Writing Sex as a Revolutionary Act
By Allison Moon
When I was first seeking an agent for my debut novel Lunatic Fringe, I ran into the usual snags. My book is a love story, but it isn’t a straight-forward formula romance. It’s about werewolves, which makes it paranormal but it isn’t YA or urban fantasy. There’s graphic sex, but it’s also not what the book is “about” so it’s not erotica either. And of course, the story is a lesbian one, which meant any hope of mainstream appeal was pretty stark.
The refrain I got from agents and publishers was the oft-cited “Your story just isn’t marketable.” In other words, they didn’t know how to sell it to mainstream America. That didn’t bother me, because I didn’t write Lunatic Fringe for mainstream America. I wrote Lunatic Fringe to tell a story that felt true, particularly for queer women. While I’m thrilled when non-queers or non-women read it, my intent was really to serve what I consider to be a wildly under-served community of readers.
Once my book was out in the world, I faced another form of discrimination, this time far less subtle than simple market trends. I began pitching my book for book blogger reviews. On a couple of websites, in no uncertain terms, I read that MM (Male/Male), MF (Male/Female), MFM, and BDSM were all great and encouraged. However, they refused any lesbian stories, full stop. On one site, in huge red letters, it said NO FF STORIES! WE WILL NOT READ THEM. Bondage, shapeshifters, and rape were all fine though, just no girls in love. Another said that they wouldn’t review FF stories unless the “sex part was short and could be skipped.”
As a writer who worked for years to craft my book, the idea that someone would review my book only if they could “skip” the less-savory aspects infuriated me. While I live my life quite transparently, and am safe to do so for the most part, because I’m privileged to live among a strong queer community in the Bay Area, notes like that remind me of how revolutionary it can be to write true love stories that defy the heteronormative script.
If the difference between pornography and art is intent, the same metric can apply to literature. Erotica is designed to titillate, and all the racy combinations of genders and bodies and scenarios are supposed to be hot hot hot, or at least sexy sweet. Good erotica can convey other emotions through sex (fear, jealousy, hatred, sadness, etc) but the intent remains to make the reader juicy. This tends to make even closed-minded readers somewhat accepting of non-normative expressions of sexuality, as long as the primary directive of titillation is achieved. Look, for instance, at Laurel K. Hamilton’s books. Her readership is huge, and much of the books are about the main character sleeping her way through every demon and paranormal creature in hell, in all sorts of configurations. This sex is the point of the books, and the protagonist “has” to have this kind of sex to “save the world.” Thus the protagonist is either coerced or doing her duty to the planet. This can be great fun, no doubt. But if you’d ask many of these same readers to support actual LGBT rights in the real world, it would be a non-starter.
Why is it that a creepy crawly ménage-a-demon is alright but a lesbian or gender non-normative love story isn’t? Two men having sex in a book for the titillation of the straight female reader is exotification and objectification. Erotica is, as they say, porn for straight women. But two men having sex because they love one another and are committed to their shared life behind closed doors- well that’s just gross. Right?
In Lunatic Fringe, the sex is strongly informed by the characters and their journeys. It is a representation not only of their love, but their arcs, their fears, and their excitements at the beginning of new things. The sex deepens the characterization and propels the plot. It is not incidental or “skippable” by any means. Just like with me, as a proud queer, my family, friends and neighbors can’t ignore the fact I take people of different genders to my bed, often more than one at a time. They can’t tell me that I should be perfectly happy with a civil union and I should just find a nice boss so I won’t have to worry about getting fired. In the real world, people don’t get to “skip” the parts of me they find distasteful. They don’t get to say “as long you’re not in my face about your gender or queerness, then fine.” That’s not how my world works. Our gender and sexual identities are inextricably linked to our complete identities. You don’t get to cherry pick what you can handle and what you can’t.
Sex is not incidental. You don’t get to ignore it, because sex is what makes us who we are. It’s how we interface with the world, it’s how we build communities. It’s how we decide who we are and what we can be.
Thus, non-normative sex scenes with an emotional core are essential. People read to open their minds to other ways of living. Part of that is to share the emotional core of sexuality of both the characters and the readers. When an author uses euphemisms or “cuts away” when things start getting sweaty, they are implicitly telling the readers that the sex is less than, “too much”, or inessential. Of course I’m not suggesting that all books have lesbian orgies in them (if only. . .), but as writers we should always strive to reach the core truths. Part of this is treating sexuality not like a sideshow or merely something to make our undies bunch, but as vital and inextricably linked to our personhood. In my world, this means being honest about what the sex looks like, why your characters are doing it, and how it makes them feel. If we want to change the way people perceive non-normative sexuality and gender identity, it’s up to writers to be honest about it, not hide it or skirt it. I believe that artists have the power to shape the world as we tell the stories that become part of our culture. Our sexuality must be part of those stories if we wish for the respect and equality we deserve.
A huge thanks to Allison for stopping by today! I'll be giving Lunatic Fringe a review next month but, in the meantime, here's a sneak peek at what the book's all about:
Lunatic Fringe by Allison Moon:
New author Allison Moon indulges the feminine wild by giving the classic werewolf myth a feminist lesbian twist. Lexie Clarion is nervous about college. She's plagued with beastly visions, local werewolf attacks are on the rise, and she really wants to kiss a girl. And classes haven't even started yet.
Things start looking up when she meets the Pack, a group of radical women who have their own methods for handling the werewolf menace. Fascinated by their politics, intimacy, and general bad-assery, Lexie's sure she wants to join them, until an accident brings a captivating stranger into her life: Archer, a rugged woman with heterochromatic eyes and a dark secret.
The Pack will go to brutal lengths to win Lexie's favor, but they underestimate Archer's love. As Archer and the Pack battle for Lexie's allegiance, the waxing moon illuminates old hatreds, new enemies, and a secret from Lexie's childhood that will change her life forever.