Saturday, March 14, 2009

"Not Even My Husband Knows!" The Secrets of Erotica Writers

Last weekend, when I was in Las Vegas at Epicon, the big annual gathering of electronic publishing professionals, I had the pleasure of meeting many others of my ilk: namely those of us who toil a good part of our lives away in solitude writing stories that we hope will entertain, inform, and provoke thoughts and emotions.

One woman I met at the Thursday night party seemed a cheerful sort. She came right up to me and began telling me about all the erotica she writes and publishes. She's quite a name among erotica e-book readers. But then she said something that surprised me: "Nobody knows I write erotica. Even my best friends and my family don't know. Not even my husband knows!" She laughed and I laughed with her, but then I was thinking, "But aren't you proud of what you do? Why would you spend all the effort and time on something that no one near and dear to you even knows you do?" I assume family and friends know at least that she's a writer and have just not delved into the subject matter of her work...or perhaps they don't know at all. Later in the conference, a male erotica writer confided that he needed to keep his identity as a writer of erotica separate from his real life because he also coached Little League baseball. He didn't think writing erotica would go over too well with the parents of the kids he coached. And I think he may have something there, though I think some of the kids might think it's way cool.

But the coach did make me begin to understand this need for anonymity the successful writer I met on Thursday felt she needed. And that was brought home to me the other day when I had lunch with a friend here in Seattle. I was telling him about Epicon and the people I'd met and happened to bring up that I'd met several people who wrote erotica.

He grinned and sort of rolled his eyes and said, "You mean porn?"

Now, this isn't the first time I have heard of erotica being equated with porn, but I did have a flash of further understanding about why someone would choose a nom de plume under which to publish their erotic writing. I don't think my friend's assertion was all that uncommon. I did try to explain that there was a difference, but found it hard to do. I think, the short answer would be that erotica uses sex as a way to bring out emotional themes and to propel a story, whereas porn is there purely for the sake of titillation. Porn does not need character development, a plot, or any commentary on the human condition. It's unfettered, one-handed reading. Nothing wrong with that, in my mind, if that's what you're in the mood for and no one's getting hurt. But all this talk at the conference about being "in the closet" as an erotica writer made me wonder how many others out there automatically think "porn" when they hear "erotica."

I am not above writing the occasional porno story. But the two book covers above, the first for Fugue and the second for MANamorphosis, demonstrate stories that are all about sex, but I don't think are porn. Fugue, in particular, is quite graphic, XXX-rated, yet I think,in the end, it's a story about power in a relationship and the varying ways we experience love...and it's themes like that, I think, that differentiate erotica from porn.

What do you think? For you, what separates erotica from porn? Really, I wanna know. Please leave me a comment below.


  1. I write under two names, mostly to not confuse. Sara York writes Erotic stories and Sara Thacker writes suspense/thriller. I love writing both types of books but not everyone would enjoy reading my Sara York books.

    I've heard of erotica called porn. Last week in fact - from a bookseller even.

  2. I fully agree, Rick. The way I've always described the difference is by saying that porn is spank material. It exists solely to get the reader off.

    Erotica uses sex to underscore some OTHER elment of the human condition. Whether it's issues of love, loneliness, control, fear, trust, or mortality, etc.

  3. Great blog, and I agree, in general. Porn (print or video) is all about the sex, and erotica is about relationships and sexual tension as well as the sex. I think the line between them is getting blurry, though. This has been especially true in the video world since women like Nina Hartley and Candida Royalle began producing flicks for women with more attention to story line.

    In the end I'm not sure it matters, as long as people know what they want and are able to select the products that meet their level of expectations.

  4. Exactly. Most erotica at least has some plot line, no matter how vague or thin. All the porn in my drawer is just sex. Which is great and has it's uses, but it's not mentally stimulating on a deeper, emotional level. Erotica is just that - it's erotic. It's topics and situations that people keep tucked away in the back of their minds, but most would probably never indulge in. It's fantasy. Whereas porn is just...well, it's just porn. Hmm... it is rather hard to explain the difference, isn't it?

    Although, I have to say, I struggled with the idea of the alternate name as well. For me, my concern was mostly about my family and the reflection that writing m/m and bi romance would have on them. I have two sons and we live in a pretty white bread town. But both of my boys said to me, "Use your own name, and we'll have a chat with anybody who doesn't like it." (Ah, youth!) Ultimately, I write under my own name because, as you said, I am quite proud of what I write. It takes a lot of effort and hard work, and I want to be able to take 100% complete, unabashed credit for it. Also, as a bisexual individual myself, the thought of being in the closet about anything anymore is just horrifying. I spent a lot of my life trying to be what other people wanted, and it was a complete waste of time and energy.

    So there. I'm here, I'm half queer, I write gay sex. Get used to it. :-)

  5. What a great message, HK! Stay proud!

  6. I think the better question is (from a societal standpoint) what doesn't separate erotica from porn? To answer that we just need to stroll down memory lane in American history.

    I blame most things on the Puritans. Why? Because their views have never left; they just changed names. The thing of it all is, as a society, we're taught from an early age that the naked human body is "sinful", embarrassing, and dirty. With these thoughts pounded into our brains, everything from nudity to sex to erotica to porn gets lumped under the same "dirty" header.

    There are major differences between erotica, art, and porn. But each is relative to the views of the viewer/reader. It varies country to country, social group to social group. In my own view, the difference boil down to intent and portrayal. A picture of a naked body or vivid description of sex in literature is only "pornographic" if its only purpose is sexual arousal. If it factors into a story or has a beauty to it that goes beyond the sheer sex aspect, then it's erotica, art, or literature. Just because someone is naked or having sex doesn't make it "porn", but to many conservative and repressed people, it does. And American society is extremely repressed.

  7. I had an extremely interesting conversation with my parents once when trying to describe the difference between erotica and porn. I haven't had the discussion yet to tell them that I write and edit queer erotica as it's so new for me but it should be interesting!

    I use a pseudonym but only to separate my editor persona from my writing persona. I have no intentions to hide one from the other and will publicly link the two together. I am extremely open about myself online and if readers find me online they will know a lot about who I am.

    To me there is a distinct difference between erotica and porn. With porn, I don't really want the men and women to talk, I don't want an attempt at plot. I just want sex ~ something to get me aroused, and more. Whether it is video or book format, I just want gritty, sticky sex. With erotica there has to be plot, character development, something to draw me into the story. Otherwise I get seriously bored. The sex is in addition to what the story is really about. Erotica is a story I can see myself still enjoying if the sex is taken out ~ but damn I enjoy it being there. :-)

  8. I used to write romantic mystery/suspense under my real name. Lots of kudos, nominations, and even a couple of 5 star reviews Now I write erotic romance under another name so as not to confuse. I know some writers have very legitimate reasons for keeping what they do under wraps, but fortunately I don't need to do that. My husband thinks what I do is great and so do my friends. I enjoy what I do, the reviews I get are mostly good and the money is better. I don't write porn I write explicit romance because there's always a hea or the promise of a hea. As for the attitude of society toward erotica and erotic romance, I believe society likes to appear repressed because they think it's the politically correct thing to do. But what they do in the privacy of their thoughts and their homes is, I suspect, a whole different story. However, if the politically correct want to call erotic romance porn, then that's what they're going to do.


  9. Anyone who writes erotica should volunteer at a shelter for sexually abused women and children. They would learn very quickly that erotica is porn and like porn it feeds and nourishes the horridly dark impulses of the men and women who use it (erotica/porn) as an excuse to inlfict their cruelty on others.

    Based on my voluteering efforts and care for those who have been victims of sexual abuse, I know that the simple truth is that erotica/porn is used for evil in the worst possible ways... and people who write it for entertainement should, at the very least, be aware that regardless of what reason they write it for, it is causing great harm... I've worked in a volunteer capacity at abuse shelters for over 20 years have yet to meet a writer/author of erotica/porn who volunteers their time to help the victims of sexual abuse... maybe it is time these writers see the other side of what their writing nourishes and wakeup to the fact that regarldess of their intent... the product of what they write is a curse to victims of sexual abuse.

  10. Anybody remember Grove Press? The Olympia Reader? Tropic of Cancer? Interesting discussion which brings out the conflicted views of most respondents. an underlying problem, I believe, are the constantly shifting definitions or boundaries in art. I use art here in its broadest meanings, to include Picasso's very explicit erotica to the "porn" movies of Vivid, to the writings cited at my beginning. We are constrained by a well-meaning but flawed set of laws, laws which are out-of-date by the time they are framed and published.

    I see really good well-written thoughtful explicitly sexual writing in which the overall emphasis is on the sex, but there is a plot. Is it porn or erotica? Does it matter?

    I see badly-written work that emphasizes very explicit acts of violence and sex and very little else. Is it porn or erotica? I see mainstream "literature" that is well-written but obscene in the most explicit sense because of the themes it espouses. The problem here is that so much of the answer(s) lies, not in the labels, but in the perception of the consumer. Some of Picasso's erotic art (and please remember that he is only a representative example) is highly emotional and evokes great praise, but not all does. The same is true of some of what I read or hear.

    I find a lot of rap to be offensive and obscene, not because of the language, but because of the ideas expressed.

    Maybe what I'm saying is that good quality creations are erotica and bad quality creations are porn. But both belong in an open society.

  11. So Elizabeth, if I'm following your argument, you would say that anyone who writes about sex in a fictional way should be silenced because any art or entertainment dealing with sexuality can lead to sexual abuse? I suppose the same logic could be applied to thrillers, suspense, and horror (just replace sex with violence). Or maybe I just don't understand your point of view. I don't know if some people are inspired to sexually abuse by porn or erotica, but I do know there are many, many people who write and read such things for their own personal enjoyment and edification, and sexual abuse is the furthest thing from their minds.

  12. Rick - I agree that what separates porn from erotica is the depth of plot and emotion. Porn has little or none.

    As for separate names, I've used one once. For my first lesbian romance. I haven't done so again. And every one knows the other name is me. It's on my website. I'm out and proud (though people are confused that I'm married to a man - hello! bi means I like both) but I perfectly understand why people use pen names. One very legitimate reason is not to confuse readers who may only like one genre or heat-level or whatever you care to call it. Those who automatically associate an author with a cozy mystery series might be very shocked to read an erotic romance by the same author.

    I've gotten a lot of comments along the lines of your coach friend though mostly they were "OMG, don't let your company know. You work in a very conservative industry and it might keep you from getting a job." And that's a very real possibility. I'd LIKE to think people know I'm professional enough to keep the writing career and the day job separate as appropriate. But I guess maybe not...

    I respect the need and the right people have to keep their identities separate and private. In a lot of ways, outing an erotica author, especially one who writes GBLT erotica, can have some of the same consequences as outing a person's sexual preference. Church groups, civic groups, friends, family, and some professions are very opposed to the genre and think authors of such are not moral persons or are at the very least somehow twisted. Ran into some of that at work this week. But it's a temp job and it wasn't from management so I basically didn't give a shit. But it's a very real prejudice and could cause real harm to someone.

    Really good post - thanks for it.

  13. Well, the difference between erotic romance and porn has pretty much been covered above and can basically be summed up with one word: plot. But, yes, many people--particularly those who are more conservatively bent--either don't understand the difference or don't want to.

    For me, my husband knows--has to. We file joint taxes and he does them. I don't know how it'd be possible to keep it from a spouse. Sadly, he doesn't think too much of it all, though, and I'll probably end up fading away from it just to keep the home-life happy. It's too bad, really, 'cause it's been a wonderful creative outlet for me--both the writing and the promotional aspect (web upkeep, blogging, getting to know some fellow writers and readers online, etc).

    No one else knows, though, and sometimes that's hard. It'd be nice to have someone to share the successes with--to say yea, look, I got a story accepted, or yea, check out this review, or OMG, I know it's just a short story in an anthology with a bunch of other people's short stories, but it's going to be in *print*!. Also it'd be nice to have someone to gripe to when things aren't going how I'd like--to say damn it, when am I going to finally *hear* something on this submittal, or WTF story did this reviewer read? Couldn't have been mine!

    Alas, my extended family are religious, conservative types and I don't want to deal with the fallout of them knowing I write erotic romance, let alone (*gasp*) m/m. They'd never understand. My kids are actually pretty liberal, and other than being shocked out of their skulls because they think I'm some kind of clueless prude, would probably think it was pretty cool. If I don't crash and burn they'll probably know eventually.

  14. Great post, Rick. I haven't written anything that could even remotely be considered erotica, but that's not to say that in the future I won't. I do find it odd that some erotica writers find it necessary to be anonymous. Of course I'm drawing a distinction between erotica and porn and I think erotica is nothing to be ashamed of. It's art, just like "Last Tango in Paris" is art.

  15. I take the "I know it when I see it" approach. I think pornography is what sends you running for a Silkwood Scrubdown after you read it, but my threshold for what sends me cringing into the shower stall isn't going to be the same as the next guy or the guy next to him.

    I completely agree with Carl's statement that both belong in an open society.

  16. Well said in your response to Elizabeth. There are, in fact, writers in our genres who contribute revenues to rape shelters and programs that help survivors of sexual abuse (of either gender).

    I had another thought after my first post earlier, where I didn't comment on not coming out under my real name as a writer of GLBT erotic romance. I celebrate that you are able to do so, and here is what I pledge - when the day comes that I make my living entirely by writing what I write, I'll be proud to come out completely.

    Two of us write together under the pen name Adriana Kraft - my husband and myself. Our kids and the parents on my side know and celebrate what we're writing. One of those kids is out in all his important communities, so much so that nearly a decade ago he was able to take his then boyfriend to their senior prom. My aunt worked for a well known institute for sexual studies. It's no accident that I've ended up doing what I do - I'm one of the "many, many people who write and read such things for their own personal enjoyment."

    Follow me at

  17. I started out writing stuff I would class closer to porn under a pseudonym, mostly so it would look like a male wrote it. Then I got published and moved more toward erotica in my short stories. I agree with you, Rick that the main difference is the lack of emotional connection. On living in the erotica closet, I 'came out' last year, first to my daughter who found one of the anthologies I was in. She flat out thinks I'm weird. My older sister and her husband not only know but he asked to read some, so I gave him two anthologies with my stories and he came back with 'not his cup of tea, but good writing' Now mind you, I don't work and my parents are gone, so I have no one to cause me real grief.

  18. I agree with your definitions of "erotica" and "porn." But here's something funny: I'd rather watch a hardcore porn flick than an erotic, soft-core flick. Weird, huh?

    I wrote my erotic romance novel using my real name but my family doesn't know. If they do, they didn't hear it from me and they haven't said anything to me about it. I don't intend to tell them, either. Many of my friends know and some of my former co-workers know. My current co-workers don't know because it is definately NOT their style. I think the Brits are more don't-ask-don't-tell in this area. However, someone at work in another department DID find my book listed on Amazon and said, "That looks raunchy." How do I know this? Because our janitor is an excellent source of gossip LOL

  19. I would say "That looks raunchy" is a great compliment! Check out Zetta's work!

  20. I'm an author of very graphic gay sex 'fan fiction', or so called 'slash', (apart from mainstream Star Trek (TNG) fan fiction) which some might not even consider 'proper' fiction or writing to begin with, in contrast to other fictional and or erotica, or indeed mainstream writing and art in general.
    But that's just as erroneous, since it's in fact sometimes much more intelligent and or interesting and indeed 'free minded’ than ‘conventional' mainstream efforts, which have the same 'plots' with or no sex included, and that more or less graphically the same, purely for the genre.
    Most are concentrating on a pairing of two (or more, gay or not) known characters to engage in (more or less consensual, affectionate etc. sex (mainly to vent their own fantasies etc. about them) and the perpetrators have to face retribution, or won’t be accepted by the wider fanbase anymore btw.) or indeed create a platform for (physical) love and affection and or expressed dreams per se through these ‘save’ characters the fan can indulge in.
    But I believe the 'mainstream' scene in contrast is bogged down even more by these ridiculously conventional ideas that erotica is mindless or violent porn etc., whereas fan fiction seems to see or tackle it differently, and comes across as more 'relaxed', written by fans for the more open 'fans' who can’t find that in the mainstream of their own culture. 'We' don't suffer the 'closet' to hide in and deny our ‘fantasies’. Or indeed the ‘gay’ factor. Like so many other writers even, thinking hetero sex is fine, or even lesbian, but when it comes to gays pull out the divine book saying how degenerate they are. How sad.
    Either genre have their artistic merits and should never be condemned and or accused of furthering rape or violence etc. - that's just another sad excuse to vilify the writers even, by distorted or small-minded views based on the same misled ideas.
    A well-written and beautiful account of sexual encounters, no matter the genre, or indeed any more in-depth and or psychological plot etc., peppered with more or less graphic sex of any orientation, is just as important than any other artistic writing or art which sends any kind of deeper message, (as in, don’t rape) and the readers enjoy someone's own ideas or ‘dreams’ etc. filled with more explicit sex or thrills than usual. Which doesn’t even mean these writers engage in any of it, but let their imagination flow freely, and seems another very dangerous misperception by some projected on the authors.
    In my case I concentrate highly on the psychological side of the plot, the characters' development and inner states and feelings, conflicts of body and soul, rather than mindless ‘three minute’ sex act and or violent outlet etc., and just pepper it with the, as I call it, 'skin journeys' between mainly two (gay) characters' united in love and affection to enjoy each other thoroughly.
    Don't forget dear reader, without any (obviously consensual) sex, you'd not even be here to read anything. Let alone erotica, or have fun in the bedroom every now and then, and that without thinking it's filthy or a sin unless it’s for procreation, just because some limiting puritan dogma said so. Wake up to the natural facts of life and enjoy yourselves. Repression is bad for your mental health.
    Anyone blaming erotica and or even more hardcore sex, horror, war etc. stories or even films for all the evils man does in this world, rather than 'ill' state of his/her mind per se caused by many ‘other’ factors long before they can read, or most likely any overly ‘puritan’ or indeed violent upbringing e.g., has lost the plot already.
    I doubt someone who rapes a child e.g., has just read some harmless erotica even condemning scum like that, and I for one will not accept to be a cause for others to commit crimes just because ‘I’ write sexy stories. That individual might be driven by such ideas gone awry, but no doubt was ill to begin with to execute such horrid act even without any secondary input like a book, or film. Don’t look for external factors ‘only’ that could trigger such crimes, but more socially based reasons, the persons’ inner mental states, which had cross-wired the moment he/she left the womb, genetically affected already no one could detect until too late. Or indeed most likely were messed up by their ‘ill’ and abusive parents to begin with, I doubt were driven by ‘erotica’ either. So no, good and seductive erotica is definitely not ‘filthy porn’. Live long and prosper!

    And if you wanna follow ME on Twitter, here's the link:

  21. Hm, what can I say that hasn't been said already? Well, I guess we'll just slap on my definition and we'll go for there, eh?

    I write under another name solely because it seemed like the natural step to becoming a writer. I'm fairly paranoid and don't always trust the internet or its users so why would I advertise myself like that? And crazy as it seems, I like pointing out my stuff to others because it's like revealing a sweet surprise.

    I'm Zoe Nichols and hey, that's my story!

    Moving past that, I'm not against writing porn. No, in fact, I think its scintillating, to be able to write something that can arouse someone and bring them to the bliss of sticky satisfaction. But I also think its a far cry from erotica because I don't think porn is erotic.

    It is in-your-face-blatant-there's-no-way-you-can't-know-what-he's-gonna-do-with-that-sex. There is no plot though there may be a threadbare "reason" for the porn to be occuring...but porn is the sex, the orgasm.

    Erotica simply isn't. It is sex, yes it very much is about the sex. But it is also about what happens before the couple falls into bed and what happens every time they get out of it. It is love, romance and the beauty of coming together with someone you can fall asleep next to afterward.

    I believe, like Jaye, that there is a place for both aspects. Because while sex isn't love, love is all the more real for that sexual connection.

    Thanks for pointing me this way, Rick :)

  22. Great blog, Rick. A good response to Elizabeth, too. I feel inclined to add that I know several authors who are, themselves, survivors of sexual abuse-- AND who write erotic romance. One of them is me, in fact. And, no, I'm not going to offer any details, but I will say it lasted for about nine years, so I think that allows me to speak on this topic with a degree of insight. IF reading porn or erotica could encourage one to be an abuser, I should think writing it would be even more damaging to the psyche. However, that isn't the case, is it? Shall we take a poll? How many of us authors of steamy fiction are sex criminals? Let's see a show of hands. (Just joking, of course! But only to make a point. I am NOT mocking the subject itself; I'd be the LAST person to do that.) Seriously, a sex abuser will abuse regardless of their reading matter; I know this from personal experience, unfortunately. Nuff said. Back to the original topic...

    Myself, I draw a distinction not only between erotica and porn, but also between erotica and erotic-romance (i.e., all erotic-romance is erotica, but not all erotica is romance). I write the latter. My erotic stories contain lots of hot action, but the main characters are always deeply in love, or on the way to becoming so-- they learn, grow, overcome obstacles, and get rewarded with a happy ending. Redemption and heroism are two of my favorite themes (also humor). The sex may be kinky but it's still *lovemaking,* and that's the bottom line for me.

    I also write non-erotic genres, but I do it ALL under one name. Fiction, nonfiction, XX-adult fare to G-rated kids', I write as Mimi Riser, which is my real name. I have no shame, LOL. As someone else said here in an earlier comment, I work too hard at my writing not to take full credit for it. ;-)

  23. Hey Rick,

    I write under a pen name because when I started writing erotica almost 10 years ago, I thought that's what I was supposed to do. Now I'm known by my pen name, so I'm sticking with it. As far as erotica or porn - I don't care what people call me. I used to care, but I don't anymore. If you want to call me a porn writer, than I'm a porn writer. If you want to call me an erotica writer, than I'm an erotica writer.

  24. Great Blog. I write erotic romance, and often wonder what all the fuss is about. I would hazard a guess that most adults have had sex, hopefully with someone they care about, so why is it such a taboo subject? I

  25. There are significant differences between erotic romance, erotica and porn.

    But the truth is that anyone who thinks all three are porn is going to think that way no matter the eloquence of your explanation to the contrary.

    In fact the argument, and the implied 'stigma' is very much in the same tone and realm as the argument of literature versus genre fiction, and e-books versus print books.

    It's not about the subject matter so much as it seems to be about the basic human need to be "better than" the next human.

    In my opinion, at any rate.

  26. Well, the erotica vs. porn question has been pretty well covered, except I would say that erotica is subtle, even when it is explicit - in the sense that it is dealing with more than just the gonads - its appeal is to all the senses and to the emotional and intellecual as well.

    But I'll share a funny story which popped into my head when I read the response to the Little League coach above. Years ago I was indicted on obscenity charges and went through a Federal trial. Now, this was all duly reported in the home town newspapers, and in the course of the trial, I knew I was going to have to go home and face the music with my family. Everyone was mostly cool, but one of my nieces, maybe 15 at the time, asked me to come to a party with her - it seems that I was a celebrity to her friends, who were thrilled with the idea that she had an uncle who wrote sexy paperbacks. Of course, to this day she remains my favorite niece. Victor

  27. A niece with good taste, is what I'd say.