Erotic fiction authors find themselves in a very interesting place. Traditionally, the writing of fictionalized accounts of explicit sexual human experience has always been problematic, because open and frank discussions of real human sexuality have also been socially problematic. What emerged from those traditional sites of conflict was a push towards a more open and healthy attitude towards human sexuality in general, and within feminism, the empowerment of women to claim control of their own sexual agency.
Feminists and sex-positive activists have a vitally important job to do. It is their business to try and shift restrictive, repressive attitudes within society to something more egalitarian, humane and more accommodating of one of our most basic human drives.
And it is understandable to see why Feminists, Queer and Sex-Positive activists feel there is a need for exemplars, models of behaviour and narratives that can be used to illustrate this more enlightened mode of being. They want narratives that explore the possibilities of those ideals.
Many Feminists want (and sometimes pressure fictional writers to write) stories in which women are portrayed as being in full possession of their sexual agency. Gay, Lesbian and Trans activists want to see narratives in which non-heterosexuals are shown to live healthy, happy lives, unmarred by social rejection or prejudice. Sex-positive activists want narratives that portray human sexuality in all its splendour, unburdened by guilt or shame or fear.
There are writers who see themselves as both writers and activists. And this is fine.
I, however, am not one of those writers. We all have our causes and we all have our sense of obligation. Mine, I believe, is to examine the world the way it is – not the way I wish it to be. Erotically, my interest is in writing about human eroticism with all its warts on, including the ones that cause problems for activists. I feel the need to explore erotic fantasies that will not serve for happier or healthier sex lives. I feel the need to explore the impact of misogyny and of prejudice, not as parables with endings that mirror some hoped for ideal, but which reflect how everyday people negotiate those social ailments that plague us – sometimes successfully, sometimes failing, sometimes – most often – making uncomfortable compromises.
A short time ago, I wrote and posted a story that elicited a lot of vitriolic criticism. Had it come in the form of comments on story page itself, I would have posted them, and rebutted them, but they came, instead, in the form of some very nasty emails.
The accusation, to put it bluntly, was that I’d written an ‘unfeminist’ story that sustained and promoted misogyny.
It is, undeniably, an ‘unfeminist’ story. I can’t dispute that, and I would not want to. In fact, I was so interested in setting this story outside the realm of the real, that I wrote it in the form of a fairytale.
I did so because I wanted to examine a reality, to push against a fantasized state of human interrelations, and explore its quotidian outcome.
When it comes to love and human desire, the myth of the perfect intersubjective human love bond has been around forever. A couple meet, feel an attraction, fall in love, and they see each other for exactly who they are, beyond projections of desire, beyond social roles, beyond the boundaries of the ego. This is the ideal of love. A oneness in which each knows the other absolutely and completely.
This myth has been repeated so often, in novels, in movies, in the insipid memes of social media for so long, and so thoroughly that we have been trained to imagine it there even when it isn’t, or to be forever disappointed in our seeming failure to meet the ‘right’ person who can be like that for us. Anyone who disputes the possibility of this kind of love is labeled cynical or misanthropic.
But the reality is, that romantic, erotic merging, is a fleeting thing, in a landscape of negotiated, and difficult communication. It is hard to love. It is harder still to see the person you love, not as who you want them to be, but who they really are. Even when we catch glimpses of the truth of the person we love, it is also fleeting. It is never a complete picture. It can’t be. There is no Vulcan mind-meld and I have my suspicions that, if there were, it could be hideous.
We are born believing ourselves to be the centre of the universe. Our perceptions, our triangulations, our ability to locate things and people in relation to us all have us at the center of the process. We can’t see through another’s eyes or walk in their shoes, not really, not completely. The best we can do is acknowledge our tendency to resort to that default setting of placing our feelings, our perceptions, our understandings in prime place, and forcing the occasional, conscious putting aside of our own viewpoints and concerns. We can, when we make the effort, visit other people’s realities. And that is one of the miracles of good writing – the possibility to inhabit, temporarily, the mind of another. But it is still done through the medium of language – and language is imperfect. It fails us.
What’s more, we have a tendency to see compromises as failures. More and more, the concept of compromise comes with negative connotations of weakness, of defeat, of cowardice. We are constantly exhorted not to compromise. To fight for what you want, to demand our rights and our satisfactions, to take no prisoners in our bid to achieve a state as a fully self-realized identity.
Here’s the rub. Those kinds of total victories mean that there are winners and losers. We like that. It seems neat. Especially when we are focusing on what the winners have gained instead of what the losers have lost.
But I am interested in the poignancy and utter humanness of our complete or partial failures to see what another sees, or feel what another feels. I’m compelled by our ability to compromise, whether for self-interested or altruistic motives. I think it is important to write those failures to connect completely, and the compromises we make in the wake of those failures, because the vast majority of us do live with compromise.
I wanted to write it as an act of bravery. I hoped that readers might recognize, in that story, the times they could not fully subjectivise their lovers. The times they could not understand what their lover saw in them, and feared, perhaps, it was not them they were seeing. I wanted to acknowledge that the compromises we make when that happens are not failures, but sometimes acts of valour.
We cannot have everything, no matter how much every ad in the world wants to persuade us we can. But we can have something. And something is not nothing.
Of course, I could have bitten off more than I could chew. I could have meant to write this but not succeeded. I could have failed. I often fail. But I fail as a writer, not as an activist. You must look for your ideals elsewhere. There are none in my writing. If this essay leaves you undaunted, the story is here.