Monday, September 7, 2015

Erotic Addiction

Sacchi Green

Why write erotica? Well, my best guess as to why I do it is that I’m a short-story writer by nature, and pretty much the only markets for short stories are in the genres of erotica or science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction (which is where I got my start, and where I still dabble from time to time.) Even my sf/f stories tended to have an erotic subtext, so when I discovered that there were markets for specifically erotic short stories I was off and running.

True as the above may be, I realize that we’ve been discussing erotica on more complex or abstract levels that have nothing to do with short stories versus novels, and raise many more questions than we can find answers for. Let’s skip over the question of  “Why write fiction at all?” and move on to “Why write stories with explicit sex scenes?” Which, of course, raises further questions of how much sex a story needs to qualify as erotica, whether a story with romance gives up any claim to being erotica no matter how much sex it includes, and, more important from a literary point of view (if one cares about such things), whether the sex is “gratuitous” if the story would be complete without it.

I’m of the opinion that explicit sex is a great revealer of character and mood and is often essential to the plot or story arc, but even when it's not, it adds color and intensity. Still, as an anthology editor, I prefer erotic fiction that’s about something besides sex, which usually means that the sex itself is about something besides sex.  (Outstanding writing, of course, trumps all other concerns.) I’ve edited a dozen anthologies marketed as erotica, and, while I’ll freely admit that not all of the stories would qualify as erotica rather than erotic romance to real sticklers when it comes to sexual content, I’ve never had any complaints on that score that I know of. Maybe working in the sub-niche of lesbian fiction helps—I’ve had reviewers rave about how kinky a book is when I didn’t think there was much that was all that edgy in that particular book. I guess just having LGBT themes is enough to qualify as kinky to some folks. In fact, way back when I was writing sf/f I had an editor turn down a story because it was “porn”, when there was almost no actual sex portrayed (except, apparently, in his own mind when he read it.) To be fair, these days the better sf/f publications are begging for “diversity”.

My editorial choices these days are greatly influenced by originality, maybe to the detriment of the sexual content. Okay, I’m getting jaded, and I have to remind myself to use at least a few stories (as long as they’re well-written) that will appeal to new readers who haven’t seen it all before. Fortunately I see more and more writers with originality and skill to offset the many beginners who think they should write things  just like what they’ve read for free online. For Best Lesbian Erotica 2016 I’ve chosen some work more because it interested me than because I expect it to turn readers on, and I may well get complaints. One story set in a London bomb shelter during WWII takes a necessarily long time to get to the necessarily somewhat muted sex. In another, the streets of Liverpool in 1961 spawn a rock band of rebels, with a whole lot more story than sex, but what there is, is choice. Then we have Miss Scarlet from Clue hustling a female cop in the New York subway system, also with a great deal of story before getting down to fucking. Outstanding stories, as are the rest, and sexy. But a few may be erotica mostly because I say they are. (Well, the Miss Scarlet one is reprint, so clearly others accept it as erotica, too, and it's had rave reviews.)

Looking at things from the “gratuitous” point of view, some of the pieces I chose would be excellent as stories without the sex being as explicit, but the sex makes them even better. I don’t have final approval yet from the new Cleis publisher, and I have no way yet to judge her taste, or that of the new owners, so the contents may change. That’s the way it goes. The ground, as the other bloggers here have pointed out, is shifting under our feet.

I’ll probably keep on writing and editing stories that pass as erotica, whether or not they sell much, but now I’m wondering how much of my own writing would be just as well off without the explicit sex. Here’s an experiment. My piece “The Outside Edge”, an Olympic figure skating story, was published in my first anthology for Cleis Press, Girl Crazy, and reprinted in Best Lesbian Romance 2010 after some debate about whether it might be too erotic for romance. It’s heavy on the story aspect, so I’m wondering if the actual sex scenes are essential, or gratuitous. I’ve posted some of them here before, and probably linked to the whole story, but I’ll repeat myself now, with just a taste and then a link to the whole story, free on my personal blog. It occurs to me now that I should have used a different example, but it’s too late, and I’m too tired.

Here’s the taste, by no means the only sex scene. Try skipping the parts in brackets. Does the story make just as much sense? Is it better with or without the sex?

Medaling as a long shot had condemned me to a TV interview. The reporter kept her comments to the usual inanities, except for a somewhat suggestive, “That was quite some program!”
“If you liked that, don’t miss the exhibition tomorrow,” I said to her, and to whatever segment of the world watches these things. When I added that I was quitting competition to pursue my own “artistic goals,” she flashed her white teeth and wished me luck, and then, microphone set aside and camera off, leaned close for a moment to lay a hand on my arm. “Nice costume, but I’ll bet you’ll be glad to get it off.”

Suli was right on it, her own sharp teeth flashing and her long nails digging into my sleeve. The reporter snatched her hand back just in time. “Don’t worry,” Suli purred, “I’ve got all that covered.”

Don’t expose yourself like that! Don’t let me drag you down! But I couldn’t say it, and I knew Suli was in no mood to listen.

I was too tired, anyway, wanting nothing more than to strip off the unitard and never squirm into one again, but Suli wouldn’t let me change in the locker room. Once I saw the gleam of metal she flashed in her open shoulder bag—so much for security at the Games!—I followed her out and back to our room with no regret for the parties we were missing.

The instant the door clicked shut behind us she had the knife all the way out of its leather sheath. “Take off that medal,” she growled, doing a knockout job of sounding menacing. “The rest is mine.”

I set the bronze medal on the bedside table, flopped backward onto the bed, and spread my arms and legs wide. “Use it or lose it,” I said, then gasped at the touch of the hilt against my throat.

“Don’t move,” she ordered, crouching over me, her hair brushing my chest. I lay frozen, not a muscle twitching, although my flesh shrank reflexively from the cold blade when she sat back on her haunches and slit the stretchy unitard at the juncture of thigh and crotch.

[[[“Been sweating, haven’t we,” she crooned, slicing away until the fabric gaped like a hungry mouth, showing my skin pale beneath. “But it’s not all sweat, is it?” Her cool hand slid inside to fondle my slippery folds. It certainly wasn’t all sweat.

Her moves were a blend of ritual and raw sex. The steel flat against my inner thigh sent tongues of icy flame stabbing deep into my cunt.]]]

The keen edge drawn along my belly and breastbone seemed to split my old body and release a new one, though only a few light pricks drew blood. The rip of the fabric parting under Suli’s knife and hands and, eventually, teeth, was like the rending of bonds that had confined me all my life.

[[[Then Suli’s warm mouth captured my clit. The trancelike ritual vanished abruptly in a fierce, urgent wave of right here, right now, right NOW NOW NO-O-W-W-W-W! Followed, with hardly a pause to recharge, by further waves impelled by her teasing tongue and penetrating fingers until I was completely out of breath and wrung out.

“I thought I was supposed to be storing up energy,” I told her, when I could talk at all.

“Jude, you’re pumping out enough pheromones to melt ice,” Suli said, “and I’m not ice!”

It turned out that I wasn’t all that wrung out, after all, and if I couldn’t talk, it was only because Suli was straddling my face, and my mouth was most gloriously, and busily, full.]]]

The chill kiss of the blade lingered on my skin the next day, along with the heat of Suli’s touch.

After trying the test myself, I have to finally admit why I write erotica. I'm addicted. I write it because I love to do it. Because that’s what I write, where my characters want me to take them, what makes the writing worthwhile, and maybe, just once in awhile, makes the prose sing, even if I’m the only one who can hear the music.

But I still haven’t learned what constitutes dirty erotica, much less filthy, and they say that’s what sells these days.

For the entire story “The Outside Edge”:


  1. My guess would be that dirty requires taboo-breaking, and that's the kind of stuff most publishers say they won't take, ie, snuff, scat, daddy-child, etc. If that's what you have to write to sell well, I'm going to be stuck in obscurity. Me and my smutty, vanilla, M/F erotic romance scenes. At least writing them quiets their voices in my head...until the other ones start talking.

  2. My definition of erotica (which it's likely I've articulated here before) is "literature that, first and foremost, explores and celebrates human sexuality."

    This is a narrow definition in that it makes a historical adventure that's also a work of erotica, or a thriller that's also a work of erotica, or (as with my own novels) a comic narrative that's also a work of erotica not qualify as just-plain erotica; those things, by my definition, are "erotica-slash-this" or "erotica-hyphen-that."

    However, it's a broad definition insofar as "the human sexual experience" doesn't begin and end with physical sex. Someone's work of erotica, by my definition, could be mostly or entirely about desire, chemistry, or attraction. As long as it can be said that the sex is the main story (and as long as the sex is erotic, which of course not all sexual content in literature is meant to be), then I'd call it erotica.

  3. Sacchi, I remember reading "The Outside Edge" in Girl Crazy (I usually read all the other stories in anthos that include mine because I'm curious). I never thought of it as a story that could afford to have all the explicit sex stripped away, though it would probably work as fiction without it. The intensity of Olympic-level competition and performance anxiety seems to influence the sex as well as the rest of the action, so my first response is why take the sex away?? On the other hand, I've sometimes been tempted to take all the explicit sex out of a longish story (esp. if it has been rejected for an erotic anthology) so I could try sending it to some other market.
    Re your question about the passage above, I think you would have to try out "The Outside Edge" with sex on one group of readers who never saw it before, and "The Outside Edge" with no explicit sex on another group of virgin readers, and compare their reactions. As it is, my reaction is that I prefer the story I read. :)

    1. I'm with Jean on this one. I remember "The Outside Edge" from that book, and I love it with the sex.

  4. As a writer, my gut-level reaction to the sex vs no-sex dilemma is that taming-down a story that was originally written as erotica isn't likely to work. (At least, if I did that to one of my own stories, I wouldn't be satisfied with the results.) A story with no sex has to focus exclusively (or almost) on something else, and it has to be written that way from the beginning. Since I started writing erotica, I have written a few non-erotic pieces, including a kind of YA story about a 16-year-old girl in 1965 who can function as a medium and who has a crush on her handsome, sensitive English teacher, who is a very closeted gay man whose lover was killed in the War in Vietnam, which has made him especially sensitive to the suffering on both sides in the American Civil War. (He serves as male chaperone for a group of high school students on a field trip to Virginia to commemorate the centenary of the end of that war.) I was never tempted to add explicit sex to that story, even in the form of fantasies, partly because it's fairly long already, and there's enough else going on in it!

  5. The image of removing a costume with a knife is powerful one.
    . In the end we write for the same reason, the love of story especially certain kinds of stories that reach us. That's who we are.

  6. Hi, Sacchi,

    I don't think you really stripped the eroticism from that passage. Yes, you made it less explicit, but it's still about desire, and that, for me, is the defining characteristic of erotica.

    I agree with Jean. If a story cries out to include sex -- either implicit or explicit -- and one tries to ignore that call, the result will suffer.

    Many of my short stories are not "about sex". One that particularly comes to mind is "Clean Slate", in my LadyLit collection "Her Own Devices". That's primarily a story about personal identity (not sexual identity).

    Anyway, for the most part I can't keep sex out of my stories, though some tales are more explicit than others. And really, why should I? If that's what inspires me?

    I do think it's much healthier than the typical addiction.

  7. Although I get the point of the exercise and the story does work without the explicits, I have to offer another take on your snippet. Really seemed as though ignoring what's in the brackets took this to the equivalent of watching a sunset in place of an obvious sex scene. In this case there wasn't even that. I think this particular clip needs the description or it looks like you're hiding sex behind doors, like any cop-out PG film.

  8. I love what you say about how sex is a great revealer of character and mood. That's a big reason for me, both for why I write erotica and for why I read it.


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