If a book contains sex scenes does it make it erotica?
To me, the answer is no.
I write romance and recently, also erotica. With my first book I purposefully kept any descriptions of sex scenes mostly suggestive, however, with my second book, the sex scenes were more explicitly described. I did not describe body parts and the acts in detail. I did, however, describe the emotions and sensations in tantalizing depth and sex was a major initiator for many events in the book.
My first novel, Finding Promise, was not labeled as erotic. It was labeled as I meant it to be – a sweet, small town contemporary romance for adults. My intention with the second book, Coffin Girls, was not to be erotic either – it was to provide a realistic description of what occurs within adult romance, which in my book (both literally and figuratively speaking) means a description of sex. I purposefully curbed the level of detail provided. However, I was surprised (neither pleasantly or unpleasantly) when I received feedback that the book was in fact erotic. This confounded me.
I’m a firm believer that whatever the reader feels is their reality and thus true for them and so I accepted that to some, the book may seem to be erotic. This acceptance was shaken when most of the feedback I received was that Coffin Girls definitely fit into the erotic paranormal romance category. I then sat back and thought – very long, extremely hard (no pun intended *grin*).
What I was struggling with is that I had indeed read erotic literature long before the hype around “Fifty Shades of Grey” arose and as early back as when I was a university student. Back then I devoured the colorful descriptions writers such as Anais Nin and Henry Miller gave to carnal endeavors. To me, that was erotic. These classically acclaimed writers, to my mind, celebrated sex through the mastery of their words.
At this point, it may shed clarity to share my philosophy on sex in literature and other entertainment media. To me, sex is a natural activity that occurs between consenting adults and a very important one. As a romance advocate I cannot imagine a happily ever after for a couple who do not enjoy sleeping together. This is one of the many reasons I do not enjoy YA (Young Adult) reads. They seem to leave something to be desired due to the nature of the genre – like the proverbial ‘coffee without caffeine’.
I was baffled. Here I thought I was being very conservative with Coffin Girls and yet, the general consensus seemed to label it as “erotic with a bit of fang”. I then embarked on a journey to try and figure out if it indeed was erotic and if my definition of erotic was accurate or more akin to literary porn.
A series of events occurred. I read and reviewed a few newly released indie books labeled as erotic. I found that they weren’t actually erotic in my book and that Coffin Girls was indeed more explicit than they were. As I was outnumbered, I had to concede defeat. Next, I read explicit erotic short stories and here found that they made Coffin Girls look like a Disney production, which was more aligned to my original thinking. So, still in a state of confusion, I pulled out the old erotic classics and re-read them and reeled back in shock. They weren’t explicit in nature but what they were, were terribly illegal. A strong word but I cannot find any other to describe the grotesque acts I re-read in those books. Shocked and disappointed in writers I had previously looked up to, I then decided to read their journals. And that clinched it for me.
What I found in reading Anais Nin’s journal in particular was that she hated what she wrote. The erotic works she created were commissioned by a benefactor that had no desire to read ‘poetry’. They wanted cold, hard, despicable acts of sex with an undercurrent of darkness and sometimes violence. Anais (also the name of the main character in Coffin Girls – and yes, I named her after the famous writer) experienced an enormous amount of dissonance but had been compelled to write those stories because she needed to earn money. She, in short, felt as though she was prostituting her art.
This was a revelation for me and it was is what led me to realize that what separates erotica, as a masterful literary art-form from literary porn is the story and the conscience within the work. If a book contains sex that discriminates and violates unless it is part of a story then it is porn. However, if sex is part of the story, adds richness and depth to the story and is not the story in itself, then, it is erotica. Erotica does not exploit its characters, instead the act of sex provides insight into how they think, feel and behave. It is not an attempt to fulfill a reader’s more promiscuous desires but to provide the reader with a full experience of the character’s hearts and minds. Erotica is then to me, a further development of adult romance. Sex is not implied, it is celebrated along with the other emotions and behaviors that characters possess.
And so I’ve discovered that I do indeed write erotica because my definition of it has matured.