre boundaries. I hope you can get your second story collection published. I'm sure it will be outstanding. (Remember the magazine Yellow Solk? It was all about erotic, suggestive fiction with no explicit scenes.)

    1. I do remember Yellow Silk, and I probably have a second-hand copy of it around here somewhere. I do have to admit that I wished for a few more explicit scenes.

  5. "I look for settings, story arcs, concepts I haven’t seen before, and I’ll take well-written, evocative, even lyrical work with only a moderate amount of explicit sexual activity over stories overflowing with bodily fluids and Tab-A into Slot-B action. In fact I find often find that subtler depictions of sex, especially protracted sexual tension, can be more erotic than the whose-wet-body-parts-are-where-doing-what climactic scenes."

    This exactly describes my preferences, both as an editor and a reader.

    Last month I did a post at the ERWA blog about my top 10 erotic short stories. Quite a few of them included no physical sex.

  6. BTW Sacchi, if you want to self-publish a collection of your stories, I'm happy to help. (I'm sure Giselle, Annabeth and Cameron have a lot to offer in this regard as well.)