Lines in the Sand: transgression and censorship

This article looks at the nature of transgressive fiction, and tackles issues of censorship, including the paradox of themes being permitted for exploration in other genres (such as young fiction and horror) but not in fiction classed as ‘erotic’. It is a transgression and censorship taboo erotic fiction Emmanuelle de Maupassant authors writers readersstarting point for discussion rather than offering any definitive answers.

To learn more about the 130 participants who contributed to debate on these subjects, visit here.

The Nature of Transgression

Erotic literature has traditionally worn a face of transgression, of the defiant questioning of cultural norms, based on the premise that knowledge is to be found by pushing to the edge of experience.

Adrea Kore notes her authorship of erotic fiction as a political act, as well as a creative one. She asserts that finding words for women writing and speaking about their own desire is still seen as taboo in corners of Western culture, let alone in cultures where women are more repressed ideologically, and socially. She stresses, “The political aspect of it, the desire to confront and subvert is a strong motivation for me – as strong as the desire to seduce and arouse.”

Erotic fiction offers not just a dissection of pleasure but of the painful consequences of our actions. We can argue that an exploration of the erotic is best served by striking at what discomforts us, by questioning our assumptions.

Remittance Girl states that, according to Bataille, ‘landscapes of transgression are places of discontinuity’, where our sense of self Jonathan Kemp fiction quote author Emmanuelle de Maupassant transgression taboobecomes disrupted’, through ‘extreme pleasure, pain or mental anguish’.  (more here)

Jonathan Kemp adds, “For Georges Bataille (and Foucault), transgression was a limit-experience.” [an experience on the edge of limits, where divine horror and divine ecstasy meet, where rules are broken until a place beyond all rules is reached]. He continues, “For Genet it was a slap in the face of the Bourgeoisie; and dependent upon the status quo remaining intact. Arguably, transgression was easier for Bataille and Genet, for they (amongst others) have paved the way for serious, literary attention being paid to the erotic.” Kemp adds that  ‘contemporary erotica isn’t necessarily transgressive (for example, Fifty Shades of Grey)’.

Malin James underlines, “While a great deal of erotica falls Remittance Girl erotic fiction quote Bataille transgression Emmanuelle de Maupassantinto 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. The appeal of the forbidden is as old as the Bible, when Eve and the apple laid the foundation for centuries of sexual taboo. The fact is that we get pleasure from doing that which we’re not ‘supposed’ to do… While some taboos have been neutralized by an expanded notion of sex positivity (for the most part, gay couplings, anal and oral sex and extramarital situations don’t pack the transgressive punch they historically have), the amount of incest porn, tentacle porn, bestiality, non-con and various forms of edge play being consumed has risen…” Malin notes that, as such acts are ‘still taboo’, they ‘retain the power to arouse in ways that non-transgressive acts don’t tend to’. 

Janine Ashbless adds, “I’m turned on intellectually and erotically by stepping outside my comfort zone for a little while. A cozy tale of sex between two familiar lovers simply does not do it for me – there has to be tension. So I use my discomforts and my many fears to bring power to my erotic fiction. I challenge myself, and if that means challenging my readers then so much the better.”

Raziel Moore tells us that, when he writes to challenge his reader (or himself), he focuses on either challenging ‘preconceptions’ in how people behave or ‘to expose some raw thing, some ugliness living under my (or your) half buried log, and expose – and wallow in – its fundamental eroticism’. He notes, “I like writing characters at once repulsed and drawn in to some carnal transgression. The various wars between intellect and sensation, mind and body, and the subversion of one by the other in the short or long term is one of my favorite Raziel Moore author quote erotic fiction transgression Emmanuelle de Maupassantthemes. Not only am I turned on by this objectionable thing – I want to think about why I am.”

Zander Vyne asserts that ‘overturning assumptions’ is far more interesting than writing stories just for ‘fun’. She likes to explore ‘what we think we know’, challenging expectations, with the hope that the reader will ‘emerge with new feelings and understanding… [of] who we, and others, really are’. As she underlines, ‘why write a boring story when you can do all that?

LN Bey notes, “Great art challenges—our intellect, our beliefs, and most of all our perceptions. With erotica, we have unusual opportunities to look into the human psyche, the human condition, that other genres do not possess.”

Sorcha Black 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, so I don’t have to limit myself to what’s expected. It’s far too easy to paint caricatures.” Sorcha notes also her portrayal of  ‘the subjectivity of good and evil’, and emphasizes how point of view influences our interpretation.

Shanna Germain states, “I’m all about subversion and ninja-sneak-attacks. I want the reader to be so engaged with the story and care so strongly about the characters that they don’t even notice that I’m challenging their assumptions or attempting to stretch their boundaries until it’s all over. I think that it’s very easy for some people to be on the defense if they feel like you’re going to preach at them or try to change their mind about something, and I want them to walk into a story with all their shields down and their hearts exposed.”  

Remittance Girl asserts that it is possible to find something morally repugnant and still be fascinated by its psychological ramifications. She refers to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, set during the Stalinist Purges of the Soviet Union, which explores the developing relationship between the main character and his interrogator. She notes, “The sustained mental intimacy of one person prying violently into the mind of another produces interesting behaviour patterns. I was interested in exploring the fracturing of the self. Psychological extremes are intimate places.” (more here)

Malin adds, “There is always going to be a difference between what people fantasize about and what they actually do. Transgression and sexual taboo by-pass what many consider to be ‘realistic’ sex and appeal to that portion of sexuality that is driven by fantasy.” She believes transgression to be a driving force in erotica for two reasons: appealing to ‘our attraction to the morally and socially forbidden’; and allowing us, as readers, to ‘dance on the line between fantasy and reality’ in a safe way. She 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’.

Inner Limits

In our Western world, fiction including sex scenes is widely available, accepted readily as adult reading material (albeit read discreetly at home, or via Kindle on public transport). Accordingly, very little may be genuinely considered ‘transgressive’, pushing us into zones of discomfort (and therebyRemittance Girl erotic fiction reader author Emmanuelle de Maupassant inspiring deeper levels of reflection). This may be why historical erotic fiction is so popular, since the setting more immediately confers a transgressive stance: a feeling of ‘taboo’.

Since our modern society is accepting of most expressions of sexual behaviour, the transgressive perhaps has more significance as an exploration of inner limits (those we place upon ourselves: our own, self-imposed lines in the sand).

Jonathan Kemp tells us, “Homosexuality, which is the form of erotic behaviour my own writing mostly explores, is hardly taboo these days in most circles, so the question becomes how to make it feel transgressive? How to make it work against the norm? In ‘London Triptych’ I chose to write about male prostitutes from different points of view – two from the perspective of rent boys themselves, and one from the perspective of an older man whose sexual repression prevents him from paying for the services of the rent boy he is falling in love with. In the context of the world and characters I was describing, love became transgressive.”

Cari Silverwood highlights the importance of reader point of view, noting that interpretation can vary greatly. Our individual lines in the sand cannot but affect our response to what we read.

Our interest may lie in watching characters struggle and push through their inner-sanctions, and in watching them deal with the consequences: ‘guilt, mistrust, fear and emotional wounding’ as Remittance Girl writes. We see the character obliged to ‘reconstruct their identity in the light of what they’ve done’. (more from RG here)

The fingers of the erotic not only stroke us to pleasure but rend us, exposing our uncertainty and our inconsistencies.

Cari Silverwood tells us, “I try to take readers somewhere they may not have gone before. The unexpected is always in my sights.” She 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’. In writing ‘dark fiction’, she believes that ‘there is an inherent moral challenge’. Acknowledging storytelling’s intent to entertain us, she emphasizes her desire to engage readers viscerally, by immersing characters in conflict.

Remittance Girl adds that some of the most moving and thought-provoking writing involves ‘characters presented in extremis’, inviting the reader to consider morally ambiguous questions.  She believes, “It is my very discomfort as a reader Emmanuelle de Maupassant author quote erotic fictionthat has triggered deep and serious introspection on many topics. These are the books that will stay with me for life.”

In her review of Siri Ousdahl’s Constraint, Remittance Girl states: ‘In order to transgress a law or a taboo, one must recognize the moral authority, the intrinsic value to society, of the law or taboo being broken. Conversely, concepts like consent would have little importance or sacredness for us if they weren’t fragile and vulnerable to profanation. If we had no fear of the taboo of rape, gave no moral authority to the supremacy of consent, this story wouldn’t be truly transgressive.’

We can assert that transgression has no fixed ‘location’. Cecilia Tan, having been writing for many years, notes that the nature of ‘taboo’ has changed greatly. She explains, “Consensual BDSM and bisexuality used to be exotic but they’re now becoming more commonplace.”

Remittance Girl reminds us that DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was transgressive because ‘it was socially unacceptable for people of such different classes to have a sexual relationship (especially where the woman was upper class and the man from the working class).’ (more here)

Jonathan Kemp notes that, in ‘Twentysix’, he ‘wanted to explore the romance of promiscuity, the almost-spiritual (for want of a better word) dimension of anonymous encounters’. Kemp explains, “The sexual acts I describe may seem transgressive to some (fisting, watersports, group sex, rimming), but within the context of the sexual subcultures I am representing they are a norm, so the transgression, for me has to come from elsewhere… from how the erotic is represented.“ He explains that he chose to create a ‘narrative transgression’ by using amulti-voiced and multi-valenced prose styleappropriating other registers, other voices’.

Transgression exists only in relation to our sense of ‘norm’, which is shaped by the ideologies we grow up with, by the social expectations placed upon us, by the lines we draw in the sand, for each other and for ourselves.

As Remittance Girl puts it, ‘The hand you push into your pants or under your skirt is stained with the everyday world you live in’. (more here)


Jonathan Kemp comments of the ‘twins’ of transgression and taboo, “I might reconfigure them in one body, as two conflicting impulses: action, or restraint.” He imagines censorship, then, as ‘the nanny or governess of this child struggling with a desire to do something and a moral sense or fear that prevents the desire from transgressing into action’. He adds, “Censorship, in a sense, is like the Freudian superego: punitive, disciplinarian, body-hating. Censorship tries to control the transgression of taboos, to hide the body’s excess, its radical jouissance.” [a paradoxical pleasure, reaching an almost intolerable level of excitement].

We might imagine that publishers specialising in erotic fiction would be most open minded, most daring, most willing to ‘push the limits’, offering readers a feast of the surprising. Of course, some are attempting to do so, as far as they believe themselves LN Bey author erotic fiction quote human psyche Emmanuelle de Maupassantable within the limits set by major retailers (we cannot escape the fact that publishers are in business to make money).

However, in many instances, submission guidelines fail to encourage innovation. Rather the reverse. Larger publishers, whom we might imagine are best placed to take the occasional commercial risk, are often most guilty of playing safe, seeking out the same romance tropes and happy-ever-afters.

Siri Ousdahl notes the position of mainstream publishers and retailers, stating that they have a bottom line to consider, so it’s no surprise if they balance potential earnings against risk. As she notes, “The erotic books they’ve embraced in recent years had proven track records online, so the risk hasn’t been significant. When Random House or Penguin ‘take a chance’ on erotica, the works are far from transgressive.”

Publishers and retailers have, largely, taken an extreme stand on the portrayal of sex in fiction, creating their own, arbitrary, list of what is deemed appropriate for readers to encounter, as if the reader were incapable of exercising discernment, or were incapable of processing the words as fiction.

Where does this leave us as authors? Writing repeatedly down the same avenues, afraid to offend, or challenge?

Even independent erotica publishers are prone to request ‘light and fun’ stories, ignoring the huge potential of the genre to take us into the deeper, darker (arguably far more compelling and fulfilling) spaces within the human psyche.

Patrick Califia notes, “I think the difference between commercial, bland ‘erotica’ and radical sex writing is the author’s willingness to challenge limits… Most editors and publishers will refuse to touch the subject of young people and sex, and there is a whole list of other things they won’t put into print as well.”

In fact, publishers regularly reject plots involving extra-marital affairs, or those featuring characters displaying disabilities or who fail to meet general ‘standards’ of attractiveness, or who are older in age. Also ‘unpalatable’ are references to sexual thoughts/acts by or involving characters below the age of 18, Remittance Girl quote fiction reality author erotic fictiondespite the majority of countries worldwide (and the majority of American states) setting the age of consent below 18 years.

Coming of Age

Opinions on the appropriateness of telling characters’ sexual stories before they reach the age of 18 are perhaps even more divided than those revolving around non-consent.

‘Coming of Age’ stories are seen as a minefield, since there is no consensus of opinion on the age at which it becomes ‘morally’ acceptable to acknowledge sexual awareness. Is it permissible to describe the sexual thoughts of a 17, 16, 15, 14 or 13 year old? In Young Adult fiction, the answer is yes. Reference may even be made to sexual acts. In any work of literature classified as erotica, the answer is no.

For predominantly commercial reasons, few authors of erotic fiction attempt to write into this sphere. There is no graduating scale of permissibility. Rather, there is an umbrella ban on the mention of anyone under the age of 18 in relation to sexual thoughts or acts (within fiction categorized as ‘erotic’). Within the categorization of erotic fiction, it is a publishing no-no for anyone over the age of 18 to be shown to have sexual thoughts about a character under the age 18, regardless of whether such thoughts are acted upon. In fiction, it appears, thought is as damnable as deed.

This article makes no attempt to provide definitive rules for application. However, as many authors point out, if we may not explore concepts through the inventions of fiction, what avenues remain?

Wade Esley believes, “To ignore this important developmental period is ridiculous and, frankly, dishonest. How can you tell a more honest and heartfelt story than to describe the magic and wonder of experiencing something for the first time? The fear and excitement of venturing into the unknown is fertile ground for developing rich characters and compelling stories.”

Laura Antoniou is among those who express a desire to explore the sexual histories of characters before they reach the age of 18, while Krissy Kneen takes this further, in being keen to delve the psychology behind some people’s compulsion towards sexual acts with those not yet of legal age. She mentions that her latest book (not yet published) ‘takes some small steps towards exploring this area’. She asserts her concern about public reaction. “It is as if we can’t even speak of it,” she comments.

Patrick Califia underlines, In America, we eroticize youth to an insane extent and yet have draconian punishments for anyone who dares react to all that idealization.” Moreover, he adds, “We’ve become less and less realistic about the sexuality of young people. The penalties for raising these issues are huge and hideous.” As an aside, he notes, “I’ve written only a couple of articles attacking age of consent laws. To all intents and purposes they do not protect young people from abuse. Most molesters of children are family members, not strangers, and the current law enforcement focus ignores this completely. I will keep on talking about this as much as I can because I was abused as a child, and I’m very angry about the way my family’s dysfunction was rationalized or ignored by everyone around us. It took all the strength I had to escape from that world, but I was ill-prepared to leave home, and barely survived the transition from adolescence into adulthood. I think it is a crime that queer children have no mentors, so little help.”

In such cases, where publishers deem particular elements to be ‘non-commercial’, authors have often turned to self-publishing, to allow them to reach readers more freely. However, as is well-known, retailers also impose rules, making their own judgements as to what is ‘appropriate’ reading matter.

Most authors agree that censorship of fiction, in the name of ‘protecting’ readers, is nonsensical. While reading of murder or torture may disturb us (and, we would imagine, rightly and intentionally so) thinking, writing or reading about such acts is not the same as committing them. Rather, reflection on matters of moral dilemma is encouraged as emotionally and intellectually enriching.

The same logic can be applied to the writing of sexual behaviour (even, or especially, where it contravenes the law of whichever country the reader resides in).

Ironically, fiction is the very place in which we are ‘safe’ to explore deeds we would never indulge in real life; it is the realm in which we may muse on all the ‘what ifs’.

Nya Rawlyns states, “My writing is and isn’t me. I channel characters within my imagination. They constantly surprise, shock and delight. Some cause fear, others dismay, a few I Emmanuelle de Maupassant erotic fiction censorship author quotedespise. They all answer one question, without hesitation… what if?”

Defending a non-censorship position, Janine Ashbless asserts, “Fiction is a sacred space, where the rules of real life do not apply. It’s a safe area in which to let our darker selves, our fears and our desires, out for a little exercise…”

Of Amazon’s banning of certain subject matter, LN Bey states, “I’m entitled to fantasize whatever the hell I want. No one gets to dictate the ‘propriety’ of my fantasies.” Stressing anger not only as a writer but as a reader, LN declares, “They’re keeping me from reading what I might enjoy. That is simply not their right to do, and I take offense at that… I will read and write what I damn well please.”

Zander Vyne notes that writers are prone to self-censorship through fear of penalty, and laments that, once a book is labelled as ‘banned’ readers’ perceptions become tainted. She stresses, “The censor’s falsehood replaces the writer’s truth.” Zander adds, “At its best, writing is ground-breaking. Revolutionary. Writers should have no barriers to creativity, and no subject should be off-limits.” She urges publishers (and retailers) to be braver, taking more risks, under the knowledge that readers are capable of making their own choices. However, she makes note that, as a mother, she does believe in ‘controlled accessibility for minors, and in the necessity for clear labeling to inform’.

Noting that we should be free to exercise our reading preferences and that it’s important to allow readers to make choices for themselves, LN Bey continues, “Avoiding a work of fiction is different than trying to stop it from existing. We’re in a bizarre age in which sexually explicit material is more available than ever before… but we are also in the age of Taking Offense. And when one Takes Offense, nowadays, one takes full, righteous action—this thing that Offends me cannot exist. “

Double-standards and Lack of Consistency

Regardless of which themes, we, as authors, choose to explore, and which sub-genres of erotica we tend to gravitate towards, we desire to be free to write as we choose, just as we desire to read ‘as we choose’.

Christina Mandara highlights double standards between genres, saying, “You can read all sorts in [the] horror [genre] with rape, incest, axes buried in skulls etc – but non-consensual erotica is frowned upon. I can’t understand why eBook stores are being so censorious in the erotica genre, but not horror.

Tilly Andrews echoes this, saying, “I could write a very graphic scene of torture and murder for a horror novel and this would not be censored. However, if I add a sexual element and include in an erotic book I am sure that this would be slammed.”

Delores Swallows voices frustration, noting a desire to write a story incorporating plot devices of abduction, torture and murder, and lamenting, “I’m not allowed to include themes like that in erotica – only in the mainstream!” KD Grace raises the same issue, declaring, “I always find it frustrating that those taboos are only in place for erotica writers and don’t apply to any other genre.”

Meanwhile, Remittance Girl notes, “I am free to eroticize staggeringly violent acts, but there’s no publisher that will touch a story about a man who wakes up one morning to find his wife dead, and in a moment of intense grief, has sex with her body one last time.” (more here)

Siri Ousdahl mentions the obvious paradox of our willingness to watch films and television programmes, and read fiction, depicting serial killers, yet our apparent unwillingness to engage with non-consensual sexual acts in fiction. She muses that this may be ‘because many more people are affected by real-life rapists than by real-life serial-killers’. 

Ashe Barker tells us, “I wrote a non-con scene in one of my earlier books, and my publisher insisted it be toned down to dub-con. I have never really warmed to the altered version, my first approach was the one I felt was right for those characters. Now, as a more experienced writer and working with a wider range of publishers I might well stick to my guns and either self-pub or find a publisher who shared my vision. I find non-con fascinating and harbour a desire to write something darker than my usual stuff.”

A significant number of readers appear to condemn the writing of such themes (not only non-consent but stories looking at the compulsion towards incest, or sexual themes for under-18s) in the same manner in which they would condemn them as ‘real-life’ acts, rather than recognizing them as themes being explored within fiction.

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 writes: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.’ 

In the same vein, Christina Mandara notes, “It seems that women, particularly, must have consensual, hearts and flowers stories.”

 While accepting that publishers have the right to avoid investing in work they don’t think will sell well, Sorcha Black notes that many of the books named as ‘too graphic or taboo’ are those aimed at women. She believes, “The policing of women’s sexuality still includes censoring what we read.”

Cari Silverwood voices an opinion shared by many authors regarding the lack of consistency in Amazon’s approach to censorship, making particular note of how this is manifested in the seemingly random acceptability of covers.

Shanna Germain asserts the position of publishers and retailers, stating, “I believe that in a free market, publishers and retailers are a business, and they can choose what they do and don’t want to provide as part of that business. To me that’s a business decision, not censorship. They’re not blocking something from being read, they’re just not offering it as part of their business model. As an author, I choose publishers that publish the things that matter to me. As a publisher, I don’t publish material that is racist or homophobic or misogynist. I’m not censoring those books by not publishing them. Someone can buy them elsewhere if that’s their thing, but I am saying, ‘those LN Bey author erotic fiction censorship Emmanuelle de Maupassantbooks don’t fit my personal beliefs, my business model, or my audience, so I’m not going to publish them’ and that has to be okay.” 

However, she adds that, where the market is dominated by a single retailer, the position takes a different slant, since ‘they are potentially blocking all kinds of things from being available’.

Raziel Moore notes the arbitrary and capricious rules of the major retailer(s) but, more significantly, the not-long-past crisis of payment companies refusing to process transactions, effectively blocking independent authors’ sales.

In the genre of ‘Literary Fiction’, it appears that almost anything goes. In the hallowed high-brow halls, are any subjects taboo? There, may even the most transgressive of themes be explored, and their authors applauded for innovation and daring? May incest and non-consent be explored in ‘Women’s Fiction’, necrophilia and extreme violence in ‘Horror’, and coming of age themes in ‘Young Adult’? All are off limits within erotic fiction.

We may debate the propriety of how themes are handled, and the way in which they may be ‘appropriately’ eroticized, but the fact remains that fiction is the realm of imagination. Fiction is not reality: it is a place of reflection and exploration. To write, and read, of what we find unsettling, uncomfortable or disturbing can provide us with valuable opportunities to better know ourselves, and our world.

Further Reading

  • 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.

Coming Soon

  • Authors’ Recommended Reads

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.

Special thanks are due to Remittance Girl, whose numerous articles have been my starting point not only for this article, but for the entirety of this survey. Her website is a dazzling treasure chest of insight and challenge.

Tobsha Learner, Laura Antoniou,  Susan St. Aubin, Shanna Germain, Remittance Girl, Malin James, Janine Ashbless, Adrea KoreKristina LloydJonathan Kemp, Patrick Califia, Maxim Jakubowski, Cecilia Tan, Donna George StoreyKathe Koja, Justine Elyot, Raziel Moore, Will CrimsonSorcha BlackCari Silverwood, Siri Ousdahl, L.N. BeyZander VaneTamsin Flowers, Krissy KneenZak Jane Keir, Jade A WatersAshley Lister, KD Grace, Kay Jaybee, Nya RawlynsTerrance Aldon Shaw, Sessha Batto, Rose CarawayAllen Dusk, Tabitha RayneMarc Angel, Elizabeth Safleur, Jeremy Edwards, Spencer Dryden, Devi AnseviNicholas Tanek, K. L. Shandwick, I.G. Frederick, Jacqui Greaves, Ina MorataFinn MarloweElsa Holland, Elizabeth SchechterAleksandr Voinov, Lucy Felthouse, Alexis AlvarezR.V. Raiment, J.D. Lexx, Lily HarlemThomas Roche, Madeline MooreRia Restrepo, Scarlet DarkwoodWade Esley, Victoria Bliss, Jane GilbertJim Lyon, Charlie Powell, Cate Ellink, Chase Morgan, Lee SavinoC.P. McClennanElizabeth BlackC.J. Czelling, Felicity Brandon, Nicolette HugoFrank Noir, Amelia SmartsNobilis Reed, Sue MacNicol, Cassandra ShawArdent RoseSylvia 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 BradeanJay 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 BranchJaye Peaches, Molly Moore, Ashe Barker, Tilly Andrews and Catherine Mazur.

Men Reading the Erotic

Almost fifty male readers of erotic fiction (some wishing to remain anonymous) have shared their views on how this genre compels them, and how it has shaped their thinking. A significant number of these readers have been so stirred by what they have read that it has inspired their own writing.

You may like to visit the first article in this series, which looks at the motivations of men ‘writing the erotic’.

Erotic fiction explores human experience through the lens of sexual desire. It has the power to move us, to disturb, to confront, to inspire, and to warm us. It goes far beyond titillation. It has the power to examine the psyche in unexpected ways, allowing us to access a realm of paradoxes.

As ever, your comments are welcome.


Why Read?

Need a quick ‘sexy fix’? There are plenty of magazines and films to help you on your way. Seeking both a visceral and cerebral experience, of bringing your own imagination to the erotic? It’s time to explore what fiction has to offer. Words on the page urge us to bring our own interpretation.

Erotic fiction invites intimacy and, in so doing, builds a far deeper relationship than porn. Your response to the words is unique to you.


Owning Your Sexuality

Dayv Caraway, of the hugely popular Kiss Me Quick’s Erotica Podcast, notes that erotic fiction encourages us to feel that we have ‘permission’ to be sexual. He explains, “It’s more socially acceptable for men to have casual sex but it’s not so usual for men to be encouraged to explore the emotional aspects of sex. The reverse tends to be true for women.  Erotica gives men ‘permission’ to have an inner dialogue with themselves, and with their partner. This is something that porn does not; it doesn’t offer sexual language for dialogue. It doesn’t aid communication with a partner. If anything, porn can create barriers, as women especially sometimes feel ‘betrayed’ by their partner watching (and masturbating to) pornography.” 

Terrance Aldon Shaw emphasizes, I try to uncouple sex from shame, to demystify what has too long been unspeakable (and thus, frightening).” He adds,Porn does not teach you how to be a man. It does not even teach you how to have sex. Erotica, on the other hand, can enlighten. Anything that gets men to THINK positively about sex beyond the clinical aspects of the act ought to be welcome, especially in a time when far too many are getting their information about sex and relationships from pornography.”


The Echo of Self

There’s no doubt that readers seek out works with a very particular agenda, wishing to findScreen Shot 2016-06-05 at 15.23.10 copy a mirror to their own preoccupations, to find a recognisable reflection of their sexual thoughts via fiction. They seek not only self-knowledge but validation of shared ‘sexual humanity’. There is an urgent need to find a resonating truth, to read what already plays out in our imagination.

Thomas Roche mentions the work of Patrick Califia, saying, “His early writing (particularly during the time he publicly identified as female) was audaciously rough and hardcore, and I liked that.” Another reader notes, “Hardcore lesbian and gay BDSM was about as far as I could get from my upbringing, but finding those subjects within fiction profoundly affected me.”

Readers taking part in this survey cited their most common fantasies as those involving domination, submission and bondage, with just as many men seeking out fiction in which women are dominant, as tales where the male protagonist dominates.


Paradox and Transgression

The paradox of the illogical underlies much of the frisson in erotic literature: the desire to transgress, to overstep social norms, to act (via the safe realm of fiction) as we wouldn’t in real life.

As one reader puts it: “I’m attracted to the inherent illogicality of BDSM. The desire to be beaten, controlled, humiliated, or to do the beating for that matter, makes no logical sense—and yet it’s what has driven some of us since early childhood, before we even understood what sex was.”

Some readers mention interest in incest-themed fantasies (including the ultra-taboo mother-son scenario), or the seeking out of fiction exploring abduction, rape and torture. More than half mention interest in reading non-consent stories, and those incorporating ‘rough sex’: a statistic which echoes women’s own fantasies of being sexually overwhelmed or taken ‘against their will’ (naturally, within the confines of fantasy, where they are, ultimately, in control). Readers make a firm distinction between their ‘real life’ actions and what they pursue in fiction.

We each draw our own lines in the sand, creating our own definition of the transgressive, as it applies to our own inner limits. It is the thought of crossing those very lines that excites us; the illicit thrill of our moral repugnance.

Naturally, transgression is a moveable feast, since what appears transgressive to one person will be ‘everyday bread and butter’ to another: among such themes, we can class desire between protagonists of widely differing ages and inter-racial sex. The latter, particularly, seems a bizarre ‘taboo’ in our 21st century world and yet, for some readers, it remains so.


Shaping Perceptions

Anyone who has been moved emotionally by a film, or by fiction, knows the power of storytelling. Beyond entertainment, it has the power to shape our perception of our own self, to improve our self-knowledge and to extend our empathy with others.

emmanuelle de maupassant quote porn versus erotic fictionOne reader asserts, “I’ve been able to positively enhance my pleasure by knowing myself better, through reading fiction. I’m convinced that reading erotica can bring benefits beyond the bedroom too, making us more self-aware. I still have some way to go to express my desires, being afraid of receiving an adverse response from my partner, but I’ve learnt that women possess a tremendous well of sexual desire, needs, interests and fetishes. They share the same sexual drive as men.

Thomas Roche adds,Much of the erotic fiction I enjoy is about female pleasure. I honestly believe it has made me somewhat more sympathetic to women’s concerns, especially with regard to sexism and misogyny.”

Dayv Caraway underlines, “ I’ve become more aware of women as sexual beings through reading erotica. There’s a common perception that women don’t have the same sexual drive as men. Historically, men have been freer to express their desire. Erotica shows that women do think about sex outside of monogamous relationships and ‘romance scenarios’. Reading erotic fiction has also made me more comfortable with myself sexually and it’s brought even more dialogue to my relationship with Rose. We were good before, but we’re even better now. We talk to each other more openly about everything now, not just sex.” 


 Male Versus Female Focus

Most male readers interested in erotic fiction mention having read variations of ‘steamy romance’ (it being most readily available). However, the vast majority express their disappointment and disinterest, finding stories repetitive and predictable. As one respondent put it, there seem to be endless variation of ‘a billionaire initiates me into the ways of the lash’.  

Even setting aside the well-worn tropes of the genre, it seems hardly surprising that romantic fiction, being largely female-oriented (and female voiced), might fail to address male sexual preoccupation.

However, there are exceptions to this ‘rule’, with some male readers noting their interest in reading ‘female focused’ fiction, written by women, with an eye to ‘learning more about female desire’.

Dennis Cardiff tells us, “I generally prefer to read erotic books written by women, even lesbian erotica, as I want to see inside a woman’s mind. It’s a path to learning how to please a woman. I find women often hard to understand and generally mysterious. 

Another reader mentions, “I prefer fiction by women, mostly because I’m curious as to what a woman chooses to write about.”

One states, “Female POV is what works for me, regardless of whether it is a male or female author. First-person, preferably, but that’s not an absolute.”

Another comments, “I’ve been reading erotica off and on for about 22 years. I was an English major in college, but I didn’t try taking stories apart and seeing how they worked until recently. I find that male writers tend to use more physical description, without much happening internally for characters.”

Dennis Cardiff adds, “Although I have enjoyed erotica written by men, I generally find it more crude, more dominant, less sensual.”

One male reader praises Kristina Lloyd for her characters’ self-examination, and lack of naivety. They also praise Tiffany Reisz, saying, “She uses wish-fulfilment tropes (mostly wealth, power, and outrageous situations) but writes with realism. Her unrepentant rebels have a lot of fun, and all the good lines.”

Will Crimson states,“What currently appeals to me is the writer’s ability to describe sex indirectly or in novel ways. Also, for me, what makes sex erotic isn’t the sex but the emotional context: Why are characters having sex? Why do they want it? What do they want from it? How do their desires compliment each other or conflict? How are they affected by it? Our bodies are our means of expression, but our minds make us erotic. Sex is always an expression of who we are and writers who capture that meeting of human desire and erotic imagination, its conflict and resolutions, are the writers I admire.”

Thinking beyond ‘romantic fiction’, most male readers note no significant preference for male or female authorship, being more interested in individual style. Dayv Caraway notes, “Raziel Moore and Allen Dusk are edgy, but so are many female writers I know, such as Malin James. Knowing that they’re men may influence my perception of a story. It’s in the back of my mind.  However, I think fiction reflects the writer’s personality more than their gender. In the fiction we broadcast, which tends not to have a ‘romantic’ focus, there isn’t a great deal of difference in theme or approach between men and women writers. Good storytelling is good storytelling.” 


Encouraging Male Readers

Dayv Caraway comments, “Men aren’t generally reading erotica because it’s hidden in the romance section. They aren’t usually cruising that aisle, or sharing those recommendations with their friends.”

Will Crimson comments that, as far as he can gauge from readers visiting his online site, perhaps only 20% are men, but that he finds them more ‘interactive’ than his female readers. He muses,That may simply be because women feel less safe. The online experience for women can be entirely different (and more threatening).”

Dayv adds,” I enjoy so many themes and angles in this genre, but I do know that I’d like to see more Terrance Aldon Shaw quote erotic fiction pornsci-fi with erotic elements. I think there’s still some way to go before erotic elements become more visible in ‘mainstream’ fiction, and this would be great to see.” 

One reader points out that ‘though the execution may be lacking, people will crawl across the broken glass of bad prose to find that which tweaks their kinks’.

Saying this, there is an almost unanimous cry for eloquent, powerful prose, and for fiction that has the ability to engage us more deeply, through character development, so that we’re invested in the outcome of each story. Readers want to see the psychology of characters laid bare; they want to examine motivation and see protagonists dealing with the consequences of their choices. Writers take note!

What can we do to encourage men to more readily explore erotic fiction? Perhaps, foremost, we should stop making assumptions about what women or men ‘should’ be reading.

Our desire to fulfill our sexual nature shapes us as much as our need for intellectual and emotional fulfillment. Embrace it as an element of your mental and physical health. Embrace it through art, and film, through poetry and fiction.

Acquire an anthology of short stories, and read them aloud nightly, in the style of Scheherazade; seduce your partner with words. Tune in to audio readings of erotic fiction. Spread the word little by little; share recommendations, share positivity.

Above all, don’t feel shame at indulging fantasy through reading fiction. The likelihood is that you’ll gain far more than a ‘quick thrill’; be prepared to have your eyes, and your perceptions, blown wide open.

Dayv Caraway comments, “I’d like to see people become more accepting of erotic content in books. We’ve come a long way in accepting ‘nudity’ in mainstream culture, no longer equating it only with sexual intention. We need the same degree of maturity about erotic fiction.

In exploring sexual themes, our barriers are eroded. We come to recognise the breadth of sexual possibility, and how our sexual-self feeds into other facets of our psyche; in knowing ourselves, we gain better understanding of others.

Our journey continues in achieving tolerance of individual choices, including those relating to how we express our gender and sexuality. In setting aside shame, refraining from judging others, and opening ourselves to the myriad shades of the human palette, we may take real steps towards living in harmony.



Further Reading

The Male / Female Hand

The Erotic Vein: men writing erotica

Remittance Girl: on writing the taboo in erotic fiction: here and here

The Kiss Me Quick’s Erotica Podcast: for fiction and audio recordings (my thanks to Dayv and Rose Caraway, who also feature in an interview here).


My thanks to all readers who took part in this survey, many of whom asked to be quoted anonymously. For a full list of writers who contributed their thoughts as readers, see the foot of the page here, within the Male Writers article.