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Sepia toned photograph of a nude woman wearing a feathered head dress. For On Reading Sex by Malin James

Photograph by Marc Lagrange. (On a side note, I love this image. It reminds me of The Story of O.)

When I was in my teens, I literally learned about sex by gobbling massive, towering stacks of Harlequin Historicals, the more bodice-rippy the better. In my twenties, I went through a period where i read everything from Henry Miller (filthy sonofabitch) and Anne Rice (kinky, pretty things) to Literotica and CleanSheets.com.

Somewhere between reading erotica and writing it, something changed for me though. I started reading erotica more critically in my twenties because I was getting a Master’s Degree and I was reading everything more critically. I’m kind of a recreational thinker so that’s not the worst thing, except that the habit of reading critically cut the connection between erotica and my sex drive.

Almost as if to compensate, books that were not written as erotica were turning me on in super hot, unexpected ways. Angela Carter, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Andahazi’s The Merciful Women, The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson…I’d be reading along and suddenly get slammed with a crazy, elemental need to get off. It wasn’t that the sex was better written, it was just contextually more specific.

Stick with me – I’m going somewhere with this and it has to do with that contextual specificity.

As I got older and more experienced, I understood my sexuality more. By then, I’d had all kinds of sex in all kinds of contexts and, as a result, what turned me on was changing. In other words, what grabbed my brainstem at 15 was doing it at 25. My buttons had gotten way more specific in those intervening 10 years, and that affected the way I read sex.

The point is that everyone’s sexuality is different, so everyone reads sex differently depending on what kind of experiences or curiosities you’re bringing to the table. That’s why there is no one “right” way to write sex, and no “right” way to read it. Sure, there’s bad sex writing, but there also bad sex in real life. That’s just part of the deal, whether you’re reading it or doing it.

The other issue is one of place in life. It’s why the sex you had in your boyfriend’s dorm was the hottest thing possible at 18, but why it might not get you off at 38. We read sex differently at different points in our lives because we experience sex differently at different points in our lives, and our needs and tastes tend to reflect that. The same principle goes for audio and visual porn. It even applies to the movies you are hot, (even if they’re awful…hi, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I heart you).

It’s worth remembering all of this when you judge the value of a genre, (and genre, really). Whether or not you think they have literary value, erotica and romance serve a sexual and emotional purpose that exists beyond the standards of the Man Booker prize. It’s not an issue of the genre’s value, it’s one of the value it has to individual readers at any given time, and that value matters as much as literary merit. For some readers, it matters more.

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