During Dark Times, What Should Erotica Be?

Photo: Nova via Creative Commons License

Recently, a friend told me that a certain piece of writing was “exactly what erotica should be.” I knew they only meant to praise the work, but even though I’ve heard such expressions before, this time, I found myself flinching.

Here’s why:

Right now, amidst the Trump Administration’s white supremacist, anti-queer, misogynist, and trans-misogynist attacks, we at Go Deeper, like so many others, want to shout from the rooftops, “Erotica can be anything it chooses!”

We need sex writing in all its shapes and sizes, especially at the moment. You only need look to erotica author and editor Rachel Kramer Bussel‘s recent article in Rolling Stone, Trump Erotica: How Smut is Getting Political Again, to see how many different kinds of erotica can help us at this time—even quite specifically in the fight against Trump. Among others, Rachel Kramer Bussel show us that Chuck Tingle‘s gay, anti-Trump erotica, in all its super-smart, smutty glee, is absolutely vital for helping folks laugh and heal from stress. In fact, J.K. Rowling, who is known for her political activism, agrees. Tweeting about Chuck Tingle’s work, she wrote, “The book’s real, the review’s real, and I’ve finally found something to laugh about in this whole terrible mess.” With titles like Domald Tromp Pounded In The Butt By His Fabricated Wiretapping Scandal Made Up To Redirect Focus Away From His Seemingly Endless Unethical Connections To Russiait’s easy to see what a welcome relief his work truly is.

Are folks who think erotica should be one thing only, actually saying we don’t deserve such healing? No, I don’t think so. But in today’s climate of hatred, it really can seem that way.

Go Deeper Press itself, which is run by me, Lana Fox, and my partner Jacob Louder, has been struggling a little over the past weeks. As a trans man and a non-binary person (who only recently became a US citizen too) the two of us have felt worried and angry. But you know what kept Jake going? Editing Oleander Plume’s Horatio Slice, Guitar Slayer of the Universe. The energy of Plume’s gay fantasy novel is wacky and wild, racing us through the cosmos with a band of kinky space pirates who must fight a sexy villain in order to save the universe.

They also fuck each other silly and never fail to make me laugh.

Horatio Slice, Guitar Slayer of the UniverseThe project, says Jake, was timely. “During the two years that Oleander Plume and I worked on Horatio,” Jake told me, “many pop culture heroes died, the U.S. elected a megalomaniac, and the right to live safely, or even to exist, became more threatened than ever for so many marginalized people around the world, if only because the attack is so big, scary, white-faced, and encouraged—in the U.S., at least.”

Then, says Jake, there was Horatio. “I used this book as an escape,” he told me. “It is light and funny and colorful.” Horatio and crew live outside this world, and that was a marvelous release for Jake. “When there is fear or distress, the characters come together, work through it, and soothe one another. There’s camaraderie! There’s tomfoolery! There’s lots and lots of men having sex!”

Oleander Plume herself writes, “Writing Horatio helped me get through the worst period of my life.” A CSA survivor, Oleander says she wants erotica that takes her away from the trauma, especially after working intensively in therapy. Her characters enjoy sex without shame, and are authentic and kind, she notes, adding, “They not only saved themselves, they saved each other. And me.”

I think it’s significant that we published Horatio Slice by Oleander Plume and another erotic book, Roadhouse Blues by Malin James, within two weeks of each other. Roadhouse Blues has such depth that it received literary accolades, including from those who knew that Malin, also a trauma survivor, had drawn personally on the darkness of her past in the writing of this book. James’ stories are set in the small town of Styx, in which the inhabitants live quietly rebellious sexual lives in spite of the restrictions of the Bible Belt setting. I was the editor of this collection, and as a survivor, too (so many of us are!), Malin’s heart pulled me in and held me close, during dark times. But Malin also includes lighter, frothier works in Roadhouse Blues as well—not least, the delightful “Flash, Pop!” much of which you can read at LadySmut.

“As a writer of erotica that could be classified as literary,” Malin told me, “I felt it was important to represent a variety of sexualities and sexual experiences in my collection, some lighter, but many considerably more weighted.” Just as important, Malin explains, are representations of good, porny sex in fun-loving smut, because that resonates with a different, but equally legitimate, sexual spectrum. “Without the full breadth of representation,” she told me, “we can’t hope to understand the glorious variety of human sexual experience. Without that understanding, we can’t learn to respect and embrace it in others, as well as in ourselves.”

Oleander also spoke of this, and adds that erotica can “[remind] us that our bodies have an innate ability to experience pleasure, and that we have every right to reclaim that pleasure—to reclaim our body— and our desire.” This idea of body and life reclamation came up more than once while I chatted with authors and readers of erotica on Twitter. Erotica author and reader Jo Henny Wolf, author of Penelope’s Choice and other works, (who wrote a profoundly beautiful, moving response to Malin’s Roadhouse Blues) told me that, “Erotica helps me battle hopelessness when sexism and misogyny stare me in the face. I push back: This is what I want. I’m shaping reality.”

(By the way, to read Jo Henny Wolf’s powerful and deep response to this blog post, go here.)

For Jake, wacky comedy has given him a similar sense of reclamation and escape. “As a kid who learned to get out of his body by immersing himself in fiction and movies—lots of Mel Brooks’ movies, to be specific—Horatio Slice, Guitar Slayer of the Universe was like an elixir to my very adult stress. It is sexy, and it made me laugh, and nothing else mattered when I was reading.”

It also worked that way for Oleander, the author of Horatio. “Now, I realize I needed Horatio,” she says, looking back on the dark times when she started writing the novel. “I needed the comic relief. My life was falling apart around me, but those goofball characters helped me through it.” Erotica, Oleander reminded me in that interview, can be deeply cathartic: “Your life might be spinning out of control, but your story is yours.”

There was a story many years ago that healed me more deeply than any other. Jake and I hadn’t been partners for long, but we’d both managed to work out that I left my body during sex. This was tough for us, difficult to process. But we let it be, knowing the answer would come.

Then, one night, we played a fantasy: he was the teacher, I was the child. It was bold and riotous, porny and delightful. (I chose for my character to not be fully consenting, by the way.) And miraculously, I didn’t once leave my body while that porny story was running between us. If the fantasy that healed me was a book, Amazon would no doubt block it. But you can see why I feel so passionately that erotica and porn, no matter what their content, can change our lives.

That story healed me. Simple as that.

So I don’t care what great erotica should be. I care about how it’s written, and whether it grips you, and affects you. I care about whether its intentions are kind. But that aside, is it making you laugh when you need to? Does it turn you on, when you thirst for arousal? Does it lead you into darkness, when you need to find your shadow? Does it have you so gripped that you can’t put it down?

Whatever you need erotica to be is exactly what erotica should be.

For you. Right now.

May your erotica exist in spades.

–Lana Fox

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