Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Men and erotica

I'm going to preface this by saying I don't really know anything. I've never worked in publishing in any capacity, and I don't have any supersekrit inside information. It's just the opinion of one (as yet) unpublished smutwriter.

I've taken part in several conversations lately about whether men would (or do) have any interest in reading erotica. And they kinda make me laugh, because I'm old enough to remember when erotic fiction was something that was written primarily by and for men. It was taken as self-evident that women had no interest in reading about explicit sex. Romance and love stories? Sure. Explicit details about what was taking place behind those closed doors? Y'all were supposed to be too delicate to have any interest in reading about stuff like that. Yeah, right.

The thing is, though, I think us guys kinda screwed up. Or maybe it was a necessary social contract given the times. Because the deal was, we could enjoy our smut in private, as long as we kept it private. Those books were kept under the counter at the bookstore, and we had to explicitly ask for them. And they never ever ever got left out on the coffee table, or discussed in polite company.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when it first seems to have occurred to anyone in the publishing industry that women might be interested in reading sexually explicit fiction. From what I can tell, that radical (for the times) idea seems to have been conceived partly by the queer press, and partly by the sex-positive contingent of the porn wars being fought in the feminist movement back then. As a straight guy I was no more than a distant spectator to the whole thing. But it appeared to me to be good.

And I think you did it right. Because you insisted on your interest in sex being acknowledged. You owned it. No hiding under plain brown wrappers for you.

Moving on into the 90s the whole thing went mainstream. Starting with Susie Bright's Herotica anthologies, and later the Best Women's Erotica series from Cleis Press. Sure, there were a few wrong turns along the way. Don't get me started on what I think about the late Black Lace imprint, who wouldn't even consider stories written by male authors. Because a man couldn't possibly write about sex in a way that women would want to read. They were there to keep female fantasies safe from us icky boys, who might corrupt them, and turn them into porn. *rolls eyes*

Which brings us to today, when it's taken as an article of faith that the audience for sexually explicit fiction is largely female, especially for longer works. I've lost count of how many times I've heard that men are more interested in watching sex, in porn, while women are more interested in reading about it on the written page. Except I don't think it's any more true than the earlier idea that women weren't interested in reading erotic fiction at all.

What I think is, publishers in the 21st century put more effort into marketing erotica to women. Because somewhere along the way, the erotica and romance genres seem to have gotten hitched, and now all the smut ends up in the pink aisle of the bookstore where the guys aren't looking for it. Except I don't think we ever really went away. I've certainly been here all along, reading erotic fiction, and more recently writing it, and I strongly suspect I'm not alone.

Recently, I've been seeing signs that the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way. Writers, editors and publishers are taking notice of the fact that we're here. I think e-readers are partly responsible for that. Because on a Kindle no one can see what you're reading. But I also think there's a certain amount of natural self-correction going on.

As one example of that, the fine women over at gee/k/ink have taken notice of the fact that they've been getting male readers lately. And if you haven't checked them out, you totally should. Because they rock. And now Ellora's Cave are getting in on the deal, launching a new line targeted specifically at men. To which I say welcome to the party. Glad you finally noticed we were here.


  1. CJ, fantastic article. I too am a male writer who is brutally aware of the current bias that "straight men can't write good erotic fiction". However, I don't think that we have anyone to blame but our collective male self. The explosion of male-oriented adult films through the late 90's and into the next decade, coupled with the subtle (and not no subtle) repression of the queer female press over the years, has effectively swung the pendulum far enough to smack us in the back of the head. "Guys who *read* long-form erotic fiction? Give us a break," they said for years. However, as you point out, every natural system eventually self-corrects. I look forward to it.

  2. An interesting quote and, perhaps, a bit of a blind spot:

    "I'm old enough to remember when erotic fiction was something that was written primarily by and for men."

    No, you remember when it was *published* primarily by and for men.

    Women were writing for pleasure, and always have done - even mid-list authors, who have to manage their keyboard time like the business resource that it is, and produce the vast majority of their output for a narrow market of willing buyers in the publishing houses.

    Lots of things that women do for pleasure go entirely unnoticed by men.

    The internet has opened up so much - lowering all kinds of barriers - and the barriers to entry to publication, especially samizdat-scale distribution and personal blogging, have disappeared. At larger scales, the barriers are falling, too; but slowly, and the gatekeepers in the publishing houses are as slow and stupid as the dinosaurs that they resemble more and more, each passing day.

  3. Yeah, there's been a definite feminization of sexually explicit writing. This could be part of the larger trend of the general feminization of literature, with fewer men reading less ficiton in general.

    Another contributing factor, I think, was that "erotica" as it exists today branched off from romance publishing, but its writers often cut their teeth on slash fanfiction. In Circlet's Sherlock Holmes anthology, every story except mine had Holmes in a M/M relationship. I was the only one who even brought up Holmes' thing for Irene Adler. The underlying assumption seemed to be _of course_ Holmes is gay.

    I often feel I'm an "odd man out" in erotica publishing (so to speak), writing in a genre/publishing field that is not built around the standard heterosexual male model of desire. Would my steampunk erotica story collection sell better if it didn't have a male author name?

    I'm not confident that the market will self-correct. There is such a thing as market failure.

  4. realparentsrealsex, thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed it.

    hairyears, blind spot is conceivable. It's certainly plausible that the earlier erroneous assumption was just as much publisher/marketing bias as the more recent one.

    Mighty Fast Pig, that's an interesting point about slash fic. I had not considered that angle.

  5. In the early 80's I wrote a monthly column for a men's magazine-- a total of 5 years worth. it was certainly erotica, not porn as the stories had to have a bit of emotional content to go with them.

    The subscribers were mostly men, I would assume in that day and age. In some circles the readers were straight men, and they often shared with their female friends, lovers, wives, being female in that time, yeah, you didn't admit it that's for sure.

    And admit you wrote it--- we won't even get into that one.

    1. Oh wow, you managed to stumble across my poor neglected blog. Sorry about the dust; let me just get that cobweb above your comment.

      Anyway, many thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience.