“There are many people in this world who masturbate with a picture in their mind of being spanked or spanking somebody. I am positive that a picture of this kind, if it falls into the hands of susceptible persons – and there are many of them – they will continue and continue masturbating and will make no effort to get on a normal path.” – Dr. Karpman, “expert” witness in the US Post Office hearing on the distribution of pornography by mail, in 1955
“What drives me to create is trying to forget how to accept oppression.” – anonymous participant in Midori’s LLCXI pre-conference workshop, “Painted Into a Corner: Freaks Make Art,” April 20, 2007
“The difference between pornography and erotica is lighting.” – Gloria Leonard
I promise, this is not going to be a debate on the relative merits of porn versus erotica. It’s old, folks; and really, I don’t care. I know what appeals to me in the realm of sexually-oriented artistic and commercial expression, and what doesn’t; some of it’s sleazy, most of it’s not. But really, don’t we all just want the shit we like to be called erotica because it sounds cerebral (“artistic merit,” anyone?), and that gross stuff other people like to be called porn because it sounds crass? Yes indeed. So I’m dropping this one like a hot, um, something.
In fact, the inspiration behind today’s post is a finer distinction, and one I haven’t often come across: the fuzzy line between fiction that’s about sex and fiction whose primary purpose is to titillate – whether you call that erotica, or porn, or whatever else spins your beanie propeller. (Thanks for the expression, H.)
Not long ago, I had the pleasure of reading the entire Marketplace series, a five-volume saga (so far!) by Laura Antoniou. At the midway point through book 5, I attended a reading she gave at DreamHaven Books in Minneapolis during the Leather Leadership Conference in April.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Antoniou, the first thing I have to say is that she is damned funny. The Marketplace isn’t particularly funny; that’s not really its purpose. But the writer in person? Hilarious. Insightful, self-deprecating, wonderfully wry, deliciously deadpan. She’s not my type, but I think I fell a little bit in love with her brain when I first met her last year (she gave a dominance/submission workshop in Toronto), and this most recent encounter served only to once again confirm that dang… she is one smart smart-ass.
In the weeks prior to her reading, I had spent more than one interesting conversation with more than one charming and intelligent individual discussing whether or not the Marketplace is erotica.
According to Laura’s website, quoting Consent magazine, “Instead of simply focusing on a series of sexual encounters, the novels examine the complexities of a hidden slave-holding society and the motives and the inner quandaries of slave-holders, trainers and slaves, while still delivering an enticing, passionate and hot story.”
It’s really unique in the realm of BDSM fiction in that there’s a whole lot going on that’s not erotic. Except that it is. Another quote from the website, this time excerpted from one of the Marketplace books, explains: “To be thrilled at the touch of leather, aroused by the sound of harsh words, or satisfied by the security of rigid bondage is the mark of a lover. To be thrilled at the opportunity to provide useful service, aroused by a pleased nod, and satisfied by the proverbial job well done, is the mark of a slave. It may sound severe. Almost anti-erotic. Until you see two people, owner and owned, existing in a complementary relationship where each suits the other like balances on a delicate scale.”
If you’re not into it, you won’t get it. If you are into it, this makes perfect sense. It’s the eternal joy, and eternal contradiction, of human sexuality: anything can be erotic if it feels erotic, whereas even the most sexual situations can be completely non-erotic if you don’t feel erotic about them. Thus, having someone provide a perfect shoe-shine or wash my dishes to sparkling or simply kneel and wait for me while I decide what to do with them next – these things can be indescribably hot for me. Whereas the most intimate of sexual acts can be completely void if we’re not connected and in tune with one another.
Anyway, Laura’s work does a fabulous job of both maintaining the eroticism of the overtly sexual and eroticizing the mundane, plus occasionally even de-eroticizing the sexual just for variety’s sake. I haven’t enjoyed a fiction series this much since I was a teenager and really into David Eddings, and, well, the enjoyment isn’t exactly the same kind.
The Marketplace is hot. Really really hot. The kind of hot that sinks into your subconscious and whispers to you all day long for weeks after you’ve finished reading. The kind of hot, for me at least, that has had a profound impact on the way I understand what makes my own erotic mind tick. The kind of hot that grabs me by the brain way before it grabs me by the pink bits, and that, as a result, stays with me much longer than a six-page jerk-off ever could.
That being said… my argument, in conversation with said intelligent and like-minded women, has been that the Marketplace is not erotica. Why? Because I have a whole row on my bookshelf stuffed with the best of the best erotica – Carol Queen’s The Leather Daddy and the Femme, Best Bisexual Erotica vols. 1 and 2, and Switch Hitters – gay erotica written by lesbians and lesbian erotica written by gay men. Raven Kaldera and Hanne Blank’s Best Transgender Erotica (now sadly out of print). Luscious, Alyson Tyler’s latest, a book dedicated entirely to tales of anal eroticism. The classics, too: Story of O, some Anaïs Nin, Califia’s Macho Sluts, a copy of John Preston’s re-issued Mr. Benson. I could go on!
And I’m telling you, the Marketplace is nothing like those stories.
What’s the difference? Well, that’s the hard part. I like good writing, so I have a minimal amount of paperback trash and quite a lot of high-quality, well-plotted, character-rich, beautifully articulate work. So it’s not a question of quality per se.
And while I don’t think Laura’s work contains quite enough sex scenes to be compared, word-to-word or page-to-page, with the concentration of sex scenes in the rest of my books, that’s not really the point either. I don’t evaluate such things by volume.
No, it’s more about the flavour. Some unidentifiable whiff of difference that tells me her purpose, as a writer, is not the same as that of other erotica wordsmiths.
If my usual choices in erotica speak to my sexual orientation and proclivities, perhaps the Marketplace speaks to a part of me that transcends such things and extends into everyday life and interpersonal power dynamics in innumerable ways that often just have not got a thing to do with foreplay and orgasm. I don’t know what I’d call that piece, but it’s most definitely there.
That being said, my dear friends disagreed with me at least in part; at least one vote was firmly in the erotica camp. So I made up my mind to ask at the source.
Interestingly, she beat me to the punch. I didn’t even have the chance to formulate the question; Laura just out and said, partway through her talk: “I write the books as novels first and as erotica second. And as a reader, you should be responding to the novel first. If you’re reading it for the sex scenes, I don’t know what you’re getting out of it. None of my sex scenes are long enough to jerk off to.”
The problem is that when I asked her what motivated her to write in the first place, she then proceeded to answer, “Because I couldn’t find any porn that I liked, so I figured I had to make it myself.”
So… what am I supposed to make of that? It’s not intended to be erotica, but it was written to compensate for the lack of erotica? Ummm… Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction?
Except that maybe it’s not. Maybe that’s kind of the whole point – that this series is unique precisely because it straddles the nameless and eternally fluid triple boundary in fiction writing that lies between the standard, the erotic and the sexual. The Marketplace exists in, and draws its strength from, that mysterious place in such a way that the distinctions become immaterial. And in the end, do I need to know what to label it? Does it need to make sense to me… any more than I need to intellectually understand why it turns me on when someone judiciously hunts down a piece of helpful information with just the right service-minded attitude, or remembers to walk on my left instead of my right as per my preference, or knows exactly how I like my dinner served and can do so with elegance and grace?
Laura’s fiction transcends the more basic (however cerebral) pleasure I might take in my personal equivalent to Karpman’s “pictures of people being spanked.” Perhaps it appeals to the part of me that sees dominance and submission as being an oppressed form of sexuality – oppressed in that even a lot of avowedly kinky people find many forms of D/s to be distasteful or uncomfortable to watch or hear about. In fact I’d venture to say that most people I know have a way, way easier time listening to a tawdry recounting of a torture scene than to even the simplest description of the ongoing D/s dynamics I maintain in my world. Even in my highly BDSM-ful life, I rarely get a glimpse of a world, fictional or real, where these things are acceptable and valued and desired.
But really, some things just speak to me, and I can’t provide a perfect rationalization, no more so than I can figure out what genre the Marketplace falls into. Perhaps in the end, the best thing to do is just sit back and enjoy.