When Fifty Shades of Grey hit the scene, the sex-positive community had an intense conversation about what makes erotica smart, socially conscious, and well-written. There was a push to promote books that depicted BDSM responsibly and to talk about the line between fantasy and education. As a baby erotica writer when E.L. James’s series came out, I found these critiques so, so exciting. They showed me that there was a space for analysis of smut that recognized its validity while still engaging with its flaws.
And then the conversation about responsibility and erotica kind of… died. Other than a few blog posts scattered across the community (Laila Blake’s is particularly awesome), Googling “feminist erotica” turns up very little. This is baffling, considering feminist pornography has become an organized movement with its own awards show. I know feminists who write erotica, and I definitely know feminists who read erotica, and erotic stories can be considered feminist, but where is the “feminist erotica” genre?
So, in a classically academic (and Wesleyan) move, I wrote my thesis about it. I read the classics: Susie Bright’s Herotica, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, even Anaïs Nin. Then I went through a huge chunk of Cleis Press’s catalog, because even though Cleis doesn’t have a big “Feminist Publishing House” banner on their site, it does describe itself as one of “many lesbian, feminist, and gay presses that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.” Social justice is woven through its history.
Based on this safari through a century of erotic literature, I cobbled together my own theory of what feminist erotica could look like. My conclusion was that feminism tangles with erotica in two ways, through its production and its content.
Let’s talk about production first: We need more erotica written, edited, and distributed by women. Everyone involved in the process of production, from writers to editors to the workers binding the actual books, should be treated fairly. Discrimination based on gender, race, disability, and so forth should be avoided at all costs.
Erotica as a genre does quite well in this sense. Cleis Press produces anthologies that include the works of a ton of authors (and it helps that the press has been historically run by queer ladies). The rise of self-publishing has leveled the playing field, expanding the market to include those alienated by traditional publishing structures. It is much, much easier to reach your potential readership through social media, and ebooks make erotica cheap and readily available no matter where you are if you have an Internet connection. There’s a lot to celebrate about the feminist potential of self-publishing.
Moving on, and more controversially, erotica should be feminist in its content. It should depict real, developed female characters of every race and body type, exploring their psychology and giving them actual personalities. Erotica should reflect a range of experiences, from hookups to cheating to falling in love, and represent genuine fantasies of women. Some women like their sex rough and kinky, some sweet and funny, some weird and mixed with other genres like sci-fi or horror. That all deserves to see print. And feminist erotica can throw out gender and heteronormative constraints all together! It should include trans characters, poly characters, queer characters, aromantic characters, you name it.
I should make it clear that a single erotic story doesn’t have to do everything. Anthologies as a form are awesome because they allow for tons of diversity in the authors included and the stories told. One anthology (take Rose Caraway’s The Sexy Librarian’s Big Book of Erotica as an example) can have superhero ladies tying up villains in bondage rope, queer ladies having sex with a ghost dude, Little Red seducing the Big Bad Wolf, etc. No reader is going to love every story in a collection, but having many stories to choose from ups the odds of a reader finding at least one that plays directly to their tastes. And a single story in isolation might not accomplish much. It’s the range of offerings that has such feminist potential.
Feminist erotica doesn’t need to cater only to women; in fact it probably shouldn’t. Men and women both receive damaging representations of sexuality from mass media, and feminist erotica lets us engage with sexual stereotypes, narrative tropes, and the general patriarchal bullshit oppression of sexuality experienced by both genders. Weirdly enough, the most enthusiastic readership I’ve found for my own writing has been dudes in their twenties, tired of shitty Internet porn and eager for wank material that includes actual people having actually interesting sex. I wrote at length about why I don’t label my erotica “for women” here.
I also belong to a camp of writers who think erotica can be educational. Beyond introducing readers to a new fantasy or kink, erotica models conversations about consent, boundaries, safe sex, and desire. I love writing characters who figure out what they want together, who ask each other the questions I was terrified of as a teenager.
One of my favorite novels is Abigail Barnette’s The Boss, whose characters (spoiler alert) explore BDSM, wrangle with birth control, have abortions, argue about money, and live actual lives outside of their partners. Should you do everything her main character does? No, but that’s not the point. Sophie and Neil read books about kink, discuss their relationship, and are infinitely better role models than Christian Grey and Ana Steele. (Read my review here for more about how this book kicks ass.)
Let me myth-bust some misconceptions for you. Feminist erotica:
- does not hate blowjobs. Blowjobs are great.
- does not require a historical or political lesson. If your characters talk about abortion rights while they fuck, more power to you, but that’s not the only way a story can be feminist.
- can of course be BDSM erotica. BDSM is not inherently sexist—sexists are inherently sexist. Just write about BDSM well, please.
- does not mean your characters have to be nice, not even to each other.
- can be straight. I write hetero porn almost exclusively out of personal preference. As my thesis advisor put it, aim to be “hetero but not heteronormative.”
- can feature a cheerleader fucking her coach if they’re both developed characters. No fuck puppets, please.
- engages with problematic issues (like themes of power, consent, sexual assault, abuse, and manipulation) responsibly and with intention. Please do not idly play around with these themes. Challenge them, incorporate them, but know that they are powerful and potentially triggering.
- is more than a bunch of grinding body parts. Stunt porn (or “wank porn” as I’ve seen it called) is fine, but let’s call a spade a spade and admit it doesn’t challenge jack shit on its own.
Not every writer wants to challenge patriarchy in their smut. I get that. Not everyone is a feminist either. But critiquing representations of gender, race, class, and sexuality is not the same as bullying, or trashing a book, or turning your back on sex-positivity. Erotica is a marginalized genre, but that doesn’t mean it should be exempt from self-reflection. In fact that makes it all the more important to point out when a book is doing something wrong and try to avoid making those mistakes in the future. Yes, sometimes that means asking, “Hey Cleis, why did you publish an anthology with so few real female characters?” I don’t expect Harlequin to start peddling social justice romance novels, but if a house has social justice in its DNA and publishes a sexist book, I think that’s worthy of conversation and analysis.
A similar conversation has been happening surrounding Secrets of the Sex Masters and the whitewashing of the sexuality field (read this awesome post by Aida Manduley of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network for context). I think we can all agree it’s a huge oversight for a book with sixteen contributing authors to not include any people of color. Reading the blog posts responding to the title’s lack of diversity—from both its critics and its contributors—has been amazing and inspiring, and I want to see more of that courage in erotica too. If we want to be the best community we can be, if we want to produce the best work possible, that requires talking about issues that make us uncomfortable. That means racism. That means sexism. That means homophobia. That means transphobia.
And that also means consent. One of my biggest pet peeves as a reader is a story with a sexual assault bait-and-switch. Sure, plenty of people have rape fantasies. Write rape porn, go ahead, because sometimes sex is fucked up. Sometimes we have fantasies that disturb us, or we want to fuck an ex who is definitely bad news, or we are super aroused by being degraded. Humans are complicated. We shouldn’t play it safe in erotica because realism is so important in showing us we’re not all freaks who like freaky shit we shouldn’t like. Like what you want, and write what you want, but be smart about it. For the love of all that is safe and respectful, recognize harmful and sexist tropes when you find yourself reinforcing them. That means no “it wasn’t really rape because the victim wanted it!” plot twists. That means no “it wasn’t rape because they were roleplaying the whole time!” reveals. Editors, don’t throw a story featuring dubious consent into an erotic romance anthology. Context is everything.
On a personal note, I know I am young. I’ve been reading erotica for two years, and been in the community for one. My first book just came out this fall. But I’m part of the next generation of erotica, and we want to raise the bar. We want to talk about consent and safe sex and representation in erotica. We want erotica that gets us off and offers a side of social commentary, and insight, and, yes, politics. We want characters who look like us, and fuck like us, and fuck up like us. Feminist erotica isn’t about presenting some perfect egalitarian alternate fictional universe so we can masturbate guilt-free. It’s about that muddled mess of political consequence and human compulsion, about re-thinking how we understand and express desire in ways that acknowledge human beings are complicated. Changes in the publishing industry offer us an opportunity to do so. I hope you join me in seizing that opportunity.