(S)he Said Discussion – Sex In Erotic Fiction

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HE SAID, SHE SAID is a brand-spanking-new feature created and hosted by Rachel (at) Confessions of a Book Geek and Joey (at) Thoughts and Afterthoughts, where formality is thrown out of the window in no-holds-barred discussions on all things bookish.

To-date we have discussed Sex in Adult/NA Fiction and Sex in YA Fiction, and with the release of the much-anticipated Fifty Shades of Grey movie, we thought it was about time we tackled the third and final He Said, She Said post on Sex In Erotic Fiction… But first, an introduction – Mr Grey, if you would be so kind…

Ohh Ahh – Sex In Erotic Fiction

*Warning* This post may contain some explicit content!

That’s right, we’re tackling erotica, fictional taboos and all things hot ‘n’ steamy. 

R: I guess the logical starting point is this – have you ever read erotica? 


J: Straight up from beginning to end? I don’t think so. I have perused pages of Fifty Shades at the store but the farthest I’ve reached into erotica would be small bite-size pieces of sex here and there in YA/Adult fiction. Nothing to the extent of toys and the like though… no baby-making literary goldmine for me (yet). How about you?


R: I’ve read books with sex scenes, same as yourself, and I’ve read a couple of erotic books, most notably the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which was an eye-opener to say the least. Ironically, I’m actually ashamed I haven’t read more erotica, it’s definitely something I want to look into. (If anyone has any great recommendations, let me know!). 


We haven’t read much erotica… This could be a short He Said She Said post… We’re going to have to make this a ménage á trois and introduce our resident sexpert, Brandie from Brandie is a Book Junkie!


B: Resident sexpert – that’s a lot of pressure! I’m happy to contribute because I have read my fair share of erotica, including Fifty Shades. It opened up a whole new world of reading to me. 


R: Excellent! So, why do you guys think erotica is so taboo? 


 J: I feel like we’re stigmatised by all these social, cultural and religious norms that make us feel as if it’s shameful to read erotica. It’s all based on values, right? 


R: It’s all based on what’s perceived to be “right” and “wrong” – it’s become “normal” to watch porn, sex scenes in movies are standard, and pop-stars over-sexualise their videos to the extent that they have to be shown after the watershed. Yet, reading about sex in fiction is still laughed at and even frowned upon. Is it because lovers of the written word are supposed to read more “intellectual” works? Is reading about sex any “worse” than watching it? 


B: I get very defensive about this because I don’t think anyone should be ashamed of what they like to read. There is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to a love of reading as long as you’re reading. I don’t like to read a book that’s more “intellectual” because I read for pleasure and to relax. The last thing I want to do is read something that makes my brain hurt. But I agree with you about this negative perception of erotica. Even in this day and age, people still get prickly about sex, like it’s a bad thing. Fifty Shades really shook up the reading world and brought out the closet erotica readers. I had been reading romance for years that had erotica in it, but you just never talked about it, for fear of being judged. 


R: I’m with Brandie, in the sense that I read for entertainment and escapism, I’m often doing some sort of course or studying, so when I read I like to take my brain out and give it a rest. If someone enjoys reading about relationships, sex and erotica as their form of escapism, then more power to them. 


J: All reading is “intellectual” – if you’re thinking in any capacity and conceptualizing the experience. Maybe it’s book snobbery, where particular books are being labelled as lesser quality because the core content is erotica. When you think about it, it’s pretty shallow for individuals to judge what they haven’t read and base their opinions on the knowledge they’ve gained from mass-media. I think it’s neat Fifty Shades has the notoriety of kicking the door down and opening up dialogue for erotica. It started off as fan-fiction, right?


R: Yep, it was originally Twilight fan-fiction. Fifty Shades definitely should be credited for freeing a lot of closeted erotica readers, and introducing a whole new audience to sex in fiction. The popularity of Fifty Shades made it OK to be seen reading erotica in public, and to talk about it openly. Of course, the boom in the use of eReaders around the same time helped – as no one could see what you were reading, and therefore they couldn’t judge you!


B: That’s true, I did read the books on my Kindle. But I also had the books before it became such a huge phenomenon, and I didn’t really know what it was about when I started it. The covers don’t really give much away either, unless you’ve read the books and know the symbolism. 


R: Good point. Erotic books often have dodgy covers, which doesn’t do much to entice newbies into reading it, and some of them are particularly bad – you wouldn’t want to be seen reading it in public. Fifty Shades definitely set the trend as far as more low key, publicly acceptable covers go. 


J: It’s funny you should mention the simplicity of the covers, because now whenever I see any monochromatic gray-centric covers, my mind quickly assumes it’s erotica! No matter how you look at it though, we will always judge and be judged. It just depends on the hot topic of the time. For readers, I think the judgement comes from the effort we have to make to “conceptualize” the sex itself. In videos, sex is sold to you without much thought. Boom, it’s right there in your face. With erotic fiction, you imagine the characters (or whichever actor is your proxy) and set the scene yourself. Others can’t “see” what you “see”, and so they make assumptions about your character. 


R: So we’re being judged for having a good imagination when it comes to bedroom gymnastics? Pft. 


B: Unfortunately, people will always judge something they don’t understand or are uncomfortable with. 


R: True. Maybe it’s a case of readers being braver? Of experimenting with what we enjoy in fiction and being brave enough to talk about it and share it with others. Erotica has a bad rep for a lot of reasons, but no other erotic book seems to be ripped to shreds more than Fifty Shades, do you think it’s being used as a scapegoat, or does it deserve the bashing it gets? 


J: What kind of bashing does it get? I haven’t read Fifty Shades, so I can’t judge the merits of the book. But like any product, when something receives worldwide attention (irrespective of being good/bad), it’s deserving in that capacity, don’t you think? I mean… it had to have done something right to get to where it is. 


R: The general consensus is that it’s badly written and therefore doesn’t deserve the attention it has received. I’ve always maintained that E L James is unlikely to win any literary awards, but it was compulsive reading that I struggled to put down. It was risqué, it was eye-opening, and it was very provocative.


B: I agree with Joey, clearly the author did something right or she wouldn’t have sold so many books and have such a huge following. There will always be haters, regardless of how well it’s written, but it did win over millions of readers. Something about the series connected with people. No, it’s not stellar writing by any means, but it grabbed me and didn’t let me go until I devoured all three books in a week! After I finished, I was doing all I could to get my hands on more books like it. I found more authors to fall in love with and more books to love. I have E L James to thank for that. Erotica definitely isn’t for everyone! Doesn’t mean you should shame someone who enjoys it.


R: Agreed. Some erotica, and Fifty Shades in particular, is bashed for being all about the dominance of the male, and the degrading of women, with the BDSM content being slammed for inaccuracies. Recently, lots of bloggers have blamed Fifty Shades for the increase in novels that focus on the portrayal of “unhealthy” relationships in romance and erotica, referring to them as emotionally abusive, and in some cases depicting the male as a dominant and unstable character (e.g. Travis from Beautiful Disaster) – do you see this trend in relationships in novels? 


B: Ugh – the whole BDSM bashing irritates me. It’s a freaking book. I took everything I read with a grain of salt. It was strictly for entertainment purposes. I’ve heard so many comments that Fifty Shades portrays BDSM in all the wrong ways, and I wouldn’t have a clue about that. I’m not an expert in that area, but I never once felt like it was degrading women while I read it. Yes – that trend gets a lot of attention and judgement. A lot of women enjoy books with an alpha male who can be a bit bossy, I admit I like reading about a man who’s not afraid to be vocal about what he wants and goes after it. If it’s written well, it can be very sexy. I’m not talking about abuse, mental or physical – that’s a whole different subject, but when a man takes care of his woman, and takes charge in the boudoir, it’s hot! There, I said it!


R: Haha! Go, Brandie! There is something… primal about it that (some) women seem to enjoy reading. 


 J: I’m trying to wrap my head around the BDSM experience. Perhaps the backlash just highlights the need for a more consenting narrative? But as Brandie suggests, the big secret is this: it’s fiction and there’s a certain degree of give-and-take that has to be there to allow for fantasies to work. Do I endorse representations of macho-men and weak-women? No. Yet what kind of message is implied if we start to think that all women (generally) who read erotica will suddenly want to live these tropes? It’s entertainment; it’s temporary escapism, and it’s women themselves who have popularized this genre. 


R: Excellent point about a more consenting narrative. I think it’s insulting to a woman’s intelligence to assume that because she is reading these kinds of stories, she expects, or wants, that scenario in real-life. We can all read murder mysteries without attempting to re-enact them! 


J: We should be taking a look at society, because something must be wrong if it takes the popularity of a book to push open the door for eager beavers to finally feel like they’re allowed to talk about sex, and for women to feel free to proclaim that they’re interested in more than strictly vanilla-sex. People need to stop chirping erotica as “mommy porn” or something of a taboo, when clearly everyone is into sex in some capacity or another. I’m curious, Brandie, what kinds of tropes in erotica do you enjoy reading about? 


B: Bad boy/good girl stories in erotica are my weakness. I love seeing a bad boy turn his life around when he falls in love. I’m also a sucker for the hot, older, billionaire geniuses (the Crossfire series by Sylvia Day is my favorite, and I’m currently reading Hero by Samantha Young – it fits this category and it’s HOT!). The thing about erotica is that there is a crazy variety of it. Don’t like BDSM? There’s other erotica to try. I think a lot of old school romances had a touch of erotica in them, but no one ever talked about it. The Harlequin ‘Smutty’ Romances – women have been reading them for years! 


R: Bad boy stories always seem to be pretty popular, and they’re a guilty pleasure of mine. I know it isn’t realistic, but they make for a great read! 


J: Misunderstood bad boys seem pretty up there in the romance genre. Do book blurbs highlight the type of erotica you can expect to find in a book? And I’m curious to know if there are erotic novels that represent females in the driver-seat; as the dominant player? Or does society frown upon that too? 


B: Blurbs don’t always state what kind of erotic content to expect, so sometimes you’re in for a surprise! To me, any erotica basically means sex in lots of detail, and this is where I rely heavily on Goodreads. I’ll see how other reviewers have shelved the book – some will mark it as erotica, and some will shelve it as ‘Steamy’ or ‘Hot’, that’s a flag for me. I know there’s going to be major sex/erotica in the book when I see that and I may not be in the mood for a book with a lot of the heavy stuff. That’s why I love Goodreads soooo much. I almost always know what I’m going into when I pick up a new book.

I honestly haven’t read any books where the female is the more dominant. I can’t even think of any off the top of my head. I know I’ve read novels where the female has a more dominant personality and may have some ‘take charge’ type sex scenes. I don’t really care to read about a dominant woman though. That’s just my preferences. 


R: It’s really interesting that you haven’t come across many books with a dominant female, Brandie. I wonder is that the publishers dictating to the market, or the market dictating to the publishers… 


J: With how societal perception plays into gender roles, I was curious about narratives that broke the rules of how “men cannot be weak”, “women should be submissive”, or any variant in between. While these ideas might not be best-selling material, I find it silly to dismiss them as unworthy of being written about. I’m sure there are stories to be told concerning dominant women, or men being “submissive”, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to explore that. I’m curious as to how gender roles are depicted in QUILTBAG-oriented erotica. If any readers have delved into those narratives, I’d like to hear from you!


R: One thing you touched on, J, is the role of females in erotica and society’s perception. Something that gets to me is the outcry that it’s anti-feminist – I’m not sure if people actually believe that it is anti-feminist, or if that’s just the label they pin on it because feminism is going through a boom in popularity. To me, it’s more about exploring fantasies. Also, separately, when it comes to books that do depict unhealthy relationships, I’m sure many of us can actually relate to it, because at one point or another we have been in one, or have a friend or family member who has – unhealthy relationships do actually exist and just because reading about them is uncomfortable, it doesn’t make reading about them “wrong”, or mean that we should avoid it. I think in many ways it can actually be beneficial. 


B: Agreed. I read whatever I’m in the mood for, and sometimes my mood calls for something smutty and erotic. It’s not the only thing I read and it doesn’t define me. I love a variety of genres – that’s what is so great about being bookish! There is something for everyone. Just because you may not like a certain genre or type of book, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong for others to enjoy it. 


J: I understand the purpose of erotica in fiction but it’s not something I’d move mountains to read about. If there are graphic sex scenes in the novel I’m reading, then yeah, I’ll read it. With the market for the romance genre being predominantly female, it’s understandable for most narratives to center around a female POV. That being said, it’s not that guys don’t have options to read erotic fiction; it’s that the available options aren’t stories that necessarily pique our interest considering the nature of the story itself. But at the end of it all, everyone ought to enjoy whatever feeds their happiness. 


R: Well said! And big thanks to Brandie for joining us for this discussion!

(S)He Said: We’s like to know what you think! How do you feel about erotic fiction? Do you love it? Shy away from it? Let us know in the comments!

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About Rachel

Avid reader & book blogger. Lover of Business. A fan of drinks & dancing. Ever optimistic. Feminist.

20 Responses

  1. Good discussion! The only actual erotic fiction I’ve read is the Fifty Shades trilogy. Looking back, I’m not sure how I was able to finish the books at all. Aside from the writing being bad, the whole abuse and control thing is definitely something that bugged me. I feel like there are two sides to the Fifty Shades debate and I’m definitely on the side that sees it as abuse. After all, regardless of if Ana agreed to the whole thing, she was a virgin who got somehow involved in a strict (unrealistic) BDSM contract as her first sexual experience. There are too many examples of times where she wanted him to stop, thought he was too controlling, and thought that the BDSM thing wasn’t for her.. and he made her keep going. He stalked her, controlled everything from the way she dressed to what she ate, and didn’t stop when she said No. I have no problem with reading erotica and BDSM (or the people in that community), but I think that books are not just books. There’s so much cultural impact that certain books have on people. There have been so many deaths, murders, and accidents from people trying the Fifty Shades “style” of BDSM.. people are obviously reading this as more than just a book for entertainment purposes if they’re trying to act it out themselves. Sorry if this was ranty or goes against a lot of what was said here, but I think it’s a good discussion to open up! I can definitely see the side that says you can explore fantasies in books or different relationship dynamics, but so much of this was unhealthy (in my opinion) and think it does go against feminism in a lot of ways. Again, just my opinion. Great topic ❤

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  2. I love 50 Shades! I read all three of those books in a week and I wanted moremoremore. I certainly see where the controversy comes in; there is a fine line to be walked here. On the one hand people are passionately defending the consensual element of the story here, Ana does consent to everything that is done to her in the book (I’m only going to talk about the first book for the purposes of this conversation). She certainly gives her consent plenty of times and when she is uncomfortable with something she refuses to do it. However, there are instances where she is unaware of her comfort level with something, so she agrees to try it and then learns that she is, in fact, not okay with it. That’s called making an informed decision though, still not abuse. For me, where I see “abuse” is more in the tone and the controlling nature of Mr. Grey’s demands (which he typically refers to as desires). And most notably (again, in my opinion) is the cyclic abuse; Christian Grey who was once the abused has become the abuser. I feel though, that while Christian was certainly abused both physically and mentally, Ana was not. Ana was given a choice, and then provided with ample time and resources to educate herself on the decision at hand. Christian was a child. Ana is an adult. I think this is crucial to informed opinion making on the matter. Also, I know that the book has sparked an uproar of complaints from the BDSM community, regarding the legitimacy of the BDSM taking place in the story. I can’t say much to this, as I am not very well versed on the topic. However, I am pretty curious to see how the franchise does in a mainstream market. I predict it’s money maker, but becomes quite taboo (like admitting that you like Twilight).

    PS: If you want to check out some more erotica I suggest The Sleeping Beauty books (trilogy I believe) by Anne Rice. But fair warning, it’s nothing like 50 Shades.

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      1. I haven’t hear of anything about Anne Rice and the blogging community! I’m super curious about it now, though. I’ve been a fan of Anne Rice since the 90s and I met her a couple years ago and she was lovely. What’s going on?

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      2. Yeah, I’m not typically the kind to be able to make that separation and it always bums me out when I find out an artist/author/celebrity I admire has said or done something massively douchey.

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