Do You Want to Write About Porn?

by Ashleigh

Okay, that wasn’t the exact phrasing of the question as it was posed to me, but it was basically the message my ears related to my pervy brain. Which in turn responded: yes— what? Yes, yes, YES.

I thought I’d hit the jackpot: getting paid to write about something that’s filled my nights, plagued my days ever since my fateful discovery of those unsavory LiveJournal communities skewed towards my “unique passions and interests.” (Twelve is a decidedly weird age for everyone, right?) When I was offered the opportunity to review erotica, lots of it, and to splatter my scattered opinions all over my very own column, I shrieked. This is it. This is that moment, you know? The one you’ve always read about, the minuscule hinge that swings open and thrusts the protagonist into the tidy, containable whirlwind of her zany, delightful, “real” life: doing what she’s always wanted to do, or stumbling upon a perfect vocational combination of all her seemingly disparate interests.

Well, not exactly.

I suppose I should include a caveat regarding my own twisted rabbit hole of burgeoning sexual interest: when I was younger, I didn’t really like het. It was kind of a running joke (one that’s not really funny, in hindsight): a straight girl who abhorred depictions of heterosexual intimacy in films, in books, and especially in fanfiction. A few anguished years of wringing my hands in sexual frustration and gender confusion has brought a handful of answers tied to the tail end of a truckload of questions. Point being, I’ve steadily been working through my irrational distaste for heterosexual erotica, only to be smacked in the face with a much larger recurring issue: consent.

I guess all of this waffling was meant to boil down to consent being, well. You know where I’m going with this. Severe detours were taken, and for that I apologize. Perhaps years of wading through fanfic have made me ultra sensitive to matters of consent, if that’s possible, but there’s been enough gray-area to squick me in a good 80% of the mainstream erotica I’ve been offered to review. Time and time again, I’ve ground my teeth as a man advances predatorily on a woman, knowing with unspoken certainty that “she really wants it,” even if she doesn’t know it yet, and certainly hasn’t said so. I’m not sure where the line lands between experiencing an emotional epiphany — gee, this wealthy, arrogant Wall-Street mogul with intimacy issues and a murky past might really be a catch! — and being worn down by sheer force of male will, but it all hits too close a chord with Taming of the Shrew for my liking.

The technique that disturbs me the most is the silent, internal consent that reads more like acquiescence. There was one particular scene that I’ll never forget, in an audiobook I was given to review. The title itself was fairly problematic — something with “captive” or “slave,” so I suppose I should’ve been prepared. Bad audio erotica is always worse than written; you can’t speed-listen an audiobook (though you can nap through it, which is useful). Nevertheless, I was horrified when I listened to an account of three brothers vying for the affections of their beautiful new secretary — let’s call her Nina — before agreeing, amongst themselves, that they could just share her. This decision takes place without her input, and with minimal thought given to her possible refusal. Fast-forward to one of the brothers picking her up, kicking and screaming, and carting her off to their private jet; they’re taking her to a remote cabin, a protective measure against an anonymous stalker sending her lewd threats. This brutality is for her own good, of course — she’s just too “feisty” and unstable to realize it. Once on the plane, Nina is still livid, having been forcibly removed from her present life and told she’s being put into isolation regarding a personal problem for which she asked no involvement or assistance. The brothers decide the eventual solution to this persistent rage is a thorough spanking. The other two look on as one brother bends her small frame over his knee and lands the first slap. Our female protagonist cries out, says “no” more than once, but the narrator is quick to assure us that inside, she is pleading for more. Inside, this is exactly what she needs. Inside, she is loving this.

I don’t want to kink shame. While the portrayal of women occupying submissive roles in BDSM heterosexual partnerships is not particularly my bag, I totally understand that it is for other people, and that the concept has reached a wider audience in light of 50 Shades. To that extent, I understand the mountain of books just like this accumulating (mostly unread) over my desk. My issue with exchanges like this is that consent isn’t established at any point before, during, or after (which wouldn’t have been sufficient, anyway). The man performing these actions, and the two men observing them, have no idea whether Nina is enjoying herself. Taking all of her physical and verbal cues into account, it would seem quite the opposite is occurring. There is no discussion of a safe word; hell, there isn’t a discussion at all. And the implication that, beneath all the protests and the tears, she really is enjoying it, just wasn’t, and still isn’t, enough for me. I couldn’t continue past that scene, knowing that the men committing these acts were doing so with no concern for the safety or pleasure of the woman involved.

Then I glanced down, and noticed that the author of this — like almost all of these erotica authors — is a woman.

So many iterations of tired male-savior fantasies and aggressive male figures seducing independent, reluctant women (either ice queens or firecrackers, you know the drill) into submission or emotional repair, and 90% of it perpetuated by women writers. Countless times, I’ve had to swallow my disbelief and distaste as tired, trite stereotypes are fleshed out to the barest minimum of passable realistic human interaction. As interesting and powerful as it is to have an entire genre dominated by best-selling female authors, it sometimes feels like nothing’s changed, like the means to happiness lies not in forging your own path, but in having a (burly, tanned, slightly-hairy-but-not-too-much) man saunter in and fix your flat tire. The “why” behind this phenomenon confuses me all the time — perhaps it’s something to do with the reiteration, and thus reinforcement, of what we as women think we’re supposed to want? A big, strong man to sweep us off our feet despite our protests, and show us our deepest desires, even if we haven’t realized them yet? But that theory is so disheartening, and I don’t want to villainize mainstream female erotica authors by implying that they’re all “backwards,” living in the chauvinistic fantasies of time long past. It just seems that a lot of them are caught up in this one type of fantasy, and often depict it in a problematic way that doesn’t clearly indicate consent from both parties. While I cannot, and do not want to, pin the existence of dubious consent and nonconsensual sex acts on the 50 Shades series, I would go so far as to speculate that its unfathomable popularity has set the tone for many of these subsequent publications, even if they aren’t explicitly BDSM-oriented.

I’m sitting here chewing my lip, trying to think of potential argument holes and angry retorts (because I’m nothing if not my own best devil’s advocate). The first one that comes to mind is, “Well, maybe you’re just reading the wrong stuff.” Sure, I’ll admit it, I prefer femdom. Ladies holding the reins, assuming the dominant role over their (consensual) submissive partner(s). That kind of stuff definitely floats my boat more than what tends to cross my path for work. But doesn’t it seem strange, sad, disappointing, that in order to find a consistently strong female character in erotica with sexual agency, one has to seek out a niche genre? It’s almost like saying, “Oh, strong ladies who articulate what they want and what they don’t when it comes to sex? Yeah, there’s a special place for that.” I’m not sure what the solution is here — considering the multitude of problems, I’d say there must be a fair few. As a newly avid reader of mainstream published erotica, I know what I would like to see more of: explicit consent. People saying yes, saying no, and just communicating more about their desires overall. I think it’s somehow been derided as “unsexy,” this sort of naked talk (no pun intended, really) in the bedroom. Even the dirtiest of fantasies necessitate smoothing rough edges, and the stilted speech of “Is this okay?” “Can I?” or “Do you like when—?” are often eliminated, probably because they’re too real. As a girl who’s lived in daydreams more often than not and who clutches to fancy with a vice-tight grip, I understand the importance of fantasy as a means of leaving the grit of reality behind. But some of these fairytales need to be rescripted, and others canned once and for all.

Image courtesy of Tyler Shields.

Ashleigh enjoys cats, writing, and eating far too much fruit. You can find her on twitter.

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