Here, we look at recurring themes within erotic fiction.
What do we find to challenge and empower us?
What motivates us to write within this diverse, often liberating, yet sometimes misunderstood genre?
Writing ‘sex’ is a pathway to understanding. We recognize that we are more than intellect, and more than emotion. We are also ‘of the body’.
In writing erotic fiction, we use sex as the lens through which we explore our world and our identity.
We, as writers, look at how sexual impulse shapes our motivations, and how it impacts our relationships.
We speak our desire and, in doing so, our voices only become more powerful.
At its best, erotica reaches far beyond formulaic parameters and the ‘comfort’ of perceived ideals.
At its best, there are no parameters.
Kristina Lloyd asserts, “The erotic disrupts, destabilizes and threatens order, both personal and social, and its power is widespread and pervasive.”
Christina Mandara voices the opinion that women’s reading material is being dictated to them: a view shared by Sorcha Black, who believes, “The policing of women’s sexuality includes censoring what we read.”
While being receptive to critique (as would be expected in any genre) we, as authors, need to stand resolute in our belief that sexuality is a valid theme for literary exploration, and that we have the power to write as we see fit.
I.G. Frederick notes, with frustration, “It’s perfectly acceptable to use sex to sell anything from cars to beer, but we’re discouraged from examining the impact of sex on relationships in works of fiction.”
Many of the women taking part in this survey note commercial ‘constraints’ within the genre — such as are difficult to ignore for any writer seeking to earn an income from their work. However, we can argue that responsibility lies with us, as authors, to become less commercially risk-averse. If we write from a place of truth, we’ll find our audience.
Brantwijn Serrah praises erotica’s ability to play with possibilities, assisting ‘readers and authors in exploring new ideas about sexuality’.
Fiction Mirrors and Identifying the ‘Self’
In exploring the psychology of desire, how we behave ‘in the raw’, erotic fiction invites us to open our minds to all possibilities. It has the power to delve not just our fantasies but our truths. It holds a mirror to versions of our ‘self’ rarely let out in polite company; within that mirror, we gain deeper understanding.
Remittance Girl, in her article, On Writing Erotica, explains her desire ‘to articulate the conflict within ourselves, to make sense of it, and then to reach out to others via the page’. Nya Rawlyns believes the genre has the power to ‘redefine how we see ourselves and our society’.
Sessha Batto emphasizes that her goal is ‘to trace a character’s growth, as revealed through sex’ and to ‘dig deeply into a character’s personality and motivations’, as ‘catalysts for growth and personal discovery’.
Malin James states, “Authorial intent comes down to one thing: I want to understand.” She underlines that fiction ‘can reflect the human condition in all its individual, specific forms. It can explore the cause and effects that drive our lives and form our emotional realities.” She adds, “I write to explore and reflect experiences. I like digging beneath a constructed, social surface to get at an emotional reality.” – read more from Malin on her intent here and here
Fantasy v. Realism
Fantasy (all the ‘what ifs’ of our imagination) is a well-recognised aspect of erotic fiction. If not here, then where else, can we explore ‘the forbidden’. As Malin James stresses, “While a great deal of erotica falls into a realistic vein, much of what people actually want is that which they can’t (or don’t feel they can) have in real life. This is why rape fantasies, incest and other transgressive sexual acts continue to sell erotica and generate clicks.” – more on ‘fantasy’ here
Janine Ashbless sees fiction as ‘a safe area in which to let our darker selves, our fears and our desires, out for a little exercise…’
It may seem contradictory to seek out greater realism within erotic fiction. However, the majority of writers with the 130 authors survey assert a desire to write recognizable, diverse characters, and situations, with psychological depth, to better allow readers to empathize, and enter into alternate possibilities.
Siri Ousdahl declares, “I’d like there to be a larger place for high-quality, graphic sex writing: fiction that is not coy, does not romanticize or trivialize, and is psychologically realistic.”
Tobsha Learner comments, “I like to make my characters normal people with fallible, normal bodies of all ages. The premise being that lust, sex and love is not just something that happens to gorgeous under thirty year olds, with ridiculously youthful and beautiful billionaires.” She asserts, “There is a certain joyful bawdy finger up to the Heavens when such coup de foudres fall upon our heads, whether we be 80, 50, 30 or 16.”
Similarly, CA Bell declares, “I’d like to see sexy, real, and honest writing: no billionaires who can shag for hours and come five times a night.” In her own words, Elizabeth Safleur writes ‘contemporary billionaire erotic romance with a lot of fantasy’ but admits that she’d ‘like to read stories that involve real people, who aren’t great at being together (yet) and figure it out’. She adds, “Instead of the sex being amazing right off the bat, what did they do to make it great? I’d like to read something that allows for insecurities… vulnerabilities can be sexy.”
Krissy Kneen tells us, “I’d like to see a broader range of people represented, fat people, old people, the disabled, all types of sexual orientations. I’d also like to see more gender fluidity. I think the masculine/feminine divide is boring and needs to be retired. Manly men and femme women is a cliché that really must go.”
Zak Jane Keir is keen to see more trans characters represented in stories (where the plot extends beyond the surprise reveal of them actually being a §transperson). She laments the ‘generic’ in erotic fiction.
Sorcha Black also asserts her goal of challenging assumptions about gender roles and sexual attraction by avoiding ‘stereotypes’. She explains, “A lot of my characters are sexually fluid and are also into kink. I don’t have to limit myself to what’s expected. It’s far too easy to paint caricatures.”
On the theme of ‘perfection’, Madeline Moore states, ”We’re all looking for it and when we’re in love we believe, for a brief time, that we’ve found it.” However, she laments that women often feel that sexual encounters should be ‘perfect’, while men have ridiculous expectations of ‘perfection’.
Lily Harlem underlines her interest in exploring flawed characters, ‘because no one in real life is perfect or makes the right decisions all of the time’. Meanwhile, Donna George Storey notes that fantasy sex is ‘soothing’ but that she’s ‘now trying to capture something more real’. She explains, “I appreciate that erotic fiction often explores a world where characters are free of sexual repression. You meet a gorgeous partner, fall into bed immediately, and the physical experience is fantastic even though you don’t know his/her name. The female version usually has the gorgeous partner falling in love for the first time in his life after the aforementioned great sex.” Donna asserts, “I’d like to see more celebration of the magic of sex between people who know each other well. I’d like to acknowledge that time and trust are important in creating a situation where great sex can happen. Couples who’ve been together for a long time are not necessarily bored with each other. They can go deeper, they can play, they know each other well enough to trust it will be mutually enjoyable.”
Cecilia Tan notes her aim to write ‘power dynamics between lovers’ and the ‘ways they explore each other’s inner lives, imagination, and fantasies’.
In the realm of BDSM themed erotic fiction, Nicolette Hugo would like to see ‘alternate sexuality explored more positively’, stating her irritation with ‘sadism being relegated to villains.’. KD Grace explains, “I’m sick to death of weak, cardboard women being written as subs and mean, unlikable, men being written as Doms (or, even worse, as really creepy, stalker types). I want depth, I want a connection that has more to do with what drives the characters, and with the chemistry between them, and less to do with the trappings.”
Zak Jane Keir expresses her desire ‘to share a worldview that isn’t entirely mainstream’.
Meanwhile, Adrea Kore reminds us, “Human sexuality is vast, varied, and complex. The spectrum of people’s turn-ons and kinks is almost verging on infinite. And so is writing about it. As authors, we don’t all have to be covering the same ground… there is room for diversity.” – more here
Many authors view ‘identity’ as a prevalent theme, often expressed through understanding of the self (and what motivates our behaviour). Cate Ellink describes this as ‘finding your place in the world’. Malin James notes that she is drawn by the fluidity of the concept of self, and ‘sexuality as a window into deeper understanding of ourselves and each other’.
Cari Silverwood asserts that her stories aim to make us question our ‘relationship with the world and humanity’, to the point where we are ‘uncomfortable and, even, disturbed’. She embraces writing fiction with ‘an inherent moral challenge’.
Remittance Girl, in exploring darker elements of human nature — ‘guilt, mistrust, fear and emotional wounding’ — shows characters obliged to ‘reconstruct their identity in the light of what they’ve done’ –more here. We watch her characters push through their inner-sanctions, and see how they deal with the consequences. In this way, her work exposes our uncertainty and our inconsistencies.
Elizabeth Safleur states her fascination with the theme of ‘becoming more yourself’, telling us, “Most of my women are fiercely independent… [but] often find it difficult to reconcile that quality with their submissive and other kink/BDSM yearnings. I’ve noticed a new pattern lately, which is people believing they don’t deserve love, not deep down. Who said writing isn’t cathartic?”
Brantwijn Serrah also explores the theme of identity, of ‘who we are in our most naked moments’. She asserts, “It’s amazing to me how much can be understood through our sexual self.” Nicolette Hugo similarly refers to ‘acceptance of self’ as a theme in her work.
Themes: Truth and Deceit
So many authors, across the centuries, have sought ‘truth’ and, conversely, examined the deceits we perpetrate.
Erotic fiction well lends itself to exploring ‘grey areas of morality’, as Tobsha Learner calls them: to the small lies we tell ourselves, to our unspoken motivations, to the ways in which we manipulate or make use of others. Nicolette Hugo refers to this ‘moral duality’ in her own work, alongside ‘the marriage of sex and violence’.
Donna George Storey states her major theme as ‘the lies we tell, whether malevolent or benevolent… and especially lies involving sex’. Donna explains, “I love exploring the slippery relationship between truth and fiction. The stories I value convey truths that spring from careful thought and deep feeling, truths we often keep secret from others and ourselves. Exploring those truths is what I aim for when I write.”
Sessha Batto views sex as ‘a vehicle of revelation, a way to expose characters when they are most open and vulnerable’. She writes sex to ‘expose the parts we tend to keep hidden’.
Themes: Freedom and Constraint
Another common theme for exploration is that of the nature of freedom (as explored in Siri Ousdahl’s novel, ‘Constraint’). We speak of sexual liberation as a form of ‘freedom’: to make our own choices, without inhibition or shame.
The pursuit of freedom is a preoccupation of my own, although I little realized it when I began writing, exploring the myriad ways in which women are ‘pinned’, ‘exhibited’ and ‘dissected’ by society.
Cecilia Tan takes this idea further in linking sexual expression to creative expression. “Just last weekend I was in a workshop for writers where I discovered that one of my main underlying themes is equating sexuality with creativity at a metaphoric level. My characters tend to be not only on a search for love and sexual gratification; this is usually tied up with their need for creative or artistic expression.”
She adds that the public versus private face of a person can exist not only in terms of their sexuality (how they express it to the world versus how they are in private) but their art form (dance, painting, sculpture, music, songwriting, writing, and so on).
Themes: Connection, Yearning, Trust
Tobsha Learner asserts, “The erotica reader doesn’t just want to look; they want to be in the skin of the protagonists. They need to feel the aching frustration and longing and then the blissful release of orgasm, both in the emotional, physical and sometimes spiritual sense.”
Tobsha underlines the importance of ‘psychological foreplay’ in erotic fiction (a factor that is largely irrelevant to pornography) – more here.
Lily Harlem asserts her exploration of the ‘many complications that arise from the emotions of love and lust’ – a theme mentioned by many who responded to the 130 authors survey. A significant number underlined, as we might expect, interest in delving the complexities of connection and, as Malin James calls them, ‘social and sexual power dynamics’.
Kay Jaybee, alongside quite a few of the respondent authors, is fascinated by the BDSM world. She tells us, “I don’t inhabit that world, but the psychology of it, the dynamic of total trust that it requires, is an endless source of inspiration.” Meanwhile, Madeline Moore tells us that she writes about people who are ‘in a state of yearning’ or ‘obsession’.
Shanna Germain notes her desire to break open the relationship between sex and death, to ask her characters ‘How are you going to handle this? Will you grow and change? Will you show your true self? Or will you hide?’ Malin James, too, finds herself returning often to explorations of mortality and ‘the relationship between sex and death’, as does Christina Mandara.
Shanna Germain underlines that, of all genres, erotica (and horror) most reflect ‘the mores of our current culture’. She tells us, “Sci-fi looks ahead, fantasy looks back, literary fiction looks askance. But erotica looks right at the now and says, ‘This is happening, in the streets, in the bedrooms, in the bars.’ Where will erotica, as a genre go? It will go where the culture goes. I hope it goes somewhere open-minded, joyous, and hot as fuck.”
As Remittance Girl asserts, “I hope that I can play some small role in the evolution of erotic writing and help, if only in a tiny way, to push it into the light, and towards being recognized as a fertile and unconstrained form of critically recognized literature.” She urges us, “We are adventurers. We are explorers. Be brave. Dare to write what frightens and unsettles us, as well as what delights us. In doing so, we may write words worth remembrance.” – more here
It’s time for us to write our own rules.
We can be whoever we wish to be.
Own your sexuality, own your voice, own your words.
In Part Three: Inspirations, influences, and the relevance of gender
- First Inspirations
- Why Write Erotic Fiction?
- Fantasy and Realism and 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 The Erotic: Part One
- Women Writing The Erotic: Part Three
Authors’ Recommended Reads
Author Influences: music, theatre, dance, fiction, art
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, Cecilia Tan, Donna George Storey, Kathe Koja, Justine Elyot, Sorcha Black, Cari Silverwood, Siri Ousdahl, Zander Vane, Tamsin Flowers, Krissy Kneen, Zak Jane Keir, Jade A Waters, KD Grace, Kay Jaybee, Nya Rawlyns, Sessha Batto, Rose Caraway, Tabitha Rayne, Elizabeth Safleur, Devi Ansevi, K. L. Shandwick, I.G. Frederick, Jacqui Greaves, Ina Morata, Finn Marlowe, Elsa Holland, Elizabeth Schechter, Lucy Felthouse, Alexis Alvarez, Lily Harlem, Madeline Moore, Ria Restrepo, Scarlet Darkwood, Victoria Bliss, Jane Gilbert, Charlie Powell, Cate Ellink, Lee Savino, Elizabeth Black, Felicity Brandon, Nicolette Hugo, Amelia Smarts, Sue MacNicol, Cassandra Shaw, Ardent Rose, Sylvia Storm, Renee Rose, Rachel de Vine, Cherry Wild, Patient Lee, Pandora Spocks, Suzette Bohne’ Sommers, Molly Synthia, Meg Amor, Lizzie Ashworth, Cara Bristol, Finn Marlowe, C.A. Bell, Brantwijn Serrah, Aubrey Cara, Kathleen Bradean, Stormchase, Lisa Fox, Allyson Young, Emma Jaye, Dee Maselle, Christina Mandara, Sue Lyndon, Rebecca Branch, Molly Moore, Vanessa Wu, Jaye Peaches, Ashe Barker, Tilly Andrews and Catherine Mazur.