Erotica Versus Sex Scenes

The recent publication of my story “Inventory” at Strange Horizons has led me to think, again, about sexually explicit fiction. “Inventory” is an SF/F story composed entirely of sex scenes–a list of all of the people that a woman has sex with in her life as a pandemic slowly creeps across the country. A few people who have linked to the story have described it as “erotica,” but is it?

Here is how I personally differentiate between the two:

Erotica: The plot and characters are designed to serve and maximize the sexual content.

Non-Erotica with Sex Scenes: The sex (though it may be erotic) is meant to advance the plot or characters.

I’ve written erotica. I’ve sat down to write a sexually explicit, arousing story where I’ve had to consider how the plot that I’m composing will lead to a plethora of erotic situations. With “Drought,” for example (written under my pen name, “Olivia Glass”), I knew that I wanted a woman caught up in her own particular erotic fantasies, but I also wanted her to not just be sitting in her bed. So I started off with a hot day, a car, a woman escaping and scaling the Berkeley Hills–all interesting, but also all designed to get her alone, with various natural scenery sparking her erotic imagination and memory. I wanted as much sex as I could fit into a 5,000-word story, with the illusion that all of the sex was arising naturally from the plot. (It’s an illusion because the plot was deliberately designed to maximize the sexual content.)

As for my non-erotica fiction, I don’t shy away from writing explicit sex scenes. Usually, there are a few of them in a 15 – 25 page story. Not a terribly large percentage of the total prose.

“Inventory” is a strange beast, then. The story is 100% sex scenes,  but the sex scenes are meant to show us new facets of a character and the people around her, and a world slowly falling apart. So, I think that it is possible to have graphic, explicit sex scenes in a story that’s not erotica. (But can you  have erotica without sex scenes? That’s the real challenge.)

Anyone else have any thoughts? Can a story be 100% sex scenes and not be erotica?

4 thoughts on “Erotica Versus Sex Scenes

  1. Tanager Leigh

    Hello! I discovered your blog after reading “Inventory” in Strange Horizons and I have added your RSS feed to my reader. It is very liberating to see someone out there writing boldly about erotica (and writing so well, too!). So, thank you!

    Although I am only an amateur, I am often bitten by the desire to write stories. More often than not, those stories fall firmly in the erotica camp (if even such a label as noble as that may be attributed to my work). I actually feel guilty and discouraged at times because I have a much harder time writing non-erotica. (I find that I’m asking myself, “Am I THAT shallow?” [I don’t think so…]).

    I have been thinking about the categorizations that you have made above for the past couple of days. I like the distinction that you made and I agree that “Inventory” should probably not be labeled erotica simply because the story being told is orthogonal to the sexual content (indeed, it is devastating). Brilliant! That being said, though, I must share that I often read Strange Horizons during my lunch break at work. I found that, somewhat flushed, I had to discreetly close “Inventory” after the first few paragraphs and save the story for when I got home.

    But, on the other hand, a story packed with and driven by sexual content can also tell a greater story when viewed as a metaphor, I think. And often fetishistic stories (BDSM, tease and denial) may be erotic without any explicit sex at all.

    Regardless, I wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your story and I am looking forward to exploring more of your work.

    Thanks, Tanager

  2. In response to “But can you have erotica without sex scenes? That’s the real challenge.”, I want to offer a humble piece that I wrote a while back but just posted today:

    I was trying to write something genuinely arousing without any explicit sex scene.

    (“Inventory” is amazing – but the hilarious piece about how to probably not die of rabies was pee-your-pants funny: I love you work!)

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