Writing Erotic: lived vs mediated experience

Ashley Lister is not an easy act to follow, but I thought perhaps I’d offer a post on theory to compliment his wonderful post on practice.

It may have caught your notice, for those who venture over into literary fiction, that writers these days produce some very unerotic, hollow and depressing sex scenes. It would be easy to assume that they can’t write sex, but I suspect their representations are purposely unarousing. So, are they all sex-negative prudes? I don’t think so – I just think they’re scared. But scared of what?

When we read, we are re-writers. We take the words of the text and bring them to life in our minds using our own experiences to flesh out the inner story. When we read about something we’ve never experienced, we hybridize the portions of the events we have experienced and enhance it with whatever information we have that might be close. For instance, we’ve never been in a spaceship, but most of us have been in an elevator, have sat in front of a computer, have looked out a viewing window of some kind. We many never have had an adult erotic spanking experience, but we’ve probably been spanked as children and seen a couple of those vintage postcards. We use whatever frame of reference we have – and then we improvise the rest. Our brain performs a brilliant remix of experience triggered and guided by the words we’re reading on the page. At its simplest level, this is why people are often so angry about film versions of books. They’ve already made the film of the book in their mind as they read it. If the one on the screen doesn’t come close, it’s disappointing.

There are two types of experiences stored in our brains. Lived-experience and mediated. They are all memories – everything is a memory once it’s occurred – but there are memories of the things we have lived through and experienced in our bodies and minds ourselves and memories of information given to us through different forms of media – writing, art, music, photographs, TV, Film, etc. We may know about, say, the Holocaust, from books we’re read, films we’ve seen, documentaries featuring survivors. But these are all mediated experiences of the Holocaust. You can only have a lived-experience of it if you’re a Holocaust survivor. And, as you can imagine, those narratives are fundamentally different. The lived, day-to-day experience is much more intense, but also contains experience of grinding hunger, chronic fear, long stretches of boredom between moments or hours of terror that might not make for an engrossing piece of narrative.

Are you still with me?

Looking back on the canon of erotic literature in the 20th century, many of the writers we think of as the fathers and mothers of our genre are also considered significant literary figures. But Lawrence, Miller, Nin, Nabokov, Duras, Bataille, etc. were all writing in times when the world was not filled with images of sex. You had to make significant efforts to find dirty postcards, bits of illicit film.

In the past, when people read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, or “The Delta of Venus”, the images those erotic passages brought up in their minds were memories of the sex they had experienced or witnessed others having. That’s not a large imaginary encyclopedia to work from, but most of the reference materials were of actual, real sex.

Today, of course, we still have our own experiences from which to draw, but we are also inundated with mediated images of sex. Victoria Secret Catalogues, previous erotic writing we’ve read, sex scenes in movies, amateur porn clips on YouPorn.com, stories our friends or lovers told us.

And of course, we have our own sexual fantasies, which we’ve written, directed and produced using lived experience and all the mediated images of sex we’ve consumed.

So, a great deal of our inner encyclopedia of sex is filled with versions that are mediated. Yes, in porn, the actors are actually penetrating, ejaculating, etc. But they are actors. They are having sex in order to produce a piece of entertainment for others. They fuck in positions that allow camera access. They withdraw and ejaculate where the camera can capture it. This is not how people actually have sex. This is how porn actors producing porn have sex.

Wait, you say, what about amateur porn? That’s real. Well, yes and no. Because the very act of deciding to film yourself having sex changes the intention of the sex. Even amateur porn is obsessed with creampies, gaping pulsing orifices. It is having sex for the purposes of capturing a record of it and showing it. Most amateur porn attempts to reproduce some of the common memes of commercial porn.

The truth is, most people don’t see a lot of real human sexual experience, other than our own. And in that way, we are still a very puritan society indeed.

Why does all this matter to you as a writer of erotic literature? Well, if your goal is to produce erotica primarily as an aid to sexual arousal for masturbation, it really doesn’t.

But why I think a lot of literary writers have shied away from erotic sex scenes is because they believe their job is to write about real and profound human experience, whether dramatic or quotidian, and to trigger reverberations of that profundity in their readers. They resort to writing sex scenes that are hollow, joyless, and dissociative, I suspect, because, as yet, no one has bothered to make a lot of mediated versions of awful sex since it doesn’t have a lot of commercial potential. But we’ve all had the occasional bout of rotten sex. So writing it guarantees that what will be triggered in the reader’s mind is memories of the real.

You may feel, as a writer of erotica, that it’s not important whether the images you trigger are real or mediated, but it is to me. I don’t want to connect with my readers over a landscape of commercialized sex. When they read a piece of my erotic work, I attempt, as far as possible, to ensure that what they’re imagining calls to their real memories and lived abstractions, not a porn flick. Because I feel that the story will resonate at a deeper level if my words are associated with their real, felt, lived erotic experiences.

So, how might one go about trying to write work that triggers lived-experience memories? I think it’s damn hard. I think it’s the biggest single challenge erotica writers have. But I do have some ideas.

First, watch a lot of porn. Then watch it until you’re thoroughly bored. Once it stops arousing you, you can start to see, analytically, where porn sex really differs from lived sexual experiences. Have you ever made those sounds during sex? Given a choice, would you actually choose to have sex in that position? Notice how little full body contact occurs in porn. That’s because it’s no good for the camera. Same with settings. I’ve had sex up against the wall in a dark, cramped cupboard. But there’s no way to show that in porn: there’s not enough lighting and there’s no room for the crew. In a thousand ways, porn sex bears little resemblance to the sex we actually have. But because of its ubiquity, it’s definitely starting to shape the sex we’re told we want.

Since the majority of mediated sexual information we get is visual, make this the least important part of your writing. Visual imagery in text tends to trigger visual memory in readers. I have a suspicion that the absence of visual description in the text may force the reader to rely on other senses for which they only have lived-experience. When you do use visual imagery in your writing, spend time on the visuals that are there in the real world but that are seldom focused on in mediated sex scenes. Our inner minds don’t need filmic lighting, or space for the camera crew.

To a certain extent, sound is featured in mediated versions of sex, but it’s often done with little finesse. You don’t hear much heartbeat or breath in porn, the sheets don’t rustle, the headboard doesn’t bang, joints don’t creak. Avoid the sort of dialogue that you hear in porn between porn actors. I understand that sometimes people really do say ‘Oooh, yeah, baby. Fuck me harder.” But writing it in your fiction dialogue is much more likely to trigger mental auditory memories of people saying it on screen than real utterances during sex.

Taste, smell and touch are all senses that, as yet, we have not been able to remediate. These are wonderful things to focus on in your erotic writing because all your reader has to call on to reproduce these in their interior version of your story is their own real experiences.

It’s helpful to avoid sexual terminology that has been used for ‘classification’ purposes in adult entertainment. If we’ve had lovers from other cultures or with different coloured skin to our own, we don’t think ‘bi-racial’. That person is a person to us. We don’t classify our experience with them into a marketable slot. Similarly, most people who have sexual experiences with members of the same sex don’t think ‘Hey, I’m bi now!’ They just enjoy the person their with. They indulge in the new experiences that this may offer, but they don’t classify it.

The chances are, you know what your readers look like and most of them don’t look like ramp models or porn stars. Spend time really looking at people, their faces, the way they move. Chances are, the people we’ve loved and fucked weren’t celebrity look-alikes, but we found what was beautiful in them in our proximity. A really good photographer once told me: “everyone is beautiful in extreme close-up”. Wrinkles become the landscape of experience; pores become the texture of the living, breathing tactile skin. The fine hairs at the base of the spine become the sensory cilia of anemones. Ripples of flesh become the sea of indulgences.

I honestly think it’s fucking rude to make your female readers wish they were thinner, or your male readers wish they were two inches longer. If you really want your readers to immerse fully in your fiction, don’t present them with characters that they could never imagine themselves being. It sets up subliminal feelings of inadequacy. Which is fine, if that’s what you meant to do. But don’t do it by mistake.

Finally, and if you really feel you’ve got a handle on this, you can play with language – interrupting your readers assumptions when you know they’re likely to mentally reference mediated sexual imagery. BDSM is a really good example. It’s fair to say that most people are not living a BDSM lifestyle. So their understanding of it comes from mass media: Rhianna’s video, Cat Woman, that darkly referenced CSI episode with the Domme, BDSM porn, etc. These are mostly visual. So concentrating on describing what it actually feels like to have a crop hit skin or how the muscles ache when limbs are in bondage, goes much further to bringing your reader into the scene than a visual description or a he did this/she did that. To paraphrase Mitzi Szereto, don’t tell us what happened. Tell us how it felt.

I don’t want to pretend for a moment that writing like this is easy or that I’m all that good at it. I’m not. Because, and this is the real head fuck, I am just as much influenced and affected by the mediated experiences I’ve absorbed in my lifetime as my readers are. Not everything I write about in erotic fiction are things I’ve lived either. But please don’t despair; once you’ve started to interrogate your own creative imagination, you can often identify the sources of your internal data quite easily. Just being aware of this empowers your choices as a writer. Also – and this is vital – don’t try to use this critical approach on a first draft. Write your story draft first and then play ‘spot the mediated porn memes’ in the editing stages. Otherwise, you can easily begin to suffer from total creative paralysis.

I think the prospect of arousing your reader not simply at a genital level, but at an existential level, makes the challenge worth the effort. And we, as erotic writers are a brave and intrepid bunch. Literary writers who won’t write erotic sex scenes are, in my view, cowards for not, at least, attempting to integrate the erotic into their work and giving its proper and important place in writing the human experience.

One Thought on “Writing Erotic: lived vs mediated experience

  1. I liked this a lot — especially the “existential level.”

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