‘Erotic fiction can change the world, I really believe that.’
This statement was issued with conviction by my fellow panelist, Krissy Kneen, last Wednesday night during The Wheeler’s Centre Sex in Words event. Sounds crazy, right? How can erotica change anything, let alone the world? It’s just writing about sex, isn’t it? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
I consider myself still on my L plates as a writer. So to share some public space and conversation with the likes of Kate Holden, Krissy Kneen and John Purcell was a great privilege. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a wee bit intimidated. These good people are so articulate, well-read, and insightful, I sometimes felt like the proverbial duck, gliding serenely across the surface waters while paddling like crazy underneath to keep up.
So when Krissy delivered the above statement, it made me stop. Her premise is a simple one – erotica speaks the unspeakable, it brings what lurks in shadow, in our unconscious, out into the light and allows us to examine our relationship to it. All very well, you might say, for literary erotica – where there are layers and motifs and juxtapositions aplenty. But for commercial erotic fiction of the romantic/new adult persuasion? That’s too long a bow, laughable even, to suggest it might in any way be ‘world changing’ –
Well, yes. And no.
One of the things that places commercial erotic fiction into the ‘erotica that will never change the world’ basket (besides that it’s predominantly written by women, and that it’s all so one dimensional, oh and did I mention it’s repetitive and formulaic?) is that the sex is seen as subservient to the romantic plot. For some reason sex written in the context of romance is somehow less valid than sex written in other, perhaps more socially challenging contexts. Given sex often happens as a result of romance, this view doesn’t make a lot of sense. But still, sex in commercial romantic/erotic fiction doesn’t attract the same serious questioning or consideration literary erotica does.
I suspect this is partly due to the ‘Disney Effect’, which is the common phenomenon where romance writers tell themselves and their readers the same ‘Disneyfied’ romance stories over and over again. You know the ones – Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty – Disillusioned Girl meets Perfect Boy under Difficult Circumstances but True Love prevails and they all live Happily Ever After. We like these stories because they are familiar. They reflect our lives back to us and reinforce our aspirations.
The Disney Effect works to control storylines according to widely accepted social mores. Female characters do not have sex outside of a potentially serious relationship (at risk of being branded a slut) unless there is some past trauma they must to work through in order to become available for the ideal serious relationship. If there is infidelity, it can only happen if she is in need of rescue from a deeply unsatisfying relationship. Basically a female character can only assert her sexual needs in the context of searching for the perfect love - a powerful, unspoken social rule.
Let’s be honest, because of this SOME of the things people say about the romance genre are SOMETIMES true. The Disney Effect ensures there is formula, there is repetition, and some books are one-dimensional – just as there are some literary works out there that hide a pointless plot and boring characters behind brilliant writing. However, just as there are literary works pushing dark into light, so are there commercial erotic fiction books pushing beyond the boundaries of the Disney Effect. And they are just as world changing as their sophisticated literary counterparts.
Case in point – Secret Lives of Emma by John Purcell.
On Wednesday John pointed out that his character, Emma, had copped a real shellacking from the commercial reading public. Why? Because Emma was not the usual woman we see in commercial fiction. She had the audacity to be unfaithful to her husband, she saw and took what she wanted, asserted her own erotic needs over and above those of the men in the book. Emma is indeed a rare beast, a new trope, a fully realised sexual being – and not what women are expecting to read when they pick up their next sexy fix.
In short, Emma (and John) is a trailblazer.
Which brings me back to Krissy’s statement about erotica being world changing. Can you see now why she’s right? Erotica, whether literary or commercial, can introduce us to new and challenging ideas – like the possibility of a woman who is so in tune with her sexual needs she can assert them confidently WITHOUT needing the context of a relationship to justify them. Or, as in the EL James phenomena, that it’s okay for ordinary people to get off on a bit of slap and tickle.
For those of us who have been reading erotica for years, Fifty Shades gave us nothing new. But for women who didn’t read much more than The Women’s Weekly or the daily newspaper, it stretched their boundaries. It introduced them to the thrill of written sex, the scope and breadth and possibility of fantasy captured on the page. It created the idea of a ‘book boyfriend’, spawned hundreds of social media groups who share their love of reading erotic fiction. It birthed a zeitgeist not only in commercial fiction, but (I’m betting) in bedrooms all over the globe. There’s no doubt Krissy is right – erotic fiction has changed their worlds.