Fair warning: this post should, uncharacteristically, probably be labeled as 18+ / NSFW.
I do not read much erotica / lady porn / vaginal fantasy. Part of the reason is that my upbringing was pretty tight-laced, but as I’ve become a more vocal advocate of feminism, I have come to believe that part of the battle for human equality along the gender divide is demystifying sex. It’s okay for ladies to get horny, and it’s okay for humans to indulge their horniness as long as doing so does not endanger or degrade one’s self or other people. Erotica is one of the simplest and safest entry points for bringing the conversation about female sexuality into a broader sphere, but with few exceptions, I despise the entire genre with the fire of a thousand newborn suns.
This weekend, while trying to read a book that was recommended to me by a friend who is a connoisseur of the genre, I was about ready to hurl my ereader across the room when I had another inter-genre epiphany. Erotica doesn’t have to inherently suck. Erotica is only sucky because there is some badly mistaken and deeply ingrained notion that it is appropriate for all erotica to be romance.
Wait, wait, wait, you may say. Aren’t erotica and romance the same thing?No, my friends, they aren’t, and I would even go so far as to say they’re locked in a mutually destructive relationship.
Let’s define erotica first…
Erotica is any book in which the description of sex reaches an anatomically specific level ending in details of how climax was achieved. In short, it’s porn, in words. I have zero problem with porn in words because I don’t need to stop to worry about whether the end result was achieved in a way that is non-exploitative: the people doing the sex are fictitious. Whether or not the authors are given a fair shake is a conversation for a different day, but the issues there are generally the same issues faced by authors in general and (usually) female authors in specific, rather than the issues faced by actors who are getting naked for the camera.
Erotica, furthermore, has the opportunity to provide healthy examples of consent, safe sex, and the right of women to enjoy their bodies. It can sometimes be the most ass-backwards of genres when it comes to power and gender roles, but when it’s done well, erotica is one of those genres that is capable of lighting the path towards gender equality.
And now, for romance…
A romance novel, by contrast, is any novel where the primary conflict in the plot revolves around the success of the romantic/sexual relationship between the two main characters. I rather loathe romance novels because, by and large, they are fond of upholding that ass-backwardness I was just referring to. They usually end in a wedding and babies and very frequently involve a dynamic in which either the woman has to be rescued by a stronger man or a strong woman has to learn how to be meek enough to be lovable to a man. Gross.
Because the sexual relationship is at the heart of the plot, rape or attempted rape are disgustingly common tools for increasing the drama of the plot. Ex-cah-uze me? You’re writing a book that’s designed to get ladies in the mood and you’re going to throw the cold reality of the prevalence of rape into the mix? I’m not saying society is at a point where we don’t need to expose the prevalence of rape in fiction, but good lord, people–rape and erotica are a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad combination that undermine erotica’s ability to empower women to enjoy their sexuality. I call bullshit on the commonplace use of rape to up the drama-ante in erotica.
Beyond the rage-inducing incompatibilities, romance and erotica are just fundamentally a poor match. The point of erotica, let’s not mince words here, is arousal. The structure of your typical romance novel goes like this: reader meets girl > reader meets boy > girl and boy meet > girl and boy hate each other > girl and boy find a common problem that brings them together > girl and boy decide that maybe they can stomach each other > girl and boy get down to business. That means a bare minimum of three to four chapters before any fun stuff happens, and most of the book is designed to leave the reader completely frustrated by all of the stupid arguments and external influences that are preventing the sexytime from happening in anything that resembles a dominant percentage of the book.
Romance and erotica, I think you need to take an honest look at your relationship. You’re just going to keep hurting each other if you stay together, but you could both be so much stronger, so much happier if you agreed to see other people or, you know, take a break to just work on yourselves for a while.
A modest proposal…
You may very well still be scratching your head about how we could possibly separate romance from erotica. There’s genre erotica, I can hear you thinking. Supernatural erotica is a billion-dollar industry, isn’t it? No doubt. But I have read a fair amount of that, and every one so far has been romance cosplaying SF/F in a poorly constructed costume.
I wouldn’t, however, want to read a book that was absolutely nothing but X-rated sex scenes…there’s something to be said for a bit of build-up and the value that plot has in making you care about the characters you’re peeping in on. So here’s what I want to see a market boom in: erotica whose main couple is in a stable, loving relationship and who are working together against some larger problem. Still not seeing the potential? Imagine a book written from this rough concept:
Opening scene: Zale and Talon, life-partners and co-captains of the inter-stellar messenger ship G.S.S. Gutenberg, are engaging in some delightfully inventive zero-g sex (which would necessitate some sort of light bondage, or maybe acrobat-style ropes, just to handle the whole equal and opposite reaction bit of physics) when their com beeps, alerting them that they have an unexpected visitor.
Introduction of conflict: The visitor is a mob-boss who intends to destroy the legitimate government of their home planet. He has some leverage against them that makes it very difficult to say no to his demand that they play a critical role in his devious scheme.
Role of sex: Because the conflict is external to their relationship, sex can be used as stress relief, a way to break up expository discussions about how to manage the conflict, and an act of celebration. Lots of opportunities exist for quality, consent-positive, body-image-positive, safe, and creative sex.
With this approach, erotica can tackle plots that are actually interesting in a format that permits a higher ratio of sexytime to plot. And unshackled from the bone-weary tropes of the erotica/romance tango, romance is set free to work on being less shitty in its treatment of women.
I’m sorry to say that I do not have the courage to actually commit vivid, anatomically-precise descriptions of sex to paper, so I am not likely to be the person who turns the genre on its head with my brilliant non-romance erotica. I would love to read the book I envisioned above, though, so if anyone wants to take the idea and run with it, it’s yours. Just let me know when you need beta readers. Also, if you have read any good erotica that avoids being romance, please feel welcome to share recommendations in the comments!