Another Rant From LLB About Sexuality

(October 2000)

See Erotica/Romantica writer Emma Holly's follow-up to this rant

My friend and co-columnist Robin Uncapher recently sent me a link to an erotic short story she'd found on the Internet and asked for my thoughts on it. The story had quite disturbed Robin, who'd been hesitant to send me the link - she was concerned I'd think she was a "perv" for even reading the story and suggesting it to me. Always game to try new things, I read the portion of the story that was online - it was apparently never finished - and emailed Robin that I would have liked to have finished it. She responded again, asking for my thoughts in greater detail and I wrote back to her saying that "I think erotica works for me on an unconscious level. Can we leave it at that?"

Being the good friend that she is, she was willing to do just that, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I'd kind of left her in the lurch. She truly wanted to engage me in a dialogue about this disturbing story. Why couldn't I do that? I'm a fairly open, modern person, with liberal ideas concerning sexuality, after all, so why did thinking and then talking about this story bother me? The story in question was very sexual and concerned a happily married and loving couple who decided to act on the husband's fantasy of bringing a third person (at least) into their sexual relationship. In graphic detail, we were brought into this fantasy come to life, which included male/female sex, male/male sex, oral sex, vaginal sex, anal sex, and, when the story cut off, we were about to be treated to some group action.

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After thinking about it for a day or so, I decided that not talking about this with Robin would be the wrong thing to do, so I got in touch with her and we started to talk about it. I told Robin that though the story included acts I would not engage in personally, it had aroused me. She said she had also been aroused. Then I talked about the types of erotica I'd read in the past - admittedly my list was fairly short and included, in part, Anne Rice's S&M-laden Sleeping Beauty trilogy and Exit to Eden, a Black Lace novel, a gay vampire erotic novel that I had bought my mistake featuring a gay vampire who could be either female or male, and a couple of the Secrets anthologies put out by Red Sage Press.

I told Robin that S&M and homosexual sex are not part of my personal sexual repertoire, but that, oddly enough, I can be stimulated by reading about them. I don't think this arousal is the same as apparently men experience when they fantasize about watching two women having sex with each other (what's that all about anyway?), but I don't know for sure, and maybe it is the same but I'm too embarrassed to admit it. Robin and I talked about that as well, but we decided the embarrassment wasn't truly the issue in this instance - something about this story in particular had disturbed us. I mentioned that, in the other erotica I'd read, the sex had never involved married people being intimate outside their marriages - in the straight erotica, there were really no love relationships at all, and in the "romantic" erotica, the sex lead to "love" relationships.

In this story, by contrast, not only did this happily married couple bring an outsider into their marriage bed, but this happily married couple were apparently a couple in love. As erotic as the graphic events as described might have been, this couple, at the husband's instigation, violated the sanctity of their marriage and "cheated" on each other, on purpose, in front of each other.

At this point, Robin jumped in and said I was on to something. The more we talked about it, the more an idea came to me about the difference between romance novel love scenes and erotica, even erotic romance like the Secrets anthologies. We're going to be posting a review in a few weeks for the 6th volume of Secrets. I did not write the review because I don't find erotic romance stimulating. The reviewer who did read the book enjoyed it; she apparently enjoys erotic romance. Why don't I? After all, I love really hot love scenes as written by Linda Howard and Elizabeth Lowell, the latter of whom has written some love scenes that go on for pages and pages, and, in essence, feature many of the same types of sexual activities. And, since I love romance novel love scenes but don't enjoy erotic romance, why do I find straight erotica more stimulating than erotic romance? The answers to these questions helped me get back to that disturbing short story.

When I've looked at erotic romance, I find myself laughing more often than not by the prose and the, what I find, outlandish premises for the stories. While some of the descriptions are graphic as opposed to euphemistic, the tones for these books verge on melodrama to me. While the body parts might be described with "real" terms, they might as well be talking about moistening petals and throbbing manroots. On the other hand, straight erotica, and the "fantasy" erotica like Anne Rice had written, doesn't come across the same way; instead of laughing at the prose, it works as I assume it is supposed to work. It arouses me.

Romance novel love scenes, when they work for me, work in much the same way, only better, because they involve two people who love one another. I'll admit that I'm equally likely to jump my husband after reading a wonderful romance novel love scene as I am after reading straight erotica, but I'm much more satisfied after reading an entire romance novel because, of course, the novel is so much more than a few pages of exciting lovemaking.

Back to our disturbing story now, and why it was disturbing. I read romance novels because I enjoy reading about the coming together of two people in love. The love scenes are a wonderful bonus. I don't enjoy erotic romance because while love scenes are a wonderful bonus to a romance, an entire romance focused on body parts isn't what I'm looking for. And while I can, on occasion, separate my heart from my "nether regions" to enjoy straight erotica, I can't violate my heart by reading a story that, were it taken to its real conclusion, would necessarily involve the break-up of a loving marriage. In the end, that's what was so disturbing about the story.

Strangely enough, Monday night on television there was an episode of a new sit-com in which Gary Collins - Mr. Straight himself - guested. He played against type and was, along with his wife on the show, a swinger looking for other couples to swing with. Watching that show reminded me of The Ice Storm, a very dark film from a few years ago that I had mentioned to Robin during our recent discussion. That film was set in the 1970's and featured, among other things, upper-middle class couples involved in drug and sexual experimentation. One scene showed a wife-swapping party in which everyone threw their car keys into a bowl and later, whoever drew a key out of the bowl would go off with the key's owner and have sex.

Although the husbands and wives in The Ice Storm were not in love with each other in the film, watching their casual infidelity and this community's loss of innocence disturbed me in much the same way as I was disturbed by the short story Robin shared with me.

Another book that had a profoundly disturbing influence upon me was 9 1/2 Weeks, which I read years ago. I identified with the "heroine," whom I think struggled with the body/heart separation I alluded to earlier. A fantasy when it's contained in your mind is not a dangerous thing; when it's lived out, it can violate things you hold sacred, like self-esteem or fidelity.

For me, sex and romance go hand in hand, an altogether female perspective, from what I understand. Unadulterated sexuality may be stimulating, but in the end, it leaves me unsatisfied. I'm unsatisfied in a different respect from sexuality that tries to speak to women through the traditional male format of erotica. However, when fairly raw sexuality is presented within the context of a romance and is not the entire focus of that romance, I'm altogether satisfied both in body and soul.

I'm just the sort of person who tries to confront head-on those things that make me feel uncomfortable because of the community-building aspect I've tried so hard to engender here at AAR. If talking about these things makes me feel uncomfortable, chances are they make other readers feel uncomfortable. So, at the risk of all being uncomfortable together, it's worth exploring these feelings so that we end up not feeling uncomfortable at all. So, let's hear from some of my colleagues here at AAR and then let's hear from you.

Robin:
This discussion is very interesting me for a number of reasons. The first is that, in general, I am neither particularly interested, nor particularly embarrassed while talking about erotica. Maybe I have read the wrong erotica but much of what I came across had me laughing, not cringing with embarrassment. Why? Because, generally speaking stories about three-somes, beastiality and domination seem so unreal to me that they don’t touch me.

The story I sent to Laurie was one that did embarrass me and it wasn’t the subject matter that did it. Had the story been a pornographic romp made up of comic book characters doing silly things I would have passed it by — or maybe sent it to her so she could share in the laugh. But what embarrassed me about this story was that it touched me. The characters seemed like real people. The husband was handsome, charming, in love with his wife and seemingly normal. The wife was funny, smart and in love with her husband. In fact I think it is the husband’s behavior that really hit me. This is a story about a man who is driven by a sexual compulsion that is outside his ability to control. It is scary. But, on the other hand, it made sense to me. Who would do these things if they weren’t in some ways, out of control.

Which gets us back to romance. The wonderful thing about romance I think is that it is a place where the reader can experience the feeling of a character being out of control (for what is love and passion but that?) while also feeling wonderfully good about what she is reading. I never feel strange about discussing the most graphic romance. This was certainly an interesting experience.

Lori-Anne:
I started on Erotica with Anais Nin - Little Birds and Delta of Venus. I admit to being fascinated by those books. So I dug around and found a few other erotic stories. I read through some anthologies, even read the Anne Rice novels you mentioned. I found the trilogy a bit disturbing but I admit to being aroused by it as well. It was nothing I actually wanted to engage in, but I would be lying if I said I didn't go "oooh...now that is interesting..." while reading it. I also remember being really underimpressed with Exit to Eden, but also being fascinated by it to a certain extent. Because of that ending, does that one qualify as romantic erotica?

I can't recall reading any where the couple was married, that might have happened in Anais, but it's been years since I have read anything but her journals. I'm pretty much open to reading erotica and I do enjoy it but I don't read it a lot. I'm not sure why - maybe because I don't want to read bad erotica and it's hell getting people to open up and give you decent suggestions.

I admit, a year or so ago...I was reading a lot of fan fiction from Highlander and I did read a lot of the erotic stories and enjoyed some but found some lacking as well. Either the sex was just stupid or the story and the sex didn't mesh well together. But I still remember the ones I thought were well done.

I think people do have a tough time admitting that they read or even like erotica. I wonder if it's because in people's minds that it's tied up with porn, which no one wants to admit liking. So, erotica is taboo to admit to.

Ellen:
My feelings toward erotica are mixed. I can't stand mechanical descriptions of couplings - I simply must have a large helping of love and (yes) romance in it. There are a few things that I don't like at all: Most bondage scenes (although it depends on the skill of the writer), I don't like multiple partners at all and any kind of pain is an immediate turn-off (descriptions of red glowing bottoms are ick). I hate the Master/Slave thing in the extreme. On the other hand - instant attraction between two people is a big turn-on. Linda Howard did a great short story on this a few years ago. Most of the stories in the Secrets anthologies have enough of the romance and caring aspect that I find myself liking them, although I have found several stories in each anthology that are just plain terrible.

Teresa:
I can enjoy a wide range of levels of sexual explicitness in romance, and do enjoy straight erotica from time to time. But there are definitely things that turn me off and disturb me, and I definitely don't like purple prose. I think you're right that purple prose turns up more often in erotic romance as opposed to straight erotica and I usually don't like it when it does.

I was conversing with Ellen about some of the stories in earlier Secrets volumes, and we both agreed that we loved Roarke's Prisoner by Angela Knight in the second volumne. Thing is, the story contained some serious bondange, and yet this didn't bother either of us at all. Contrast that to a different stroy in the same anthology which involved bondage that neither of us appreciated, and both found offensive. That's what's so interesting about erotica. Just as soon as I think to myself, "I don't like (insert perversion here)" I'll read some well-written story and may have to change my mind. Sometimes bondage really bothers me, and other times I think it's really exciting.

The same thing happened when I read Love's Prisoner by MaryJanice Davidson in the upcoming Secrets 6, which I reviewed. Let me be clear that generally speaking, I can't abide rape in romance or erotica. It's not erotic, it's revolting. On rare occasions in romance it can be appropriate as a traumatizing event that the hero and heroine have to work through and the hero has to do some serious repentance and groveling to be forgiven for, but only very talented authors can get away with that. But as erotica? I think some authors try to exploit the subconscious "rape fantasy" that women are supposed to have that I don't even pretend to understand, or necessarily believe in. Usually this just stimulates my "ugh" factor. But Love's Prisoner has a rape scene in the very first pages which completely blew me away. I thought that somehow the rape scene worked. Completely. (I would be very interested to hear what other readers think of this story when it comes out. Am I alone on this one?) True, it was non-violent, and even becomes quasi-consensual by the end and the heroine does enjoy herself, but it is still unequivocally a rape.

The only thing I can think that can help explain my reaction is that the whole episode was grounded in romance. I don't think we're expected to find this scene arousing because of the rape, but because the hero can't help himself - his body knows that he has found his one true mate and he is as helpless to stop what is happening as the heroine is (this is an alternate reality story). This unstoppable sexual reaction to finding one's mate is also what makes Linda Howard's scenes so fulfilling. In these cases it's the blend of romance and erotica that proves so successful.

Candy:
I admit that when I read erotica, I do get aroused by a variety of situations that I probably wouldn't find very attractive in real life, such as group sex and adulterous sex (cheating, to me, is A Very, Very, very Bad Thing To Do). I think the part of my brain that insists on a modicum of psychological realism and the part that identifies with the characters in a book turn off when I read erotica. I just go along with the fantasy of the moment, unless something occurs that I, personally, find completely repugnant (like somebody being brutally raped, or pedophilia).

Reading erotica is almost a voyeuristic experience for me. My body is there and my eyes are there but not much else is, if you get what I mean. My heart isn't involved the way it is when I read any other kind of fiction. I don't know whether I'm the only person who can adopt such a radically different mindset just for one genre, but for what it's worth I think it's partly why I enjoy all the different kinds of sex I encounter while reading erotica, and why I'm not disturbed unless confronted by a personal bugaboo. Occasionally I do stop and think "Girl, this is sick," such as when I encountered the part involving the cat in Beauty's Punishment (one of Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty titles), but as some of you have remarked, arousal underlies the squeamishness.

Actually, now that I've thought about it more, I think the things that make me really squeamish in erotica are the scenarios that show somebody being victimized. That's why reading about pedophilia and rape bother me but encountering adultery and group sex don't. In the first two, someone is powerless and being subjugated against their will, their bodies invaded by an outside force. The latter situations usually involve consenting adults. S&M also doesn't bother me much, although I don't really get spanking stories (I keep thinking "Oooooowwwwww"), but BDSM involves some level of voluntary involvement on all parties, even the bottoms (especially the bottoms). I think the presence of a truly reluctant, helpless victim jars me out of the disassociation I need to enjoy erotica and I begin identifying with the victim.

Rebecca:
I am a prude, I guess. At least when it comes to sex, or even reading about sex. I have read erotica - heck, I even own some, if you can call anything by Joan Elizabeth Lloyd erotica. I just don't get it. It is titillating, yes, and arousing, and yet it is cold, clinical, unfeeling, and very one-dimensional. Sex to me is such a special thing. An intimate thing. A thing to be shared between two people who care about each other, and something as well that comes with loads of risks. I can't suspend my disbelief enough to comfortably read erotica without thinking every single person involved is an absolute irresponsible idiot, due to the risks of unprotected, frequent, and various sex acts (even considering how one dimensional these characters usually are). Not that I haven't pulled out the occasional Penthouse letter (woo woo - arousal and a good laugh!), because it is titillating, and short. Anything else is too much, and the titillation wears off very quickly for me.

Romances with explicit sex, on the other hand, work for me on a whole different level - I find them to be very sexy, especially if I have grown to really like the people involved in the story. Sex in a well written romance takes the act beyond the nuts and bolts itch scratching stuff of erotica and into something much more intimate and emotionally involving. And ultimately, satisfying.

Christine:
When I was fourteen (before movie theaters started carding) me and a friend stumbled into a movie called 9 1/2 Weeks. Neither of us had any experience with erotica, I remember being giddy with the illicitness of it all. This was not the teen sex comedy we were used to, this was an adult movie in every sense of the word. We read the book soon after as well as The Story Of O.

I couldn't fully understand these stories or their effect on me back then but when Laurie brought up erotica, I had to revisit my experience. The men in the stories were handsome, successful and smooth but they were also dominating control freaks. They persuaded the women to do things against their nature. It began with being tied up and sex in public places and descended into abuse and group sex. The women fought with their heads and hearts, but they, and I were unable to control or resist their physical responses.

I know what you're thinking - these women should have gotten a grip and ran. Logically I know that's right. But there is that basic animal id part of me that finds certain scenarios, including domination, appealing. It's difficult to admit that without feeling depraved or asking myself how moral can I really be? If I suspend the values that I live by for five minutes to enjoy a piece of erotica,is that okay? As long as I keep my dark side between the pages of a book, I think so.

Blythe:
I may possibly be the only AAR reviewer who hasn't really read erotica. My one experience with anything close to it was Robin Schone's The Lover, a book most people might characterize as a burning romance. To me this book was not romantic; the romance was merely a pretense, or an excuse for stringing a series of explicit sex scenes together. As for the sex scenes themselves, I was alternately amused and disgusted by them.

I don't mind hot love scenes or even sexy talk - there is a scene in Nora Roberts' Daring to Dream in which the hero and heroine more or less have phone sex. But for me to enjoy it there must be an emotional component, or the promise of one. (When I mentioned this to my husband just now, his response was, "It's always about the destination for you, isn't it? You're not one to enjoy the journey for its own sake.") I find explicit, purposeless sex to be offensive and often repulsive, and I have no desire to read anything labeled erotica - ever. Let me be clear in stating that I don't have a problem with the existence of erotica; I know many people enjoy it, and there's nothing wrong with that. Still, I have always known that this sort of writing is just not for me.

Anthony:
I wonder if my views are a from a bit different perspective, but we'll see. I am a gay male and I love reading romance novels. Now, many people, especially my significant other, don't understand that. It's not just that they are romance novels (heaven forbid), but they are straight romance novels. What could I possibly find sexy or sensual about reading explicit sex scenes between a man and a woman? I don't know, but I do.

I can read romances and get just as intrigued and aroused as anyone else. Isn't getting swept up in the love and romance part of the fun? But sex isn't why I read romances. I read for the love story. I'm a romantic and I want to see two people fall in love. For now it has to be between a man and a woman because two people falling in love just doesn't seem to exist in gay literature.

As much as I enjoy my category romances and would never give them up, I would love to read a same sex romance involving two men that warm, romantic, engaging and sexy as the romances I read every month. Usually the fact that the men are gay and having gay sex is the crux of the book. But I want that to be an afterthought or not a thought at all. Why can't a same sex romance be treated the same as a heterosexual love story, just a matter of fact? I want a cute meet, sparkling dialouge, the rush of attraction, the painful conflict and all the rest that comes with romance, but I want it between just us fellas.

Most of the gay literature I come across are nothing more than pages and pages explicit and graphic sex (with no story to wrap around it) or coming out stories (I've done that already, thank you!) or they are about a bunch of urban gays who are witty beyond belief where the story is a series of punch lines (like Will and Grace in a book form). Yes, yes, there are some that claim to tell a love story, but with sex crammed (pardon the pun) into every chapter, there's little room for plot.

No one seems to want to write (or read) a cowboy/city slicker, secret baby (!), romantic adventure, romantic comedy, an erotic adventure or any other romance that is just about two guys instead of a straight couple. It's something I'd love to see happen, but I don't think it will. In truth, as an aspring writer, I'd like nothing more than to write one myself. But is there an audience for such an endevor? In both the straight and gay worlds, I'd say no.

Now, when it comes to erotica, whether straight or gay, it really doesn't appeal to me. I guess I'm kind of vanilla in that respect. I want any sex to be between the couple in question. I guess I'm a one on one kind of guy. Group sex, domination, bondage, rape and any sort of different sexual practices leave me cold and uninterested. I might check it out of curiousity, but it couldn't be part of my regular reading.

I read romance for the romance. The sex, steamy or not, is simply icing on the cake.

Anne M.:
One day, I was searching the Web for fan fiction about the TV show The Pretender. One of those sites included a link to a site that promised erotic stories about The Pretender. Wow! I went to that site so fast my mouse gave off a sonic boom. (I was glad to know I wasn't the only fan who lusted after Jared!)

The Jared story I read was interesting, but not hot enough. Then, I read a Highlander story on the site. Yes, I read it even though it included a warning that it was about male/male sex. (At least I'd found erotica that didn't demean women!) The story was dirty, though it didn't use a single vulgar term. Simply very suggestive dialogue. It was also hysterically funny - even though it was about non-consensual sex between men, it didn't take itself seriously. Anyway, I'll never look at Adrian Paul the same way again.

That was my introduction to slash fiction. I'd heard of it before, but I'd never had a chance to read it. When I found those stories, I plunged right in, blushing all the way. I followed the Highlander story up with one about an orgy between characters from The Highlander, X-Files, and The Pretender.

Slash fiction is erotic fan fiction that portrays sexual relationships between same-sex characters from popular TV shows and movies. Most often, the sex scenes involve sex between straight male characters, although some stories (such as most of the Xena stories) have a lesbian content instead. By the way, most slash fiction, even that about gay male sex, is written by women. Maybe they like the lure of the forbidden.

In the past, most slash fiction was published only in fan magazines with a very small circulation. Now, thanks to the web, consenting adults over the world can find (and publish) erotic fan fiction about their favorite shows. It all started with stories about Kirk and Spock. Now, you can find slash fiction about shows ranging from Due South to The Sentinel, from Xena to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The pairings range from the sublime to the ridiculous. (When you start looking for slash fiction, you'll find yourself saying things like, "You mean there's Thundercats slash?!")

So. What about the quality of the fiction? Slash fiction is a "labor of love," so while the writers' hearts are in the right place, most stories don't go through an editor. Also, while there are some gems, there are also plenty of lumps of coal.

One advantage to slash fiction is that it usually has a plot. Some slash stories are long, involved adventures about your favorite characters, interspersed by hot sex. One disadvantage might be that many slash writers like to explore the dark side. The very dark side. Characters, even the ones you like, are often raped, tortured, and even killed. While this can lead to some great stories, it can also cross the line to the Ick Factor, in a big way. Luckily, many slash fiction sites include warnings so that you'll know what type of story you're about to read before you start it.

Want to dip your toe into the waters of slash fiction? Here are some great sites that link to slash fiction sites all over the net (the following are "jump" links that will open new windows in your browser):

Slash isn't your cup of tea? Don't worry, there is plenty of erotic fan fiction about heterosexual relationships. Mulder and Scully stories, anyone? How about American Gothic, with that baddest of bad boys, Sheriff Lucas Buck? You can find some links to adult fan fiction here at Adult Fan Fiction on the Net.

As you can see, we are a quite varied group of people with varying tastes. Some of us enjoy erotica, others occasionally read it but find it wanting and/or disturbing, and at least one of us doesn't enjoy it at all. We are interested in your thoughtful comments and questions on the erotica issue, how straight erotica seems different than romance erotica, and the differences between lovemaking in erotica and the lovemaking in romance novels. And, if you've been either disturbed or embarrassed by erotica you've read and can share your feelings about it, we'd like to hear from you.

This page is not meant to be salacious; it's here because Robin and I had an experience we both initially would have liked to keep under wraps because it embarrassed us. For that very reason, it seemed to be worth further exploration. FYI, Robin read the story about three weeks before being brave enough to share it with me. She's still thinking about it. As for me, I am too, and it's been a couple of weeks since I read it. And - no - we're not going to provide the URL. Neither of us is that brave.

Kensington, in recently signing Susan Johnson, has cornered the market on the most erotic of romance authors - they also publish Bertrice Small, Thea Devine, and Robin Schone. They are definitely carving out a new niche in erotic romance, and Harlequin is expanding its Blaze line as well. Your thoughts on this too are sought.

Readers Rant on Sexuality - Part I
Readers Rant on Sexuality - Part II
Readers Rant on Sexuality - Part III
Readers Rant on Sexuality - Part IV
A Writer Rants about Sexuality - Writer Robin Schone
Readers Rant on Sexuality - Part V (This page derived from comments based on Robin Schone's article)
Readers Rant on Sexuality - Part VI
A Writer Rants about Sexuality -Writer Emma Holly (This page derived from LLB's previous rant)



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