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Aug 15 2006

For Better or Worse: “Taboo: Forbidden Fantasies for Couples”

TabooIn an attempt to inject some more sex into what is ostensibly a sex writer’s blog, I’m going to start posting some of my smut-and-sex-toy reviews here. Don’t worry — I’m not abandoning the rants and musings about skepticism and politics and music and weird dreams and Harry Potter and stuff. But since I am primarily known as a sex writer, I thought some of you might want to read some of my thoughts about, you know, sex.

This review originally ran in Adult Friend Finder magazine, where I’ve been writing for about a year and a half now. I’ve done a lot of good work for them, but this is one of my favorites. It uses a dirty book review as a jumping-off point to think about the anatomy of a dirty story, and how porn fiction works — or doesn’t. Enjoy!

For Better or Worse
by Greta Christina

Taboo: Forbidden Fantasies for Couples
edited by Violet Blue
Cleis Press, $14.95

OceanI realize that calling an erotica anthology uneven is like calling the ocean wet. It’s practically built into the definition of the thing. When you have a couple dozen or more stories by a couple dozen or more writers, you’re going to have ups and downs, higher points and less high points. And in an erotica collection, you’re naturally going to have stories that turn you on and ones that don’t, stories that cater to your favorite delectable desires and stories that cater to other people’s weird-ass kinks (or their totally boring ones).

But while all erotica anthologies are uneven, some are more uneven than others. Some hit a consistently high note, ranging from damn good to fucking great; others wobble about in the range from mediocre to pretty decent. And some, like Taboo, are all over the damn map, with stories that send you flying… and stories that make you wonder why even the writer cared.

Sweet_lifeTaboo was put together by the editor of the Sweet Life anthologies, and it’s in a similar vein: stories about (and for) committed long-term heterosexual couples acting out fantasies and exploring new sexual possibilities, aimed at a couples’ audience and meant to both arouse and inspire. But Taboo has an important twist. While the fantasies in the Sweet Life books are on the gentle, not-very-threatening side — first-time spankings, three-ways, dildos, and the like — the stories in Taboo are kinkier, edgier, more extreme. Taboo has public sex, public kink, medical scenes, rape scenes, gender-fuck, sex with strangers, sex with guns, and heaps upon heaps of heavy-duty hard-core dominance, submission, and sadomasochism. It’s all about couples consensually exploring fantasies together — but there’s a huge variety in the fantasies and fetishes that the couples in the stories are exploring.

And there’s a huge variety in the quality of those stories. Taboo is so interestingly uneven that you could almost use it in a writing class, an object lesson in what makes porn fiction work — and what doesn’t.

SpeculumLesson 1: You can’t write a good porn story by just describing a series of physical events. Really effective porn gets inside the characters’ heads and bodies, makes the reader feel what they’re feeling. “After Hours” by Dante Davidson does this exquisitely. One of the better and more twisted stories in Taboo, it describes a medical scene between a doctor and a nurse, a gynecological exam with a sexual edge that gradually crosses the line from nasty, forbidden thoughts to nasty, forbidden deeds. Davidson does a remarkable job of conveying how the doctor feels, the line he walks between detached professionalism and intense arousal and invasion — so much so that it takes a while to figure out that this is actually a consensual, planned-out scene between an established couple. And Davidson doesn’t just get you inside the doctor’s head — he gets you inside the nurse’s as well, conveying not just the man’s excitement but his awareness of the woman’s as well.

CucumberOn the other very disappointing hand, we have “Forbidden Fruit” by Pearl Jones. This is a prime example of the “series of physical events” theory of porn writing. In it, a couple has a series of sexual encounters involving fruits and vegetables. The woman masturbates with a cucumber, and later on her husband fucks her with a cucumber, and then they go to the grocery store and buy more sexy fruits and vegetables, and then he goes down on her with the cucumber inside her, and then they eat raspberries off each other’s bodies, and then she cuts a hole in a melon so he can fuck it, and then… and it goes on like this. Jones gives detailed descriptions of each act, occasionally even describing the couple’s physical sensations… with no sense at all of what it means to them, what it is about fucking their produce that they find naughty or sexy or special, how it all feels to them emotionally as well as physically. Admittedly, the “sex with food” thing doesn’t do much for me (and frankly, I’m hard-pressed to see what’s so all-fired taboo about it). But I’m not particularly into the medical fetish, either; yet “After Hours” got me inside that fantasy — and made me feel exactly what was hot about it.

Which leads me to Lesson 2: A porn story should be… well, a story. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it should have a narrative arc: it doesn’t have to have a lot of non-sexual plot, or indeed any, but the characters should be in one place at the beginning of the story, someplace else at the end of it. You can get away with a series of disjointed sexual images in video porn, since it’s such a visual medium; but unless it’s written by an exceptionally good experimental writer, a porn story has to unfold, with some suspense about where things are going. This isn’t just a literary nicety — it makes the porn hotter, making it easier to identify with the characters, and giving it a sexual tension right along with the dramatic tension.

James_deanFor an excellent example, take “James Dean, One Thousand Bucks, and a Long Summer Night” by Emilie Paris. “James Dean” starts out as a fairly standard (albeit unusually well-rendered) fantasy about a couple picking up a street hustler for a voyeuristic three-way. But as the story unfolds, the wife changes her mind about what she wants — and takes charge of the scene, directing it into an area she and her husband hadn’t anticipated or even agreed on. The moment when the wife takes control and shifts the fantasy from the standard “man watching his wife fuck another man” to the rather less commonly-seen “newly dominant wife watching her straight husband get fucked by another man” is a moment that’s both unnerving and fiercely exciting. The story gets across the essence of what makes taboos hot — not simply breaking society’s rules and boundaries, but breaking your own, with the excitement of genuinely unfamiliar territory that might actually change your life while it’s getting you off.

And of course, any good narrative has to have conflict. This may be the lesson Taboo was in the greatest need of. Far too many of its stories gloss right over the hard parts: couples venture into three-ways with never a blink of jealousy or insecurity, and try freaky new fetishes with pure eagerness and no hint of anxiety or doubt.

BabysittersI could once again cite “Forbidden Fruit”: a twelve-page story, packed with multiple sex acts, in which absolutely nothing happens. It’s a near-perfect example of how the lack of development or conflict makes for truly boring smut. (I’m sorry to keep harping on this one story; it was just so pointless and rambling and dull that it actually stood out, making me wonder what on earth it was doing in an erotica anthology with obvious aspirations to quality.) But I don’t want to keep hammering on this one poor sad piece of supposed erotica. And I actually have a better example of bad conflict-less porn: “Sometimes It’s Better to Give,” a “couple fucks their babysitter” story by Bryn Haniver. It’s a fun fantasy (or it could be), loaded with potentially hot taboo elements: the depraved older couple seducing the innocent girl, the wicked employers taking advantage of their employee, the moment when the young woman’s surprise and resistance turn to curiosity and lust, etc. etc. But the author goes to an absurd effort to de-fang the nastier parts and make it all safe and nice. The babysitter’s actually their ex-babysitter, a horny and flirtatious college girl with loads of sexual experimenting already under her belt, and when the couple propositions her, she says yes with barely a blink of an eye. The author didn’t let her be shocked or reluctant or even surprised, not even for one paragraph. As a result, there’s no suspense, no conflict — and no tension, sexual or otherwise. And it’s not even remotely plausible.

Dark_alleyAdmittedly, I have a personal bias towards smut fiction that’s plausible. It’s hard to lose myself in a sex fantasy if I’m picking holes in the backstory or thinking, “There’s no way she would do that.” But my desire for porn with real conflict and problems isn’t just about believability. It’s about sexual tension, the heat created by personal friction. As a marvelous counter-example, there’s “Dinner Out” by Erin Sanders, one of the best, scariest rape fantasies I’ve read. It works because it lets the rape be both terrifying and safe. It’s clear to both the reader and the “victim” that this is a couple acting out a rape fantasy and not a real rape — and yet it lets the victim feel panic and helplessness, violation and pain. And it doesn’t shy away from the tension in her own feelings, the unsettling and exciting disconnect between feeling violated by a stranger and feeling cared for by a loving partner. There’s also “In the Back of Raquel” by P.S. Haven, an entirely different “couple tries a voyeuristic three way” story that lets the scene be imperfect, that explores and even revels in its weirdness and jealousy and competitiveness — and that finds the fierce, driven, urgent intensity at the heart of the weirdness, the almost-angry tension that makes the story both arousing and believable.

Exam_tableAnd while we’re on the subject of plausibility, we have our final lesson: respect for the fetish or fantasy. The two medical-play stories in Taboo are perfect examples of what I mean. I’ve already talked about “After Hours,” (the perverse and lovely doctor/nurse medical exam fantasy) and how it made the gradual unfolding of the story feel like exquisitely tantalizing foreplay. But the story also works because it lets the characters get into their roles and act as if they were real. Their nasty thoughts and feelings are clearly there from the beginning, but they act like doctor and patient for a good long while, keeping the reader in suspense and sticking within the fantasy’s boundaries until almost the end. It lets you believe these dirty dirty things could really be happening, in a real medical exam — and this lets you have the fantasy, lets you crawl inside it and feel it down to your blood vessels.

Nurse_bootIn contrast, we have “Medical Attention” by Skye Black. In this one, the medical attention doesn’t get to be clinical and detached even for a minute before it becomes blatantly and explicitly sexual. It has no patience, doesn’t let you believe that this could really be happening even for a paragraph: it jumps to the sex right away, giving you the barest taste of the fantasy — and almost immediately smashing it to pieces.

Okay. All this babbling about the anatomy of a porn story is all very well and good. But it’s not helping you decide whether to buy the damn book or not. What’s my final verdict? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Taboo_1On the whole, I’d say thumbs up. While Taboo is seriously uneven, enough of the stories are good to make the book worthwhile — and several of the stories are better than just good. If you like porn that’s about taboo sex and edge play, do check it out. And if you’re intrigued and inspired by the idea of acting out edgy taboo sex fantasies in solid long-term relationships, then this is your baby. Just be prepared: you’re going to have to do some skimming. Even more than you usually would with a porn fiction anthology.

P.S. You can buy Taboo at Powell’s.

4 comments

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  1. 1
    DBHoward

    You make the case for greater narrative art in porn fiction very well; well enough for me to be able to ask whether it’s really worth it.
    Yes, we want to read fiction with good stories, and yes, that means they should have plot and character development, but is this really why anyone reads porn? If you’ve set out to write a _porn_ story, aren’t you in essence deciding that whatever rocks the blocks sexually is the most important thing?
    Whereas if your story is not genre-bound — if you are just writing a _story_ — you can certainly have it be a sexy story, and it can be as explicit as you like, but you can allow other factors, other artistic criteria, to trump that goal of getting people off.
    The worst thing in fiction is to have a sex scene that does nothing in terms of plot or character development, I agree; but when something starts out premised on the idea that it’s all about sex– and what else is porn?– then the sex has to be the primary goal of the story, above character and plot and theme. The more you work on the other elements of fiction, the less effective it will be as porn.
    That’s why most porn is, ultimately, boring. It’s also what makes a lot of stories and novels that have sex and sexual themes in them _not_ porn, in my opinion. They have other goals. To keep the story focused as “porn”, I would think you have to accept the limitations of that genre and its (very) limited goals. To the extent that a porn story succeeds as a story, it may well fail as porn.
    (I realize that my definition of porn may not match yours, but that’s part of the fun of all this, isn’t it?)

  2. 2
    Laura D

    I disagree that working on character and theme make a story less effective as porn. I agree that if I’m reading porn I want the plot to be porn driven, but a well fleshed out character can drive a sex scene better than a cardboard cut out.
    This doesn’t require pages of back story or lots of non-sex related plot developments. But if during the sex scene, the author gives us some insight into the character, knowing what’s going on inside can help me relate to the character and makes the scene much hotter.
    If it’s well done, porn doesn’t even have to fit into my list of activities I enjoy to be hot. For example there’s a scene in Bending about a activity that I would never in a zillion years want to try or even fantasize about, but I got completely hot reading about it because I was invested in the two characters and they were getting completely hot.
    I think it’s completely possible to stay focussed on porn and still have a believable plot and interesting characters. People don’t stop being interesting people just because they are having sex. They still have thoughts, feelings, and personalities (at least the people I choose to sleep with).
    Any genre can use what makes it unique to excuse bad artistry or to create an interesting story. Take musicals (‘since there’s so many of us show geeks here) : Classics like West Side Story and Oklahoma use the songs and dance numbers to explain how the characters feel. Laurie’s dream ballet tells us things that no nice farm girl would reveal about herself in dialogue and “Officer Krupke” lets us know that the Jet’s feel misunderstood and trapped by circumstances, without hours of back story and flashbacks to their childhood. Other musicals just take some snappy tunes about Spooning under the Moon in June and insert them wherever they will fit into a formulaic love story, because it’s a musical, so who really cares- it’s not like it’s Shakespeare.
    Sure I’ve sat through a stupid musical to see a fun musical number and I’ve put up with stupid stories if the sex involved wasn’t too badly written and fit my particular set of interests, but the musicals I watch over and over and the books that keep finding their way back to my beside tables are well crafted and aren’t just good musicals or good porn, but good stories. Interestingly enough they often have the best music, or hottest sex scenes. Probably because they were made by talented people and not hacks looking to sell to a niche market.

  3. 3
    Greta Christina

    Well, I was going to reply to DB, but Laura already said most of what I was going to say, so…
    I could be wrong here, DB, but it sounds like the “porn with plot” you’re talking about is the kind of porn story whose structure is essentially, “Plot with no sex — Sex scene — Plot with no sex — Sex scene — Plot with no sex,” etc etc etc. If that is what you mean, then I thoroughly agree: I think that almost never works. If you’re reading it as porn, you’re just going to flip past the plot to the dirty bits, and all the character and narrative development will have been pointless.
    What I think *does* work (at least sometimes) is porn that uses sex to develop character and tell a story. And not only do I think that works — I think it works much better than porn that doesn’t bother with story and character. When a porn story successfully gets me engaged with the characters and the story, it makes it more immediate, more visceral, gets me inside the character’s skins, makes me feel what’s going on and care about it — all of which makes it hotter.
    I hate to use my own writing as an example — it seems so arrogant — but I’m more familiar with it than I am with any other examples, so I’m going to do it anyway. In my erotic novella “Bending” (the one in the “Three Kinds of Asking For It” collection), with the exception of maybe six sentences, every single sentence in the book describes people either having sex, talking about sex, or thinking about sex. But there’s a ton of stuff going on in terms of story and character development: relationships rise and fall, friendships are tested, people suffer surprising and difficult changes and learn hard truths about themselves. And I think that makes the sex hotter: if for no other reason, it makes you feel like there’s something at stake.
    I do agree that this is rare, though. Genre writing is, I think, harder than non-genre writing — or it is if you’re taking it seriously. With serious genre writing, you have to fulfill the demands of literature *and* the demands of the genre. (Examples range from Raymond Chandler to Jane Austen.) But when it works, I think it’s much more satisfying than either straight-up genre fiction or straight-up literature.

  4. 4
    DBHoward

    Greta, your reply hit on exactly what I was talking about. Yes, you understood what I was driving at. “Plot-sex-plot-sex” is the very thing I had in mind. Now, I have not read the piece by you (I blush to admit) that you use as an example; but I will look it up. If the focus isn’t lost, and the goal of the story remains what the goal of an erotic story is supposed to be, then of course any literary elements are beneficial! I never intended to say othewise. What I was saying was that, all too often, another sort of story begins to be told, and then– screech!– we’re pulled back into the sex scene. Or, the sex starts to get hot, and then– whoosh!– we’re off wandering in the author’s deep thoughts that have nothing to do with the sex. This is a disservice both to the porn and to the story.
    You make an excellent point, and one that is often overlooked by critics: if the literary merit is _in the service of_ the goals of the genre, I would agree with you that it has a place in genre writing; but if it is extraneous to the goals of the genre, I only find it irritating or distracting. (Like all the postmodernists who mess around with fairy tales, etc.) Oddly enough, I did have Jane Austen in mind while I was writing my comment, as a “genre” writer who went far beyond its limitations while still fulfilling all of its demands. Chandler is another good example.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

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