Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Erotica Error

I was on Twitter the other day (month) and noticed Elia Winters who mentioned she was finishing up her Master thesis on erotic writing. That sounded too fascinating to pass up and she agreed to answer some questions that were being debated by my fellow romance members and myself. To help clarify some of the confusion around erotica, erotic writing, porn, etc., I thought you might like to read her answers. Elia is her pseudonym.

She said,
"The world of the pseudonym is hard and silly. I wish I didn't need one, but it's fun to be a little bit of a secret agent.

"It's an important note that I don't write erotica, either; I write erotic romance. All my sex scenes are required to move the character development and romance along. And they always end with an HEA (happy ever after ending) or HFN (happy for now)."

Elia has always been a New England girl, despite having spent much of her childhood in Florida. She holds a degree in English Literature and teaches at a small rural high school where she runs too many extracurricular activities. Elia dabbles in many genres, but erotic romance has been one of her favorites since she first began sneaking her mother’s romance novels. In high school, she kept her friends entertained with a steady stream of naughty stories and somehow never got caught passing them around. Now, she combines her kinkster identity with her nerdiness to write geeky, kinky romance. Her first novel, Purely Professional, was a 2015 RITA finalist for Best Erotic Romance and Best First Book. Elia currently lives in New England with her loving husband, their cat, and a tame mourning dove.

I get the reaction often times that erotic writing is porn. So, what is your definition of erotic writing? How is it different from porn, or is it?
A. Erotic writing is writing designed to titillate and arouse, where sex is a key part of the story. By that definition, written porn is erotic writing, and that’s fine. Nothing wrong with porn. Erotica, however, is a story of sexual growth and development, and erotic romance is a love story where sex is a key part of the growth of the relationship. These are the “generally acceptable” definitions within the romance industry, but there is of course wiggle room.

What are some of the biggest obstacles you have encountered in writing erotica? What misperceptions?
A. Well, I don’t write erotica, so that’s a big misperception. I write erotic romance. One of the most common reactions I get is dismissal, like anyone can sit down and write hot sex. I think there are a lot of literary fiction books out there that prove this is not as easy as people think it is! As for obstacles, I think it’s hard to be a high school teacher and write erotic romance. I’m expected not to have a sex life, certainly not a kinky and active sex life, while teaching students, even though the two are unrelated. I have to use a pseudonym.

Why did you choose to write a thesis on erotic romance? Was there something you hoped to find?
A. When I took a linguistics course early in my Master’s program, I found myself noticing the use of language in all the media I consumed. Of course, that connected to romance novels. I wrote a paper on the topic of linguistics in romance and erotic romance, but I didn’t go as far as I wanted to with the topic. When it came time to write a thesis, I knew I wanted to explore the topic. I have always been very deliberate about my use of language when I write, and I knew there were words I disliked, or liked only in certain contexts, so I wanted to explore the rationale behind that and how language functions in erotic romance.

What interesting bits of information did you find when researching your subject, that you might like to share?
A. I learned that the appeal of “dirty talk” has a lot to do with its taboo nature, not just the sexual nature of the words. People with Tourette’s syndrome will automatically gravitate toward the most offensive words in their language, because those words have a stronger cathartic effect. It’s similar with sexual language: its eroticism is evoked in part because of its taboo qualities.

You spoke of covering symbols and erotica in your thesis. What did you discover? How far back in history do those signs go? What do they mean--did they always hold the same meaning? What’s different today?
A. The word “clitoris” or any of its synonyms was almost nonexistent in romance before modern romance, and it still is more predominant in erotic romance vs. contemporary romance. People just ignored it altogether. Using the word “clit” is a powerful statement about a prioritization about women’s pleasure. Also, while euphemisms were more popular in early romance, 1970s romance, “turgid rods” and “manhoods” and “flowers” and all that, those terms have faded out of favor, especially in erotic romance. Erorom (erotic romance) is more likely to use words like “pussy” than contemporary romance, and sometimes even “cunt,” although that’s more common in BDSM erotica because of the harshness of the language.

Who inspired you? Have you read Anais Nin’s erotic works? If so what do you think of her writing?
A. I have not read Anais Nin, actually. I’m continuously inspired by today’s erotic romance authors. Cecilia Tan does a great job writing fun BDSM, which is my preferred type of BDSM.

What role does pain play in pleasure? What deep need does it fill, if any? Give examples if you want.
A. Ooh, what a great question! I think this is a big question, one that I will answer differently as a masochist than people who don’t have the same tendencies. For me, pain is focusing, and the focus allows for arousal. Whether I’m getting a tattoo or getting flogged, the sensation brings me into my body and keeps my mind from running away from the situation, and that’s very calming. Context, though, is everything. I’m less into pain than I am into control, the Dominance and submission aspect of BDSM. I’m not a “pain slut,” as the term goes, although I do enjoy very specific types of pain. I know (and have slept with) some people who are very much into pain, and for them, the extreme sensation elevates them into a form of heightened consciousness. That’s a state often called “subspace,” which is common in BDSM scenes. For me, it isn’t pain alone that drops me into subspace. I’ve learned that a combination of pain and surprise will make me fall into that mindset very easily, but each person is different.

I discovered my kinkiness very young, so I had a lot of time to figure out what I was into. I’m also a huge sex nerd and have close friends and lovers who are the same, so we’re into discussing the nuances of our kinks and trying to root down to the specific elements that really push our buttons. It’s fascinating to me.

Have you found there to be a psychological basis for this physical/emotional path?
A. There might be, and people have written about kink and psychology, but often from a position of pathology. Everyone always seems shocked when studies show that BDSM practitioners are just as mentally healthy as vanilla folks, if not more so, because popular perception is that we’re all traumatized. I think there are cathartic elements of kink, but for me, I like it because it’s fun and it hits all my sexual buttons in a way that nothing else does.

Would you comment on the 50 Shades of Grey (FSOG) phenomena? Why it became so popular so quickly and how it may have helped or hurt our views on sexuality?
A. I think FSOG became popular, first, because it came with a built-in audience. In transferring over from the avid Twilight fan fiction community to mainstream publishing, it brought an established readership, and the hype legitimized it as a curiosity. People could read FSOG and claim it was just to see what the fuss was about. It became a gateway book to the genre. 

FSOG is problematic for many reasons. I don't have a comment on the quality of writing, because I think people can like whatever they like. I do think it perpetuates attitudes that I find harmful about BDSM: practitioners are inherently damaged goods, for instance, all coming from past trauma. The practices in the novel are unsafe, too, and Ana cannot give clear and informed consent because she doesn't know enough to do so. That bothers me. Also, it's another novel where the love of a good woman can "cure" a guy. It's not a new trope, but it's an eye-rolling one.

I do appreciate how FSOG has provided a gateway into the genre, especially for people who didn't realize that they were interested in BDSM or that there were people who shared their kinks. I hope that readers go from those books to other books that help give better instruction about safe BDSM practices. 

Regarding sexuality, one of the ideas I touch upon in my research is how second-wave feminism underwent a schism with a profound impact on feminist views of sexuality. Second-wave feminists tended to prioritize one of two problems with patriarchal culture: either patriarchal sexist oppression, or sexual repression. Those who prioritized fixing sexist oppression were opposed to BDSM, pornography, sex work, etc, because of the view that they perpetuated patriarchal power structures. But those who prioritized fixing sexual repression promoted these same controversial acts as valid means by which women could embrace their sexuality. This schism resulted in passionate feminists having very different ideas about similar topics, all based on what elements of patriarchy they felt most necessary to dismantle. I see this same debate happening about FSOG and, by extension, BDSM and female sexuality in general.
Thanks for having me! Let me know if there’s anything you want me to elaborate on further.

Thanks for answering these questions so honestly, Elia. Great information. Very informative and eye opening.


Just released in September is her novel, Single Player.

Be sure and check out her links:


Mona Karel said...

Brilliant title. I'm so glad it caught my eye so I came to this interviews. And of course I'll be checking out someone who understands the value of well written erotic romance. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Very insightful blog. The part about sexual oppression and sexual repression was especially good. How feminism has dealt with patriarchy SUPPRESSION is a topic that interests me greatly. What an interesting thesis topic.

Cora said...

Thanks for your comments Mona and Kris. I was so inspired by Elia's forthright comments. Refreshing.

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