The first time I saw Secretary, I thought it was basically the hottest thing I had ever seen. That taut wire of erotic tension, and yes, oddly tender intimacy that forms between Maggie Gyllenhaall and James Spader’s characters.
It made me feel awfully damn funny down below. And it gave me the warm fuzzies. Y’know, like compersion for fictional characters.
“That was… unbelievable,” I said to my delightfully kinky girlfriend at the time.
It had been her idea to watch it in the first place. And I suddenly understood why.
“Yeah, it’s pretty damn hot,” she said. “Except…”
“Except?” I said.
“Well, they never show them negotiating,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “Like we are, you mean? The forms we’ve been sending back and forth?” BDSM checklists about limits, soft and hard. Curiosities.
She nodded. “They don’t talk it out. At all. The movie is unrealistic that way. It sets a bad example.”
“Then why did you show it to me?” I asked.
“Because it’s hot,” she said, kissing me on the neck.
I’ve run into dozens of folks who have raised similar objections. If not about the movie Secretary, then about Fifty Shades of Grey (which I do take issue with, but more for its facile appositives than anything else):
“This is troubling.”
“This is flat-out abusive.”
“They left out the parts that make any of this consensual, healthy. The parts that make it okay.”
“This is definitely problematic.”
And I’m right there with them. But when I turn to erotica that does these things right? That frames kinky encounters in their proper context? Well, it’s often not well done. At worst, I feel like I’ve been transported back to my days as a small town newspaper reporter. Listening to a school board work through their agenda one tedious line at a time.
And it’s a real shame. Because negotiation can be really hot in actual practice.
Like I advised Seth in “The Crocs of Sex“:
Talk about your fantasies. Talk about what you’d like to get out of the arrangement. About what you’ve done with others in the past (if anything). Talk about your limits. Talk about pain. You need to figure out how much pain you each want in the picture, find the overlap on the Venn diagram. You’ll want to find this overlap on basically everything you discuss.
A lot of it you won’t know until you’re trying things. And you don’t need to figure everything out all at once. If you’re continuing to develop the relationship, you never stop negotiating.
“Tell me your fantasies.”
“Why does that turn you on? What is that linked to?”
“How could we make this even hotter?”
Erotica Lives in the Taboo
It’s painfully easy to point out the places where writers and filmmakers have gone somewhere dicey. Gotten something wrong. But for the most part, if it’s hot, I get swept away and can forgive quite a lot.
And yet, when I go to write erotica, it’s tough to squelch the echoes of my conscience. The “yeah buts.”
Because you see, it’s not just about including negotiation. And somehow making it fun.
Or making sure that there’s clear consent between your characters.
There are a million taboos. Taboos inside of taboos. All of the -isms: Racism, sexism, ableism, classism, heterosexism, cissexism, anti-semitism, ageism.
The more you become aware of the insidious ways these can manifest? The more you realize it’s difficult to write works that are truly fair, truly representative. For everyone.
And even if you can manage that, the mind reels from the feat of making these narratives sexy. It’s an awful lot to ask. Anyone who does has my respect.
Because erotica lives in the taboo. And sometimes the taboo is a very ugly place.
My book is out!