The Hidden Political Power of Erotica: A Reader’s and Writer’s Journey
“When you write, you illuminate what’s hidden, and that’s a political act.”
So said Grace Paley in a 1985 “Fresh Air” interview. I came across her quote in a New Yorker review of the new collection of her work: A Grace Paley Reader. It’s hard to get more hardcore literary than the New Yorker, but even as I held that august magazine in my hands, I thought, “She’s talking about erotica writers, too! Actually, not ‘too.’ Especially us.”
After all, who is best at illuminating what is hidden from polite society than erotica writers?
Sexuality is, even today for the most part, segregated in private spaces or specialized commercial venues. Writing erotica in any dedicated, and certainly celebratory, fashion (bad, uncomfortable, or punished sex is more acceptable for literary fiction than a good, contagiously hot sex scene) “cheapens” a serious writer.
But most human beings do have sex. It has meaning in our lives. It elates and confuses, embarrasses and enlightens, connects and exploits. To explore this aspect of our existence honestly in our writing is courageous, and indeed political, in the sense that it “speaks truth to power” by refusing to obey the rule of silence around sexuality.
Yet for me, erotica’s illuminations go even deeper. I speak now as a reader of erotica, the twin pillar of our association’s name. When I first encountered sexually explicit writing, through Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden and Penthouse letters, I was fascinated by the frank discussion of these naughty acts that I’d yet to experience myself. It was an education in the possible, and in some sense, even when I knew better, I took the stories at face value.
Once I began to write my own stories, I came to realize that a creative depiction of sex (or anything) involves choices and crafting, but also an intuitive understanding of what our culture considers compelling so we can connect with readers. Many readers probably believe we simply write what we personally find arousing or have done in our real lives, but I’ve written stories for calls that have drawn heavily from my imagination. I also came to believe that any erotic story, even one based honestly on actual experience, is a fantasy of a sort.
Many dismiss “fantasy” as second best to the “real thing,” but for me, the revelation of the sexual workings of a person’s mind is much more interesting and intimate than the most athletically orgasmic of physical encounters.
It’s also possible that I’ve read too much erotica to find entertainment solely in the descriptions of sex acts. There is as much pleasure to be gotten from considering what stories reveal in terms of power exchange—and I don’t necessarily mean just BDSM. Take a very common theme in erotic stories of sexual encounters between authority figures–teachers, doctors, policewo/men, bosses—and those with lower status such as students, patients, and employees. Polite society defines these relationships as public, proper, and untainted by sex, so just adding sex to the mix is in itself a transgression. But sexualizing a teacher or doctor also humanizes her and creates a kind of equality or even a reversal of status. Certainly during an orgasm, we are all equal in our transcendence of the civilized. Erotica of this flavor is thus an illumination of the humanity and vulnerability of authority figures.
In another example, the theme of exhibitionism can be taken at face value as the desire to perform sexual acts for another’s gaze, but I also see it as a way to reach for validation and acceptance of our sexuality. The illumination here is how suppressed and shamed many of us are or at least were when we had to deal with our maturing erotic selves with so little social support.
A deeper look at our own writing can be illuminating. Which dynamics fascinate us? What haunts us? What soothes? As I mentioned in last month’s column, I’m realizing that I must have internalized the message that a man “wins” when he has sex with me, and I “lose.” I don’t believe that rationally, but that zero-sum equation still has power emotionally. Yet in the fantasies, I “win” because the man’s desire for me and his “domination” lead to my pleasure. My erotic mind transforms society’s message into a win-win.
Respecting sexual fantasy as transformative, healing, revolutionary. Isn’t that a political act if there ever was one?
Sexual fantasy is not usually considered worthy of serious reflection. It’s a use-it-once-and-throw-it-away sort of thing. Perhaps if we’re really perverted, a doctor should be called in to analyze us, but otherwise, polite society says erotic daydreams are best kept private—even as variations of the same are splayed across billboards and movie screens. The first-draft writer side of me hesitates to spend too much time on analysis or the big picture. Storytelling uses another part of my brain. But the reader in me delights in the illumination of secrets, including my own, and the personal power it gives me to make or re-make stories, the food of our intellect and our souls.
That’s a political act, too.