Hello everyone! Thanks for joining us for another issue of Pillow Talk Secrets. This time, Jade A. Waters, Tamsin Flowers and I – Malin James, your host for this episode – are talking about taboos in erotica, from underage sex to bestiality. It’s a huge subject with enough to discuss for five episodes, but we do our best to take a bite out of the elephant, (in a completely consensual, non-literal sort of way) so, without further ado, I give you…
Pillow Talk Secrets
Malin: Hello ladies, how are you both doing this fine day?
Jade: Great, thank you. How are you both?
Tamsin: I’m very well – we have the sunniest day here and it’s positively balmy! A bit of a shock to the system!
J: Oh, same here! I’ve got the loveliest glare on my computer screen. ;)
M: Ah, yes! My relationship to the sun isn’t quite so friendly, but I’m always happy for those who love it…. So, we’ve been thinking about discussing taboo in erotica for awhile. Shall we tackle that today?
T: Yes, let’s. It’s an interesting subject. **Every publisher has a list of taboo topics – incest, bestiality, rape/non consensual sex, underage sex and so on. It’s interesting that some subjects are taboo because the acts are actually illegal – necrophilia, for example – while others are widely held to be taboo on the grounds of taste, such as scat or watersports. But that begs the question, should publishers be acting as arbiters of taste in this way?
M: I think that’s a great place to start, Tamsin. I like that you brought up the fact that “taboo” covers a lot of things, from serious consent issues (like rape and pedophilia) to different kinks and sexual tastes. It strikes me that putting rape in the same general category as two teens having consensual sex is a bit disingenuous, but that’s how many mainstream publishers handle the issue. Better safe than sorry, I suppose, but it feels like a slippery slope. After all, rape is not the same thing as a consensual golden shower…
J: Right. And then we have lighter (and not necessarily illegal) taboos like the “dreaded infidelity.” Oh dear…
M: Exactly. Some acts are simply more taboo than others. Cheating in erotica (and certainly romance) is taboo, but you can get away with it, while incest is a much harder sell in mainstream publishing…unless you’re George R.R. Martin, of course.
T: I find the whole cheating thing a bit weird. This seems to be a reader taboo rather than a publisher taboo – and why not have it in a story if the cheater gets their comeuppance?
J: I agree – but it seems that, to increase readership, publishers follow the tendency. This is very strange to me, since it’s actually such a common event in real life. Plus, cheating is not necessarily a one-time thing for characters – often there’s so much more depth to it.
T: I’ve never seen it on a publisher’s list of no-nos.
M: I don’t think I have either. It might just be one that writers (and readers) shy away from, particularly in the romance / erotic romance market.
J: Maybe because we have to keep our good guys and girls looking good?
M: Possibly…personally, I’m more interested in seeing people be people, which means bad / grey area behavior, but that’s definitely not something everyone wants.
T: Actually, this whole discussion makes me want to run off and write a hot cheating story in which the cheating heroine always gets away with it! (Actually, I have had one in mind for a while!)
M: Ha! Yes! And I would read that!
J: I wrote one a long time ago that’s still awaiting some tender touch-up…it’s got the hint of some sort of affair going on, and I’ve never quite decided if I want to keep that or cut it. Time will tell, I suppose. It’s definitely not the taboo that the others are, though, for sure.
M: My story in Chemical (se)X is all about the dynamic in an affair. I guess it all depends…. Okay, so now, I’d love to actually tackle a taboo Tamsin brought up in a Skype – the difficulty with underage protagonists.
T: Yes, this is one that drives me mad. I think it’s perfectly valid to want to write about teenagers having sex with each other – not with adults – but within their own peer group, because of course this is what happens. And I’m sure loads of teens would want to read it – to discover more about sexuality and relationships. But it’s totally not allowed.
J: Right. We must keep the children safe, or whatever the theory is…. I get it, on one hand – but I also think it’s strange that we can have so many violent books available for teens, and yet, the concept of them having sex (which we all know is totally happening) is strongly unacceptable on the page.
M: What’s also interesting is that it really is the technicality of age that determines that taboo. Ella Dawson writes beautiful stories about college age students / people in their early 20’s and they are brilliant, but if someone were to shave the ages down to 18, the same stories would not be acceptable in most publications, and would certainly get censored by Amazon.
T: Amazon is crazy – they took down my book, Zombie Erotoclypse, because one story is called “I Was a Teenage Zombie Virgin.” The character was 18 – but just the words ‘teenage’ and ‘virgin’ in the blurb got it thrown off the site. When I changed the blurb it became once more perfectly acceptable, even though it was about humans and zombies having sex – another taboo, necrophilia!
J: 18 and 19 are legal teens! Jeezo, Amazon. It’s really something.
M: The thing is that most of those words – ‘virgin’ and ‘teenage’ etc. – are getting flagged by software that doesn’t consider context, which means that any time they pop up, it could be an issue. It’s pretty ridiculous. What I’m curious about, is why the moral police at Amazon feel the need to indiscriminately flag those words to begin with…
T: I would imagine that for Amazon it’s a business decision – in response to complaints from uptight customers who simply blanche at anything to do with sex! The moral majority – ha!
J: But you bet all your pennies that you can write wickedly dirty sex between a beast (wolf/other creature) and a woman (human) and all is a-okay. Because that’s fantasy….which erotica is too, isn’t it? Last I checked, we’re creating sexual fantasy worlds.
M: Ah! That’s interesting, Jade! And it sort of of brings up beastiality. So, werewolves and shifters are okay, but not animals (which is understandable – there’s consent stuff, etc.), but I hadn’t really thought about the why of it until just now. I’d wager it’s because the weres have a human consciousness, but it’s still a bit of a loophole, isn’t it?
T: It’s quite weird – vampire and zombies are the acceptable face of necrophilia, were beasts make bestiality okay – it’s all a little hypocritical, isn’t it?
J: Totally. And while I am not personally into stories about actual bestiality, I would in no way want to censor someone who wants to write or read it. I think it’s odd that we as a society have this crazy tendency to say, “Well, this is okay. This isn’t. And while you’re doing this, don’t write about that, because that would just be totally horrific and sinful to put out there or consume. Your brain is dirty. Stop that.” You know?
M: The thing is is that the internet is full of stories about beastiality and incest and all the rest. Half of the Literotica site is taboo sex, because people want it. It’s the publishing industry that blanches from it, possibly because these fantasies aren’t socially sanctioned. It doesn’t mean that people don’t have them though.
T: And also, it’s perfectly alright to write about any manner of violence – none of that seems to be censored. But as usual, ‘sex is far more dangerous’ – we mustn’t forget that!
J: No, no. Don’t forget it. Bring on your chain saws and masked murderers though – even those potentially killing children. That’s considered okay.
M: Well, let’s talk about taboos in BDSM erotica, because that’s where perceived violence (in the form of consensual acts) and sex often intersect.
T: Yes – but let’s face it, responses from you two on beta reading Alchemy recently made me stop and think – and then I censored myself over a couple of issues. It’s something most writers do, I think – censor themselves, isn’t it?
J: Well, I don’t know that I’d call it censorship in all cases. Sometimes, we’re trying to fit the needs of the characters, and the roles we’ve given them to play. Would you call it censorship if you’re avoiding certain acts because it doesn’t fit who they are? I don’t know that I would.
T: That’s a good point, Jade – I think in the example I just mentioned the story was in danger of veering off down a route that it didn’t need to take.
J: I’ve totally been there. In writing The Assignment, I went way too far at one point – and I reeled it back in because ultimately, it was so not who the character was. I didn’t have an issue with the acts themselves, though. They might well happen with another pairing at another time.
M: That’s a great point, Jade. And I agree with you about those acts and the pairing involved. If an act, even a taboo one, is integral to the story or the character, then you should run with it, but if it isn’t… perhaps not. It’s all, in the end, about serving the story in the best way you can.
T: And I think in that case, it was perhaps also about reader expectations – the characters had been built up one way and then stepped into an altogether darker place – which could have disturbed the readers.
J: Now that I agree is something we do – cater to reader expectations – and that is, to me, a form of censorship. Which is precisely why we’re “not allowed” to write all the taboo stuff!
M: Yes, I think reader expectations must play a large role in what’s sanctioned and what isn’t, particularly for mainstream publishers that don’t cater to a niche audience. It makes me see the value of trigger warnings (which I have mixed feelings about) and the like.
J: Dammit. Can’t we all just be a little more accepting of the creative process? And yes, those trigger warnings…I have mixed feelings on those too, to say the least.
T: But as usual our genre is somehow expected to be ever so careful – while crime and horror can do what the hell they want? It reminds me of the recent safe sex debate – no other genre is expected to be safe or educate their readers – why us?
J: Oh man. That’s a taboo too, for some! And we could spend a whole conversation on that one, I think!
M: Actually, I’d love to have a conversation one of these days on that subject alone. It’s definitely topical and very involved.
T: I can’t tell you the stick I’ve had from some quarters about not including condom use in Alchemy – and its’ a f**king fantasy!
J: Lordie. You know what I think we should do? All three of us should write a story together. It will be about a 17-year-old girl having sex with a 90-year-old werewolf where they don’t wear condoms and the werewolf has a wife, and of course maybe they like to choke each other. What do you think?
T: Can I bring an axe? And are they brother and sister?
J: Did I skip that piece? Yes, they are. Of course.
M: Ha! I think we’ve got a taboo riddled winner there!
J: *Aside* Readers, we are so going to write an entire book on this one day. Just you wait. *Rubs hands together.*
T: Yay! A three-way!
M: Well, now you’re talking ;) Okay, ladies, on that delicious note, I suspect we should wrap it up! We covered a lot of ground….
J: It’s been fun, ladies. And readers, thank you for joining us on this taboo journey…
M: Absolutely – thanks for joining us again. And, as always, feel free to leave us your thoughts in the comments. There are lots of different ways to think about taboos in erotica, and we’d love to know what you think.
T: And we look forward to seeing you next time!
J: Bye, everyone!
Jade, Malin and Tamsin
**NB: There is one very notable exception to this – Go Deeper Press. They embrace all manner of sexualities and sexual expression and very deliberately do not censor their writers. To read a little more on why this is, please check out this powerful post by Lana Fox, one of the founders of Go Deeper.