February 16, 2015

Talking Shop: Sex-Positive Erotica, Revisited

In light of the recent release of That Movie, I thought it was a good time to open up the subject of sex-positivity and respect in erotica. If you write, read or otherwise patron the art of erotica, be it in visual or written form, please take a moment to consider the importance of positive, informed, respectful representation of sexual lifestyles and identities.

Let's talk about how we portray sexuality.
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.
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 of kink lifestyle being tied to early sexual molestation 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. My suspicious is that E.L. James, in outrageous, amateur fashion, invoked the grand plot point of ABUSE to create what I like to call "instant drama". It's one of the greatest faux pas a writer can commit, in my mind, and those who do it with impunity plummet in my estimation. The idea is that dropping in these hot-button plot points--rape, molestation, abuse--can't help but draw readers in and stir emotions, sympathy, investment, reaction. It's cheap, easy, and it requires practically no actual skill.
Now, this isn't to say good writers can't explore the actual emotional waters involved with these issues, and do it well. The problem is that too many amateur writers turn to these issues to exploit their inherent emotional complication, without bothering to research or represent them accurately, sensitively, and with respect to their very real significance.
This becomes infinitely more problematic when these thoughtless exploitations of trauma become the building blocks of a sexual identity, as E.L. James has done in 50 Shades.
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.
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.      Don't use molestation, rape, or mental illness as a "motivation" for a sexual behavior. Not in erotica. Not to arouse. This is not only stereotypical and ignorant, it's insulting to members of the lifestyle you are depicting and abusive of 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 excellent plot points and can put characters in a position for great conflict, self-discovery, growth, and deliverance. But not as an impetus for arousal. Not as an excuse for "kinky" sexual inclinations. Not as an easy explanation, because it is not easy in any way.

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.

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