I Know It When I Read It

By Alexis Duran

When I first began my foray into writing erotic fiction, I discussed the “ins-and-outs” of the biz with a writer friend of mine.  I noticed very quickly into the conversation that whereas I always used the term “erotica”, she always said “porn”.  It rankled me.  Eventually I expressed my enranklement and she explained that in her opinion erotica is just porn dressed up in a more marketable guise.

I beg to disagree.  I believe there’s a significant difference between the two genres, though there is a point at the extremes of both where they overlap.  This is not a judgment call or anything to do with morality, but simply that, as a writer, I have no interest in crafting porn, just as readers of erotica and readers of porn have different tastes and come to the page looking for different experiences.

Pornographic fiction and erotic fiction share one major thing in common: hot, graphic sex.  It’s my opinion that while in porn the sex is the reason d’etre, in erotica it is the icing on the cake, sometimes the filling as well, but never the whole cake.

Eros & Psyche by Antonio Canova

Eros & Psyche by Antonio Canova

In porn, there is a setting; a roadside bar, an office, a castle on the hill. There are characters defined by easily identifiable labels; bored housewife, rebellious biker, lonely traffic cop.  There is a very brief set-up; bored housewife stops at seedy bar and meets rebellious biker.  There is action; hot, graphic sex on a pool table.  That’s it.

Erotica has these things as well, of course, and depending on the style of the writer and the subgenre, these elements are developed and complicated to varying degrees.  In erotica, the setting becomes a more richly detailed world designed to heighten the senses and provide both opportunity and challenges.  The characters become actual people who transcend labels. They have lives beyond looking for sex. They have complications and maybe as many reasons to avoid their destined mate as to jump their bones.  There’s not only action, but plot.  Here is where things really diverge.

In porn, there’s very little resistance between contact and coitus.  Readers of porn aren’t interested in watching characters overcome obstacles to be together. As a matter of fact, I’d guess the reason they prefer porn is that they are tired of obstacles and just want to have fun. Porn is lust at first sight. Complications, if they exist, involve questions like “how many bikers will this pool table support?” not “if I have sex with this stranger, will it be the end of my marriage?”

Essentially, erotica offers two major elements  porn doesn’t: Romance and suspense.  By romance I mean a developing relationship at the core of the story.  By suspense I mean obstacles, doubts and delays that get in the way of the romance, or in other words, the grand human mess that is human intimacy.  Erotic fiction ranges from pure fantasy to gritty reality, but always, there is some element of that most delightful state of being: anticipation.  You might scoff and say there’s no suspense in romance because we know damn well who’s going to boff who.  Well, that’s just like saying there’s no suspense in your average mystery because we know the detective will solve the crime.  The suspense lies in the journey. What twists and turns shall we endure? What challenges will the lovers face? How often will their fatal flaws get in the way? Will X panic when he falls in love with Y? Will Y go back to her old boyfriend, or run away with Z?  It’s all deliciously complicated, frustrating, and if done well, arousing.

And speaking of sex.  Porn goes straight for the hot sex with a sprinkling of story on the side. In erotica, it is the story that makes the sex hot.  It hardly matters who does what with which parts, or how large or slippery those parts are. The reader has already slid beneath skin of the characters and ridden out the storm with them. The sex will be hot!

I believe we all dream of that perfect mate, that awesome, mind-blowing connection with another human being. That’s what erotica offers that porn doesn’t.  The purely realized fantasy of love achieved, love expressed in its rawest form; hot, graphic sex. Dirty sex. Kinky sex. Sad sex. Angry sex.  There is physical bliss but there is also emotion. Doubt. Fear. Longing. Rejection. Joy. Erotica removes sex from the realm of simple fantasy to that of complicated fantasy. Characters in erotica earn their orgasms, by golly.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but in this world we market and shop in, labels are important. While I will click on a book labeled erotica, I’d never click on one labeled pornography.  So maybe my friend is right? Maybe it’s all just lipstick and fishnet stockings and fooling the search engines?

Call me a romantic, but I don’t think so.

Dark Desire

By Alexis Duran


“Love is giving someone the power to destroy you but trusting them not to.” Unknown.

Sex and violence. Love and hate. Trust and fear. Protagonist and antagonist. Hero and villain. When opposites collide, sparks fly. All we have to do is look at two of the most popular TV shows of all time, Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, to see how popular those conflict-generated sparks are. There’s no arguing that these elements are intricately entwined within the human soul and so naturally, they make their way into our stories. As a writer of erotica drawn to explore the dark side of desire, I’ve occasionally questioned the value of such stories.

As early as my pre-teens, I remember flinging my sister’s Harlequin romances and “bodice-rippers” against the wall in disgust when the so-called “heroes” forced themselves on simpering heroines who then promptly fell madly in love with their abusers. Rubbish! Crap! Horror!

Imagine my embarrassment when the editor of my new novella Touch of Salar informed me that one of my sex scenes was actually a rape, and that Loose Id prefers their romantic heroes not to be rapists. Apparently no does mean no. A few subtle shifts of language and voila, acceptability is attained. But how in the world did this come about? Why did I write my characters into such a situation? Why would a writer who should know better feel compelled to send her characters into the murky realms of sexual violence?

I decided it was time to take a look at the role of villainous lovers, submissive heroes and what happens when combatants fall in lust.

Dark Fiction takes us into the breach and over the cliff on our own writer’s journey through hell and damnation. Others here on ShadowSpinners have explored the function of horror, mayhem and death in fiction (here, here and here). They found value in the impulse to endanger lives, threaten comforts, kill off gods, upend reality and kick over rocks, and so too have I found rewards in the risky behavior so often present in dark erotica.

In fiction we can safely press beyond the confines of reason, rationality, common sense, political correctness. We can send our characters back into the haunted house or into the arms of Mr. Oh-So-Wrong. What if the protagonist falls in love with the antagonist? Now there is some delicious conflict.

When I first allowed myself to write about terribly flawed characters with a penchant for dangerous partners, I discovered that the challenges of loving a villain, of forcing my characters to the edge of reason, is every bit as compelling as threatening them with death, loss, and destruction in other areas of their lives. There’s no scene quite so intimate, so revealing, as a sexual encounter that challenges everything a character believes about themselves and the other person. They know it’s “wrong” and they do it anyway. Through this self-sacrifice and self-abandonment, perhaps the hero will learn the truth and come out stronger.

And what about the villain/lover? Is she a flawed hero? A wounded aspect of the protagonist? A dangerous other who threatens to bring out the worst in everyone they encounter? The Dark Man or Dark Woman does not have to be a malevolent outside force but a catalyst, a key to unlock passions buried within, a mirror of repressed longing. The dark lover might be the one person who can help the hero experience a sexual freedom they cannot achieve themselves.

And so we conscript our characters to wrestle with deeply buried desires that can’t be acknowledged by the rational mind. There are a hundred reasons not to give in to the dark lover, but reason has little to do with the decision to risk everything. Our characters can be stupid. Our characters can be scandalous.   Our characters can embrace vulnerability and overcome fear. Usually it is society that must be defied, along with constraints of fear, shame and propriety, but often it is one’s very own demons blocking the road to liberation and any author worth her salt knows the benefits of confronting those bastards.