Sex. It's part of human existence and as such, it's part of our enduring culture. Sex is present in artwork of every ancient civilization, worldwide. It's mentioned (directly or obliquely) in the great religious texts of the world. It shows in our literature, from how-to manuals such as the infamous Kama Sutra to great works of fiction such as The Canterbury Tales. It pervades our mind space and along with eating, sleeping, and pooping, forms the great four pillars of our biological existence. So with all that going in our collective consciousness, it should be easy to write about, and be convincing, right? Right?
Not so much.
Erotica in a visual medium is much easier. In a movie – whether something romantic or pornographic – the medium can engage our primary two senses: sight and sound, from which we gather about 90% of our sensory information. That's pretty good input, so the watcher can expect a high amount of stimulation. Reading, not so much. The writer has to really tap into the reader's imagination and mind. They say the mind is the most powerful sex organ of all. I agree with that. It is also, by nature, the hardest to reach. I would argue it is easy to manually stimulate someone but challenging to mentally do so.
The problem is that no two minds are alike. Erotic stimulation takes so many neural paths, which are shaped by heredity, upbringing, life experience, gender, desired gender, trauma, and a billion other factors. You can write something that Person A thinks its hot and steamy but Person B thinks is trashy and over the top. Or tame and boring. Or just uninteresting.
I draw the analogy of trying to buy dog treats. Everyone that has owned a dog knows the drill: you see something in the store you think Zippy will love. I mean, it looks meaty and crunchy, has that dog treat smell. Can't miss, right? You buy, you take it home. When you walk in the door, he runs up to see you, excited and happy as always. After settling you in, you call Zippy over and offer the treat. He sniffs at it, and looks at you, tail wagging. You say, "Come on, boy." He sniffs again, then lays down. You look at the bag of treats on the counter and wonder why this didn't work, when Zippy not only liked the bag you bought last week, but pulled it off the counter and ate all of it when you weren't looking. As near as you can tell, the two bags are scarcely different but he refused this one.
Writing erotica is like that. Success or failure can turn on a dime, often for reasons the writer may or may not perceive. Now obviously, it can be done, since there is successful erotica. But is is EASY?
It isn't for me, and it bothers me a little. As my writing style matures and ages along with me, I have been more comfortable writing some adult/erotic scenes into my fiction. When I first started out, I blushed a little writing the words, about characters getting it on. These days, it's just part of the story. I don't think about it in terms of wanting pure audience titillation; I want them to experience the character's highs and lows, to empathize and be swept away in the moment. But am I there? I worry about it, because sex is one of those things that balances on a razor's edge. If not done right, it just looks silly, which can be a stumbling block for the entire story. But where appropriate, I want to include it, because it is part of our nature – and there are times where it advances the story and helps develop the characters.
And I don't think I am that good at it. As an experiment, I wrote a pure erotica story – fairly hardcore – just to see how it would come out. I wrote it, revised it, thought, "Okay, this is pretty hot. There's some good action here. Definitely can see this turning someone on." I handed it to Mrs. Axe. She read it. I waited a day but she didn't say anything. Finally, I asked her what she thought. Her response? "Meh."
"Meh? I thought it was hot!"
She gave me that look – the look that she hates to disappoint me, but she will because I need to hear it. "It's not hot, sweetie. It was pretty lame."
Would anyone else think it's hot? I don't know. I guess it depends if the sum of their life experience wired their brain the same way mine has. That's tough – and it makes the whole endeavor that much harder. I would like to be better at it, but I know of no other way than to keep practicing and letting other people read it. It's sometimes hard enough to put yourself out there and let people read your work. Stack that with our society's awkwardness regarding sex, and the squirm factor multiples. No way around it, I guess, so I will keep trying.
In the meantime, I've been reading some more erotica. For research purposes, you understand … yeah, research …