This Valentine’s Day marks the release of the Fifty Shades of Gray film. Based on one of the most controversial books over the past few years, it has been credited (or blamed for, depending on your perspective) a new exploration of sexual expression in the mainstream. “Mommy porn” has become a viable subgenre of erotica, but In spite of the popularity of Fifty Shades and the deluge of BDSM erotica riding its long tail, erotic writing is still a repressed art form in America, snickered at or openly rejected by the masses.
The American Relationship to the Erotic
The lack of quality in the prose of Fifty Shades isn't the reason erotica gets rejected. It's our own collective agitation with the subject. According to Sallie Tisdale in her amazing book Talk Dirty to Me, We are trapped between our Judeo-Christian Protestant morality and our obsession with sex as a tool of commerce and power. We willingly exploit the concept that “sex sells” but reject any insightful public discussion about seduction or sexual expression. Our collective response to sincere sexuality is avoidance, disdain, ridicule, silence or backhanded suggestions of mental imbalance.
Thankfully, when I released A Taste of Honey, a book with a distinct erotic element, the negative reaction wasn’t aggressive, but it was disconcerting to discover the people in my life conform, to one extent or another, to the same attitudes towards sexual expression as the rest of society. This made sense to me over time. My circle of friends and family are functioning members of the community they live in. It is understandable that they share the general beliefs of the wider group. I had no reason to expect anything different but somehow I hoped it would be.
Controlling the Image
I don’t have illusions about the way people interact with each other. I know that each of us holds onto an image of every person in our lives. We project attributes, titles and values onto the people that we know and then assume those qualities will be fairly consistent over time. Any information that alters or upsets the image we create is resisted and rejected. If a revelation doesn’t conform to our defined social relationship then we don’t want to hear about it. By and large, most of your family, friends and co-workers don’t want to know anything about your sexual expression, because it upsets their image or you and falls outside the realm of acceptable information. Reading or writing erotica can be a revelation about your sexual expression and your sexual philosophy. It opens up a subject most people do not want to discuss or explore. In the 21st Century, only a total stranger online or an intimate confidant in bed is willing to learn about your sexual dispositions. No one else you know has any interest in the subject.
I’m not trying to invite everyone to know every sexual moment of everyone else’s life. Mystery and taboo are important aspects to the sexual experience. At the same time, my sexual expression is a large part of the definition of who I am as a person. To push that part of me away or to repress it would be rejecting a facet of my life that I’m not ashamed of. Inserting erotica into my work makes as much sense to me as including humor, wit or complexity. It is fundamental to my art and to my life. If I didn’t put it in because other people weren’t comfortable with it, then my writing wouldn’t be mine anymore. My life wouldn’t be mine anymore.
Pushing Boundaries through Art
Just before I started releasing my work, I read a book from Susie Bright called How to Write a Dirty Story. The book was quite good, in part, because it helped me see my role as a writer both in terms of erotica and in terms of other aspects of writing. Her advice, like Ms. Cather’s above, was to use my craft to push the boundaries of society and not just relax within the comfortable framework of acceptable commercial work. I have no interest in writing the most shocking, perverted or controversial book ever. Marquis de Sade already did that. My goal is much more insidious. I want to embed the erotic in other types of stories so deeply that one can’t be separated from the other. I want to construct scenes that are arousing not because of their graphic imagery, but because of their realistic intensity. My goal is to see the film version of A Taste of Honey become a blockbuster not just because of the sexual controversy it creates, but because of the quality of the story on the screen.