Yes, it does say “pornographer” in the header.

I don’t really get enough questions on Tumblr to make an FAQ, but there is one question I do get frequently, and it’s this:

“Why do you call yourself a pornographer? What you write is really more erotica!”

I’ll be honest, this one kind of flummoxes me, because I feel like in 2013 the distinction between pornography and erotica for textual fiction is kind of… irrelevant. And nonsensical. But mostly irrelevant.

I mean, here’s the thing: usually the way people distinguish between “pornography” and “erotica” is with some variation on the theme of “pornography” being something where the purpose is titillation, and “erotica” being titillating fiction that also has some higher purpose.

There are some problems with that.

For one thing, what counts as a higher purpose? Cinematographic beauty? Physical beauty of the characters? Emotional connection? A gripping plot? A political statement? Side-splitting humor? I absolutely have seen all of those things in straight-up no-holds-barred actual filmographic pornography, as in, porn flicks, made in porn studios, with porn actors, to be sold in porn shops, or shipped to you at your home in a discreet brown paper wrapper from an online pornography emporium. Don’t believe me? Check out The Intern (contains NSFW dudes), or the Crash Pad series (contains NSFW ladies). And it’s not, like, just in a few titles, here and there; in general, the porn that I look at for more than about four seconds—and believe me, I look at quite a bit of porn (NSFW, obviously)—contains at least one and frequently several of those things. Especially humor. I haven’t done, like, a statistical analysis or anything, but my intuitive impression is that most porn, especially contemporary porn made for our present post-hipster-irony age, is funny. And, like, self-consciously, deliberately funny, not just funny by accident because genitals are hilarious. (Though genitals are hilarious.)

To me, this assumption that when you are talking about textual sexual content, what divides “porn” from “erotica” is that there be some higher artistic quality to the work is completely at odds with what happens in visual sexual content, which doesn’t really have an “erotica” category at all. There’s porn, and then there’s soft-core porn, and then there’s literary filmmaking that includes sexual content, but that three-way breakdown really doesn’t map onto textual fiction. The logical thing to do might be to think of the parallel three categories in textual fiction as “porn”, “erotica”, and “fiction with adult themes”, respectively, but textual fiction that gets called “erotica” is very much not the same thing as soft-core porn. Anyone who’s read any decent erotica will tell you that in fact stuff that can be legitimately called “erotica” can be both way less dirty than some literary filmmaking that includes sexual content and way dirtier than huge swathes of the mainstream porn industry. Usually what divides porn from soft-core porn has to do with how much genitalia you see, and what’s going on with it while you’re seeing it; but that’s not a good metric for textual fiction, where a lot of things other than how down and dirty the characters are getting—point of view, identification, connection, mood, theme—can determine how graphically, and with what language, the down-and-dirtiness is being described. (If you want a good example of this process in action, I highly recommend Peggy Munson’s excellent story “Fairgrounds”, which appeared in Best American Erotica 2006; you can read part [though not all] of it here, via Google Books. It’s very, very dirty. It’s also incredibly beautiful, complicated, creative, metaphorical, and lyrical.)

Which brings me to a corollary of this first argument: if what makes “erotica” different from “porn” is a higher purpose, there’s an embedded value judgement in that that really raises my hackles. Specifically, it’s the judgement that <Thing X>, this abstract higher purpose in fiction that erotica has and porn skips, is in fact a higher purpose. That lyrical prose, or what have you, is in fact more important than making you hot. It’s not just extra; it’s better.

I think that’s a really dangerous idea, in large part because desire can be, in and of itself, such a tremendous revelatory tool. Characters tell us things about themselves when they’re turned on. Desire exposes and unfolds them as people. Sex is a really important thing: how people do or don’t want it or have it or like it or think about it is very often a major part of who they are, especially in certain stages and contexts of their lives: young adulthood, midlife anxieties, the uncertainties and self-renovations that go along with aging; in new relationships, relationships on the edge, relationships in flux. Negotiating sex—articulating what you do and don’t want, and finding someone who gets something out of giving it to you—is a hugely important and challenging thing, and it’s not like you do it once and then stop. You have to do it over and over and over again, and it’s hard every time. And part of what happens between an author of dirty stories and their reader is that an author of dirty stories can create a space, this magical little ten thousand or thirty thousand or one hundred and twenty thousand word space, in which the reader has not only permission but encouragement to experience desire, and, a lot of times, to experience desire in ways and contexts that the reader would not feel free to enter on their own.

That’s. Enormous. That’s absolutely huge, and it’s rare, and being both important and unusual means that it is a precious and valuable thing. And, I mean, you know, please forgive me re-mounting my feminist soapbox and so on, but it’s especially precious and valuable for women, who are under an enormous amount of pressure to experience their sensuality and sexuality within the lines.

In general, for me, a more interesting line to draw would be between “boring fiction” and “interesting fiction”. In boring fiction, things are predictable and tidy and clean. The decisions people make are easy and the end result can be seen from a mile away. In interesting fiction, things are chaotic and messy and hard. Characters are complicated and uncertain and they lie to themselves and each other. They have to work to see things correctly. They have to struggle to figure out what is right. They have to compromise. Events might mean one thing or many things or nothing at all; they might mean one thing to one character and something completely different to another. Sometimes mundane things happen and people get hung up on them and blow them way out of proportion because that is how things happen in real life. Sometimes people screw and it’s bad. Sometimes they screw and it’s amazing. Sometimes people fuck because they are seeking affection and connection and comfort and touch, and sometimes they fuck because they’re horny. Sex can be hot, funny, injurious, a terrible idea, a fantastic idea, solo, with a buddy, with multiple buddies, with multiple electronic buddies, whatever, and the characters have to make it up as they go along. The characters have to figure out how to say, “I need you to tie my hands behind my back and fuck me against the door, if this partnership is going to work,” and that’s not easy; and they have to figure out how to say, “I need you to help with the household chores, if this partnership is going to work,” and that’s not easy either.

I love those stories. I read the fucking hell out of those stories. Those stories are the ones that get under your skin and won’t get out. They’re the stories that make your eyes leak because you are running out of room inside. And the way they do it is by putting hooks inside you and dragging you through what the characters are going through, whether that’s love or sadness or hope or uncertainty or fear or anger or desire. And yes, if it is important that the reader feel love and sadness and hope and uncertainty and fear and anger, if pulling the reader through those emotions is part of the author’s goal, then yes, if the characters are experiencing desire, then it makes sense for the author to want to pull the reader through desire, too.

I hope my stories are interesting. I hope that when you read my stories you follow my characters through their love and sadness and hope and uncertainty and fear and anger and, yeah, through their desire. If the desire weren’t important, I’d leave it out! This is Editing 101: if a scene isn’t important, if it isn’t in some way revelatory, it shouldn’t be in the story. Maybe I don’t always hit that—I know I don’t always, actually; I definitely didn’t with “Flight”, which is why I haven’t archived it off Shousetsu Bang*Bang; I have a lot of problems with it and I want to rewrite it—but that’s what I’m going for. That is the goal: to pull the reader through everything that my characters are experiencing, with all the parts of themselves, without discrimination or distinction. So yes, when there’s sex in my stories, I hope it makes my readers hot. No: I hope it makes my readers fucking scorching. I hope it makes them catch their breath and bite their lips and squirm. I hope they enjoy it extensively, and at their leisure, and with whatever companion(s) and/or technological assistance they desire; and I hope they come back for more. If that weren’t important to me, the sex wouldn’t be in the damn story at all.

And that’s why I call myself a pornographer: because if you’re reading my stories, I sure as hell hope you’re having a damn good time.

Seeing red… and grey.

We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of something kind of… interesting, and important. Fifty Shades of Grey first topped the New York Times Bestsellers list in March, and stayed there until September.

Interesting, no? I mean… it’s certainly interesting to me.

First, since people I know—both in real life and online—keep asking: no, I haven’t read them. Nope! No, I just… haven’t read them. Second: no, I’m not going to, because—like most adult readers—I can read a book summary and tell when it is simply not for me. But I am really glad they were written, and I’m really glad they made it big.

This is not in any way a statement intended to imply any value judgements of the content of the books themselves; again, I haven’t read them, so I’m not qualified to have all that much of an opinion on what goes on in them, though it sure seems like there’s plenty there to have opinions about. But think about this, for just a second: an erotic novel, a series of erotic novels, in fact, written by a woman, for women, topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

An erotic novel. Written by a woman. For women. Topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Here’s the issue with Fifty Shades of Grey: it’s easy to criticize. And, I mean, I think we should criticize it, where it merits criticism (which, again, I am reluctant to do in any very specific sense, because I haven’t read it, and don’t intend to). It’s important to talk about sexism, and about what constitutes healthy and consensual behavior in BDSM and fetish contexts and what constitutes abuse; and it’s important for authors to work to not make their style make their own writing become a parody of itself—an issue which I struggle with daily, for the record, and I’ll be really fucking impressed if you can show me an author who doesn’t. It’s important to talk about why this book, and not all the other erotic novels out there written by women, for women, was the one to make it big. It’s important to think about what we do and do not permit women to desire.

What bothers me about the criticism of Fifty Shades of Grey is this kind of stuff: phrases like “mommy porn,” tossed about in quote marks so that no one has to take responsibility for the offensiveness of it as a term; or discussions of the content of the books by people—like me!—who haven’t read it, but who are nonetheless experts on how degrading its content is to women. I’m not saying the content isn’t degrading to women; I haven’t read the books, and lots of stuff out there is degrading to women, so I’m perfectly willing to nod along if you say this is. But specifically why Fifty Shades of Grey gets lambasted so universally is because it made it big, and because it’s about sex. It’s about a woman having lots of sex. And—as far as I can tell, because, again, I haven’t read it, but I understand that orgasms feature largely—enjoying it. A woman, enjoying sex. Enjoying lots and lots of sex. In a book written by a woman. For other women.

Women are  constantly—constantly—subjected to a broad and public discussion about how they are and are not allowed to have sex, or enjoy sex, or think about sex. All women enjoy oral! But if you just do it long enough and hard enough, they’ll come from vaginal, too! Women don’t get off on images of hot people, having hot sex; they only like textual descriptions of love and romance! Straight women only desire manly, manly muscle-bound manly men! A feminist woman could never want to be tied up and flogged! Dominant women are all crazed maneaters with limp, pushover male partners! Butch or femme? So she’s the man, in the relationship? Do you just like, eat each other out in heels all day or—fisting?! And, I mean, you must like anal; all women like anal—unless you’re a lesbian—except no women like anal, because anal is what gay dudes do with each other, and also it’s gross because that’s where the poop comes out. That woman will give it up to absolutely anyone. I can’t imagine a woman looking like that ever having sex with anyone. That woman is so uptight; what she needs is a—

This shit? Makes me sick. And I hear it all the time. And a lot of the time, I hear it from other women.

Sure, men have a really intense interest in controlling and dictating how women do and do not experience desire, that’s old news; but—and this alarms me just as much if not more—so do other women. For example: consider the Wikipedia article on Tribadism (contains NSFW images). If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s the more-or-less parallel term, for women, to frottage, for men: i.e., focused genital rubbing for the purposes of having totally rad orgasms. Tribadism is sometimes referred to as scissoring (though scissoring is used sometimes to describe a very specific position [image, NSFW], as well as tribadism in general; this leads to confusion). The Wikipedia article notes that “Some lesbian and bisexual women… feel that [the scissoring position] is not representative of lesbian sexual practices and is more attributable to the male fantasies of the heterosexual porn industry,” and that it is “a position debated among lesbians.” It also quotes The Raw Story in order to note that “Whether [the scissoring position] describes a traditional or even common lesbian act remains up for debate.” All of this is of course perfectly true: most women who have sex with women, like other human beings, do things in bed that others don’t; many women who have sex with women, like other human beings, aren’t into doing stuff in bed that others are just totally nuts about. But it’s very interesting to note that the Wikipedia article on a sex act performed between women reflects some pretty substantial anxiety whether or not that sex act is mainstream.

Isn’t that interesting? Yeah, I think it’s real fucking interesting.

Here’s what I have to say about Fifty Shades of Grey: I look very sweet and innocent and about twenty years old, so I prompt certain confidences that I think maybe you don’t prompt if you don’t look sweet and innocent and about twenty years old. And a lot of women who bring Fifty Shades of Grey up with me really, genuinely find it salacious. And titillating. And exciting. And I think that’s fantastic! I think it’s awesome that there’s a book that everyone knows the title of that is about fucking, written by a woman, for other women, so that lots of women could read about fucking. I think that it’s fantastic that a lot of women read it and got a little hot and bothered. I want more women to get hot and bothered, over whatever it is that gets them hot and bothered. Maybe Ana is their avatar! But… then again, maybe Christian is. Any woman who reads a lot about gay dudes having sex knows that it is definitely possible to be turned on reading about something being experienced by someone with a different gender. Maybe these readers have some fantasies that they thought were just totally weird and out there, like, oh, I don’t know, receiving pain or humiliation or submitting to someone, or inflicting pain or humiliation or dominating someone, and this was the first book where they really started to wonder if maybe it wasn’t quite so weird or out there after all. And maybe they started to talk about that stuff and then maybe they started to, I don’t know, Google. Maybe someone gave them recommendations for further reading, both fiction and nonfiction. I hope so! I mean, I do my best, but my reading proclivities (i.e. mostly gay and lesbian, and only rarely BDSM) don’t tend to make me the ideal person to hand out reading assignments to women who thought Fifty Shades of Grey was spicy and delicious.

But what I really hope didn’t happen, but almost certainly did, is that people said, Oh my God, how can you read that crap? I hope that those women, who got hot and bothered over Fifty Shades, weren’t told that the sex was badly written, not hot, not accurate, sexist, demeaning, a terrible representation of what women want, and—God, this phrase pisses me off—”mommy porn,” complete with air quotes, as though the idea that a woman who has given birth might potentially enjoy a little pornographic fiction while the kids are at soccer practice is just too hilarious for words. God, cut a woman some slack; once you’ve given birth I feel like you ought to have hot models of your preferred gender(s) hand-delivering you care packages of porn to your door, all right? It seems like the least the universe could do in thanks for pushing something the size of a melon out of your vagina. Come on.

Basically, I think it’s great that Fifty Shades of Grey got written, and I think it’s great it got published, and I think it’s great it made it huge. It’s not my thing. I think if there are incidents and lines and depictions in it that are problematic—as I have been reliably informed there are—we should absolutely talk about why those incidents and lines and depictions are problematic. But I think it’s insulting and inappropriate to talk about how uniformly terrible the books are, because there are women out there who found it hot. They read it. They thought it was sexy. And that’s something that women are prevented from doing often enough.

Oh, and for the record, I’m a woman who sometimes has sex with other women, and scissoring is fucking amazing.