Red Lines, Rules and Limits

by | September 21, 2016 | General | 14 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

Are there topics you feel should be unequivocally banned from erotica? Subjects about which you would absolutely never read—or write—in an erotic context? Do you believe there are some literary lines that should never be crossed?

Many people feel this way about rape or other forms of non-consensual sexual activity. Yet studies (here, for example) have shown repeatedly that many women (and some men) fantasize about being raped or forced into sexual activity. In general, these women understand that imagined coercion is very different from real rape. Finding the former arousing does not indicate a desire for the latter. Nevertheless many readers, and publishers, object to exploring this topic in erotica.

What about incest? Despite the difficulty authors experience in publishing fiction that features sexual activity between adult family members, the taboo topic is a turn-on for a significant subset of readers. The wildly popular step-brother romance sub-genre has provided a “safe” way for readers to experience the forbidden thrill of being attracted to a close relation. I personally consider this as a bit dishonest. I’ve had incestuous dreams about my own brother. I’d never act on them, but that doesn’t mean the dreams weren’t a turn-on.

Bestiality? If sexual activity involving animals is so horrifying, why are shifter stories so successful? Not to mention the cryptozoological “taken by bigfoot” sub-genre? Forcing oneself upon a dumb animal in the real world would be immoral, but the beasts in erotic fiction tend to be anthropomorphised. The human participants feel some sort of sexual connection with the horny dog or the sleek, predatory tiger. I’ve read some amazing erotica based on human attraction to animals. Does that mean I plan to have sex with my cat? Of course not.

Sex with children may be a hard line. Adults getting sexual with kids too young to object or to understand is definitely wrong. There are no extenuating circumstances. But how do you define “young”? Is fourteen too young? That’s how old I was when I gave away my virginity, to a guy who was twenty. I knew exactly what I was doing (well, in theory, at least). During the teen years, desire is confusing and inchoate, but overwhelming in its power. Memories of that period, when every emotion cuts to the quick, offer tremendous possibilities for meaningful and moving—as well as tremendously arousing—erotic fiction.

My clearest personal line involves erotic fiction that portrays inflicting serious violence, physical harm or death as arousing. I avoid such stories when I can. I’ve read enough erotica, though, to know that not everyone agrees with this boundary. Are the people who write such stuff fundamentally evil? Am I qualified to judge?

These are not easy questions to answer. If you think they are, I believe that you’re fooling yourself.

The core issue relates to another kind of line: the line between imagination and reality. Is someone who finds a taboo topic arousing in fiction likely to perform such actions in real life? I’d argue that most readers of erotica distinguish very clearly between the fantasies evoked by erotic fiction, no matter how extreme, and the life they live outside of books.

Of course there are individuals who do enact this sort of forbidden scenario in the real world. There are men who kidnap women and hold them prisoners in their basements for years, who secretly abuse grade school kids, who screw their prepubescent daughters. These people have always existed. Does our writing about the sort of crimes they perpetrate encourage these people to commit these crimes?

Does an author who writes about a serial killer encourage murderers in the real world?

How much of the horror that people express about various taboo topics is rational, and how much is based on their personal discomfort? I will leave that question open for you to ponder.

Publishers and online venues like ERWA don’t want to make readers uncomfortable. They’re also worried about getting in trouble with the law. Hence, they establish various rules about what content is and is not acceptable. These rules tend to be idiosyncratic, depending on both the personal beliefs of the owners or operators and their perception of their market. For instance, I had a publisher reject one of my stories once because they had a policy prohibiting the portrayal of priests and nuns in erotica. In the romance world, very few publishers will accept any work that includes bodily fluids (“golden showers” or “scat”) even though there’s no legal reason for them to reject such stories (and it’s possible to write about these topics with both grace and heat). These publishers are convinced their readership will find such content “gross”.

Rules can change. Last year, the ownership of ERWA changed hands. Now, the ERWA staff members are debating whether to remove the prohibition of incest erotica on the public website. Perhaps you will consider me an incorrigible reprobate, but I am in favor. I believe we should have as few rules as possible.

In my view, erotica should not only turn readers on, but should also expand their perspectives. Sex is inextricably intertwined with so many other emotions—love, guilt, ambition, shame, anger, and compassion, to name just a few. Erotica derives its singular power from this psychological complexity. It’s not a safe genre, or at least it shouldn’t be. Sometimes the most arousing stories are the most disturbing.

Does that mean nothing is sacred, nothing forbidden? That’s something each of us has to answer for ourselves. There are few, if any red lines that I can discern. Defining what is and is not acceptable in erotica is a dangerously slippery slope.

Red lines in erotica remind me a bit of limits in BDSM. Limits are personal—the activities I totally reject might be the ones that most turn you on. Furthermore, limits can change over time. Tomorrow I might consider doing something that terrifies or squicks me today. Finally, the most erotic BDSM encounters often result from pushing limits—moving beyond the edge of what’s comfortable and familiar into new experiences and new insights.

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. Sessha Batto

    I do not believe in taboos. Fiction needs to be able to explore all possibilities and impossibilities without restriction. Does this mean I like or want to read all of it? Of course not…but I don't like or read romance, either.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I totally agree, Sessha.

      Unfortunately that attitude can be dangerous.

  2. Donna

    Sexuality has always been a focus of control for the authorities. Since the sexual "revolution" of the 1960s, it's interesting to see how efforts at control have changed. For example in the 1970s, the age of sexual consent was 16 in many states, but now it's 18 everywhere and even writing about teen sexuality is highly discouraged. They couldn't make Risky Business today, but that was a light-hearted popular movie back in 1983. So while sexual expression is certainly more accepted in general, the strong social need to control it has not gone away. I have no doubt every person alive has had some "forbidden" sexual thoughts. It will be interesting to see what the future brings. Progress is not always linear.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I could be wrong, but the rise of religious right may have something to do with this.

      As J.T. Benjamin used to say, "mind your own business".

  3. Fiona McGier

    What a great discussion about an interesting idea. Do we really need censorship, or will the realities of the marketplace make that decision for us? Obviously lots of people who aren't even readers plowed through FSOG just because it was so popular, just like boys read the Harry Potter books…then stopped reading once they were done. So did all of the "mommy-porn" readers introduce BDSM ideas into their bedroom? Would reading about taboos make people want to do them? Or would books about them only influence those already predisposed to act on those fantasies? Good pondering.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      BDSM isn't even taboo anymore, Fiona!

      What a downer for those of us who felt we were daring outlaws!

  4. Savanna Kougar

    My only caveat would be CLEARLY INFORMING THE READER about the *taboos* being explored in the erotica story. This goes for romance, and erotic romance, also, imo. Readers should know the HEAT LEVEL and the SEXUAL CONTENT. Thus, everyone can clearly make up their own minds.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      You have a good point, but too many warnings can spoil the impact of a book. I'm happy telling people that a book has sexual content and a heat level of 5 flames. However, if I tell people (for example) that the book includes an erotic enema in the context of a BDSM scene, they're going to be watching for that. First that will distract them. Second, when it does show up, it will neither surprising or shocking. Then of course, there are the people who will say "ick" and not read the book because of the warning, even if the scene is 1) tasteful rather than gross and 2) a minor part of the book as a whole.

      Guess you can't win!

  5. Bob Buckley

    Here we are fretting and debating over boundaries in erotica while one of the more popular television series ever, "Game of Thrones," which can be accessed by viewers of all ages, features rape and a variety of sexual humiliations, slaughter of children and all manner of violent death, including decapitations, disembowelment and the ever popular torn apart and devoured by beasts. This is considered mainstream entertainment, so I gotta ask, why do we erotica writers and readers feel we are on the spot to police ourselves? Isn't it all rather arch? But, since we are discussing it, I'll second Savanna's "caveat." Let 'em know what they're paying for and they have no excuse for being offended.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      It's all in the labels. If we stopped saying that we wrote erotica, maybe we'd have a lot more freedom to explore topics that we have to avoid now.

  6. Jean Roberta

    Heh. My excuse for watching Game of Thrones is that it really isn't much different from actual history, but yes, if all the sex and violence were removed, there wouldn't be much left. Censorship is a slippery slope, so I'm against it, but when someone writes something that offends for whatever reason, a reader can open a discussion about it, and others can weigh in.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I don't watch the GOT TV show (I don't watch TV at all), but I'm addicted to the books. In the books, it is the characters that keep me coming back. They're complicated and incredibly real, and even the so-called villains inspire sympathy when you see things through their eyes.

  7. Big Ed Magusson

    One of the problems with taboos that ERWA will have to face if they/we allow it, is that they're too often a short cut for crappy writing. "How do I make this scene hot? Ooh! I'll make her his sister!" Violating a taboo brings a titillation factor that covers up weak prose.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      That's always going to be a problem (and I agree, it can be very aggravating). Discerning readers can detect this ploy.

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