What Was Lost

by | November 21, 2014 | General | 6 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

A few days ago I finished reading The Sweetest Thing, a new short story collection by fellow ERWA member Julius Addlesee (and edited by another ERWA member, Nan Andrews). This isn’t a review – that will be coming at the beginning of next month, over at Erotica Revealed – but rather a reflection on the contrast between the sex in this book and the sex we tend to see today, both in the real world and in a lot of erotica.

The book is unabashedly vanilla. Although the characters and situations in The Sweetest Thing vary, all the tales focus on mutual heterosexual lust, seasoned by serendipity, affection, and, in many cases, lingerie. The stories feel a bit old-fashioned because the characters experience desire in such an enthusiastic, uncomplicated way. No one takes sexual pleasure for granted, but no one questions it, either – no guilt, no angst.

There’s an innocence about these stories. The narrators (all male) display a sense of wonder when confronted with the glory of women. The characters linger over foreplay, delighting in the tastes, smells, textures of their partners, who tend not to be model-thin or movie-star handsome but who are nevertheless almost unbearably desirable. Sex is special, a delicious mystery to decipher, a gift waiting to be opened.

I remember when sex was like that – powerful and intimate. To a heart-breaking extent, I feel like that kind of sex has been lost. When I was in my teens and twenties, stores hid magazines like Playboy and Penthouse under the counter. Porn movies arrived by mail in plain brown wrappers. A nude photo shoot like the one I did with the friend of a friend would be considered outrageous and daring. BDSM was shockingly perverse. To discover my own inclinations in that direction was a life-changing revelation.

In today’s mobile-obsessed, painfully public world, nude photos are commonplace. Teenagers broadcast them to their friends – kids who are not even their lovers. Porn is never more than click or two away. Sex is everywhere: in movies, in video games, in rock music, in advertising, in popular best sellers. I remember the thrill of reading James Bond in study hall, passing around a volume that marked the spot where the virile spy stroked his hand across the smooth, flat belly of his bikini clad partner. That was all – imagination filled in the rest – but oh, how that made me yearn!

What would Ian Fleming have thought of Fifty Shades of Gray?

I wouldn’t complain, if more sex meant better sex. However, I get the impression that many people find sexual satisfaction as elusive as ever – perhaps more. Casual sex has become more accepted and more available, but close, mutually enjoyable sex is another story. Divorce rates have soared. Rape occurs at least as frequently as when sex was rationed and forbidden, and my observations suggest that it is actually more likely to be tolerated in our sexually-desensitized world.

As I discussed in a previous post on this blog, an explosion of information on sexual technique has stolen the spontaneity from sexual encounters. When I was in my sexual prime, I never worried whether I was good in bed. All I knew was that being in bed with a lover felt good.

Even “deviant” behavior like BDSM has become ordinary and accepted rather than shocking. Fetishism influences popular culture. I can’t count the number of fashion ads I’ve seen where the model is wearing a leather corset and wielding a whip. These days everyone seems interested in kink. My master grumbles that everybody gets spanked now, or tied up. We’re not special anymore.

It’s not surprising that today’s erotica and erotic romance reflect the same trends. Authors include ever more extreme sexual activities in their tales, trying to get noticed. Voyeurism, exhibitionism, age play, infantilism, blood and water sports, body modification, bondage, threesomes, foursomes, orgies, gang bangs – you’ll find it all and more, not just in self-identified stroke fiction but also in anthologies released by publishers of “literary erotica”, and indeed, even in romance, once the bastion of coyness and traditionalism.

One of my readers complains that she can’t find any vanilla erotica anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against outrageous sexual acts. I’ve written a few myself. My concern is that these acts have come to have no meaning. They don’t feel dangerous or brave or transgressive anymore. They scarcely influence my emotions or my physical reactions, unless they’re extremely well written. Meanwhile, warm, bawdy stories of straight sexual pleasure – like Julius’ tales – have become as rare as penny candy.

I know I sound like a curmudgeon – like my mother, railing against “the new generation” and praising the good old days. This change isn’t even generational, though. It encompasses a mere decade or so. When I wrote my first novel, the acts I portrayed were unusual, scary, and exciting. Now they’re ho hum.

You can’t stop time, nor control cultural change. You have to learn to live with the world as it is today, without pining for yesterday. I’m glad the market for erotica has expanded, offering more opportunities for us all. Still, I mourn the loss of sexual innocence, and the corresponding incandescence of sexual experience – in life and in fiction.

[The title for this post was stolen from a story by Robert Buckley, which features an aged bootlegger from 1920’s. Thanks, Bob! That tale is included in his charitable anthology, Coming Together Presents Robert Buckley, which I had the privilege of editing.]

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Spencer Dryden

    Welcome back. Nice of you to show some love for vanilla. I agree with your reader who says that it's hard to find. Hello. *waives hand* When was the last time you saw an anthology call for vanilla erotica? Not romance. I'm sure that's plentiful but for vanilla m/f. Is there no other sex than BDSM, shapeshifting, M/M, F/F vampires? Jeez.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I think there may be more vanilla-inclined readers out there than we know. It's tough, because "vanilla" has become a slightly pejorative term.

  2. Reuben

    Interesting post. Thought provoking. As is your comment, Lisabet, that "vanilla" has become a slightly pejorative term.

    I recognise what you are saying here in your post. For me, I think there's an element of the simplicity of sexual excitement because of the personal interaction, i.e. a degree of intimacy with the specific person is the thrill. It need not be a full-blown BDSM foursome with an audience, to be sexually exciting. It could be a lad who has an accidental brush of a girl's leg when he tries to pick something up for her. It's because it's her, that particular young woman he likes so much, that the inadvertent touch is something exhilarating and stirring.

    In fact for me as a writer, these inter-personal discoveries make for more interesting and erotic subject matter than what might be termed the 'extreme' kind erotic scenarios. Even if those discoveries lead to some greater degree of more extreme sexual interaction, which they consistently do in my stories.

    Stories about that journey of personal, sensual discovery are the stories that, as you so eloquently put it, influence my emotions and physical reactions. Which is why I concentrate so much on character. It's about the person it's happening to or with, and it's very much about the 'discovery' of sexual arousal and intimacy as distinct from some kind of text-book expertise.

    Part of which journey of discovery can also involve glimpsing the kinky too. Which is where I generally find myself in agreement with the sentiment of your post. That personal glimpse or nuanced intimation can be just as erotic, if not often more so, than an explicit blow-by-blow depiction without context.

    Thanks for an interesting, thought-provoking article.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hello, Reuben,

      Thank you for your thoughts. You've expressed very well the main points I was trying to make.

  3. Fiona McGier

    When my brother and his wife sniffed that my erotic romance books were a little too "vanilla" for them, I stopped giving them free copies. I also became aware that vanilla, my family's favorite dessert addition, was now a pejorative, and that even though what I write is considered scandalous in the town I live in, it's boringly "tame" to "today's edgy readers". Sigh.

    I write what I like to read. I have judged in contests for years, and am a sought-after judge because I'm willing to read anything. But just because I recognize good writing from bad, doesn't mean I always enjoy the subject matter. I think the problem is that there are SO MANY choices of eBooks, that readers can't find what they want. They either read something because "everyone else is", or they give up on a genre when they can't easily find what satisfies them. We don't all want to read about raising welts with whips…at least not all of the time. Nor do we all want to read about 3 lusty dom brothers who want to share one woman, or shape-shifters who like to toy with bestiality with their lovers. It's like everyone is trying to be that much MORE shocking, so that nothing shocks anymore. Just like when you first learn to swear and it's so exciting, but when you begin to use swear words in everyday conversation, they cease to have any edge…then what will you say when you hit your finger with a hammer??

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hello, Fiona,

      I definitely don't believe that "vanilla" has to be "tame". That's exactly the mind set I am deploring.

      I'm reading a vanilla romance right now that you might like. "Now You See Me", by Pamela Todd – her first book, just out from Totally Bound. Really intense emotionally, but not a whip or chain to be seen!

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