Dr. Amina Asim is a reportage editor at Papercuts. She is a digital media consultant who lives in Washington, DC. Her award-winning dissertation Tonguing Time: Transnational Feminism, Film and Festival explores the idea of the revolutionary woman and the time within which she functions and is represented in much detail. She is also producing a documentary film on China and Pakistan's relationship and spends most of her time making strategy and content for the American government. More here: aminaasim.com
The Art of Erotica Writing: In Conversation with Rachel Kramer Bussel
Papercuts, on a double whammy jackpot, interviewed Rachel Kramer Bussel, erotica writer, editor and an avid connoisseur/blogger of cupcakes!
With over 60 erotica anthologies to her credit as an editor, including the Best Women’s Erotica of the Year series (Volume 3 coming out next year), she writes widely about sex, relationships, books and popular culture. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Marie Claire, and Salon, among others. Rachel is also a much sought after workshopper of erotic storytelling, so you know where to enrol next time you’re stuck writing that perfect sex scene.
Here she chats with Reportage Editor Amina Asim about first sparks, a 50 Shades Grey-ing of the world, and the democratic form that is the dirty story.
Amina Asim (AA): When did you start reading erotica? Tell us about your initial encounters with the genre.
Rachel Kramer Bussel (RKB): Probably the first things I read were romance novels, like Danielle Steele and Judith Krantz. But those, I feel, were not really erotic per se. They were more romance.
When I started reading erotica 20 years ago, I remember you could walk into a bookstore in Manhattan and there would be very explicit books on display—they weren’t behind some secret shelf. A lot of them were written by “Anonymous.” I wasn’t really seeking it out as an editor and writer then, the way I do now, but I remember seeing them in the course of shopping. But today, even though there are books that are marketed as erotica, you have to seek them out. In the US, most bookstores still don’t have an erotica section—it’s not easy to stumble across it.
I’m talking offline of course. Online, there is so much variety. There are e-books about very specific fetishes or interests—really, whatever you want.
Also, just to qualify erotica and what it means, whether we talk historically or recently, people can make something erotic whether it’s “erotica” or not, because it’s something that’s sexy to them, and that makes it erotica.
For instance, I’m reading a memoir these days titled You’ll Grow Out of It and the writer—she’s my age, born in 1975—she’s talking about porn back then when there was no internet. And how she found it. She talks about spying on her neighbours and glimpses between the curtains. And for her, that was sexy. She wasn’t even seeing people having sex, she didn’t even see that much nudity. But for her, it was the secretiveness and the fact that she was seeing something she wasn’t supposed to—that’s what made it sexy.
AA: How did you start writing erotica?
RKB: I have written nonfiction ever since I was little. I used to write letters to the editor when I was a teenager—to magazines, to the N(ew) Y(ork) Times. I’m sure if they had blogs back then, I would have been writing blogs. But it was all political, based on issues; it wasn’t fiction.
I really just decided to start writing erotica because I was reading so much of it. I had been reading it for about 2 or 3 years when I decided to write my first story.
Looking back, I’m so glad I didn’t overthink it, because it’s easy to do that, to ask yourself, ‘Who am I to write this?’ To me, it’s one of the really beautiful things about the genre, back when I started it and now: that it’s very welcoming. You don’t need an advanced degree. Some people think you need to have a certain amount of sexual experience, but you don’t need to have personally experienced what you’re writing about. I think what you need is an imagination. And you also need to focus on not just the physical action, but the emotional element: Why is this exciting to this character? Sometimes people think it’s just about writing the physical part, and they might be very good at writing the physical part, but if we don’t know what’s at stake for that character, then we’re not really going to care.
So, the first story I wrote was when I found out that there was a call for submissions for an anthology called ‘Starfucker’, around 1999. I was following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and I wrote a story called ‘Monica and Me’. It was pretty much a fantasy. The character had my name, a lot of my clothes and it was this fantasy of what if I, or this character like me, met Monica and they had an affair. I think the reason that got picked up for that book was because I really did bring all my interest and knowledge about real life Monica and obviously real life me and then I made it into this fantasy—that she had a book coming out and there was a book signing, and I worked in little facts about it. It was fiction obviously, but it had this realistic element of a fan of this famous woman trying to meet her. And there was this idea of how she’d been treated poorly by Bill Clinton and by some of her other exes. So the subtext was ‘Oh, I would treat her better.’
It was exciting when it got published. I remember I went to Barnes and Noble in Chelsea when it had just come out—I opened it and saw my name and even though I knew it was coming out, I remember crying in the bookstore.
I think about that a lot now because I’m usually publishing at least one or two authors in my books for whom it’s their first publication. Maybe they’ve been writing erotica for a while, but it’s their first publication, and it feels so wonderful to be able to do that for someone else.
AA: I agree—at times, I like editing even more than writing; I think there is a joy in helping people make their work better and putting it out there. When I looked at your anthologies, I felt there was a specific personality to each of them and the stories in it. That brings me to the next question about Western and non-Western erotica—are your authors mostly American? And have you noticed differences between the kinds of erotica explored by writers from different backgrounds?
RKB: Most of the writers are either from the US, Canada, or a few other countries in Europe. Occasionally, Australia.
Everyone’s personal writing styles are different, so I wouldn’t want to say ‘Oh, someone from this place writes like this.’ I do try and balance tone of writing. Some people write humorously, some people write about darker or more serious topics, and I like to have a mix. I want to include as many stories for as much variety as possible.
Sometimes people think of erotica as one thing; like now, people often think of it as Fifty Shades of Grey. And I’m not against that entirely, but I think there’s so much more richness and variety (to explore).
AA: Let’s talk about the emphasis you place on “good writing” when you’re publishing these stories, which really comes through in some pieces where the dominant element is feminine pleasure. Since your degrees were in gender studies and political science, I would be very interested in knowing how this process—of being an editor and writer of erotica—serves a political purpose for you?
RKB: It’s a tough question because I definitely consider myself a feminist and always have since I understood what that meant. I do think there is a feminist element to my process of editing erotica and writing it as well, but I don’t know if I would say ‘Oh, this is a feminist book.’
What I’m trying to do is give women especially, but also men, the space to explore these ideas as readers and as writers. Because we sometimes assume, at least in the US, that it’s 2016 and now everyone can do whatever they want. But that’s not really true—even if you can do something legally, there are many social constrictions. There are people who will judge you for being into certain activities. And men get those judgements too. If you’re a man and you want to be dominated, that’s still not really accepted. And similarly, there’s more space for women who are into the submissive aspect of BDSM—that is more accepted. We haven’t had the Fifty Shades of Grey type blockbuster but with reverse gender—we haven’t seen that on a big scale.
There are other things people still feel nervous even talking about both with their partners and with other people. We don’t always realize how we’ve internalized the shame or fear or just the discomfort. I think women feel more angst about what will that say about me, because I think there are more consequences for us. I don’t think most men are being slut-shamed the way women are. And I think this does actually directly translate into why there’s so much erotica geared towards women … because women tend to be more, or have to be more self-reflexive about it. I think men for the most part, straight men especially, if they’re into something, or something turns them on, they just accept it, ‘Ok, this thing turns me on.’ Or even if they feel awkward about it, even if they’re not sure what it means, they’ll still pursue it. But I think women still have more fears about it—What will someone think if I tell them I’m into this? What will this mean about me? Or if I sleep with too many people, will I not just be seen as slutty, but will I feel slutty? I think there’s so much weight we take on with those questions that erotica, on the writing end, can give authors a chance to work out these things on a page; their characters can live out some of these fantasies that maybe they want to do in real life, or maybe they don’t want to do in real life, but they’ve thought about it. And that’s something that’s important to me. Even in stories where there might be other worlds, like aliens or sci-fi elements, where it’s not necessarily a hundred percent realistic, I want the emotional aspect to be relatable. I don’t think the job of erotica or any fiction is to necessarily make a blunt political statement the way you would in an essay, but I think it can still have a message. I don’t really feel like it’s my place to say what that message is—everyone is going to interpret it differently. But I guess what you were asking if my erotica—the books—if they’re feminist projects, I think they are.
There are also things that I wouldn’t include, anything I felt that was shaming women for their desires, for instance. It’s not necessary that it should have a happy ending, because that’s not realistic to life either, but I want the stories to value women and their desires. Even if the character isn’t really sure what she wants—that’s okay too. I just want them to be respectful.
AA: Speaking of aliens, could you tell us what role metaphorical scenarios could play in exploring erotic feelings when writing fiction, particularly in spaces or cultures where there is a taboo around such themes?
RKB: I think if you are free to be able to explore talking about sex within the context of an erotica story—whatever is happening in that erotica story, the specifics don’t matter as much—I’d think that you’d have to be mentally free. Having that mental freedom to fantasize about whatever you want is as important as having other kinds of freedom. If you don’t feel comfortable even thinking the thoughts that you have about sex, I think that’s going to affect other areas of your life. Now I’m not saying that sex is more important than other types of freedom, but I’ve felt this myself in my own life, that maybe there was something I was interested in, talking to a partner about, or exploring, and even though politically, I would say that I am a feminist and I don’t think there should be those boundaries—I felt them as well in my own mind.
As an example, I don’t have characters under 18 having sex in my books, partly for legal reasons, and partly because I just think it’s harder to get those published. But I certainly don’t think that your sex life starts the day you turn 18. I think teenagers have sexual fantasies and I think that they are also entitled to have a sex life. So there’s a kind of tension there—because I am not going to publish them, even though I don’t agree, so where is the line?
I think that writers can push boundaries. There’s a story in Hungry for More, an anthology of erotic romance that I edited, where a woman who is about 30 or 29, winds up having an affair with an 18-year-old man. It’s a very edgy story, because in the context of her story, in her small town, people are talking about it, people are scandalized. But it also pushes the reader to think about the question, ‘Do we think that she is exploiting him?’ ‘Do we think that there is something wrong with her?’ Because we know that even though he is technically of age—legally, he is an adult—there is still this taboo. What’s really beautiful about this story is that she didn’t just pretend that they live in a world where there is no taboo; she talks about how that taboo affects this woman, how she would actively define the taboo, because she has these genuine feelings for him.
I think erotica can be a really valuable space to make readers question, what does that mean that I am caught up in this? Like in this story—if that happened in real life, if that was my child who was 18 and who was dating that woman, I don’t know what I would do. Maybe I’d feel differently, but in the story, I feel sympathy for her. I was on her side and I think it made me question myself and my own prejudices.
I think that story really touched on what is considered taboo in so many ways, because we are more okay with a 30-year-old man and an 18-year-old woman than we are with the reverse.
AA: You’re thinking about Lolita, right, and how it’s considered a masterpiece?
RKB: I’ve never read Lolita!
AA: I started reading it last year and couldn’t finish it—the thing is it’s a beautifully written book, but it was making me uncomfortable, because the girl was a child and I understand the erotic element in it and also the literary genius of it, but I didn’t want to read it.
RKB: This comes up often, both when I’m reading submissions for an anthology and when I’m teaching. I don’t believe in censorship, and I don’t believe that if you are inspired to write something say akin to Lolita, that makes you automatically a monstrous person—that you want to do those things yourself. I think then it becomes a question like if someone sent me a story that was beautifully written, but I didn’t feel like it represented consent—Could I admire the writing, but not feel comfortable with that?
It’s an issue that comes up a lot with self-published authors. On Amazon, they’re constantly changing their guidelines of what they will allow because there is a lot of age-play and incest stories, which are popular. It’s a chicken and egg question—if there is a market for that and people are writing them, where’s the line?
AA: Rachel, could you speak about transgender identities in erotica, and what you see as interesting in writing that features transgender characters, in the context of exploring gender roles?
RKB: I don’t think we have that as a part of our culture and tradition—of accepting that as the mainstream. I think transgender rights and the nuances of what it means to be transgender have only become widely accepted in the last year. And it’s a tricky area in erotica, because there are a lot of transgender people who don’t want to be sexualized. They don’t want the first thing that people ask them to be about their genitals or even the last thing, because it’s private. It’s about gender, not sexuality.
So I don’t want to be fetishizing or objectifying transgender characters in my stories, in that sense.
But I am also looking out for more authors who can write from the point of view of transgender characters because I think that voice is really important.
I edited a book called Cross Dressing, which had not just men dressing up as women, but also women dressing up as men, and there were some people for whom it was a fetish, some for whom it was a regular thing, some who just did it on a whim, or based on circumstances. But I think all those stories made you think about what would be different in the course of the story if this person were not cross-dressing. Are they the same person? Or do they become someone different? Do they take on a personality?
I think that’s something that’s more universal than the question of transgender, because no matter what your gender, you likely have elements that we consider masculine or feminine. I mean would a woman be a bitch because she does some things that would be considered normal for a man? If you were playing with gender inside the bedroom, does that make you think about, or transcend gender outside the bedroom? It may or may not.
Often what I see in erotica is that if someone is trying something that is traditionally thought of as opposed to their gender—like if a woman is using a strap-on dildo to penetrate her partner—I think it gives food for thought: Is it just an erotic activity, or will it change her behaviour out in the world?
I think it also becomes a question of who can write as a man or as a woman. I teach erotica writing classes and one exercise I have my students do is write from a different gender or sexual orientation than their own. If you’re a woman and you’ve only written from the point of view of women characters and you suddenly have to write from the point of view of a man, you have to think if it’s authentic. It tests your writing skills, because you have to get into a totally different mindset. And it becomes a question if it is a totally different mindset? Because if I have a nerdy female character, maybe she has more in common with this nerdy male character than she does with another woman who is a different type of personality. I think it brings up those kinds of questions as well.
AA: That’s a good segue into the question: Do you think that internationally the appetite for erotica is growing? Both for writers and in terms of demand as well.
RKB: Demand wise, I’m not sure. My books have only been translated into German, but I know that there is erotica all over the world. And I know just from the success of Fifty Shades, I mean that was all over the world! I happened to go to Dubai in the fall of 2012, the year that Fifty Shades came out. Before I went, I was told that pornography is banned and that you cannot have any form of visual porn. I remembered in my luggage, I sometimes use postcards from my books as bookmarks, and I thought ‘oh no, this is a kind of a sexy image, am I gonna get into trouble?’ And then when I got there, in one of the bookstores in a mall, there was Fifty Shades of Grey. Stacks and Stacks of it.
Not to debate the merits of the quality of Fifty Shades of Grey, I think it did open doors internationally to show that women did want to read these kinds of stories. And I would hope that then, there are outlets in these countries for both women to write these stories and find this sort of writing. I know that here certainly, and probably in a lot of other countries, Fifty Shades inspired a lot of women to write their own stories. I think that, that has to do with the fact that EL James was not a professional writer; she hadn’t been doing this her whole life. She had started doing this as fan fiction not long ago. I think that inspired people, the idea that you can just be a regular person going about your life, have an idea, write it down, and get published. I’m sure some people saw that and said oh, I want to be a millionaire too but more than that the impression that I get a lot is that women felt like, they didn’t even know they wanted to tell these stories and then all of a sudden, they were like ‘wait, I have fantasies too that no one is asking me about’ or ‘I’ve never had an outlet to share them.’ I think it opened that door both in the publishing world and just for women to be able to think about these things. I don’t know enough about the international market to know how much is out there, but I know that in certain other countries including India, there have been erotic novels and short story collections; I hope that publishers take note of that.
AA: You’re also a cupcake aficionado. What do you feel is the connection between food and sex?
RKB: Initially when I started writing about cupcakes on my blog, people would think it meant something else. I was like ‘No, it is not a euphemism, literally they’re cupcakes—the dessert.’ It was really fun for me because it was different than erotica, very PG!
I definitely think that food and sex are very closely connected. It is so personal—you don’t know what kind of sex someone is going to be into, or what kind of food they’re going to be into just by looking at them. You have to get to know them to know these tastes of theirs.
Food is a really fun topic for erotica because you’re involving all the senses. You’re involving cultural history—that can be rich, dramatic territory.
We also like to think of foods in terms of sexy food, for instance strawberries, or champagne or oysters. There are aphrodisiac type foods because of their properties and their taste or the way they look, we think of it as sexy. And I think we make assumptions in our culture about who is sexy or who would turn people on. There’re certain actors or actresses whom everyone agrees is ‘an example of who everyone would find sexy’ but that’s not the case. I mean, there is no universal ‘this person is sexy’ and there is no universal food that everyone will be turned on by. A friend of mine for instance, wrote an erotica about stinky cheese, one of those really smelly cheeses. A man was licking it off the shoe of this dominatrix, and it was so interesting because it got into all of these power dynamics. She was making him, but he was into it. She managed to eroticize something that most people would not even think about.
Those are the kind of stories that I am interested in. I am interested in stories where the characters are not perfect: they are not Victoria’s Secret models. Things that are a little off the beat impasse. I’ve written a couple of stories about women who are with bigger men—chubby, fat—and to me, that’s a form of activism. Because it’s trying to eroticize a person who is often vilified in our culture.
If you are a really good writer, you can make it sexy. I love to be caught up in the ‘this makes me feel weird to be turned on by this but the writing is so good and I want to know what happens next’ feeling.
AA: What advice do you have for someone who might be inclined to write erotica?
RKB: I think everyone can write erotica, you can really use your personal experiences—and not just your sexual experiences—whatever knowledge you have about the world, bring that into your erotica. Even if you never thought about a situation as an erotic one, try it.
I used to play chess as a teenager and I had some crushes, but it wasn’t sexual. And I wrote a chess erotica story and a lot of it was just about these two people sitting across a table from each other and the tension building up between them, and how it played out in their chess game, how they were silently flirting. I don’t think I could’ve written that story if I didn’t at least know how to play chess. So I explored the knowledge that I had of what it’s like to be at a chess tournament through that story. And I think we all have things like that.
They could also be brief flashes of things: It doesn’t have to be about sex you had with someone; it could just be about a moment where you had an erotic connection with someone, could just be the spark, and then you use fiction and you use our imagination to explore that.
One question I get a lot is ‘What language should I use?’ ‘Are certain words too clinical?’ ‘Are certain words too dirty?’ Use the language that you would use in real life, I say. If the words sound weird to you—too oft-putting, or too jokey—you can use whatever language that makes sense to you. I’d rather someone repeat a word than use a really bizarre one. Because there’s sexual thesaurus books and there are some basic words for body parts, but then it just starts to get really absurd … like “fireman’s pole” or something!