Can Erotica Recover Its Reputation From the Ludicrous Fifty Shades of Grey?

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What Women Really Think
March 29 2013 11:56 AM

Can Erotica Recover Its Reputation From the Ludicrous Fifty Shades of Grey?

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Not that there's anything wrong with that.

(David Livingston/Getty Images)

This Valentine’s Day, Lux Alptraum, publisher and editor of the sex-centered blog Fleshbot, took part in a public erotica reading. Other speakers that evening entertained the crowd with “intentionally funny” erotic tales. Alptraum chose a “very serious, very intense piece about BDSM.” The crowd was “just totally quiet,” she tells me. “I think in part because they liked it, and in part because people aren't totally sure how to manage arousal in a public environment.”

Thanks to the rousing success of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey—which originated as Internet Twilight fan fiction with a BDSM twist—erotica is again fodder for public discussion. But the tone of that conversation isn’t always very sincere. As one 19-year-old One Direction fan-fiction writer put it, Fifty Shades “gives the fan fiction world a bad name because it is so poorly written.” James’ book became big news (and a forthcoming major Hollywood film) not in spite of its ludicrous style, but because of it. “If someone writes the world's hottest novel, what is Funny or Die going to do with that?” Alptraum says. “No one is going to record Gilbert Gottfried reading it.”

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If we can ridicule erotica, that means we can talk about it with our friends without seeming like pervs. That rule applies to visual sexual imagery, too: For the past decade, porn companies have been churning out pornified parodies of everything from SpongeBob SquarePants to WKRP in Cincinnati in order to inspire mainstream buzz around the taboo material. (Parody director Lee Roy Myers recently launched a porno-comedy site, Woodrocket.com, dedicated to explicit viral bait like "Memes I'd Like to Fuck.") Written smut gets even less respect: Fifty Shades has only cemented erotica’s reputation as juvenile, poorly-constructed, and—perhaps most damning—totally feminine. In a world where most mainstream pornography is filmed with a male viewer in mind (and often, with guys manning the camera and the promotional machine), written erotica has been traditionally more accessible to women, who can produce it cheaply and anonymously, with few resources, no institutional support, and reduced risk of public shaming. That’s only reinforced the idea that women prefer to read their smut as opposed to watching it—and that they’re so hard up, they’ll accept whatever amateur bodice-rippers are offered to them.

The Internet has changed only some of that. Online, it’s easy to click away from traditionally feminine stuff and into “some crazy fetishes and things that are clearly not ‘girly,’ ” Alptraum says. “Erotica can be Harry/Draco slash fiction. It can be aliens raping farmers. It can be whatever you want, and it doesn't have to be in this soft purple packaging with the heaving bosoms and Fabio.” (Trust: I’ve read plotlines on Literotica.com that would not be legal to film in the United States.) It helps that “no one can see what you're reading. It's not like going to a book store and saying, ‘Hey, can I get this copy of Nine Kinky Stories, please?’ " Internet erotica readers and creators can seriously nerd out with one another without tainting their offline reputations. Fifty Shades may have turned into a mainstream joke, but it only got a legitimate publisher after racking up the anonymous views online.

And yet the quality remains … E.L. James-y. On self-published, unpaid erotica sites, the “rough-to-diamond ratio is pretty intense,” Alptraum says. It’s still the case that “respectable people often turn away from erotic entertainment,” so “the people who engage in it aren't necessarily the most talented writers or content creators,” she says. “Erotica is treated as something that doesn't have to be good,” and “that’s what turns it into a joke.” Alptraum is doing her part to change that: Last month, she launched Fleshbot Fiction, a collection of short-form online stories that aims to “spare you the time of searching through things full of spelling errors." Readers will have to take them just seriously enough to shell out 99 cents per piece.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

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