Tag Archives: sexuality

The Goblin Market

A pre-raphaelite painting of a woman holding a pomegranate for The Goblin Market by Malin James

“Proserpine” or Jane Morris & the Pomegranate by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1847)

I’ve been sick the past few days, which has given me an unusual amount of time for listless thinking and wool gathering. In and amongst the drift of fairly useless thoughts came the realization that, for me, there are two kinds of erotic reading – stories that focus on sex, and stories that achieve a raw, nearly sexual intimacy, despite the absence (or near absence) of sex.

The first sort of reading is pretty obvious. It’s best characterized by stories like this and this. In fact, a lot of what I write for this site would fall into that category. The other kind of eroticism is harder to qualify, but it shows up in pieces like this, as well as in many of my non-erotic stories, which is why they’re often read with a sexual undercurrent, even when there’s no sex in them.

Instead of being expressed in an overtly sexual way, the intimacy in those stories comes out as a sort of shared ache – a sympathy between characters that is, hopefully, transferred to the reader. That affinity triggers something like an erotic response, one that’s subtly sexual and emotionally intimate. The latent sexuality in that response is what comprises the second sort of eroticism – one that’s emotionally sexual and not obvious in the text, but simmering beneath it.

“Goblin Market”, by Christina Rossetti, drips with limpid, super sensual imagery and includes a final scene that could be a portrait of sexual ecstasy, except it isn’t. The ecstasy isn’t sexual. It’s the culmination of devotion, sacrifice, and love between two sisters whose affinity is so strong it pushes their bond to lover-like levels of intimacy while remaining uncompromisingly platonic.

How Rossetti managed to blend the sensual with the sisterly is a bit of a mystery to me, even now. There’s nothing concrete that I can point to in the poem, no line on a map marking the territory between sexuality and emotionality, but it exists all the same, which is why I think of that shared territory as the goblin market. The goblin market in narrative creates a tension that works on the reader without any conscious effect, yet you put the book down feeling lush and keenly aware, like Persephone when she finally gives in and eats the pomegranate’s seeds.

For me, one author achieves the goblin market better than anyone else. If you read anything by Angela Carter you’ll feel it, but it’s especially effective in her collection, The Bloody Chamber, which I’ve pushed mentioned before. The title story is fantastic I’ve already fangirled all over it so I’ll focus on a different story from the same collection – “The Tiger’s Bride”.

“The Tiger’s Bride” is one of the sexiest stories I’ve ever read, yet it contains no sex.  What it does have is massive amounts of emotionally charged intimacy unpinning a story in which masks and identities are stripped away. It isn’t until a tacit understanding is reached between the tiger and his captive that a shared ache develops, but when it does, it makes something that should have been ghastly, (the tiger licks her human skin away, revealing golden fur), unbelievably erotic.

The narrator’s affinity for her captor can’t be expressed in words (he speaks in low growls, translated by a simian valet), which is just as well. It’s the silence of their understanding that transforms what could have been yet another variation on “Beauty and the Beast” into a story steeped in animal sexuality. Its lack of obvious eroticism heightens, pretty fantastically, the latent eroticism of the text.

I’m finding more and more that I need this second, more subtle, emotional component for the erotic aspects of a story to work for me. While I still love straight up filth, it doesn’t tend to stay with me. It’s the stories that weave tapestries of sex and emotional intimacy that I come back to again and again, whether they’re called erotica or something else.

This shift in my reading is something relatively new. While I appreciated the goblin market from an intellectual perspective when I was younger, it never touched me the way that raw sex did. Now it’s quite the opposite. It would be easy to say that this shift is the result of getting older, but I suspect it has less to with age and more to do with me. I’ve always had an emotional intensity that I was never completely comfortable with, especially in conjunction with sex. I suspect that my growing attraction to stories steeped in this kind of emotional sexuality is, more than anything else, a sign that I’m finally comfortable with my own goblin market.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite goblin market stories, along with links to where you can find them (some for free!). And if  you have any books you love for this kind of read, tweet me or leave them in the comments!

POETRY:

“Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti

COLLECTIONS:

Winter’s Tales by Isak Dinesen – “The Invincible Slave Owners” and “The Heroine”

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – “The Tiger’s Bride” and “The Bloody Chamber” (and most of the others, to be honest).

Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor (The first story is a really subtle, really sexy adaptation of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”).

The Lure of Dangerous Women by Shanna Germain

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

NOVELS:

Atonement & The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (I fangirled the film here. And to be fair, there is fairly explicit sex in this book, but its punch lies in the emotional intensity behind it).

Affinity by Sarah Waters

Angels and Insects & The Game by A.S. Byatt

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy by Nick Bantock

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (courtesy of Tamsin Flowers, who was lovely enough to give me a copy!)

Guys & the Girls Who Want to Watch: On Homoeroticism

A black and white photograph of two men embracing for Two Guys and the Girl Who Wants to Watch: On Homoeroticism by Malin James

Erotic postcard by Jim French

Roughly two years ago, I wrote a post asking this question:

What is it about two men having sex that turns so many women on?

That post got a lot of generous responses from men and women all over the sexual spectrum, including Exhibit A (though I had no idea at the time it would begin much more than a correspondence). His response, in particular, stood out because it underscored something I’d been suspecting – that the appeal of homoeroticism is, perhaps, even more common (and complicated) than I’d originally assumed. So I set the question aside to think about it.

Two years later….

I’m finally writing the follow-up thanks, once again, to Exhibit A, who retweeted the original post last month. While I’m usually a bit sheepish about letting a topic drop, I’m glad of it in this case. After two years, my thoughts on this issue have matured in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated when I first posed the question.

The biggest adjustment in my thinking was my realization that, while m/m sex clearly appeals to a lot of women, it also appeals to a lot of men who identify as flexibly straight (as opposed to bi). This realization made me curious about how it appeals across gender divides and sexual identities. But first, I want to address the question I originally posted two years ago. Why do women think m/m sex is hot?

As with so many things, the appeal of homoeroticism is intensely subjective, so there is no one answer, but I was able to slot the responses I got into three general categories:

  • Homoeroticism appeals because I like good looking men, so the more the better. 
    • Pretty self-explanatory.
  • Homoeroticism appeals because it gives me access to something I otherwise don’t have access to.
    • Not surprising given our cultural attraction to voyeurism, taboo or potentially transgressive sex; and our obsession with the mutual incomprehensibility of the opposite sex.
  • Homoeroticism appeals because it subverts a dominant paradigm.
    • Also pretty self-explanatory, but worth breaking down a bit.

That third category refers to the fact that, in mainstream porn and media, the traditional understanding is that there’s a power imbalance between men and women when it comes to sex. While this paradigm is shifting thanks to shows like Jessica Jones, Masters if Sex and American Horror Story: Coven, it’s been a standard for so long that this power imbalance is a cultural assumption for a lot of people. This leads to the common perception that men are sexually dominant (ie: guarded or inaccessible) while women are open, emotional and vulnerable.

The m/m fantasy subverts this expectation thanks to a different cultural assumption—one that presumes that two guys will avoid this paradigm more naturally than a straight pairing. Of course, this is ridiculous because sexual dominance and submission are about interpersonal dynamics and not about gender, (which is why M/m pairings are so hot). Regardless, a lot of women admit to being turned on by m/m sex because they assume the men involved to be enjoying a level playing field – both actors are sexually assertive while remaining emotional vulnerability.

This idealization of male sexual agency tends to lead to romanticized readings of m/m dynamics. I’ve read more than one study in which women thought m/m sex was because the guys were “equal” “open” “real” and “vulnerable” in a way that they hadn’t witnessed before.

Of course, we’re talking about fiction in most of these cases—specifically porn. The popularity of m/m pairings in slash, porn and erotica reflects a certain kind of female fantasy—one that subverts dominant paradigms and gives the illusion of emotional access to men in sexual contexts. And it does all this by appropriating a somewhat romanticized version of what people imagine happening when two guys fuck.

Sidebar

This form of appropriation is important but it’s also complicated enough that it requires its own post, so I’m going to leave it there for now and come back to it later. (Hopefully in less than two years).

End Sidebar

While the fictional portrayal of m/m sexual dynamics appeals on one level, the reality of gay sex appeals on another. So, while some women (and men) fantasize about general aspects m/m sex, others engage it more specifically. In otherwords, some women want to watch their man fuck and / or get fucked by another guy; and some guys want the same thing.

I can only speak for myself when I say this, but my desire to watch my partner with another man has nothing to do with the romanticization of m/m sexual dynamics, and everything to do with our relationship and all of the complicated, nuanced reasons that make it something we both think is super hot.

Which brings me to the selective appeal of homoeroticism across genders.

Awhile ago, I wrote a story called “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” about a woman who gives her boyfriend an m/m encounter for Christmas. It plays to a lot of my own kinks—voyeurism, dominance and, yes, homoeroticism—so I was really happy when women and men seemed to like it though they seemed to like it for different reasons.

Women liked it because the idea of watching their man with another guy is goddamn hot (because it is). Men seemed to like the wish-fulfillment aspect or it. The male protagonist wants to suck cock and get fucked, and his girlfriend makes it happen. It’s a portrait of the gray area between gay and straight, set against the backdrop of a loving, if unconventional, relationship.

That gray area is where homoeroticism appeals to me.

Don’t get me wrong – homoeroticism is hot for a lot of reasons, and it can subvert dominant paradigms. But that’s not why I love it. I love it because it breaks a barrier—one that often sits between a man and a woman, as well as between two men.

Unless you bury the needle at either 0 (exclusively straight) or 6 (exclusively gay) on the Kinsey scale, sexuality is more fluid than we tend to realize. The sexual behaviors sanctioned by mainstream society don’t always allow for safe experimentation within the gray areas. Homoeroticism, whether engaged as fantasy or more directly, is one way of experiencing a fuller range of sexual possibilities than might otherwise be available to strictly heterosexual pairings. What’s more, it makes those possibilities available in a relatively unthreatening way.

Homoeroticism is a way of romancing “the other”, whether “the other” is a partner of the same (or opposite) sex, or some unexplored facet of yourself. Ultimately, humans crave understanding and connection. We’re curious. We want to know and touch. A fascination with homoeroticism is one way we can taste things we don’t normally find on our plates.

Sinful Sunday: Cunt

“An ancient title of respect for women, the word “cunt” long ago veered off this noble path.”

– From Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, by Inga Muscio

Apparent 3/4 nude of author holding the book Cunt over her cunt.

I read this book a lifetime ago when I barely knew my own anatomy. Re-reading it now, I’m struck by how deeply it affected my thinking on feminism, semantics and the female body politic.

I love the word cunt. It’s strong and forthright. It stands straight with its shoulders back. It takes your measure and meets your eye. It’s the opposite of an apology. It’s the kind of word that owns itself, and asks you to do the same.

To see more Sinful Sunday, click the pretty lips….

Sinful Sunday

Trigger

The Tightrope Walker. Portrait in The Haunted Mansion.

The Tightrope Walker. Portrait in The Haunted Mansion.

Being triggered doesn’t happen to me often anymore. When it does, I often feel like this girl, standing on a frayed tightrope over an alligator that I’d forgotten was there.

A Few Notes:

  1. This post has a trigger warning. I don’t usually use them, but I felt that I should as what I’m writing about is a trigger – my trigger – which got pulled not long ago. I’m going to touch on sexual, psychological and emotional abuse, shame and the lasting damage they cause, so if you feel like it would be better to skip this one, please do and consider yourself hugged.
  2. I neither advocate for trigger warnings nor do I oppose them. It’s a complicated issue that deserves objective consideration. This essay  is not that.
  3. It’s important that I explicitly state that consensual D/s play is not abuse. Unfortunately, my trigger overlaps this territory, which means that I have to take certain things into consideration when I play with power dynamics.
  4. Everything in this post is specific to my experience. Nothing I say is intended as prescriptive. I’m not even sure there’s any general wisdom to be had. I’m just feeling my way through.

On to the post….

A few months ago I had a panic attack. I haven’t had one in nearly eight years. It’s been so long that I didn’t quite realize what was happening until an hour later when I still wanted to throw up. When I realized I’d been triggered, the shame was immediate and intense. There is always shame, but even more so in this case.

There are a few reasons for that. The first has to do with ego—this damage was done so long ago that I should be over it by now…right? Well, while I know, intellectually, that that expectation isn’t fair, my feelings feel differently. Shame and egos aren’t interested in fair.

The second reason is a little more basic—the act of falling apart feels shameful because I never want to be an emotional burden again, and panic attacks level me to such a degree that I fear I’ll become one. And then, there’s the serious, primal reason for the shame—the fact that I have a trigger to begin with. But I’ll get to that.

Shame is not something I enjoy feeling, but I’ve accepted it because I know that, for me, it’s part of the triggering mechanism. Complicating this episode, however, was something I’ve never felt before—a deep, panicked resistance.

I didn’t want to be negatively affected by what I’d read. I don’t mean this in a wow-wish-that-movie-hadn’t-made-me-cry kind of way. What I mean is that I didn’t want this piece, very specifically, to affect me negatively. I didn’t want my history to shadow something that would usually turn me on, particularly given my relationship to, and feelings for, the author.

But that’s the thing with triggers. They are intensely specific. The piece that triggered me could have had warnings all over it, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. I’d have read it anyway because, regardless of the warning, I wouldn’t have seen it coming. Change any number of external factors and I’d probably have been fine. In fact, six months ago, I may not have triggered at all. Six months ago, I hadn’t received an email that I never wanted to get. I was getting more sleep. I hadn’t just finished a difficult piece…. There was just no way to prepare for the very specific, collective effect that all of those factors had on me right then. There’s never any way to prepare. At least, not for me. And it’s for that reason that I stand by the piece that triggered me, because it’s really good and in no way at fault for affecting me in that way. It’s just one of those things….

This is going to seem like a random transition, but bear with me.

I’ve written before about the fact that, while I’m not a Domme, I am sexually dominant, and that my dominance formed, (in part, at least), in response to several traumatic things in my history. That’s where triggers (warning!) come in.

When I was very young, I was sexually abused. As a result, I learned that my will could be supplanted. I learned that I couldn’t rely on my parents and that love doesn’t keep you safe. I learned that I had to protect myself. And I also learned that I couldn’t. In other words, at four years old, I internalized that I was powerless.

This led to all sorts of borderline abusive situations as I grew up. Eventually, I graduated to a genuinely abusive relationship. My ex was charming and intelligent. He made me feel strong. He loved my anger and my hunger and my insatiable sexuality. He wanted me to own the world. And he wanted to own me. He taught me about power and how to use it, and then he flipped the tables and showed me how powerless I was.

That’s my trigger. Powerlessness. Helplessness. That’s where the shame comes from—the uneasy knowledge of what I allowed to happen after a lifetime of trying (and failing) to protect myself. And no, I’m not blaming the victim (although the word doesn’t sit easily with me). What I am doing is acknowledging that I made choices. I chose to stay for longer than I should have, and that decision installed a trigger that was pulled because I read something beautiful, written by someone brilliant, that was too much like something my ex had done to me.

My trigger unmoors me from the strong foundation I’ve built. It reminds me that I can be leveled by things that are out of my control. It makes me feel like I can’t protect myself. It makes me feel like I have to, and it’s that last part that’s especially hard. It’s my vigilance that saddens me most. I feel most like the self I might have been in those rare moments when the vigilance drops…when I am soft and relaxed. Those are the sweetest moments. And to that end, my trigger is also a gift.

What made this episode different, and especially disturbing, is that it didn’t stop. I remained unsettled for weeks, so much so that I finally went to a therapist for what has always been diagnosed as depression. This time, I came away with an additional diagnosis. PTSD. And now, thanks to the awful discomfort of being triggered, I’m doing the work that I wish I’d done years ago.

The only way I know to recover is to get stronger. That used to mean making myself invulnerable. Now, it means the opposite. It means bending. I need to learn to accept the abuses and my vulnerability, and I need to learn to trust my strength. I can’t tell you how sweet it would be to feel that acceptance and trust. To drop the resistance and shame. Vulnerability can be such a beautiful thing. One day, I would like to experience it as such.

Woman in Repose

Woman with arched back lying on a dark bed

Woman in Repose by Steve Harris

The past few months have been challenging. A series of difficult things destabilized what had been a very stable foundation. It was a bit like playing Jenga. Each thing that happened removed a pin from my tower, until I was leaning and listing everywhere – nowhere near falling, but structurally unsound.

As a result, it’s  fair to say that I haven’t been myself. The people in my life have had to deal with me being unusually emotional and term bound while I struggled with a limited sense of perspective. I’ve been anxious, reactionary and far more taxed (and taxing) than I ever want to be. It’s a state of mind that made me want to unzip my skin and divorce my body from my brain until I got a handle on things. And that’s essentially, what I did. The result was a general disinterest in sex and, to a greater degree, D/s.

There are labels I use for myself, and others that I don’t even though they could superficially apply. The primary example of this is “Domme”. I never refer to myself as a Domme even though I am sexually dominant. (To be honest, I’m dominant in general though I try to keep that checked. I’d rather be accessible than in control…unless there’s a reason to be in control).

I make the distinction between dominant and Domme because, while I enjoy playing with power, I can just as easily not and be very satisfied. The label “Domme” comes with implications that I feel don’t quite apply because my dominance isn’t formalized, nor do I want it to be. My recent situational reticence with D/s underscored that distinction for me in a very concrete way.

Side note: Drawing this distinction deserves its own post, so forgive the broad brush I’m using now.

While I love playing games, I’m equally happy to meet my partners without a power dynamic in play. What keeps me from being even remotely switchy is the fact that I won’t submit sexually to anyone. Ever. My aversion to sexual submission is serious enough that I couldn’t do it for love or money. There are reasons for this, but I’m going to save those for a separate post.

I’d be lying if I said that I don’t enjoy gentle cruelties or imposing my will on consenting partners. I’d be lying if I said that there isn’t a carnivorous part of me that gets off on taking control. But I’d also be lying if I said that that particular kind of assertion is an integral part of who I am. It’s something that I do, not something that I am (unlike my resistance to submission, which is a fundamental part of my personality). That’s why I love sex with an equally dominant partner just as much (and often even more) as D/s play. 

The result of dealing with what I’ve been dealing with is that I haven’t really wanted to play in a D/s sense. I haven’t wanted to control, create or weave scenarios. So much of my energy was going to keeping myself under control, that the idea of taking external control in a play context was exhausting. Unfortunately, I didn’t consciously realize any of this at the time, though I wish I had. I was pushing myself in ways that I shouldn’t have.

In hindsight, I can see that what I needed was something else – good sex, balanced dynamics and, perhaps most lowering, a sense of safety so that I could get out of my head and back into my body. I’ve been sexually reticent and, though not passive (because I’m almost never passive), I’ve definitely been more cautious and reserved – what a friend of mine would call a woman in repose.

While I was in London, Exhibit A and I went for a short run. Afterwards we talked about how, after you’ve been injured, you tend to go more carefully and not push yourself as hard. It’s an understandable thing but, at a certain point, that self-protective instinct can get in your way. Then again, sometimes it’s what you need, even if only for a short time…the hope is always that you’ll return to running at speed.

To circle back to where I started, certain facets of my sexuality and personality have been feeling fairly injured of late – facets that are tied to my relationship with sexual dominance. In a sense, I needed to rest those muscles – the ones I use in D/s – because D/s is not my home base. Sex is. I needed to get re-grounded in sex while those other parts of me rested. I needed to feel, not think or plan. I needed to be spontaneous and basic, so I didn’t go out on available limbs or explore interesting possibilities. I played it safe because, as with running after an injury, I needed to respect my boundaries and get the lay of my land again.

I didn’t realize it until I wrote this, but sex was, and is, the key to that for me. Good, connected, uninhibited, back-to-basics sex with someone I trust.  And now, on the tail end of what turned out to be a pretty difficult patch, I’m happy to say that I’m in better shape than I thought I was. The muscles that needed resting are stretching and waking up. I’m feeling like myself again, and it feels awfully good. I really am happiest on my feet.

On Virginity, or A Case For Not Throwing It Away

Image of a man and woman sitting on a fence. His hand is going up her skirt while she looks away.

A Voyage of Discovery by Jack Vettriano

I would love to say that the loss of my maidenhead* was a magical experience. I’d love to say that it set a healthy tone for the whole of my sexual career. In reality, it went more like this:

I was nineteen and deeply frustrated. I’d had boyfriends but none who would go past second base with me, (I dated a couple of Irish Catholics. Confession was a thing). I was sexually aware to the point of discomfort, but I’d never gotten close to do anything about the live wires beneath my skin. I was massively frustrated and burdened with this thing that I didn’t want anymore. So, one night I decided to get it over with.

I met the guy through an acquaintance. I knew him just enough about him to feel relatively sure that he wasn’t going to kill me and dump my body in a lake. I say “the guy” because I don’t remember his name…Jason maybe? I’m not sure. I was sober, so I assume that I must’ve blocked it out. In fact, I’m fairly certain I did – not because anything terrible happened, but because, even at the time, I knew I was making a subtle but serious mistake. It was the start of a pattern that would do me no favors. But more on that in a second. For now, let’s stay with “the guy”….

In the end, his name doesn’t matter because it wasn’t about him. It was about me and the fact that I was approaching twenty and the only virgin left in the city (not really but it felt like it). So, there we were in the back of his mom’s minivan in a mall parking lot. The foreplay was minimal and consisted mostly of my sucking his cock. After that, we moved to the back seat where I gave it up to the age old rhythm of my head whacking against his baby brother’s car seat.

I lost my virginity with less care than some people give to cutting their hair. At the time, I remember feeling a grim satisfaction, one that I now recognize as a defense mechanism. I knew even before he dropped me off (in the minivan) that I wasn’t going to see him again, even if I wanted to (I didn’t). The fact that I’d been a virgin had thrown him. I literally saw him panic the second his cock hit my hymen.

Holy shit! A virgin! They get hella clingy! Finish this and get out of there!

So, the grim satisfaction was both for a job well done (I was no longer a virgin – Ha! Take that, virginity!) but it was also because I needed to own what I’d just done. I knew that wasn’t how it could have been.  I knew it wasn’t a good start.

Now, looking back with roughly eighteen years of sexual experience to call on, I can see that I set a pattern for myself that night – one in which I disregarded the rounded whole of my needs in favor of satisfying temporary dissatisfactions. That pattern is pretty much broken now, but not without effort and a nice collection of regrets.

Should I have taken more time and given myself a positive, even loving, first time? Ideally speaking, of course. I should’ve. But the truth is that I was wired for sex and self-injury. I can’t pretend that a different decision would’ve saved me from years of mistakes. That said, if I had waited and not pushed, I might have developed a sense of myself sooner, and that would have made a difference. Who can say….

Virginity is not a magical thing, nor is it a marker of moral, spiritual or physical worth. The loss of it is, however, a pivotal event in a person’s life. Your first sexual experiences set a tone, even if only subconsciously. Would my sexual development have been different were it not for the minivan and the parking lot and the goddamn car seat? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. And that’s the thing that stays with me. I will never know.

I have wanted to write that phrase into something for ages and I missed the #EuphOff this time around.

NB: I drafted this over the weekend but wasn’t able to get it posted in time for Wicked Wednesday.  It’s still something I’m happy to have written though, so here it is – a little late, but hopefully better than never. Click this link to see all of the Wicked Wednesday posts on Virgin(ity) – there are some excellent pieces in there.

Death and the Maiden

Woman in Three Stages, by Edvard Munch (1894)

Woman in Three Stages, by Edvard Munch (1894)

Some of my earliest erotic memories are linked to death. I was thirteen when I read Interview with the Vampire and, even then, I was aware of what would become a voracious sexuality. But for reasons to do with personality and upbringing, I had no way to frame my impulses and nowhere safe to explore them.

Books were the lens through which I explored that part of myself, and the books I was drawn to eroticized death in some way. In fact, the first time I gave myself an orgasm, I was thinking about the scene where Lestat kills a courtesan while Louie watches (in tragic, moral conflict). Even now, I remember imagining myself as both the courtesan and Lestat.

That scene, as well as others from Dracula (those brides, Lucy’s transformation, Dracula’s ravishing of Mina while Jonathan sleeps beside her) and Wuthering Heights (Cathy’s gorgeously tragic death), aroused me in ways that teen romances never could. Those eroticized portrayals of death and violence tapped into the striving, subterranean part of me that longed for something more, something darker and deeper. I longed for transcendence in a way that’s almost painful to remember.

Growing up, I was cradled in the sort of security that anyone would be lucky to have, but I knew, without being told, that the security I felt wasn’t foolproof or permanent. I also knew that I didn’t want to be safe, even though the alternative scared me. I wanted to feel everything. I wanted to rip into life with my teeth.

By the time I was in college, I’d discovered Bataille and Nin. I was obsessed with Angela Carter*. I grew restless and impatient with myself and nice young men and civilized sex. Unlike my openly kinky friends who liked being spanked or humiliated, there was no label for what I craved – a deeply eroticized place where death is a tangible presence in an overly sensual world. I couldn’t find access to that in life, so I read about murderous husbands and elegant predators, starving for something I didn’t understand.

So what is this link between sex and death that has always worked so deeply for me? I’ve thought about this for years, and the best I can manage is that there are three different components – defiance, catharsis and power – that work on me to different degrees, depending on my frame of mind at any given time.

The first, and possibly most primal reason for my fascination is that I’m terrified of my own mortality. To age and weaken, to become vulnerable and powerless, to lose agency over my body and, even more frighteningly, my mind – these things genuinely scare me and sex is, in a way, a momentary act of defiance. A rejection of the inevitability of my own decline.

Before the body gives out and becomes in-viable, we use it to wring pleasure out of an existence that is finite and short. (Forgive me that assumption – I’m an atheist. For those who believe in an after life, this may not be the case). Food and sex are two of our primary drives, and as such, the satisfaction of these drives are two of our primary pleasures. But sex does something that food cannot. While food is wonderful (really, really wonderful), sex (at least good sex) can be actively transcendent. Here’s what I mean.

Think about the best sex you’ve ever had; the fucks that were so good you still know what it felt like to bury yourself in that person. It’s the sex that stripped you down to a series of responses, and pinned you to the salty, filling present. Sex like this turns you into a greedy, striving thing. It makes you writhe. It destroys your dignity and twists your face. It dismantles your attachment to the person you think you should be. It takes you past worry. It takes you past death. If only for that moment, you are nothing but a body and you are desperately alive.

Orgasms are sometimes called la petit mort (the little death). This term can be used to describe any sexual climax, but it also refers to a particular sort of orgasm, one that I’ve never experienced – not everyone can. Essentially, the woman passes out in the middle of coming and revives moments later, still at the peak of her pleasure.

Orgasms and, in special cases, la petit mort, are the physical incarnation of a paradox, one that views the peak of sexual pleasure as a sort of crisis – a culmination of sensation that ends in cathartic release. Given that, sexual pleasure can be seen as a metaphor for the interplay between life and death. But unlike true death, which is permanent, we can engage that metaphor as often as we like and on our own terms. In this way, sexual transcendence is a sort of miniature version of the ultimate transcendence between life and death.

Sex and death are both driven by catharsis, and we, as human beings, crave catharsis. It’s one of the reasons we watch films that make us cry. It’s why horror is one of the most popular genres. It’s why vampires were so popular in romantic and erotic fiction a few years back. In fact, vampires have become the erotic personification of death. They are both the threat and the promise of release. They are death and the means through which to transcend it – so much so that a standard tropes in vampire fiction is the question of immortality. Should the mortal allow her lover to make her a beautiful, immortal killer?

Which brings me to the third aspect of pleasure and mortality that has always attracted me. Predation and power. As unsettling as this may sound, there is no greater exercise of personal power that the ending of someone else’s life…unless it is for the intended victim to defy death and live.

This is where vampires and predators become especially useful. Dracula’s brides, succubi, men with a roomful of lovely, dead wives…unlike normal monsters, they seduce their prey, so that the victims experience a paradoxical fear and pleasure. That twining of fear and pleasure combines physical transcendence with the animal will to survive, and the tension between those two instincts is visceral and incredibly hot (all the more so when it’s not entirely clear that the victim will succumb).

In the end, the dance between sex and death comes down to a question of power. Who wins? The mortal or mortality? It’s this struggle with the inevitable, more than any other aspect, that draws me to eroticized portraits of death. It is, quite literally, the ultimate power play with the highest possible stakes.

When I see Cathy dying from a strange, self-induced madness, I see the sensuality of her loss and the ferociousness of Heathcliff’s grief (i.e.: the fact that her death only increased her power over him). When Lestat kills the prostitute, I see a woman dying in ecstasy because she cannot escape. When three female vampires ravish a man, I see an inversion of a power dynamic that is as satisfying as it is dangerous. When a girl escapes her brutally sensual husband, I see the thrill of sexual awakening combined with the literal defiance of death.

So why does death occupy an eroticized place in my fantasies? Because I eroticize power, I crave catharsis, and because I want to live. I want to defy what cannot be defied. I want to use my body to its full capacity as often as I can. I want to feel alive. I want this desperately, and nothing makes me feel more alive, more sexual, more aware and more powerful than being confronted with the knowledge that some day, sooner or later, all of it will end.

*N.B.: The Angela Carter story I reference in this post is called “The Bloody Chamber” from the collection of the same name. It’s a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale, and if you’ve never read it it’s worth picking up. In fact, the entire collection is incredible. You can find it here.

A Girl’s Guide to Growing Up

Mother and daughter by Pascal Campion

Image by Pascal Campion

Today is my daughter’s 4th birthday. It’s an unabashedly happy day, but for me, deep down, there’s also a little edge of melancholy to it… or, if not melancholy, contemplation.

When I look at her now, I see only a shadow of the moon-faced baby I had four years ago. She’s left that phase and has enthusiastically assumed the role of little girl. Of course, the irrational part of me wants to fill my arms with her while I can, because I know it’s only a matter of time before I look at her and see only a shadow of the little girl she is now. And I’ll tell you right now, I’m indulging that irrational impulse. I’m kissing and swinging her and holding her hand like it’s the most natural thing in the world because, right now, it is.

That irrational part of me wants to keep her a girl forever. But the rest of me knows that, for all that I love and protect her, the best thing I can do is to teach her how to love and protect herself. Right now, I’m reveling in the fact that she’s mine, but that’s temporary. My claim on her will last only as long as it takes her to grow up and claim herself. My most bittersweet job is to her develop the skills and self-possession she’ll need to navigate the world on her own.

That means being open to things that are, quite frankly, frightening and complicated from a parental perspective. The irrational part of me would love to keep her sheltered and unquestioning, but that would do her a massive disservice. I grew up in a family that never talked about sex (or mental health or anything unpleasant or difficult). I know how damaging that can be, even in the most loving household.

So now, while she’s little, I’m making a list of things I want to talk to her about as she grows up. It’s not comprehensive, nor do I think it ever could be. If nothing else, it’s a blueprint, one that I know will get altered by improvisation depending on what’s relevant to her at any given time. In my head, I think of it as a sort of guide to growing up, but one that will grow with her.

Right now, the list is full of things I wish I could have talked through with my mom; things to do with sex, identity, body image and shame; things that I figured out on my own, sometimes at great cost. If I do it right though, the list will stop reflecting my own experiences and become entirely defined by hers. In the end, it is not about me. It’s about her and what she needs at any given time. That said, the list as it exists is massive. It has bullet points covering everything to sex to science – way too much to reproduce here. So instead of trying to get it all in, I’ll leave you with…

A Very Partial List of Things I Want to Tell My Daughter in Completely Random Order

  1.  Masturbation is good, healthy and wonderful. It is nothing to be ashamed of. If and when you want your first vibrator, I’ll be thrilled to take you to buy one. But one word of advice – vibrators are awesome, but it’s easy to get dependent on them. Try to learn your body without one first.
  2. Learn to how to please yourself. Even more importantly, communicate what you like to your partners so they can please you too. Try not to fake your orgasms. Try to voice your needs instead.
  3. Virginity is important, but not in the traditional way. As a symbol of goodness, it’s useless – goodness is better measured by what you do and how you treat people, not by the state of your hymen. That said, your first time (whether it’s oral, penetrative or anything else) is important. It sets a tone. Inexperience isn’t a hindrance to be thrown away.
  4. Sex can be complicated. It can be so complicated that even adults struggle and get tangled up. You don’t need to fear sex. In fact, you shouldn’t. Just choose when to have it and respect the complications it could bring.
  5. Sex isn’t love. It’s sex. While sex is a great way to communicate love, never conflate the two. You can’t barter one for the other.
  6. Porn is not a how-to manual. Neither is erotica or tumblr. They are entertainment and, as entertainment, they’re a great way to explore your fantasies. But if you want to know how to do something, nonfiction is more reliable than fiction.
  7. Take the opinions / advice of your peers with a grain of salt. They’re still figuring it out too.
  8. Sexuality is neither simple nor static. Same with gender identity. Labels are useful but, ultimately, you are you – not a straight person, a bi person, a gay person, a trans person, a slut, a good girl, a feminist or anything else. Labels can define you in ways that miss the whole person. Be the whole of you.
  9. Know your boundaries. They may change over time but always know them. Advocate for yourself. Never, ever be afraid to say no.
  10. I know you’re going to have sex. You’re going to love, hate, be heart-broken and break hearts. Do these things. Live your life. Live it on terms that you choose and do so without shame.
  11. I love you. I love you. I love you. I will always love you. Not matter what happens, no matter who or what you do, I will always, always, always be madly in love with you.
  12. If you get pregnant or get an STI, please tell us. We’ll figure it out. See #11.

NB: This post is far from comprehensive. It’s really more of a meditation than anything else. I am writing several articles that address this subject in a far more directed and detailed way, but for now, this post communicates my general state of mind.

Kinky People Sex

Art by Franz von Bayros

Art by Franz von Bayros

I’ve been thinking about labels recently. It started with the resurgence of the erotica vs. porn debate (which Tabitha Rayne addressed beautifully in this post) but quickly spun out to include people, sexuality, kink and the labels we use to describe ourselves.

I’ve written about my own system of genre classification and many others have addressed the question from different angles since. But when the issue was brought up again, I was struck by just how subjective labels like “erotica” and “porn” are. Yes, there are standards most people agree on – erotica has a narrative focus while porn is primarily concerned with sex – but beyond that there’s a lot of grey area defined mostly by an individual’s impression of a work.

I’m not saying that literature and genre defy definition (I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a post-modernist). What I am saying is that regardless of what label we place on a thing, that thing’s identity (or classification) will likely retain some level of fluidity. Anais Nin called a great chunk of her work pornography, while today we consider her catalog one of the foundations of modern literary erotica. A group of Christian moms considered this fondant teddy bear’s seam to be an overly sexual image. I can’t say I agree. The point is that a thing can shift labels depending on who is viewing it.

Which brings me to my actual topic. Labels and people. People use labels as a short-hand for larger, more nuanced identities – are you one of us, or are you “other”? In this way, labels can be incredibly useful. But if you become unquestioningly wedded to your label it can box you in, because labels can’t always keep up with the fluidity of a person’s experiences.

If you’re primarily straight but have slept with someone of the same sex, does that make you bi? If you’re primarily dominant but sometimes like to sub, are you a switch? If your experiences or beliefs are non-binary, then labels may fit accurately, but if you inhabit an ideological or sexual grey area, it often becomes a curiosity when you deviate from the behaviors your label dictates.

Kink is a great example of this. Kinky people are generally thought to be those whose interests fall outside the sexual norm (whatever the “norm” is). I’ve identified as kinky since my early twenties when I realized that threesomes (and foursomes) were a thing. Adopting that label was liberating at the time. As a result, for much of my twenties, I allowed the “kinky” label to direct my sexual interests. I played in ways that I might not have otherwise done and, for the most part, I loved it. I also enjoyed a ton of sex that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed if I hadn’t also adopted the label of slut. But I also remember feeling that my occasional desire for straightforward, vanilla sex didn’t adhere to my label(s), so I often went without the no-frills missionary I also craved.

At that point in my life, I thought that kinky people were supposed to have kinky sex all the time, which isn’t necessarily true. For many people, kink defines their sexualities in a very whole and satisfying way. But for others, like me, identifying as any one thing excludes five other labels that I could just as easily adopt. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I made up my own label – sexually omnivorous. I want a helping of everything and always have. Or, to put it another way, I have a very fluid relationship to my sexuality and kinks.

Now, just so you know where I’m coming from, I’ll toss out a few of the labels that I do feel comfortable claiming:

Bisexual

Non-monogamous

Voyeuristic (with an exhibitionist streak)

Dominant (though not a Domme. I’m more of an alpha who likes D/s. Domme implies things I don’t want to claim.)

I also like rough sex and boundary pushing. I like feeling vaguely uncomfortable and I like it when my partner feels vaguely uncomfortable too (within the bounds of consent). More than anything, I love intensity. If a sexual experience serves up intensity, odds are I’ll be interested. It doesn’t matter if the intensity is emotional or physical. Even better if it’s both.

That said, I also love vanilla sex (which can also be emotionally and physically intense). I love missionary. I love waking up, having slow, drowsy sex and then going back to sleep. I love catching a quickie before running out for drinks. I love oral – both giving and getting. I love Sunday mornings in bed. I love entire week-ends spent doing nothing but straight up fucking – no games, no trappings, just hungry-for-more fucking. I even love making love with the right person.

So, do my more conventional tastes cancel out the kinks? I don’t feel they do – I think my sexuality covers a lot of ground and that exercising all aspects of it gives me pleasure. I’m hardly going to lock down the snuggly-missionary-loving part of me in the name of kink, any more than I’d give up D/s play because it doesn’t fit conventional sexual tastes. What I want has everything to do with who I’m with and what we need at the time. Sometimes, it’s rough. Sometimes it’s sweet. Unlike my young self, I’m not interested in missing out on either.

So, to bring it back around. If a person dedicates themselves to writing “porn” that’s great. If they claim the label of “erotica” (or “erotic romance” or “smut”) for their work, that’s great too. The danger is in becoming overly committed to a label – whether it’s porn, romance, kinky, straight, feminist, Christian, atheist or anything else. My concern is that, when a label becomes an ideology, it can curtail the intellectual, creative and sexual fluidity that makes you an individual, rather than a component of a larger, homogenous group (kinky people sex aside); or, in the case of erotic fiction, it can needlessly limit your work in a falsely simplified genre.

On Slate’s Sexual History Calculator

From Slate’s article, “Is Your Sexual History as Impressive as You Think” by Andrew Kahn and Andrew Weissmann:

You, dear reader, are a human being. And as a human being, you are naturally curious, a little bit self-conscious, and maybe even competitive about sex. At some point you’ve almost certainly thought about the number of people you’ve slept with and wondered: Is that normal?

Wonder no more. Enter your stats into our new calculator, and, based on your age and gender, it will tell you exactly which percentile you fall into when it comes to how many partners you’ve hopped in the sack with.

I came across this article today and I’ve been chewing on a mouthful of fucking annoyance ever since I read it. Needless to say, I don’t think Slate’s calculator is nearly as impressive as the article’s authors do. Fantastically unprofessional, soul-driven rant ahead.

So why did this article crawl under my skin like a disgusting dermatological disease?

In part because this was published in Slate, a (usually) grounded current events / politics site. If I’d stumbled over this in Cosmo, I’d have rolled my eyes and moved on because a sexual history calculator is exactly the sort of thing one expects to find in Cosmo. What I didn’t expect was for Slate to push the same sort of competitive, sexual shame / insecurity inducing bullshit that Cosmo does. The fact that Slate filed this article in Moneybox, their financial section, seems both nonsensical and ironically appropriate to me. Why?

Because this is click bait, plain and simple. The motive behind it has nothing to do with sexuality, curiosity or culture – it has to do with hits. So, in the spirit of not taking that bait, here’s a link I ran through DoNotLink so you can see it (if you really want to) without improving Slate’s hits on this piece.

...says the sexual history calculator.

…says the sexual history calculator.

But let’s get back to the article itself. As it says, we, the dear reader, are human. Surely we want to know if we’re “normal”, so let’s break this down to it’s unvoiced yet obvious implication:

Am I less than average? Fuck. I’m a frigid, undersexed loser.

Am I above the average? Fuck. I’m an slutty, oversexed slut.

Am I in the average? Whew. I’m normal. Thank god.

The calculator feeds into the popular notion that numbers matter when it comes to sexual partners, and it does so in a way that is almost gleefully disingenuous. Weissmann and Kahn site a study published this month in The Archive of Sexual Behavior as the inspiration behind the calculator. This study, done on a weighty 13,000 participants, found that millennials are on pace to sleep with fewer partners over their lifetimes than previous generations. This finding has some legitimate sociological interest, and it’s on that legitimate interest that the authors flimsily hung the relevance of their handy-dandy little service.

Using the same data used by the study that inspired it, the calculator compares your age and number of partners against the average defined by the study’s participants. But the study is self-reported (and I do give Weissmann and Kahn credit for stating this in the article), which means that the study’s participants could very easily have lied, adjusting their numbers up and down in whatever way suited their self images. There is no statistical rigor behind this average, which means that it’s entirely subject to the truthfulness of the people involved. As far as statistical averages go, it’s inherently flawed.

So why bother with the calculator at all, especially when the average it’s using is, very likely, less than accurate and taken from a relatively small sample size?

Because the article isn’t interested in sociological or generational trends despite what the authors claim their inspiration to be. The article, from it’s hook-laden title to its friendly, 1950’s era ad-man tone, are aimed at subversively feeding into the reader’s potential insecurities. Why? To get you to stop and click.

But beneath all that lies a legitimate question, one the authors choose to ignore. Does the number of partners you’ve slept with really matter?

My answer to this question (for all that it’s worth) is no. Sexual histories cannot be averaged. Not really. A person’s relationship to his / her sexual past is complicated, individual and defined by the particular circumstances of her / his life. Whether you’ve had one partner or one hundred doesn’t say anything about you as a sexually mature human being. But this calculator feeds into our insecurities about our partnered sexual pasts. Am I prude? Am I a slut? Fuck if I care. I’m offended by the idea of a click-bait calculator telling me where I fall on an imaginary average, and I’m offended that it’s been published as a way to capitalize on people’s insecurities (“c’mon – you’re human”) to get hits for Slate.

For all that though, the calculator does one thing of legitimate sociological interest. It underscores how wide-spread the reflex to measure our sexual histories against each other is. It wouldn’t be click-bait if the authors weren’t confident of it’s ability to reel people in. But is that impulse healthy or necessary?

I’d say probably not. Regardless of where you fall on the calculator’s spectrum, you’ll either feel bad about yourself or falsely vindicated if you give the results any weight. Either way, the false notion that the number of people in your history means anything will, once again, be reinforced.

This calculator isn’t the precious little service the authors are making it out to be. It’s a disingenuous manipulation wrapped up in cultural interest and that’s why it pisses me off. It’s selling you the notion that there is an average sexual history and that that the subjective average is “normal”. Are you “normal?” Don’t you want to know? Not to sound like John Oliver on a rant, but Fuck You Sexual History Calculator! Sell your “normal” somewhere else!

And yes, I know, maybe I need to lighten up. Maybe some people find this kind of thing fun. Maybe people don’t care. Maybe…but the calculator is a sensationalistic marketing tool and because it serves no larger point (despite the terms it’s couched in) it can fuck right off. As a culture, we’re already too focused on the number of people in our sexual histories. The last thing we need is an app to capitalize on the obsession.