I’ve been thinking a lot about Fifty Shades of Gray. Not about the story or characters, but about the cultural impact of the book. I think that every generation has it’s breakthrough pornography, that one big of sleaze that manages by some quirk of chance to infiltrate the mainstream. Much like the last flash-in-the-pan success – Deep Throat – there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for Fifty Shades extreme success. It is, no offense to the author, a real piece of shit. Fucked up characters, weirdly regressive sexuality, flat and borderline dreadful writing, bland dialog, tedious plot, blah blah blah. This kind of crap is a dime-a-dozen in the vast pornotopia of the world wide web. Who knows why things like this become popular.
Now, I don’t really have any objections to the content of Fifty Shades. Yes, it is regressive, and yes it is about an abusive relationship and not a healthy BDMS lifestyle. But it is a fantasy. We don’t have to be politically correct in our fantasies. I mean, I tried reading Justine once and that makes Fifty Shades look like Winnie the Pooh. I hated it, but if that’s what got de Sade off, let him write about it. My objection with E.L. James’ wank-book is to the people trading on its success by promoting the content as an actual lifestyle. I hate to see people buying into something just because it’s popular, and I hate to see grotesque fantasy become reality.
Anyway, the question which has been rattling around my head is this: why is quality erotica so rare? Why are people willing to accept such second-rate slush? Don’t people have any standards? I mean, how in the world does this crap possibly get people off?
I’ve encountered very little genuinely good erotica. To name the best of those I have found: Sara Water’s Tipping the Velvet, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, Nicholson Baker’s Vox. Each of those stuffed to the brim with sex, spilling over with unabashed gleeful lust. But there is more to them than that. There is that spark of universal truth which we like to call art. There is humanity in them. Now, there’s probably a lot more good stuff like those books out there, but it’s too damn hard to weed it out from the heaps of absolute dross. Here’s my theory: people with good taste often don’t like to admit to reading erotic fiction. Maybe they don’t even like to read it. Too much stigma attached. Only the sort of folks who can tolerate shitty writing like Fifty Shades are willing to own up to it. I mean, somebody’s gotta be buying those cheesy bodice-rippers they sell at drug stores and supermarkets.
I guess a lot of the problem comes from how severely fucked-up our attitudes are about all manner of sexuality. Consider how voracious are the fetishes in America for barely legal high school cheerleader type stuff, and how intensely vocal we are about stamping out pedophilia. It’s the Republican Congressmen voting against gay rights and then fucking men in airport bathrooms writ large. We make idols of the forbidden. Sex has become so fetishistic and dirty in our minds that we hardly know how to deal with the simple reality of what it actually is.
It’s the same with film. Really powerful erotic films like Lust, Caution and Blue Velvet are met with such intense resistance, it’s hard to even get them released in uncensored form. And the porn industry rakes in money hand-over-fist shoveling out cheap and hateful sleaze.
I’m waiting for a real erotic renaissance. I can only hope there will come a time when we’re open minded enough to see a breakthrough erotica that’s actually good.
I use the word erotica for a reason. It’s a bit of a fuzzy distinction, between pornography and erotica. To most people it basically comes down to semantics. I think, however, that there is a critical difference. Pornography is in my view something manufactured from mechanical sex, while Erotica, on the other hand, is born from a depiction of animalistic intercourse.
Porn is two forms slapping against each other in an empty room. It is only the sex act, stripped of all context and meaning. It is bloodless and soulless.
Erotica, and by extension true eroticism, is an act of desperation. It is need and passion. It is desire. Eroticism is not anonymous. Eroticism is physical communication on a primal level.
Porn is bodies. Erotica is people.
I hate this trudging sexual murk, I’m tired of driving past the peeling soot-stained billboards for xxx gentleman’s clubs, I’m sick of the abstinence-only sex education, I despise the vapid television programs peddling tawdry reality-show sensationalism, I’m disgusted by the meat-market of internet pornography and I loath beyond measure the twisted “sex-sells” marketing which seems to permeate every aspect of our culture. I’m so tired of it.
We’re better than this. Sex is important, and it deserves our mature attention. We need artists unafraid to explore sexuality, and we need people willing to appreciate it. Who knows, it might be good for us.
Sex, life, love. Always.