Having invited writers to ‘share their secrets’ (more about the 130+ participants here) this article explores authors’ views on the use of fantasy and realism in erotic fiction. As ever, it is intended as a starting point for discussion. All comments welcome.
For many of us, as authors and readers, erotic fiction operates within the realm of fantasy. It conjures into words thoughts we may hardly dare admit. It offers us the chance to explore our ‘what ifs’, within the safety of the page.
Nicolette Hugo muses, “All books are part fantasy or fear, we write to taste or exorcise them.”
KD Grace states a position voiced by many authors. “I can go places, do things sexually, in fiction that I would never consider in real life, allowing me to explore. I can have the thrill without the risk.”
Just over 40% of the writers surveyed stress that they draw significantly on their own real life sexual experiences to inspire their writing. The majority mention doing so in addition to, rather than instead of, exploring imagined fantasies. Only a handful write primarily from a position of recalling their own sexual history, or drawing heavily on events witnessed/related to them.
Saying this, all authors strive for a sense of authenticity in their work, to elicit reader empathy. However otherworldly the setting or outlandish the characters, behaviour and motivation must remain recognizable, or the reader cannot suspend disbelief, and join the author on their journey. Few would deny that small details of our own experience (emotional and sexual) will, even without conscious intention, find their way onto the page. It is these elements that ensure fiction its necessary gloss of realism.
As Dennis Cooper notes in his interview for Paris Review, his novels aren’t ‘transcriptions of the real world’. He states: ‘They’re highly organized missives from my imagination. When there’s a real-world resemblance, it’s there to create an atmosphere of familiarity that’s helpful as a comfort zone in which I can introduce things that are difficult and unsuspected. The characters are the main entrance into the work because they’re shaped like humans and they’re lit more brightly than their surroundings. But they’re not real… Everything in the books is half mine and half the reader’s, and the characters are just enunciations of my ideas.’
Plundering Our Fantasies
As Tamsin Flowers notes, “Our experiences are the lens through which we view the world and we can’t help but be influenced by them. However, you needn’t have experienced something to write about it (thriller writers aren’t killers and sci-fi writers aren’t spacemen). I’ve written about plenty of things I’ve read about or simply just imagined.”
Among the author respondents to this survey, 58% state firmly that their own fantasies are, at the very least, a starting point for writing.
Rose Caraway comments, “I’m mostly inspired by fantasies, particularly through dreams.” Jay Willowbay adds his belief that ‘any erotic author that doesn’t mine their own fantasies is ignoring their most bountiful source of vivid and exciting material, and letting it go to waste’. Cari Silverwood continues this train of thought, saying that, if we neglect to use our fantasies we’re unlikely to write scenes which ‘resonate’. Tamsin Flowers comments that fantasies feed into her work ‘either explicitly or less directly, lending shade and nuance’.
Adrea Kore tells us that writing erotica has increased her ability to pay attention to her sexual imagination, the place from which her sexual fantasies emerge. “Expressing from this place, and seeing the ways I’ve grown and changed has strengthened my belief that this aspect of ourselves has a vital connection to increased self-awareness, creativity, sexual fulfilment – and healing.”
It’s no surprise that authors commonly endeavor to write with their own sexual and emotional response to the fore, believing that this will bear most authenticity (and, thereby, have most impact on readers).
Adrea adds, ‘The slippery world of advertising is constantly trying to sell us things through tapping into common elements of sexual fantasies, but these ‘packaged dreams’ will never be as unique as your own.’
Spencer Dryden recalls, “At 63, I felt my sexual energy sailing away but I was also shedding inhibitions like dead skin. I gave myself permission to explore my sexual fantasies through erotic fiction as a way of keeping myself engaged.”
Tabitha Rayne also asserts that personal fantasies are the engine behind her writing, saying, “No matter what I write, in that moment, it is my desire. It is absolutely my fantasy.” She notes that what stirs her one day can be very different the next.
In this way, each act of writing is a captured moment in time, a fantasy caught in the net of words.
Delores Swallows notes, “In my quiet moments (waiting to fall asleep, or doing some brainless task like mowing the lawn or painting walls) my mind wanders, creating short stories that facilitate a ‘fantasy’.
Ashe Barker recalls having spent hours commuting, allowing fantasies to run through her mind as she sat in motorway traffic jams. She tells us, “I had favourites I’d ‘replay’ again and again, and of course new ones would pop up. Over the years, I plotted lots and lots of snippets and scenes. I had quite a vivid collection by the time I started to write any of them down. In the last three years or so, many of my motorway fantasies have been developed and placed in my stories.”
Conversely, Donna George Storey voices the view, shared by several authors, that a fantasy initially conceived purely to serve a plot, having been dwelt upon, and mined for its detail, can ‘become my fantasy by the time the writing is done’.
The majority of authors note that, although their fantasies do, to some degree, inform their writing, storytelling tends to take over, adding embellishment and new direction. Siri Ousdahl mentions, “My writing began somewhat autobiographically, and featured my own fantasies, but as I progressed, I found that the characters and craft decisions took me away from my own personal fantasies and into storytelling.”
Will Crimson comments, “Agatha Christie reportedly wrote that she could turn anything into a murder weapon─ and me? I can turn anything into a sex toy/ erotic story. I use anything and everything.” Speaking of his ability to combine real life experience with his ability to fantasize, he states, ‘I’m an erotic sponge’!
Meanwhile, Laura Antoniou tells us, “My books don’t even touch on some of my most twisted fantasies… they’d be illegal! Also, hard to sell in today’s market.”
‘Permission to Imagine’
The thrill of writing, and reading, about potentially terrifying sexual acts (such as knife play or non-consent) may be viewed as the thrill of taking control of these potential terrors. As is well-documented, a significant percentage of women enjoy some form of non-consent/forced seduction sexual fantasy.
To write about a non-consensual act is not to endorse it as a ‘real life’ behavior, any more than writing about murder is to endorse this heinous crime. To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand the purpose of literature (and art, and film, and theatre). We read, and write, to make sense of what haunts us.
The key word here is ‘fantasy’. The very act of fantasizing allows us to control the details; we are pulling all the strings. Those fantasies are of our choosing, and we inwardly narrate them just the way we decide upon. This is not to say that writers, or readers, who enjoy the fantasy of ‘forced seduction’ are complacent regarding the brutal crime of rape. The fictional-fantasy world of ravishment is a different beast to real-life sexual assault.
As Remittance Girl states, such fantasies are about ‘permission to imagine’.
Entitlement to exercise discernment remains a key argument in any debate on censorship. Readers of erotic fiction adamantly assert their right to choose their reading material, just as writers assert theirs to explore any theme. More on censorship here.
Christina Mandara laments the double standards applied across various genres, saying, “I love non-consensual elements in erotica but the world at large has decided that this isn’t acceptable. I’m getting such a hard time in this respect, that I’ve stopped writing it for the time being. You can read all sorts of horror with rape, incest, axes buried in skulls etc – but non-consensual erotica is frowned upon. It seems that women, particularly, must have consensual, hearts and flowers stories. I can’t understand why eBook stores are being so censorious in the erotica genre, but not horror.”
As Anne Rice notably stated in The Guardian newspaper (2012), we need much more freedom for erotica writers. With particular reference to women, Ms. Rice stated: ‘I’m supportive of equal rights for women, and that includes the right of every woman to write her sexual fantasies and to read books filled with sexual fantasies that she enjoys… The whole world knows women are sensual human beings as well as men. It’s no secret anymore that women want to read sexy fiction just as men do, and there’s a new frankness about the varieties of fantasies one might enjoy. So many cliches have been broken and abandoned. And this is a wonderful thing.’
In the same way, those who fantasize age-play sex (e.g. between stern older professor and misbehaving student) are not condoning real-life paedophilia.
Naturally, there are abhorrent acts writers are uncomfortable with eroticising. Just over 20% emphasise that they avoid depicting any form of non-consent in their work.
Kristina Lloyd states: “Fiction occupies an uneasy place in the context of ‘consent culture’ because writing (as per other arts) has cultural impact, affecting thinking and behaviour. I want to be socially responsible in my writing but I also want fiction to be an uninhibited, imaginative space where we can follow characters who are dangerous, or who are in jeopardy, or suffering, or who have unsanctioned desires. These wishes often pull in contrary directions. In erotica, non-con acts are often set within a framework of consent (as in BDSM practice or fantasy role-play) to indicate that the scenario is not real. However, this usually reduces the blood-pumping thrill for me as a reader.”
Meanwhile, Remittance Girl asserts, “My day-to-day go-to sexual fantasies don’t prompt good writing for me because I know them too well. I’m too comfortable with them. There is nothing to explore and no questions left for me to ask of them. My best writing comes from the eroticism of things that frighten and challenge me, the ones I feel might devour me. The uncomfortable ones. I need that internal conflict to drive my desire to write about it and explore it in fiction.”
There are few scenarios under the sun yet to be covered by erotic fiction. We can safely assume that those featuring aliens, dinosaurs, yetis, vampires, werewolves and other monstrous and supernatural beasts are likely to spring from the imagination rather than from real life encounters, with the same logic applied to stories of pirates and Vikings and all manner of historical or ‘fantasy’ settings.
While we recognize that fiction is not bound to ‘reality’, having the power to transport us into any situation or mind, a significant number of authors assert not only their intention to write with authenticity and realism but to create fiction which is believable: stories in which the reader could readily imagine themselves.
Sessha Batto, stressing that her primary purpose is ‘unpicking the character, not plugging into the libido of the reader’, explains, “…it isn’t about the reader’s fantasies…with luck, it may be about the character’s fantasies…but even that isn’t guaranteed. I don’t put much stock in fantasy, I prefer reality, whether my own or my character’s.”
Following on from this, authors often emphasize the inspiration of their own sexual history. Just over 40% of the writers I surveyed write, to some degree, from a starting point of their own real life experiences (sexual and otherwise).
Nya Rawlyns tells us, “Generally, I write what I know and, after seven decades on this planet, that’s a large bucket of opportunities. My writing doesn’t dwell on fantasies, rather what interests me are harsh realities and the interconnections we make via random, uncontrolled encounters. I look at that which tears down the building blocks of what we believe and trust, rearranging them into new, sometimes frightening forms.”
Molly Moore adds, “My own life and experiences and my sexuality is absolutely my main influence. I am also greatly inspired by my self-photography. Most of my writing is semi-autobiographical.”
Elizabeth Safleur tells us, “I’ve witnessed BDSM scenes in both private and public settings. This has helped with the physical aspects of writing a scene but seeing and experiencing are two different things. No one really knows what’s going on other than the parties involved. To gain an emotionally-laden experience, you need to participate.”
It would be a leap to assume that the majority of authors are frequent visitors to sex clubs and BDSM dungeons, or that they regularly engage in anonymous liaisons in public parks or in darkened alleyways. However, without doubt, there are writers who can relate first hand experiences.
Of his own writing, Patrick Califia underlines, “I could not do this work without an extensive sexual history of my own. If you rely on fantasy, you make mistakes, as in Anne Rice’s works and that poor girl who wrote ‘50 Shades of Gray’; it’s so full of nonsense. Saying that, some of my favourite stories are based entirely on my own fantasies. I can go back to them like old friends and receive comfort and arousal. Sometimes, it’s about gratifying the reader. I want cis-gender people [those who identity with their biological gender] to be aroused by trans-people, and I want trans-people to be aroused by how hot and fantastic WE are, just the way we are, right now. This kind of erotica is more like a form of sex education, I suppose. I continue to feel that writing erotica is a wonderful way to encourage people to examine their assumptions about sexuality and live closer to the edge.”
KL Shandwick has drawn from her own experience of having worked with rock bands, when girls were often ‘chosen’ to entertain musicians. She shares, “Although the sex appeared consensual, the girls were treated with little regard. It was a pretty raw experience for me, being young, and I spoke up on a few occasions when they laughed about a groupie and discussed her after she’d left.”
There can be few writers who fail to use, at the very least, remembrance of emotions accompanying past encounters, and their knowledge of how it feels to enjoy sexual pleasure.
As Tabitha Rayne explains, her writing tends to reflect her ‘emotional sexual life’ rather than her ‘physical sexual life’.
Will Crimson states, “My writing expresses my erotic imagination, my emotional experiences and certainly my sexual history. Every writer is creating fiction from a life of experience. Given that all erotic experiences happen in the mind, the line between real and the imagined isn’t always so clear. Was Shakespeare writing from experience when he wrote Richard III? Was he a scheming sociopath? No, but a whole lot of us have betrayed friends, used others for their bodies (not their minds; God, no), plotted our advancement at the expense of others, and have taken indecent glee in the downfall of competitors.” He adds that though he’s never ‘enjoyed the pleasure of a slave girl, he has ‘immensely enjoyed treating various lovers like sex slaves─-as have they’. “Everything I write has a component of emotional, experiential and sexual history.” He adds that he uses ‘everything and anything I read, hear or am told ─ comments, personal stories, eavesdropping’.
Adrea Kore notes, “Even though my characters may be fictional, I aim to infuse the sensations and emotions my characters are experiencing with a visceral reality; thus, often, I am drawing (at least in part), on my own experiences. Anais Nin said that, as writers, we ‘write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect’… at this stage in my work, there is often (not always) a personal element to my erotica writing. The ‘line’ analogy between fact and fiction isn’t relevant here – think more an intricate collage of these elements on the page.” (more here)
Dancing the Line
Malin James emphasizes the ‘difference between what people fantasize about and what they actually do’ and the appeal of ‘the morally and socially forbidden’. She notes fiction’s role in allowing us, as readers, to safely ‘dance on the line between fantasy and reality’ and acknowledges the value in creating a ‘grey area’, in which we can examine ‘the tension between social conditioning, morality, transgression and taboo’, exploring ‘what would otherwise bring only repression and shame’.
Within fiction, we can unpeel our motivations, examine that which unsettles us, probe our emotional responses, and, in so doing, learn more about ourselves.
Our sexual fantasies and our ‘realities’ offer rich fodder for reflection. Which memories and dreams tug at us?
Turn the pages, enter our stories, find the mirrors to your own preoccupations. Look deep and look again.
Adrea Kore‘s article on Honouring our Sexual Imagination
Will Crimson‘s artcle on The Erotic Writer’s Dilemma
Remittance Girl‘s article The Problem of Careless Language & the Deconstruction of Rape Fantasies
Interview with Dennis Cooper for The Paris Review
Exhibit A‘s collated fantasies, raw and beautiful
- Introducing 130 Authors
- First Inspirations
- Why Write Erotic Fiction?
- Lines in the Sand: transgression and censorship
- Hidden Identities: writers of erotic fiction
- What the Future Holds: 21st century erotic fiction
- Publishing’s Dirty Secret
- Women Writing Erotic Fiction
- Authors’ Recommended Reads
- Writing Craft
- You may like to view this post, on the ‘Male/Female Hand’, in which readers are challenged to identify writers’ gender.
- ‘Men Reading Erotic Fiction‘ – looking at why men seek out fiction in this genre, and their preferences for style and content.
- The Erotic Vein: the male pen – on trends in men’s authorship of erotic fiction.
My thanks go to the following authors for giving their time and for their candid answers; my thanks also to authors who contributed their views anonymously.
Tobsha Learner, Laura Antoniou, Susan St. Aubin, Shanna Germain, Remittance Girl, Malin James, Janine Ashbless, Adrea Kore, Kristina Lloyd, Jonathan Kemp, Patrick Califia, Maxim Jakubowski, Cecilia Tan, Donna George Storey, Kathe Koja, Justine Elyot, Will Crimson, Raziel Moore, Sorcha Black, Cari Silverwood, Siri Ousdahl, L.N. Bey, Zander Vane, Tamsin Flowers, Krissy Kneen, Zak Jane Keir, Jade A Waters, Ashley Lister, KD Grace, Kay Jaybee, Nya Rawlyns, Terrance Aldon Shaw, Sessha Batto, Rose Caraway, Allen Dusk, Tabitha Rayne, Marc Angel, Elizabeth Safleur, Jeremy Edwards, Spencer Dryden, Devi Ansevi, Nicholas Tanek, K. L. Shandwick, I.G. Frederick, Jacqui Greaves, Ina Morata, Finn Marlowe, Elsa Holland, Elizabeth Schechter, Aleksandr Voinov, Lucy Felthouse, Alexis Alvarez, R.V. Raiment, J.D. Lexx, Lily Harlem, Thomas Roche, Madeline Moore, Ria Restrepo, Scarlet Darkwood, Wade Esley, Victoria Bliss, Jane Gilbert, Jim Lyon, Charlie Powell, Cate Ellink, Chase Morgan, Lee Savino, C.P. McClennan, Elizabeth Black, C.J. Czelling, Felicity Brandon, Nicolette Hugo, Frank Noir, Amelia Smarts, Nobilis Reed, Sue MacNicol, Cassandra Shaw, Ardent Rose, Sylvia Storm, Renee Rose, Rachel de Vine, Cherry Wild, Patient Lee, Pandora Spocks, Suzette Bohne’ Sommers, Molly Synthia, Charlie Bee, Meg Amor, Lizzie Ashworth, Cara Bristol, Finn Marlowe, C.A. Bell, Brantwijn Serrah, Aubrey Cara, Kathleen Bradean, Jay Willowbay, Stormchase, Lisa Fox, Allyson Young, Vinnie Tesla, Emma Jaye, Dennis Cardiff, Dee Maselle, Frank Lee, Christina Mandara, Big Ed Magussun, Sue Lyndon, T.J. Vermillion, David Flint, Delores Swallows, Vanessa Wu, Ian Smith, Rebecca Branch, Jaye Peaches, Molly Moore, Ashe Barker and Catherine Mazur.