Fifty Shades of Grey: A Film Review

Fifty Shades of Grey is the first mainstream film based on an ‘erotic novel’ in quite a while; the last one I can recall was  Secretary, loosely based on a short story with the same title by Mary Gaitskill, but I could be wrong.

have been numerous recent art-house films considered to be erotic, like
Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour), and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend but none of these, to my knowledge, were based on written prose. All are more explicit than Fifty Shades of Grey,
and the last two mentioned are certainly, in my opinion, more erotic.
But they are also not as accessible to mainstream movie-goers since both
films focus on  same-sex couples. I admit to being bored to death by Nymphomaniac, but the opening sex scene of Von Trier’s Antichrist
still sticks in my mind as one of the most explicitly erotic pieces of
film I’ve ever seen. The rest of the movie was in need of a stricter
editor, but that initial scene is raw,  feverish and terrifying, which
is probably a telling clue as to my tastes.

Explicitness, it seems, is relative. There has been a great deal of television – True Blood, Spartacus, Deadwood, House of Cards, etc. – that is just as explicit as this movie, but those works don’t expressly promise to turn you on. Fifty Shades of Grey sells itself specifically as an erotic film.
I’d like to draw a distinction between erotic film and pornography
because it helps to explain why it’s not the lack of explicitness that
rendered Fifty Shades of Grey unerotic for me. I watch porn – I sometimes get myself off to porn – but I seldom consider it erotic.

narrative – filmed or textual – can be explicit, but it doesn’t have to
be. It doesn’t serve to remind our bodies that we’re mammals who seek
pleasure in the vague and often failed hope of conforming to our
biological imperative. It addresses our cultural mind and talks, not of
sex, but of what we as humans have made of it: not urge, not drive, but
desire. Eroticism is seldom about the pleasure felt or the orgasm; it’s
about the desire to get there, all the cultural and personal detritus in
which we wrap that pilgrimage, and the curious delusion from which we
all suffer that there is some tremendous, epiphanic mystery that lies
beyond that moment of pleasure.  We settle for less. We settle for the
orgasm and the intimacy and the delusion fades, until the next time.

like watching animals fucking, porn works on my lizard brain. It works
at a very uncritical, unthinking and physical level – it speaks to my
muscles and my glands but not my brain. Porn that made attempts at
narrative always put me off because it was invariably facile. People
used to put narrative into porn as if they needed an excuse to show
people fucking, but we’ve gotten past that. Now we just have video of
people achieving orgasms in various ways. For me, porn is a bit like
running the faucet in an attempt to encourage urination; sometimes it
works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not as if we don’t remember how to pee
theoretically, but the sound of that water running kind of bypasses the
understanding part and nudges the bladder to take the jump.

is about love – a cultural construction but no less powerful for that.
It often has a sexual dimension, and this is undoubtedly true for Fifty Shades of Grey:
the story of a young woman who falls in love with a very rich man whose
sexual practices are – even if she is intrigued by the trappings –
repugnant to her. So, essentially, Fifty Shades of Grey is, for
all it’s superficial focus on sex, neither pornography, nor erotic
film. It’s a love story. Some might consider it a very conservative sort
of love story, because the main character (not in the movie, but by the
third volume of the novel) trades the sexual relationship she would
prefer for love. This is what women have done for thousands of years.
anyone who has practiced BDSM, the book and the film are both rather
offensive parodies. Like spies who watch espionage thrillers, or
soldiers who watch war films, or doctors who view medical dramas, there
is always a sense of the false depiction of their lived realities. Fifty Shades of Grey
portrays a highly fictionalized and poorly researched approximation of
BDSM. All the props (too many, in fact) and none of the soul. There is
none of the visceral understanding that BDSM is not a game of sexual
‘Simon Says’ but an erotic experience that people go into very
willingly, driven even, to ‘queer’* the biological imperative and revel
in the ways that culture has embellished it.

There has always been
dominance and submission in mammalian sex, BDSM unpacks it and examines
it, dissects it and revels in the dichotomy of humans as animals and
humans capable of making a conscious choice in the power dynamic.
Similarly, there has always been pain and danger in the nature of
biological sex; instead of trying to mitigate or overlook it, BDSM
reveals it, gazes into it, glories in it. Semiotics – the many layers of
meaning we ascribe to any given word, act, person or event – are
central to BDSM, even when we don’t explicitly acknowledge them. The
handcuffs, the crops, the floggers, the wooden spoons, the sterilized
needles, the corsets, the gags are not tools without context. It is
their historical and social semiotic baggage that makes them erotic.
BDSM is an erotic defiance of allowing things, people and acts stay in
their socially and historically ascribed places. That’s why it’s
fundamentally obscene and immoral to whip a non-consenting individual
and deeply erotic to whip your consenting submissive lover. It may
appear sexist and unfeminist when a male is dominant and a female
submissive, but consider that both parties have made a deliberate choice
of positioning, in disobedience of what cultural norms are now or what
they have been in the past. We didn’t have a choice. Now we do and we
exercise the choice consciously. It is an intentional transgression, a
defiance and sometimes a parody of the status quo.

What makes the trappings of BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey
so upsetting to practitioners is not just the absence in both the book
and the film of any sense of BDSM’s complexity, but the knowledge that,
for many people in the mainstream, this is their first encounter with
something purporting to be BDSM. Sociologist Eva Illouz points out that
erotic romance in general and Fifty Shades of Grey in particular is being consumed as a kind of dramatized, sexual self-help guide.

Fifty Shades of Grey
serves up a heady cocktail of paradox. It glamourizes BDSM, adorns it
with conspicuous consumption, bling, polish and muted lighting, while
responsibility, agency and choice are hauntingly absent. Meanwhile,
subtextually, BDSM is pathologized, criminalized: Christian Grey is into
it because he was abused. The only other practitioner we even hear of
is his first lover – a dominant, pedophilic woman who initiated him at
the age of 15. So the message is: the sex is hot, the toys are
expensive, and the only people who really enjoy this are sick. It’s not
difficult to see why so many in the BDSM community are ambivalent about
the book and the film. Much like EMTs who complain about the way film
portrays CPR. Of course, if you performed CPR on film with veracity,
you’d risk cracking someone’s ribs while boring the audience to death. 
If the BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey was performed with any
level of veracity, there’d be a lot more sweat, snot, welts and
screaming. It’s likely there’d be a few more obvious orgasms, too. I’m
sure neither of the starring actors would be willing to expose themselves
quite so thoroughly, even if those sorts of details had been in the

Personally, I’m not so concerned. Hollywood is constantly
producing films where women are innocent victims with little or no
agency – this is just another. It’s also constantly pumping out films
where characters make monstrous compromises in order to be loved. I’m
sure many filmgoers will return home after seeing the film and attempt a
bit of tie-me-up-and-spank-me’, and most will survive it. A very few
may find it immensely erotic and seek out more informed and detailed
sources of information. It may lead to some undesired and upsetting
bouts of rough sex, but so does going to a bar and by all accounts, so
does attending many universities. It might even result in a few
break-ups as partners find their tastes are incompatible. But, let’s be
honest, anyone with even an inkling of interest in BDSM may seek out far
more explicit and harrowing videos on the net.

Fifty Shades of Grey is just not that important a film. Go see it. Just don’t expect to come away with a new lease on your sex life.

to the book, the dialogue is pretty cringe-worthy. Jaimie Dornan came
across as a joyless, humourless, self-important pedant. He reminded me
of guys who tell you they’re ‘Doms’ but turn out to be bitter, mean,
self-pitying and entitled little boys. But, in all fairness, that’s how
Christian Grey is written in the novel. Dornan’s far, far sexier as a
serial killer in the British series The Fall. However, I found
Dakota Johnson much easier to stomach than her textual counterpart; she
did the best she could with the lines she had and I found her smile
rather contagious (even when I was trying hard to dislike her
lip-sucking). She really does have a very erotic mouth. Finally, if
director Sam Taylor-Johnson does a poor job of visualizing the eroticism
of BDSM, she more than compensates for it by making helicopters,
gliders, Audis and interior decor look sexy as hell. My guess is that she
finds wealth a lot more erotic than kink. But then, sadly, so do most people.

Measuring Eroticism

By Lisabet Sarai

A while ago, my main erotic romance publisher decided to institute a new system for rating the amount of sex in their books. Like most publishers in the genre, they were already rating each book for “heat”:

Simmering – The sweeter side of romance, but with just enough heat to get your pulse pounding.
Sizzling – Sexy, explicit, and highly imaginative but with an emphasis on sensuality.
Burning – Sexy, creative and hot, almost anything goes – not for shy readers.
Melting – Super X rated with risque and explicit plot lines. For the bold and the brave.
Taboo – Pure, unadulterated erotica, possibly covering extreme imagery – might push the limits of acceptability. Proceed with care, these stories might not have a happy ever after.

However, the powers that be felt that they needed to rank books on another, possibly orthogonal dimension, namely how much sex the book contained. They introduced a “sexometer” rating, running from 1 to 3:

1 – Slow burn with plenty of sexual tension leading up to an explosive climax.
2 – A delicious balance of erotic tension and sexy scenes. More than risque and less than relentless.
3 – My my, how do they keep it up? Non-stop sensual and sexual action throughout

In discussions on the publisher’s author list, I opposed this new rating, for several reasons. First of all, I thought it was a rather superficial measurement, since it was based on the number of sex scenes in the book relative to the book’s overall length. So was it better to have three short scenes? Or one extended scene?

Furthermore, there is the question of how you define a “sex scene”. My recent release The Ingredients of Bliss includes several sexual fantasy sections, in which the heroine is imagining various outrageous activities. Nothing is happening in the physical world at all. Do these count toward the rating? Do we consider sexual interactions between characters other than the main protagonists? Do the participants have to reach orgasm? I know these sound like dumb questions, but the sexometer concept seems to invite them.

I also worried that faced with the sexometer, authors would feel pressured to add more, and more explicit, sexual activity to their books, even when this didn’t fit with the story. We all know “gratuitous sex” when we see it, sex that’s stuck into the middle of a book without justification or narrative function. Personally I find that sort of sex immensely boring. People who don’t probably aren’t paying much attention to the plot or the characters in the first place.

My most serious concern, though, related to the implicit suggestion that the higher a book rated on the sexometer scale, the more erotic the book. I knew from personal experience this was just plain wrong.

I don’t believe you can measure eroticism in any simple or mechanical way. A single glimpse of a girl’s bare midriff or a guy’s hands can propel me into a fever of desire. The same holds for fiction. Indeed, some of my favorite stories are those where the physical sex is held to a bare minimum – or perhaps doesn’t occur at all.

A fine example is Amanda Earl’s “Welcome to the Aphrodisiac Hotel”, originally published in the Cleis Do Not Disturb anthology and part of Amanda’s imminent Coming Together Presents volume, which will benefit AIDS charity GMHC.

The narrator in this tale is having a drink in a hotel lobby bar while observing the other occupants and imagining their sexual lives. There’s no sex in this story at all – only the promise of sex, the delicious potentials and pairings. Nevertheless, I found this tale incredibly arousing.

At this point the waiter arrives. He’s a new waiter and I haven’t had the chance to fantasize about him yet. Probably a college student, making money for school. I love his short curly dark hair, wonder what it would be like to see that luxuriant head of hair between my legs, as he licks at my cunt. Perhaps he enjoys older women. It’s clear he’s in good shape, thanks to the tight hotel-regulation uniform that displays his sweet little ass so well.

I want to rub my hands over the zipper, to watch how his erection flares at the mere touch of my hand through the fabric of his pants. In a soft and sultry voice, he asks the doctor for his drink order. The quiet tones of his syllables whisper over my skin. I can feel my nipples hardening beneath my silk blouse. I’m watching others but I look around briefly and wonder just who might be watching me. That thought sends a jolt of arousal to the damp cavity between my legs.

Another example is M. Christian’s classic “Nighthawks”, which appeared back in 2004 in Alison Tyler’s Down and Dirty collection. This tale, inspired by the Edward Hopper painting of the same name, is set in a city diner, in those dark and lonely hours between midnight and dawn. It’s a luscious exploration of a love affair between a customer and a waitress that is no less ardent and tender for being entirely imaginary.

Just a few days ago, I read another brilliantly erotic tale where sex takes second stage to desire, Preston Avery’s “Won’t Last the Week”, which appears in Tenille Brown’s anthology Can’t Get Enough. The narrator meets the woman of his dreams at a party. They spend the night on the beach, so entranced by one another that they forget to exchange phone numbers. As the week goes on, dreams and fantasies of the lost woman consume the narrator’s life.

It’s clear that the protagonists have sex, but this is barely described. The focus is on the emotions the woman inspires, with her ripe sensuality and her openness to the narrator’s desire.

She isn’t skinny like the girls I usually go for, like my ideal “on paper” woman, but curved and soft and she fits me just right. Her breasts are big with a delicious slope to them, and I know they will overflow my grasp. I could bury my face in the valley between them and never come up for air. I could have seconds and thirds and fourths of her and die a gluttonous happy man. She does everything I lead her into. I don’t ask – words are still lost to us. The first time I lower one of my hands to those gorgeous mounds, hidden between a thin blue cotton shirt, she doesn’t protest of push me away- she arches into me, into my touch, and makes the most beautiful noise in her throat. That moment, those moments, are all that I can feel. The future is as unreal to me as a unicorn on the planet Saturn. That place where names and phone numbers matter is at least a world away.

The beautiful urgency of this story left me in wet wonder. And yet, on the sexometer scale, it probably wouldn’t even make it to 2.

Much of my own recent work, especially my short stories, would score pretty low on the sexometer. “The First Stone”, coming out in a few weeks in Cheyenne Blue’s lesbian collection Forbidden Fruit, has a single sex scene, maybe a page long, in a story of 4500 words. Most of the tale focuses on the build-up, the protagonist’s struggle against her unseemly, implacable and completely inappropriate lust. (The heroine is a nun.) “The Last Amanuensis”, in Remittance Girl’s anthology Written on Skin, barely has any sex at all, though it is shot through with frightening darts of desire. And even in the stories that do include a healthy dose of sucking and fucking, I tend to shine the spotlight on the characters’ emotions and reactions, not on their genitalia.

Okay, so The Ingredients of Bliss received a sexometer rating of 3. Am I proud of that? Not particularly. This romp demanded frequent and outrageous sex, so that was what I wrote. But I’m not sure that it’s any more erotic than (for instance) my short story “Just a Spanking”, which has orgasms but no sex at all.

Eroticism is in the mind of the reader. And I don’t think it can be measured in any objective, cut-and-dried way, any more than you can measure hope, or humor, or God.

Abberant Romances and the Rise of Erotic Fiction as a Self-Help Guide

I’ve got a confession to make. I’m addicted to House of Cards.  I remember being equally addicted to the original 1990’s UK series, but the US Netflix adaptation is, surprisingly, even better than the British original.

Yes, the writing is excellent and the characterizations are superb, but what I most like about House of Cards is that it represents a very realistic but seldom written-about form of relationship.

The relationship between Frank Underwood and his wife, Claire, is a strange one.  On the surface it appears to be a marriage of convenience – neither is sexually faithful and there appears to be nothing but a cool sort of companionship of purpose between them – but as the series goes on, we get glimpses into something more complex.

This is a portrait of two people who feed each other’s jouissance. Leaving the moral aspects of their individual actions and aspirations aside, this is love at its most powerful and revolutionary. 

In her amazing TED Talk on the secret to desire in long-term relationships, Esther Perel points out that distance is essential to desire. Being able to see your partner from a distance, doing what drives and impassions them, allows you to maintain the stance of an admirer. It allows for the preservation of a certain level of mystery and of uncertainty, which keeps the embers of desire burning hot. 

As married characters, Frank and Claire Underwood watch each other pursue their ambitions, execute their nefarious plans, as if they were each secret admirers of the other, aroused by their individual acts of ruthlessness.

When they finally come together, there’s an amazing erotic tension between them. It is never a ‘dutiful’ performance of marital obligation. They come together to give each other a sort of carte blanche absolution for being the reprehensible creatures they are.  It’s a bit like watching scorpions mate.

After the never-ending parade of superficially written, poorly characterized and formulaic love-bonds that seem to be the norm in almost all narratives these days, it is refreshing and exciting to see a well-wrought portrait of something that isn’t pabulum.

Another interesting and complex relationship I have stumbled across recently is the novelized version of Macbeth by A.J. Hartley and David Hewson. They’ve done a magnificent job of digging into and expositing the compelling power dynamics between Lord and Lady Macbeth. Again, ambition definitely comes into it, but so does desperation, mania and regret. In this case, although Lady Macbeth is the instigator who gets the transgression ball rolling, there is a clever portrayal of how one hideous act leads inevitably to another, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.

So many modern fictional romantic narratives are offered and consumed as models to aspire to, especially in erotic fiction.  In this I see a tragic loss of  the potential of fiction to examine the places we should never go in real life. This current need to make all kinky scenes safe, sane and consensual; this obligation to never represent negative, abusive relationships without clearly condemning them within the fiction, places all our fictions within the genre of YA or as thinly disguised self-help paperbacks.

It is as if we have decided that adults have no capacity to distinguish between fiction and reality and must be guided in their fictional adventures by an overbearing, authoritarian hand whose job it is to constantly nudge the reader towards a post-modern sort of ‘right thinking’.

This might be tolerable if most contemporary fictional love relationships were represented with any realism and complexity, but they’re not.  Consequently, we are encouraged to judge our own relationships in the light of those that are not only fictional, but ones that aren’t realistic and revel in their own formulaic qualities. 

In her book, Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers and Society, Eva Illouz breaks down the phenomena of the erotic novel as self-help guide:

“some narratives are not only symbolic rehearsals of social dilemmas and of the solution to these dilemmas: they are also performative structures offering ways of acting and doing.”

To me, this is the anathema of contemporary erotic fiction. It is a closing off of the possibilities of using fiction as a refuge from the rules of social reality. Instead, it has become a place where we are schooled, counseled and given exemplars of how to ‘do it right.’

The Limits of Language: The Metaphysics of Eroticism

Die Grenzen Meiner Sprache, K. Rakoll, limited edition digital print, 2007.

In his book “Erotism: Death and Sensuality,” George Bataille admitted to an uneasy relationship with poetry. In fact, he bemoaned the poverty of language to express the experience of extreme eroticism. He begins the book with a long defense on why there is no objective way in which to examine or to discuss eroticism, because it is a wholly interior experience. And yet the Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz said that eroticism was to sex what poetry was to language. It was Michel Foucault, in his essay valorizing Bataille, who postulated that, as in death and other extreme human experiences, eroticism is a space in which language falters. Very often, said Foucault, the language we use to discuss sex does violence to it.

Is this going to turn into another discussion of the pornography / erotic fiction divide? Well, in a way it is. Because as humans, we are peculiar creatures, and we often come to understand things by knowing what they are not. But I hope this will also be an essay of encouragement to erotica writers; A way to say that writing about the erotic experience in all its richness and complexity a very difficult but worthy endeavor.


Well, before the Enlightenment, humans had a very good sense of what they were and what the purpose of their life was. We were put here to serve God. To do His bidding. To repay Him for the gift of the sacrifice of His son, on the cross. As Jacques Derrida observed, as gifts go, it was one with horrific strings attached. But nonetheless, within the Judeo-Christian world, as humans, our nature and our purpose was given to us. How well or badly we stuck to that purpose was judged in reference to something external and beyond us. God was our judge. Of course, Descartes presaged the end of all that, Kant compounded it, and by the time Nietzsche was stinking up the slipcovers and declaring the Death of God, we were on our own. We were responsible for describing ourselves, for engineering our own purposes, and for judging ourselves.

And if that’s the case, it should be easy to use language to do that, shouldn’t it?

What a number of 20th Century thinkers found out, especially in Europe where they get the funding to lie around thinking about such things, is that there are parts of the human experience that simply stretch language (our ability to conceptualize and communicate them) to its limits. And, it turns out, this occurs in very interesting places. Usually, but not always, at the extremes of experience. It is not unreasonable to believe that there is something important to be learned about ourselves in these places where language fails us, if only because of the phenomenon of the fact that it does.  And it is not a coincidence that this European fetish for examining these limits of language is also the place where people feel that literature can contain a hefty dose of erotic writing and still be considered literature.

As unappetizing as their works might seem now, two writers really braved the frontier and lived (through the survival of their works) to tell about it. Sade and Sacher-Masoch. Ironic, isn’t it, that both these writers were obsessed with the extremes of the erotic. So much so, that many people don’t consider what they wrote as very erotic at all. But they eased the way for the many more palatable examples of the subject that came after them. And although a lot of ‘naughty’ writing emerged from Victorian England, and there was the mind-blowing anomaly that is James Joyce, it is not entirely unfair to lay the blame for why some of us take eroticism so seriously almost wholly on the French. Because even though they didn’t write it all, they published a lot of it, critiqued it, and generally felt it to be important enough to discuss seriously and, more to the point, philosophically.

Anyone who has attempted to write the sensation of an orgasm, without resorting to the cliche bullshit that has emerged as the babyfood of erotica, knows how insanely frustrating it is. Just describing the physical reality is hard enough, but the minute one attempts to describe how it feels, how it affects our sense of space, time, our perceptions of the other, present in the moment, etc., well, it’s a total bitch. All the very best textual examples of it have a suspiciously poetic quality to them.  Because Octavio Paz was right. It turns out that the tighter we hold onto empirical, analytical language, the more abject our failure. So, one way people go about it is to circumvent the problem by not describing it at all, and leaving it to the mind of the reader to fill in the slippery (pun intended) details. Another is to opt for a sort of pot-throwing approach: using language as the clay, but letting the subtle chaos of unconscious – a kind of potter’s wheel – to do some of the work. Allowing the language to be slippery, lumpy, imprecise by using metaphor and surreality, rhythm, cadence, and semiotics to deliver an impressionist rendering of the event. This, of course, can result in some very nasty purple prose. But it can also result in something that approximates the sublime. It isn’t a particularly economical method; you have to be prepared to consign a lot of your efforts to the garbage.

But I’ve only used the example of the orgasm. And I don’t want you to think this even begins to describe the challenge of writing the erotic. Because, pulling out to a larger view of the challenge, erotic desire is even harder to get a handle on. And sure, you can use the image of a hard cock to symbolize erotic desire, but it’s a piss poor symbol. It equates to how erotic desire plays out on the body, but it gives no hint at all as to what erotic desire does to the mind.

Pornography does a marvelous job of showing you the surface of what’s going on when people get all up in each other’s business. For the most part, it shows us sex. People going at it. And if we weren’t such complete species bigots, a filmed sequence of dogs fucking should also do the trick for getting us in the mood to fuck.  But I’d ask you to accept the premise that to scratch the biological itch is not, in itself, erotic. If we’re honest, we’ve all have experiences of getting off and shooting our respective wads, that were utilitarian rather than erotic. But if Bataille and Paz are right, and eroticism is not about copulation, reproduction, or simply physical sexual release or even the fleeting, purely physical pleasure of orgasm, but rather the strange excessive meaning we have piled onto the human sexual experience, the mental pleasure present in the erotic moment that often lingers afterwards or even rears its head when there’s no prospect of an erotic encounter in sight, then pornography fails utterly. And, in all fairness, so does a lot of erotic fiction.

One of the reasons I think it fails these days is because we have come to mistake any form of sexual experience for an erotic one. I encounter this a lot, when someone on twitter DMs me and says: ‘Wanna see my cock?’ You may laugh. But think about it. This COULD be an erotic experience if I personally thought that there was something deliciously dirty and transgressive in gazing on a nameless, disembodied cock. If I was brought up to believe that such a symbol of decontextualized sex was inherently bad. Sadly, I wasn’t. To me it’s just a biological specimen out of its jar. Now, if the person offering to show me the cock is an exhibitionist who has some sense that showing his erect cock, while withholding the rest of his presence, is somehow dirty or bad or nasty, it might very well be erotic for him. But on the whole, it’s just a matter of a very utilitarian urge to get off and a vain hope that a few words from me with make the process slightly easier. In a way, it’s an attempt to complete the process more efficiently. The truth is, a lot of sex is just this. There’s nothing wrong with it; its the human animal following his misguided and very confused instinct to spread seed. But its not necessarily erotic. This is why I feel Bataille is right. That eroticism requires some form of conflict, of personal transgression – even if that transgression doesn’t seem particularly transgressive to anyone else. As Octavio Paz said: “Sexuality is general; eroticism, singular.” This is why one person’s porn is another person’s eroticism. The mistake is in assuming we are going to always agree. The art is in judging when we do.

Another reason why we might fail is because we try to insert love as a central site of eroticism. It isn’t that love cannot be present in eroticism. For some people, getting there without it is just not an option. It is simply that a lot work that straddles the erotica/romance divide ends up moving the focus by mistake. This phenomena of erotic transcendence is an admittedly emotionally, one might even say spiritually, dangerous place, if one reaches it at all. And for many people, going to that space with someone you don’t trust is too frightening to contemplate. How many people can you honestly say you trust, but don’t love? Of course, some of those people you can name are out of bounds, because of the taboo of incest, or because they happen not to be the right gender for your particular orientation. But on the whole, if you love someone, you trust them, and this allows you to go to that exhilarating, awe-inspiring, frightening place with them. So love may be a prerequisite for even attempting the journey, but not for the experience itself.

For me, some of the most successful erotic fiction involving romantic love occurs when one of the characters loves but does not trust the other, or trusts but does not love the other. Because either of these states are socially problematic and set the stages for some kind of transgression that enables the opening of the door to eroticism.

And this leads me to the last of the examples I’ll offer of where writing the erotic can be difficult. There is a word that is used often in philosophy, critical studies and among those of us who count angels on the heads of pins: Alterity. It means ‘otherness’. But what makes it a good word is that it encompasses the very strange dilemma we, as individuals, face every day of our lives. It is The Other. The one who is not us. Everyone but you. There’s a lot of funny stuff that happens when you study how we relate to The Other. And it gets even weirder when we let that Other into our personal space. Weirder still when we touch the Other, or the Other touches us. Here, for instance, we get a strange and beautiful paradox, examined eloquently by another French guy by the name of Jean Luc Nancy. When someone kisses you, and your lips touch, are you kissing them, or are they kissing you? Are you feeling your lips being met, or meeting theirs? Yeah, it’s a headfuck, I know. But when it comes to the realm of eroticism, you can see how we are getting into a place, with regard to this paradox, that gets freaky strange. When I thrust into you (just pretend I have a cock, because sometimes, I’m convinced I do and no one else can see it), am I penetrating you or are you consuming me? What is more aggressive, penetration or consummation? If you just want to look at this from a purely physical perspective, as happens in porn, there is no paradox. But once you start to examine the interior experience of this physicality, it’s easy to get lost. It’s why people, quite correctly say, they lose themselves in each other. At the point where this is occurring, we lose what Bataille called our ‘discontinuity’.  We stop being discontinuous separate beings. We get to somewhere beyond that, where I don’t know where my body begins and yours ends. And where sometimes, I don’t know where I begin and you end. We are at that fleeting moment of ego death. And how can I speak when I am not me anymore.

This is where language fails us. At this, often momentary, point of transcendence. There is no air in the void. Nothing to inhale and use to enable us to speak. And it’s over so fast. We fall back into our bodies, and our individualities, and it’s over.

To me, all good erotic writing attempts, in some way or another, to represent those experiences, those eerie little miracles that occur, even though ‘God is Dead’. My guess is that we are almost always going to fail to capture that state. But I believe that even getting close tells us immense things about who we are as humans and what we are meant to be, since it’s our job to do it now.

On the other hand, it has been theorized that eroticism is simply one of the grand narratives perpetuated by modernism, and is already dead. But that’s another post.

Erotic Romance vs Erotica: Order vs Chaos

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.)

We Deviants. We Happy Deviants

In the past month, the subject of how to discuss what we write has come up an uncanny number of times, from diverse quarters.  I have a friend who writes erotic fiction, but never admits to it, because his wife doesn’t like it.  Another fellow writer says that he is uncomfortable about admitting what he writes, because he has children and (this must be an American thing) worries that people will somehow feels he’s an unreliable father if he writes erotica. I know many erotica writers who use a pen name because they fear an admission of what they write will imperil their careers.

When people, in everyday sorts of interchanges, ask me what I do, I say I teach and I write. They’re never all that interested in what I teach; they ask me what I write, and I tell them. Since the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, the next inevitable question is: oh, so you write stuff like Fifty Shades of Grey? No, not really, I say.

Their reaction – the knowing smirk, the sly wink and, occasionally, some far too TMI confession – constantly reminds me that what we do is still considered deviant and transgressive.

In the world of academia, it’s even more interesting. As a graduate student, you spend a considerable amount of time going to seminars, interacting with other graduate students, and the question of your research comes up all the time. In the last 2 months, I have had to sit in a group and fess up to exactly what I write and what I’m researching over and over. From time to time, I will encounter a genuinely thoughtful response: wow, what a compelling area of study! Good luck with it!

But more often than not, after the initial, very studied attempt to appear unfazed, I am met with the same ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ follow-up that I receive from non-academics. Frankly, it depresses me. I suspect, being an intellectual snob, I expected something more intelligent from my colleagues.

Eroticism is a dangerous subject; so dangerous, in fact, that our society consistently prefers to deal with it at arm’s length by mythologizing it or turning its subjects into caricatures.  Either that, or they try to reduce it to anthropological study. Eroticism is not sexuality, although it is often expressed through sexuality.  It has more in common with religious ecstasy than it does with procreation.  It is so mysterious to us, that we try and explain erotic attraction by aligning it with animal mating displays and successful reproductive strategies in the wild: i.e. men are attracted to red lipstick on women in the same way apes are attracted to females in estrus with inflamed backsides, or, masochists like to be whipped because it produces endorphins that get them high.

Let me put an end to this nonsense: male baboons don’t have fur fetishes and masochists are not drug addicts.

Eroticism is the story of our negotiation between self and other on a very deep, very visceral level.  We are born alone, die alone, and yet, in extremely special circumstances, we sense that there is a way to escape the gravity well of our hermetically sealed existences.  And very much like ecstatic religious experiences, profound erotic experiences offer us, if only for fleeting moments, that sense of there being something more. This is why, I think, so many of the French theorists, reflecting on eroticism, felt it was existentially connected to death – not death as a negative, but death as the greatest of all transformative experiences.  What makes eroticism more interesting, to me, is that you can live to talk about it.

And that’s the challenge for erotic writers. It is easy to describe a sex act, easy to list the attributes of a person you want to fuck, easy to trot out the slang, the jargon, the tropes, the memes we have all come to recognize as signifiers for activities that lead to orgasm or ejaculation. This is the use of cliche in as much as we wave textual imagery in front of our reader that we know will predictably trigger the reader’s arousal:  “He pounded into her tight, wet pussy.”

But that is mistaking pleasure for eroticism. Pleasure is part of eroticism, to be sure, but not its entirety.

The erotic experience, at its zenith (which may be at orgasm, or may be at some other point) renders us almost without language. To attempt to approach it, in writing, will never be entirely successful.  Authors will often, at the height of an erotic moment, slew sideways into romantic love, as if that will do duty to fill the vacuum of language that the erotic experience leaves us with. I’ve certainly been guilty of this.

I don’t have an answer. But what I have learned is that eroticism is best understood as the journey to a fleeting and liminal state rather than the destination. There is no end-game to eroticism. It is about our yearning, not really our getting. We reach, we think we’ve grasped that elusive prize, only to find out that what we’re holding either is too slippery to keep, or is not the prize we were after.

Like pathos, like nostalgia, like joy, terror or sadness, eroticism is a way-station, not a terminus.  However, unlike those other human experiences, our culture has not found ways to explore its depths or heights comfortably or unflinchingly. We turn its subjects into objects and depersonalize them because the spectacle of the real experience is thriling, utterly intimate, and overwhelming. 

But our challenge, as writers of the erotic, is to take that on. Not to flinch, not to look away, not to cheat by reducing the acts or the characters we write to caricatures or myths, or take refuge in the more socially acceptable sanctuary of romantic love.  And that’s why, unless our culture changes radically, we will always be transgressors in the literary world when we pursue the task of writing the erotic.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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