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Do you remember when erotica was more than just something to get you off? When writing erotica involved more than selecting a few of the latest hot tropes and “hammering on the kink”?

I do. When I first started publishing in the genre, we wanted to create original and surprising tales, mapping out unknown regions in the vast territory of desire. We used our stories to explore the many facets of sex and arousal, starting, almost always, with our own.

Of course people have always written about sex, often driven by personal kinks and quirks, but from the mid-nineties through the first decade of the twenty first century, it became more practical, and socially acceptable, to do so. Serious publishers began to produce erotic titles. This included the wildly popular Black Lace imprint (“Erotica for women by women”) and Blue Moon Books which was the direct descendant of Barney Rosset’s censor-defying Grove Press. Cleis Press, Circlet Press, and other independent houses produced best-selling, award-winning themed anthologies. Alessia Brio’s altruistic Coming Together imprint brought out more than a dozen erotica collections that raised hundreds of dollars for charitable causes. Maxim Jakubowski edited thirteen annual volumes of The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, selecting erotic short stories that had been published during the previous year. He had plenty of options from which to choose.

There were online publishing options, too, webzines like Clean Sheets, Ruthie’s Place, and of course the Erotica Readers and Writers Association. Back in those days, we had fresh content in our Gallery every month. If you’d like a taste of the quality and diversity ERWA members produced, check out the 2006 volume Cream, a collection of more than forty tales curated from Storytime submissions.

It’s easy and often naive to look back on the past and see a golden age. In the case of erotica, though, I think the products of that period speak for themselves. Laura Antoniou’s The Marketplace. K.D. Grace’s The Initiation of Ms Holly. Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords, by Cecilia Tan. Neptune and Surf by Marilyn Jaye Lewis. So many stories, all of them different, going far beyond the mechanics of sex to investigate the meaning and the consequences of desire.

Less well-known but equally representative of the time is Portia da Costa’s Gemini Heat, the sizzling Black Lace title that got me started in the erotica business. I’d never read anything like that novel, which is both feverishly hot and fantastically well-written. It includes a glorious variety of arousing scenarios: exhibitionism, voyeurism, masturbation, power exchange, ménage, anonymous sex, lesbian sex, even twins. Devouring that book, I never knew what to expect – but I knew it would turn me on. Once I’d cooled down, I began to think about all the personal fantasies I’d include, if I were to write my own erotic novel. Inexperienced though I was, I like to believe that with Raw Silk I succeeded in my joint quest for diversity and heat.

Though it was as graphic as anything published now, the erotica of the nineties and the aughts had an exuberance that bordered on innocence. We could write about whatever turned us on. There were no rules, tropes or fixed sub-genres. Calls for anthologies might articulate themes, but contributors were urged to interpret these as broadly as we wished.

We were high on the thrill of sharing our personal erotic visions with the world. Whether we were reading a wickedly sexy story by another author or producing one of our own, there was a sense of wonder in the process – mingled, usually, with arousal.

Alas, I think that wonder has been lost. The market has changed dramatically. Much of what is now sold as erotica is so stereotyped and genre-constrained that one can predict the events of the story without reading a single sentence. There’s no suspense, no uncertainty. Indeed, many of the erotic books on offer broadcast their kinks in the title. Some results from a random Amazon search on the keyword “erotica”:

  • Busty Stepmoms Swapped Stepsons And Ride Them : MOM AND SON SECRET Sex Adult Hot Threesome Menage Erotica Dirty Explicit Sex Story
  • Explicit Erotica Sex Stories: The Collection Of Naughty Virgin, Cheating Wife, Hottest Forbidden, College Brats, Taboo Family, Dark Romance, And Many More!
  • EXPLICIT M/M SEXY STORIES: Naughty & Filthy First Time Straight to Gay Erotic Short Story Collection (MMM, Taboo Daddy Dom, Dark Romance, Bisexual, BBC)

Granted, these are extreme examples. Here are some titles from recent editions of the Excite Spice newsletter:

  • Disciplined While on House Arrest
  • Shared with My Husband’s Boss
  • The Neighborhood Hucow Hotwife

Even Cleis has added subtitles to their classic anthologies.

Yet this sort of erotica often sells well, despite the predictability. Part of the reason is Amazon’s algorithms. The more explicit you are about the content you’re publishing, the more likely it is that your book with come up near the top of a reader’s search.

Another reason for the shift is the drop in attention span encouraged by today’s world of social media and digital content. People don’t have the time or patience for browsing. Overloaded with information from a dozen different input streams, readers may prefer things to be simple: give me a hot wife story, a spanking story, a tight-virgin-big-cock story, a pseudo-incest story. Name your kink and the Internet will deliver. Exploring the richness of sexuality is a forgotten luxury.

I also believe that people’s attitudes toward sex have changed. When I started writing erotic content, I was continually amazed, almost awed, by the power of sex to transform experience. I was on a continuing journey of sexual discovery; when I began to publish my work, my characters took similar journeys, without knowing where those quests would end.

Do readers feel that way now? I doubt it. I’ve read statistics indicating that people are having sex less frequently now than twenty years ago, and that they are enjoying it less. The amount of graphic content available keeps growing, but the level of individual satisfaction seems to be diminishing.

That makes me very sad.

Everyone knows that the older you get, the more affectionately you look back on earlier times. Perhaps authors and readers three or four decades younger than I am do not see things the way I do. To be honest, I miss the lusty thrill of erotica’s “golden age” – and I’m still trying to capture it in the books I write.