Thursday, August 12, 2010

How far is too far?

by Cara McKenna

Contest alert! On Sunday at 8pm EST I'll pick a favorite commenter (insight is more valuable to me than flattery, so no gushing required, thanks) to win their choice of any of my currently available e-book titles.

Now on to the post…

Erotica writers know the genre's official boundaries as a matter of business. Readers know them implicitly, and they know that when they read a story that steps over the line, they set it down and walk away, maybe never finish it, or maybe even make a bee-line to their computer to hammer out an angry review.

If you're curious, the official rules are: no pedophilia, rape, incest, bestiality, snuff, or playing with anything that belongs in the toilet. That still leaves a lot of room to experiment, though… To quote my fabulous Ellora's Cave* editor, Jaynie Ritchie:

"How far is too far? Well, I don't see the boundaries ever being pushed to include kids, dead people or furry little animals. I think the key word in erotica is consensual. If everyone involved is happy with what's happening, then pretty much anything goes.

"That said, we still don't want anything that's verging on porn. The emotion has to be there, the connection with the characters and how they're feeling about themselves, each other, and what they're doing together."

Well said. She even went on to name-drop my titles, which is a handy segue into what I wanted to talk about this week:

"I love finding new authors who push boundaries and readers only need look at your latest works to see just how outside the box we're willing to go. Ruin Me and Willing Victim are both examples of boundary pushers."

I promise I'm not really trying to flog my own books—reader reaction, not reader enticement, is on my mind this week, and I can only speak to my own experiences. And because only my mom would want to read solely about my experiences, please comment, comment, comment!

As I've said before on a couple of occasions, the thing I love most about writing erotica is the genre's flexibility and freedom. I'm pleased to be writing romance now as well, but I can't imagine ever quitting erotica…its comparable lack of conventions (and I can speak only for contemporary, non-paranormals here) is way too much fun to give up. It's also a very honest genre. You strip intimate relationships down to their sexual bones and there's not much room for the polite and the respectable, the pretty.

This genre has allowed me to write about things romance won't, such as the existence of—GASP!—sexual desire for people outside of one's two-person relationship. I'm not saying we should act on it like Robin, the woefully flawed protagonist from Ruin Me, but come on. [liberal rant alert] Monogamy doesn't equal the end of attraction. Monogamy is the decision to forgo having sex with people who aren't your partner, not ceasing to want to have sex with people who aren't your partner. For as long as we've all been spouses and partners, we've been mammals for far longer. The mainstream romance crowd isn't so keen to broadcast that biological newsflash, and frankly, neither are plenty of erotic romance writers, readers, and publishers. Before it came out, I worried Ruin Me would incite some major reader vitriol, and that Robin would be too flawed to be relatable. But oddly enough, I haven't come across any reader comments or book reviews that condemned the story because of Robin's murky fidelity—plenty of people disliked it for other reasons, but not for the ones I'd anticipated.

I had a new release come out last weekend, one that took a lot longer to go from submission to sale than any other I've written for Ellora's Cave. I didn't actually question whether Willing Victim was going too far when I wrote it…that may be a testament to my exceedingly liberal brain space. It wasn't until Jaynie came back to me and said, to paraphrase, "I like this a lot, but because of the subject matter I need to get a second opinion before I can make an offer." The controversial aspect of the story is that it contains a heck of a lot of rape role-playing. Ooh, even I just flinched at the R word, and I wrote it.

Now in my head, rape role-play is so far from actual rape they're barely related. Actual rape is about abuse and hurt and humiliation, or the selfish, sociopathic satisfaction of the abuser's desires. Two people admitting they share a sexual kink linked to the power dynamics and the taboo nature of that crime…so not the same thing. Like bondage, if done right [and I don't actually indulge in either, in case you were curious…my characters are far kinkier than I'll ever care to be] it's still about control and power, but underneath, the structure that allows people to indulge in those kinks in a healthy way is built on trust, respect, and good old-fashioned curiosity. I could go on, but tons of far more qualified people than I have surely written more thoughtfully on the topic already.

What I'm getting at is that rape role-play is fairly common, as kinks go. The majority of people who are into it aren't wannabe rapists or rapists-in-training, or mental cases who think they deserve to be assaulted. I knew this when I wrote the story, but as always I forgot that not everyone shares my opinions. So my editor Jaynie asked my editor-in-chief, Kelli Collins, to read the story before Ellora's Cave could say yea or nay. Luckily for me, Kelli is progressive and open-minded, and not looking to play things safe. She announced she loved the story as well and I happily accepted a contract.

As my release day neared, I fluctuated between two frames of mind. On the one hand, I'd come to realize my story was controversial, even by mainstream erotica standards… The sex scenes are gritty and extensive. Also, the so-called hero, Flynn, isn't outwardly kind or cuddly, and I worried readers might add those facts to his kink and find him unlikeable or unworthy of the heroine's attraction and trust…or perhaps they'd find Laurel reprehensible for falling for such a jerk. Also, part of me was nervous for the book to come out, knowing I could be in for a glut of angry e-mails suggesting I was condoning or fetishizing one of the most heinous crimes there is. On the other hand, because the book was somewhat controversial, I figured it'd be easier to take the criticism. I expected some people to hate it based on the premise, so I wouldn't be in for a rude awakening if it got mercilessly slammed.

But weirdly, as of the day I'm writing this post, responses have be astoundingly positive. Our readers are tough as nails! You can check out the comments thus far from readers here—just scroll down to the ratings. There's hardly any mention of the story's contentious kink, in fact. And trust me, I didn't go light on the role-playing—Flynn is an unapologetic alpha brute who makes long-suffering Shane from Shivaree look like a librarian. Willing Victim is a truly filthy book. Which, I'll remind any semantically sensitive old-skoolers who may be reading, I mean purely as a good thing.

Now this is no market study by any stretch of the imagination, but what do results like this mean for the genre? I think it means our readers are curious and open-minded, and not as delicate as we fear. At least not the ones who read that advisory and still hit Buy.

So, our readers seem willing to go there…but where exactly is "there"? I asked EC editor-in-chief Kelli Collins her personal opinions about "how far is too far?" for erotica. Here's what she had to say:

"I can't speak to the industry at large [but] in regards to EC, I can attest to the obvious: The more risqué we become, the faster readers become jaded (the kinky devils). Eight years ago, anal sex was taboo. A couple years later it was rare to find a book without it. Five years ago, male/male was taboo. That trend exploded like few I've seen. BDSM, Capture, etc., these and more have experienced erotic Renaissances of sorts and found their place with readers. Now I'm seeing more female/female.

"I constantly wonder how far EC's readers will go; when we'll reach the limit of what they might accept. We have our taboo topics that will never be allowed, but they're relatively few and, beyond them, the sky's the limit.

"The need to push readers' boundaries and discover what they will and won't accept are the very things behind our 2010 Merry Kinkmas series, the sexual aspects of which will revolve around a specific fetish or kink. We're getting some interesting synopses for those, to say the least. Some already tame by EC standards; some beyond what I'd expected (read: day-um). No idea what reader response will be, good or bad…but it'll be fun finding out."

To word it my own way, I think there's room in erotica for extreme kink and a representation of the "uglier" sides of human sexuality. As long as there are writers brave enough to push the boundaries. I'm not suggesting I'm especially brave—I just tend to not think about the consequences of things before I sit down and write, hence all my flawed characters with their infidelity and obsession and rape fantasies. I like writing about the so-called ugly…though I pay for it sometimes with reader responses to my not-always-butterflies-and-rainbows semi-happy endings. But seriously—to everyone who hated the ending to Shivaree, did you not notice how frigging codependent Shane and Gabriel are? I stand by Natalie's decision. Ah, another digression. It must be Cara's day to blog. Oh and oddly enough, though Willing Victim is my so-called grittiest erotica to date, I suspect it's also the most romantic, something I didn't plan when I began writing what I thought would be a vignette about sexual exploration and submission. I'm not sure how it would have been received if I hadn't subconsciously balanced out the rough sex with a strangely tender romance. I think I got very lucky that Flynn and Laurel grew to care about each other the way they did, otherwise readers may have set the story down feeling unsettled and cold.

So, now to questions!

Readers: leaving aside the verboten subjects (bestiality, pedophilia, etc.), where is your personal boundary for where you're willing to let an author take you? Does the quality of the writing factor—i.e., would you read a story that goes beyond your normal comfort zone because an author who you already trust wrote it? What kinks would you like to see explored more in mainstream erotica? Do you think that the further publishers go, the quicker readers will become desensitized and bored with the genre?

Writers: have you written an edgy erotica, and if so, how was it received? Did the reader reaction surprise you? Is there a topic you're curious about exploring in a story, but you're hesitating due to its contentious nature? Have you submitted a story that got rejected because it went "too far"? Do you worry about what will happen to our genre if the lines continue to blur and boundaries to be pushed?

I'm utterly fascinated by this topic, so please, tell me what you think.

*Please note that the quotes from Jaynie and Kelli reflect their personal views, and not necessarily the views of Ellora's Cave / Jasmine Jade Publishing. Big thanks to you both for contributing your editorial two cents!


Fallon said...

What a great topic. I actually have a story I'm working on now that pushes some boundaries and I'm not sure how it will be received by publishers or readers. Uncertainty aside, I've decided to go with it and forge ahead. You never know until you try, right?

It's wonderful to have authors, such as yourself, unafraid to push limits and pave the way for others who like to think outside the box. I'm really looking forward to reading Willing Victim.

Kim Knox said...

Great post, Cara

My reading is mixed up with my writing, so the answer from both sides is almost the same.

As Kelli said about anal sex, a few years back, I remember being surprised to by an anal sex scene in a short story. It appeared out of the blue. Now, I'll read and not blink at the inclusion of one. I'm often surprised now when there *isn't* one ;-)

Where a trusted author goes, I'll follow and my expectations can be pushed, and I'll want more of what I like. Sometimes I want the same thing over and over, but even then it will eventually need a new edge to keep my interest.

As a writer, it's the same thing. You can become jaded and have to push to explore new and interesting situations, and that can bring mixed reactions.

I've written an almost non-consensual story in Ruthless Beauty. The hero is unapologetic about his history and that's brought him some dislike. I've also written an Exotika involving invisible space demons --which has been really well received lol-- and another story with sentient vines.

In the end, I'm not exactly sure I count as edgy, but I think I'm ticking the 'strange and unusual' box. :D

Minx Malone said...

I'm so NOT edgy that it's almost comical but I'll read almost anything. As long as there's no actual harm involved (even consensual harm) then I'll probably be cool with reading it.

Writing it is another story because I feel like I'm just WAY over my head :)


Cara McKenna said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Fallon and Kim.

Reading your comments reminded me of another thing writers are wise to bear in mind when penning edgy erotica: write what you yourself find sexy and are comfortable writing. Readers can sense when sensuality is forced. I myself suspect I've read a few stories with sex acts tossed in solely because they're trendy or kinky (i.e. anal or bondage or a three-way), and as readers we can absolutely sense when the author wasn't comfortable with the action. You get that vague, icky feeling and the sexiness goes right out of the scene.

I've written acts I'm not comfortable with, too, but in those scenes I let my heroine or hero feel creeped out as well… That happens several times to poor Shane in Backwoods, the m/m prequel to Shivaree. He's outside his comfort zone for most of that story in fact, but that's basically the premise of the book.

In real life, not everything one tries in the bedroom is fireworks, and in my humble opinion it doesn't kill the mood to let your characters experience cringe-worthy moments. That's the real human experience—realer than X pages of mind-bendingly perfect and choreographed sex acts. I mean, if we wanted the latter we'd all be reading porn, not erotica.

Cara McKenna said...

Oops, Minx's response wasn't up before I posted that last comment—exactly what I was trying to get at, Minx, and said far more concisely!

Wynter Daniels said...

The more I write in the genre, the more I push my own boundaries. That said, though, I find it very tough to write sex scenes that are beyond what turns me on. I'm working on that, though. Just as writers can easily describe places they haven't done or things they never would, I am trying to push my own boundaries and write what I think readers will find hot.

Katie Reus said...

Being honest, rape is a hot button of mine but I think I’m going to try Willing Victim only because it’s all role-play. I guess the main thing that would turn me off would be lack of emotion, regardless of genre or plot. I recently read a book by a normally ‘go-to’ author of mine and it was all sex with very little emotion. Like she was trying to pump the story out and didn’t care about the plot or characters. Basically, it was like reading porn. I won’t be picking her up again for a long time to come. As a reader I’m also not into group sex scenes because I don’t find the emotional connection is there, but that could just be my reading experiences. Overall, there’s not a lot I won’t try, just give me the emotion!

Cara McKenna said...

Writers: what are your personal blocks when it comes to writing erotica—acts or elements that you just don't get? They don't have to be logical or even particularly scandalous…just things that rub you the wrong way.

For example, I know that tons of writers (and readers) can't stand the heroine calling the hero "Daddy" in bed. For a more arbitrary and innocuous example, I never dress my heroines in thongs. I'm not entirely sure why…I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with them, but it makes my nose wrinkle. I also get skeeved by male on female anal sex…though not m/m. No clue what's up with that. I must have some kind of female butt hang-up.

Anyone else? What pushes your Insta-Skeeve button?

Cara McKenna said...

Actually, I'm not sure why I addressed that last comment specifically to writers. Readers, too—what are your ick-factor triggers?

tiffany said...

As a reader (because I'm SO not an author), my main focus is on the protagonists and their relationship. If the bedroom (uh, sometimes kitchen, hallway, backseat, outdoor) love scenes are true to the characters, their relationship, and are consensual then *I* may feel "squicky" reading certain kink (at least at first). But if it's true to *their* relationship and advances it, then it can only add to the story. And I don't feel "squicky" on their behalf. (Does that even make sense?)

The BEST erotica stories I've read (as with most books) leave me lingering for more of Him and Her and not the sex. In fact for REALLY good books, I rarely remember the sex. I just remember the relationship.

"Willing Victim" is that way for me. The rape role-play just seemed like intense domination during those scenes and completely true to Flynn's character. Thus acceptable to me. Had it been out of left field and just a gratuitous sex scene then it would've been a huge turn-off. But because his character had been fleshed out, for me, I could accept it without blinking an eye. (And this is from someone who's dealt with the "R-word" in my own life.)

I like stories where the sex advances the plot (sadly, not enough of this) so I get to a place where I care for the characters and hopefully, relate to them on some level. AND I need a HEA or at least a hint of a HEA. There's too much UNhappy in the world. I read romance/erotica to escape from it temporarily.

Sorry for the ramble...

Kaylea Cross said...

As I reader I will absolutely read something outside my comfort zone if it's an author I like. If it's well written and the characters' emotions are portrayed well, and there's some level of romance/tenderness involved, I'm totally hooked. It all depends on how it's presented, in my opinion. One author might be able to sell me on something that another can't, simply because of the way they told the story.

Brenda Williamson said...

I'll probably always remain behind in "pushing it" because I write what interests me. Pushing it means I have to think outside my pleasure zone.

If I push it anywhere, it's with male sexual dominance. I enjoy stories where the female is aggressively pursued and without much control... ie tied-up to the kitchen cabinets, in the dark, with a stranger (A Wicked Wolf, Red Sage Nov.2010).

However, while the situation may sound geared toward kink, the sex can often be sexy sweet, without going anal. Not to say I've not gone there too. :-)

Too far is when the sex just doesn't fit the story plot. Otherwise, I'm open to see just about anything, well of course except for the standard taboos.


Michelle Polaris said...

I'll chime in and say along with most others that it's the emotional connection between the characters that matter much more to me than the actual choice of sexual activity. I have very few limits about what I will read or write. Writing almost exclusively kink, it's a natural for me. It is harder to write what is not naturally sexy to me personally, but I've found even that difficulty can be overcome when I've invested in the emotional link between the characters.

My understanding is that in real life kink, for instance, tastes can sometimes expand with exposure. So it makes sense that readers have expanded their interests and tolerance for a variety of out of the mainstream vanilla topics.

Great topic Cara.

Cara McKenna said...

Ooh, thanks, Michelle—I was hoping you'd chime in. For those who haven't read Bound Odyssey, this girl knows her kinks!

Cara McKenna said...

That is to say, her characters' kinks! Didn't mean to start rumors about Michelle's own personal life.

Minx Malone said...

This is a great topic. I def don't like the "daddy" thing for whatever reason. I can't think of any other "ick" triggers though. As mentioned, if the emotion is there I can follow a book almost anywhere.

Dalton Diaz said...

Wow, fabulous topic indeed!

I definitely have my opinions, and as a reader, a book where the heroine calls the hero "Daddy" in bed is an instant wallbanger. Sorry, but that's such a turnoff I can't get past it.

I don't have a lot of limits for my characters, but they do have to fit their personalities and the moment. Case in point: Illegal Moves does contain m/m analingus, and I was worried how that would be received. (My writing partner, Samantha Cayto, had no such worries!) Not only was it well received, I brought it up in a focus group at Romanticon last year and was met with a hearty yes!

Role playing a rape scene is consensual, and it is not rape. Period. Tiffany put it very well. 'Nuff said, except *HUGS* to Tiffany. I'm so sorry you've had to deal with the real R in your life.

Cara McKenna said...

Checking in while dinner's cooking—wanted to say I'm loving all the observations and opinions and insights on this gnarly topic—thanks to everyone who's put in their two cents so far!

And kudos as always just for managing to slog through another of my infamously long-winded posts. That's a kink in itself!

Jina Bacarr said...

I really enjoyed this fabulous conversation, Cara--you did a super job putting all this together.

I have m/m in my Blonde Samurai novel set in Japan in 1874-76. It was very much a part of the samurai culture for the lord to have sex with his squire, though it was also outlawed around this time in Japan by the Western powers.

I wanted to make the m/m relationship believable to a Western audience--yet also include the heroine in their antics, both on a physical and emotional level.

The sexual "tea ceremony" with the three of them exploring the way of tea while exploring each other is one of my fave scenes in the book.

Cara Bristol said...

What an interesting post. Long ago on I read a list of what readers wanted in a sex scene and one of the comments was, "no vanilla sex." I think I took that to heart!

Intimate Submission, my first erotic novella, was published last October (my second, Secret Desires this July). My husband knew I was writing a erotic romance. BEFORE he read it, he would joke, "I taught her everything she knows." AFTER he read it, he said, "I don't know where she gets that!"

My ick threshold is set pretty high. As a writer/reader I'm okay with anal sex, menage, the use of sex toys, and B & D. I think I draw the line at S & M and/or where actual injury results (even to fictional characters). I read one story where a vampire broke her consort's arm. I stopped reading the book.

Cara McKenna said...

"AFTER he read it, he said, 'I don't know where she gets that!'"

Thanks for that, Cara—nearly snorted wine all over my keyboard!

Cara McKenna said...

Time to announce the winner! The contributor of my favorite comment is…


And not just because she a) read my book and b) wrote a reader review on the site that made her my favorite person ever. Mainly her comment was my favorite because everything was just so spot-on insightful. So Tiffany, you get a free book of mine! I'm praying you haven't read Ruin Me, as of the three back titles I have available, I suspect it's got the most satisfying ending. If you've already picked it up, perhaps I can entice you into waiting for a free copy of Ready and Willing, which is coming out at the end of this month. It's got a truly sweet ending. Anyhow, I'll be in touch.

And a big thanks to everybody who came by to share their opinions!

Cara McKenna said...

Oh and Tiffany, I hope you stop in and see that you've won, because I've failed to sleuth your e-mail via Blogger! Please get in touch with me at cara [at] caramckenna [dotcom] so I can hook you up with a book. Thanks!