underage sex

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.


by Jean Roberta

Everyone who writes erotica and posts it in semi-public space, such as the ERWA lists, knows the basic rules: no non-consensual sex presented for arousal, and no sex of any kind involving characters under the age of consent in their jurisdiction. In North America, this is generally understood to be eighteen, the current legal age of adulthood. And “underage” sex in a story can include masturbation by a horny teenager who is clearly not being coerced or manipulated by anyone else.

Did your earliest sexual feelings take you by surprise long after you had reached puberty, had your first drink, learned to drive, developed crushes on a few other people, and voted for the first time? I thought not. The years between twelve or thirteen, when physical transformations change a child into a youth who looks more-or-less adult, and eighteen, when one’s adult status is recognized by the rest of the world, are full of new experiences. Whether or not these experiences include a technical loss of virginity, they are likely to include coming to terms with itches and urges that can feel like demonic temptation, especially if one has been taught (as I was) that “nice girls” never have them, and “nice boys” don’t act on them.

In today’s cultural climate, there seems to be an enormous gulf between the general parental belief that teenagers can be persuaded to abstain from sex because it isn’t good for them and the teenage tribal pressure to “hook up.” Regardless of how an individual responds to that pressure, it’s hard to imagine how a teenager today could be as sexually ignorant as my grandmother (born before 1900) was said to be on her wedding night. Even the kids who aren’t doing it are thinking about it. This was largely true fifty years ago, when the “Baby Boom” kids, born just after the Second World War, reached adolescence. Our parents were usually vague about why they didn’t want us to listen to rock-and-roll, but we knew.

What everyone knows is still what no one can afford to say out loud. I am well aware that young people with little knowledge or experience of sex, and no legal rights, are more vulnerable to abuse than are their elders. This is why the legal concept of “statutory rape” (sex committed by an adult with someone not old enough to give meaningful consent) makes sense. But there is a huge difference between not wanting a younger generation to be hurt (if that can be prevented) and pretending that completely banning all descriptions of their sexuality can make it go away.

Two recent events illustrate the problem with the current prohibition on “kiddie porn.” A respected colleague of mine in the university where I teach was charged with downloading child porn on his computer at work. This case hit the local media in January, and the newspaper article claimed that someone in the university had reported him to the police. Since then, Colleague seems to have disappeared without a trace. No one I’ve spoken to knows any details – or if they do, they’re not telling. He was supposed to be tried in February, but no outcome has been reported.

This case makes my head swim and my heart ache. Considering that literary scholars have an interest in the early lives of the writers they study, and considering that Colleague has studied such diverse topics as the novels of Benjamin Disraeli (British Prime Minister under Queen Victoria, the first from a Jewish family), the stories of Oscar Wilde and the history of the detective novel, I wonder what “child porn” actually means in this case. I’ve been acquainted with Colleague for years; we’ve worked together on the organizing committee for gay/lesbian/bi/trans/genderqueer Pride Week and we’ve discussed strategies for teaching grammar to first-year students. He never seemed like a predator to me. Who reported him for what? And for what purpose?

In February, about a month after my colleague’s arrest, a conservative professor of political science at the University of Calgary gave a talk at another university which was recorded on a cellphone, then posted on Youtube. Tom Flanagan, the professor, was recorded saying:

“I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures.”*

Within a week, Tom Flanagan was notorious for supporting “child porn.” All the Canadian institutions with which he had been associated have uninvited him, cancelled agreements and generally distanced themselves from him.

I never thought I would agree with a conservative on anything, but I can’t help recognizing some common sense in Professor Flanagan’s statement. “Pictures” can include cartoon images or even suggestive drawings of young bodies. They can include sepia-toned photos of naked children taken in the nineteenth century by the likes of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, which were regarded as sentimental images of Innocence personified by a Victorian audience, but which look creepy to suspicious viewers now.

I don’t know if the material that attracted my colleague’s interest showed the actual abuse of an actual person. That question seems crucial to me, and as long as I don’t know, I can’t have a clear opinion on the case.

So far, both my colleague and Professor Flanagan have been stigmatized and ostracized; this is what I know beyond a doubt. I don’t know if any actual child or youth was harmed by either of these men. As academics, they both had the ability to influence a vast number of young adults, mostly over the age of majority. And university students have an obligation to evaluate what they hear, based on its merits.

As a university English instructor and an erotic writer, I can’t pretend I’m not nervous. Literature, even the stuff not labelled “erotic,” shows a spectrum of human behaviour, including some that my students’ parents might not approve of. I don’t mention my own work in class, but some of my former students have discovered it. So far, my academic supervisors have been incredibly supportive of everything I do. I hope their support never wavers.

In the current social climate, I would hesitate to write or post any expression of underage sexuality, including my own quirky fantasies and drawings from many years ago.

Braver souls than I have posted well-written, thoughtful work in the ERWA lists that seem to feature underage characters – but their ages are never clear and in some cases, they discover their sexuality in some other era or some other world than ours. It`s always tempting for erotic writers to sift through our own fantasies and experiences for ideas, and to consider the first spring buds of our current sexual identities. Writing about early lust shouldn`t be so dangerous.

There have been moral panics in the past about the supposed dangers of homosexuality or any sexual activity that becomes known to anyone besides the participants. Panic tends to obscure details and shut down debate.

In the case of the two profs accused of being defenders and consumers of “kiddie porn,” I really hope that cooler heads will eventually prevail and that the whole truth will come out. Enforced silence has never supported justice. Or creativity.

*For more information, see: http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/tom-flanagan-says-he-was-trapped-into-child-porn-comments-1.1180824#ixzz2OQWe6Yqo

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