by Jean Roberta

Earlier this month, there was a thread in the Writers list of Erotic Readers and Writers about whether the association is “straight” in any sense.

Originally, this term seemed to mean conservative or mainstream. People who share a love for (or an addiction to) certain consciousness-altering substances refer to stone-sober outsiders as the “the straights.” People who identify as any shade of “queer” (gay-male, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, bi-curious, etc.) describe heterosexuals as “straight.” Those who are into bondage, discipline, Dominance, submission, sadism, masochism or fetishes distinguish themselves from the “vanilla” mainstream, and this means approximately the same thing as “straight,” even though a sizable section of the kinky crowd is heterosexual, and many have a sensible rule against getting high when they intend to “play.”

Considering that people join the ERWA lists because they like to read and write sexually-explicit literature, and considering that this taste is definitely not conservative, it could be argued that no one in this group is “straight” in the narrowest sense. Erotic writers have been discriminated against in various ways when they are openly identified, and this gives them something in common with all other victims of social prejudices.

By now you can probably see the problem with labels. A person who has one identity which is not universally accepted may be perfectly “straight” in another sense. From the outside, all “queers” may look similar, but I know enough transpeople to be aware that as a white lesbian married academic, I am much more privileged than someone whose sexual plumbing doesn’t match hir (his/her) outward appearance.

And then there is racial and cultural identity. Despite some very real, tangible signs of “advancement” for “the colored” (as in the name of a venerable organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), racism in various forms persists. Are those of us who look white therefore relatively “straight?” Is a kinky, polyamorous brown person who grew up in a privileged family in a Third-World country more or less “straight” than a white vanilla queer professional, raised in an urban slum, who likes crystal meth as a recreational drug and lacy lingerie as a secret indulgence? Does it make a difference if one of them is male and one is female?

In organizations that aim to be fairly diverse, there are always rumors that “they” are “taking over.” When I was on the board of a major, government-funded feminist organization, I heard from my mother, of all people, that someone who didn’t know she was related to me had warned her that the lesbians in the group were taking over. This was news to me. The past president, a married woman with much organizational experience, still seemed to be setting the tone in much the same way that the feminist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was influenced by Emmaline Pankhurst (in England), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (in the U.S.) and Nellie McClung (in Canada) while all three had husbands and children. Anyone who believes that votes for women were won by a perverse, male-bashing cabal of bitter dykes needs to do some reading.

Years ago, someone in “Parlor” here at ERWA complained that the BDSM crowd seemed to be changing the tone of the group – for the worse. The complainer waxed nostalgic for the “good old days” of a few years before when, presumably, everyone in ERWA shared a common view of sexuality, and it did not include leather. Several long-term members referred her to stories and posts with a kinky flavor, some of which dated back to the founding of the group in 1996.

As an old-timer here (since December 1998), I haven’t seen any sudden change of the culture due to the invasion of any particular community. If anything, the charge that the group as a whole is “too straight” seems more credible than the suggestion that a hot chili-pepper clique is quietly spiriting the vanilla beans away and keeping them bound and gagged in a cellar. “Straightness” could be defined as a default category. Anyone who is not familiar with a community or a lifestyle that doesn’t get much airtime in the media is, by default, relatively “straight.” The price of diversity is a shortage of in-group familiarity and the need for education. (Those who don’t understand need to learn, and those who aren’t understood are often called on to teach, for better or worse.)

There are times when those who are alternately ignored and singled out for attack prefer the company of their own tribe, and this is understandable. Some members of ERWA probably feel more at home somewhere else, at least occasionally. However, a diverse group that attracts new members is one that can survive over time. The greatest degree of general acceptance (short of accepting injustice) seems like the key to sustainability.

I think of ERWA as a hub for overlapping categories of writers, some of whom have added sex scenes to their romances, mysteries or literary stories, while some have learned to expand sex scenes into whole plots, or poetic meditations. This place is the Times Square or Speakers Corner of the erotic writing world. Even when I lurk, I can’t imagine dropping out entirely. There is just too much going on here, and I wouldn’t want to miss it.