When asked why I started to write erotica, I used to joke that lesbians didn’t have enough sex and I wanted to help save the lesbian nation Lesbian Bed Death Syndrome. While I haven’t seen any statistics on how much sex lesbians are or aren’t having in relationship to the rest of the population, the vast quantity of lesbian erotica anthologies being offered up by publishing houses indicates that dykes are at the very least reading a lot about other (if fictional) lesbians having sex. Now, I coyly admit with a pout and a bat of my eyelashes that I started writing lesbian smut to impress a woman I was dating. I was an aspiring writer with one published poem, of all things, in a literary journal, so it wasn’t a completely off the wall for me to try my hand at an erotic tale. So, I did it to get laid. Not the most compelling reason to venture into a genre, but still nothing to be completely ashamed of.
But let’s start at the beginning. Before I launch into the meat of this column: tips on how to write high quality lesbian literary erotica, I want to talk about what lesbian literary erotica, as a genre is. Before I talk about plot, character development, language choices; what to look for in calls; and how to write for your self, readers, and editors; I want to talk about lesbian erotica and the larger publishing world it is a part of.
When I wrote my first lesbian smut story, I was naive to the complexity of the lesbian erotica genre market. I had, of course, read lesbian smut, had a bunch of first hand experiences with actual lesbian sex, was a writer, and identified as lesbian. I knew what turned me on and what elements of well-written fiction were, but I knew nothing about the genre’s intricate nuances. I simply wrote my tale of a butch-femme couple engaging in willful-forced sex and sent it out to a number of calls for submissions for anthologies of lesbian erotica. (For those of you who are interested, “How I Ended Up on My Back” is in Lip Service, edited by Jess Wells, Alyson Publications: September 1999.) I thought it was a well-written first offering and I was hopeful it would be published so the woman would be impressed and give me the opportunity to do some hands-on research for my next story. What I did not understand or even suspect until months later when I was seriously writing erotica as an art form and not foreplay was that “Lesbian Erotica” was merely a catch all term for a number of smaller more specific type of sexual literature being marketed to lesbians.
And, I shamefully admit the idea that sexual politics played any role in the construction of lesbian erotica anthologies had never crossed my mind in those early months of my writing lesbian smut stories. After all, one of the hottest stories I’ve ever read is Pat Califia’s “The Surprise Party” in Macho Sluts. (If you haven’t read the book, I recommend you do so.) It is the tale of a biker dyke who is gang-fucked by male police officers. I had to stop reading three times during that story to relieve my sexual tension. Much like it never occurred to me that my masturbating to the story of men fucking a dyke (I am very much over simplifying Califia’s plot) had potential political ramifications, it, likewise, never occurred to me that lesbian erotic anthologies would be divided up along lines based on sexual politics. So, what did I know about sexual politics? Well, actually a lot. I’d come out during the revival of Butch/Femme in the 1980s smack dab in the middle of the sex wars. You remember (or have heard of) the Sex War – All penetration is rape. S/M is a tool of the patriarchy. Good Sex/Bad sex. Etc. Sexual political amnesia, I guess.
Lesbian literary erotica comes in as many types as do lesbians. For the sake of this column, lesbians are your readers (the folks you write for). They are garden-variety Chris-Williamson types, annual lipstick-lesbians, hot-house femmes, and road-side flowering weed butches. But they are also FTM, MTF, stone butches, “girls”, dykes, boiz, and bisexuals and, for that matter, heterosexual women who like to read dyke smut and, oh, yeah, some bio guys. They populate the kinky sex arenas, the Olivia Cruises, the lesbian avenger meetings, and the NOW events. They bring with them all the mainstream cultural baggage about women and sex, lesbian ideology, political doctrines, toy bags over flowing, sexual naivety, and experience, or, just as likely, they do not. They are interested in kinky sex, only want to read toy free sex, prefer vanilla sex, like penetration, or are against penetration for political reasons. They are wealthy, middleclass, working class, and struggling poor. They have attended the best schools, are self educated, and never graduated from high school. They are white, African-American, Asian, Latina, and mixed race. They are other. In a word, they are diverse in the full true sense of that word. No single author could quench their thirst with one story. Nor should we try to do so.
It is not only the reader you write for, but also the editors and the publishers who pull together the anthologies and web and print rags that readers buy. Understanding what they want is as important as understanding what the reader wants. First and foremost, we as authors most understand that the publication business is just that a business. Moreover, all businesses must obey the first rule of business: if you don’t make money you cease to be a business. In order to sell books, publishers have to market them and in order to be marketed books have to fit into existing categories that are comprehended easily. They need to be shelved where folks who would potentially be interested in buying them can find them. They need to be slotted into categories so they can be compared to other books that are similar and get reviewed.
One of the most frustrating parts of writing as a business is the chicken and egg problem. What sells gets published and what gets published sells. By that I mean, publishers, who are rightly concerned with sales are often reluctant to venture off the beaten path for fear that the new product will not sell. These non-selling ideas come in a variety of shapes and sizes (s/m mixed with vanilla, essays with short stories, toy sex with non toy sex, etc.) Every so often a publisher takes a chance and is either proven correct when the anthology doesn’t sell or proven correct when it does. If it sells, the mix becomes part of the standard.
Ultimately, stories must fit somewhere to be published and finding that somewhere can often be more daunting then writing the story was. Consider: I primarily write butch/femme erotica where one character is a butch top and the other a femme bottom. The majority of my main characters are white. Normally there is kinky sex (S/M/B/D) or at the very least power plays involved in my sexual descriptions. I try to include controversial issues and themes or commentary on the state of the lesbian nation when applicable into my smut. It is rare when one of my characters isn’t penetrated by something and the sex almost always takes place in a public location or at the very least not in a bedroom. The word cunt appears a lot in my stories.
I admit my fictional erotic world is not the end all be all of sexual options, realities, or tastes. And that my erotica is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, I write what I know, what I like, and what moves me; then I put it out there. Others like it too or not, and we go on our merry way.
One editor told me my stories push the boundaries of what her publisher is willing to print. And, as a lesbian erotica writer, I am sure I am not alone in that category.
But, here’s the thing, desire is complicated. Desire is also (almost) universal. (Just about) everyone longs for some type of physical or psycho-sexual contact with another someone(s). And that is what the erotica writer must tap into and present if he or she is to reach and touch the reader.
Desire has no sexual orientation at its root, which is why a gay male erotica story can turn on a dyke or a heterosexual story has the potential to make a gay man hot. If you can capture desire, your erotica will cut across orientation lines; which may not be a primary goal when you write, but it is a lovely thing to achieve nonetheless.
Amie M. Evans
December 2005/January 2006
“Two Girls Kissing: Writing Lesbian Literary Erotica” © 2005 Amie M. Evans. All rights reserved.