By Annabeth Leong
I’ve read so much erotica that seems to take place in “a random bedroom in America.” Unless the anthology topic is something like “al fresco” or the sexual partners in question have a particular kink for unusual locations, the place where they’re doing whatever they’re doing is often treated as an afterthought.
I’m not going to pretend I’m innocent of this phenomenon. I suspect that if I counted up my “random bedroom” stories, they’d represent an alarming percentage of my work. Despite that hypocrisy, knowing where characters are in the world—even and especially when they’re in the bedroom—makes for better stories.
To me stories always come back to character. I write erotica in part because I love what sex can say about who people are. What we do when we’re literally naked, how we talk and think about it, how that vulnerability makes us feel—for a person addicted to the rush of knowing things about people, there’s no substitute. When I teach writing workshops, I often argue that this is a good way to think about what you’re doing in a sex scene. You’re revealing something about who these people are and how they relate to each other. What happens in your scene should advance what your reader knows about your characters, and what they know about themselves. That means that even if you’re writing your 200th cunnilingus scene, it’s unique because you’ve never written about these people in this particular cunnilingus situation before.
I’d argue that bedrooms have a lot of similar qualities. Lots of people work to make their bedrooms their own, and even if they don’t, that says something about them.
I had a girlfriend who had plastered every inch of her walls and ceiling with pictures cut from magazines, often in artful shapes. The majority were of women, and I remember being fascinated by the statement being made about femininity inside her bedroom, and the way that made me feel about her and myself whenever we made out in there. She had so many icons of femininity on display, so many women who knew how to wear makeup and heels, how to pluck their eyebrows. I was trying to default out of that sort of gender consideration, and the result was that I dressed in whatever people gave me. I’d be there in my shapeless outfits, surrounded by these impeccably styled women, wondering what they had to do with me, with us. It represented a world I’d never understood, and I remember kissing her, fearing I didn’t know how to do it, maybe fearing even more that I didn’t even know what I was doing at all. Those perfect women watched me, and I didn’t know if the complicated feelings they aroused meant I was definitely a lesbian or that I definitely wasn’t.
That bedroom, though, inspired my own. I loved the effect of the powerful statement, and I tried to create the same effect. Starting at the top of one wall, I began collecting images. Most of them were of Trent Reznor, Tori Amos, Courtney Love, and Charlize Theron, and no one could have sorted out the complicated mixture of wanting to be them or wanting to fuck them—least of all me. However, not having the same level of motivation as that girlfriend, I only made it a foot down the wall. Many other signs of the unfinished appeared. The books I hadn’t read stacked up beside the bed. The candles I had burned and left to drip, and the soot marks above them. A hurricane warning came through Florida, and I boarded my windows but then left the blockage up. I liked to sit in the dark in silk nightclothes that had belonged to my mother, smoking cigarettes and putting them out in the trophy I’d been given for being valedictorian of my high school. When lovers came to my room, they found it dark, smoky, musky. It was likely impossible to lie to yourself about the fact I was fucking other people. I kept condoms in the same drawer as a ritual knife I’d bought before I got too scared of witchcraft. Someone had left porn in my room at some point, and I kept it around the way some people keep guest towels.
Or how about another bedroom I saw, later in life, while I was in the process of getting divorced? This one belonged to a guy who was trying to date me before I was quite ready to date anyone. My general sensation at the time was of bewilderment. The title “married” bestows a certain quality of adulthood, and I’d just been stripped of that title, and I didn’t feel like I had much else that made me seem grown up. This guy owned an apartment not far from the one where I lived, but it was full of electronics I couldn’t have bought for myself. It was clean, put together. Everything matched. I played video games with him on a modern console and he laughed at me for the way I moved—but I couldn’t help thinking about how I only had hand me down consoles I’d kept running through a combination of hacking and prayer. I went into his bedroom, caught in some combination of fascination, fear, arousal, and repulsion. I looked at his bookshelf, like I always do, and there were only a few books there. About half were about business and the others had names like The Art of Seduction and The Game. I don’t remember much else of the setting except the darkness of the room, the way it felt expensive. When I noticed the books, though, the place began to seem like the sort of performance that comes before a trap. I kissed him to see what it would feel like, and then I left. If not for the books, I think I’d have slept with him.
The point here is that each of these places has a specific feeling in my mind. It’s a big deal to let someone into your bedroom for the first time. I’ve met few people who are truly casual about doing that.
When I revise my work, I try to pay attention to these questions of setting, though I don’t know that I always do it well. I hope I’ve demonstrated here that there’s value in making a bedroom specific rather than generic. It’s another way of showing who these characters are, what it means for them to have sex, and why the reader and writer might care.