How Emancipation Became Exclusion
The first thing that struck me about erotica was its narrative. Not first person perspectives—although, I do love those—but its overall outlook. It’s vivid. It’s vibrant. Intimate as well as invocative. Sex simultaneously subdues and liberation. It supplants or staves off reality.
Unlike in romance, sex doesn’t abide affection as affirmation. I remember what a revelation that was, that pleasure didn’t need to “make sense”; that the endgame of an encounter didn’t have to be engagement; that lust didn’t lead to love or lifetime partners. In a world where woman’s worth is likened to her productivity being akin to passivity and Prince Charming: the reality of [her] pleasure being valid in itself, by itself, is novel; and knowing that eroticism could be emancipatory.
After reading Anaïs Nin and the abundant, anonymous authors of the Victorian era, I spent most of my time enveloped in a library of erotic epics. I was alone in that reading considering I came from a pretty conservative upbringing; and the adults in my life were largely unable (or just unwilling) to acknowledge the spectrum of sexualities and gender roles, which included inhibitions that were institutionalized and state sanctioned. Erotica was a wondrous reprieve whose prose and art not only uplifted me, but vindicated my voice. At least, my inner voice. There were many things I couldn’t say out loud. There still are. But, erotica gave me some validation. I found closure in its carnalities.
Which is ironic, because I have an aversion to physicality. Most people would pen me as ace, but I’m actually demi—which essentially eliminates any prospects that should arise in our current climate of hookup culture or noncommittal nonchalance. Many swear intimacy is about initiative more than consideration, but I suspect there’s some narcissism involved. The Self is our primary point of reference and likeness so, why wouldn’t your attraction be some reflection?
But, it’s hard to piece things together if you peer beyond the looking glass. I think a part of why I wanted to look beyond was because I’d internalized some insecurities and wasn’t inclined to really look at myself. I was isolated and inadequate who saw myself as exemplar of everything beauty wasn’t; and I wasn’t the only one who saw myself that way.
When your every experience revolves around rejection, you don’t know how to put yourself out there. You find that the people who push you to drive past your doubts don’t know how that feels; how you feel. They don’t (maybe can’t) know what being undesirable is like; that just like all politics, even the politics of desirability are rigged out of your favour—and those politics can pervade even pleasure or prerogative.
If you’re like me, people don’t expect you to be happy; they expect you to be grateful. Not “Count your blessings” grateful, but “You should be thankful someone would ever tolerate the likes of you” grateful. And, that has never sat right with me. I have never been one to settle for scraps whilst others feast. Somehow, being inadequate and insecure (and isolated) didn’t equate to being undeserving. I still had dreams and desires that I wanted to dignify, even if I couldn’t; and I refused to compromise.
Erotica enforced that conviction. The pulsing, prominent pleasures throbbed much like my heart. The characters weren’t just uninhibited, but unvarnished. They compelled me to widen my worldview. From carnal kitsche to sublime sensuality, to excruciating and exhaustive excerpts, I could see how identity and indulgence were fluid. The emotion was within sheer sensation, not convention. It didn’t change me either. It just showed me. I could finally come to terms with who I was, what I was, and what I wanted. The body positivity and sex positivity contained in each volume has a place within many positionalities, including my own.
That’s why the quality of the writing is so important. To me, it was never a gimmick. Writers looked beyond the looking glass to indulge their idylls. They got to an itch we couldn’t scratch and tore into us well past satisfaction. They shovelled into our sex; knowing that if they dug deep enough, they could unearth our most delicious desires and carve out a piece of us to call their own. They asserted sex was a weapon of choice or last resort, not a sport where players always lose by virtue of fouls or kyriarchal cues. There was tact, tantalization, and tenderness.
There was meaning.
The advent of social media and platformed publishing marks our time as one of serious supply and demand, where success is symbolized by likes and shares. We’ve been given the tools to socialize and monetize, but we have yet to harmonize or critically consider the selective spotlight. These days, “erotica” has become a pastiche of poignant pandering and profit margins, not so much illicit as immeasurably incessant. It appears to be a risqué rite of passage amongst hobbyists erring to be edgy and thus writing to rouse away from the romance domain; and it’s recognized as a (re)definitive standard given its uncritical reverence. This new age [social] media works as a double-edged sword: giving people opportunities and tools to build their brands, but also imparting and implementing the ideology that actual value is a matter of branding. Because, free access isn’t the same as free reign.
Privileges still serve as selective determinants of just whom and what flourishes as an enterprise. Diversity is dispossessed or disdained. There is little freedom involved in the ‘free market’ since its profiteering principles are founded upon the rejection of a reflective welfare state. Intimacy isn’t intensified when it comes to oversharing; inequality is. Occupational and sectoral segregation are more pronounced through tenuous tropes and trends. I can speak to this a lucrative ghostwriter whose life gets harder, whose quality of life ties me to ghostwriting because it serves as my only viable source of income as a writer. People want me as a labourer or sharer, not an equal. The very existence of ghostwriters as an open secret sourced by many bestsellers in comparison to the condemnation of plagiarism is a testament to how traditional publishers as well as contracts provide service and security to demographics and distributors, not individual authors.
The erotica I knew (and still struggle to find in this time) alchemized certainty and sensation. It assured readers and writers alike that flesh was life’s only guarantee: that you could only feel, even if you were not felt by another; and that your skin may not perfect, but it was yours to live in. Erotica enthralled through the power of pleasure. It stirred for its own sake, knowing anything less would disservice the desire it deifiers.
I’m sure many people still like this, but it has a special place in the hearts of those like me: those displaced by their desires than driven by them.