We live in a culture that is constantly encouraging us to ‘enjoy’. We have been led to believe that there is no price to be paid for the freedoms we desire. No consequences to our indulgences. This serves a market-driven economy, but it traps us in a grayed out plane of existence with no peaks and valleys.
One of the ways I differentiate pornography from erotica is that pornography never even hints at the valleys. In pornography, you can have chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it will always taste just as good. It’s an alluring lie. Because the moment we have a steady stream of what we want, it simply doesn’t seem as good or as important anymore.
Despite marketing messages to the contrary and over the long term, very few of us value what we get for free. The things in life we hold onto most fiercely in memory are the things that have cost us plenty: the fears we had to fight to overcome, the shame we had to swallow, the pride we had to lose, the people who were not always easy to embrace, the things that had dire consequences but, in retrospect, were worth every minute of the pain we paid for it.
There are two very distinct understandings of what purpose erotica should serve. One camp believes that there is little difference between pornography and erotica, and that its main purpose is to allow the reader to enter into a fantasy unencumbered by reality and be sexually (genitally) aroused. The other camp, to which I belong, believes that there is a deeper level of erotic arousal that comes from confronting the reader with a more complex form of eroticism, embedded in realism. This second type is not always genital, or immediately genital. It should, if it’s good, engender a sort of bone-deep erotic yearning.
One of the reasons I belong to that second camp is because I feel that this deeper and more problematic form of eroticism tends to stay with the reader long after they’ve closed the pages of the book or shut down the computer screen. It often doesn’t resonate with readers’ fantasies but rather with their lived realities. At its best, it beckons readers to see the unfamiliar, the ugly, the frightening, the repulsive in new ways. Ways that challenge the reader to see eroticism in difficult places.
I have not always written erotic fiction in this second mode. In fact, I think as an erotic writer, one has to start in the first mode – the pornographic one – and get bored with it before the second’s appeal becomes obvious and compelling. Similarly, I think most erotic readers start out searching for escapism and high fantasy, and some (only some) get tired of the constant taste of chocolate cake and yearn for something with a more complex flavour.
It would be easy to represent this as a high-brow/low-brow split, to see the second as a somehow nobler pursuit than the first. I’d caution against that sort of hierarchical thinking, because my decision to be in the second camp is entirely self-serving. I don’t find writing pornography interesting, nor do I find it arousing to write. However, it does mean that I had to lower my expectations when it came to how many readers I could expect to have. There is a much larger readership for the first type of erotica than for the second. Although, I do ponder the proposition that, if a lot of what the second camp produced was to be presented under the genre of mainstream or literary fiction, it might not find a larger readership than it currently has.
So, if I’ve intrigued you about the second type of erotica–reading it or writing it– the most important thing to keep in mind is that transgression has consequences. Hence the title. And the major hurdle in writing this sort of erotica is to overcome a very popular, very post-modern ideology that everything that gives us pleasure is okay, good, sinless. The problem of political correctness really shows up at this crossing point between real life and fiction. Life-style BDSM practitioners want to represent what they do as sane, healthy and perfectly blameless and, for the sake of being treated with dignity in our very diverse society, I can understand the desire completely. However, from an erotic point of view, if everything is permissible then there is no transgression. If there’s no transgression, there’s no real risk or depth or ecstatic possibilities to the eroticism, and no consequences to making the choice to step over that line of the normative world. Because there’s no line. We’ve decided that normal is a bad concept, we’ve erased it. And with it, we’ve erased the line that one might step over.
In this second type of erotica. We need laws to break. We need to acknowledge the validity of those laws and break them anyway. We need to feel the trepidation, to acknowledge that there is both terror and awe in willingly stepping across that line in the pursuit of ecstasy, of what Bataille called ‘continuity’, in the momentary annihilation of the self. And, for the fiction to have some realism and some resonance in the real life of the reader, that transgression needs to have consequences. The suspension of disbelief in the act of reading has its limits. It’s not that a totally unrealistic outcome in a story can’t be enjoyed in the moment, but that the reader will consciously relegate the story into the realm of fantasy, and take nothing from the text after they’ve finished it. It is the trauma of the story, like the physical trauma of sex, that give us the deepest and most lasting aftershocks.
There is a deep deliciousness in watching a character struggle for pleasure: compromise their morality, overcome terror or disgust, lay their heart open and vulnerable to get to the borderlands of transgression and find the courage or the craziness to step over. And there is also the inevitable satisfaction of balance, in ensuring that the consequences of doing so are not minor. Because there is no ecstasy without peril or debt.
It is far easier to set these kind of stories in the past, or in places where the ‘death of god’ has not yet taken place. I’m speaking here in the Nietzschean sense of the death of god. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was transgressive because, at the time D.H. Lawrence wrote it, it was socially unacceptable for people of such different classes to have a sexual relationship(especially where the woman was upper class and the man from the working class – the reverse, wasn’t quite so transgressive as upper class men used prostitutes all the time). We don’t really need to know much about the characters’ inner struggles because there is a social law to struggle against and transgress. Similarly with Nabokov’s Lolita, although we do get his inner turmoil, we don’t actually need it. It was and still is forbidden, still socially reprehensible, to have a sexual relationship with a minor in Western society. If Lolita had been set in rural India, where girls are still routinely married off at the age of 12 or 13, it would have no impact. It wouldn’t be erotic because there would be no transgression in that culture.
Writing transgression, especially writing it in a modern, Western setting, is difficult. If we are to eschew the few sexual acts that are still considered transgressive – bestiality, pedophilia, incest, rape or snuff, it requires a great deal more investment of effort in the characterization process. We need to know much more about the character’s inner world, much more about their moral architecture. If society is very permissive, then it must be the individual characters who have imposed serious, convincing limitations on themselves and then proceed to break past them. Their personal struggle to push past those self-imposed laws is not only exciting, but it makes the pleasure so much more momentous when it is achieved. It cost them so much.
Similarly, it is hard to write convincing consequences to that act of transgression. If you situate your story in the past, then those consequences are automatic; society imposes them. Unmarried pregnancy, discovery and exposure as a sexual deviant, etc. were socially imposed consequences to the transgression of social norms. But if you set your story contemporaneously, the consequences – what needs to be paid for crossing that line into ecstasy – also will need to be internal. Guilt, mistrust, fear, emotional wounding, a need for the character to reconstruct their identity in the light of what they’ve done.
If all this seems too complicated to be arousing, let me simplify it for you: stolen fruit always tastes sweeter, but you have to be willing to become a thief to get it.