Fiction as a Mirror, or Why I Won’t Write Responsibly

Sepia toned photograph of woman reflected in 3 way mirror.

Vanessa in the Mirror by Marc Lagrange

Last week, my friend and colleague, Tamsin Flowers, wrote a post on a topic she has explored eloquently from several angles – that of condom use, disclaimers and censorship in erotica. The debate over whether or not erotica writers have a responsibility to portray sex as safe, protected and clearly consensual has surfaced several times in recent months, so much so that Rachel Kramer Bussel wrote a piece on it for Salon. I’ve watched the discussion with a great deal of interest, but I haven’t weighed in because my feelings, as both a reader and and writer, were already represented, not just by Tamsin, but by Remittance Girl, who touched on a different angle in one of her posts on the same topic.

While I can see why people might feel that eroticists have a responsibility to edify through fiction, I’m afraid that I can’t and won’t sign on for that duty. Granted, there is no reason why an author shouldn’t use fiction to educate. To that end, I highly recommend checking out Ella Dawson’s explanation for why her characters care about safe sex. While it may not concern every reader, she makes a compelling argument for why it’s critical to her fiction.

And that’s what it comes down to – what is critical in your fiction. People write erotica for any number of different reasons. Some write to explore and promote sex in a way that educates. This is commendable as far as authorial purposes go, so long as the author doesn’t sacrifice the story for the message, in which case nonfiction would probably be a better genre for the subject.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are writers feel passionate about telling a good, sexy story that pulls the reader into a fantasy. This end goal is equally worthy of respect. For these writers, it’s about placing the emphasis on the story itself. Would the characters have unprotected sex? Cheat? Behave badly? Is lying, cheating or manipulation integral to the plot? If the answer is yes, then that’s where the writer should be free to let the story go. To crow bar in a disclaimer or censor that work for not promoting safe sex is as inappropriate as condemning a writer who writes murder mysteries for glamorizing death. We all write to a different purpose and should be free to do so.

Reading Tamsin’s post last week made me think about my purpose in writing erotica. It isn’t to educate, nor is it purely to entertain, though I do enjoy weaving fantasies. Ultimately, I write to explore and reflect experiences. I like digging beneath a constructed, social surface to get at an emotional reality, which is why I personally will not bend to the pressure to write sex “responsibly”.

The reality is that people do not always behave responsibly. If they did, they wouldn’t be human, and for a misanthropic introvert, I’m very interested in humans. Life is full of complication and conflict. From a narrative perspective, conflict drives plot, as Tamsin said, but it also drives human experience. Disappointment, anger, heartbreak, love, misunderstanding…they form a sort of experiential common ground. Our emotions reflect the spaces we occupy in any given situation. They are the lens through which we perceive ourselves, each other and our relationships. They determine dynamics, and in doing so, they affect our behavior.

For example, if you show me respect, love and kindness, I will naturally be compelled to engage you similarly. If you treat me with indifference, I will likely remain indifferent. If you treat me poorly, I will struggle to not reciprocate an eye for an eye, but I’ll be honest – it’ll be hard.

Most of us are wired to reflect the manner in which we are treated. For me, that reflective quality extends into my fiction – a lot of my fiction exists to reflect and explore an emotional reality. It’s that emotional reality, rooted in a character that is as human as I can possibly make her, that drives the story.

I’m a curious person and, like I said, I’m interested in people. I grew up feeling far more comfortable observing than participating. I like trying to understand why people do what they do. It’s why everything I write is essentially character driven, even if the character has no name. I write to understand and reflect an individual reality and, if I’m lucky, make it resonate for people who have never experienced it. If I happen to entertain or educate along the way, that’s great, but that isn’t why I write.

Let me bring it back to condom usage. I’ve written characters who fucked impulsively without protection. I’ve also written characters who consciously chose not to use protection. In both cases, the skin on skin contact was a profoundly affecting, whether the effect was destabilizing or meaningfully intimate depended on the characters and their contexts. If I’d forced condom usage into either of these stories, they would have ceased to exist. While I’m more interested in people taking emotional risks rather than physical ones, sometimes sex that is unapologetically unprotected is an effective way to reflect a character’s emotional experience.

Fiction doesn’t need to reflect anything – it can get you off, help you escape, support you through troubles or teach you about life, love and sex. But it can also reflect the human condition in all its individual, specific forms. It can explore the cause and effects that drive our lives and form our emotional realities. For me, that’s what fiction does and worrying about writing “responsibly” would mean that I couldn’t do that at all. Not until we, as humans, behave responsibly in all things. As safe and ideal as that sounds, I can’t help but think what a sanitized, muted experience that would be.

7 comments

  1. the point that hits home the most for me is that we are human, and that humans have all kinds of experiences, light and dark…especially sexually. if i had to safeguard all of my sex writing, i would not write it in the first place…

  2. Oh, to be forced to use rubber bullets while writing a war story, for the sake of being safe. Just think about how much better ‘The English Patient’ would have been as a story if no one got physically hurt in it, for the sake of being safe?

    Or, how about removing piracy from a novel like ‘Treasure Island’. Instant best seller there. “15 men on a…well we can’t say dead now can we…15 men on a non-descriptive chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of…WAIT! can’t say rum either, minors may be reading and we have to promote responsible drinking here…lets see…I’ve got it! Yo HO HO and a bottle of yoo-hoo!” BRILLIANT!

    All kidding aside, I would dare say for some (readers and writers alike), the erotica is a means of having dangerous sex safely.

    Best line though, “…for a misanthropic introvert, I’m very interested in humans.” Made me grin!

    All said, thought-provoking as always…

    Bravo!

    M

    1. Thank you! And you brought up a really good point – I do think that erotica is a safe place for people to explore areas of their sexualities that they may not wish to engage in real life. For them, erotica is a place to do dangerous things safely, and that’s a valuable thing. Thank you, as always, for your fantastic, thought-provoking comment!

  3. I don’t find it necessary at all to be educational while writing erotica anymore than being educational in writing any other subject matter. Whether it be fiction or non. Geez, can’t we just take a few moments of the day and be frizzle-less in our reading and just taken away by the writing without a point to be made. As you pointed out, Steven King would not be able to sell a single book if that were an obligation to the public.

    1. Yup – exactly. People read and write for different reasons. The wonderful thing about free choice is that you don’t have to read something that doesn’t appeal to you. This doesn’t mean that someone shouldn’t be free to write it. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment – I really appreciate it.

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