This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!
Dear Story Nurse,
I’ve started a project that’s purely for fun and low pressure. It’s a collection of short erotica stories with genre flavor. Fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, maybe a dip into some public domain stuff like Arthurian legend.
I want to make my collection diverse and not just feature people like me. It would get boring and unrealistic if only white, bi, depressed cis women were featured! But since I’m writing erotica I’m worried I’ll fetishize people and include harmful tropes. I know about some tropes to avoid like the plague, but I’m not an expert. I don’t want to hurt people with my writing! How do I avoid this stuff?
Social Justice Pornographer (she/her)
Dear Social Justice Pornographer,
What a great question! Since this is outside my area of expertise, I invited guest contributor Cecilia Tan (she/her) to write a response.
After over 20 years publishing erotic science fiction with Circlet Press and writing erotic fiction herself whenever she could get the time, Cecilia made a career pivot into erotic romance. She’s now an award-winning romance writer, but her heart remains in erotic SF/F, she’s still the editorial director of Circlet Press, and she’s launching an erotic urban fantasy series with Tor Books in September with the book Initiates of the Blood.
Many thanks to the Patreon patrons and others (including you, letter writer!) whose support enabled me to pay Cecilia an honorarium for her work. (You can also support Circlet on Patreon.) I’m very pleased to be able to bring her words to you.
Cecilia Tan writes:
Dear Social Justice Pornographer,
I’m honored to be asked to address your question and must confess right off the bat that your collection sounds like the kind of thing I’d love to read. Given that I’ve been reading Circlet’s slush pile and submissions for 26 years, I can assure you your concerns are valid, but by being aware of the issues you’ve already taken the major first step toward being able to address them in your work.
I feel every writer may benefit from the understanding that their work does not exist in a vacuum, and that there is a relationship between writer and reader. Sometimes it’s important to temporarily “forget” that while in the act of creation—if your muse is prone to clam up when you think too much about the reader, for example, or if considering the reader empowers your internal censor to the point that you don’t write anything at all—but ultimately, after the story is written, if you’re thinking about publishing it, you are thinking about sharing it with other human beings who may be affected by it. Fiction has a special ability to slip past internal defenses, which is why it can hurt so deeply if we feel betrayed by a story.
The fact that you are concerned about fetishizing people likely means you already understand that fiction can perpetuate harm. Stereotypes can be a vehicle to perpetuate bias, racism, or misogyny. Fetishization is erotic fiction’s special catch-22, in which stereotypes are not only present in the story, they’re exploited for sexual gratification. And yet… isn’t sexual gratification the point of an erotic story?
Let me say first that I don’t believe exploitation for sexual gratification to be “worse” than exploitation or harmful representation of other kinds. Sex is not a crime, and liking sex or writing erotica is not inherently morally reprehensible, even though some segments of society would like us to think so. However, if fiction already has the power to slip past our defenses and cut deeply, erotic fiction in particular cuts right at the core of many people’s most closely guarded private selves. As an Asian-American woman, I might find some racist caricatures of Asians laughable and ignore them, while Asian fetishization in an erotic story, though equally dehumanizing, might feel much more personal and difficult to ignore.
Likewise, erotic stories often feel especially personal to the author, which can make accepting criticism of them much more difficult, too. When we write down erotic fantasies, it can be a very empowering act, very freeing to the self and the psyche, but it can also make us very vulnerable by exposing such privately held thoughts to the world. But that is also why erotica is crucial writing, and especially important in the midst of our largely sex-negative, sex-judgmental culture. Erotica truly can be social justice work.
That’s all preamble to my actual advice which is, first of all, write. You can’t fix what doesn’t exist, so don’t let the fear that you might do wrong paralyze you into not writing in the first place, nor stop you from trying to do good in the world by writing diversely.
The second step is to examine the stance of your story toward the characters in it who are not like you. “Othering” is a verb that encompasses many possible things, all of them bad. Have you set them on a pedestal as an example of all that is noble? While that might seem laudable on the surface, it’s still dehumanizing and othering. Are you using your trans character as a metaphor for your own desire to remake yourself as a new person? People aren’t metaphors, but it can be argued that all fiction is. If the only reason a trans character is there is to be a metaphorical stand-in, then once again they’ve been dehumanized. Have you portrayed a character as a three-dimensional, realistic human? Then you’re doing well and it’s win-win, because fully three-dimensional characters aren’t just less likely to be harmful representations, they’re also good writing.
The third step, after you’ve examined your perspective, is the hardest part, which is to have others examine your perspective as well. From within we can only expand our vision so much, and it takes the help of others to extend that view. When writing erotica it’s important to find beta readers and sensitivity readers who aren’t of the opinion that all porn is inherently exploitative. (There are still some people who think that.) And ideally, if you’re writing about a member of a certain group, you’ll want feedback from members of that group. Only the people you are writing about can tell you whether they feel respected or disrespected by your representation.
Finally, it’s good to bear in mind that the more marginalized the group or identity of the person, the more likely they are to have been subjected to harmful representation, and so the more likely they are to be critical. When people see the same mistakes again and again, they may get less patient about correcting them. Rather than being defensive if you are called out on a common mistake, try to realize why you made that mistake (from your more privileged position, did you imagine the experience of a marginalized person inaccurately? Did you put yourself in the position of “savior” in a way that dehumanized those you were supposedly aiding? etc.) and don’t just pledge to do better, but examine whether you can improve your perspective to avoid that pitfall in the future.
I truly believe in erotica writing as a form of social justice. Our society heaps so much guilt and shame onto sex and sexuality, but a writer who breaks past that to celebrate and empower their own sexuality can empower their readers to do the same. Imagining and inhabiting spaces free of that shame via fiction is one of the most powerful tools we have toward creating those spaces in real life, and it’s laudable to want that freedom for all.