Should your characters wear masks?

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

So here we are, in the last few weeks of 2020, with the Covid-19 epidemic still raging. I’ll admit to being surprised. An eternal optimist, I expected the disease would be under control within a few months of its appearance. Instead, the pandemic rages on, worse now in some places than ever. It has radically altered day-to-day life, to a greater or lesser extent, for almost everyone on the planet. Furthermore, even with the encouraging developments related to vaccines, this situation seems likely to continue well into 2021.

Of course, lockdowns and quarantines can actually benefit us writers, more or less forcing us to put butt in chair. I’ve been very productive this year, writing a new novel and starting on its sequel as well as producing several shorter pieces and re-publishing some older work whose rights have reverted. Still, I’d trade it all to go back to life without masks, hand santitizers, contact tracing apps and social distancing.

What about our characters, though? Should we put them through all the (pardon-my-French) crap we’re dealing with in our own lives? If you write contemporary erotica or erotica romance, this is a serious question. Speaking for myself, I never go out of the house these days without two masks – one to wear, and one to give to somebody else who might need one. Should my heroine act the same way? Will readers who have now become accustomed to Covid-induced constraints think our stories are strange or unrealistic – or even irresponsible – if we leave out those ugly and annoying details?

I know that some of the members of the Storytime list have already incorporated Covid-19 into their fiction. We’ve also seen a run of flashers that depend on the special circumstances of lockdowns, working at home, Internet-only socialization and so on. I’ve written one or two myself.

However, I’m not going to include the daily irritations and terrors of Covid-19 into my main body of work, at least not for the foreseeable future. Why remind our readers of all the unpleasantness they’re already facing on a daily basis? Romantic or erotic fiction, no matter how “real” we try to make it, will always include an element of fantasy. It’s hard to imagine something less sexy than a global pandemic. I’d like my readers to forget about that aspect of their lives, at least for a while.

There’s another reason I’m not keen to have my characters wearing masks and worrying about contagion. Books have a potentially long lifetime. Details that are current and immediate now may well seem dated in a couple of years. In 2025, ubiquitous face masks may be viewed as weird. (Indeed, I hope this is the case.) I’d like readers to be able to relate to my work half a decade from now.

My first novel was published in 1999. It is still in print. Originally set in Bangkok in the nineties, it has no cell phones or social media, no Google or YouTube. And yes, it does feel a bit strange to read it now. The last time I edited and republished the book (about ten years ago), I decided to anchor it firmly in time (the year 2000), so that readers would judge it according to that particular era. That process made me very aware of how technological and social aspects of a book can affect the reading experience.

Of course, each of us must make a personal decision on this issue. One might liken it to the question of whether to write condoms into our erotic tales. Some authors feel that this is unnecessary in a genre based on wish-fulfillment. Others believe it’s their job to provide models of safe sex.

Indeed, younger readers who have grown up in the era of AIDS may find my erotica, where condom use is pretty rare, makes them uncomfortable. Alas, AIDS changed sex forever, in a very negative direction.

I pray that the long term effects of Covid-19 will be less damaging to our sexual, social and emotional health. I’d like to believe that’s true – as I said, I am an optimist. In any case, I’m writing my stories for happier days, when the pandemic is a sobering memory rather than a daily challenge.

Problems and Pleasures of The Myth of the Uncontrollable Urge

Minotaur crouching over sleeping woman; Picasso, 1933

I’m going to begin this essay by asking you for the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to ask you to assume
I’m not an insane or immoral person. I’m asking this of you because I’m about
to wade into the uncomfortable, murky waters of consent, intentionality and
biological imperative when it comes to sex – both fictionally and factually.

Attempts to unpack these issues, to examine philosophical, historical,
institutional, artistic and socially constructed understandings of human
sexuality reveal uncomfortable realities. They don’t always accord with the way
we want things to be or live up to our ideals. But I’d like to argue that approaches that seek to present the issue as uncomplicated for the sake of clarity, are not realistic or productive ones.

I just watched the documentary “India’s Daughter.” It
chronicles the events of the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of a woman
identified in the film as “Jyoti”. Some Indian feminist have
criticized the film because it allows a number of the rapists, their defense
lawyers and a few others to air, what to most Westerners and many Indians, too,
are deeply misogynistic views on where women belong in society and the part
they play in their own victimization. These statements are not directly and
immediately rebutted in the film – it allows the audience to be appalled at
them. The strategy works well in the context of a Western liberal audience that
is probably unaware of the extreme schisms of social attitudes surrounding
women. But for an Indian audience, where these views are not uncommon or unknown,
it fails. The Indian Government has banned
the airing of the documentary
, ostensibly because it offers a platform for
views it wishes to eradicate. However, this decision might also have been influenced by a recent incident in which a
mob of thousands pulled an accused rapist out of a prison in Dimapur
, and
beat him to death. The event is more complex than it appears. The accused was a
Bangladeshi, so there are both issues of religious and immigration tension that
have played significant roles.

I’d like to examine the myth that humans are at the mercy of
their animal instincts, driven by their biological imperatives; how old and
widespread this fallacy is and how deeply it has embedded itself into many cultures;
and what part it plays in both our fictions and our social norms.

It’s all Aristotle’s Fault.

Not really, but at least in Western culture, Aristotle’s
Nicomachean Ethics has served, through the centuries as a font of great wisdom
on the matter of the human condition. In Part Seven of the Ethics,
Aristotle submits that, once in the thrall of sexual arousal, humans are no
longer capable of exercising reason, restraint or judgement. Historicity and
language is a bit of a problem. We don’t know what stage of arousal Aristotle
is referring to. Perhaps he was referring to the moment of orgasm, in which
case he’d be spot on. The problem is that our historical unease with the
specifics of the human sexual response led to very broad generalizations about
states of sexual arousal. This myth that a human in any given state of sexual
arousal is incapable of exercising choice, or control, or good judgment, has
been responsible for a millennial get out of jail free card when it comes to
sexual ethics.

Sorry, Different Department.

By the time we did get around to studying human sexual
response in the mid-20th Century, courtesy of Kinsey and Masters
and Johnson
, the sciences had specialized. People who were interested in
philosophy, ethics, sociology or psychology had all been given their own
departments – nay – buildings on another campus. Let me tell you, interdisciplinary studies of human
are a rare, belittled, and underfunded species.

However, we know humans can and routinely do exercise
enormous control over their ‘animal’ instincts. We seem to be able to restrain
ourselves from peeing in our nests, we often find ways to negotiate our
territorial instincts, and unsurprisingly, we manage to restrain ourselves from
spending all our time mating – even though some of us spend an inordinate
amount of time thinking about it. There are men and women of diverse religious
orders who manage to live a life of complete sexual celibacy. Even
hormone-addled 16-year-olds don’t generally rampage through the countryside
raping every orifice they encounter. To look at it more quantitatively and at
more extreme levels of sexual arousal, practicing the ‘withdrawal method’ (27
pregnancies in 100) is still vastly more effective than using no birth control
method at all (85 pregnancies in 100). So, even at the abyssal precipice of
orgasm, it’s clear that we can and do have the capacity to exercise some
choice, some judgment.

Once We Were Dumb Mammals

Meanwhile, in the realm of society, we consistently ignore
that fact. Historically and to the present day, we create narratives about
humans helplessly carried away by the urgency of erotic bliss. Our literature,
drama and films are full of it. But, more darkly, so are our laws, our judicial
systems, our security structures. 
We may acknowledge rape as a crime in theory, but even in the most
‘enlightened’ egalitarian social systems, it is astonishing how often
responsibility is shifted from the person who refused to exert control over
themselves and onto something or someone else. It was the clothes the victim
was wearing, the fact that she was out alone, the fact that she wasn’t
accompanied by a relative, the fact that she (or he) came up to the rapist’s
apartment, alcohol, drugs, peer pressure, prison, porn, the prevalence of a
‘rape culture’. The list of reasons why an individual is not wholly, personally
accountable for their actions goes on and on. Whether you find yourself in a
culture that denies women autonomy, or one that offers them an equal legal
status, the
myth of the uncontrollable urge always rears its head

Mythological Beasts

We can control ourselves and we enjoy the lie that we can’t.
It’s not really that surprising: biological drives are compelling, and it takes
effort to refuse their call. It makes sense that humans would have fantasies
about respite from that control. In his book “Speaking the Unspeakable:
The Poetics of Obscenity,” Peter Michelson explains the liberating appeal
of pornography. It is, he says, a space where we can luxuriate in relinquishing
the very real control we have over our animal instincts. There is romanticism,
authenticity and empowerment in our fantasies of giving in to our animal
natures. I don’t wholly agree with Michelson on the specific mechanisms of
this, because I think our ‘animal natures’ are themselves a fantasy
construction.  Nonetheless, he
presents an excellent argument: there is erotic pleasure in the prospect of relinquishing
control only because that control is, in fact, so real and so often exercised.

Meanwhile, romance often features motifs of being swept
away, overcome, overwhelmed, desiring beyond the boundaries of social
acceptability. The pursuer can’t help but want the object of his or her desire.
It obsesses them; it drives
them to extraordinary and unruly lengths within the context of the storyworld.
And the pursued, it usually turns out, cannot refuse the pleasure of being that
object of desire and, if all is well, return the feeling.

Fictional Outposts

One of the reasons I champion
fictional, eroticized portrayals of reluctance and even rape is because to deny
that these ideations have semiotic power is dangerous. But also, to attempt to
force limits (i.e. to have rape fantasies is a betrayal of feminist ideology)
on what metaphors, what metonyms, what ‘signifieds’ might be is also futile. I
think fiction is a safe space in which to negotiate the uncomfortable fantasies
and nostalgias humans possess for the lawless, reasonless, unempathic animals
we used to be. I’m not convinced of the veracity of that earlier state of
natural ‘innocence’, but it haunts us and calls to us nonetheless. Fantasy and
fiction are the only safe places we should give it power or credence. To
situate this myth of the uncontrollable urge in fantasy and fiction is to put
it exactly in the place it belongs – beyond the pale of the everyday world and
civil society, and to underscore that it is the ONLY place it belongs.

One of the stark messages of “India’s Daughter” is
that it is social attitudes, the tolerance of real world inequities, the historical
absence of women’s voices, their lack of power and the perpetuation of utterly
baseless justifications that create an environment in which crimes like this
are possible. The shocking testimonies of rape-apologists in the documentary
are offensive as hell, but they serve to remind us that these attitudes don’t
survive and are not perpetuated through fictional works, but through entirely
real-world levels of tolerance that predate ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and even
basic literacy.

The Line

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.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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