Writing the Erotic Phenomenologically

One of the biggest problems with being a writer is language. Yes, it happens to be the tool we work with, too, but never the less, there is an aspect to language that gets in the way, especially when it comes to the description of bodily and emotional experience. Language isn’t just a tool for communicating through from one person to another. It acts as an organizing framework, and more importantly as a tool of abstraction. This is particularly true when it comes to the erotic.

We use a lot of slang, acronyms and labels when it comes to sex. We do for other things too, for the sake of convenience and offering a quick reference to others. But I suspect part of our propensity for using it when it comes to sex is society’s ambivalent feelings about it. BDSM, CFNM, S&M, D/s, CP, bondage, anal, bukakke, F/F and M/M, bi, poly, trans, WS, ad nauseum. Yes, they are convenient classifiers and efficient communicators of erotic abstractions, but the last thing you want when sinking into an erotic story is abstraction. You want visceral, immersive detail. You don’t want a sequence of events either, diarized and organized like a song list. You want an approximation of the way being in an erotic state blurs sequence and time. Nor is analytical writing all that erotic (and this is MY big sin). There’s a difference between exploration and analysis. One discovers, the other attempts to rationalize and make meaning what has been discovered. And rationalization is the enemy of the embodied moment.

So, I’d like to introduce you, to those who are not familiar with it, to a method of examining and understanding the lived experience called phenomenology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes it as the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. Essentially, it emerged as a refutation of Descartes proposal that everything could be known empirically, objectively. Hegel said… bullshit. Objectivity doesn’t acknowledge the rich data involved in the subjective experience. Through its development as a method of inquiry, phenomenology evolved a concept called ‘thick description’. It sought to acknowledge the legitimacy and the value of singular, subjective experiences, arguing that if you gather enough of them together, and compare them, you can come to another, richer and more nuanced understanding of truth.

Back at the language ranch, we have a problem. Bondage is getting tied up, right? Great, let’s talk cuffs and rope and knots. Let’s show pictures of people chained to a St. Andrew’s cross. For fetishist, this could be arousing, because they have already been to ‘bondage land’ and the objective language, and factual descriptions trigger memories of lived experience. But for anyone else… meh, boring.

Phenomenology developed into a methodological approach to describing intimate human experience without being reductive about it. One of the earliest uses of phenomenological methodology was to attempt to understand what was going on with people who had mystical and religious experiences. Before you scoff at it, think about it for a moment. Put whatever prejudices you have aside. Think about how counting the number of times a person prayed, or meditated, or how long they did it, and what position they did it in… how would that even begin to give you an idea of what their interior experience was like? Another early use of phenomenological methods involved studying nursing experience. Sure, you can count nurses, enumerate their ward rounds, use a list to record each procedure they performed and no matter how detailed you were in your records, what the hell does that tell you about what it feels like to be a nurse, to be a caregiver? Or to be nursed? How do you get to the meat, the ethos, the lived reality of what it is to care, physically, emotionally, for a sick person?

You throw away all your assumptions about what you think you know. You stop using words that abstract the topic. You don’t ask the person to tell you what they do; you ask them how it feels and what’s it like. Metaphors can play a huge part in the phenomenological investigative process because in order for people to construct metaphors, they are forced to think about detailed actuality, and whether one thing is ‘actually’ like something else. In picking and judging the metaphor to be apt, they have to think about it with precision and care.

Here, courtesy of a very nice introductory lecture on phenomenology, are the principles of its research approach:

  • Don’t test hypotheses – This means pretend you don’t know anything about this. Pretend you’re a complete virgin about this. Drop all your preconceptions, even if you have experience, don’t assume commonality. And don’t assume your reader knows anything.
  • Don’t use a theoretical model to determine the question. “PRIMACY OF THE LIFE-WORLD” means that our approach to understanding is “pre-theoretical.” (Yes, in a sense of course this is a contradiction because we are describing a theory. But the theory includes methods to minimize its impact on The nature of the data obtained.) There is a lot of jargon going on here, but basically don’t bring any political baggage with you. You’re a feminist, you’re queer positive, you’re a practitioner of Safe, Sane and Consensual BDSM – dump it. Be prepared to accept a subject reality where your own political values don’t have a place. Don’t judge, just accept, no matter how repulsive you may think it is. If you judge, you limit your ability to know. Period.  Be prepared for your writing to take you places you don’t feel comfortable and that don’t accord with your schema of the universe.
  • Try to come as close as you can to understanding the experiences being lived by the participants as they do. Understanding is not sanction. Your truth doesn’t need to accord with their truth. There is no right or wrong in this process. Just new understanding.
  • There is no claim that phenomenological results are predictive or replicable. Several studies that probe the same phenomenon may discover similar meanings, each described from a unique perspective. These perspectives may also lead to the discovery of new and different meanings. Every experience is true to the person who experiences it in that moment. It doesn’t need to make sense. It doesn’t need to share common ground with anyone else’s experience. It is exactly what it is. No more, no less.

This list describes a research process in which the phenomenological researcher is eliciting, asking for details, encouraging another party to give over subjective information, but this works surprisingly well for characters, and in fact, there is a branch of the discipline called Individual Phenomenology, which requires a lot of discipline, honesty and introspection but, in essence, is a phenomenological interrogation of the self.

How does this translate into writing the erotic phenomenologically?  It’s probably better if I give you an example.

I want to write about a blow job. The first thing I want to do is try to forget I’ve ever given one. I’m going to focus on how I feel in my body, on texture, on how my jaw feels opening wide enough to fit this cockhead, what my lips do as I take it in, the sensation of the skin of the shaft on my tongue, how am I breathing as I do it, when I close my mouth around it, what is the sensation, the fullness, the pressure, the smell, the taste of skin, of precum. Is he circumcized or not? How does that feel. Don’t compare. Just the one, singular experience of it. When I suck, what is it like, find a really true metaphor, something not even oral. Open your eyes, what do you see. Does he put his hand on your head, how does that feel, what emotions does it bring up? What does it sound like. Don’t give me the cliche porn meme. Give me a simile, a metaphor that really truly describes the sound. Does he move? How does that feel? What sensations or emotions does that evoke?  Can you hear your own breath? His? What does it mean to you in your body? How does it reverberate there?

Don’t tell me what you don’t or can’t know. Don’t tell me how he feels. Even if you have a cock and know what a blow job feels like, you only know what it feels like to you, not to him. Don’t make assumptions that I, as a reader, have ever given anyone a blow job. Tell me everything that you experience. Only that.

Writing phenomenologically tends to produce incredibly deep, very immediate erotica. Because in avoiding assumptions, you tend to touch on things that hit in a very real, raw and intimate place for the reader. You’re not relaying your or your character’s experience, you are unpacking it, unpeeling it, bringing it down to the level of visceral experience. This is the only blow job in the world. One singluar, experience of sucking a cock. For the time that you’re writing it, there is no other and I need you to record this singular event for posterity and whatever you leave out will be lost forever. And don’t be shy to get poetic. Some of the best phenomenological writing is incredibly poetic.

Be warned, it also ends up swelling your word-count astronomically. You can get totally lost in the process. And that’s when you know… you’re in the groove.

If you’d like to give it a try, good luck! And post a link in the comment area if you’d like to share your experiment.

2 Thoughts on “Writing the Erotic Phenomenologically

  1. Pingback: Craft Notes: How I use Free writing. | About that Writing thing.

  2. After reading a number of your brilliant short stories, I stumbled on your Ack-a-damn-ic blog today. It’s a fascinating theoretical complement to your fiction. And, of course, very well written.

    One thing that is particularly amazing to me is how well you are able to practice in your fiction what you “preach” in your academic investigations.

    In this essay, you write:
    “Try to come as close as you can to understanding the experiences being lived by the participants as they do. Understanding is not sanction. Your truth doesn’t need to accord with their truth. There is no right or wrong in this process. Just new understanding.”

    One of the reasons that I find your short stories so compelling that you are able to do this – You, as a writer, are able to give me a brief, but deep and intense, understanding of the experiences and motivations of your characters.

    For example, even though I have no personal fascination with BSDM, when I read your stories that touch on this topic (or perhaps I should say grind on, cut in, or burn through the topic), I feel a sense of the why and how your characters are attracted to and turned on by this type of experience.

    Of course, IMHO helping the reader experience the motivations, emotions, desires, sensations, and even the subconscious of characters is the hallmark of any good fiction.

    Understandably, not all writers don’t want to delve into the philosophical phylogeny of their creative efforts. And, like most folks, I generally don’t find philosophical treateses on phenomenology to be a turn-on (nor do I want to replace the plumbing in my house with poetry a la Richard Brautigan). But I do enjoy hearing you describe the underpinnings of your work. Nothing like a quick peak up the petticoats of great literature… 😉


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