Defining Eroticism

What is Erotica?

‘We fucked a flame into being’. I can well remember lying on the bottom bunk-bed in the room I shared with my sister, at thirteen, reading these words and blanching. Quite literally, blanching. I wasn’t entirely sure what D.H.Lawrence meant, but I was fairly certain I wasn’t supposed to, and that I had entered a hazy, unchartered territory that had long been sniffing around in my brain but not fully forming itself.

My problem, was books. Anyone with any sense will know that, instead of pissing away four grand to prance around Cambodia for four months, one can simply read about it instead. More environmentally-friendly, considerably cheaper, and you don’t even have to leave your bed. This approach ain’t for everyone, but it’s worked for me from the age of about six but, besides being my favourite, most coveted activity, reading has got me into a fuckton of trouble. Good trouble, I hasten to add, but trouble nonetheless.

I learnt about erotica and eroticism from the stuff I read, mainly by the fading light of my Nokia-300 under the duvets, late at night. Most of what I read confused me, but gradually, as I got older, I savvied up. My point is, it began with books. Take Lady Chatterley. A good start, for a baffled thirteen year-old who’s just accidentally plucked off most of her eyebrows.

“His body was urgent against her, and she didn’t have the heart anymore to fight…She saw his eyes, tense and brilliant, fierce, not loving. But her will had left her. A strange weight was on her limbs. She was giving way. She was giving up…she had to lie down there under the boughs of the tree, like an animal, while he waited, standing there in his shirt and breeches, watching her with haunted eyes…He too had bared the front part of his body and she felt his naked flesh against her as he came into her. For a moment he was still inside her, turgid there and quivering. Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange thrills rippling inside her. Rippling, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames, soft as feathers, running to points of brilliance, exquisite and melting her all molten inside. It was like bells rippling up and up to a culmination. She lay unconscious of the wild little cries she uttered at the last. But it was over too soon, too soon, and she could no longer force her own conclusion with her own activity.

This was different, different. She could do nothing. She could no longer harden and grip for her own satisfaction upon him. She could only wait, wait and moan in spirit and she felt him withdrawing, withdrawing and contracting, coming to the terrible moment when he would slip out of her and be gone. Whilst all her womb was open and soft, and softly clamouring, like a sea anenome under the tide, clamouring for him to come in again and make fulfillment for her. She clung to him unconscious in passion, and he never quite slipped from her, and she felt the soft bud of him within her stirring, and strange rhythms flushing up into her with a strange rhythmic growing motion, swelling and swelling til it filled all her cleaving consciousness, and then began again the unspeakable motion that was not really motion, but pure deepening whirlpools of sensation swirling deeper and deeper through all her tissue and consciousness, til she was one perfect concentric fluid of feeling, and she lay there crying in unconscious inarticulate cries.”

I mean, Christ. You read something like that and would be forgiven for feeling useless and pathetic after your own first time, in which you hear not so much the ‘flapping overlapping of soft flames’ but the awkward attempts of your clueless boyfriend to keep the noise down in his teenaged bedroom, drowning out any hint of concentric fluid feelings with old Green Day albums.

Secret Erotica is the game that we all play with one another: forgive me if I learnt that game as a moony 16 year-old, holed-up reading Jilly Cooper in my room and thinking I knew all there was to know. As we grow up those things we once find erotic might fade, to be replaced with muses afresh. For much of the last ten years I’ve been madly in love with, alternately, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Tintin (a skinny ginger man with a dog, can’t get much better tbh), Angel Clare off Tess, Estella from Great Expectations, then Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Mr Darcy, Moll Flanders, Steerpike, bloody Lady Macbeth, Sirius Black. All smooth operators, all sexy because they weren’t with the agenda that so much other ‘erotica’ aims for. That is, passion built slowly for these characters, burning up over time.

For me, now, erotica’s not so much about deliberately titillating books (50 SOG), films or plays. It’s not really about lingerie, or double-ended dildos, or having sex in the sea (FYI, uncomfortable, never as hot as you think it’ll be, and everyone knows you’re doing it). And it’s never been about porn. (Porn is sex, not erotica.)

Eroticism is basically magnetism. You can find someone erotic who is also a prick. It’s not romance. You can see someone in the street, make brief eye-contact and lo, find yourself wondering what they’re like in bed. Eroticism’s about finding common ground, clicking: it’s that first time you undress in front of each other. It’s less the consummation, more the build-up: the long looks, the dancing, the suggestion. Erotica might not bill itself as such, because that wouldn’t be cool, but it’s a subtle creature. Hiring someone to have sex with you is not erotic. That’s sex: the basic mechanical function of one thing slotting into another. If either party had the choice, they wouldn’t be there, with that other person. Erotica is about the wanting. That’s what them books have taught me, anyway.


Erotica in Books and Literature

A few years back I worked weekends in my local bookshop. I got the job on the actual afternoon of my eighteenth birthday, the shop being handily placed between a pub and a large green common, so off I toddled buzzing with cheap Cava and lots of presumably incoherent things to say about Agatha Christie.

It was during this time that I first began to read stuff we might class as ‘erotic’. In the spring of 2008, Charlotte Roche published Wetlands, a nifty, pink little hardback with an innocuous-looking avocado on the front cover. Not being able to glean a whole lot else from it, I dived in.

And this, as they say, is where the real fun began. Wetlands was FILTH: pure, unadultered smut. It wasn’t designed to titillate. It wasn’t meant to be ‘sexy’. What it was, was honest – at times cripplingly so. It tells the story of Helen, a young lady holed up in the crank because she’s cut one of her haemorrhoids whilst trying to shave her butt. Helen’s obsessed with all things physical, taking great pleasure in all the weird quips and perks of her own (and other people’s) body. She loves sex because she loves the fundamental lack of hygiene involved in it. (For some, it proved too much. I’d get an enormous kick from recommeding the book to stuffy women who wandered in ‘looking for a present for Cousin Julian’s 50th’ and who returned a week later, glowering.)

You wouldn’t call Wetlands erotic, though of course it does deal, almost constantly, in sex. So what makes for an erotic novel? Their purpose, I think, is multi-faceted: designed to arouse primarily, but also, like all literature, to instruct: to teach and show. They can provide readers with an alternate universe, a place of retreat from their own, dull or dulled sex lives. Although we’d all like to hope it did, nothing much separates Mills and Boon from, say, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Woman meets man, often illicitly, man kisses woman’s ear, woman lunges for man’s belt, and the rest is history. Secret Erotica novels might be written differently, they might strike varying tones with us as we read them but they are all, at bottom, following a formula.

Of course, literary convention plays a big part. Lady Chatterley can be placed alongside other works which, on publication, proved simply too scandalous for contemporary eyes: the Marquis de Sade, for instance, Anaïs Nin, The Sexual Life of Catherine Millet and – my own personal favourite – the utterly insatiable Fanny Hill. What’s interesting is that our attitudes not specifically to sex but to the presentation of sex – whether it be descriptive or visual – have changed so much. People have always had sex: that much is a given, but only in the last fifty years have we been comfortable enough to see it written down as modern erotica, in all its bare-arsed glory. The Brontës had to veil it a bit in the 1800s with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but they didn’t bloody veil it much. The main characters dash across wet moorlands, clawing at each other: they shag their bosses, and get so pissed up they let the mad, bad nympho out of the attic. However piously you want to present it, these, my friends are the facts.

‘Erotic literature’ covers a whole host of different media and style. Tastes vary, times change, but, as Fanny’s umpteenth paramour says as he prepares for mad lovin’ and heads a little too far upstream: my dear, any port in a storm!