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On yet more sex shame

A couple of weeks ago Geraldine O’Hara wrote a warm, personal article about what life was like for her as an erotica author. Initially I leapt with delight at someone being so open about their writing, but my delight quickly turned to frustration and disappointment when I read on – it seems that even as she works hard to cater to her reader’s passions, she’s squeamish and pretty judgmental about them.

In the Telegraph article, Geraldine takes pains to explain to us that she doesn’t do ‘the things in [her] books’, and that she’s not a ‘sex maniac’ – the unspoken implication being, of course, that her readers are. Her worry is understandable: despite the explosion of erotic writing, many of us are still either giggling in a corner about sex or condemning it as something corrupting and vile. But how depressing when even those who produce porn feel compelled to protest: “Oh, I write it, of course. But I’d never think about doing it.”

It’s good to talk

I write filth, and the thing I enjoy most about writing is that I know I’m describing things that people actually do, and thoroughly enjoy. They email me their stories, and comment to say “oh God I did this once and it was spectacular.” I know it can be spectacular because I’ve done it too.

But as much as I’d like to think everyone’s becoming more open about their sexual needs, I still get a surprising number of emails from people saying ‘thank God it’s not just me’ or ‘I like [insert deliciously hot sex act here] too – I was worried that there was something wrong with me.’ These emails usually come from women, and they always make me sad. Men are equally likely to email, but their “oh yeah I love throatfucking” is more likely to come with a “lol” than a lament about how they’re probably sick and dirty.

You’re probably normal and it’s fine

Few of the acts I talk about here are particularly unusual. Even if the majority of people don’t enjoy these things, they’re relatively common fantasies: being spanked, enjoying giving head, having sex with groups of men instead of just one at a time, that sort of thing. And yet while we’re happy to accept male sexuality as a storming force of nature (often to the detriment of men), women’s heartfelt and lust-inducing fantasies are often treated as either faintly embarrassing or downright obscene: things we can write books about but never actually admit to ourselves.

I write mostly non-fiction. That is to say that almost everything I describe actually happened. I slept with that hot stranger. I had that threesome. I went to that bondage club. I didn’t do it because I was ‘curious’ about how other people got off: I did it because I, along with thousands of other women, enjoy it. I’m not ashamed of any of the sexual things I’ve done – I’m far more ashamed of times I’ve lied to people, ignored important phone calls from friends, or said cruel things to loved ones in the heat of the moment. The sex I’ve had isn’t just a collection of sordid fumbles which I’ve later come to regret: it’s sociable, heartfelt fun with adults who I like and respect.

Evil shameful deliciously hot sex

In her article, Geraldine explains that “I don’t write erotic fiction to satisfy any urges. I write it because readers want it.” I’m sorry to have to break it to Geraldine, but urges are definitely being satisfied – those of the readers. And alienating those readers by discussing their sexual fantasies as if they’re the deviant lusts of a sex maniac shows a stunning lack of understanding about sexuality, not to mention a lack of respect for the audience.

I’m not arguing that Geraldine should have to experience all the kinds of sex she writes about – far from it. I’d no more tell her what to do in the bedroom than what not to do, and if her imagination’s good enough to float people’s boats then I wish her the best of luck. But when she explains that

“asking an erotic romance author if they do everything in their books is like asking Stephen King if he’s murdered anyone lately”

it makes me want to laugh, then cry, then cry some more, then fight a rabid dog like they do in Cujo.

Sex is not murder. Not even if it involves whips, chains and squealing. An unusual type of sex might not appeal to you personally, but to compare consensual sex between adults to murder frames people’s fantasies as devious and evil, and makes me think that the author has fundamentally misunderstood that sex is a good thing. A more accurate comparison, surely, would be:

“asking an erotic romance author if they do everything in their books is like asking a romance author if they’ve ever been in love.”

Look: we’re all adults. We know that across the spectrum of adult humanity there is a veritable rainbow of sexual tastes and desires. There are those who would frown upon BDSM, pornography, threesomes, or anything that came with even a whiff of the sexually unusual, and they are well within their rights to do so. But for someone who creates porn – who actually makes money from the people whose fantasies she portrays – to compare those fantasies to an act of calculated evil? That’s just perverted.

Telling us we’re unhealthy is unhealthy

This sex shame is damaging and unnecessary: it leads to people (and women in particular) feeling like they should suppress their genuine desires for fear of looking deviant or freakish. In turn, the fact that there are few women publicly willing to admit to ‘this sort of thing’ means that younger women are more likely to feel guilty about their own (perfectly healthy) fantasies and desires.

It leads to the double-standards we apply to women and men (when was the last time you heard a male pornographer declare that of course he wouldn’t watch his own material?). And, of course, it creates an odd dilemma for people like me: unashamed to write about sex but preferring to write under a pseudonym lest future employers are horrified to find I’m not a sexless work-robot. It leads to those awful articles in magazines in which self-appointed ‘experts’ explain to strangers exactly how to please your lover in bed, because you’re scared to ask for what you actually want in case you’re branded a pervert. Above all, it leads to a hell of a lot of bad sex.

It’s not fair to lay all of this at Geraldine O’Hara’s door – it’s not her fault that we, as a society, are weird about sex. But as someone who writes about sex, and makes money from catering to people’s sexual fantasies, it would be helpful if she remembered that these are actually real desires – these fantasies take place in the heads of real people, who will (quite rightly) be offended when they’re compared to murderers. We aren’t perverts or souls to be pitied: we’re adults who are making informed choices about our sexuality. I’m not a bad girl who needs to be punished: I’m a woman who knows what I want.