Transgression in the Context of Contemporary Erotica

naughty-thursday-a-ironing“Prohibition and transgression are born at once, because the prohibition draws attention to that which it controls” (Roberts-Hughes).

It’s hard to imagine a well-structured story without a transgression. In a way, all conflict is transgression to the characters who endure it. That transgression might be obvious and socially recognised or personal and eccentric, but conflict always involves transgressing the boundaries of a character’s ordered world. Even in man against nature plots, like Moby Dick, nature becomes the transgressor, threatening human-imposed order and often the survival of the character. In Lord of the Flies, A Passage to India or Kalimantan, while the most obvious conflict is man’s transgressions against his fellow man or woman, nature is cast into the role an alien presence and easily conceived of as the Lacanian Real, threatening to overwhelm and swallow the structural edifice of the Symbolic order.

Within a Western context and in the past, sexually explicit writing has been viewed as transgressive simply for making explicit what society determined to be unfit for the public sphere. The act of writing about sexual pleasure used to be transgressive on many levels: the writer’s temerity to transmit the content, the language used to frame the content, the acts and feelings described in the content, the intellectual and physical responses of the reader to the material. All was viewed, until recently, as problematic.

But in the 21st Century, it is untenable to argue that the act of writing explicitly about sex is still taboo. Accounts and remediation of explicit sex are everywhere and so difficult to avoid that parents and governments are engaged in a constant discourse on how to prevent children from stumbling across images, video and texts that are deemed inappropriate for their age (Nash). So, while it may still be taboo for children to access this type of material, it is perfectly acceptable for adults to do so. As of June, 2015, the Fifty Shades of Grey series has sold over 125 million copies worldwide (Swanson). For all media-fueled moral outrage it has attracted, how can something so widely consumed be transgressive? Controversial, certainly, but transgressive?

Similarly, it cannot genuinely be claimed that the use in erotic writing of what was historically considered obscene language is still problematic. While Knox notes that school boards anguish over including books containing profanities in school libraries for fear that children will emulate them (Knox 60), those same words are used ubiquitously in everyday discourse, constantly aired in drama on television and, more significantly, can be found all over Facebook (Kirk).

We are living through a period of considerable cognitive disconnect when it comes to obscenity–loudly and publicly bemoaning its almost ubiquitous presence while simultaneously consuming obscene material in ever-growing amounts. We seem obsessed with limiting its access while actively participating in its publication, enjoying the economic fruits of its commoditisation and extolling the virtues of being ‘open’ about our sexual practices in order to create “vocabularies of desire”, share knowledge, reduce shame and build communities (Wood). Yet it seems that who speaks and the way in which it is spoken is still controversial. While E.L. James is congratulated for her book sales and economic success, she is criticised for not representing BDSM in a psychologically healthy light in a fictional novel (Downing 92) and Bernie Sanders, a US presidential candidate in 2015-16, is faced with having to defend a rape-fantasy essay he wrote 43 years ago (Kurtzleben).

As Downing notes of Fifty Shades of Grey, “the structural inequalities and political questions underpinning and determining ‘vanilla’ romance and its flagship institution, marriage, are obfuscated in the book by means of the focus on the titillating ‘wrongness’ of power exchange sex and BDSM”(92). Paradoxically, while we extol the emancipatory qualities of explicit erotic fiction, especially by and for women, we still market them successfully with claims of their brazen transgressiveness.

These eminently marketable and socially and psychologically beneficial forms of  ‘transgession’ cannot be claimed to be transgressive if one is to take the definition of the word seriously. They don’t cost the transgressor their social standing, or destabilise their sense of self and other, or challenge contemporary normativities, or provide transformative experiences. They are comfortably consumable entertainments in which the fiction of their transgressiveness is maintained in order to heighten their appeal.

Mainstream erotica publishers, who market their books with promises of fictional naughtiness, sin and transgression, offer us a glimpse of what can truly be said to be transgressive today in three ways. The first is on their submissions guidelines pages in the form of a list of subject matter they will not consider for publication. While this varies from publisher to publisher, rape (sometimes referred to as non-con), incest, under-age sex, bestiality, scat and watersports are almost universally refused. The second is more subtle but discernible in the absence of what they publish; the great majority of stories feature beautiful, young, healthy, economically successful characters who engage in sex consensually and voraciously. Most recently with the merging of the genres of erotica and popular romance, it has become very difficult to find works published under the erotica genre that don’t conclude with a happy ending. Finally, there is a telling intersection between content and structure. While the ebook format has made the length of the work of little importance in terms of production, distribution or sales, most erotica publishers refuse short stories or novellas. Unprofitableness is most definitely transgressive.


Downing, Lisa. “Safewording! Kinkphobia and Gender Normativity in Fifty Shades of Grey.” Psychology & Sexuality 4.1 (2013): 92-102.

Kirk, Chris. “The Most Popular Swear Words On Facebook.” , 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Knox, E J M. Book Banning in 21st-Century America. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015.

Kurtzleben, Danielle. “The Bernie Sanders ‘ Rape Fantasy ‘ Essay, Explained.”, 2015. Web. 30 May 2015.

Nash, Victoria. Identifying the Routes by Which Children View Pornography Online: Implications for Future Policy-Makers Seeking to Limit Viewing. Oxford: N. p., 2015.

Roberts-Hughes, Rebecca. “Erotic Transgression and Sexual Difference in Georges Bataille.” The Erotic: 4th Global Conference. Salzburg: N. p., 2008.

Swanson, Clare. “New Fifty Shades of Grey Book Coming.” Publishers Weekly June 1, 2015.

Wood, Elizabeth Anne. “Consciousness-Raising 2.0: Sex Blogging and the Creation of a Feminist Sex Commons.” Feminism & Psychology 18.4 (2008): 480-487.

2 Thoughts on “Transgression in the Context of Contemporary Erotica

  1. “We are living through a period of considerable cognitive disconnect when it comes to obscenity” – beautifully put.

  2. I endorse this completely. I have just had yet another advert for my last book refused on the grounds that it might give someone, somewhere a hard-on (I paraphrase, but you get my drift). The advert consisted entirely of the words ‘An erotic romance’ and a picture of a man and woman kissing (neck upwards shot only). Just who is policing us at Amazon and Facebook etc.? Are they really all pious 20 year olds who think that their elders are morally suspect and mustn’t be encouraged? I doubt they have read the book, and if they did it is at the lower end of the bdsm scale, and could hardly be considered offensive compared to other material around. In my opinion, the word ‘obscenity’ should be reserved for images of people starving and being bombed out of their homes, and not attached to their sexual habits. (Sorry, sounding off a bit!)

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation