Originally published in Good Vibrations Magazine, May 2006. Please note: This post includes information about my personal sexuality; family members and others who don’t want to read about that, please hang up now.
I’ve been writing about sex for over half my adult life. Sex writing makes up the vast majority of my writer’s resume, as well as my professional reputation, and my body of published fiction consists entirely of erotica (a.k.a. smut). I’m an ardent supporter of the burgeoning field of erotic fiction, and a passionate admirer of many of my fellow sex fiction writers. I believe that the last decade or two has seen a remarkable Renaissance in erotic writing, a flowering of first-rate talent both developed within the field and venturing into it from outside. And I feel strongly that erotica is an undervalued genre with tremendous literary potential.
I want to talk about why.
First and foremost, there’s a fundamental problem with sex writing — namely, that I’m unbelievably picky about it. In order for a sex story to get me off, it has to be at least somewhat well-written… and it has to push my own particular erotic buttons. But my own erotic buttons are very particular indeed. My inner masturbator is a fairly devoted sadomasochist, and if a dirty story doesn’t have some element of power or pain, she just doesn’t want to know. I can respect, appreciate, even enjoy sex writing that isn’t about my kinks — but while it may open my mind or tickle my aesthetic fancy, it probably isn’t going to make me reach for my vibrator.
So I need my porn to be kinky — and I need it to be well-written as well. That’s not just snobbery or persnickitiness. Badly written porn is simply less hot. Even if I didn’t care about literary grandeur, I do care about clear images, vivid emotions and sensations. I care about whether the story gets me inside the heads and bodies of the people in the story. I care about imagination, about scenarios that tap into classic sexual iconography without just re-treading it. And I care about writing that, at the very least, doesn’t get in the way, writing that flows smoothly and doesn’t stop the reader mid-sentence to figure out what the hell is going on.
As I weren’t picky enough, my porn fiction doesn’t just have to be well-written and kinky. It also has to be realistic. My libido is almost 100% uninterested in fantasies about sex that couldn’t really happen. Give me a sci-fi smut story about kinky telepaths, or a dirty novel about a kidnap victim who’s raped and tortured but learns to love her submission, and I’ll be flipping the pages so fast it’ll start a dust storm. It’s not that I’ll be upset — I’ll just be bored. I like immediacy in my porn: I like to feel like I’m right there, in the story, like I’m inside the skin of the characters (at least one of them, if not all at once). Or else I like to feel like I’m right there watching, like I’m on the other side of a one-way mirror, drooling over the filthy goings-on and shoving my hand in my pants. And it’s really hard to feel that way if I’m picking holes in the backstory or thinking, “There’s no way she would do that.” I realize this is a personal quirk: I understand that porn is often meant to depict fantasies, not realities, and there’s nothing wrong with unrealistic fantasies. I just don’t get off on them.
All of which makes for a tough sell. Between my need for plausible premises, competent writing, and at least somewhat perverted content, other people’s erotic stories are almost never as hot for me as the ones I come up with in my own head.
So what’s different about visual porn? Is it any better made? Is it more likely to be kinky, or to be realistic? No, absolutely no, a thousand times no. There’s plenty of thoroughly vanilla imagery in visual porn, plenty of straight-up pictures of people just being naked or having plain old regular sex. There’s plenty of impossible fantasy imagery, especially in dirty drawings and comics. And God knows there’s plenty of unimaginative mediocrity, steaming heaps of unimaginative mediocrity, in sex photos and videos and comics and art.
What’s different about visual porn is that it’s more open to interpretation. There are very few visual erotic images that can’t, in some way, be adapted to fit a wide range of fantasies and preferences and kinks. Take photography, for instance. If the model in a photo is bending over or on her hands and knees, I can imagine that she’s about to be spanked or whipped. If a model is disrobing and not completely nude, I can imagine him being ordered to strip, following precise instructions about what to remove and when, trembling slightly at the voice of the demanding autocrat with the complicatedly specific sexual tastes. Even in the most vanilla, soft-core, soft-focus photos and videos, there’s usually some way to tweak it to fit my kinky brain.
If nothing else, I can imagine some sort of dominance relationship between the photographer and the model (or models). That’s another way that visual porn — photos and videos, anyway — are adaptable. You can project yourself into the scene that the image is depicting… but you can also project yourself into the photo or video session. You can imagine yourself as the model: exposed and vulnerable, or relishing your power over your audience, or subserviently putting yourself in poses to fulfill the photographer’s fetishistic whims. Or you can imagine yourself behind the camera: cool and controlling, or drooling and lecherous, or hungry and worked up with longing for what you can see but aren’t allowed to touch.
All this is true even if your fantasies aren’t as stubbornly kinky as mine. There’s nothing in the story telling you that none of this is really happening. There is no story. You get to make the story up yourself.
But visual porn is obviously not just about making up your own stories. If that were the only appeal, I could happily invent jack-off stories in my head all day long (even more than I already do). There’s something else about a visual image, something that curls itself into a fist and punches me in the gut. What is it?
A lot of it is the immediacy of visual porn, the realism, the ability to make me feel that what’s going on in the porn is real, here and now. This is an area where photos and videos have it all over any other kind of porn. It’s so much easier to feel like dirty pictures or movies are real — because they are real. Photos and videos document real sex acts — real people actually did those things, in the physical world, with their actual bodies. Photos and videos are real in a literal, physical way, which no other porn can match.
But not all visual porn is like that. In stuff like drawing, or painting, or comics and graphic novels, there are no real people. It’s all made up with the artist’s head and hands. It’s no different from fictional porn in that regard: there isn’t anybody who’s really there. And yet dirty drawings — as long as they’re done with a reasonable degree of competence — have almost the same clit-wrenching immediacy for me that dirty photos do.
Besides, the immediacy of visual porn isn’t just about feeling like the people in the pictures are really there. It’s about feeling like I’m really there. The pictures don’t just make it easier for me to imagine the scene — they make it easier for me to project myself into it. Having a picture thrust into my brain makes me feel like I’m there; like I’m one of the people in the scene, or a new person wedging myself into the goings-on, or even an invisible voyeur watching it all up close. And that’s true whether the pictures are photos of real dirty people doing real dirty things, or drawings of dirty people doing made-up dirty things that an artist thought up.
But here’s the weird thing. I’ve been talking to a bunch of people about this question, and people who like dirty stories say exactly the same thing I do about dirty pictures. Fiction is more immediate, they say; it’s less distancing, it makes it easier to project themselves into the scene. I’d always assumed that people who prefer written porn like it in spite of its lack of visceral immediacy — but here these people are, saying that visceral immediacy is exactly what they like about it.
So I’m starting to think that a preference for visual vs. written porn may be hard-wired, just a matter of the way our brains are built from birth. I resisted that idea for a long time, mostly because everything I’d read on that topic was gender-focused in a completely narrow and stupid way: men are wired to get turned on by images, women are wired to get turned on by stories, with all the accompanying “men are from Mars” bullshit about how women just want emotional relationships and men just have dirty minds. I knew that the gender stuff wasn’t true for me, so I’ve tended to dismiss the entire hard-wiring theory. But maybe it has some validity.
It isn’t just about being a “visual person,” though. For one thing, my intense preference for visual erotic art doesn’t translate at all into the non-erotic arts. I’m certainly very fond of visual art; I’ve seen paintings and sculpture and stained glass and such that have moved me nearly to tears. But as a general rule, they don’t have the same death-grip on my brain that books do.
And there’s more overlap between the two forms than I’m letting on. After all, when I look at dirty pictures, one of the first things I do is start making up stories about them. When I masturbate, I usually start with a visual image that’s struck my fancy… but if I’ve hit on an image that packs an unusual punch, I find myself working out who these people are and why they’re there. I think about the dirty things they were doing before they got there, and the even dirtier things they’re going to do next… and soon my mind is slipping around between a whole assortment of images, all within this one story.
Even as a writer, the two forms overlap. When I write porn fiction, I tend to start with an image in my mind — a woman bending over and offering her ass, a female college student being spanked by her professor, a peep show dancer talking to a customer through the glass. But then I fill in the backstory: who they are, how they got there, what’s getting them off. Writing porn for me is like an extended, tightly focused, carefully crafted version of my masturbation fantasies. And like a masturbation fantasy, it starts with an image, and then quickly turns into a story.
Which brings me back around to the big issue: the fact that I’m unbelievably picky about written porn. See, I’m a writer, not a photographer or a filmmaker or a painter. I’m picky about writing because it’s my medium. I know more about writing, both erotic and otherwise, than I do about photography, or filmmaking, or drawing or painting or comics. If I knew more about visual art, I’d probably be a lot more picky about my visual porn. I’d be more familiar with the cliches, more put off by mediocrity, more annoyed by sloppy work. If I were a photographer or something, I might find it a lot harder to look at dirty pictures without my critical reflexes zooming into my forebrain and kicking my libido out of the way. I might find it easier to relax and enjoy dirty stories, just as a consumer, without immediately analyzing them as a professional. And I might well be ranting and musing about why, with a few exceptions, erotic photography is so distancing and hard to identify with, and why erotic fiction packs so much more of a punch.