The Line

by | December 21, 2013 | General | 25 comments

By Lisabet Sarai

Earlier this month
Remittance Girl challenged the frequently articulated claim that
exposure to porn encourages violence against women. The UK is about
to ban eroticized fictional depictions of rape because (the argument
goes) such fiction exposes people to the juxtaposition of rape and
arousal, makes rape appear more attractive and socially acceptable,
and hence increases its frequency.

RG’s characteristically subtle
refutation of this view relies at least partially on the assumption
that readers make distinctions between what they like to read about
and what they do. After all (as I’m sure you’ve heard erotic writers
argue), murder mysteries are not banned out of fear that they’ll
encourage readers to go out and poison their neighbors or hack them
to pieces. “Admittedly, we do suspend disbelief when we read or
view fiction,” RG comments, “but we don’t mistake it for

Until recently I would have agreed
wholeheartedly with this position. Then I read about this case:

If you haven’t heard about this, and
don’t feel like following the link (and putting up with all the ads),
I’ll summarize the situation. A man who’d been separated from his
ex-wife for several years bought a new phone, with a number
unfamiliar to her, and began texting her, pretending to be a 20 year
old stranger. Before long their interactions became highly
sexualized. They agreed to have a physical encounter at her home. Not
wishing to reveal who he was, he arrived masked and refused to speak,
giving her instructions through hand signs. Apparently he played the
role of the dominant, tying her to the bed, fucking her, and leaving
her there, still bound. This happened twice, and then (it’s not
entirely clear how), the woman guessed the true identity of her
lover/assailant and charged him with rape.

The relevance of this case to erotic
writing lies in the fact that both the man and the woman had
apparently read Fifty Shades of Grey. The woman kept a copy of
the book, as well as other titles related to BDSM, by the side of her
bed. If the media are to be believed (and I suspect that there’s at
least some truth to this interpretation), the protagonists in this
saga were acting out scenarios they’d encountered in erotic fiction.

Is this bad? I don’t give much credence
to the claim of rape (and apparently the judge didn’t either). The
motivations are murky but clearly the encounters were consensual.
What bothers me is the fact that these two people apparently engaged
in potentially dangerous BDSM practices without much of a clue as to
what they were doing. Any serious dominant will tell you that you
should not leave someone tied up, alone, with no means of escape. The
risks range from circulatory problems to death in the event of a fire
or other disaster.

These individuals had read about BDSM
in a novel and used the behavior in that novel as a model for their
own. Real world practitioners of dominance and submission have panned
FSOG as dangerously inaccurate, with respect to both the physical and
psychological nature of a BDSM relationship,
But how was this couple to know?

Clearly these people didn’t appreciate
the difference between fantasy and reality. One might guess that this
was simply due to ignorance. After all, if FSOG is your first
exposure to dominance and submission – and it now is, for millions
of readers around the world – how are you going to know that BDSM is
not about instant surrender, endless beatings and innumerable
orgasms? Who’s going to tell you to study up on the physical risks
before taking the plunge? While preparing this blog, I tried without
success to find reputable statistics on injuries or emergency visits
attributable to BDSM scenarios gone wrong, but during my search I
encountered plenty of chilling (as well as ridiculous) anecdotes.

It’s easy to criticize FSOG. Sour
grapes make such grumbling all the more tempting – even though ever
mention of the book just pumps up the sales. However, even those of
us who try to portray BDSM more realistically are sometimes guilty of
twisting the truth in the service of arousal. How often do we write
about negotiation? About limp or dry cunts? About the
exhaustion that sets in when you’ve been whipped and spanked for
hours, until, despite your devotion to your dominant, you really just
want to take a shower or a nap?

I’ve written about BDSM activities I’ve
never tried – knife play, fire play, branding, heavy caning.
Because let’s face it, for many of us, extreme or taboo sexual
scenarios are more exciting than more familiar acts. I’ve tried to do my research, but I
don’t focus too much on the risks because I know that too much
emphasis on those aspects can break the erotic spell. I’ve always
believed that readers have responsibility for their own actions, and
that most can distinguish the line between fantasy and reality.

After reading about this couple in New
Zealand, though, I have begun to wonder. Perhaps some sort of formal
license should be required before people are allowed to read porn.
Maybe they should have to take something like a driving test, to make
sure they know the sexual rules of the road. Minus five for slamming
your penis into her vagina immediately after you’ve fucked her butt.
Minus ten for using a plastic bag over your sub’s head to muffle her
screams. Minus fifteen for looping the rope around her neck because
you like the way it looks…

I’m being facetious, of course. I’m not sure how to deal with this evidence that people do, in
fact, conflate sexual fiction and sexual fact. We’re not educators.
Our books are not how-to manuals. We’re writing to challenge, engage,
and arouse our readers, not teach them about sex. Yet clearly our
readers do learn from our books – sometimes not what we intend.

Should this bother us? Or should we just
shrug off the people who take us literally, even when they might come to
physical or emotional harm? Is it really their problem? Or is it

At this point, I honestly don’t know.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Annabeth Leong

    Interesting post as always, Lisabet. 🙂 My first intro to BDSM was in a relationship, and it was not SSC. Then I read erotic fiction about BDSM, and slowly ideas such as safewords began to emerge (from certain books and stories). These days I regularly attend BDSM conventions and there's a ton of discussion there about safety. I have to confess that I've done a few unsafe things even when I should have known better. My point is that it's a learning curve to move from fantasy to reality no matter where the fantasy is coming from.

    And I have a lot of dearly held fantasies that are very unsafe, and it's taken me a while to learn why and how they're unsafe. (Being tied up and left seems to be a popular one—apparently that's not just me).

    That said, it's good to be exposed to the difference. One of my publishers includes a disclaimer that points out that the contents of the book are a fantasy and may not represent safe practices. It suggests that readers educate themselves before trying anything. People mock disclaimers like that sometimes as legalese, but I've always appreciated seeing it there. I think a few things along those lines or notes to the reader might be a good trend for publishing. Sex is a murkier area than murder, sadly, and there's so much misinformation and shame floating around that it seems like it would be nice to give readers a little extra help.

    Erotica's not the only place I've seen this sort of story, though. As a longtime gamer who lived for a while in Florida, we were under the shadow of the "vampire killer." Though now that geeks have taken over the world, it's a bit hard to believe in retrospect, at the time there was a widespread belief that fantasy role-playing games caused devil worship, murder, and worse (fueled by media reports that the vampire killer played them, etc). That's diminished as people have learned more about these games. Maybe that will one day happen for BDSM, though as RG has pointed out, there might not be as much of a thrill if it goes too mainstream.

    Another essay for you!

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Annabeth,

      One of the hottest books I've read recently was Bending, by Greta Christina. This collection of extremely perverse stories begins with a caution from the author and ends with a wonderful list of BDSM resources. I was hugely impressed, partly because Greta's message came through loud and clear: It's okay to fantasize about this sort of thing. It's even okay to explore your fantasies in the real world. Just educate yourself about what you are doing first.

      My own initiation into BDSM didn't include safewords. I didn't know about them, or many other aspects of D/s practice. However, my Dom had made an extensive study and sent me to various resources to read and learn. (Of course, being ordered to read about kinky sex practices was exciting in itself!)

  2. Kimber Sharpe

    Okay, I'm going to go out on a limb here and may end up hanging myself but….do people read Piers Anthony and think they can travel to other worlds through tapestries? Do they read Stephen King and believe there is a monster under their bed? Come on! Give me a break. I read books about vampires and werewolves but I don't think there is one lurking in the shadows of my bedroom at night. And even if there were, I wouldn't have sex with it just because I read a paranormal romance book. There are stupid people everywhere…it was only a matter of time before they learned to read is all I'm saying.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      You're right, Kimber. On the other hand, ordinary people do have sex (unlike traveling to other worlds) and so the line between reality and fantasy may be harder to discern than in the examples you cite.

      I think this makes the issue more difficult. Furthermore, I think it's great that FSOG has made people more aware of, and more accepting of, BDSM. People should be encouraged to express their sexual needs and explore their fantasies. Even "stupid" people deserve to have great sex…

  3. xanwest

    I learned about kink from books first, both fiction and non-fiction. It is precisely because people (like me) do use erotica to learn about sex that I (as a kink educator) write erotica with that in mind. I make the personal choice as a kink erotica writer and kink educator to write smut that is aligned with my kink ethics and knowledge and is realistic. This is also a sign of my personal taste, as I prefer to read erotica that includes things like negotiation, consent and risk awareness. I understand, of course that other writers may make different choices, just as other kinky folks may have different kink ethics from mine.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Xan,

      Your stories are among the more extreme that I've read, but I recognize and respect your emphasis on consent. You've managed to crack the riddle – how to maintain the heat while still emphasizing personal responsibility and the relationship between the Dom and the sub.

      Thank you!

    • xanwest


      This was lovely to read. Made my day to know you see that in my work. I posted a signal boost for this post on my website; I hope it brings more folks to this conversation.

  4. Donna

    One possible distinction between time travel, murder and sex, is that eroticized sex (versus how-to sex and dysfunctional sex) is still taboo to discuss, so there isn't the same reality check. Add to that the pervasive commercial come-on that everyone else is having better sex than we are because they bought more stuff and the fact that we all have more sex in our heads than we do with a partner, I could see the potential for confusion. For me, the "problem" is not easily solvable, but it comes down to being able to communicate honestly about sex, real sex where women don't immediately orgasm upon penetration and you need to clean up afterwards, etc. It's better than it used to be, but we still have a long way to go.

    • Remittance Girl

      I think it's more sinister than that. I think it mean's we've bought the koolaid that says that sex is, somehow, a more dangerous topic than others. And so we, as writers of sex must be more responsible than others.

      Sorry, but I'm not Caesar's wife.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      And that begs the question, is sex a more dangerous topic? Maybe.

      That doesn't make us necessarily responsible. But it gives me pause.

  5. vbonnaire

    Very glad you wrote this! Years ago here I read some stuff that prompted me to ask on the writer's list — "Does it bother you that somebody might *try* what you just wrote?" The answers were surprising. One writer said something to the effect that they weren't responsible. Well, I'm with you. Look at the news story. Yep. The audience? Who knows…..really who knows. I'm so glad you are bringing this up.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Valentine,

      I don't have a firm position on this – just wanted to raise the topic for debate. In any case I'm not advocating that we change what we write. But perhaps we need to change the way we think about it.

  6. xanwest

    I've been thinking more about this, and it seems like part of the question is about the craft itself. If we decided we were responsible, or that we *wanted* to educate in our erotica, how do we do it in a way that's still hot?

    On that question, I have a couple thoughts to start, and they are not really from me, but are resources I've learned from.

    One of the main things I have found useful is to read and think about models of erotica that has an agenda and still manages to be hot. For example, Patrick Califia is unabashed about having an agenda in his work. In his essay, "An Insistent and Indelicate Muse," published in the brilliant collection, The Burning Pen, edited by M. Christian, he says "I like to use the cover of eroticism to entice the reader and make them emotionally and psychologically vulnerable to new ideas or discomfiting information. I hold out the reward of dirty talking in exchange for the reader stretching their political muscles.” I have found Califia's work to be a deep influence, particularly around this issue of wanting to make a political or educational point in my erotica.

    I have also learned a lot from speculative fiction writers, about infusing fiction with politics or education, particularly because there is such a large group of writers that write and talk about craft. Claire Light once said something that I found invaluable in thinking about this kind of project, when discussing Octavia Butler on a panel which has luckily been recorded (

    “The best fiction can be read as metaphor and has its own integrity, stands outside of it. That is the power of speculative fiction. Mimetic fiction [realistic fiction]…can’t diverge too far from the quotidian…we have to have purses and bicycles and cars, and so forth. We have to eat breakfast. You can’t diverge from that too far. Whereas with science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror, and all these speculative genres, you can create a world in which the quotidian is completely different. And that is your task as a writer: to give that world integrity and life. And ironically, that is what brings your politics to life as well. Your eye stays on the ball but the ball is not the politics, the ball is the reality of the world, the integrity of the world. And when you take your eye off this knot of politics that you are trying to untangle and explicate for people in your really ham-fisted way, and you put it on making this world come alive, all these things come out of here that you would never put into your fiction if you had tried to do it consciously. It’s all about tricking your consciousness to go to sleep and tricking your subconscious to come awake. So of course then the result is that you do have an integral very alive world that stands on its own and it’s not just a roman a clef for the real world, not just a one-to-one. And when you see novels that are just a one-to-one metaphor kind of analogy to the real world, they’re not very alive. They’re very forced.”

    This idea of focusing on the quotidian feels very useful to me. In particular, I'd love to see more erotica that included the kinds of things that we may think of as undermining eroticism (like soft cocks or being too exhausted at the end of a beating to do anything except taking a nap). I personally don't think that they undermine hotness, not if we think about what these things might mean in the context of the kink dynamic or the intimacy between characters or the ways that characters might develop and write from those ideas, in the details of that reality. I personally loved the story I read in BLE many years ago where one character got triggered and they paused the sex to take care of her and then started up when she was ready. I thought it was hot and real and I wish there was more smut like that.

  7. Raziel Moore

    There will always be people for whom the line between fiction/fantasy and reality is blurry or nonexistent. Some portion of that population will read murder mysteries, horror, extreme action stories, and/or erotica. Some portion of them will use those fantasies as manuals for their own action. Writers of fiction cannot be held responsible for the actions of these people.

    Living in fear that somewhere, some unbalanced person will believe you're telling them it's ok to rape or injure or fuck unsafely is incompatible with being a fiction writer of those subjects.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Hi, Raz,

      I live more in fear that someone will accuse us of saying these things are okay, whether we deserve that accusation or not.

    • Raziel Moore

      Accusations abound in this world. It is, among other things, the language of those who do not wish to accept responsibility for their own actions.

      Here's the clincher:

      Even if your fiction writing explicitly tells people it's OK to do this [stupid/illegal/immoral/unsavory/socially unacceptable] thing, that is _still_ not license to do so. Fiction is not law, and it's not permission. The accusation "but _you_ said it was OK" could be _true_ and you're still not responsible for someone doing this [stupid/illegal/immoral/unsavory/socially unacceptable] thing. You're not their parent, you're not the law; the authority that gives permission or absolution.

      Ideas are sticky, and you can give them to others. But you as a fiction writer can't make anyone do anything. If they could, I would have written a much nicer planet into existence long ago. Actions are the responsibility of those who undertake them.

  8. Remittance Girl

    Although I am very much on the side of believing that stupid people will do stupid unsafe things and it is not my job as a writer to educate them, I can also agree that a note stressing that what the reader is about to read is fiction and not a how-to-guide might be helpful. However, I doubt it will stop the determinedly stupid.

    My concern, Lisabet, is that although this kind of behaviour might show up more starkly in areas of sexuality, I think it is part of a much greater pattern of behaviour born of a hyper-consumerist society.

    We live in a world that bombards us with messages to consume and to enjoy – not to think, consider and be moderate in doing so. It is not in the interests of a free market system to remind anyone to consume responsibly (except, I notice, on alcohol and tobacco packaging). For the most part, all products, including ideas, are promoted in as uncomplicated, unproblematic a manner as possible. And, of course, we have eagerly embraced the idea of music, film and written works as 'product' as well. It is touted as 'democratizing.' It has been to our economic benefit to frame it that way.

    Furthermore, why is it that you feel perhaps more responsible for someone's unhappy or dangerous BDSM experience, but not for the millions of women who have formed their ideas and expectations of what a romantic life looks like from contemporary romance novels, which also don't come with warnings and are also highly inaccurate? Why is a bad sexual experience so much more dreadful than a lifetime of unmet romantic expectations?

    Or what about the fact that a large percentage of Western populations have accepted the lie that intrusive and overbearing state surveillance is going to keep them safe?

    This is an issue of a society that has been trained not to be critical in its consumption. You putting a warning label on your BDSM isn't going to make a dent in it.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I agree. Everything about western society encourages people not to think or analyze anything deeply. The reasons for this are both economic and political.

      On the other hand, this issue become personally relevant when it relates to erotica.

      I also would dispute your suggestion that millions of women believe the tropes of romance. Based on conversations with my (erotic romance) readers, I'd say that they know romance is escapist and unrealistic, and that they enjoy it for just that reason.

      Unlike BDSM, everyone has the opportunity to see and experience the realities of love and marriage.

    • Remittance Girl

      "Unlike BDSM, everyone has the opportunity to see and experience the realities of love and marriage."

      Oh, really? Think it's harder to find kinky sex than love? I'm not sure that is true.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I'm just saying that people see marriages around them all the time – some good, some bad. Very few of us see floggings.

  9. Remittance Girl

    And now that I've read a lot of these comments, I find myself even more disturbed.

    So, basically, what most of you are saying is we should really confine our erotic fiction to the plausibly non-fictional, because that's responsible and safe, yes?

    Let us not go anywhere in our fiction that we could not legally and safely go in real life. Because to do so is to be a bad example to our children, the readers, who may emulate it.

    Personally, I think this defeats the whole purpose of fiction. It was supposed to be a place you could go in your mind where you SHOULD NOT GO in real life. Apparently, that's just too abstract a concept for readers to handle anymore?

    Okay. I quit.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      I don't think anyone is saying this. Not Xan, certainly. What he's trying to say (I think) is that you can write realistic erotica that is still exciting and even transgressive – and that this is hard to do.

    • xanwest

      Yes, Lisabet is right, I do think that it is possible to write erotica that is realistic and also exciting and transgressive, and that this is a difficult project to undertake. And I understand that not all writers are interested in this project.

      I am not saying that *we should* "confine our fiction to the plausibly non-fictional." Nor am I saying that we should "not go anywhere in our fiction that we could not legally and safely go in real life." For one thing, I am a RACK kinkster, much more interested in talking about consciously engaging with risk from a consensual place than seeking an illusion of safety. And I'm an edgeplayer–,many of my kink practices are both highly risky and illegal in most states in the U.S. where I live. In short, my life does not even fit those parameters, and my fiction reflects these things about my kink.

      That's at the core of what I'm saying–that I personally choose to stay within my own ethical framework in my own erotica. That I choose to write things that I'm ok with people reading to learn from. I would go further to say that I do often have an agenda in my work. I want people to learn things from my fiction. (I'm not saying that its the same as kink education, because it's a different project.) But I will say that I see erotic fiction as a place where I can put forward an agenda, where I can endeavor to offer new ideas or change perspectives or challenge norms, or ask complex questions, or offer models of kink practices that match my ethical framework.

      I do not think that there is any one sole purpose of fiction. And my intent with my own erotic fiction is not to create "a place you could go in your mind where you SHOULD NOT GO in real life."

  10. vbonnaire

    Funny but I recall the piece I'm thinking of. Many years ago, that spurred my question. It was about a man who chose to turn himself into a mannequin by doing some very horrific things to himself. I guess I'm from the moral school who realizes there will be a prole who might — ? The discussion centered around writing things that might cause pain and whether or not the writer should care. I'll never forget how many said they could care less. Most certainly you will NOT find me doing anything like what I saw in that tale. Period. xxoo! Too much of a humanist in a world where that sort of writing has gone by the wayside…in the end you will be known for your themes if you keep on, I expect.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Sounds pretty creepy – though even that scenario might be made erotic.

      However, this doesn't sound like a scenario that would appeal to the masses!

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