By Lisabet Sarai
Let me start by saying that I have a bit of a problem with genre labels. My own work doesn't fit into neat pigeonholes, and often, the fiction I enjoy most is just as stubborn. I've found that the best books frequently defy categorization – or create new genres, which is basically the same thing.
Advocates of labeling claim that assigning books to particular genres helps readers find what they like. I'd argue that it's just as likely to discourage readers from picking up something new that they might actually love.
In any case, our topic this week is not genres in general but the specific genre label “erotica”. What is erotica? There's a lot of sex between the covers of books that aren't sold as erotica. Some of that is marketing strategy, but is there a fundamental difference between erotica and a story with graphic sex?
You want my opinion? (Well, of course you do, or you wouldn't be reading my post...) I think that erotica is not about sex, per se. Erotica is fiction that focuses on the experience of sexual desire. Sexual desire may be a concomitant or precursor to physical sexual activity, but it doesn't have to be. Desire in its many variants (arousal, lust, love, obsession) is fundamentally an emotional state or process. Thus, it's theoretically possible to write erotica that contains no overt sex at all. (More on this below.)
Conversely, a story that includes graphic sex does not deserve to be called erotica unless the author is primarily concerned with the characters' feelings about their encounters, and how those feelings affect the non-sexual aspects of the characters' lives. To the extent that sex is treated as a mindless, instinctual activity, a response to a stimulus that brings relief like a sneeze, it does not (in my view) merit the term erotic.
I've been a member of the Erotica Readers & Writers Association for more than a decade. ERWA has a list called Storytime, where members share their erotic fiction (and poetry) and ask for critiques. I don't participate in Storytime now – I just don't have the time – but the three or four years that I did had a powerful influence on my own writing.
In any case, I still recall one story that was posted on Storytime – at least ten years ago. I don't remember who wrote it, though I recall that it was a man. The main – indeed, the only – character is a soldier, staying in a cheap rented room somewhere, maybe Paris. A woman lives in the next room; the walls are thin. Night after night he listens to the sounds she makes coupling with her lover. He finds himself terribly aroused by this unseen female. He masturbates to her cries. He fantasizes about meeting her, about taking her lover's place. His obsession grows, his desire is unbearable, yet he still can't find the courage to knock on her door. Finally, one day, she's gone – the room next door is empty.
I still find this story to be one of the most erotic pieces I've ever read. There was no sex involved, or at least none that involved the object of desire. Yet the tale managed to convey such a sense of yearning, a desperate, intense need – manufactured entirely out of the soldier's imagination.
That story (I really wish I still had a copy) has become my touchstone for erotica. I enjoy writing about sex, but like the soldier, it's the idea of sex that really turns me on. I've experimented, trying to write (and sell) erotica that keeps the physical side of sex to an absolute minimum. One story that falls into that category is “Stroke”, which appeared in Please Sir: Erotic Stories of Female Submission, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel. The male protagonist is a Dom who's bedridden in a rehab facility, partially paralyzed by a stroke. The heroine is his nurse, who suffers from kinky fantasies her boyfriend labels as sick and shameful. The dominant manages to fulfill Cassie's fantasies, without ever touching her.
"Look at me." His tone was softer but no less firm. I raised my eyes to his, which were the startling blue of glacial ice. I shivered and burned. "You're new, aren't you?"
"Yes, Sir," he corrected me. My nipples tightened inside my bra.
"Yes, Sir." Just his voice was enough to make me ache.
"What's your name?"
"Cassie, Sir. Cassie Leonard."
"Don't look away, Cassie. Look at me. Do you know who I am?"
"No, Sir. I just started at Lindenwood this week. Before that I was in the rehab department at Miriam Hospital."
"My slaves call me Master Jonathan."
My earlobes, my nipples, my fingertips, all seemed to catch fire. I wanted to sink through the floor. I didn't want him to see how his words excited me.
But he did see. I stared at my hands, knuckles white from gripping the rail.
"You have a boyfriend, don't you?"
"Yes, Sir, I do." An image of Ryan rose in my mind, his brown curls and uneven grin, muscled chest and hard thighs. I did love him, truly I did, with his quirky humor, his gentle fingers and his boyish ardor. He was a fine young man. My mother approved of him.
"He doesn't satisfy you." It was a statement, not a question. Tears of remembered frustration pricked the corners of my eyes. "Why not, Cassie? Is his cock too small?"
I couldn't believe I was having this conversation with a stranger, a patient, a half-paralyzed man forty years older than I was. I stole a glance at Dr. Carver. His mouth was firm but his eyes sparkled with suppressed mirth.
"No, Sir. His cock is fine." Ryan was justifiably proud of his meaty hard-ons.
"What is it then? Is he a selfish lover? Does he come too quickly for you?"
Guilt washed over me. Ryan would happily spend hours licking my pussy and fingering me, trying to get me off. The only way I could manage it was to think about scenes from the kinky porn I hid from him. Whippings and spankings, gags and handcuffs, all the clichés that I couldn't stop myself from wanting.
"Well? Tell me, Cassie. What do you need that he doesn't provide? What do you want?"
My mouth filled with cotton. I couldn't speak. I was acutely aware of my rigid nipples pressing against the starched fabric of my uniform. My clit pulsed like a sore tooth inside my sodden panties.
"Cassie, I'm waiting." His sternness sent electricity shimmering through my limbs. "Don't disappoint me."
I dared a glance at his face. His left eyelid drooped slightly. His eyes snared mine. I couldn't look away. One eyebrow arched in an unspoken question.
"I—um—I want him to, uh, to do things to me. That he doesn't want to do.” I tried to break away from his gaze, but the force of his will held me.
“Things?” He sounded amused. A fresh wave of hot, wet shame swamped my body. “What sort of things?”
“Uh—tie me up. Spank me. Use me. Treat me like his slave.” It all came out in a rush, the desires I'd never shared with anyone except Ryan. Even then, I'd only shown him the tip of the iceberg, the least perverted of my needs. “He wouldn't, though. He was shocked when I told him. Disgusted. Said that I had a filthy mind.” The tears that had gathered earlier spilled out over my cheeks.
“I imagine that you do, little one, delightfully filthy.” His voice was a caress, soothing and seductive. “I knew that right away, just from your reactions to my voice. Your deepest desire is to submit to a strong master, isn't it?”
“Yes—Sir.” I felt relief, now that I'd admitted my secret. He at least didn't seem to condemn me.
“You want to be beaten and buggered, shackled to the bed and split open by a huge cock. You want to bath in your master's come, maybe even his piss. To be forced to service his friends.”
It was thrilling and horrible, listening to him enumerating my darkest fantasies out loud. My clit felt the size of a ripe plum, swollen and juicy, ready to burst. I nodded, still finding it difficult to expose myself so completely.
“I will do those things for you, if you'd like.”
“You?” The suggestion startled me enough that I forgot the honorific, but he seemed to forgive my lapse. I searched his handsome, ravaged face. “How...?”
“Don't underestimate me, girl. I may not be the Dom I once was, but I can still make you burn for my touch. I can still make you beg.” He snagged the button on the end of its cord and raised himself to full sitting position. He moved more smoothly and easily than before. “Remove your clothing.”
More recently, I tried a more extreme experiment. I wrote a scifi ménage novella which included erotic scenes where the protagonists have no bodies at all. Bodies of Light includes some normal, physical, tab-A-in-Slot-B (and tab-C-in-slot-D) scenes, but at the story's climax, Christine, Alyn and Zed couple in the astral sphere, as beings of pure energy.
Is it erotic? I think so. And I suppose at some level it is about sex – the kind of sex that happens in the mind.
I really do subscribe to the philosophy summarized by my tag line. Imagination is the ultimate aphrodisiac. For me, erotica deals, first and foremost, with the mental and emotional aspects of desire. The physical stuff is optional.