HE SAID, SHE SAID is a monthly feature created and hosted by Rachel @ Confessions of a Book Geek and Joey @ thoughts and afterthoughts where formality is thrown out the window in no-holds-barred discussions on all things bookish.
So far, Rachel and I have explored sex in fiction through: [Part I: Let’s Get It On: Sex In NA/Adult Fiction] and [Part II: Birds and the Bees: Sex in YA Fiction], and now with the recent release of the much-anticipated 50 Shades of Grey, it’s finally time to tackle the third and final sexy post: erotic fiction.
Segments have been colour-coded for easier reading:
[Discussion Prompts] | [Important Info]
In this discussion:
[She Said (R)] | [He Said (J)] | [Guest: (B)]
(Have an idea you think we should cover (with you, of course)? Let us know in the comments below!)
Disclaimer: This post may contain explicit content.
Not Just Vanilla Sex: A Discussion on Erotica
R: That’s right, we’re tackling erotica, fictional taboos and all things hot ‘n’ steamy. I guess the logical starting point is this – have you ever read erotica?
J: Straight up from beginning to end? I don’t think so. I have perused pages of 50 Shades of Grey at the store but the farthest I’ve reached into erotica would be small bite-size pieces of sex here and there in YA/Adult fiction. Nothing to the extent of toys and the like though… no baby-making literary goldmine for me (yet). How about you?
R: I’ve read books with sex scenes, same as yourself, and I’ve read a couple of erotic books, most notably the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, which was an eye-opener to say the least. Ironically, I’m actually ashamed I haven’t read more erotica, it’s definitely something I want to look into. (If anyone has any great recommendations, let me know!).
Seeing as how haven’t read much erotica…this could be a short-lived He Said She Said post. We’re going to have to make this a ménage á trois and introduce our resident sexpert, Brandie from [Brandie is a Book Junkie]!
B: Resident sexpert – that’s a lot of pressure! I’m happy to contribute because I have read my fair share of erotica, including 50 Shades. It opened up a whole new world of reading to me.
R: Excellent! So, why do you guys think erotica is so taboo?
J: I feel like we’re stigmatised by all these social, cultural and religious norms that make us feel as if it’s shameful to read erotica. It’s all based on values, right?
R: It’s all based on what’s perceived to be “right” and “wrong” – it’s become “normal” to watch porn, sex scenes in movies are standard, and pop-stars over-sexualise their videos to the extent that they have to be shown after the watershed. Yet, reading about sex in fiction is still laughed at and even frowned upon. Is it because lovers of the written word are supposed to read more “intellectual” works? Is reading about sex any “worse” than watching it?
B: I get very defensive about this because I don’t think anyone should be ashamed of what they like to read. There is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to a love of reading as long as you’re reading. I don’t like to read a book that’s more “intellectual” because I read for pleasure and to relax. The last thing I want to do is read something that makes my brain hurt. But I agree with you about this negative perception of erotica. Even in this day and age, people still get prickly about sex, like it’s a bad thing. 50 Shades of Grey really shook up the reading world and brought out the closet erotica readers. I had been reading romance for years that had erotica in it, but you just never talked about it, for fear of being judged.
R: I’m with Brandie, in the sense that I read for entertainment and escapism, I’m often doing some sort of course or studying, so when I read I like to take my brain out and give it a rest. If someone enjoys reading about relationships, sex and erotica as their form of escapism, then more power to them.
J: All reading is “intellectual” – if you’re thinking in any capacity and conceptualizing the experience. Maybe it’s book snobbery, where particular books are being labeled as lesser quality because the core content is erotica. When you think about it, it’s pretty shallow for individuals to judge what they haven’t read and base their opinions on the limited knowledge they’ve gained from mass-media. I think it’s neat 50 Shades has the notoriety of kicking the door down and opening up dialogue for erotica. It started off as fanfiction, right?
R: Yep, it was originally Twilight fanfiction. 50 Shades definitely should be credited for freeing a lot of closeted erotica readers, and introducing a whole new audience to sex in fiction. The popularity of 50 Shades made it OK to be seen reading erotica in public, and to talk about it openly. Of course, the boom in the use of eReaders around the same time helped – as no one could see what you were reading, and therefore they couldn’t judge you!
B: That’s true, I did read the books on my Kindle. But I also had the books before it became such a huge phenomenon, and I didn’t really know what it was about when I started it. The covers don’t really give much away either, unless you’ve read the books and know the symbolism.
R: Good point. Erotic books often have dodgy covers, which doesn’t do much to entice newbies into reading it, and some of them are particularly bad – you wouldn’t want to be seen reading it in public. 50 Shades definitely set the trend as far as more low key, publicly acceptable covers go.
J: It’s funny you should mention the simplicity of the covers, because now whenever I see any monochromatic gray-centric covers, my mind quickly assumes it’s erotica! No matter how you look at it though, we will always judge and be judged. It just depends on the hot topic of the time. For readers, I think the judgement comes from the effort we have to make to “conceptualize” the sex itself. In videos, sex is sold to you without much thought. Boom, it’s right there in your face. With erotic fiction, you imagine the characters (or whichever actor is your proxy) and set the scene yourself. Others can’t “see” what you “see”, and so they make assumptions about your character.
R: So we’re being judged for having a good imagination when it comes to bedroom gymnastics? Pfft.
B: Unfortunately, people will always judge something they don’t understand or are uncomfortable with.
R: True. Maybe it’s a case of readers being braver? Of experimenting with what we enjoy in fiction and being brave enough to talk about it and share it with others. Erotica has a bad rep for a lot of reasons, but no other erotic book seems to be ripped to shreds more than 50 Shades of Grey. Do you think it’s being used as a scapegoat, or does it deserve the bashing it gets?
J: What kind of bashing does it get? I haven’t read 50 Shades, so I can’t judge the merits of the book. But like any product, when something receives worldwide attention (irrespective of being good/bad), it’s deserving, don’t you think? I mean… it had to have done something right to get to where it is.
R: The general consensus is that it’s badly written and therefore doesn’t deserve the attention it has received. I’ve always maintained that E. L. James is unlikely to win any literary awards, but it was compulsive reading that I struggled to put down. It was risqué, it was eyeopening, and it was very provocative.
B: I agree with Joey, clearly the author did something right or she wouldn’t have sold so many books and have such a huge following. There will always be haters, regardless of how well it’s written, but it did win over millions of readers. Something about the series connected with people. No, it’s not stellar writing by any means, but it grabbed me and didn’t let me go until I devoured all three books in a week! After I finished, I was doing all I could to get my hands on more books like it. I found more authors to fall in love with and more books to love, and I have E. L. James to thank for that. Erotica definitely isn’t for everyone! Doesn’t mean you should shame someone who enjoys it.
R: Agreed. Some erotica, and 50 Shades in particular, is bashed for being all about the dominance of the male, and the degrading of women, with the BDSM content being slammed for inaccuracies. Recently, lots of bloggers have blamed 50 Shades for the increase in novels that focus on the portrayal of “unhealthy” relationships in romance and erotica, referring to them as emotionally abusive, and in some cases depicting the male as a dominant and unstable character (e.g. Travis from Beautiful Disaster) – do you see this trend in relationships in novels?
B: Ugh – the whole BDSM bashing irritates me. It’s a freaking book. I took everything I read with a grain of salt. It was strictly for entertainment purposes. I’ve heard so many comments that 50 Shades portrays BDSM in all the wrong ways, and I wouldn’t have a clue about that. I’m not an expert in that area, but I never once felt like it was degrading women while I read it. Yes – that trend gets a lot of attention and judgement. A lot of women enjoy books with a good alpha male who can be a bit bossy, I admit I like reading about a man who’s not afraid to be vocal about what he wants and goes after it. If it’s written well, it can be very sexy. I’m not talking about abuse, mental or physical – that’s a whole different subject, but when a man takes care of his woman, and takes charge in the boudoir, it’s hot! There, I said it!
R: Haha! Go, Brandie!
J: I’m trying to wrap my head around the BDSM experience. Perhaps the backlash just highlights the need for a more consenting narrative? But as Brandie suggests, the big secret is this: it’s fiction and there’s a certain degree of give-and-take that has to be there to allow for fantasies to work. Do I endorse representations of macho-men and weak-women? No. Yet what kind of message is implied if we start to think that all women (generally) who read erotica will suddenly want to live these tropes? It’s entertainment; it’s temporary escapism, and it’s women themselves who have popularized this genre.
R: Excellent point about a more consenting narrative. I think it’s insulting to a woman’s intelligence to assume that because she is reading these kinds of stories, she expects, or wants, that scenario in real-life. We can all read murder mysteries without attempting to re-enact them!
J: We should be taking a look at society, because something must be wrong if it takes the popularity of a book to push open the door for eager beavers to finally feel like they’re allowed to talk about sex, and for women to feel free to proclaim that they’re interested in more than strictly vanilla-sex. People need to stop chirping erotica as “mommy porn” or something of a taboo, when clearly everyone is into sex in some capacity or another. I’m curious, Brandie, what kinds of tropes in erotica do you enjoy reading about?
B: Bad boy/good girl stories in Erotica are my weakness. I love seeing a bad boy turn his life around when he falls in love. I’m also a sucker for the hot, older, billionaire geniuses (the Crossfire series by Sylvia Day is my favorite, and I’m currently reading Hero by Samantha Young – it fits this category and it’s HOT!). The thing about erotica is that there is a crazy variety of it. Don’t like BDSM? There’s other erotica to try. I think a lot of old school romances had a touch of erotica in them, but no one ever talked about it. The Harlequin ‘Smutty’ Romances – women have been reading them for years!
R: Bad boy stories always seem to be pretty popular, and they’re a guilty pleasure of mine. I know it isn’t realistic, but they make for a great read!
J: Misunderstood bad boys seem pretty up there in the romance genre. Do book blurbs highlight the type of erotica you can expect to find in a book? And I’m curious to know if there are erotic novels that represent females in the driver-seat; as the dominant player? Or does society frown upon that too?
B: Blurbs don’t always state what kind of erotic content to expect, so sometimes you’re in for a surprise! To me, any erotica basically means sex in lots of detail, and this is where I rely heavily on Goodreads. I’ll see how other reviewers have shelved the book – some will mark it as erotica, and some will shelve it as ‘Steamy’ or ‘Hot’, that’s a flag for me. I know there’s going to be major sex/erotica in the book when I see that and I may not be in the mood for a book with a lot of the heavy stuff. That’s why I love Goodreads soooo much. I almost always know what I’m going into when I pick up a new book.
I honestly haven’t read any books where the female is the more dominant. I can’t even think of any off the top of my head. I know I’ve read novels where the female has a more dominant personality and may have some ‘take charge’ type sex scenes. I don’t really care to read about a dominant woman though. That’s just my preferences.
R: It’s really interesting that you haven’t come across many books with a dominant female, Brandie. I wonder is that the publishers dictating to the market, or the market dictating to the publishers...
J: With how societal perception plays into gender roles, I was curious about narratives that broke the rules of how “men cannot be weak”, “women should be submissive”, or any variant in between. While these ideas might not be bestselling material, I find it silly to dismiss them as unworthy of being written about. I’m sure there are stories to be told concerning dominant women, or men being submissive, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to explore that. I feel as though this area of questioning is more geared toward QUILTBAG-oriented erotica. If any readers has delved into these narratives, I’d like to hear from you about how these gender roles are depicted!
R: One thing you touched on, J, is the role of females in erotica and society’s perception. One thing that gets to me is the outcry that it’s anti-feminist – I’m not sure if people actually believe that it is anti-feminist, or if that’s just the label they pin on it because feminism is going through a boom in popularity. To me, it’s more about exploring fantasies. Also, when it comes to books that do depict unhealthy relationships, I’m sure many of us can actually relate to it, because at one point or another we have been in one, or have a friend or family member who has – unhealthy relationships do actually exist and just because reading about them is uncomfortable, it doesn’t make reading about them “wrong”, or mean that we should avoid it. I think in many ways it can actually be beneficial.
B: Agreed. I read whatever I’m in the mood for, and sometimes my mood calls for something smutty and erotic. It’s not the only thing I read and it doesn’t define me. I love a variety of genres – that’s what is so great about being bookish! There is something for everyone. Just because you may not like a certain genre or type of book, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong for others to enjoy it.
J: I understand the purpose of erotica in fiction but it’s not something I’d move mountains to read about. If there are graphic sex scenes in the novel I’m reading, then yeah, I’ll read it. With the market for the romance genre being predominantly female, it’s understandable for most narratives to center around a female POV. That being said, it’s not that guys don’t have options to read erotic fiction; it’s that the available options aren’t stories that necessarily pique our interest considering the nature of the story itself. And like both of you have already mentioned, at the end of the day…everyone ought to enjoy whatever feeds their happiness.
(S)HE SAID: Now’s where we turn to you!
- How do you feel about erotic fiction and its overall representation in fiction? Do you love/hate it? Shy away from it?
- Why do you think 50 Shades of Grey has garnered so much attention? Is it deserving, or do you think another series isn’t given enough credit?
- Will you be seeing 50 Shades of Grey? Or will you boycott that franchise?
- For those of you who’ve read QUILTBAG-oriented erotica, is dominance/submissiveness a concerning issue in these narratives? (e.g. are dom/sub relationships represented differently than the heterosexual counterpart).
Hit us up in the comments below!
So we’re only a few months late from our last post LOL. Life, you know? This was a controversial topic to delve into and the opinions expressed are solely ours. We hope that no one is offended by the remarks made, and many thanks go out to you for taking the time to read this.
6 thoughts on “[He Said, She Said] – Not Just Vanilla Sex: A Discussion on Erotica”
I’ve not read erotica really outside of Fifty Shades, excepting a book or two. But Fifty is just a terrible example of writing in general, so I think it gives erotic fiction an even worse name. I did just see the movie and just reviewed it, and it was hilariously bad with some parts that we’re actually good due to the main actress. I’m not surprised that it went big, most of the hugely successful books aren’t literary, as the masses who consume books aren’t into literature. Just the way it goes it seems.
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Can’t say much about it myself but I guess that’s the pinnacle of successful fanfiction (maybe?). I think I’d be in the same camp as you (so bad that it’s enjoyable) but it’s news to me that they cast someone who could act. Sorry if you like the earlier acting of Kristen Stewart but could you imagine if she reprised Bella as Ana? — A genius move or a snooze fest? HMMM.
I haven’t read many books that are strictly erotica, but it doesn’t bother me that other people do. I don’t really like books where the plot revolves around sex, but I don’t mind when there’s sex in a book when there’s another plotline. To each his own, right? (Oh, and you’re right about those covers – that can sometimes be a deterrent!)
Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction
I have a similar preference to sexual content in novels too–will read if its there but I won’t move mountains for it.
I’ll still stand by my statement that erotica has ruined grey as a colour for me!