Jan 22 2013 4:30pm

Don’t Make Me Slap You!: When Erotica Crosses the Line

I love erotica. I think I have made that pretty clear to everyone. I enjoy reading about it in all forms. M/M, M/F, and sometimes M/F/M. Erotica is nothing more than extremely sexually visual romance. Or, as an author friend of mine noted, “Erotica is determined by the number of times the P and C word is mentioned.” No fade to black scenes or anything left to the imagination. We are given the full monty, so to speak, and I, for one, enjoy reading every single word.

What I enjoy reading in erotica—or really any genre—is the equality between the protagonists. One may be more sexually experienced than the other, but neither are pushovers. Emotional angst notwithstanding, I enjoy seeing two people having safe, fun, consensual sex.

But lately I've found a problem with erotica. It started with E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey and has continued to snowball. My problem? The characters of the broody damaged controlling alpha male and the sexually inexperienced and overly emotionally heroine. Like the audience at a magician’s show, we are given the illusion that we are reading something new and intriguing. But it’s really the same story, only told with different names and locations.

In a lot of these newer books, the hero is rich and controlling. He demands trust without the ability to give it himself and gets angry when the heroine isn't forthcoming. This kind of hero seems to believe sex is a cure all for all physical and mental ailments. He sees nothing wrong with stalking the heroine because only he can keep her safe (regardless of the fact she has managed to live twenty some years by herself just fine). Rough sex and new sexual experiences are often introduced in a way that feels more like punishment.

The heroine is equally disingenuous; we are often told throughout the story that she is an intelligent person yet from the moment they meet, she melts into a puddle of gasps, moans, and bottom lip biting. She occasionally objects, in a vague off hand manner. She can’t look at him without her panties disintegrating into a sopping, wet mess. We rarely hear a single coherent sentence from her as their relationship progresses and it seems her ability to say no is easily wiped away in a series of orgasms. Both Sylvia Day’s Bared to You and Sylvain Reynard Gabriel's Inferno are two examples of erotics that this model.

I’m also disappointed that BSDM erotica seems to be following this trend. Being in a D/s relationship doesn't mean you lose all self respect for yourself. It doesn't mean you obey blindly. You must facilitate a relationship built on trust, and if you blindly hand all your trust to someone after knowing them for only a few days, then I question the legitimacy of the relationship. And the story as a whole. The relationship should be pleasurable for both, not pleasurable at the expense of one or the other.

While I enjoy the alpha male, I don’t enjoy the overbearing alpha male—the one who expects total obedience from a lover whom they have just met, the one who pushes a lover new to the world of BDSM, demanding extreme experiences, without taking the time to explain this world to them. This is also the one who insinuates that using a safe word or limits is for posers and claims that using a safe word will end the relationship right then and there because trust has been broken. A Dom who uses coercion to engage in a sexual relationship with their intended partner also makes me see red, or when a Dom knows his partner has suffered a traumatic and/or abusive sexual experience and rather then get them professional help, they rationalize they can dominate them to wellness.

What happened to the romance in erotica? (And no, sex, no matter how hot it is, is not romance). What happened to equal partners? Why does a newbie to BDSM or a younger partner need to be portrayed as weak and malleable? Since the release of Fifty Shades, it’s as if only a romance mired in a mind boggling emotional mess is a true romance. Abuse is not only acceptable, but encouraged and expected. I understand this is fiction. I understand the need for emotional turmoil. No relationship can be 100% perfect, and there are always ups and downs, yet why the need to drag the couple through the mud multiple times in order to find their HEA? Why the need for cruelty and yes, abuse, in the relationship? Because no matter how you try to wrap a pretty bow around it all, stalking your lover, monitoring their cell phones calls, tracking their credit cards, and secretly putting GPS in their their car is abuse. Demanding complete obedience and telling the reader it’s really protectiveness is not romantic.

Broken by Megan HartLet's talk about some erotic authors who keep the balance between characters equal. Megan Hart writes emotionally heartbreaking erotics, yet you’d be hard pressed to name one where either protagonists are intentionally cruel, masking it as love.

Lorelei James is one of my favorite erotic romance writers because her characters are strong, intelligent, and independent people. They are equals. Any dominance is clearly approved by both parties and you never feel one is being really coerced by the other. If one acts out of line, the other will call them on it, quickly. Plus, the fun factor is there. I never read one of her books without feeling they’re are having the time of their lives with each other, in and out of bed.

Charlotte Stein and Cara McKenna both write super steamy, very naughty erotics that may have emotional conflicts, but you aren’t bogged by never ending drama. The protagonists are portrayed as individuals. Neither’s existence is contingent on the other’s. You never doubt that they like each other for more than just sex. And maybe that is my main complaint here—in some of the new erotics being offered, I don’t feel like the couples really like each other. There is no doubt they need each other (at least that is how they are portrayed), but you rarely see them interact in a non-sexual situation. Even if the scene isn't sexually based, it will either turn sexual or be inundated with sexual thoughts and dialogue.

Another new-to-me erotic author I enjoy is Sindra van Yssel. Her novella series, titled The Bondage Ranch, reveals an honest view of BDSM with some sexy scenes and wonderful characters. Written like a primer to the different aspects of BDSM, her short stories gives us the basics of the club scene and the ins and outs of a D/s relationship with glimpses into different lifestyles. In here, we get clear explanations and a showing of what a healthy BDSM lifestyle should be. Safe words are given the proper respect, and while the Dom may push at the sub's limits, we and the sub aren't made to feel like they are a failure if they choose to back away or not submit.

Regardless of my misgivings, I haven't given up on erotica, but I find myself becoming increasingly picky about who I choose to review or give my money too.


Tori Benson can be found at Smexybooks and at Twitter.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. JanineG.
Yes. Yes! One million times yes! I have become extremely picky with who I read now, for this very reason. It sucks because I loved discovering new authors and devouring all of their works and delving into their worlds and now, more often than not, I am throwing down books in disgust. I have become very jaded towards anything that touts itself as "better than 50 Shades". I read the blurb and sure enough, it's some young billionaire closed off alpha male taking advantage of some young, unsuspecting, naive 20 something coed and their battle for "love". It's making it really difficult to find new authors and also find interesting erotic romance novels.
Lisa Ellingsworth
2. LisaEllingsworth
You said what I've been thinking and haven't taken the time to put into words. Very well said.
Kat Morrisey
3. KatMorrisey
Totally agree with you. I want actual story with my erotica, and if it's BDSM I want to see character development, not the usual tropes of billionaire men and naive women. It's gotten so old. Ugh! This is one reason why I am so happy that I found Cherise Sinclair. She is great with balancing everything out and making it hot at the same time. Love Megan Hart too. I have one of Lorelei James' books, will have to try to read it to see if she is another author I can add to my must-read list!
4. Torifl
[b][color=rgb(189, 25, 14); font-weight: bold">JanineG.-[/b]

LisaEllingsworth-Thank you.

KatMorrisey-Lorelei James is not only full of smexytimes but she also writes a soild story with engaging characters.
Lege Artis
5. LegeArtis
::standing ovations for Tori::
Thank you for posting what many of us are thinking. Bring us back sensual men in erotica....
6. Torifl
LegeArtis-Thank you. I'd be happy with nice and sane. LOL
7. Lena Loneson
Wonderful post, Tori. Megan Hart is one of my favourites for this very reason.

I also really like what you've said about alpha males. As a new erotica writer, I had a hard time getting into the alpha male thing, because I'd assumed it meant the horrible overbearing cliche of an alpha...but alpha and loving are not mutually exclusive traits.
Jami Gold
8. jamigold
I'd say all of this applies equally well to the alphaholes in non-erotic romance too. It's sad when I get comments from beta readers that my heroes need to be bigger jerks. *sigh* Sorry, I'm not going to write them that way.
9. Marva
#8 jamigold - Please don't bow to these people. If I wouldn't tolerate it in real life, I really don't want it in my fiction. There's already a lot more conflict in these stories than most of us deal with day-to-day, why would you want to deal with a jerk on top of it?
Tammi Doran
10. Dragongirl_71
Thank you!! I totally agree with you. While I did enjoy the Fifty Shades books. My favorite part was the texts and emails. I really did not think there was that much to be in an uproar about. J.R. Ward's Black dagger brotherhood, Lover Unbound about Vishous had more BDSM in it then the Fifty books. I like strong males and equally strong females. For the sappy females I want to say "Suck it up buttercup!" And walk away from the egotistical jerks.
11. vampirefan
YES! Finally someone can put to words exactly how I feel. I love reading erotica but I found it lacking lately. I love me a good alpha male but the female has to hold her own and 50 shades was soooo lacking in that!
Also, I agree with Dragongirl_71, there was so much more BDSM in Vishous'book than in that one.
Anyway, Thank you Tori for expressing my fristration so well ^-^
Vanessa Ouadi
12. Lafka
To Tori, Hear, Hear!
I'm so tired of those alpha jerks and doormat ingenues, who try to make us believe abusive relationships are true love and rough sex is the key to salvation. I seriously hope their overrepresentation in the edition world lately will only be temporary and we, readers, will soon be granted interesting romance books with characters who don't actually need intensive therapy.
Darlene Marshall
13. DarleneMarshall
Thank you for this. Every time people tell me how much they enjoyed That Book, I encourage them to read novels by the authors you've listed, and also Emma Holly and Joey Hill. It's erotic romance with intelligence.

The trope of the brooding, emotionally dark hero saved by the inexperienced and fresh heroine goes back to the Hades and Persephone myth. That Book and the others like it are only revisiting old ground, and not nearly as well some others who've done that story in the past.
14. Isabel C.
Yes, thank you!

One of the lines I'll never cross, as a reader or an author, is that the heroine has to have a life and a will of her own, both at the beginning of the story and at the end.
Alexandra W
15. parasolprotectorate
Love this post!

This is why I love Tiffany Reisz so much and her Nora is one of the most independent, strong-willed and self-sufficient heroines I've ever read. The Siren, The Angel and The Prince were some of my favourite reads of 2012 and I cannot wait for The Mistress.
Kat Bernard
16. Abforth
I've been suffering erotica burn out lately and haven't been able to put my finger on the why. I think you've just clarified my problem for me! I've just finished an epic series (Karen Chance) and I'm between series (waiting on the next J R Ward) and don't know what to read. I've been flicking through novels like, bleh, bleh bleh. I love a strong heroine, I love marital arts in real life, so I love a warrior woman in a book. But any strong character will do. I found Fifty Shades really disturbing. I found it equally disturbing how many woman lusted after Christian Grey. All I could think was, WHY?? But you've explained why perfectly. I know nothing about the BDSM world and realise that everything I learnt about it in this book, I seriously need to unlearn!
17. Cristiane Serruya
Hi there!
Your post translated what is in my mind.
I'm a mother, a lawyer and a writer. Ah, and a very happy wife! I'll not teach my daughters to be idiots that submit to alpha males. It doesn't matter if the man in question is rich, intelligent and handsome. Nothing is worth the disrespect and the hurt of not being valued by what you have to offer in terms of love. Because in the end of the day, women and men, we are human beings. We hurt in the same way. We love in the same way. We are all equals.
I recently wrote a romance called TRUST: A NEW BEGINNING. By telling the characters' story, I expose my ideas about this new hype: BDSM, women humilliation, so on and so forth. Although the plot is in the European billionaires' world, it shows how can partners be equals in a relationship. I love alpha males however I love more strong, intelligent heroines. And both can coexist in the same house, in the same book! With erotic and 'helathy' relationships!!

Cristiane Serruya
Adria Reyes
18. adria03
Thank you! It's not that I don't like erotica, I just don't like BAD erotica. People who are unfamiliar with romance in general are thinking that these badly written books are the norm and they're not.

I despise a weak heroine, no matter what genre and an overbearing man is a huge turn off. There's a difference between alpha and asshole.
Jill Blank
19. blankties
Tori, you've obviously struck a chord with this article! I have no real desire to read "50 Shades" because even the author's *own* assessment is that it's an inferior quality of the writing (Pet Peeve #1). And, the idea of the Angsty Alpha Male who blurs the line between "love" and "creepy obsessiveness" to the young, naive heroine does nothing for me (Pet Peeve #2). It's like The Police's hit song, "Every Breath You Take" -- it's either the Most Romantic or the Creepiest song imaginable, depending upon one's filter or interpretation.

I have previous H&H articles to thank for pointing me in the direction of Dane, Sinclair, Hart and others who weave erotic scenarios into believeable characters AND storylines! Like @darlenemarshall, I also recommended these authors to others who express interest in "50."

Looking back, I have you, Tori, to thank for a concise primer on just what BDSM is, and isn't with your 13 Dec 2011 article, "BDSM: Spelling It Out in Erotic Romance." It is *very* helpful! Many thanks!!

(Also, after recently reading Dr. Drew Pinsky's comments on the whole "50 Shades" phenom, I believe the point you make here is one that was totally lost on the good doctor.)

There's no denying that "50 Shades of Grey" is a cultural phenomenon. I'm intrigued by how much it's been embraced in so many realms, etc. (fashion, make-up, magazines, etc.). I'm grateful it has shed light on other, well-written erotica. :-D
20. Kitty French
I hear you. I LOVE romance, and I LOVE erotic romance, and don't get me wrong, I LOVE a bad boy, the alpha the better.
Give me Sawyer over Jack from Lost, and Eric rather than Bill from True Blood - beautiful, tough complex characters win me over every time.
But can I imagine either of those characters crossing the line you're talking about? No. And that's why I love them.
For me, the perfect alpha is all about pleasure through spine tingling pleasure rather than through pain, and he has a loyal, vulnerable streak a mile wide for the right woman. I want leading men to make me laugh, make me cry for all the right reasons, and to make my heart bang with their drop dead gorgeosity. Is that even a word? Lets's pretend it is if it isn't. :O)

Kitty x
21. tiago5
Hello Tori, Thank you for this. It was way overdue and most appreciated. I love me some erotica, but I also love a wonderfully told story that I fully expect at the end of it and a lot of authors have missed the mark on this. I love me some Lauren Dane,Megan Hart, Jasmine Haynes who by the way does a really good job with relationships and a little of kink involved also. I recommend highly PAST MIDNIGHT. I also must give a holla to Kate Pearce. Wonderful. Her House of Pleasure Series is an ABSOLUTE MUST. You will not be sorry. I also love Lorelei James. Don't miss her series called ROUGH RIDERS. Lots of great stories and authors whom once you get rid of the riding the gravy train aspect of BDSM (fsog) really do and can tell you a story that will hold your interest as well as gets your rocks off!
22. duskrider3740
I will have to agree with you on this, I hate the abuse that seems to be prevalent in a lot of the erotica I wind up picking up for free, and more often than not, I wind up not enjoying the book.

I gotta say though, there are some awesome erotic authors out there. Olivia Cunning's Sinners on Tour series is the first thing that comes to mind, but there's also Ann Mayburn's Sodom series, Tina Folsom's Scanguard's Vampires Series, Katie Porter's Vegas Top Guns series, or Colette Gale's Jane in the Jungle serial. I also have enjoyed Marie Harte's Bodyworks books, as well as anything by J. L. Langley.

I hope that we can look forward to a better quality of erotic romance, now that the hype around 50 Shades seems to be waning.
23. mamathang
I was thinking this yesterday!!!
There's an author, who shall remain nameless, who basically changed the names of her protagonists & went to press.
I'm taking a slight break from erotica until 50 shade fever passes because I'm finding less of the erotic stuff & more disturbing & repetitive stuff out on the shelves nowadays.
Robbie Thornton
24. Button
I really disliked FSOG, mainly for the reasons you mentioned, but I was hoping that this book becoming so mainstream and all the exposure might encourage better, more experienced authors to venture into erotica, or to encourage authors already writing light erotica to become more adventurous with their erotic scenes. Instead, we have a landslide of copycats of the same bad story.

Hopefully, when the hoopla surround FSOG dies down a bit more, we'll get some quality work where the partners are on more equal ground, where the hero isn't quite so creepy and the heroines are more self assured and have at least some life experience.
25. lenoredreams
Tori you speak the truth. every post is just another perfectly stated , couldn't have said it better myself beautiful expression of "YES! THAT! THAT RIGHT THERE!"

Thank you!
26. Lorraine B
Fantastic post! You are so right! If I have to read another erotica novel where the heroine gets wet every time the hero brushes her hand with his I'm going to cry. Thanks for the recommendations too!
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