Curious Reader

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Question

Since I read your story, "The Surprise Party," in Macho Sluts, I have had a few questions about what could one put in a given fiction, and about the way we read and write too. I don't know if I am off-topic for this advice column, but this is the easiest way I have to reach you.

As a submissive lesbian, I enjoyed reading that particular short story, as much but not for the same reasons I enjoyed reading other pieces of fiction you wrote. It's a very clever story, because the position of the lesbian/butch reader is the same as the lesbian/butch character who is kidnapped by a group of cops and forced to sexually service them. As a reader, I was led to enjoy that guilty pleasure of reading about the character (almost) being raped, just as the character describes her being coerced into submitting to these men and getting to enjoy it. And the ending is brilliant, because I felt even guiltier because, unlike the character, I had not known it was fake. She forgot, as she was being fucked, that she knew these men and they were putting on an elaborate fantasy for her birthday, but I simply didn't know and nevertheless found pleasure reading about her plight.

So my questions are: When writing erotica, what kind of taboos do you encounter, if any? And do you self-censor based on the reader's hypothetical response, or yours only? And just as in the short story I mentioned above, do you make sure, when you feel you've crossed the line, to put in some kind of safeguard, just to protect yourself, your work, etc.?

Answer

Most book publishers and magazines have rules about what a writer can and cannot portray in sexually-explicit fiction. Common taboos include sex with animals, erotic play with urine or feces, sex between adults and minors, or violence and sex. There may also be rules requiring safer sex: no sex without condoms or other barriers, as appropriate.

When I was preparing the manuscript for Macho Sluts, the publisher had only one concern, and that was safer sex. He wanted no sex with men unless condoms were used. He didn't care about whether or not barriers were used for lesbian sex since he falsely believed that woman-to-woman transmission of HIV was impossible.

With every book of short stories I've published, there's one story that I'm not sure I should publish because I'm afraid of what the reaction to it will be. I agonize about whether or not to include it. Usually free speech wins out over caution; I've put so much time and effort into every story that it becomes really disappointing to hide one from my readers. Besides, that feels like a betrayal of my core political values.

Nevertheless, I'm sure I censor myself. We all do. When I am able to see that I've avoided a topic, I usually become determined to write something about it. Some of the things that I've dealt with this way are barebacking, narcotics, cutting, and incest. It seems to me that there's a special energy or charge around topics that I am afraid of or that make me sad or angry. I get inspired by areas of human experience that most people find unacceptable or upsetting. I want to know what is not known; confront what is unspeakable.

"The Surprise Party" ending was intended to be exactly the kind of twist that you experienced. It wasn't intended to be a safety net or a back door escape. But I do sometimes pull my punches a bit or give readers a break in an effort to draw them deeper into the story and persuade them to drop their defenses. I don't want my stories to be indigestible or impenetrable. My agenda is usually to get the reader to identify with aspects of human experience that they consider to be unacceptable or strange. I want to stretch people's boundaries and test the limits of their tolerance. It's a combination of education and sexual terrorism.

Thanks for reading this story so closely. I appreciate your analysis and your thoughtful letter.