The Pale Beyond the Pale: Transgressive Erotica

It sounds like a joke: transgressive erotica. Isn’t all erotica transgressive? Well, it used to be. Historically speaking, the West has gone through periods of almost shocking acceptance of explicit erotic literature. It has also gone through periods of extreme repression. But, on the whole, they have been periods that imposed blanket restrictions on writing that contained explicit sexual content. If you were Lawrence, Carrington, Miller, Nin or de Sade, your work was banned for being obscene. Period. There wasn’t a lot of judgement about which subject matter was more obscene than another.

As a genre, erotica has gained a certain mainstream legitimacy with the legal publishing of some of the above-mentioned authors, only to lose it by requiring such low standards of literary skill on the part of its authors. It has always suffered from the fact that the term ‘erotica’ has been used interchangeably with pornography. In fact, it is disheartening to find that even in academic journals, the term is often used interchangeably.  Many high profile erotica writers have, indeed, insisted that they are pornographers.  But I suspect that is more as an effort to reclaim the word in the way that the gay movement strove to reclaim the term ‘queer’ – as a political act.

In the last twenty years, the genre has seen the evolution of an interesting phenomena. Self-imposed content restrictions. The imposition of limitations on what is socially acceptable for publication, which used to be the purview of the arbiters of morality and judicial bodies is a task that has now been taken over by the genre itself, both through publishers’ content restrictions and writers’ self-censorship.

Some of these restrictions make a great deal of sense: restrictions against underage sex being a prime example. There are clear legal issues surrounding the publication of any material that might be considered ‘child pornography’.

However, many of these restrictions cannot be defended as being matters of legal concern. And these are what interest me.  As part of my research project, I’ve been doing a survey of submission guidelines and focusing on content restrictions other than the age-related ones. Specifically restrictions against erotic representations of  rape, non-consensual sex, reluctance, etc.

Some publishers represent these restrictions as being in place because the topics would not appeal to their readers:

We would never consider topics that our readers wouldn’t enjoy.  We expect writers to exhibit a certain level of self control, so please no submissions that include: scat, incest, underage, etc. topics.  Try to keep it sexy and fun.                                             

It is interesting to note in this submissions guideline that writers are represented as possibly at risk of losing their ‘self-control’ and writing about water-sports. As if we are unaccountably given to fits of not being able to read the editor’s mind as to what he or she might consider ‘uncontrolled’ bursts of perversion.  Also interesting is that, in the same paragraph, these distasteful topics are assumed to be so obvious that we are offered an ‘etc.’ As if we should all know better when we’re not missing our ‘self-control’.  Finally, it is apparently understood that the list of topics, including the ‘etc.’ are not fun or sexy to anyone.

Total e-Bound offers us this as their guidelines under the title: What’s not acceptable:

We’re pretty open when it comes to creativity (we certainly don’t want to stifle it), and will look at most story lines, but…we do have our limits!

    NO paedophilia. Don’t even dare go there!
    NO rape as titillation. We accept that it may sometimes be used as part of a plotline, especially supporting character development, but definitely not for the use of getting your rocks off!
    NO bodily functions – i.e. watersports, toilet play – eeeew!
    NO necrophilia. The dead definitely don’t do it for us – of course, we don’t count the bloodsucking undead variety!
    NO bestiality. This does not apply to shape-shifters and might not apply to certain breeds from a sci-fi perspective.                                                                            

I’d like to remind you that the only the first restriction represents legal realities. The rest are justified, it seems, as being limitations that any sane individual would understand. In response to watersports, the justification is ‘ew’.  On the topic of fictional eroticised rape, we are told specifically that it isdefinitely not for the use of getting your rocks off!”

These guidelines don’t just lay out restrictions. They assume a normative acceptance of what is erotic and what is not. They reflect absolute value judgements about writers and readers who may find these things erotic. In fact, they have no qualms about shaming them.

But very respectable studies have shown that up to 57% of women DO fantasize about rape and DO get their rocks off on it (Critelli & Bivona, 2008).

What are we to make of this? Aren’t these publishers all about validating women’s erotic fantasies? Yes, it seems, but not the ones they deem abnormal. Consider that until quite recently homosexuality was abnormal. As was oral and anal sex. Certainly, for a great proportion of the population, tying someone up and whipping them is still considered ‘sick’.

The noted feminist, Susan Brownmiller, wrote in her work ‘Against our will: Men, women, and rape‘  that women who had rape fantasies were mentally ill masochists and products of social pathology. That these sorts of fantasies needed to be eradicated from the female mind. (Brownmiller, Against our Will, Bantam Books, 1975)

So… this is it. This is my PhD research topic. I plan to investigate the underlying theories, politics, understandings of normative sexuality, prejudices and fears that may be influencing these content restrictions.

  26 comments for “The Pale Beyond the Pale: Transgressive Erotica

  1. October 29, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    Fascinating topic, and one that’s close to my heart! I look forward to seeing what you uncover.

    • October 29, 2011 at 11:14 pm

      Me too. Now I face trying to put together a literature review that will contain fuck all literature. There is almost no academic writing on modern erotica.

  2. October 29, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    I think there’s a couple of things going on here.

    ‘I don’t like X, therefore X is bad.’

    And also the problem that people who are involved in and indulge in kink are often much more aware that it’s fantasy than people who are uninvolved.

    Various scientific studies have shown that pornography can provide a ‘safe outlet’ for our darker desires and reduce real societal problems with rape etc.

    Certain things are still, it seems, considered totally unacceptable in certain quarters and personally I find a deal of hypocrisy involved in this. As you say, many women have rape fantasies – I’m surprised that the number is so low as I don’t think I’ve known a lover who hasn’t had those fantasies. Certain aspects of feminism etc seem to find this totally unacceptable, even though it’s a fantasy and even though it’s all within the control and choice of the person expressing those fantasies.

    Men’s sexuality, especially if it tends to the dominant, physical or rough, feels even more demonised and unacceptable, almost as if male sexual urges are inherently threatening, disreputable or unacceptable.

    I guess the counter to this in ‘properly written’ erotica is the profusion of people’s fantasies posted on the internet, alas quantity doesn’t often make up for quality 🙁

    • October 29, 2011 at 11:40 pm

      Interesting that you should mention men’s sexuality. I thought long and hard about whether to include male erotic writers in my study and I decided that although it risked criticism, I had to do it. We’re talking about fantasy here – not real acts, not rape, not the awful thing we know it to be in reality. The fact that it seems none of us can be trusted to tell the difference is deeply patronizing and it comes from both the left and the right of the political spectrum.

      • October 29, 2011 at 11:43 pm

        I’m glad you said that. In my writing (games mostly) I’ve come in for a lot of stick particularly from the left/feminist quarter despite the material being satirical. It feels weird to me, being one of ‘Thatcher’s Children’ to feel this heavy censure coming from the side of politics I otherwise see as a natural ally.

        • October 30, 2011 at 12:03 am

          Well, there are far better targets for my animosity against hegemony than male erotica writers or game plotters. But my defense of this is that – if rape fantasies are the socio-evolutionary result of 4,000 years of male domination, then both genders have been equally affected by it and neither gender can so easily escape the psychological fallout from that reality. There’s no fucking point pretending we can. There’s no erasing the past. There’s no fucking reset button. There is only enlightened behaviour and an understanding that our past will continue to influence our subconscious many, many years after the imbalance has been corrected.

          Anyway – we’ve got graver shit to worry about. The world used to be run exclusively by men. Now it’s run exclusively by the 1% richest. In my book, that’s a far more serious power imbalance.

  3. October 30, 2011 at 1:20 am

    If you’re going to look at the content restrictions, one other to consider is incest. Eporn with “daddy” in the title is among the top sellers on Amazon, but Amazon requires it to be step-relations instead of blood relations. I find this a bit bizarre–as if not showing pubic hair in Japan makes things chaste.

    However, if you focus on rape fantasies, I think you’ll find some challenges in finding male writers who will admit to them. There’s no way I’d do it under a pen name that could be traced to me because I wouldn’t want to be explaining to authorities that “it’s just a fantasy and not something I’m thinking of actually doing.” In my neck of the woods where Columbine High School scars run deep, people err on the side of reporting violent fantasy material regardless of how obvious it is that it’s not going to be acted on.

    • October 30, 2011 at 1:32 am

      Hi Ed. Agh – no thank you. I already have my hands full with just the non-con thing! You can do YOUR PhD on the Daddy thing – deal?

      You make a good point about the risk to male writers. I’ll see how many I get. My research doesn’t identify authors by name – pen or otherwise. And, in fact, there is no reason to believe that authors who identify themselves as female ARE in fact female. So this is the way I can keep the gender of the writer a very neutral issue in the discussion.

      • October 30, 2011 at 1:43 am

        I think how many men you can get may depend on your methodology. It’ll be interesting to see if author gender makes a difference. I certainly suspect that main character POV may make a huge difference.

      • October 30, 2011 at 3:24 am

        I might take issue with the idea of having the research gender (or gender identity) neutral, because I think the perceptions and prejudices from and about the sexes are key players in non-con restrictions.

        • October 30, 2011 at 7:20 am

          Monocle, for all I know, you’re a woman. I have no empirical proof that 90% of the writers talking to me are the gender they represent themselves as.

        • October 30, 2011 at 7:45 am

          I understand. I’d guessed a confidential interview would allow and encourage people to be honest, but there’s no way to be _sure_, and And I suppose that that lack of verifiability means comparison of the sexes is effectively impossible to do.

        • October 30, 2011 at 11:16 am

          Amusingly, I *can* vouch that Monocle is male, unlike 99% of the rest of y’all I correspond with online.

  4. October 30, 2011 at 1:51 am

    MOST AWESOME DISSERTATION EVER. My brain just jizzed all over itself.

    Is this what you wanted to interview me for? Because oh man, I’ve got lots to say about it.

  5. Shar
    October 30, 2011 at 11:13 am

    I suppose there is a danger with such a topic that you could keep expanding outwards forever… but I wonder about the presence of rape in non-erotica. I mean, Tess of the D’Urberbvilles got raped, and that still gets read in high schools and colleges. Now, suppose some reader gets turned on by that scene. Is it Thomas Hardy’s crime now, or the reader’s? Or neither, since someone has decided that Hardy didn’t intend for it to be arousing? Is is the “arousing” part that makes it wrong? (“wrong” as in unpublishable)

    I guess we’ve just passed “Banned Books Week,” but it comes around every year. It’s a head-scratcher to read the list of books banned by various libraries. Like somehow middle school students who read “The Giver” are going to rush out and murder babies, or something. Makes me wonder, though… what is the fear with rape in erotica? That people will be “offended,” or that someone will read about a rape in fiction and therefore commit one, whereas before he or she would not have, having never enjoyed it in fiction? Is that the real argument? I may have to wait for the dissertation.

    • October 30, 2011 at 11:27 am

      Hi Shar,

      You are really putting your finger on the pointy tip of the question. And Hardy is a very good example. Regardless of whether Hardy meant the passage to arouse, clearly there are people who are aroused by the passage. But I think it would be disingenuous of me as an author to take no responsibility for the fact that, in the case of a book like Gaijin, or Kitty Thomas’ Comfort Food, the passages WERE written to be erotic. They were meant to speak to a woman’s sexual fantasies that venture into the non-con area.

      Some of the arguments for its restriction is the fear that public admission of these fantasies will encourage men to believe women want to be raped. Another is simply that it’s a perversion that should be shunned. And finally, there is the view in some feminist quarters that it is a symptom of women who have not been ‘enlightened’. One of the things I’m very anxious to do is to interview publishers to find out what their motivations in imposing this restriction are.

  6. Shar
    October 30, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    Well, that’s the question, isn’t it, if reading something will cause an action (or an acceptance). I can see it as both a yes and a no, so I suppose it’s a bit of both. And one thing that I think people do look for in erotica (this is not scientific, this is just a gut feeling!) is reassurance that they are OK, they are normal, they aren’t alone. But to me, there’s a line between a woman having a rape fantasy and reading an arousing one and going, “Oh, whew, I’m not alone, perhaps I’m not so messed up” to accepting an actual rape. I don’t think that line gets crossed unless one is already unbalanced, but how do I know that? I don’t, I’m just guessing.

    I recently rewatched the movie version of “Rebecca” with someone who hadn’t seen it before, and I was trying to explain why I liked the book better, because the guilt of the main character is so much more complex. The person I was talking to asked why the movie had changed the plot, and the reason of course is that the British Film Board (or whatever it was called) at the time wouldn’t allow a murderer to go unpunished–so the man can’t be a ‘real’ murderer. But I don’t think anyone reading the book would put it down and say, “Gosh, that worked out well, I’m going to go push my wife into the sea.” Is that because of a built-in moral compass, though, or because even in the book, the story didn’t really end “happily”?

    I think as you research you’ll find the comparison to murder brought up again and again, though. Certainly a grisly killing or two is more acceptable in literature than an erotic scene. And while “bad” murderers generally still get caught and come to grief, there’s sure a lot of “good” revenge killing out there (in books and films) that people positively champion. But then the US has a rather high murder rate, doesn’t it? *muses*

  7. October 30, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    I’ll be honest, part of the reason I haven’t ventured too far into erotic writing is because I’m afraid of these sorts of misunderstandings.

    I have produced erotic/kinky games, most notably a pair of ‘tentacle sex’ card games which are non-con, so thinking about it I do, broadly, fit into your category I suppose even if it’s a bit different than actual writing.

    I have been refused work and treated as though I’m a terrible human being because of those games so, even though it’s not erotic writing per se, I’m intimately aware of the issues surrounding it.

  8. Lizzie
    October 30, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    I wonder if the increase of the ultra dominant male, the Alpha, in both erotica and the romance genre plays to the forced submission of rape fantasy without going full on non-consent. Also, is the mainstreaming of D/s and BDSM light themes used as a substitute for the rape fantasy?

    Hopefully I’m not dragging this post too far OT.

    • October 30, 2011 at 5:03 pm

      Um, no idea. I can’t think of a time when the typical male character in D/s erotica wasn’t an ultra dominant male. And as to mainstreaming D/s and BDSM… think that was happening in other mediums before it happened in erotica.

  9. October 30, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    And is it linked to the (debatable) feminisation of the work place and the (debatable) devaluing of the male role societally?

    This is a hugely sprawling topic, potentially. Going to take some real effort to keep it focussed.

  10. Qntkka
    October 30, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    You raise some interesting topics in your observations. I am inclined to believe that the publishers and editors of erotic fiction may feel an obligation to police their demographic.
    While the genre is meant to be purely fantasy (which may include BDSM, pain representations, and other aspects on the periphery of sexual behaviour), and may be used as a form of stimulation, it is implied and understood that certain fantasies are not meant to be actuated. The prime demographic may embrace certan fantasy elements while rejecting others, and the editor may be trying to second guess the potential readership. The editor may also fear that there will be some readers who will wish to emulate the more anti-social elements of erotica, which may precipitate an illegal act, or possibly incur some legal obligations.
    While most studies have demonstrated to the contrary, there is still a mindset that believes that most violent crimes are linked to the viewing of pornography. Under the Bush administration (GWB), laws were implemented that police fictional depictions (whether they be graphic, or written word) of (deviant)sexual acts on the internet. I would guess that the laws that were passed have a significant effect on editor’s choice of restrictions.
    The restrictions, as well as the laws involved, bring into question the matter of “thought crimes”. Clearly, the government regulations and editorial restrictions are concerned with the creation of “thought crimes”, and the general idea is to keep people from committing illegal (or immoral) acts by censuring the thoughts that they have, whether or not those thoughts lead to a criminal act.

  11. Korhomme
    October 30, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    “….the term ‘erotica’ has been used interchangeably with pornography. In fact, it is disheartening to find that even in academic journals, the term is often used interchangeably.”

    Perhaps I’m being naive, but for your dissertation, how do you define erotica? How do you distinguish it from pornography? The commentators above, and your essay, suggests that you are primarily looking at writing (though I may be wrong). Does erotica not also include visual arts such as drawing, where ‘something’ is left to the imagination? Is pornography — perhaps mostly film/video — defined by leaving ‘nothing’ to the imagination?

    “Consider that until quite recently homosexuality was abnormal. As was oral and anal sex.”

    Well yes, that’s the “expressed” Victorian position. But many of them “espoused” these activities. At least in the UK, there was much more “freedom” up to the end of the 18th century.

    The age of consent has been raised from 12 to 14 and now 16 in the UK in the last 150 years or so. And the concept of “consent” in a practical, legalistic sense applies only to girls. So how can someone write historical erotica?

  12. November 1, 2011 at 4:46 am

    Over the years I think I’ve seen a marked panicky mentality from publishers about their limits as to what they will and won’t publish. I find it on a personal level as a reader and writer to be highly disheartening.

    The move towards ever safer and more stultifying literature depresses me beyond belief. I don’t want my literature erotic or not to be so easily defined and covered with safety. It hurts my poor brain.

  13. November 2, 2011 at 1:17 am

    I commented in a recent blog post about how erotic fiction seems to have gone slightly backwards in the last thirty years or so – I can clearly remember two “mainstream” erotic novels from the mid-80s that featured incest. This issue impact me directly, since in its complete form ‘The Extinct Song’ features a number of incestuous stories, which may disqualify it from ever being properly published (these stories have been held back from the website, not because I’m ashamed of them, but because I regard them as among the best & most romantic stories in the entire novel).

    • Remittance Girl
      November 4, 2011 at 12:29 am

      Oh, most definitely. In a way, it was a lot freer when it was underground and totally banned. In those days, just explicit sex was considered obscene – so, in for a penny, in for a pound.

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