What’s Sex?


Do these guidelines look familiar?

“Explicit content necessary.
We want hot, steamy sex scenes.

Tell us “what really happened”/”your hottest fantasies” – GIVE US THE DETAILS!
No porn!

In our genre, writing erotic stories can often be like playing Goldilocks visiting the three bears: one piece will be too hard for one bear, too soft for another, and way too big for the third.

The “what’s erotica vs what’s porn” argument will rage ad nauseam long after We’re gone. As the late, great John Preston said, “I read erotica, you read smut, he reads porn.” The definitions are completely subjective. This is not to say editors and publishers can’t and don’t define those words and insist writers stick to them.They can and do. It’s just that those definitions will be subjective — they’ll vary from one editor/publisher to the next. The definitions will also often be vague and veiled.(Think of how often you’ve heard someone say, “I can’t really define ‘porn’ – I just know it when I see it!”)

Reading other works edited or published by the person to whom we’ll be submitting can often get us close on figuring out how ‘erotica’ is being defined. Often, though, we need to go a step further back before we tackle that conundrum. Before we try to figure out how much is enough vs too little vs too much hardness, softness, size, detail, or innuendo, first we need to figure out what the editor/publisher considers to be sex.

As we learned during the previous presidency here in the U.S., people can get in academic dogfights over what constitutes ‘sex.’ This is especially true when politics are involved.(Make no mistake- the world of erotica publishing can be very political! )Can hetero erotica have bend-over-boyfriend penetration of men?Can lesbian erotica have dildos?Does gay male erotica need foreplay? Is BDSM play in and of itself (with no other activity) still considered sex? What about masturbation only? Oral only? Frottage only? A person alone vs [insert any number more than two]? Fantasy only?

Only one publisher specifically comes to mind as having defined what she considered to be ‘sex,’ — and she did that only when writers queried. For the gay male magazine she published, ‘sex,’ meant Part P in Part A, missionary position or doggy style preferred, and the ‘sex,’ had to happen within the first 500 words. No exceptions.

By and large, editors and publishers are not particularly forthcoming. For some, happily it’s because they don’t care. Down There Press Herotica series was well known for the sheer variety of the ‘sex,’ in the stories. In Herotica 6 (edited by Marcy Sheiner), the story ‘Round Robin’ had everything but the kitchen sink (if I remember correctly, someone was doing it against the kitchen sink!) with a heavy emphasis on voyeurism. (Awesome story, by the way!)

Often, though, we have to figure things out by analyzing previous publications. The question of whether oral-only (or anal-only or solo or whatever) counts is a consistent question across all subgenres of erotica: hetero, lesbian, gay male, various fetishes. Beyond that, various subgenres also have specific issues. Many venues aimed at hetero male audiences shy away from any type of male anal play because of fears the audience will then perceive that man as gay — and then go the step further and get upset because the reader thinks he might be gay because he got turned on by the story. Yes, education in basic human physiology would relegate that silliness to the trash heap. However, the misguided perception can have a serious impact on the marketability of stories even hinting at male anal sensitivity, much less male-receptive penetration.

The flip side of that can happen in lesbian or (to a lesser extent) gay male erotica. Publishers of lesbian erotica can be walking in a mine field with their readership if they include too much dildo play. While attitudes towards this have changed a great deal in the last few years, lesbian strap-on sex can still be perceived as emulating hetero sex rather than celebrating lesbian sex. Publishers of gay male erotica occasionally have to contend with assertions that foreplay is a hetero invention that applies only when women are involved — this in addition to frequent arguments over whether oral-only constitutes ‘sex,’ as long as somebody comes.

In instances where anything other than Part P in the traditional orifice is accepted, the ‘so long as somebody comes!’ qualifier seems to be the most consistent one used to define ‘sex.’ BDSM publishers still can have issues with that, though, depending on how the readership defines the power exchange in terms of sexuality. And with masturbation stories, yes, somebody almost always comes but some publishers still don’t consider that to be sex unless someone else is involved either as a voyeur or a partner who then finishes off the solo flyer.

The tricky part with all this for us as writers trying to sell stories is that the definition of ‘sex,’ is something many publishers really haven’t consciously addressed. Research can show when they have accepted non-traditional stories in the past, thus clearing a path for our stories with the same kind of ‘sex,’ (oral, anal, frottage, whatever).But what about when they haven’t?

Two main options are available. The easiest: query the editor. The problem with this approach is that too often, this kind of question can get a hipshot ‘no’ answer when our story may be The One that will open the door for different sex for that venue.(Personally, I wouldn’t advise querying a publisher about this unless it’s a very small press where the editor and publisher are one and the same. It’s been my experience that at the initial acceptance stage, the editor is your best friend for the widest range of possibilities.)

The other option is to just submit your story and see if it flies. If the editor/publisher likes it, you’ll have broken the ice for that type of story. If not, the editor/publisher may comment that the story needed ‘sex,’ which will get you the answer you need for the next time you submit to them. Either way, if you’re writing on the edge of what the editors/publishers consider to be ‘sex,’ keep a record of who takes what kind of stories. It’ll make it that much easier to find homes for your work in the future.

See you next time for a discussion of the fine print in contracts.

May/June 2006

“The Business End” © 2006 Kate Dominic. All rights reserved.

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