Red Lines, Rules and Limits

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.

Erotically Correct

By Lisabet Sarai

In her post a few days ago, Donna
George Storey
celebrated the fact that erotic fiction has become
both more accessible and more accepted over the past two decades.
Erotica and erotic romance might not be taken seriously by the
literary establishment, but readers, shielded from the scrutiny of
their neighbors by their Nooks, Kindles and Kobos, have embraced it.
In most countries, the threat of official censorship has receded, at
least for the moment (although commercial restrictions remain a
concern, as demonstrated by #AmazonFail and PayPal’s strong arm
attack on independent booksellers). I wonder, though, to what extent
the members of the erotica community are censoring themselves.

Erotic authors naturally want to appeal
to as wide an audience as possible. This is a strong motivation to
produce fiction that does not offend – erotica that is politically
correct. Several contributors over the past month have emphasized the
need to avoid producing content that involves under-age sex. Incest,
even between adults, is a definite taboo. Non-consensual sexual
activity is another no-no. My main romance publisher recently
required me to add an explicit non-con warning to my
soon-to-be-released steam punk fantasy novel, because the heroine is
captured and sexually “tortured” by the heroes (enjoying every
minute of the process).

Any hint of bestiality also raises the
red flag. In the same novel, the heroine allows herself to be
penetrated by the werewolf hero in his beast form. Yes, you guessed
it – another reader advisory there!

Differences in race and sexual
orientation must be treated with respect at all times. Heaven help
the author who depicts a white individual deriving sexual pleasure
from abusing someone black (or even vice versa). Homosexuals must not
be portrayed as “fags” or “pansies”. Stereotypes are
pernicious and evil, especially when they derive from painful
histories of oppression.

Religion represents another area where
an author must tread carefully. One of my favorite short stories
(“Communion”) was rejected by a well-known publisher because it
includes sexual activity between a nun and a priest.

Then of course there are the more
extreme fetishes – bodily fluids, erotic asphyxiation, blood sports
and so on. Niche markets exist for such content, but I know from
personal experience that these topics will bar an author from
publishing in more widely distributed erotic channels.

Now, I usually write sex-positive,
emotionally satisfying, spiritually uplifting, woman-friendly,
equal-opportunity, eco-sensitive, organically-grown, healthy
erotica – stories unlikely to antagonize or scandalize any reader
who already accepts sexual desire as a legitimate topic for fiction.
On the other hand, I’m occasionally tempted to adopt a less PC
attitude in my choice of subject matter, because some of the most
arousing scenarios I can imagine just aren’t that nice. And
I’ve realized that by censoring myself, I’m losing the opportunity to
explore some erotic truths – possibly unpopular, even unpalatable,
but genuine nevertheless.

Last week, I read (for a review) a
collection of “extreme interracial erotica”. Many of the stories
in this book involve Caucasians who crave sexual abuse and
humiliation from dominant Blacks. The tales stereotype whites as
undesirable, neurotic, self-deceiving, manipulative, small-dicked –
secret sluts whose ultimate life’s purpose is to serve their
attractive, intelligent, well-endowed, ebony-skinned masters and

A part of me found these tales
disgusting, or at least distasteful (although I’m sure this was
partially the effect of the less-than-stellar writing). At the same
time, some of the scenarios turned me on. I’m enough of a submissive
to react to the D/s dynamics, although I’ve never had a personal
fetish about race. Furthermore, I could see how the racial elements
heightened the erotic effect – as well as how some readers might be
especially aroused by interracial tales that flipped the roles into
even less PC territory, allowing whites to control, use and abuse
black characters.

History has left deep impressions. We
may like to believe that we’re color-blind, immune to the residual
mythologies fostered by slavery, but the eroticism of power cannot be

Sex is not necessarily polite.

Rape is not an acceptable topic for
erotica. Yet women (and some men) frequently
report fantasies
involving forced sex – 62% of over 350
subjects in a recent study
Why do we become aroused imagining an experience that would be
aversive in reality? The scientific literature proposes a variety of
explanations; exploring such fantasies in erotic stories would add
another dimension to our understanding.

Some people fantasize about fucking
their siblings or their parents. Some imagine sexual congress with
tigers or horses or dolphins. Some of us are aroused by enemas or
wearing wet diapers. Some dream of stripping the habit from Mother
Superior and defiling her upon the altar.

These fantasies aren’t politically
correct, but they are, in some sense, erotically correct. They
are part of the complex emotional and ideational tangle that is
human sexuality. By not writing about these cravings, we’re hiding
part of the truth – and we’re denying ourselves and our readers the
opportunity to penetrate more deeply into the sexual psyche.

So what am I advocating? Stories that
treat rape as titillation? Tales that feature mothers sucking off
their teenage sons and daughters eaten out by the pet Doberman?
You’ll find such things on the Internet, of course – but I wouldn’t
necessarily categorize them as erotica.

I guess what I’m suggesting is a bit
more honesty and a bit less self-righteousness when it comes to
erotic content that doesn’t fit within the range of what we’d
consider “normal” or “socially acceptable”. I’d like erotica
authors – and readers – to be more daring in the topics they’re
willing to consider. Most important, I’d like to see a clear
distinction recognized between fantasies
of exploitation, oppression, humiliation, violence, or degradation
and the real thing. The latter might be dangerous, but the former can
be exquisitely exciting.

takes significant talent to write a taboo fantasy that’s arousing
without crossing that line. One author who excels in this regard is
ERWA’s Bob Buckley, for whom this contrast is a frequent theme. His
story “Squandered Sins” (in Coming
Together Presents: Robert Buckley
for example, deals with a city health inspector with a secret desire
to dominate and abuse Asian women. Although he’s basically a decent
guy, he’s prey to all the erotic stereotypes about passive Oriental
females. In the course of his work, he is offered a Chinese girl as a
bribe and is horrified to find that he’s momentarily tempted to
accept. Then he meets a Chinese-American policewoman with desires
complementary to his own, and makes her his “chink bitch” – to
their mutual satisfaction.

sexual connection between these two characters burns up the page –
precisely because they
are enacting a scenario condemned by any right-thinking member of
society. The hero’s barely-resisted urge to make his fantasies real
sharpens the tale, adding to his sense of shame. Some readers might
find this tale offensive. I thought it was brilliant.

you choose erotica – or it chooses you – you venture into dark and
dangerous territory. In a previous
, I defended my tendency to write positive tales that would
teach, by example, about the possibility of good sex. I still believe
this. However, another lesson erotica can teach is that good sex
sometimes goes beyond what’s politically correct, that desire doesn’t
necessarily conform to the dictates of society or even morality. We
can pretend ignorance of this fact – but we’re simply lying, to
ourselves and our readers.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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