Madness, Shame and the Reason We Write on the Edge

by | March 13, 2012 | General | 6 comments

Today I ran across an artifact. It’s a letter written in 1985, by Charles Bukowski to the journalist Hans van den Broek, responding to the news that his book, ‘Tales of Ordinary Madness’ had been banned from a public library.

He wrote: “Censorship is the tool of those who have the need to hide actualities from themselves and from others. Their fear is only their inability to face what is real, and I can’t vent any anger against them. I only feel this appalling sadness. Somewhere, in their upbringing, they were shielded against the total facts of our existence. They were only taught to look one way when many ways exist.”

I’m surprised that no one, as yet, has written on the ERWA blog about PayPal’s pressure on eBook sellers to remove erotica containing taboo subjects such as incest, pseudo incest, bestiality, underaged sex and rape.

Finding this letter in the middle of what is happening today was strangely poignant. We are still in a world where people hide actualities from themselves. We don’t really like the fact that some people find fiction that disgusts us erotic.

It is very easy to look at those taboo labels and wonder who in their right might would ever find any of it erotic? Aren’t they sick, deviant, in need of psychological care? It turns out that over 40% of women have rape fantasies.  The average age of first sexual intercourse is 17.  One of the primary reasons why we find tales of werewolves so appealing is the eroticism of their beast-like nature.

When writers write on transgressive topics, especially when they look at them through an erotic lens, they are digging deep into the darker recesses of our subconscious.  They bring things into the light that may scare and fascinate us in equal measure.

I remember watching a film called ‘The Collector’ when I was young.  Based on the novel by John Fowles, it’s the story of an obsessive butterfly collector who decides to kidnap and keep a girl. I found it both incredibly frightening and inexplicably erotic. I was very ashamed by the fact that it turned me on. I was equally ashamed that I got so wet watching late night reruns of Fay Wray screaming and struggling in King Kong.

I admit it. I really did wonder how he was going to fit that enormous ape cock into little itty bitty Fay. Turned me on no end just thinking about it.

It wasn’t until I was a middle-aged woman that I decided to bring that shame into the light of day, or rather onto the page, and examine it.  I realized that I wasn’t equating my fantasies with the real world.  Having experienced real rape, I can assure you, it’s horrific.  And yet, although the words I used for the fantasies I had pertained to real acts in the real world, their fantasy counterparts were entirely different. Unrealistic, and yet full of semiotic meaning.

What I have concluded was that I had taken realities in the world around me and re-encoded them, appropriated them, retold the stories they way I wanted. And isn’t that, in a way, what a lot of fiction is about?

Murder mysteries aren’t celebrations of the act of murder. Intergalactic wars aren’t celebrations of holocausts.  Historical romances don’t revel in the awful realities of women’s lack of agency and power in the 18th Century. Fiction allows us to retell the things that fascinate and terrify us in ways we can absorb, be thrilled by, enjoy.

I can’t claim to really understand why fiction with edgier taboos turns some people on. I just know it does. As I writer, I am interested in examining why it does. How we take those horrors into ourselves and somehow reprocess them into other things. Words give me the freedom and the safety to get inside the phenomena and dissect it. I think we can learn very important things about ourselves when we write or read those dissections.

I think fiction is a good place to recognize our inexplicable strangeness, to acknowledge that we have unaccountable feelings and ideas.  And history has taught me that we are at our worst when we decide there are things we shouldn’t talk about.

Remittance Girl

Remittance Girl lives in exile in Ho Chi Minh City where she writes and grows orchids. Her erotic stories have been published in Cream: The Best of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association, Garden of the Perverse: Fairy Tales for Twisted Adults, and Lessons in Love: Erotic Interludes 3. Her stories have also appeared on the ERWA website.


  1. Ms T. Garden

    RG, once again your take on erotica reading and writing is provocative. Trying to understand the "why" of what we enjoy being intensely personal and often covered in the shame that society teaches us.

    I also want to thank you for your spearheading Banned Writers so that we can continue to explore sexuality in all of its literary depictions.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    Hello, RG,

    It takes considerable courage to admit that you're turned on by acts or scenarios that society labels as deviant. I tend to exploit that in many of my BDSM stories.

    However, I actually don't think that the "forbidden" nature of the topics PayPal is attacking matters much. I believe they'd like in fact to ban any explicit depiction of sexual acts designed to arouse – they've simply fastened on a couple of sub genres where they expect to find little public resistance. This is just the first step.

    I'm firmly convinced that if they get away with this, homoerotic fiction will be the next target. They'll get a good deal of support for that because so many people, especially men, find homosexuality threatening.

    On the other hand, the readership for M/M erotic romance among women is huge, so I'd expect major resistance from that quarter.

    By that time, however, it might be too late.

    (Oh, and my post this month will deal with another aspect of the PayPal controversy.)

  3. Remittance Girl

    Hello Ms. T, Thank you!

    I'm torn. Part of me agrees with you and sees this as the first step, a sort of trial run, to censoring a broader rage of 'problematic' literature.
    But then I read PayPal's statement and I think, actually, no. These guys are actually pretty stupid. They don't even have a grasp on the material they have sought to stop sales on: a) they seem to have a problem understanding that erotic fiction doesn't contain pictures and b)they fundamentally don't understand the concept of fictionality.

    They have truly embarrassed themselves with their statement. They have exposed themselves as absolutely unequipped to act as arbiter of the products whose sales they transfer funds on.

    Can someone this dumb be out to rule the world?

    Er…okay. Don't answer that. I need to be able to sleep at night.

  4. Donna

    Excellent post and always thought-provoking. One of many things that occurred to me as I read was the fact that the creators and audience for something like King Kong are indeed, whether consciously as you did or not, getting a thrill from "bestiality." And people who watch slasher movies wouldn't be so interested if the victims weren't young women in skimpy outfits. What's my point? That mainstream media manipulates our desires for the forbidden and our curiosity about extremes, all the while wrapping it up in safe morality–which means anyone who has "weird" sexual desire is punished (usually killed). The true "sin" of many of the works Paypal targets is that they allow for variations on this comforting approach.

    I also strongly agree that our imaginations take troubling experiences and feelings and transform them into something over which we feel some control. Even if it's to cast a dominant male as someone who deep down loves us and is thus emotionally in our thrall.

    Erotica is much more interesting and relevant than the mainstream wants to admit!

  5. Damian Bloodstone

    This post got me to thinking about Paypal in general. They don't do this to only erotica. They also do it to other products that they see as offensive or even dangerous with little reason since others they allow.

    If Paypal has problems with M/M, they would have a field day with some of the sci-fi I am writing. I use to actually have a big problem with M/M scenes and romances, until I actually met a few real people in those relationships and it turned my viewpoint different. Maybe sit the people at Paypal down at a round table with some of these types. Of course, we would have to restrain the executives in fear of them running away.

    I can't understand why they would have problems with erotic pictures since they allow other prints of artworks far more unusual though their site.

    RG, I understand completely about turning something real into a writing experience to deal with it. Seen it done many times, even by myself over the years. It can help you deal with the trauma and place the event in a perspective that allows you to heal actually.

    Those in power will ban books first, since this is the freedom to think and a way to broadcast information they do not wish. Next will be the everything else in the row of freedoms and personal rights.

    If you want to see someone that knows these facts, look into Larry Flint's eyes and you will see why he fights. Not for just porn but for the 1st amendment to protect all speech and writing. He knows when this goes, so goes America for all of us.

  6. Remittance Girl

    "That mainstream media manipulates our desires for the forbidden and our curiosity about extremes"

    You said it better than I could, Donna.

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