We’re delighted to host guest blogger Mary Anne Mohanraj.
I was thinking about why I write erotica. It’s a different answer now than it was when I first started writing, twenty years ago. I was twenty years old; I had recently discovered sex, and was still kind of blown away. Hormones were running high; I would sometimes miss classes to stay in bed with my boyfriend. We had sex in all sorts of inappropriate places, getting caught more than once, just because it was all so intense and new and fabulous.
Add to that the complication of my family. My parents were very traditional; they’d had an arranged marriage, and expected me to do the same. They definitely didn’t expect me to do anything other than study in college — even holding hands with a boy was off limits. So when I started dating, and dating white boys, and then sometimes girls, and by twenty-one, being pretty firmly poly and dating multiple people at the same time — well, it caused an awful lot of strain
within the family. Lots of conflict. All of that fueled a strong interest in writing fiction about it, which lasted for a decade. That was when I wrote Torn Shapes of Desire and Silence and the Word, founded Clean Sheets Magazine, edited Aqua Erotica and Wet (two waterproof erotica books), and wrote Kathryn in the City and The Classics Professor (two choose-your-own-adventure erotica books).
Then I turned thirty, and around then I started my Ph.D. program in creative writing. I had started to get more interested in Sri Lankan politics and immigrant stories, which led to several years working on mainstream lit. That led to Bodies in Motion, which has only a few sexy bits. And then — then I had babies. Two of them, and for the next four years, I would describe my sexual orientation as ‘tired.’ I had almost no energy for sex, which is kind of ironic, considering where babies come from.
I worked on other books during that time — a nonfiction memoir still in progress, and a YA fantasy that my agent is currently shopping around. But when I started thinking about what I’d like to write for a Kickstarter project, erotica came back to mind, after a decade away. Maybe it’s because the children are now two and four, and I actually get to sleep through most nights; that leaves a little more energy free for extracurricular activities. I don’t have the same urgency to writing erotica now as there was when I was twenty, when sex was a battleground in my life. These days, no one is telling me I can’t have sex, including with women or multiple partners. (I wouldn’t be allowed to marry them, but that’s a different battle.)
I also feel somewhat less social/political urgency than I did — when I was writing sex twenty years ago, it was far more taboo in American society than it is now. Back then, you had to go to an adult bookstore to find erotica (unless you happened to know about Anais Nin or the Song of Solomon). Now big chain bookstores have tall shelves devoted to the subject. I don’t shock people anymore when I mention I write erotica; they might be a little embarrassed, a little titillated, but they generally aren’t horrified.
It is a little awkward, being a suburban mom and writing about sex. Is it something you mention to the parents in your toddler’s playgroup? It’s similar to the issues I have simply being bi and poly. With practice, I’m learning how to navigate those conversations. I don’t tend to volunteer any of that information on first meeting another parent — but I also try not to hide it, should the topic come up. You’re at my house for my son’s birthday party, and see a photo of me and Kevin and our ex-girlfriend, clearly romantic? I’m not going to lie when you ask who that is. I also don’t take the erotica off the bookshelves, even if it has my name on it.
So far, almost everyone seems to be coping okay. Only one woman has asked me if being poly means I feel free to hit on her husband.
Despite the risk of an outraged reaction, I think writing sex in my forties is worthwhile. I have new and interesting perspectives on sex now; the angle of view is different. The stories I wrote then tended to be very individual, personal stories. Now, I’m at least as interested in how people’s lives are affected by the world they live in, and the political events happening around them as by the purely personal narrative. Can I connect that in an interesting and arousing way to their sex lives? I think so. It’s going to be fun to try. And more than fun — important.
I think it’s important for writers to write about sex. It’s traditional in most fiction to fade to black when you get to the sex scene. Many of my favorite writers advocate such practices, and some of them seem to find it almost … tacky to linger on the intimate details. But who we are in bed is a fascinating part of human nature. And if one prime purpose of fiction is to uncover the truths of the human heart, then surely just skipping over the intimacies of the bedroom means cutting ourselves off from a significant part of human experience.
People’s lives have been made, and destroyed, by whom they choose to have sex with. Marriages end, careers are ruined, sometimes over a single sex act, ill thought-out or carefully intentional. If the legends of Troy and Camelot are to be believed, entire kingdoms have been won and lost as a result of sex. As writers, we can be crippled by avoiding writing sex, especially if we’re avoiding it out of fear, or shame. Out of concern for what the neighbors will think.
I’m not recommending gratuitous sex scenes. I wouldn’t advocate gratuitous fight scenes either — or gratuitous knitting scenes, much as I love knitting. Any element in a story should serve multiple purposes — to advance the plot, to set the scene, to establish mood, to develop character, etc. But if we can use a sex scene to develop character, and especially if we can bring out an element of character that might not be visible elsewhere (for example, how many men in our society only feel comfortable speaking of intimate fears in the privacy of their bedrooms, with their partner’s head resting on their chest?), then I would argue that we might be missing a wonderful opportunity if we avoid writing that sex scene.
And more than that — a lot of pain in our society is caused by our silence around sex. Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe that if we could actually talk openly and honestly about sexual matters, a whole host of social ills would diminish: less non-consensual sex, fewer unwanted pregnancies, fewer STDs, and maybe even fewer broken hearts. As ACT UP famously said, silence = death.
I don’t think every writer has to write about sex. You write where your passions lead you, and as I said at the beginning, for the past decade, I’ve been far more focused on other aspects of life. But if writing about sex interests you, if the people we are when we’re in bed seems worth exploring, if you are as fascinated as I am by the role sexuality plays in our society, then please, give sex writing a try. I would argue that as writers, we’re not only serving our art
by writing about sex, but we’re also serving a real social purpose when we pull back the sheets and uncover naked truths.
Also, when we do it right, it can be a lot of fun.