by Jean Roberta

There has been much on-line discussion about the differences between literary erotica and erotic romance, whether one genre can be folded into the other, whether romance always requires a happy ending, and whether erotic writers who want to make a profit from their writing must sacrifice their integrity by writing fluff or mush.

Here are some things I have learned simply by living among other human beings: humans are social animals who need companionship as well as physical pleasure. Even in the sex trade (I’ve been there), men pay temporary companions (dancers, “models,” escorts, streetwalkers, pro Dommes, etc.) for more than the brief pleasure of skin-to-skin contact. Human beings want to feel understood, admired, and forgiven for our faults. The assumption that men with official secrets tend to whisper them to the call girls they party with is not simply a myth.

So if “romance” per se is that genre of fiction that focuses on “relationships,” broadly speaking, an erotic writer who does not want to go there must make a strenuous effort to eliminate all traces of “romance” from his or her descriptions of “sex,” whatever that means to the writer or the reader. (I’m imagining a story along the lines of The Stranger by Albert Camus, a widely-translated French novel in which the central character is almost completely emotionless.)

Even a comedy about sexual disappointment or a dark and gothic tale of sexual compulsion, sex that leaves marks, or sex that reveals the ultimate truth that each of us is alone must incorporate the other truth that each of us wants to connect with someone else, and not just physically.

Consider a case in point. I wrote a story that I considered erotic, not romantic. The occasional incompetence of Canadian mail carriers is the plot premise that results in the misdelivery of mail. The narrator, Woman A, receives letters intended for Woman B. A wonders if the same thing is happening in reverse: OMG! What am I missing? A (an “out” lesbian) knows that B receives handwritten letters from someone in New York with a masculine name. Is this B’s boyfriend? Over a period of months, A speculates about B’s life, and watches her on the sly. A doesn’t think she has the right to simply discard personal mail intended for B. So A rings B’s doorbell, a bundle of mail in her hand.

This is a variation on the theme of the wrong-number telephone call that enables two strangers to hear each other’s voices, develop a mutual curiosity and eventually meet in the real world, rip each other’s clothes off and agree that the dialling the wrong number was the best thing one of them could have done.

In my story, A is delighted to learn that B (a local artist) is also a lesbian who has learned all about A’s previous relationship via A’s misdelivered mail. B knows that during the past year, A has experienced a messy breakup. B has gone through a long dry spell of no sex. B gives A an experimental kiss, and when that bold move is accepted, B invites A into her bedroom for a good time. Neither of these women is offering each other a “relationship” at this point. It is too soon for either of them to know whether they have enough in common to share their lives. Both of them are willing to continue getting to know each other (in the Biblical sense and in other ways) to find out where this process will lead.

The climax of this story is an explicit sex scene, so I sent this story to the editor of an erotic lesbian anthology. The story was rejected. I wondered whether the editor was looking for more detailed sexual description as distinct from backstory and emotions other than lust.

This year, I sent the story to a lesbian romance anthology, and it was chosen for the shortlist. Whether or not my story finds its way into the book, the editor clearly thinks it fits into the genre. Never mind that the two characters are more-or-less strangers when they first meet in person, and they carefully avoid making any premature promises. They live in a country where two women could legally marry each other, but these characters are a long way from moving in together, let alone exchanging vows, even by the end of the story. The “happy for now” ending simply involves hope on both sides, and a certain amount of faith that their intimacy could deepen in the future. (“Faith,” in fact, is the title of the story.)

So apparently this is romance. And even if at least one central character in an erotic story is a man, the writer has to acknowledge the fact that men, too, crave love. The widespread belief that men just want to fuck, and that an artificial orifice in a plastic doll would provide the protagonist with the friction he needs is less of a myth, IMO, than a half-truth. If Captain Manpants just wants to fuck the available “girl,” he probably has more complex feelings about the wife he argued with in the morning, or he is wrestling with his secret crush on his male buddy, or he can’t forget the former classmate or coworker he left behind. In fact, he might be hoping to use the “girl” as a substitute for any of the people who have real significance in his life. Trust me. I’ve been the “girl,” and I’ve seen this process in action.

One line that sex workers hear over and over is: “If we had met some other way, we could have had a beautiful relationship.” This is when an honest sex worker gently reminds her customer of how they actually met, and for what purpose.

So do relationships, as distinct from sexual encounters, satisfy the needs of all the participants? In many cases, no. Breakups and divorce are a fact of modern life. Human beings disappoint each other over and over, but human beings reach out to each other over and over. The general advice given to the lovelorn or to those who lost everything in the interpersonal wars is that one must get up, get out, meet new people and climb back on that horse.

Even if a willingness to try once more to establish emotional intimacy with another person looks like the triumph of naïve hope over bitter experience, the only alternative looks like death in some form. So if an erotic story is to exude life, it must also include room for hope that the characters can or do connect on some level beyond the physical. I hesitate to suggest that the most hard-boiled stories about fucking must include spirituality in some form, but I’m not sure what other term would work better.

Most erotic writers of a certain age – I should probably speak for myself – can make sarcastic references to the temporary insanity that caused us to assume that our past relationships would work. Hindsight is perfect. Yet to summon up the desire and the curiosity that motivates one person to seek carnal knowledge of others is to enter a state of mind, heart and loins in which all things seem possible. Even a noir tone suggests that innocent hope and tentative trust existed before they were destroyed.

So am I advocating for romance in literary erotica? Apparently so. “Romance” is certainly not what I wanted to write when I rolled my eyes at my teenage friends’ favorite paperback novels of boy-meets-girl. Yet there it is.

So now you know: in any war between Romance and the kind of literary erotica that features epiphanies about Truth, I’m the traitor to both sides who huddles in a trench somewhere in the middle.