Friday, August 27, 2010

My Year of Reading Erotica

The PensFatales welcome Michelle Wiener, who is a freelance writer and editor, which is another way of saying she spends a lot of time online writing silly things on Twitter. She blogs about TV and other stuff here. She reviews mysteries and thrillers for RT Book Reviews, and she is THRILLED to be a guest on Pens Fatales.

<---- This is what she looks like when she reads the Internet.

Up until about a month ago, the tagline to my Facebook profile read simply, "I review porn." It wasn't entirely accurate, more about me trying to be flip than a factual description. What I was really doing was reading and reviewing erotic fiction.

It wasn’t something I’d set out to do. To be honest, my erotica frame of reference was limited to Ana├»s Nin and a handful of stories submitted to that my long-distance boyfriend in college would email to me, which tended toward the "hot babysitter deflowers her 13-year-old charge" ilk. (I think he thought he was keeping the spark alive? Sort of endearing, but mostly missing the mark. By a lot.) (Also yes, I am that old.) (And nerdy.)

But I was about to lose my full-time job, needed something to keep me busy, and wanted to do something both creatively generative and challenging.

It was challenging. I think it must be very hard to write sex scenes, let alone scene after scene in book after book, and have them be always fresh and exciting and, you know, sexy. Who am I to judge an author or her readers on their proclivities, acts and language for such a deeply personal thing? Though I admit, I soon found myself compiling a list of words that completely turned me off. I won’t list them all here, but I will say that I never want to see a woman’s genitals referred to as a “crevice” again. I don’t want to judge! It may work for you! I just prefer the simple and obvious terms for sexy parts. (But not too clinical! “Labia” doesn’t work for me either.)

What disturbed me more than unfortunate language choices was a common theme I discovered in erotic fiction: female characters who are somehow unable or unwilling to own their sexual desires. They're either too shy, or uptight, or inexperienced, or repulsed-but-secretly-curious by practices they think (or think they should think) are disgusting. And what they need is the right man to show them the way.

I am not talking about one woman's sexual awakening or journey of sexual discovery. I'm talking about stories in which the ostensible hero of the story cajoles, coerces, or commands the heroine to sexually perform in a way that makes her uncomfortable at first . . . until she realizes that this is what she needed all along.

It's too close to "she said she didn’t want it, but she did" for my comfort. Worse are the stories in which the heroine is under the influence of some sort of mood-altering aphrodisiac drug while she has mind-blowing sex – sometimes without even knowing she’s been drugged. I don’t need to explain why this is disturbing. At the very least, how satisfying can the sex be, really, if she’s not fully present for it?

What bothers me is that these stories perpetuate the idea that women do not have sexual desires of their own. This is an old, old, stubbornly persistent idea. It's at the heart of slut-shaming. It’s used to justify sexual assault. Again, I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s particular kink – I’m down with fantasies of seduction and submission, though I think there’s a line that should be honored between seduction and force, even in fiction -- and I truly don’t want to insult anyone, but frankly – I’m insulted by these stories. They’re not sexy; they’re depressing.

And it got to a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore (pardon the pun; it was intentional). I really, really want to like the books I read. I want to lose myself completely in another world and meet interesting people and get caught up in their lives, and then I want to tell everyone I know how great the book I just read was. And I was having an increasingly difficult time separating my politics from my professional reaction, and I couldn’t very well write 750-word treatises for each book that offended me. I had to admit that erotica wasn’t my thing.

Which is not to say that I didn’t like any of the erotic novels I reviewed. I raved about quite a few of them. I learned that I prefer romance novels with spicy bits more than erotic novels with romantic bits, and that I prefer mystery novels to almost any other genre. So I’m reviewing thrillers and mysteries and crime novels now -- my mom says, "You're still reading about body parts, it's just that they're on dead people now" -- and I'm happier.

The fact that so many of them feature whipsmart female detectives who don't take no guff from nobody probably has A LOT to do with that.


Sophie Littlefield said...

welcome, Michelle, and I'm so glad you're here! Loved your post and it reflects attitudes I've been slowly coming around to myself. I also LOVE your attitude (" I don’t want to judge! It may work for you!") and the spirit in which you share it.

Also, that's a heck of a great photo.:)

Rachael Herron said...

Isn't that a great photo, Sophie? I love that one. Michelle, I'm so glad you're here!

L.G.C. Smith said...

Michelle, thanks for blogging for us. You bring up some of the touchy issues about erotica. It can be tough when what floats someone else's boat goes against our own deeply held views of the world. Especially knowing that the very things that gall you can actually empower another reader. So glad you found your way to reviewing books you enjoy more. That is so sane. I'm a big fan of sanity -- in real life, though not necessarily fiction.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Hi Michelle, and welcome to the Pens! I loved this article -- like LGC said, you touched on some of the more difficult issues in this genre. I really appreciate your thoughts on the "slut-shaming" nature of our culture--and our literature--not recognizing that women have their own sexual desires. Oh, and I LOVE that you found your way to dead body parts ;-)