Lessons from Amazon: Eternal Mysteries, Cool Comforts, and the Chemistry of Lust


Sometimes I tell myself it’s a professional duty. Sometimes I claim it’s merely a favorite way to relax. But there are times when it definitely seems like an addiction, hard-wired in my brain, an urge, that once stimulated, I simply cannot resist.

I’m not talking about sex, although I could be. What I’m referring to is my apparent addiction to articles about sexual desire, especially those that promise—and seldom deliver—explanations as to why we human beings do what we do. The other day, a headline from a local freebie weekly caught my eye and wouldn’t let go: “The Chemistry of Commitment: The reason men want sex and women want to cuddle is all about our respective brains.” I immediately snatched a copy and headed home, my mouth watering in anticipation of imminent enlightenment. This time I might really learn the truth, the secret of why men and women act the way they do. For indeed every erotic story I’ve ever written was motivated by my hunger to penetrate this mystery.

In spite of the headline’s claim that men want sex and women want closeness (false in my case, because I definitely want both), this excerpt from Susan Kuchinskas’ book, The Chemistry of Connection, focused on the monogamous brain in both sexes. Apparently the “reward centers” in both male and female human brains are rich in receptors for both dopamine, which is responsible for the anticipation of pleasure we find in food and sex, and oxytocin, which creates feelings of connection. This results in a benign addiction to a person with whom we have satisfying sex—for both men and wome—leading to our generally monogamous social structure, which in turn maximizes the success of raising vulnerable human babies to adulthood.

I’ll admit this particular article released more satisfying oxytocin than most of its kind. Indeed, in a way, the grand mystery was solved. What we do in bed (or on the kitchen table or in airplane lavatories or the office after hours or….) is all about neurochemistry. That lovely post-coital floating feeling where all is right with the world is not the result of poetic union of souls but rather an oxytocin cocktail for the brain.

Does this mean I can stop writing dirty stories once and for all?

Fortunately not, because the article also made me realize something else, although it doesn’t mention which brain chemical causes epiphanies. The truth is, I actually don’t want to strip away the mystery of sex at all. Yes, I’m curious about brain cocktails, but more fascinating is the way they find expression in ways unique to my characters in my fiction. I’ll keep reading the articles—because of that darn dopamine—but I’ll read them more like stories of others’ search for the nature of desire, whether the language is scientific or literary. I’ll keep asking why we do what we do, but appreciate the pleasure that lies in the process and an ongoing dialogue, rather than finding a single truth that would silence further discussion for all time.

Interestingly enough, this is very similar to the lesson I learned from the Amazon Anti-Sex “Glitch” that horrified all supporters of free expression over Easter weekend this past April.

I assume visitors to this site will be familiar with the events of April 12, 2009. Suddenly over 50,000 books tagged with the topics of health, mind and body, reproductive and sexual medicine, erotica, and gay and lesbian themes disappeared from the general search catalog on Amazon and lost their sales rankings. The disappearance of gay and lesbian titles got the most attention, but in fact, the broader target was anything having to do with sex. The books could still be found on a “books” search if a shopper knew they were kept in the back room, but without a sales rank, a best-selling author would lose a useful selling tool and be relegated to a shadow status.

Authors and readers responded immediately to this apparent act of censorship with the #amazonfail campaign on Twitter, Facebook protest groups and passionate posts all throughout the blog-o-sphere. It certainly appeared a right-wing agenda was at work. All gay and lesbian books, regardless of sexual content, were gone, leaving guides on how to prevent homosexuality topping the general search chart. Self-identified erotica, including my novel, was “disappeared” leaving such enlightened tomes as a retrospective of Playboy centerfolds to represent expressions of human sexuality in the arts.

Amazon’s handling of the situation was not particularly laudable. The harried customer service representatives seemed clueless. Besides a feeble mention of a glitch on Sunday afternoon, there was just one official statement issued the following Monday apologizing for the “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection” and promising reinstatement of all books to their former status. It seems we’ll never know if Amazon’s Easter Sunday experiment in sexual repression was the result of a mindless computer glitch, a technically incompetent or eroto-phobic insider, or a Fox News hacker—presumably because a public confession of a weakness in their system would damage their reputation.

As one of the “victims” of this cataloging error, my oxytocin receptors were left sadly unstimulated by Amazon’s response. I definitely craved more satisfaction, at least a stronger reassurance that Amazon was committed to selling books without imposing some standard of judgment to “protect” shoppers. Yet, I came to see that the more compelling aspects of the “Glitch” debacle weren’t about a factual explanation, but rather its contribution to the ongoing discussion of sexuality in our culture. As with a good erotic story, the context and setting, the characters’ dilemmas, and most of all the feelings aroused are more likely to have a lasting impact than the simple facts of the event.

As the widespread outrage in the Internet community illustrates, deep feelings were definitely aroused in anyone invested in free expression, particularly involving sexuality. As an erotica author, I definitely had a very personal investment in the drama.

My Amazon Anti-Sex “Glitch” story begins the Thursday before Easter Sunday, when I typed Amorous Woman into the general search box to check if my book was back in stock. (Those of you with books currently listed on Amazon will forgive me; the rest of you will understand this admittedly pathetic behavior when you do!) Since the spring of 2008, my book topped the list, but suddenly it was gone. I did a search for my name and my ancient academic translation came up, but no dirty novel. My literary child I’d worked so hard to nurture and promote had been kidnapped!

I immediately wrote Amazon customer service and got a vague answer counseling me to apply for tags so my book would appear higher on search lists. I appealed the answer and did get a thoughtful reply saying they didn’t understand the sudden change and would forward it to their technical department. I was waiting for that response when the #amazonfail Twitter wave crashed onto shore. No longer just one lonely smut writer shunted off to the corner, I immediately joined the chorus of anti-censorship advocates. Fueled by an Easter breakfast of chocolate bunnies, I blogged and emailed and Facebooked and contemplated changing my book buying links to Powell’s.

Even after I ate a healthy salad for lunch and my blood sugar stabilized, I still felt utterly betrayed. Yes, Amazon is a huge, independent-bookstore-busting, totally self-interested company that donates to red political causes, but it also had provided a well-known marketplace for small presses and small authors like myself to sell our books over a long period of time. My experiences promoting my book basically wiped away all romantic feelings about independent booksellers. A minority were indeed supportive and cordial, but far too many treated me with shocking rudeness and point-blank refused to carry erotica, while proudly displaying bestsellers which exploited sex for titillation in the most cynical way. So-called women friendly erotic stores of all sorts completely ignored any request to consider stocking my novel—this may reflect their attitude to erotica books in general, but it still means Amazon provides a valuable service.

Amazon not only carries my book and makes a discreet purchase possible, it provides a central location to post reviews and sends readers to my blog through Amazon Connect. It makes a huge difference that I can tell an interested reader they can get my book on Amazon, rather than rely on the whims of a bookstore or face the possibly too-intimate experience of buying it from my website. I certainly wish things were different for political and ethical reasons and hope for challenges to Amazon’s hegemony in the future, but Amazon was an important way for me to sell my book. Wounded feelings aside, it still is.

After four days as a banned book, Amorous Woman again tops the general search and is back to its old wildly fluctuating sales rank, but the lessons still linger—and they are good topics for erotica writers to consider.

First, the Amazon Anti-Sex “Glitch” reminds us how vulnerable we still are to contempt and how categories can be misleading to the point of endangering the expression of important ideas and information about our sexual selves. Perhaps Amazon did not intend to implement right-wing censorship, but plenty out there would love to do exactly what the cataloging error achieved with such sweeping efficacy.

Second, by whisking Anais Nin and James Baldwin to the back room, but leaving Henry Miller and Hugh Hefner in the front window, the glitch also reminds us how important it is for new voices to speak up and share our truths that challenge those of the traditional white patriarchy. We must keep writing so that the library of good, thoughtful erotic fiction will grow to the point we can no longer be seen as a minority, easily silenced with one ham-sized cyber-fist.

I’m definitely feeling a renewed urge to keep on changing the world one dirty story at a time, but I can’t deny the Amazon affair left me feeling battered and in need of comfort. And—get ready for another surprising yet hopefully quirkily relevant transition—what is more comforting to body, mind and spirit than a big bowl of rice pudding? To conclude this month’s column, I’ll share with you my famous rice pudding recipe, which, in my more swaggering moments I’ve claimed is the best rice pudding in the world. It even scored me a Good Cook Award from Sunset Magazine (unfortunately their slightly modified recipe gives the calorie count, which I suggest you ignore). Be warned, this dreamy rice pudding is more like a mousse, so sinful and delicious, the recipe would definitely have been deranked by Amazon. So get out that wooden spoon and stir up some rice pudding, the perfect ration for foot soldiers in the erotica revolution!

Coolly Comforting Amazon De-Ranked Bavarian Mousse Rice Pudding
Serves 6

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup medium grain rice
2 Tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk (can be 2%)
2 Tablespoons cold water
1 teaspoon powdered gelatin
2/3 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons light rum
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup heavy cream (not ultra-pasteurized if available)

Bring 1/2 cup water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add rice and butter. Cook uncovered over medium heat until water disappears, stirring frequently. Add salt and milk. Cover and simmer over lowest heat until rice is tender and milk is absorbed, about 40-45 minutes. Dissolve gelatin in 2 Tablespoons cold water. Stir into hot rice. Add sugar and cool. Add rum and vanilla. Whip chilled cream until soft peaks form; fold into rice mixture. Spoon into elegant individual serving dishes and chill an hour or cover and keep for up to 2 days.

Donna George Storey
May-June 2009

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2009 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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