The Erotic Writer’s Dilemma

~ The Erotic Writer’s Dilemma ~

I remember reading the essay of an African American woman filming bondage. Given the history of race in America, she considered not doing the scene; but her answer was to do it and by doing it declare ownership of her sexuality, of bondage – its symbolism – and ultimately the freedom to express herself.

1 out of every 6 women, according to the Rape Crisis Center, will be raped or the victim of attempted rape. Women are kidnapped, held against their will, and raped by their captors for years on end. But what prompted this post was Daesh’s [the al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria] release of a pamphlet detailing what’s considered permissible (admittedly Quran-approved) treatment of female sex slaves — women and pre-pubescent girls.

Daesh’s treatment of girls and women is horrific.

How can an author write about “slavegirls”, sex slaves, non-consensual sex, or bondage of any kind, given the reality of rape and sexual slavery? Is writing about non-consensual sex an endorsement of rape? Is the fantasy of the master and slavegirl an endorsement of forced sex, prostitution, and sexual exploitation?

If authors are to continue writing erotica, shouldn’t these questions be confronted?

My own answer, first and foremost, is that good erotica, like good writing in any genre, is an art form. And just as in any artistic genre, there are good, bad and great artists. The objection may be made that extremely offensive work is too often excused as “art”, but my answer would be that just because someone claims their work is art doesn’t make it good art. In other words, the question shouldn’t be whether someone’s claims to producing art are valid, but whether their art is good or bad.

The latter question is still a subjective one, but a better and more productive one. There’s lots of pedophilia-themed erotica on the web, for example, and calling it art doesn’t therefore make it immune from criticism or excuse the author. The accusation that some erotica does endorse pedophilia or rape might, in fact, be a fair one. How is it written? Are the aims solely prurient or does the pedophilia serve a more expansive vision? Is it a three page description of sex with a nine year old by Anonymous, or is it Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita?

Second, my answer would be that the best erotica is symbolic, metaphoric, and archetypal. Erotica is, by in large (if not wholly), about imaginary events. When we read about non-consensual sex (as opposed to the not-consensual sex of rape), we imagine ourselves not just as the dominant character, but also as the submissive. For some, that is, the genre of non-consensual sex symbolizes (or serves as a metaphor for) our desire to express our sexual thirst and aggressiveness without fear of rejection, harm, or judgment. For others, conversely, the genre expresses our desire to be freed from responsibility. We give ourselves wholly over to another’s sexual desire for us without risk of rejection, harm, or judgment. We have no responsibility but to be available. Stories of non-consensual sex allow us to experience these desires and emotions in the context of literature. They are, in the Aristotelian sense perhaps, cathartic. We don’t enjoy Shakespeare’s Richard III because we want to be sociopathic killers and sexual predators, but because he, and all the other characters, serve as cathartic archetypes through which we can safely explore and understand our humanity. Erotica, at its best, serves the same function. It is a place where we can safely explore and understand our human sexuality. A story in which we explore our sexuality in the guise of the master and the “slavegirl” has as little to do with Daesh as Daesh with Yeats’s Leda and the Swan or all the many paintings portraying the mythological rape. Daesh, after all, would destroy any such paintings and would surely condemn both author and painter to death.

Lastly, the analogy of the opening paragraph may be a fraught one, but erotica has always been the final test of free speech and freedom of expression. In a sense, ceding erotica to its critics (who have from time to time argued that erotica endorses pedophilia, sexual abuse, predation, and rape) is tantamount to ceding ownership of our sexuality to the sociopathy and psychopathology of a few. There is no contradiction in the erotic author’s condemnation of pedophilia, sexual abuse, predation and rape even as he or she explores these facets of human sexuality in his or her own writing.

Shakespeare didn’t endorse murder when he created Macbeth. Steven King didn’t condone psychopathy when he wrote The Shining. Michelangelo didn’t endorse rape, let alone Zoophilia, when he portrayed Leda and the Swan. Nabokov didn’t condone pedophilia when he wrote Lolita. To suggest the same, ipso facto, is to fundamentally misunderstand art and literature and the reason we read and write.  The assertion, in fact, allies the critic with the iconoclastic and book-burning fundamentalist.

William Crimson • December 15 2014

Latest Comments

  1. vanillamom says:

    If I could stand up and clap in a room where everyone hears this same message, I’d be the first to rise to my feet.

    Thank you for expressing so eloquently that which you know I’ve struggled with oft myself. Writing erotica is NOT condoning, or giving permission, for these acts to be performed upon myself or others just because I write about rape, or non consensual sex acts.

    Fantasy, in all it’s myriad forms, is the act of giving vent to thought–not the wish for thought to become reality.

    nilla

    • willcrimson says:

      Thanks Nilla, I’m glad I’m not the only one. :-)

      I didn’t even mention Bill Cosby, but am now — revealed to be a complete sociopath in my opinion.

      Manitas de Plata just died, said to have fathered upwards of 28 children. He died penniless, apparently, having spent all his money on “roulette, fancy cars, going out and beautiful women.” Some part of me wishes that had been my life. That’s the way to have women — and beautiful women. Play beautiful music for them, like no man alive. Play beautiful music for them and spend money on them until they can’t help it, but walk away carrying one of your children. =) Right, says the erotic writer, just keep imagining… But maybe that’s the way life should be, you think? For the man and the women, maybe? It’s not that I admire him above the man who lives with and loves one woman his whole life long, and who adores her as much as she adores him, but if one’s going to be a womanizer, maybe de Plata did it right. He lived life big and was loved for it — or at least that’s what I read. Asked if he was happily married, he answered: “Every night.”

      Damn.

    • vanillamom says:

      Yeah…I’ve been dealing with my own feelings about that, too. I mean…the Coz, man….feeling shattered/disallusioned bigtime about that.

      And who wouldn’t want what dePlata did? “happily married, everynight?” yes.

      And here I am in a 35+ year relationship….lol…oh, the oxymoron of *that*….

      nilla

  2. Anonymous says:

    An honest and soul-searching discussion of a very trying subject — which is to say, sickening, deeply troubling. Oscar Wilde wrote of the Critic As Artist, in the course of which he spoke of the artist as existing outside moral strictures and structures, not just free to explore but under an obligation to do so. How else are we to look into the face, the heart, of the faceless and the heartless, to describe and expose to the light the dark and indescribable, but through art? I think of such things too whenever I come across someone who proudly proclaims they “only read non-fiction/biography/history”, and I think, what a narrow and unexamining view of the world, of existence. I applaud you for taking on those differentiations here, and being able to look into that abyss with the artists’ eye.

    • willcrimson says:

      Well, let’s get right to the point: The observation has to be made that Daesh’s pamphlet could have been (and has been in one form or another) the “back story” of any number of erotic stories and could have been written by an erotic writer. Again: In the context of erotica, Daesh’s guidelines — slavegirl as property — has been and will continue to be the stuff of erotic stories. Let’s be honest about that. Denying it, I think, is nothing less than that — denial. For example: Anne Rice’s Beauty Trilogy: bondage, “rape”, non-consensual sex, slavery, girls as sex-merchandise to be bought and traded, etc…

      To make an analogy though, erotica is to reality what Chess, or Go, or any game of war is to the reality of war. The rules and terminology may be the same, but one is a game, a book, a play, or movie, meant for enjoyment and to stimulate our imagination. We share and cooperate when we read and write erotica. Despite what some might assert, the best erotica, like the best literature, is constructive. Erotica, in my opinion, has to be predicated on the belief that all readers, men or women, come to it as equals. And I think it fails when it’s not written in that spirit. D.H Lawrence’s poem Figs (read Tom o’Bedlam’s comments), beautiful and erotic though it may be, fails, I think, because it’s premised on the idea that men and women can’t or shouldn’t equally partake in the erotic life.

  3. Rudy says:

    Will, I’m so glad you wrote this essay. And I’m so impressed with your thoughtfulness, intellectual honesty, and your open heart. Yes, how do we indulge in fantasy of bondage when our news media is now full of horror stories of sex slavery, both in the US and abroad? But you have courageously addressed the question. And so eloquently. I knew you to be a wonderful erotic writer. But this piece moves me to stand up along side vanillamom and applaud – not with delight, but with great respect. Your insight into the human psyche in matters of sex is impressive, and I say that as a licensed mental health professional. Truly, you artists sometimes are far ahead of the social scientists. So much of what passes for sexuality counseling is based upon a neurotic need for absolute safety from any fear or embarrassment. The is no invitation to explore the depths of the human experience of sexual encounter. It takes courage to explore where others fear or condemn. And it takes more courage to write bondage erotica when it is so easy to be labeled as evil. Yes, there is plenty of inappropriate video and writing in the erotic theme. Much of it is harmful. Yet to explore the realm of our animal passions is to allow us to experience the divine. We, the human animals, playing our bodies and the bodies of our lovers, like jazz musicians – this makes us truly human.
    Thank you, Will, for speaking up on this critical issue.

    Rudy

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