by Jean Roberta
Lately, I showed the latest erotic anthology* that includes a story of mine to several fellow-writers in the university where I teach. One of my colleagues said the title (Forbidden Fruit: Stories of Unwise Lesbian Desire) is enticing. He jokingly said he wouldn’t want to read stories of wise lesbian desire. I assume that a lot of readers would agree with him.
The longer I write erotica, the less my fiction resembles my life. This is partly due to the amazing degree to which love between members of the same gender has become socially acceptable. I’ve been legally married to my female spouse since 2010, but our relationship started in 1989. We are both over sixty. We have steady jobs, as an academic and a kind of social worker for a non-governmental agency that enables disabled people to live as independently as possible. We own a house, where we live with dogs and cats. We have grown offspring who occasionally need—and get—our financial help.
My story in Forbidden Fruit, by contrast, is about a young woman who just can’t resist the “bad girl” who was once a ragged foster child in elementary school. The narrator’s willingness to share a reckless night of passion with Ms. Wrong is tinged with guilt because the “good girl” never helped or befriended her classmate, who is now running from the law and from folks with less mercy. Any sensible advice counsellor would have arranged an intervention for the “bad girl” years before, and would have advised the narrator not to open her door for her.
The other stories in the book are about other women on opposite sides of the law or from cultures that clash like the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story, that classic musical from the 1950s that was based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. At one time in the recent past, lesbian desire was considered unwise by definition. In our time, the stakes have to be raised: the women can’t just both be female in a world where heterosexuality predominates.
In the September 29 issue of Maclean’s, a weekly Canadian newsmagazine, lesbian columnist Emma Teitel writes about “The Power of Erotic Nostalgia.” She says:
“At the Toronto International Film Festival this month, I saw Breathe, French actress Melanie Laurent’s directorial debut about an intense, erotic friendship between two adolescent girls that ends in catastrophe. I’d feel guilty about spoiling that last bit for you, were it not for the fact that nearly every mainstream lesbian-themed movie ends the same way.”
By contrast, Teitel describes her own monogamous relationship of five years: “At 20, we fell in love and carried on a clandestine affair until we were discovered—and lived relatively happily ever after. That is, so far, at least.”
So if lesbians (and other formerly-marginalized lovers) of different generations are living in relative peace, not hunted down by the police, the mental-health establishment or the Inquisition, why are stories about dysfunctional, “forbidden” affairs still so popular?
According to Teitel, this phenomenon can’t be completely explained as an expression of homophobia and/or misogyny in the culture at large. She says:
“It’s not as though horny frat guys are responsible for the thousands of YouTube tribute videos dedicated to Natalie Portman’s twisted, erotic bond to Mila Kunis in Black Swan, or Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox’s literally demonic relationship in Jennifer’s Body.”
Teitel speculates that: “It may be that nothing beats erotic nostalgia.” Most queer adults can remember a first-time, coming-out affair as a scary, hidden, but very sexy experience. Living it is painful, at least some of the time, but remembering it can be exciting.
I suspect that for many readers, including the heterosexually married, “forbidden” attraction carries the same sexual charge. It also enables a reader to vicariously experience more danger than he/she would seek out in real life. No matter how many publishers seem to prefer erotic romance with happy endings to edgy erotica per se, the latter seems unlikely to die out completely.
A walk on the wild side has always been a popular theme in erotica. The middle-class assimilation of same-sex, different-race, or generation-gap couples, and even polyamorous households (in some hip circles) may be minimizing the real danger of formerly “forbidden love,” but not the popularity of stories about it. And of course, there is still enough conservative prejudice to ensure that any love that is not strictly white-bread might really be threatened.
So is the theme of “forbidden love” inherently offensive? I don’t think so. We all crave excitement, as well as security, and we have to find some way to balance our clashing desires. I expect to write about the dangerous attraction of opposites for as long as I have the luxury of time and space of my own. I couldn’t write if I were dodging bullets.
*Forbidden Fruit: Stories of Unwise Lesbian Desire, edited by Cheyenne Blue (Ladylit Publishing, 2014)