Turn Ons and Squicks


Sexually-explicit literature comes in various genres and genders these days. Explicit sex scenes can appear in literature of every genre, as well as in “erotica” per se. Writers of various genders write about characters of various genders: male, female, butch, femme, intersex/transgender and any combination thereof.

One genre which interests me is male/male erotic romance. The transgressive quality of sex between men (especially in historical fiction) makes such stories read like a treasure-trove of secrets about the love that dared not speak its name before the Stonewall Riots that kicked off the “gay rights” movement in 1969. This genre seems to have grown immensely in popularity since I first joined the Erotic Readers & Writers Association in December 1998.

At that time, I noticed that male/male pairings were rarer in the erotic stories posted to Storytime than male/female or female/female scenes. In a thread on gender, someone explained that heterosexual men (who largely ruled the world) were squicked by images of men with men, but no one was squicked—or threatened—by images of women with women or by more conventional sex (men and women together, provided there was no coercion or incest). This “fact” was used to explain the scarcity of self-identified gay men on the lists, and the difficulty of finding a publisher for male/male erotica. Some said it would never fly.

However, m/m erotic romance seems to have entered the stratosphere, especially in the form of e-books written by women. Undoubtedly, there are gay-male readers and writers of the genre, but there probably aren’t enough of them to account for its current popularity.

I had planned to write a piece on m/m erotic romance for this column. Considering that it looks like a relatively new literary form, I am interested in its possible origins in different genres which were once marketed to different audiences. Romance novels (especially as mass-produce d by Harlequin in the United States and Mills and Boon in the United Kingdom) used to be aimed at women. “Pornography,” once the only sexually-explicit genre, was widely assumed to be even less literary, and was sold to men, sometimes literally under the counter. Gay-male “porn” was a sub-section only available in specialized venues. Who could have predicted the emergence of a form that combines aspects of all these genres?

Thinking about this subject, I considered the role played by slash or fan-fic (stories about copyrighted characters which can’t legally be published outside of fan-fic sites) as a breeding-grounds for m/m stories in which the sex is incorporated in plots about developing relationships, often written by women. I also considered the influence of various genres of Japanese fantasy in translation, most involving “boy-love,” some including illustrations of androgynous-looking characters. Both the history and the appeal of m/m erotic romance are clearly complex.

The motives of women who write sex scenes featuring two or more male characters have never seemed self-evident to me. Yes, many of the characters are interesting as individuals and described as sexually attractive. I have been impressed by work in this genre, and in a sense, I’m easy to please. As one who has some experience (ahem) with male plumbing without having it myself, I am usually willing to take other women’s descriptions on faith.

However, describing bodies which are different from one’s own is bound to be a challenge. There seems to be no corresponding genre of f/f erotic romance written by men—aside from the work of a few very versatile writers such as M. Christian.

So why is such a large, prolific, enthusiastic tribe of women writing m/m erotic romance, sometimes to the exclusion of anything else? Some have explained the appeal of the genre in interviews. Some responded to my questions on a writers’ loop. The answers mentioned the appeal of men in general, the quality of writing to be found in the genre, a background in fan-fic, and the greater freedom of actual men than women to have adventures in past eras.

Regarding this point, it seems true enough that men of all social classes had higher status and more freedom than the women of their own class in most periods in Western history. But homosexual men, those who had sex with other men in the real world, were not guaranteed to survive, let alone to set up housekeeping and live happily ever after.

Some of the earliest novels in English (published in the 1700s) were based on the real-life melodrama of maidservants trying to avoid being seduced (or worse) by lecherous male masters. Historical m/m romances are notably parallel to stories of maidens in peril because laws against “sodomy” (often a thinly-veiled reference to male/male sex) were incredibly harsh before the twentieth century, and the penalties included execution. A man who wanted to express his love for another man in the past risked his good name, his livelihood and even his life in ways that were parallel to the risk of sexual “ruin” facing women. The argument that men had freedom in the past while women had none does not hold up to scrutiny as a reason to write exclusively about men. And if it is true, as I suspect, that fantasy literature has had an influence on this genre, writers of m/m romance are not trapped in the pillory of historical reality anyway!

“Romance,” by definition, once defined narratives about events which never actually happened. It meant approximately the same thing as “fiction.”

The shadow side of a turn-on is a squick. Choosing to write about males need not be based on an aversion to females, but several women writers have explained why they write m/m by explaining why they don’t write erotica about female characters. Invariably, these reasons are based on the supposed negative qualities of women in general, or of supposedly unbreakable female roles. In addition to the claim that actual women in the past lacked the independence to inspire fiction centering on female characters, several writers have mentioned the difficulty of writing sex scenes involving females who can still be respected afterward. This looks to me like an internalized double standard presented as an objective fact.

I sent a previous draft of this piece, including quoted comments, to all the women writers who answered my questions. I asked for their permission to quote them anonymously. One of these writers objected to the tone of my article, and refused permission to let me quote her. Therefore I haven’t used anyone’s exact words, even though paraphrasing is less accurate.

It is clear to me by now that I can’t find a non-controversial way to report other writers’ squicks. Preferences or turn-ons, maybe. But squicks, no. Over the years, various list-members here at ERWA have expressed aversions to a variety of erotic subject-matter: m/m, female bodies (together, alone or with males), toys, implements, Dominant/submissive pairings. Squicks expressed as personal taste are usually accepted as such. Squicks expressed as explanations of reality are a different can of worms.

My comments here will probably squick a number of readers who will want to expose me, not themselves, as irrationally biased and therefore undeserving of this platform. One of the ironies of a commitment to tolerance is that it has to involve “zero tolerance” (to quote the anti-abuse movement) for hatred presented as fact.

In my world, men are approximately half the human race, and no more than that. Women are approximately half, and no less. The occasional lurid accident which happens when a sadomasochistic scene goes wrong is overshadowed by the constant, nonconsensual, institutionally-enforced oppression of whole demographics in most cultures on earth. Heterosexuality is culturally taught and enforced. It is not instinctive in all people, most of whom are not white.

Human beings are sexual and complicated, and these qualities can be found in the literature they write. That’s my view and I’m sticking to it.

Jean Roberta
August 2008

“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2008 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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