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. http://www.kindlerotica.com
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. http://www.total-e-bound.com
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 is “definitely 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.