How reading and writing erotica could revolutionise sexual ethics for women

As a woman, I have always found it hard to tell my partners what I want sexually. As a researcher and academic, I have always found it hard to put into concrete words what it is that science, philosophy and the law get so fundamentally wrong about women’s sexuality. Both problems, I initially thought, were mine – it was my fault for not having the words, not being good enough with words, or not making words work in the right way to communicate my desires and my knowledge about my desires. But then what was strange is that when I was writing about fictional sex in my erotic fiction, the words would flow, my whole body aroused and exhaled the creation of worlds and encounters with ease and release. What was also strange is that even big philosophical, ethical and legal questions about women’s sexuality seemed surmountable in a fictional world. There seemed to be a direct connection between writing philosophically and erotically – one seemed to feed the other. What drives my work now, and what I think is a big question for us post-#MeToo, is the potential for erotica and sex-fiction writing and reading to play a part in creating a non-fiction world, or a new sexual reality for women.

Erotica has always found a way to say the unsayable and to bring on scene the obscene. Erotica has a mysterious power, too. To see sex words written can be more powerful than seeing a pornographic image, or even feeling the erotic touch of another individual body. Erotica mobilises the collective power of the word – usually reserved for authoritative texts – and the whole of language seems to confess to you, and only you, that it has a raft of filthy desires and possibilities.

Nicholson Baker has shown us in his glorious novels The Fermata, Vox and House of Holes the ways in which language can change when the writer (and the reader) forget the rules for a moment. When I say forget the rules, I mean rules of language and expression, but also laws of physics, laws of philosophy, social rules and legal rules. Baker crafts a world for us were we can let ourselves go into a world where we fall in love with an arm and spend a night being pleasured by its expert fingers, make love to a headless man, or disappear into a straw (alone or with a partner) to emerge into a world built only for our sexual desires. The latter of course, for women, is very much wishful thinking. It is strange though, how Baker’s world might be without rules in the conventional sense, but it is not without rules. Instead, its rules are built for women’s sexuality, not to regulate, contain, punish, misunderstand, fear and harm it, but to let it be.

Women’s desire can be difficult to categorise, and we all know there is nothing wrong with women (of all kinds) and their desire in all its queerness, gayness, bi-ness and straightness. But the world and its rules have not yet adjusted. Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood (1989) completely overturned gender categories and imagined a world where bodies at not valued simply on the construction of their genitalia, while Ursula Le Guin depicted one where humans have no fixed sex, allowing us to depart from the harmful idea that sexuality can (and should) remain static. We live in a world where society and the law have begun to reflect this project through the acceptance of trans bodies. Of course, Le Guin and Butler were not erotica writers, though their stories have an intense erotic power in their ability to conjure a new and safer world for all bodies. The creation of new worlds has huge erotic power. Yet perhaps it is the lingering power of sex in words, waiting to burst into worlds, that does the creating.

Despite the problematic nature of Michel Houellebecq’s work, it is impossible to deny its attack on human regimes of philosophy and the pornographic power of his lament on philosophy’s origins in male sexuality in Possibility of an Island. It is a shame that Houellebecq fails to untie sexuality from its philosophical intimacy with death, a clear echo of Georges Bataille’s pornographic and disconcerting Story of the Eye. That after reading these works I tend to feel uncomfortable, fearful and dirty (in a bad way) is an unfortunate effect of French male philosophical perspectives. Either a new world is not imagined, or if it is, it is bleak and still not built for women’s desire.

When women write erotica, however, something different happens. The utter filth in Charlotte Roche’s arousing – and, to me, affirming – Wetlands creates a world in which being turned on by the real smells of bodies and their fluids was not a weird, gross or punishable desire to have. Anyone who has read Wetlands will not forget Roche’s musings on the smelly ‘gift that keeps on giving’ (otherwise known as sperm kept inside her vagina) while listening to her teacher’s philosophical attempts to prove the existence of god. Not only is her writing intensely arousing, but it rails fearlessly and effortlessly, fighting the authority of male white philosophy over her body and restores joy and power in women’s desire in all its filthy glory. Jenny Hval’s Paradise Rot and Emmanuelle Pagano’s Trysting take women’s – and particularly queer – desire a step further as not being restricted by the boundaries of being human, blurring the lines between types of bodies and releasing the flow of women’s desire into encounters with objects, plants and even ideas, thereby questioning the nature of the division between life and dreams.

When I write erotic fiction, I use instances from my own life and let them grow into something else by challenging my own limits, but also the limits that are imposed in terms of what I am allowed to say, think, feel and desire as a queer woman. In doing so, an erotic energy enters me and the story flows into a full-blown encounter. My stories have ranged from a fantasy (of a fantasy) of a threesome shared with a male partner, lesbian orgies where a sofa plays an active part, a story of gender reversal based on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of microscopic transsexuality, and a story of a woman’s encounter with a sex robot.

My aim is to constantly challenge the authority of rules that are not made for women’s sexuality. Throughout my life, I have consistently been harmed by these rules. Erotic fiction, and erotic philosophy, are my way of challenging these rules and creating new worlds by and for women. Erotic fiction allows women to say the unsayable, to play with language and conventions in a way that simply isn’t possible through other mediums. The language of consent in our laws is predicated on words such as freedom, capacity and choice, without any knowledge of what women’s sexual freedom, capacity and choice looks like. In a sense, the satirical collection New Erotica for Feminists is a wholesale attack on consent, since it reminds us that it is pretty obvious both when a woman is consenting, but also that consensual sex is sexy – in short, that men, and systems that retain a male authority such as the law, philosophy and science, are so painfully ignorant of what women’s sexuality is.

Women’s literature is a powerful and disruptive voice in helping us re-evaluate the language of consent and any claim to authority over sexuality. Erotica as a category of literature is a rich resource for a new way of not only imagining a new ethical regime for women’s sexuality, but also for learning about and glimpsing the fleeting, filthy essence, or essences, of women’s joyfully inexpressible sexuality. This is why we cannot separate erotica from philosophy when rethinking the world in this new age of women’s sexuality.

Victoria Brooks

Victoria Brooks is a writer and researcher on sexual ethics. She has published academic, media and fictional pieces on the connection between philosophy and sex. She uses her queer desire to create new worlds, and to challenge ethical frameworks that do not fit women's sexualities. Her book Fucking Law: the search for her sexual ethics is out in June for Zero Books. She is currently working on an academic project on consent and queer sex clubs, and she is writing an anthology of erotic fiction and philosophy.

More by Victoria Brooks ›

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  1. Fascinating. I’ve been thinking of writing a story about eroticism in old age – what happens when learning to overcome the physical changes.
    After reading Brooks’ essay, I think it may have a resonance for my boomer generation; I feel hot to plunge into the words. Thank you.

  2. Wow Victoria. Great article. I love the idea that we can influence the future sexual health of our relationships by writing about it in fiction. Brilliant idea. I’ve dabbled a little in erotic writing so appreciate how words can really turn you on. You’ve inspired me.
    Will go looking for more of your work.

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