August 4, 2014

Talking Shop: Writing Sex-Positive Erotica

Let's talk about how we portray sexuality.

(This post has been slightly edited thanks to some helpful points made in user comments. Thank you, Decadent Kane!)

First, consider this short article on 50 Shades of Grey. Perhaps it recently showed up on your Facebook or Reddit feed. The author points out what I consider to be very valid criticism of 50 Shades: the portrayal of BDSM and D/s relationship is stereotyped, ignorant, and harmful in its representation. 50 Shades has been lauded as the book which will bring erotica and BDSM into the mainstream...but this presents a problem, because what the mainstream is now viewing as great erotic BDSM is actually damaging to the BDSM lifestyle and those who already live in it.

Allow me to point out one thing, though, that the author of this article doesn't mention, and which I consider without a doubt to be the biggest sin of 50 Shades.

Christian Grey's sexual identity is quite emphatically portrayed as the result of sexual abuse, and an inner demon which must be treated.
(click to visit the artist's page)
Why E.L. James decided to add this detail to the BDSM dynamic, I will never know. When reading the book, at first I expected it to be a pathway to Ana discovering this stereotype was utterly wrong, and perhaps come to appreciate Christian's sexuality for simply a part of who he was

Unfortunately, it seems that wasn't the case. Throughout the series Christian's sexual identity is something Ana must rescue him from, and an obstacle he must overcome in order to be what she needs and wants.

This is not sex-positive. Not in the least.

We are living in a society which is becoming progressively more aware of the different sexual lifestyles, orientations and identities that exist. It can be a very maddening struggle to achieve recognition, though, when the "mainstream" still adopts these stereotypical views of alternate lifestyles. Consider for a moment that homosexuality was removed from the DSM almost 30 years ago, but we still hear assertions and see representations of homosexuality coming as the result of sexual abuse, or an option exercised by rape victims, or (quite often in the case of lesbians), a fun, kinky game enjoyed to entice others.

I'm of the opinion that erotic writers are more than pornographers. In porn, it's generally acceptable to skip accurate details or even skip plot entirely, to get to the sex. Whether the sex is gay, group, BDSM, transsexual, furry, or otherwise, there's not much expectation that the background is going to be thorough or true. Your audience is pretty much in it for the dirty stuff.

Now, while readers of erotica may also be in it for the dirty stuff, erotica is a different medium. Working in narrative involves stimulation of more than the visual sense and should, if it's good, delve into the minds, emotions and psychology of its characters (even if only briefly).

So if you're going to be writing about characters who have a specific sexual identity and belong to specific sexual lifestyle, a good writer will do it with consideration to how they portray those identities.

Consider a few basic guidelines:

1.      Research. If you yourself are not part of the lifestyle you are representing, research it. Talk to people who are involved in it. Find blogs, podcasts, forums, and read up, listen, watch. Read other erotica on the subject and consider how it is represented there (don't mimic it, necessarily, but consider and analyze it).

2.      Immediately reject all temptation to sensationalize your subject. Avoid turning somebody's sexual identity into a spectacle. Remember that the people who live this sexual identity are not oddities. Their needs, passions and desires are not there for the entertainment of others. This doesn't mean you can't write about them and hope to make the story erotic, arousing and pleasurable. You must simply keep in mind that their sexual identities are there to celebrate, not exploit.
(The Alternative and Burlesque Fair)

3.      Include details about the lifestyle, not just the act. In 50 Shades of Grey, E.L. James does include details like D/s contracts, hard and soft limits, etc. Given the longer nature of the story she did have the opportunity to get into some deeper details (even if she didn't maintain them). Even in short stories, though, you can find a way to work in one or two positive specifics to ground the story in truth, and to improve consciousness of alternative lifestyles. This is how one increases sex-positive awareness in the mainstream.

4.      Write it because it is part of who your characters are.  Remember that porn needs plot. Just like a good erotic story must be more than an excuse to get to a sex act, a character is more than an excuse to depict a kink. Give your characters more depth than just what they enjoy in the bedroom.

5.   Do not represent sexual identity as the consequence of trauma. Many authors--many beginning authors, I think--consider these traumas to be a good motivations for their characters and their bedroom play. If you do not handle the concepts of trauma with care and respect, this is not only stereotypical, it's insensitive to victims of real violence.  By doing this, you are misrepresenting actual tragedy to provide sexual stimulation to your readers. 

Please note that this doesn't mean that rape or abuse is beyond the reach of fictional representation. I've heard it said these should never be plot points, and I highly disagree. They can make for good plot points and can put characters in a position for great conflict, self-discovery, growth, and deliverance. Kresley Cole's MacReive does a good job of representing the genuine consequences of molestation as it plays into a character's development and adult sexuality. If you feel called to approach issues of rape, molestation, mental illness or other traumas, treat it with respect and research, as you would any other subject. Do not exploit trauma.

One thing I love about erotica is the opportunity to celebrate and highlight the beauty in sexual diversity. As a good writer, however, I consider it essential to celebrate that diversity with respect and knowledge. To do otherwise is exploitation, which is not the mark of a good writer. Research, respect and thoughtfully represent any lifestyle or community you hope to write about. Not only is this basic good writing, but sex-positive inclusion of erotic diversity.


  1. Great post. I agree with you, as someone who comes from a sexually abusive background I don't feel it should be something used this way. If I want to be turned on by what I read I don't want to be reminded of my past that way. But then if the book or it's reviews suggest this stuff is in it, I tend to stay away from reading it to begin with.

    And while I think you make valid points, there are those who find some forms of sexual abuse....their sexual preference. I mean if you really want to go about accepting that these sexual lifestyle and preferences are there- discounting those who enjoy the abusive side, is as bad as anything else. They may be fewer, and yes some may even be grounds for abuse themselves, it still exists as preferences. There are those who fantasize about rape, etc.... and they want it played out... I may not, and many others may not- but it exists.

  2. I believe you're referring to "rape fantasy", yes? This is an interesting subject to me, and one I hope to someday write a whole post on, once I learn more. To clarify this post, I'm not condemning rape fantasy, but the representation of sexual orientation and identity being the result of trauma or mental disease, as it is in 50 Shades, and something meant to be treated or "fixed".


What do you think?