Erotic Romance vs Erotica: Order vs Chaos

by | December 13, 2012 | General | 33 comments

Hans Bellmer, The Brick Cell

There are probably a number of outstanding erotica writers out there who have written delicious novels full of BDSM kinkiness wondering why their royalty checks don’t look anything like those of E.L. James. This post is an attempt to explore why that is, and how the Erotic Romance genre is, philosophically and politically, almost the binary opposite of Erotica.

You would think that genres which predominantly focus on the nasty things two or more people get up to in bed would be closely related. Superficially, and commercially, they look very similar, but readers know they are not. Underneath the hood, ideologically, they stand almost in opposition to each other, despite the subject matter they share.

Modern erotic romance novels conform to the mythic structure of a classical comedy described by Northrop Frye. People meet, they become lovers, chaos ensues, but social order is finally restored in the form of a wedding. Although most erotic romances no longer end with a wedding, the ‘Happily Ever After’ convention is maintained through the explicit culmination of the romance in some sort mutually agreed upon serious and long-term emotional commitment to each other. By the end of the story, we are left with a stable ‘family-like’ unit. We go from order to chaos to order.

Even when the pairings in an erotic romance are non-normative, i.e. gay, lesbian, bi or trans romances, they still ultimately pay obeisance to the prevailing cultural dominance of a ‘normative’ relationship structure: two people, together forever. Even when the story revolves around a menage, it either ends with a pair at the end, and the third party neutralized somehow, or an hermetically sealed threesome that, for all intents and purposes, results in a place of domestic order.

No amount of wild, kinky or transgressive sex in the middle can mitigate the final conservative outcome of a neat, socially recognizable and culturally settled bond. The outcome of all these stories is essentially a conservative one. One that supports and perpetuates the prevailing social order.

I cannot recall who said it, but one very famous murder mystery writer once said that her readers were people who had a very passionate love of justice. No matter how gruesome the murders or thrillingly evil the murderer, he or she is inevitably caught and made to answer for the crimes.  The convention of the genre demands it. The readers expect it and are left disgruntled and unsatisfied when the implicit promise of the narrative is not delivered.

I would echo this by suggesting that, no matter how explicit, licentious or debauched the  sex, erotic romances promise something similar. These two individual characters with their chaotic taste for erotic adventure find each other and this perfect matching up of desires neutralizes whatever destabilizing influences they might have on society. The inevitable pairing at the end guarantees the reader a return to emotional and sexual order. Erotic Romance lovers are essentially ideologically conservative in their appreciation of a restoration of the social order.

But, according to Georges Bataille (the French writer and thinker who spent more time considering eroticism that almost anyone else on the planet) this conservative social order and eroticism are almost mutually exclusive.  Eroticism, said Bataille, is a uniquely human phenomenon that results from an excess of sexual energy. (Unlike almost all other animals, humans indulge in sex far more than the continuation of the species demands. Our instinct to have sex might be procreative, but our desire to have it far outstrips the needs of nature.)  This excess, this eroticism, is a dangerous and destabilizing force, he said. Which is exactly why all cultures, in one way or another, have attempted to control the effects of this energy and why so many of our religions, taboos and customs are especially focused on matters of sexuality and violence. Foremost amongst the mechanisms used to control these desires is the institution of marriage and the promotion of monogamous, procreative relationships.

Bataille, Lacan, Zizek, Deleuze, and others have made interesting observations on how one of the most effective ways to control humans within society is through work. Work occupies us, distracts us, commits us to the social order.  Spouses, mortgages, and 2.3 children turn out to be a very good way to keep us occupied, working to support them. So the myth of the romantic ideal of the permanent single partner whom we lust after in perpetuity and love eternally serves that hegemonic structure well. Perpetuating that myth through erotic romances encourages us to aspire to that myth in reality, make it our loftiest of all goals, and ultimately to internalize and validate that authority and its rules of social order with enthusiasm.

But the reality is that eroticism is a fleeting, liminal human experience. It does not – cannot – last long. And it would not be so attractive or precious to us if it could. Erotic heights are by their nature impermanent, chaotic, and fundamentally transgressive. Our greatest erotic experiences occur right at the edges of the limits imposed not only from without (in the form of prohibitions, taboos and religious interdictions) but more importantly, at our inner limits of the rules of behaviour we have internalized. Erotic ecstasy is the place where we lose ourselves, not just to another, but to the structured world. This, of course, cannot be sustained.  Or rather, it can only be sustained in death.

A person who gives themselves permission to enter this state of erotic rebellion is an anathema to the fabric of social order, since none of the rewards that society can offer them have any value in that moment. They are in a state of revolution against the stable, against categorization, against limitation, against even language itself. And this is what lies at the heart of all the best erotica. This essentially transgressive, anarchic, unconstrained state of being.

It took me a fairly long time to fathom why I, as a writer and reader, had such a deep antipathy toward the narrative structure of erotic romance. What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I like a good love story? Why can’t my characters end up blissfully happy and together forever? I have come to feel that the underlying text of the story-form of the erotic romance is a type of conservative social propaganda. Not ‘unfeminist’ as some feminists have claimed, but simply reflective and supportive of the status quo as regards all our positions as productive, functioning and controllable members of the current social structure.

I am, at heart, deeply anti-authoritarian.  And although in my everyday life, I am a quite a law-abiding, acquiescent citizen, I am not interested in taking that part of my world into my fictional writing.

The eroticism that does interest me lies in the opposite direction: that place of impermanence, transgression, and dangerous erotic experience. Its very instability is what I find so blindingly beautiful, intriguing and exciting.

So it is really not so very surprising that, despite the veneer of transgressiveness, Fifty Shades of Grey has done so much better than well-written, more erotic, more informed pieces of erotic fiction. Because beneath all the surface naughtiness, E.L. James’ ‘global shocker’ strongly reinforces a very stable and conservative social order. And, the truth is, most readers are far more comfortable with that.

(And before anyone jumps all over me, I would like to underscore that I’ve used the word ‘conservative’ to mean ideologically at home with the status quo and traditional social structures. I haven’t accused anyone here of voting Republican.)

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. Nya Rawlyns

    Exceptionally intelligent and well-written examination of the nature of erotic romance v. eroticism. Illuminating.
    I too favor the transgressive, that intersect where social mores and harsh reality go toe-to-toe.
    Well done.

  2. Erin OQuinn

    I agree with the other commenter that your article stands out in its deeply considered and well-presented thesis. And I don't disagree with your thesis. But I believe that this tendency of pure eroticism to chaos may well doom it is a viable genre.

    The universe tends toward entropy. The deep nature of man, perhaps, tends toward what you call entropy: "the essentially transgressive, anarchic, unconstraine state of being." However, that does not mean that the great audience of readers will understand it, embrace it, and buy it. Thus it is self-destructive by its very nature.

    Thanks for a well stated article. ~Erin

  3. Nikki Magennis

    Oh, I want to thank you profusely for raising this and writing so eloquently about it. I'm considering precisely these issues as I write – or try to write – my current novel. It's a fascinating topic.

    I would suggest that perhaps it's not purely a question of satisfying conservative mores. I think it's also tied to story/narrative conventions.

    Can you think of many genres that would allow a story to present a chaotic ending? It seems to me that a book like that would offer less or none of the resolution that we are so used to and fond of.

    Maybe what you're describing is not so much the difference between erotic romance and erotica, as the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction? One tends to follow a well known and conventional structure, while one is – at least in theory – all about breaking up conventions, including structure.

    (I'd like to add that I'm fond of both/all these genres and also able to see flaws within all of them. I'm not suggesting a qualitative judgement on any of them, just a difference between.)

    Would it be possible to come up with a story ending that disrupted conventions but still offered a reader the resolution they wish for? Maybe I'm so unused to 'unhappy' endings these days I can't even imagine it. Then again, I can't remember the ending of the Story of the Eye – maybe it wasn't the most important part of the book?

    All this is exactly what I'm trying to work out in my story – I'll follow the discussion with great interest!

  4. Amelia James

    I've published two erotic romance novels and two erotica collections. My romance novels far outsell my erotica, and even the erotica with the HEA performs better than the one that doesn't end happily. Happy is what the mass market wants. I can't blame them. Romance reading is an escape from reality. Erotica isn't.

  5. Sessha Batto

    We're trained from the cradle to prefer romance – from the classic Disney Princesses, to Barbie, to frustrated-cheated-of-the-dream-readers-of-romance, so it doesn't surprise me that it is the preference. Personally, I would rather find the sparks of beauty in reality.

  6. Kathleen Bradean

    RG – I love how you always give me something to think about.

    No matter how long it is, is it a story if there is no resolution? Or is it just a very long scene? Can there be resolution if chaos isn't restrained? I'd like the reader to feel the chaotic energy of eroticism continues after the last page but that the story has come to an end.

  7. JacuqelineB

    Brilliant post. Has had me thinking for most of the day on it, and will definitely be thinking more about it.

    Not that it was really either erotica or erotic romance, but I think that's what helped with 'Sex and the City's success – yes it was doing something different in a way, but when you got down to it, it was fairly conservative in its conclusions. The viewer could play at being radical for watching something that was openly about sex, but the endings were kept fairly conventional. Good formula for success really.

  8. Skye Warren

    Nothing like a little thinly veiled genre shaming, couched in the one topic that many romance and erotica authors alike can get behind: unabashed hatred of 50 Shades.

    "There are probably a number of outstanding erotica writers out there who have written delicious novels full of BDSM kinkiness wondering why their royalty checks don't look anything like those of E.L. James. This post is an attempt to explore why that is, and how the Erotic Romance genre is, philosophically and politically, almost the binary opposite of Erotica."

    Yeah, I guess those "delicious novels" were EROTICA, the genre of risk and substance, whereas 50 Shades was EROTIC ROMANCE, the genre of shameful pandering to outdated ideas. Putting aside the fact that most romance authors consider 50 Shades not a romance and most of the readers were outside the regular romance reading community.

    But let's say you're right and 50 Shades is erotic romance. Then how does this logic explain all those kinky erotic romances that don't have royalty statements like 50 Shades? Oh, it doesn't.

    Look, 50 Shades was huge. HUGE. Bigger than the books on erotica, in erotic romance, in every freaking genre. EVERY author, in every genre wishes their royalty statement looks like 50 Shades. Those completely outside the erotica/erotic romance sphere assume it's because it's kinky. We inside the sphere know that many kinky books have come before and come after, and so it can't just be that. At least, we should know that. so really, it baffles me that you would look at 50 Shades success and conclude "it's because of the genre". That is a shortcut answer and just flat out wrong.

    There've been plenty of well-written erotic romances with kink that never made 50 Shades success. There've been plenty of great books that never made 50 Shades success. So why so successful? I don't have the answer. None of us do, otherwise we'd have those coveted royalty statements too. But neither am I going to pin it on a random difference between hers and my books when I KNOW that's not the case.

    Books are about connecting with people, moving people, and whether you like them or not, 50 Shades did that for a lot of people. More than my books did, more than yours. And it has really absolutely nothing to do with genre.

  9. Laura Antoniou

    This helps me to understand my dislike for the erotic romance – and indeed, the "romance" genre as a whole.

    Laura Antoniou

  10. Remittance Girl

    Hi Erin,

    Thanks for commenting. And, regarding readership – yup, absolutely it is not going to find a mass readership. But then, neither did Finnigan's Wake, which didn't make it self-destructive of unworthy of writing. But it does mean that, realistically, unless our society changes greatly, it will be a small readership of rebels.

  11. Remittance Girl

    Hi Nikki,
    Thanks for commenting. Yes, we seem to be going through a particularly homogenous era as far as very standardized narrative structures go. But I would say that authoritarianism and a demand of standardized narrative structures go hand in hand, which is the Nazis had such a fear of 'degenerate' art.

  12. Remittance Girl

    Hi Kathleen:
    "is it a story if there is no resolution?".
    Well, in a way, the waning of desire is indeed a temporary resolution. I do think that all stories need an exit point that makes some sort of narrative sense. I just don't think it needs to be an expected one.

    In a way, that's why I decided to end The Waiting Room the way I did. Sophie's learned a lot from her experiences, and she takes those alternative paths to pleasure out into the wider world with her. But the story ends at the end of her experience with Alex. To me, that feels like a satisfying narrative ending, but I realize it isn't for a lot of readers used to a HEA resolution.

    I think that the energy necessary for that chaotic eroticism has to have its hills and valleys. Otherwise its porn, with its myth of perpetual and insatiable arousal.

  13. Remittance Girl

    Hi Skye,

    It was not my intention to shame any genre. If you don't recognize the ideological conservatism in a genre where every story ends in a happy pairing (or every miscreant faces justice), then I'm sorry but aren't participating in discourse on the same level.

    The truth is the vast majority of readers are not secret anarchists. They want a fantasy of sexual excess within the safety of a socially normative framework. I believe that pregnancy and marriage pretty well covers that – which is what happens in FSOG.

    What I think 50 shades DID show major publishers was that the reading public was ready to indulge in a MUCH more explicit love story than they had believed. And although there had been explicit erotic romance around for years, it did not have the marketing push or media exposure behind it to get it into airport bookstores and K-marts. You are writing for a genre waiting to explode into serious success.

    If you feel shamed by my post, then you need to look to your own issues with regard to your genre.

    I have to live with the reality that very few people will ever consider buying mine.

  14. Tor Cummings

    I very much enjoy this exploration of erotic vs erotic romance, and I think that Remittance Girl made many good points.
    But surprisingly what I brought away from reading this post was the idea that I might be more of a romance writer than I thought. I start with chaos and bring it to a happy ending if not a traditional ending in most of my erotic stories.
    This essay certainly has me thinking.
    Thanks Remittance Girl.

  15. Keziah Hill

    Terrific thoughtful post rg. What I take away from it to mull over is your idea that eroticism or desire etc as outlined by Bataille is inherently transgressive and that erotic romance is a way of corralling the essentially anarchic nature of the erotic (I could have interpreted this inaccurately so, apologies).

    I'm not sure this is the case (ie that eroticism is essentially transgressive). I think it is very contextual and means different things at different times and in/with different people. Sex and gender differences come to mind immediately.

    Another interpretation could be that the narrative of romance enables women to express their erotic life through a structure that ensures their safety within the constraints of a patriarchal culture.

    It could be said that unregulated eroticism could be like living in a world full of psychotic three year olds. Wild but exhausting and not very safe.

    But as an erotic romance writer I take your point about the inherent conservatism of romance which has made me uneasy lately. On the other hand as you point out, the structure of story regardless of genre is essentially conservative, as it establishes narrative order.

    I'm just not sure that the dissolution of order is always such a desired state. Going off to think some more.

  16. Remittance Girl

    Hi Keziah,

    "It could be said that unregulated eroticism could be like living in a world full of psychotic three year olds. Wild but exhausting and not very safe. "

    Oh, undoubtedly. Hence why I write fiction πŸ˜›

  17. Donna

    As always a very thought-provoking post. I very much agree with your characterization of erotic romance, and, like Tor, I realized that I do write many stories that fit into that category, as well as other stories that don't have a safe, conservative ending.

    Another thing that struck me, however, is that my personal experience does not support Bataille's argument that marriage (by extension) and eroticism are mutually exclusive. I've found a secure, trusting relationship to be a necessary foundation for my sexual expression and exploration. The erotic moments within the relationship may be destabilizing, fleeting, and excessive, but the fact that we care about each other over the long-term is part of what makes the highs possible for me. This is not to say there is one "right" way to be sexual, as the moralists will claim. Some people respond more strongly to the new and foreign at certain times of their lives or forever.

    Strangely enough, sexual pleasure and satisfaction within long-term relationships is one of the least discussed, accepted aspects of sexuality in our culture. We're all just supposed to joke about how bored we are, perhaps because sexuality of any sort threatens the productivity of the nation. Perhaps this taboo is ripe for erotic treatment of its own that will be as destabilizing as the classic Bohemian rejection of conservative sexual norms.

  18. Catherine

    Thank you, RG, for another thought provoking blog. I thoroughly enjoy having my mind challenged/stimulated by your well-researched and argued discussions.


  19. Remittance Girl

    Hi Donna,

    I don't think Bataille, Lacan, Paz, Deleuze or any of the other theorists were suggesting that sexual satisfaction or passion cannot be found inside a marriage. (Although, ironically, Lacan ended up having a relationship with Bataille's ex-wife, hehe). I think they are talking about 'eroticism' on a level that transcends a good sexual experience and edges towards the ecstatic and the sublime.

    And it's worth remarking that Sacher-Masoch certainly found this within marriage for many years. However, within that marriage, the sex was 'deviant' or non-normative, to say the least. Had his 'society' known what they were up to, it certainly wouldn't have approved. πŸ˜›

    It could be argued that kink, of some kind, is indeed the way to circumvent the problem of sexual ambivalence with the same partner over the years, which has historically been at one of the factors in the dulling of eroticism – especially for men. It is always worth keeping in mind that, not only are most of the theorists men, but the constructors of 'ideology' i.e. conservative or radical – have also been men.

    But more than this, we are discussing the realm of fiction here. We don't, I hope, write work that claims to be a model for living one's life, but invites the reader to participate in flights of erotic fantasy.

    What is, to me, interesting and perhaps a bit troubling, is that the vast majority of readers are uncomfortable with exploring non-normative, destabilizing eroticism, even in the safety of the fictional world.

  20. Remittance Girl

    Hello Tor,

    (sorry, I overlooked your comment earlier!)

    Thanks for your comment. It might indeed be that you are, for the most part, writing erotic romance. And all I can say is that it seems a genre ready to explode, so I do hope you manage to ride the wave of it.

    The a narrative structure that goes from chaos to order is a traditional one, in many genres, and one that the vast majority of readers feel comfortable with.


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