Important Questions about Erotica
By Hapax Legomenon

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Over time I have been reflecting on fundamental questions about sexuality, erotica, art and the imagination. I will add to this over time.

  1. How do we get off?
  2. Are we erotically overstimulated?
  3. How do we catalog our dreams?
  4. Does the sharing of fantasies build rapport?
  5. Does erotica have to shock or repulse certain people to succeed?
  6. Does sexual desire become less important as we age?
  7. Is it better to use another person's erotic fantasies for arousal than one's own?

How do we get off?

Behind this simple question is a set of assumptions and explanations.

First, we assume that "getting off" (i.e., solitary sex) is a legitimate (not a sinful) activity.

Second, we assume that the individual capacity for experiencing desire is relatively unlimited, that "getting off" does not deplete our energies (except temporarily). Biology sheds us of misconceptions, but Christian concepts of fidelity see sexual desire as vital to marriage. Anything but abstinence undermines the value of marital love (and so"getting off" dilutes the raw force of these sexual bonds).

Third, we assume that the method of "getting off" varies from individual to individual and that a description of the method is intrinsically interesting.

Fourth, we also assume that each person's way of "getting off" is both unique and interesting to others. (By way of comparison, if we asked "how do we eat?" or "how do we urinate?" the reply is unlikely to interest anybody).

Fifth, we assume a verbal description suffices to answer the question. Talking about sex (and in an especially blunt way) seems to trivialize raw emotions. But America has accepted the value of frank discussion even at the cost of sacrificing mystery.

Sixth, we assume that arousal arises from random thoughts or social encounters, and that satisfaction of these desires is often momentary and unconnected to romantic love.

Seventh, we assume that we in fact exert some control over stimulation and arousal. We can channel thoughts and feelings to stimulate the sensation of sex/love or to stifle it.

My point here is to show that the "how to get off" question is fundamentally a historic one. Each society devises its own way to express and fulfill sexual inclinations. What one generation might find scandalous the next may find amusing. Each generation has its own lingo and cultural reference points and scandals. Twenty years ago if a teenage daughter of a wealthy businessman were filmed having sex and the film were easily viewable by anyone, the world would be shocked. Now it is simply a short-lived scandal which the daughter can parlay into an acting career. Before the 1960s, erotic literature was censored and sometimes forbidden; now there are no prohibitions (and yet U.S. rape rates continue to decline).

Even though everybody at some point becomes familiar with sex, what this means depends on social trends and individual peculiarities. The sexual customs of every generation are strange and silly ... except those of my own.

Are we erotically overstimulated?

Life is already stimulating. Not to fear; sexual desire will seek us out (and abandon us when we are the most nostalgic).

Erotic fiction uncovers hidden sexual desire and proposes it as a primary motivator of people. Sexual desire is inescapable (even if it seems irrelevant in real life). Instead of commitments, there are cooperative pleasures. Instead of profundity, there is titillation. Instead of decorum, there is brutal honesty. Submission and paraphilia and metaphorical vampirism bring unfamiliar pleasures when we are faced with the boredom of solitude or love.

Erotic movies simply let us see young bodies in motion and how actual people feel pleasure (as opposed to the described pleasures in literature). Yet even that is not enough; we forget the effect that one's person's desire has on another. We forget that we are not only witnesses of pleasure but also agents. We forget the exhilaration of sharing a private world of pleasure with someone we adore (but alas, we remember all too well the rejections...)

Using erotica to enrich your sexual dreams is a conscious and deliberate act. You allocate a bloc of time for it; it's "me time."

But the best desire visits randomly. Consider these situations.

Traveling offers unusual opportunities to meet strangers. Once I was travelling by overnight bus to a faraway country. I could hear two young women chattering away the whole time in a language I could barely comprehend. I sat several rows behind them, listening to the animated conversation with amusement and half-understanding. One of them wore a stylish but provocative dress and gestured expressively with her hands. (I later learned she was a painter who taught at a university). In the middle of the night, the bus stopped at a road cafe, and everyone trooped inside for drinks. I said not a word, but just sat at the table while the others told funny stories. At one point, the stylishly-dressed woman offered me a soda and a piece of her cake. Up until that time, I did not think she had even noticed me, but now she was smiling at me as she brought the drink over. It was a gesture and nothing more, but the fact that this beautiful woman took notice of me without my taking any action surprised me and gave me an erotic thrill.

Another time I shared a 12 hour train ride in a bunk with three other people, one of whom was a female college student and part-time fashion model. Smart, personable, curious about me and eager to talk about her life. I would love to say it led to something or that we became good friends; instead we just kept each other company. It was a kind of "fake date"; both of us were on our best behavior and found the other's attention flattering and exciting even though it was simply the result of circumstances. As I peeked at this lovely girl asleep in her nightgown on the opposite bunk, I dreamed about her dreams.

How do we catalog our dreams?

About ten years ago I jotted down on a piece of paper some notes about my favorite sexual fantasies. People, places, situations, actions. Anyone looking at this paper would be unable to understand the references or even read the handwriting. But every time I come across this piece of paper, I remember the lustful thoughts which inspired them, savoring old frustrations and lusts.

I am glad I wrote this private list. I'm also glad nobody has ever stumbled upon it.

Now it is easier to keep more enduring records of these fantasies. In blogs and online forums, people can make erotic confessions without shame. Are they real? Unreal? No one will know. If you are bolder, you can employ real people to act out these fantasies. The fantasizer becomes the star and director, while the performer slips into the persona of the pleasure-loving recipient or servant. These personas are not intrinsically wrong or destructive. But they reduce the human personality to dichotomies. Kate down the hall becomes "Sexual Kate" or "Asexual Kate" and not just "Kate." It becomes easier to deal with people who play up these dichotomies and harder to deal with those who refuse to. When you create a permanent record of your sexual escapades (either real or imaginary), you run the risk of being treated as a slut or pervert. Perhaps that is the goal – for a certain point in time anyway. But what if this point in time stretches into an eternity?

Imagine writing down your most lurid sexual fantasies in a place where they can be found. Imagine having someone stumble upon them (without knowing the author). Imagine this person to be an object of desire, a parent, a platonic friend, a teacher, an old friend from school, a gay friend, a sibling, a boss. Imagine they are discovered by three teenagers who laugh at them while feeling embarrassment. Imagine that an acquaintance has discovered them and posted them on the Internet, so all of your friends will be able to laugh or scoff. Imagine that a romantic partner finds them and is shocked by your fantasy about a different partner (or even a gay partner). Imagine a random person of the opposite sex is reading them and wants to know you better, despite your kinky thoughts. Imagine an old friend being revolted by the crudity of your fantasies. Imagine that a casual friend has figured out a way to exploit this knowledge of your erotic obsessions to manipulate you. Sexual fantasies, when confessed in a public way, can reveal your hypocrisy and expose you to random ridicule. Imagine being found out by your spouse and put in a position where you have to beg for forgiveness. But humility can be arousing too.

I wrote these stories with all of these potential situations in mind. True, there are some positive outcomes, but for the most part they are dangerous. The erotic writer really only has one tool at his disposal; the ability to choose the place, manner, audience, timing and extent of the revelation. Or a writer can choose the faraway pleasures of anonymity.

Erotic feelings start with respect to specific people but linger as private plots in your personal universe. When you come up with a successful erotic fantasy, you revisit it often, focusing on details and subtleties of emotion.

Everyone has fantasies; the ones I chose to write about are the most ambiguous, the most unusual, the most compelling.

Does the sharing of fantasies build rapport?

An old girlfriend once confessed a sexual fantasy to me that was lavish, ridiculous and surprising. She found it hard to verbalize the details and talked only after much prodding. Hearing her describe this fantasy was thrilling and unimaginable to me; it revealed a side of her I never knew she had, and I liked it. At the same time, I guess it would drive me crazy if I heard her describe these racy things every day.

One can take anything too far. Simply being married doesn't mean you have to tolerate every detail of the other's sexual fantasies or confess every detail of your own. It is perhaps a romantic notion to believe that married couples should share everything. It's just not possible, and even if it were possible, it would be mentally and emotionally exhausting.

There are three pleasures from sharing: 1)the pleasure of hearing a desired person express a risque thought, 2)the pleasure of corrupting the desired person with a risque thought of your own and 3)the pleasure from observing the listener's jealous or fearful reaction.

If one person is more articulate or imaginative than the partner, that person will end up doing the fantasizing for both of them. Inevitably one person will have ruder fantasies. This discrepancy can be fun or irritating. Competing to see who has the ruder fantasies is not a game you need to play. The aim of pillow talk is to spice up the couple's sex life; if this is not the result, why bother?

If the listener lets you talk about private fantasies without complaint, that implies tolerance and even acceptance.

But what if the partner dislikes the fantasies you talk about? Or what if the partner pretends to like the fantasies you mention but really does not?

That is the problem. By talking so openly, you may simply be calling attention to private emotions which the partner cannot understand. Uncovering another difference between the two people can create additional reasons to argue. Confessing for the sake of confessing just increases misunderstanding and the possibility of rejection.

Sharing sexual fantasies may require too much intellectual effort; sometimes it is more relaxing and satisfying not to overthink sex and just do it.

Aside from porn stars, romance/erotica writers and therapists, most people don't have a great need to reveal their deepest fantasies. Aside from the pleasures of sharing, there is the pleasure of not sharing. Keeping a fantasy private lets you indulge your senses without having to verbalize or defend. You can keep fantasy free from judgment.

Keeping a sexual fantasy hidden from a lover can also be arousing. It can keep the other person guessing. A lover's silence may not necessarily be good for the relationship, but it can spark curiosity and lust.

Does erotica have to shock or repulse certain people to succeed?

Erotica, by definition, deals with subjects that cannot be depicted openly and publicly. In previous decades, these depictions were even forbidden.

However, with an abundance of sexually-related content already available, we have a problem of extreme content. Social definitions of perversions may differ, but a lot of erotic material is intentionally disgusting/gross/demeaning/ugly. This can be conveyed by attitude or abusive language or by focusing on bodily fluids. When you defile the beauty of sex, you are asserting control over it.

The best erotica should depict two people having sex under realistic circumstances. But if it is too perfect, the audience cannot participate vicariously in it. Perfect or imperfect, porn aims to distribute beauty as widely as possible. It wants physical beauty to be tamed rather than guarded. The pornographic impulse is grounded in the need to correct a social injustice.

Repulsive erotica aims to elicit a strong emotional reaction. It tries to teach us about irrationality. It tries to frighten us. It tries to infect us with a virus of an idea. But such infection (if it occurs) is transitory. A disgusting fantasy causes people to recoil happily into the world of normal sex again.

If this inoculation succeeds, we can only pity the underpaid actors and actresses paid to embrace the actions which appall us.

Does sexual desire become less important as we age?

Obviously we need to face the fact that older people have less physical energy and less beautiful bodies than before. But is that all?

With age comes the problem of boredom, especially if you have been with the same partner. Watching porn videos can cause problems, but at least it delivers new individuals to behold. With sex you have two competing desires: the desire for novelty vs. the desire for repetition. The desire for novelty inevitably leads to a desire for different partners.

Sexual desire changes as a marriage matures. For the man, there is no longer the excitement at having attained a sexual conquest. Sex becomes less about exploration and more about reenacting the ritual of marriage. Rituals can be dull or reassuring but never irrelevant. Fucking not only has a lot of symbolism, it connects us to memories of previous passions. (That is a reason why rape can be so devastating; it connects all future pleasures to a single traumatic event).

Many people find sexual desire to be a bother. Oh, not the heaving and groaning – that's the fun part; it's having to allocate time and energy to accommodate two busy schedules. Sexual spontaneity becomes harder to plan for.

When you are single and looking, that's a bother as well. The time, the effort, the money, the emotional risks. At some point the individual is less inclined to take risks for the sake of a semi-satisfying sex life. Men and women have different perspectives on this. Men bear most of the emotional and financial risks at the beginning, while women bear the risks later on.

As an erotica writer, I sometimes fret that I spend more time writing about women than actually being with them. Do I really enjoy women's company as much as I claim? The truth is actually boring. There is not enough time in this world to romance all the women you want, not enough time to write about all the things you want. You have to strike a balance between infinite aspirations and practical constraints of living. If the right woman or the right romantic situation were to arrive, perhaps I'd rearrange my life and reassess my priorities. Yes, I still am at the age where I start sentences with the word "If."

When people are young, you talk about sexual sublimation. Sexual desire is assumed to motivate everything. If you write a paper about Egyptian pharaohs for class, you are channeling sexual energy into a socially acceptable outlet because you know that the benefits of getting better grades and a deeper understanding of Egyptian culture will improve your social standing … and ultimately bring more pussy.

Later, you learn about the complexity of human motivations. Social justice, self-discipline, physical feats, spiritual peace, good works, inspiring people, business plans, painting, gardening, charity. After a while, it becomes silly to maintain the pretense that sexual desire lies at the heart of these activities, even indirectly. As you become older, you realize that there is no shame in admitting that sex doesn't motivate you anymore. You can be totally asexual and still become the world's greatest gardener.

Reading erotica when you are 15 or 20 is an entirely different experience than when you are 40 or 50. During a person's youth, erotic restlessness drives people towards all kinds of distractions. When you are young, you are starting to grasp your potential for pleasure. You are eager to explore (at least intellectually) the various ways this potential can be realized. You are seeking information and ideas to explain your sexuality. You want to compare your feelings against that of others; you are vaguely aware that erotica doesn't reflect real life, but you are unsure how widely the two realities diverge. When you are older, you have already reconciled yourself to the fact that pornutopia is a mythical place populated by sleazebags and misfits. Your imagination has already learned about perversion. You read in order to fool yourself. You seek realism but not reality. You wish to remind yourself of the almost infinite amount of sexual excitement you were capable of feeling. You read to remember the time when desire meant everything.

Older people stay in touch with physical passions. That is probably good if only from a standpoint of physical health. In a way we are fighting against time; we want to convince ourselves that the cells in our 30/40/50/60 year old bodies are not meaningfully different from the ones in our former 20 year old bodies. Desire used to be spontaneous; it was waking up with an erection or finding it impossible to concentrate on a work assignment when an attractive person walked by. Later, desire becomes an end in itself. It becomes a way to explore hidden emotions, a ceremonial ritual for getting acquainted. Perhaps love had something to do with it. In middle age one dreams of a tie that fuses love and desire, something more enduring than recreational exercise.

Is it better to use another person's erotic fantasies for arousal than one's own?

All people have the power of fantasy; no one denies that. Some are motivated to expose these fantasies to a larger audience; most keep these private feelings to themselves. The exposers are often referred to as "artists." But why should we glorify people simply for going public?

Do individuals gain this privilege merely by asserting themselves? Or does erotica depend on having an audience? Perhaps self-selection plays a part; those who produce and share erotica may do so because their sexual attitudes were unusual to begin with. Youth and physical attractiveness make it easier for a creator of sexual fantasies to gain an audience (of course, an author could simply invent biographical details, but an actor finds that harder to do). A reader or spectator lives vicariously through sexual adventures of these people; how do beautiful and talented people find erotic satisfaction? This is a question most people have no direct way of knowing.

Authorship and provenance; do they matter? In fact most written erotica is published anonymously or pseudonymously – without fear of exposure. The more public stance a writer of erotica takes, the more cautious the writer has to become. Identity (and even the notion of authorship) implies culpability. At the same time, when people express their sexuality through performance (instead of mere verbal ejaculation), the performer's identity becomes fused with the work itself. The instigator of desire has a body, and this body must always be exposed.

In sexual relationships there comes a power from letting a partner initiate the pleasuring process. It is a kind of lazy sovereignty. When you read or view artistic works that appeal to the libido, you can remain disengaged from the person trying to evoke pleasurable responses; the psychology of the initiator becomes less important than your own stimulation.

As a writer of erotica, I know that. It does not bother me that other people have different opinions about my dreams. A significant portion of the population might even find my dreams repulsive. (Hopefully they have stopped reading by now). I revel not in the audience feedback (though the satisfaction of awakening unfamiliar dreams in others can be profound). The real triumph comes from the mental discipline of writing things and touching upon the human significance inherent in each person's sexuality. Marco Vassi's Erotic Comedies covered the gamut of human perversions (and Vassi came closer to enacting these perversions in his personal life than most readers ever would). Vassi wrote erotic fairy tales that turned fetishes into existential predicaments.

But Vassi was unusual. He saw fiction as just another extension of real life (and vice versa). Perhaps the writer of erotica has a richer fantasy life than others; who knows? The ability to generate fantasies is not hard, but the ability to record them can be hard and time-consuming. Neuroticism drives a person to many things. Neither the pornographer nor the artist seeks social approval per se, but the pleasure from artistic creation derives from reconciling the opposing worlds of solitary dreams and collective frustrations.

Everyone learns to accept and cultivate and restrain personal sexual fantasies. But one person's fantasies don't abide by the reader's (or listener's) restraints. When you peek inside the private fantasy life of others, the feelings of arousal and excitement will seem unfamiliar … and even alien. Mere awareness of these alternate pathways to pleasure can be enough to incite them in your brain.

I take for granted that this is good. But why?

Suppose a young man and women fall in love and marry without ever reading an erotic story or watching a sexually explicit movie. Both people will feel sexual desire for the other and harbor (tame) sexual fantasies. Some might say that this kind of relationship would be more pure and uncorrupted by outside influences or expectations. But how would their desires be shaped? And would their natural inclinations be superior to those resulting from the artificial stimulations of erotica?

Perhaps this young man sees other women and even desires them. He would not have the benefit of other people's insights about how a desire for two women could coexist simultaneously. In his mind, the second desire would be unnatural and even destructive. For this man sheltered from erotica, desire would be absolute – never tentative; marriage becomes a final verdict. If the spouse is impotent or frigid, that is a final curse. The sheltered man's desire must transmogrify (or even disappear) for the sake of marital love. Erotica helps you to live with the fact that desire is infinite and mostly unattainable and that a single romantic partner offers only a finite amount of emotional and sexual satisfaction. Once you understand this partner's limits, you can also appreciate a partner's expressions of affection within these limits.

Access to an erotica library of the world also allows you to define your sexual wants more freely. Without such access, your erotic inclinations are a result of biology and circumstances. Erotica frees you from the limitations of circumstances; it lets you explore new kinds of erotic sensations and discover what erotic behavior works and what does not. Perhaps this process of using erotica to explore erotic feelings is less important than building trust and understanding with your partner. But erotica adds variety. It also provides a sense of mastery over what would normally be instinctual behavior.

Erotica is another cultural milieu to let people find connections. What are the odds that your romantic partner will find the same stimuli arousing? Granted, the various differences (ethnic, socioeconomic, gender) between romantic partners produce a pleasurable kind of friction in the bedroom – nobody wants to fuck an identical version of oneself. Also, substantial benefits result from two people in love teaching one another about the erotic arts. However, it helps to know that other people in the world have similar erotic fascinations (if only for sympathy and support). Fidelity is not a monolithic concept; it does not necessarily imply the need for monogamy. Monogamy is a valid solution for describing the rules of marriage, but it is not the solution. We cannot assume that it is the best solution for all people all the time; we just do not know. Vassi and other authors tried to reconcile erotic adventurism with ethics and even spirituality. It is not an easy task; if anything, adventurism exposes people to emotional and even physical risks. But we can still remain monogamous and find private satisfaction from the erotic fantasies of others. One common rationalization of erotic fantasies is that it enriches a couple's sex life. Possibly. But is that the only way to justify erotica? Isn't it more important that you use other people's fantasies to expand your own capacity for pleasure? If the individual's erotic self can be sustained by sexual fantasies of others, doesn't the romantic partner gain substantial (but indirect) benefits as well?

(But alas, a couple must not lie – or at least they must define what things should never be lied about).

Finally there is the question of erotic solitude. Just being married and having a reasonably normal sex life doesn't prevent you from experiencing the solitude of unrealized desires. Solitude is inherent in any relationship (a person once wrote that the key to relationships was accepting your partner's need for solitude). Being married won't completely eliminate that solitude (although it is certainly less lonely than not being married). Marriage is the best way to fulfill this need for companionship. But first, we are individuals with needs and frustrations which no marriage will ever fully address. Sharing the erotic thrills from a stranger's fantasies not only kindles fresh desire; it reminds you that a lonely desire can awaken hungers from people all over the world.

Written June 2009

See also: Pleasure Manifesto by Hapax Legomenon and Pornographic Imagination by Susan Sontag (found in her book Styles of a Radical Will), Differences between the Sexual Fantasies of Men and Women by Robert W. Birch, and an Interview on Sexual Fantasy with Two Philosophy Experts . See also this collection of essays about the meaning and importance of sexual fantasies in healthy people

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As I peeked at this lovely girl asleep in her nightgown on the opposite bunk, I dreamed about her dreams.
Alexandre Jacques Chantron (1842-1918)
Alexandre Jacques Chantron (1842-1918) Danae on Chair
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