What I Intend When I Write About Sex

Old Couple and Young Woman at Cafe by Frank Paulin (1961)

Old Couple and Young Woman at Cafe by Frank Paulin (1961)

What do I intend when I write about sex? I intend a lot of things and they vary from piece to piece, so let me back it up a step.

What do I intend when I write?

This is more straightforward because the answer hasn’t changed in fifteen years. For me, authorial intent comes down to one thing: I want to understand.

The first story I ever wrote was a vignette called “Passing Unnoticed”. It’s never been published and likely never will be. It’s nothing more than a moment between a tired, jaded young woman and a tired, hopeful old man. It’s not an erotic story, but there is a sexual tension to it that stems from their recognition of something in the other. I wrote that first story because I was struggling to understand two halves of a coin—how do you go on when you want to let go; and how do you let go when you know your life is done?

I still don’t have the answers to those questions. Sadly, writing that story didn’t give me access to universal wisdom. What it did give me was a window into small, specific truths, which I used to explore my questions through small, specific characters. As with so many things, there is no one answer—there are as many answers as there are people to ask questions. So I started asking more questions and I wrote stories for each:

What do you do when you find the child you thought you’d lost?

What do you do when your perception is dangerously wrong?

What do you do when your own nature is trying to kill you?

What do you do when you realize that you’re fundamentally alone?

That’s why I started writing – to explore questions like that so I could try to understand what it is to live. Fast forward 12 years.

I’d always written erotic stories, but only for myself. My intention in writing them was to explore my fantasies and turn myself on. My intention didn’t change when I began submitting to erotica calls, except that now I also wanted to turn the reader on. At that point, my writing had two different purposes: the literary was for exploration and the sexual was for titillation. It wasn’t until about a year ago that this began to change.

When I wrote “The Second Letter” I wasn’t thinking about turning anyone on. I was thinking about what happens when you compromise yourself for something you desperately want. In other words, I was asking a question: How do you recover a self you’ve willingly given up? That was the first time I consciously engaged a question through a sexual lens. (I’d been doing it subconsciously for years, but never with intent).

After that, my intent began to stray. I became less deliberately concerned with arousal, and more concerned with trying to understand, because sex is really effective way to engage the human experience. I’d been so caught up in the demands of the market that I created a divide in my writing where one didn’t have to exist. I could write about sex in the same way that I write about everything else, which was exciting because sex is the easiest and most natural way for me to engage the questions I tend to explore in fiction.

The authors who inspire me—Angela Carter, Sarah Waters, Marguerite Duras, Anais Nin—undermine that same dichotomy. Their work explores what is is to live, love, hate, and hurt, and they do so beautifully (and arousingly) with sex. They’re a sort of intersection between the literary and erotic. Realizing that gave me permission to integrate my authorial intents, so now what I intend when I write about sex is the same thing that I intend when I write—I want to understand. If my stories turn someone on along the way, that’s wonderful. That makes me genuinely happy. But I no longer feel compelled to engineer that affect the way I used to.

I realize the phrase “engineer that affect” could be easily misinterpreted. I don’t think writing to get a reader off is in any way less valid than writing for some other purpose. If that’s your passion, that’s what you should do. There is a sensitivity between writers on either side of the porn vs. erotica debate, just as there is contention along the commercial vs. literary divide in  mainstream publishing, and that divide has become increasingly pronounced in the post-FSOG erotica.

Recently, Remittance Girl wrote a searing analysis of what the erotica market has become, while Tamsin Flowers examined the market issue with a pragmatic, unflinching eye. Each piece looks at the issue from a different angle—Remittance Girl’s from the literary, and Tamsin’s from the commercial. Interestingly, both come to similar conclusions—that erotica is no longer what it was and that authors dissatisfied with the market as it is would be best served by writing in a new or different genre.

I highly recommend both articles. They’re prompting important discussions regardless of how or why you write because, for me, there is no value judgment in being a commercial vs. a literary writer. It’s simply a question of where your work fits.

These two pieces prompted me to think about authorial intent because understanding why you write about sex can help you understand where your work does or does not fit. And yes, it’s true that writers write for more than one reason, but there’s usually one overarching motivation that drives the majority of your work. Do you write predominantly to turn the reader on? Or do you write for other reasons—to explore, understand, critique or examine everything from socio-cultural issues to love, death and what it is to be human?

If the former, your wheelhouse is very likely in the commercial realm. If the latter, perhaps you fit into the historical definition of literary erotica. Either is valid. The point is that knowing where your intent and passion lie (even if only from piece to piece) means being able to position your work appropriately.

For my part, knowing that my primary intention is to understand rather than turn-on helps me make larger choices—am I willing to compromise to get commercially published? Am I willing to publish less widely to love what I write? And how can I get my work to readers who want it? Because that’s important too. Readers are the other half of the equation – without readers, I can write to understand all I like, but it’s a self-serving exercise if I can’t connect with someone else.

For me, compromise feels uncomfortable, because in order succeed in a commercial market, I’d have to write away from my natural intent, which means that I’ll very likely have to find different ways of getting eyes on my work. That’s a good thing to know. It will allow me to write in the way that is most satisfying to me, without wasting emotional energy banging at a door that won’t open.

For authors whose work fits cleanly into a market, that a wonderful thing and I hope you take advantage of it. However, those of us with less clear cut paths have to be flexible and creative in pursuing new ways to connect readers with our work. In the end, all I really want is to pursue my intent and match my work to as many readers as I can. I would love for other writers to be able do the same.

28 comments

    1. Thank you, Ms. F. There’s a lot of change in the air. I think having a strong understanding of what you want out of your work can help a writer either stay the course, or roll with the punches…

  1. A wonderful way of looking at the dilemma. Not sure I fit in either camp. I don’t write sex to arouse, or to examine larger issues, rather, I find it the best way of unpicking who the characters are, and what they truly seek. This post, and the ones you referenced, have made me think hard about what I gravitate toward writing and why. Now if only I could decide whether it is worth it!

    1. “I find it the best way of unpicking who the characters are, and what they truly seek.”

      I love that – the notion of unpicking characters and what they seek. That’s the kind of work I love to read. Characters are such microcosms.. I really hope you decide that it is worth it. Using sex to explore people is a valuable thing and you do it beautifully.

  2. I love this post, M – it’s made me actually think about why I write (which, of course, I never really take the time to consider) and actually I write for neither of the reasons you mention. I write now and have always written with one goal in mind – to entertain the reader and myself. This is what I wanted before I started writing erotica and it’s still what I want now, over and above the erotica imperative of turning the reader on. Perhaps that’s why I think it will be a relatively easy move for me to slide back towards more general fiction.

    More universally, I think you’ve really struck on a way for writers to determine where their path forward lies – and that’s incredibly valuable – and something that I think a lot of writers struggle with. I have a feeling this post will convert into practical help for many!

    xoxoxoxoxoxo

    1. Thank you, T. It came out of so many of our conversations, and of course your post, along with Remittance Girl’s. It can be hard to get a concrete grasp on a situation, especially if you don’t know what you want. Writing is such a challenging thing that I would suspect most don’t do it unless they want to, for whatever reason. Knowing why you do something just strikes me as a good place to start. As for the shout-out, it’s completely my pleasure! I’m so goddamned happy that post you wrote is making the rounds – it’s part of a larger discussion that is *long* overdue! xoxoxoxoxoxo

  3. Very fascinating post. I need to do some musing on this myself – although I like to think there’s more than either writing to turn on or writing to examine the various facets of being human. It’s late now, so allow me the time to write my own post on this matter to expand on what I mean by that.

    Malin, you should be read, in any genre you write in. You are brilliant. x

    1. Thank you, Jillian. That is a really lovely, kind of you to say. And as far as there being more to the discussion, you’re absolutely right – authorial intent is much more nuanced than the two options I focused on in this post, including the fact that intent can change from piece to piece. In the end, intent is really personal and specific, which is why it can be so hard to pin down. Thanks again. I’m really looking forward to reading your post expanding on your point – it’s a good one and it certainly deserves considering. xx

  4. I read Tamsin’s post the other day and began thinking along a similar path you’ve taken. Why do I write? I have a few reasons, one of which is to turn on my reader, but what struck me most is that while I love setting up an erotic scene or moment, I prefer to let my readers get a peek inside a characters head even more. The sex is part of the story, maybe even the motivation for all that happens throughout, but the money shot (so to speak) is whatever errant thought is skittering through a characters mind – what they think, how they feel, and how they process what’s happening in the moment. Well, hell, now I need to explore this more. Thank you for getting me to think more deeply.

    1. Thank you! I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a bunch of us thinking about this right now.. I love that money shot you mentioned, btw. For me, as a reader, it’s what makes the sex sexy – get me inside a character’s head and oh man, I am yours 🙂

  5. And yet isn’t it strange that I feel almost immune to the stories that are patently written to ‘create the affect’, and enduringly turned on by writing like ‘The Second Letter’. That interior working out of a change, the clarity, of a truth found even when it is uncomfortable – especially when it is uncomfortable, – is what turns me on. It teaches me how to live in the world I have, instead of escape into an unreal place. There is something at the core of this that is akin to the procreative instinct. I can pleasure myself. But if I want to have sex with someone else, even fictively, it is driven by a desire to know. It’s powerfully erotic.

    1. It’s the same for me – I’m far less interested with the mechanics of sex than I am with the people having it. The desire to know that you mentioned is incredibly erotic. What turns me on, whether it’s in fiction or real life, is the visceral connection sex can create. Deep emotional engagement can be so cathartic and risky in it’s way. I love reading it, especially in a sexual context. It never fails to turn me on, even if the only thing happening on the page is a kiss.

  6. I have read a thousand “why do I write” essays and this is one of a very few that I enjoyed, that didn’t overflow with pretentiousness.

    I have no interest in turning any reader on. I just write a situation and it works for someone or it doesn’t. It’s kind of weird that I’ve had as many erotica stories published as I have since it’s not a genre that works for me, at least not recently. Sometimes I look at old collections that aren’t afraid to be complex or dark or pragmatic and sigh wistfully. Other times I wish I was the kind of writer who enjoyed churning out stories about alpha males and the spunky heroines who fuck them. At any rate, erotica’s in my rearview mirror.

    And this – “those of us with less clear cut paths have to be flexible and creative in pursuing new ways to connect readers with our work” – is an excellent point in explaining the literary life these days. It’s not enough to do double duty with a day job AND writing; you also have to be an indefatigable strategist and marketer. It can get exhausting. To be a writer these days is to live the life of Sisyphus.

    Look at you and your blog posts getting me all worked up. You’re a dangerous writer, Malin.

    1. Thank you, Valerie! I’ve never been called dangerous before but I kind of like it.. As for erotica being in your rearview mirror, I very much understand that, though I will say it’s the genre’s loss (for whatever definition of “erotica” one uses). Honestly, you’re such an incredibly good writer I’d read you regardless of what genre you choose to write in.

  7. I don’t think I fall into either of those categories. I ask myself all the time why I write. Certainly not for commercial gain (shit, I wish!) and not to move a “character” forward seeing as I write non-fiction — unless you consider me a character. If I had to boil it down, I use sex as a means of story-telling and sometimes to titillate. I guess it depends on what I’m trying to say. I’m not even sure if this makes any sense. I feel like an outsider in the “erotica” world because what I write is non-fiction; I’m not sure I have a place, though I know by definition I write erotic material. It’s a strange place to be.

    1. I think that using sex as a means of storytelling – regardless of whether the story is fiction or nonfiction – is incredibly powerful. It’s one of the main reasons I’m drawn to it. And I think that you said something very important when you said that why you write changes depending on what you have to say. I think intention can change from piece to piece, regardless of whether it’s a fictional story or a nonfiction essay. I love writing both fic and nonfic and I wish there were more fluidity between those two factions of sex writing. In the end, I feel that they share more similarities than people might think.

  8. I believe I fall more into the ‘literary erotica’ camp. I love bringing clarity and understanding of the ‘why’ we do and ‘love’ what we do. Bringing flesh, heart and soul to the sex. I do love when I hear others relate, are turned on etc…. But I write because I have something to say and together with my readers we hopefully figure out what that is!

    @Valerie Alexander: “To be a writer these days is to live the life of Sisyphus.” God yes…. but to not write, would be death.

  9. I have really pondered this post with regards to my writing and have decided that I am simple soul because I don’t have an intention other than to tell a story. I feel like I should be much more self analyzing in this subject but when I tried it kept leading me back to the idea that I was not as ‘bright’ as other who write with an intent so I am going to stick with my simple answer and be happy with that because over thinking it…. well that way, madness lays for me 😉

    Mollyxxx

    1. For what it’s worth, I think that sometimes the simple answers are the best. Telling story because you want to is a really, really good reason to write. I hope everyone who writes anything even remotely narrative has that intention somewhere in their bag of reasons 🙂
      xxx

  10. Thanks for this article. I just begin to write a story combining eroticism and horror, so every opinion, every tip and every suggestion are for me especially valuable. And such texts as your is not so easy to find on the Internet. Thanks! Greetings!

  11. Thanks. This is a terrific piece and I heartily agree with it. When I wrote porn I wrote it because I needed to spend quality time with the part of my sexual imagination that vexed, thrilled and mystified me. Not to explain it, but to live it as fully as I could from the multiple angles in which I hoped it would reveal itself. Which meant I had to learn to write as well as I could, with as many techniques as I could master, and to use every understanding I had to get the job done “Literary” is a very weak word for that mandate, and “therapeutic” entirely inaccurate: it was simply necessary to for me to know and to have that part of myself in the way that writing affords — and oddly, mysteriously important to make this a public matter. And if I wrote in the despised subgenres of porn and romance, that’s because they were the ones that shaped this part of myself.

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