Erotic fiction is the literature of desire. If that is the case, it might seem that writing Trans erotica would present little difficulty. It might be assumed that Transgendered folk would be happy to consume erotic fiction that pertains to their self-identified gender and sexual orientation. But I suspect this is not necessarily the case.
There are many Transgendered individuals who situate themselves beyond gender binaries, and/or beyond standardized sexual orientations. It would be easy to say that Genderqueer and Genderfluid people should write their own erotic fiction; that only they can fully accommodate their own erotic sensitivities. For cis-gendered writers there are dark warnings of appropriation, fetishization, objectification and writing beyond one’s own experience. Of course Trans folk should write erotic fiction, but to say that only Trans writers should write it suggests a kind of literary segregation that I find deeply worrying. I think it also reinforces a laziness of imagination, a reluctance to engage in the necessary deep research, and a refusal of empathy. It is part of the miracle of fiction that writers and readers can traverse foreign landscapes and do so with respect and affection and – most importantly – be changed and enriched as a human being by that experience.
Although I am cis-gendered, predominantly heterosexual, female, I’ve always struggled with the limitations of those classifications as a writer. I often write male narrators and have written a number works that focused on gay and lesbian sexual desire. While mindful of predominant cultural norms, I’ve always been far more interested in exploring characters as radical individualities. Differences, paradoxes, schisms and discontinuities between my characters and their environments, their past and future selves, provide more fertile fields for me, as well as ready-made narrative conflicts. Although some of my earlier fiction was strongly liberationist in tone – narrative journeys to more settled and happy states of existence – I have lately become more intrigued by how characters experience and negotiate their desires within their present realities.
The challenge of writing Genderqueer erotic narratives compels me for a multiplicity of reasons. Within any genre, it forces the writer to be mindful of and constantly confront the fact that language, even those that don’t possess overtly genderized linguistic constructions, is gendered and sexually ‘normed’. This doesn’t mean that one is compelled to constantly attempt to neuter or queer the language (if that were even possible, it would probably result in stories that had some academic interest, but would likely be unintelligible to most readers, regardless of their identities) but it does require a hyper-awareness of that reality.
Erotic fiction presents even greater challenges. Sex may be biological, but eroticism is culturally constructed. 1 When we conceive of things, situations, others who arouse us, we build those eroticisms with an interior language that can never be free from the external one that surrounds us. Erotic fiction incorporates signifiers (words, symbols, imagery) that we have agreed, culturally, have erotic dimensions of meaning. Erotic language is, I think, especially burdened by centuries of normativity, perhaps because – until very recently – it has been a subject we have had little permission to discuss frankly and openly in a language unregulated by the institutions who sought to control the discourse. 2 I would argue that our erotic discourse is still being heavily, albeit more implicitly, regulated: where once institutions like the church, science and medicine acted as explicit arbiters of acceptable erotic discourse, consumerism now applies the greatest force in shaping how eroticism is discussed.
Erotic fiction always presents a challenge because what we call ‘sex’ is paradoxical. Graphic descriptions of physical eroticism of will always necessitate references to sites on the body where physical pleasure is to be produced. I don’t deny that it is possible to write tremendously arousing fiction that manages to do so without ever referring to the concreteness of body parts, but it’s rare and, moreover, it is often abstracted and surreal. For some readers, this is perfect. But for others, it is too removed from the body as an instrument of pleasure to be arousing.
We are, as biological creatures stuck, to some extent with sites of physical pleasure we have in the moment. True, these sites can be altered by psychological, hormonal and surgical intervention, but many, many trans folk do not choose to effect those changes. Moreover, for some people, those changes would not wholly afford them congruence in any case. I suspect that, if humans were free to engineer their ideal pleasure organs, we would see a vast landscape of variation in bioarchitecture. Similarly, if cultural imperatives didn’t play such a huge part in how we conceive of our organs of pleasure, their shapes and positioning might be entirely arbitrary. Indeed, erotic writing within the genres of sci-fi and fantasy has explored these possibilities.
Personally, what interests me more than current impossibilities, are conceptual reformulations that might disrupt normative associations. To put it simply, what is inherently gendered about a cock or a cunt? What is inherently feminizing about being penetrated? 3 Why is a penile erection, straining to be caressed considered more aggressive than a clitoral one? Why is a breastless nipple considered less erotically charged? I’m not suggesting that biological imperative doesn’t play some part, but I would argue that it is a minor one that I think we resort to out of laziness of critical consideration. The vast majority of activities we consider physically erotic, as humans, have no procreative potential at all. Meanwhile, the list of culturally conditioned erotic assumptions is long. So I see, in that place where language and erotic arousal intersect, a fertile site for disruption.
Nor do I see this effort exclusively as having appeal to or an accommodation of alternative erotic literary interests. I suspect that disrupting the normative use of language in erotic fiction would benefit and reinvigorate all forms of the genre.
I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this topic, regardless of whether you are a Trans, Queergendered, Gay or heterosexual and whether you identify as female, male, fluid or pangendered. Any and all input on the subject is much appreciated. I am especially interested in knowing what aspects of currently available erotic fiction put you off or jar with your internal erotic landscape. Please let me know if you feel I have overlooked important aspects of this topic and tell me what you feel those are. Finally, if I have phrased anything in a way you feel is not helpful to encouraging the discussion, please feel free to let me know, either in the comments or via email or twitter of you’re more comfortable with that.
p.s. If you have found or written stories you feel address this subject, I’d really love to read them. Similarly, if you’ve found or written non-fiction essays or papers on this subject, I’d really appreciate a link.
p.p.s I just found a phenomenal series of posts by Xan West Writing Erotica for Trans Readers here. There are four parts to this (linked from the top of the page) Also a nice list of Xan West’s own erotic fiction here.
- See Zygmunt Bauman’s “On Postmodern Uses of Sex.” Love & Eroticism. Ed. Mike Featherstone. London: SAGE Publications, 1999. Print. Published in Association with Theory, Culture & Society and, from a more writerly perspective, Octavio Paz’s. An Erotic beyond: Sade. Harcourt Brace, 1998. ↩
- Michel Foucault (The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1990) argued that, since the Enlightenment, we have been talking about sex constantly but implicitly, and much of the way we discuss eroticism has been controlled through institutional regulation of the discourse. ↩
- For an in-depth examination of this topic, see Jonathan Kemp’s The Penetrated Male, Punctum Books, 2013. ↩