Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Lure of Limits, the Temptation of Taboos

Sacchi Green

What would we do without limits?

I don’t mean physical limits, although many breaching of the limits set by social and religious and legal factions do involve sex, which is about as physical as anything we do or imagine. Tangible limits like cliffs and iron bars, though, are not the kinds of limits I’m contemplating, even though they may be challenges for some hang gliding or rock climbing adventurers. Lovelace’s “stone walls do not a prison make” is all very well in terms of the spirit, but iron bars do make a jail for the unwilling body.

Come to think of it, I do mean some physical limits, as well as spiritual and, of course, sexual. Those iron bars in other, consensual circumstances, can represent domination and submission that often includes a spiritual element, but sometimes also gains much of its savor from the thrill of transgressing societal limits, taboos, mores, whatever we want to call them. Would we be bored without any societal limits on sexual behavior?

The limits do shift over time, sometimes in one direction, sometimes in the other. On the whole, sexual freedom has advanced over the centuries, but still with fluctuations, and still within limits, although those limits change position frequently. They also depend on the particular beliefs and customs and tastes of many different cultures, and factions within those cultures, even within families. Some people are disposed to cling to the perceived safety of limits, while some get off on the power trip of being the ones who enforce them. But lurking within most of us is a feeling that pushing the limits, breaking the taboos, could make the pleasures of sex even more intense, and knowing that you’re being transgressive is the most fun of all.

These days the more we have, the more we want, and the more we crave ever more sensations out of what we get. This applies to various things—experimenting with food, searching out kinds of music and new forms of art only the newest generation can tolerate, and sex that we want to make go beyond anything permitted, stretching limits, achieving new peaks of pleasure. Sometimes, in my aging and cranky opinion, even beyond sex. Some forms of kink seem to me to have only a tenuous connection to sex, but that’s neither here nor there.

Wherever we set the limits, I’m not sure that we do have more fun. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking/was looked on as something shocking,/now heaven knows,/anything goes./” Were those glimpses of stocking  as titillating turn-ons to the viewer as skimpy bikinis are now? I think of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses getting off quite happily by watching a girl in a park deliberately raise her skirt to show her underwear. The limits as to what was shocking, forbidden, were very different then, but the fun may have been as keen. Or maybe not. There’s no way to measure.

What isn’t fun these days is the rather sudden swing the idea of limits has taken with the revelations of sexual harassment of so many women and even children. Men have always benefitted most from pushing limits, and used their positions of power to force themselves on women. It’s good that these matters are being discussed, and the rights of women upheld, but it’s also confusing when it comes to what the limits should be and where the lines are drawn.

We writers of erotica are as confused as anyone else, and more affected than most. Erotica, which already had a pretty much transgressive reputation, is now being actively shunned in many areas where we depend on selling our work. There’s still a market for what’s considered taboo, although the audience is narrowing. Consensual sex is being tentatively accepted, but the nuances of desire for fictional dub-con (dubious consent) or even non-con have been pretty much driven underground, or maybe they always have been. That’s not my circus, so I can’t say for sure, but I’ve known people for whom the verge of non-con really seemed to be necessary for fulfillment.

I have to admit that I have only a relatively vague notion of taboos. For example, I don’t understand why sex between step-siblings or step-parents/step-children is apparently a popular fetish in fiction. Other than the power differential between the parent and child, which makes consent complicated, what makes it all sexier than other couplings? Imagining that it’s actually a blood relationship? I assume the original incest taboo was because our ancestors noticed the genetic problems with offspring in some of such cases and assumed the gods were forbidding it, although the ruling families of Egypt didn’t seem to get the message. Many, probably most, taboos had a logical origin in the past. Patriarchy certainly played a role in keeping women repressed so men could be sure their children were really their own. But with step-siblings the genetic problems would be no greater than with any other pairing, so why the excitement?

Enough of my only semi-informed rambling. My usual niche in erotica has always been rather tenuous; many if not most of the lesbians who like to read and actually buy books are not fans of explicit sex in fiction. Admittedly there’s plenty of such sex out there that I’m not a fan of, either, but as an anthology editor I get to see the work of really good writers who can tell stories where sex is essential and clearly on view. Not only that, they can push the limits of what’s been done too often, what’s too hackneyed or formulaic, and create work as original and gripping as any in other literary form.

Well, there’s nothing as sure as change. Erotica will survive, and thrive, in one form or another. And once this current necessary moving of the goalposts backward is ready to shift again toward sexual freedom, those more restrictive limits will be easy to breach, because we’ve already been there.  


  1. It's weird to notice that the limits on what is appropriate or accepted now, in the area of sex, are more constrained than when I was coming of age. I don't watch much porn, but the films of the seventies and eighties strike me as more genuine and more erotic than recent releases, even when they are less explicit.

  2. Regarding cultural shifts: Even though I think I was pretty sensitive and enlightened when I was writing erotica, there are details I might handle a little differently if I were revising those stories now. The difference is my having come to better understand the pervasiveness of the "unwanted sexual attention" issue in the lives of so many women. Sure, I knew about unwanted attention and the male gaze, but ten years on I have a better grasp of how constant that stuff is in women's lives. Back then, when I was writing an encounter between strangers, I was content with the judgment that while it might not be appropriate to approach a stranger in real life in the way an erotica character would, it was fine in the fantasy world of erotic fiction (where—in my stories, at least—the deck is stacked, insofar as we can assume the attention will be desired and welcomed). But now I'm not sure I'd be as comfortable doing that (depending on the specifics of the scene). Maybe I would try to avoid setups where someone boldly hits on a stranger (especially if it's a man hitting on a woman; and in my stories, actually, it was at least as likely to be the other way around), because my mind is so full of what a problem that is in the real world. Likewise with stuff such as a male narrator-protagonist sharing with the reader his sexual observations about various women he notices as he goes about his business during the day. I think it's fine that he has those private thoughts, but making a parade of them for the reader (however tastefully and respectfully) might feel a bit uncomfortable to me now that I better understand what daily life is like for so many women. Again, it would depend on the specifics and on exactly how I might be able to tweak the feel of it to keep it from crossing where my own lines have moved to.

    I should emphasize here that it's not about my being afraid that someone would criticize me; it's about keeping my work consistent with what feels most appropriate in my personal outlook (though, of course, part of what makes it feel appropriate or not involves my perception of how it's likely to come across in the eyes of readers—again, not because I'm afraid of negative judgments, but rather because I want to do right by them).

  3. Thought-provoking post, Sacchi. I agree with you about the allure of step-siblings. My guess is that this kind of relationship attracts some readers because it is in a kind of sweet spot: pseudo-incest, but not really, so it can be enjoyed without shame.

    1. "So it can be marketed with less chance of getting banned" may be more to the point. At least that's always been my assumption about the raison d'etre for that subgenre.

    2. I suspect that Jeremy has it right. Shame is probably exactly what the readers need for maximum enjoyment.


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