Erotica or not?

I started to write this post some time ago but now find myself talking about a very current topic. I am horrified at Paypal’s attempts to censor what Smashwords should publish. Self publishing has always been the last resort of those whose work was rejected for any reason by official publishers and to prevent any publication of legal material seems like a step on the road to fascism. I also believe it is a first step in an attempt by the financial institutions to control people who self-publish. They’ve started with what they see as a soft target – a sub-genre of erotica. If they succeed they can go on to other things they disapprove of…

I neither read nor write the type of erotica they are talking about but have no problem with people who do. It’s their choice, and I am glad for them when companies like Smashwords facilitate that choice.  On the other hand, I have to say that the loose wording of the ‘ban’, would, over the centuries, have prevented the publication of parts of the bible and many myths and legends. We would all be poorer as a result.

And all writers, particularly those who write either ‘thrillers’ or historical fiction might well find themselves including rape or under-age sex in their work. Anyone who wrote about ancient Egyptian royalty would have a hard time avoiding incest. Are those books to be at risk too?

For a good explanation of the issues involved in censorship I would refer you to Neil Gaiman’s blog:

For ongoing discussion of the financial implications you could start by following:

But what do I think about erotica in general? Not rape, bestiality or incest, but explicit sex.

I have a confession to make. I love romance novels, whether they are subdivided into supernatural, historical, crime, modern or whatever. I am quite happy to read about explicit sex, m/f or m/m. But, I find the mechanics of sex, as portrayed in so many bestsellers as well as erotic writing, really, really boring.

I have been thinking about this and have come to a few conclusions. These only hold good for me but I wonder if any of you share similar feelings.

*I don’t like the old-fashioned convention of leaving lovers at the bedroom door and fading to black. I think (and have always thought) that cheats the reader and is a bit like the habit of using euphemisms for e.g. death. If the story will benefit from following the characters through the door, then modern writers have almost a duty to take that step. I understand why older writers didn’t and how prudish censorship created a yawing gulf between mainstream writing and porn with no gradations between. I would personally censor violence and war long before I would censor sex. But sex censorship no longer applies in books intended for adult readers. (Provided they aren’t self-published and paid for by Paypal, of course.)

*I like to use my imagination. I like to have to work for some of the emotions a book can inspire. And yes, the physical reactions. Books can make us laugh, cry, breathe differently, feel hot or cold, etc. They can also give a type of sexual reaction, felt as a result of intense empathy with a character. The greatest writers have always been aware of this.

These two points would seem to be opposites, but there is a difference between following a couple into the bedroom and a blow-by-blow account of the sexual encounter. If a story has the explicit sex as its main focus and goes into great detail without any plot or character development it has to be extraordinarily good writing to avoid being labelled as pornographic. But sometimes some writers want to use that detail to achieve their effects and if they do so within a fully developed story I see no reason to call that porn. However, I also see no reason, personally, to read it. It doesn’t offend me but it doesn’t interest me.

*In almost every case, where a piece of writing has had an erotic effect, for me, that has been achieved by a focus on feelings, reactions, emotions, not physical description. If a story drags me into sharing the character’s desire, rather than their physical reactions, that’s when I find the work ‘sexy’.

*Most adults, and probably 99% of adults who read romance, have some kind of sexual experience of their own to inform their reading, even if it’s only masturbation and dreams. That experience might be heterosexual or homosexual, mature or experimental, regular or rare, successful or otherwise, but the fact remains that they have something to base their thoughts on. They can relate to the characters at a fundamental level. They can also visualise the encounter unless the sex is so kinky that details are essential. And even then it is probably only the sex toys and suchlike that need fleeting explanation. (I read a story that described a glass dildo in detail and found that quite acceptable as its purchase added to the story.)

*There are only so many permutations of what is sometimes termed tab A into slot B and the foreplay that gets them there. What makes each encounter special is the emotional content. I don’t necessarily mean emotional in the romantic sense. The emotions might be a struggle for dominance, a feeling of regret, a desire to replace the ‘other’ with a fantasy figure, all sorts of things. It’s the psychological ‘hook’ that captures my interest, and that, I suspect, of many readers. The mechanics are well-known and hold no real interest in themselves.

*To be of interest a sex scene needs to further the plot or add to character development. Without one of those it seems (to me) to be self indulgence on the part of the writer. I usually skim to reach more plot…

*Surely (I can hear people saying) some readers deliberately seek detailed descriptions of sex as a ‘turn on’. Not just in porn, which tends to have little or no plot and two dimensional characters, but in ‘hot’ stories – the ‘bonkbusters’ of the paperback world or the ‘steamy romances’ of e-publishing. Certainly authors seem to vie with each other to provide more and more explicit description. But I think this is publisher-led. I know one or two authors who have been told by (mainly US) publishers that their work is not explicit enough. But many ‘best sellers’ on those publishers’ sites are there through other merits – great plots, great characters, great general description and style. I’m not sure why publishers assume the sex description is what sells the book instead of the description of desire. Is it because until fairly recently they wouldn’t have dared publish it other than under a brown wrapper in a back room and now the very ‘daring’ nature of their publications leads them into strange and unsubstantiated beliefs?

*My own view is that anyone who needs two dimensional porn, whether as text or on film, as a turn-on must be somehow lacking in imagination or experience and the porn acts as a kind of manual. I have no objection to it, nor do I think it is at all likely to lead to abuses such as rape; quite the contrary because it probably provides an outlet for inarticulated feelings. But I don’t think most of us need it. Watching it or reading it for fun is another matter but surely nobody would call it romantic.

*Similarly, I have no objection to erotica in general and think that in small doses it can add spice and beauty to life. But I don’t think its place is at the heart of every romance story. Michael Angelo’s David is erotic but while I admire it and think it adds something to the world, I wouldn’t necessarily want a replica on my mantelpiece. In some respects erotica has or can have the same effect, for me, as overblown descriptions and ‘purple’ prose. I find truly erotic stories or scenes have not usually been written deliberately as such. I recently watched the film Bent, based on Martin Sherman’s play. There is a scene in a concentration camp where the hero and a fellow inmate bring each other to orgasm purely by the power of words and imagination, while standing at attention and not touching. Whilst the overall story is a tragedy (brilliantly executed) the sex scene was both moving and erotic.


I want to write about romance and therefore about sex because to ignore the sex is to be unrealistic. But I don’t want to be bullied into too many explicit sex scenes by publishers. On the other hand, one of my beta readers thought I should have left the explicit sex out of a story (currently in its third draft) in order to make the book suitable for the YA market. They thought I was bowing to publisher demand whereas in fact I thought the story demanded the sex (and in fact that had been the first swirling image at the planning stage). Needless to say, I won’t be removing the scene and the YA market will have to do without this particular story. It wasn’t meant for them, anyway.

Having said that – how many of you know older teenagers who are unaware of sex? I can’t believe we really need to ‘protect’ them and find the prevailing attitude hypocritical. Plus – I’d much rather make sure that we don’t provide them with a diet of violence where guns become commonplace and death is somehow part of the entertainment. Besides, the age of consent differs widely from country to country and it would be perfectly normal for a Brit writer to have a couple (of either gender) who were sixteen or seventeen years old without there being any thought of underage sex although American publishers would throw up their hands in horror.

I want to write about sex in a way that doesn’t ignore the mechanics but assumes nobody needs a blueprint, and I want to concentrate on the psychological causes and effects.

Incidentally, when I do have to refer to the mechanics, I have no intention of using euphemisms for body parts. To me, that jumps off the page in much the same way as using too many synonyms for ‘said’ so unless it’s within dialogue and justified by the character using it, I don’t do it!

And I want the books I read to focus on thoughts, not to the exclusion of the flesh, but to the extent that lets me enter a character’s mind and be transported into another person’s feelings.

Am I the one who is being unrealistic? What are your thoughts on this?

12 thoughts on “Erotica or not?

  1. I recently had the pleasure of beta reading a new YA novel by a friend who’s had two other novels published and is an award-winning poet. The new book has a couple of scenes of domestic violence and under-age sex in it that are absolutely crucial to the development of two of the characters. In the context of the book, it would be nearly impossible to carry the plot without these scenes, as they form a hinge in the action. Yet they are not sensationalistic, and the sex scenes are supremely sweet and, dare I say it, age appropriate. For PayPal, or any online payment system, to put its nose into the creative process is symptomatic of a larger struggle in society at the moment. We seem to be bobbing on the edge of a new wave of revivalist fundamentalism, as happens from time to time in the U.S. The splash-over involves a lot of black/white thinking, not much discernment, and absolutely no comprehension of nuance.

    I’m not attracted to graphic sex scenes. I find them, as you do, tedious in most cases, although there are times when they’re important to the plot or a character. I tend to read them very quickly, so as not to miss anything that might be important, and then return to my usual speed once they’re out of the way. But I’ve written graphic sex scenes in my own fiction, and I certainly don’t object whole-cloth to others including them in their work.

    PayPal is the financial arm of eBay. In the six or seven years they’ve been affiliated, they’ve managed to tie up a good portion of the on-line purchasing market. It doesn’t surprise me that they see their dominance as a justification for high-handedness. With rising levels of anti-porn hysteria in the U.S., they undoubtedly feel that Draconian requirements like this serve as a legal safeguard. But it’s a case of the creative urge as Titanic and PayPal as iceberg — the two don’t belong in the same seas.

    Authors who publish with Smashwords will do one of three things. Either they’ll find a non-PayPal subscriber to self-publish with, cease writing “offensive” material, or pressure Smashwords to find a different on-line payment system. The middle alternative is the one I would least like to see.

    • The idea that people will be scared/threatened into simply not writing is one of the worst aspects of censorship. Another worrying angle of this is that Paypal affects the whole world, not just USA. We are used to having to abide by some of USA’s government decisions but at least our own legislators can sometimes be persuaded to argue. We are also realising that we are subject to USA financial manipulation. To be affected by this kind of censorship, where a commercial operation is pressurised by a financial one is horrific. The rest of the world reads, writes and uses Paypal, too.

      I tend to use Paypal for online purchases because it offers greater security than using credit cards. Now I have to weigh that security against freedom of speech.

      Just after I’d posted this I started an e-book that was, I thought, a detective/murder story. It turned out there were two detectives, cop partners, both of whom were gay and both of whom were married to non-cops. The reader was ‘treated’ to completely gratuitous and almost painfully explicit sex scenes in both households whilst all concerned remained two-dimensional characters with virtually nothing but their sexuality to identify them. I struggled to p50 (with a lot of skimming) and then gave up. I’m pretty sure the writer had been told to put more sex into the story.

      I had, however, just finished reading a vampire story in which the sex was implied but never described in detail. It always furthered the plot. I found it very appealing and am now looking for the sequel. I was reminded of those anthologies you and other friends contributed to!

  2. Make love, not war! 😀

    “I would personally censor violence and war long before I would censor sex.”
    THIS. T.H.I.S.
    Not that I think anything should be censored at all, but if something, then violence would be far higher on the list than sex, for me. Just for the reason’s sake…

    I’m against forbidding erotica/porn just for that simple reason, that law must work on clear definitions. And no one yet ever succeed in defining what is porn, and what isn’t. It’s like defining of “art”, or “bad taste”, or “living thing”. So far, law-makers only make fools of themselves when trying. That’s my “practical reason”, for use of law-makers. But for me, such forbidding is just unnecessary, and even wrong.

    Third and in general.
    As you maybe noticed, I don’t differentiate strictly erotica from porn. Driven into a corner, I’d say that, I don’t know, maybe erotica is well done and beautiful art, when porn is plain and simple turn-on? But still I could point at plenty of artworks which are truly fine art AND definitely very steamy, straightforward porn, at once. The same with literature. So, in fact, porn is a sort of art too, in my opinion. And why not? As you said, we get different emotions from art/literature, why sexual excitement should be considered worse than amusement, sadness, outrage or fear? I think that the old, good, old-fashioned sexual, or rather anti-sexual “decency” is a very nasty gift which we got through ages from civilisation, we didn’t do good business on it, cause it don’t make us healthier nor happier, quite the contrary.
    And of course, speaking of art, there is always fine and poor one, also with rather vague border. I agree that good erotica is based on emotions and, in my opinion, including porn without other use than being just porn. But personally I’ll be rather uninterested if I didn’t have time to know and come to like the characters involved, so it still would have to be a part of something bigger…

    And now, cause a day without offtop is the day wasted… 🙂 In my own literary tradition there is no such thing like too many ways of avoiding “said”. Actually, over-“saiding” of dialogues is regarded as a bad effect of too many English texts, considered a mild fail in translating, and an ugly fault in writing. *g* Not that “said” is banned, just three “saids” in turn make text worse.

    • I agree with most of what you say. I, too, would not censor anything in theory though I think exhortations to serious crime should attract legal sanctions of some kind – ‘hate’ diatribes that try to lure people to murder, brutality, rape, paedophilia, racist attacks… The thing is, they’re already illegal (here) under laws against those crimes so separate censorship isn’t necessary.

      I would say with regard to distributed/published forms, erotica is created with some kind of artistic intention and porn is created merely for commercial purposes but the results might be hard to distinguish!

      The anti-sex lobby seems to have its origins in the ‘puritans’ who left Europe for America but they have re-exported it to us.

      I am surprised and interested at what you say about the use of synonyms for ‘said’. The feeling here is that the words denoting speech should as far as possible ‘disappear’ so that the effect is of dialogue as in a play. You need these qualifying words or it gets too hard to follow a long conversation. If you want to express something like shock or anger you shouldn’t use ‘screamed’ or ‘shouted’ but add adverbs, adverbial phrases or clauses, e.g. ‘he said, his face showing horror’, or ‘she said angrily’. Or you can leave the actual dialogue on its own and then add an explanatory sentence e.g. “Go away!” She was shouting and waving her hands. If too many different words for ‘said’ are used within a conversation it strikes us as artificial and clumsy – and somehow unEnglish! How strange that this appears to others as an oddity!! It definitely would never ever be a ‘fail’ in translation! I wonder if Polish to English texts suffer the other way round?

      • “I wonder if Polish to English texts suffer the other way round?”
        I don’t know that yet, it would be interesting to learn. And yes, it looks as you described it, just reversed for Polish. Instead of “he said cheerfully/suddenly/gloomily/hastily”, a Pole uses “screamed, yelled, snorted, mumbled, growled, laughed”, sometimes – not too often – “said” (also with adverbs), or indirect ways “he grinned mockingly, she bounced excitedly, he gaped silly”. Personally I like and admire also scenes written in the way “dialogue with no narration”, every tips about the location and the action in the lines only.

        By the way, in your feeling, how it would be – let’s assume that you come across a text written in “Polish” way. Would you feel it always as just poorly written or could it have some “foreign” tinge, like an Arabian tale, or a Russian yarn, or an Indian-stylized myth? And does it really catch an eye and grate on a reader’s nerves, or is it more critics’ oversensitiveness?

      • If I knew it was a translation? I might think it had had a poor translator… But yes, I might regard it as part of the exotic nature of a foreign style.

        In an English text, it definitely grates. It interrupts the flow of the text. It sounds as though more thought has gone into that word than into the actual dialogue! And it doesn’t sound or look smooth. I think it’s partly because when we recount conversations we always just use ‘said’ – ‘he said to me…, and then I said to him…,’ etc.

        Although there is a modern problem – there is a fashion, especially among both the young and the less educated, to use ‘go’ and ‘like’ as verbs that replace ‘say’. Example: I went into the house and she goes, ‘You’re late,’ and I go, ‘I’m sorry,’ so she’s like,’I was waiting for you,’ and then we had tea. But I sincerely hope that doesn’t spread to the written form!!

  3. Hm, this sounds really worrying, cause a constant series of “saids” grates for me, it feels like a makeshift script instead of real literature, so there’s no way to make a text good both for me and readers, in English. I suppose I’d have to decide for a some middle way… Btw, in Polish spoken recounts one also uses not only “said… said…”, without even special consideration for that. It can be “I meet him and he says… and I ask… and you know how did he start to bawl?!” There’s also a popular form for such tales, without actual using any verb, literally it would be “And what he for that? And then I to him: ‘something something’ “. I mean it’s natural everyday speech, not some scenic show.

    Oh, and I forgot:
    “I would say with regard to distributed/published forms, erotica is created with some kind of artistic intention and porn is created merely for commercial purposes”
    You have a point here, I think that’s quite a reasonable criterion. But yes, I agree that’s just theory and there would be plenty of unclear cases. Well, maybe ‘porn’ is just the uglier word for ‘erotica’.

    • I think if you’re translating to or from English you should go with whatever the author used. But if you’re writing in English for an English/American audience, bear their quirks in this matter in mind! And yes, perhaps a middle way. There are plenty of ways round it but the main thing is never to have lots and lots of synonyms for ‘said’ in the same conversation stream – you will really put English readers off. It’s a style question, of course, not a grammar one, but it’s quite important. Email me if you want more in-depth discussion/advice. (Use the email in my LJ profile.)

  4. Thanks! I’ve noticed that Cornwell uses quite a variety, along “saids” also “complained/shouted/grumbled/asked/demanded/explained” and so on. He also very often uses a way I’m quite fond of, that is avoiding a direct verb, just making clear who’s talking. “A dialogue line.” Major Some-Name frowned. Reads quite OK, for me, so maybe that’s the middle way in question (including the mentioned mix of saids and others).

    • Sounds like a good way forward. Quite a few authors do use a variety and I’m not saying don’t, just be sparing and don’t use too much or too often – a bit like seasoning in cooking! *g* The story has to be absolutely fantastic, by the way, for the reader to forgive overuse of variety! Maybe that’s why Cornwell gets away with it?

  5. wow what a meaty post Jay! *alot to catch up on here I see*

    I’m 21, as you know, so not as sexually experienced as older readers etc but I still have some thoughts on eroticism in text that I’d like to throw out here.

    I am so with you on the emotions front. That is a must for me, and if you have ever read any of my Ruth/Harry fic, you’ll know that already. I’m wondering if maybe that is a very female thing however. At least, I remember reading a study about porn awhile back that stated that males are more likely to read/watch straight up and down porn, whereas women are more likely to search for an emotional core which is found in tighter stories. A problematic assumption because of its gendered dichotomy but food for thought.

    There was an interesting post awhile back on the now virtually defunct site deepgenre on the same topic (eroticism) which was interesting because the writer said that sometimes older, more experienced writers were trash as writing sex scenes eg euphenisms, skipping, graphic yet clinical for no reason and it was atcually younger people that got it right, even inexperienced younger people. So what’s the magic formula?

    I think maybe everyone will expect different things, and you can’t please every reader. I think, to quote the great Philip Pullman, you write the story you’d want to read, and let the audience come to you.

    • I doubt if there’s a magic formula but I do think it shows if the author is enjoying the scene or if they’re just inserting it to please the publisher/public.That’s another way of agreeing with Philip Pullman!

      I’ve read the same things about men and porn but they fail to explain why some of the most erotic literature is written by men and why some women writers, especially in the erotica and romance genres, can be responsible for some of the worst garbage. I don’t think age has much to do with it, either. Young people, even teenagers, have intense emotions and physical reactions – they would only be prevented from writing about them by their lack of writing skills/experience/confidence. Older writers might be the kind of people who only age, without ‘growing’ mentally. It’s always dangerous and unhelpful to generalise too much about age or gender and then talk about the generalisations as if they were somehow a rule.

      I do think there’s a case for saying that modern commercial porn is probably watched by more men than women – inevitable, really, as it’s designed to please men rather than women and there’s less romantic modern writing directed at men. I don’t think the kind of studies you mention have much to tell us about underlying needs and tastes.

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