Thesis Excerpt: Pissed Off Baby Feminist With a Notebook

I started writing about sex before I found feminism but it bled through my fiction from the beginning. Having been raised on young adult romances, my first teenage forays into the wacky world of sex and relationships were a confusing letdown. I had little interest in falling in love and far more interest in being pressed up against cinderblock walls by boys I knew would not text back. My sexual awakening was not so much an event or a phase as it was a character trait it took me years to identify.

When I broke up with my bland first boyfriend to pursue the in hindsight very tame but still “dangerous” senior who dripped with sex appeal, I found myself branded for the first time with a label that would follow me for the rest of my life: whore. According to my new ex, I was a whore for desiring friction instead of first date flowers. I was even more of a whore for telling him to go fuck himself because I certainly was not going to. A few years later I discovered the term “slut shaming” and thought of that first interpellation as whore by one of the supposed nice guys. It was a confrontation that jolted my otherwise unremarkable life into sharp focus, infuriating and hurtful and reeking of the sense that this is not right. It became clear to fifteen-year-old me as I held back tears of anger and embarrassment that sex was something I was not supposed to own. But it was even clearer that if they wanted to take it from me they would have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.

I did not fuck anyone in high school but I wrote about sex and relationships to figure out what I wanted, even if—especially if—the broader culture told me I wanted the wrong thing. I shared those early short stories with friends, passed around printouts and listened to them gush about this detail or that feeling or that guy. I participated in National Novel Writing Month and had copies bound of my final product, The Rules of Hooking Up and How Bianca Fret Broke Them All. Half of my high school called me a nympho slut. The other half could not stop reading. As I was pulled into frequent lunchtime conversations about desire and intimacy, I realized the broader culture was totally wrong about us. Teenage girls did not only want Twilight-inspired romantic gestures. We also wanted to hook up and not give a shit the next day. And we were already doing so. If everyone was doing it, how could we all be sluts? It was low-level consciousness raising and I found I had a talent for putting into words what everyone else could not or would not dare identify.

When I transitioned into writing “erotica,” I did not understand it as such for quite some time. It was the logical progression of my writing: I had always written fiction about relationships, often mirroring my real life adventures and disasters. When I started having sex, so did my characters. In real life, sex was a confusing negotiation, and it was not always satisfying or free of consequences. But I loved it, even if I did not love the power struggle it too often required. My characters fucked and got fucked over.

Before starting this thesis, most of the erotica I had read was actually online fan fiction. Fan fiction was a wonderful gateway to erotic literature because its sexual content did not intimidate me as a teenage reader—these were characters I knew, loved, and trusted. And yes, I got off on reading about Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy having a secret tryst in the potions storage room. I considered them my friends and I understood their motivations. It was only as a junior in college that I bought my first anthology of original erotica, Best Women’s Erotica 2013, and while I respected the work for its inventiveness and high-caliber prose, I could not enjoy it yet. As a novice reader of pure erotic short fiction, I struggled to feel comfortable with these strangers, these couples jerking each other off in airplanes. I could not relate to them or imagine myself in their place. I could not root for them when I barely knew them.

Now a year later, well immersed in the genre as a writer and less easily intimidated as a reader, I can lose myself in such an anthology without needing familiar plot lines or characters to ground me. But my preference for more accessible fiction remains, and as a result my writing tends to occupy the awkward space between erotica, erotic romance, and fiction featuring sex scenes. I write for the novice reader, the friend who yearns for more representation of female sexual aggressors in pop culture or the high school student who wants to graduate from Young Adult novels. I like writing stories that build whose characters the reader gets to know, and for whom sex is a turning point, a discovery, or a connection. Many of the stories in this collection focus on the tension before sex or on the events that follow. But they all focus on two people (or more!) with motivations and histories that got them to this particular point in their lives. Like real people. Like me.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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