By Lisabet Sarai
A few days ago I finished reading The Sweetest Thing, a new short story collection by fellow ERWA member Julius Addlesee (and edited by another ERWA member, Nan Andrews). This isn’t a review – that will be coming at the beginning of next month, over at Erotica Revealed – but rather a reflection on the contrast between the sex in this book and the sex we tend to see today, both in the real world and in a lot of erotica.
The book is unabashedly vanilla. Although the characters and situations in The Sweetest Thing vary, all the tales focus on mutual heterosexual lust, seasoned by serendipity, affection, and, in many cases, lingerie. The stories feel a bit old-fashioned because the characters experience desire in such an enthusiastic, uncomplicated way. No one takes sexual pleasure for granted, but no one questions it, either – no guilt, no angst.
There’s an innocence about these stories. The narrators (all male) display a sense of wonder when confronted with the glory of women. The characters linger over foreplay, delighting in the tastes, smells, textures of their partners, who tend not to be model-thin or movie-star handsome but who are nevertheless almost unbearably desirable. Sex is special, a delicious mystery to decipher, a gift waiting to be opened.
I remember when sex was like that – powerful and intimate. To a heart-breaking extent, I feel like that kind of sex has been lost. When I was in my teens and twenties, stores hid magazines like Playboy and Penthouse under the counter. Porn movies arrived by mail in plain brown wrappers. A nude photo shoot like the one I did with the friend of a friend would be considered outrageous and daring. BDSM was shockingly perverse. To discover my own inclinations in that direction was a life-changing revelation.
In today’s mobile-obsessed, painfully public world, nude photos are commonplace. Teenagers broadcast them to their friends – kids who are not even their lovers. Porn is never more than click or two away. Sex is everywhere: in movies, in video games, in rock music, in advertising, in popular best sellers. I remember the thrill of reading James Bond in study hall, passing around a volume that marked the spot where the virile spy stroked his hand across the smooth, flat belly of his bikini clad partner. That was all – imagination filled in the rest – but oh, how that made me yearn!
What would Ian Fleming have thought of Fifty Shades of Gray?
I wouldn’t complain, if more sex meant better sex. However, I get the impression that many people find sexual satisfaction as elusive as ever – perhaps more. Casual sex has become more accepted and more available, but close, mutually enjoyable sex is another story. Divorce rates have soared. Rape occurs at least as frequently as when sex was rationed and forbidden, and my observations suggest that it is actually more likely to be tolerated in our sexually-desensitized world.
As I discussed in a previous post on this blog, an explosion of information on sexual technique has stolen the spontaneity from sexual encounters. When I was in my sexual prime, I never worried whether I was good in bed. All I knew was that being in bed with a lover felt good.
Even “deviant” behavior like BDSM has become ordinary and accepted rather than shocking. Fetishism influences popular culture. I can’t count the number of fashion ads I’ve seen where the model is wearing a leather corset and wielding a whip. These days everyone seems interested in kink. My master grumbles that everybody gets spanked now, or tied up. We’re not special anymore.
It’s not surprising that today’s erotica and erotic romance reflect the same trends. Authors include ever more extreme sexual activities in their tales, trying to get noticed. Voyeurism, exhibitionism, age play, infantilism, blood and water sports, body modification, bondage, threesomes, foursomes, orgies, gang bangs – you’ll find it all and more, not just in self-identified stroke fiction but also in anthologies released by publishers of “literary erotica”, and indeed, even in romance, once the bastion of coyness and traditionalism.
One of my readers complains that she can’t find any vanilla erotica anymore.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against outrageous sexual acts. I’ve written a few myself. My concern is that these acts have come to have no meaning. They don’t feel dangerous or brave or transgressive anymore. They scarcely influence my emotions or my physical reactions, unless they’re extremely well written. Meanwhile, warm, bawdy stories of straight sexual pleasure – like Julius’ tales – have become as rare as penny candy.
I know I sound like a curmudgeon – like my mother, railing against “the new generation” and praising the good old days. This change isn’t even generational, though. It encompasses a mere decade or so. When I wrote my first novel, the acts I portrayed were unusual, scary, and exciting. Now they’re ho hum.
You can’t stop time, nor control cultural change. You have to learn to live with the world as it is today, without pining for yesterday. I’m glad the market for erotica has expanded, offering more opportunities for us all. Still, I mourn the loss of sexual innocence, and the corresponding incandescence of sexual experience – in life and in fiction.
[The title for this post was stolen from a story by Robert Buckley, which features an aged bootlegger from 1920’s. Thanks, Bob! That tale is included in his charitable anthology, Coming Together Presents Robert Buckley, which I had the privilege of editing.]