Thesis excerpt: making smut out of politics

I approached this thesis analytically at first. I wanted to write prose with purpose—smut that would educate and empower and arouse. I wanted to talk about Consent and Slut Shaming and Seduction, big concepts with high stakes. But when I sat down to outline short stories that would achieve such noble goals, I struggled to get started. Political aspiration does not make for compelling characters or intense conflict, and activist slogans do not arouse. A theoretical approach creates an academic abstract, not prose flushed red with desire.

I only began to write good fiction when I dared to address my own experiences and work backward. After all, my writing has always been about me. Despite what one is told, this introspection and mining of personal experience is not selfishness or arrogance. To quote Emily Gould, “If a woman writes about herself, she’s a narcissist. If a man does the same, he’s describing the human condition.” For a woman to recognize her feelings as valid is power and powerful. Writing about the harsh, gritty reality of this shiny thing that does not belong to you, that should not be yours to reveal, is a fierce activist project. That is where the “feminist” part of “feminist erotica” finally began to make sense to me. Yes, it is inherently feminist to model ways that sex can be better, healthier, and egalitarian. That is what early feminist erotica and current feminist pornography tries to do and sometimes succeeds in doing. But it is also feminist to show what sex is truly like. Sex is dangerous, sex is wounded, sex is desperate, sex is make or break. Sex can be a source of power or of oppression. Sex can be revenge or solace, weakness or strength. Sex can also be casual, vulnerable, healing, or mundane. Feminist erotica speaks to that muddled mess of political consequence and human compulsion. It seeks to clarify and confuse, to challenge and create new ways of understanding and feeling desire. Feminist erotica arouses and tells you it is okay to be aroused because sex is fucked up and you are only human.

Women are told a lot of things about sex. If you have sex too soon or too late, if you have sex with the wrong person, if you have sex with the right person but you are not ready, if you have sex for the wrong reasons, if you have sex in the wrong position, if you want sex too much or too little, if you feel too much or not enough, if you don’t love the person, if you do love the person but they don’t love you, if they love you, if you are not monogamous, if you are not married, if you are married, if you like group sex, if you are drunk, if you are high, if you are sober, if you ask for sex, if you cannot ask for sex, if you are too easy or too hard to get, if you are ugly, if you are disabled, if you are queer, if you are sloppy, if you are not white, if you are kinky, if you are alone, if you have an STI, if you hate anal, if you want your partner to come on your face, if you like being spanked, if you pay for sex, if you get paid for sex, if sex changes you or if sex has no impact on who you are beyond tonight, beyond this kiss, beyond this paragraph… you are having sex wrong. Feminist erotica does not have all the answers but it asks the question feminists have been struggling with for years: Is there a right kind of sex? As long as sex is safe and consensual, does it matter what we are doing? Do our fantasies matter, how much, and why?

My intention is not to resolve the debate surrounding sex-positivity once and for all. Rather, this project seeks to explore some of those “wrong” types of sex—the sex that I have had, the sex that my friends have had, the sex that we think about having or want to have or maybe would be having if it were available to us, the sex we fantasize about but would never ever consider making a reality. After all, sometimes the sex that matters most is the sex that does not happen. Feminist erotica asks why, as well as why not. What do we want that we do not get, and why do we not get it? Hint: the answer is usually patriarchy.

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Ella Dawson is a rowdy millennial who cares too much about The Bachelor. Her passions include sexual health and education, feminist erotica and social media.

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