I’m all about the dudes lately. Not in a Men’s Rights Activist way—in a “Feminism is for everyone, let’s model health sexuality for all!” kind of way.
There’s a popular assumption in our culture that men love porn. People argue (with ~*ScIeNcE*~) that men are more visual than women, and thus porn gets men off while ladies love erotica. The rise of feminist porn is slowly dismantling one side of this assumption by courting women’s desire and the female gaze. I’m a fan: generally speaking, women love seeing people fuck just as much as men do. But at the same time, I want to myth-bust the shit out of this idea that men only want filmed pornography. Mainstream porn can be just as damaging and confusing for men as it is for women. It’s not great for educational purposes, and it presents a super narrow view of what is “normal.” Plenty of guys enjoy both pornography and erotica, or would love good erotica if they knew where to find it (note: good erotica. High quality, smart erotica in actual books with real characters). So I have to ask, where’s all the erotica for men?
Over the past few decades, erotica has been positioned as a women’s genre. And you know what? That’s kind of great. Erotica is a safe zone for female fantasy and expression. I can find representations of my desire in the written word—not enough representations but still many more than I can in visual media. It’s not uncommon to see “erotica for women” as a subtitle of an anthology. And part of me loves this—there’s no mistaking who the intended audience is, and it’s usually safe to assume there will be no gigantic, pulsating phalluses in its pages. It’s a safe space for me, and we need more of such spaces. Kristina Lloyd wrote a wonderful blog post the other day about how women’s erotica is still a genre to be fought for, as women are not overall the largest consumers of adult content and our desire deserves to be taken seriously and catered to.
And then there’s the realm of gay erotica, which, it should be noted, does include female readers and writers. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on gay erotica and I know even less about gay erotic romance, but the anthologies I’ve read have been heavy on rough, exaggerated masculinity to the degree that the result was almost comical. I am not the genre’s intended reader so I don’t want to undermine it, especially as someone with so little experience reading it, but gender norms are still in full effect in certain collections. Others are more generous with play around orientation and gender itself. But still, on the cover, is the subtitle “gay erotica.”
So where do the straight dudes go? To the anthologies labeled “erotica for couples”? Probably not.
There are male erotica writers who aren’t gay, obviously, and some anthologies are more inclusive than others when it comes to inviting male readership. Rose Caraway’s recent collection The Sexy Librarian’s Big Book of Erotica did a wonderful job of avoiding gender constraints, and while I don’t know the gender breakdown of Caraway’s audiobook audience, I get the sense it’s pretty diverse. Caraway has a great eye for subversive, genre-bending stories that appeal to all genders, and I feel comfortable recommending the book to a male reader, something I can’t say about most other Cleis titles. There were a few stories in the Big Book that I disliked because they were so focused on straight male readers, which is probably an odd point for me to be making in this context but bear with me. Michael Lewis’s “The Contest” is Male Fantasy 101 in a way both fun and oddly depressing. And hey, I know someone else loved it as much as I didn’t, so I won’t knock it. But what about the men who don’t fantasize about wildcat women who strip for funzies and still want to fuck you, the average joe, at the end of the day?
Can there be character-driven, feminist erotica for men? And, to up the ante, can there be character-driven, feminist erotic romance for men?
I thought of my ebook Memory Foam as women’s erotic romance for several reasons. For one thing, the only sex act is a woman receiving oral sex from her partner. There is no penetrative sex at all, and Max’s pleasure isn’t mentioned in the story. Second, this seemed to me like a very female fantasy, in part because it was mine. I had a crush on a guy friend who I slept with, and I wrote a “what if” to help me make sense of those feelings. Memory Foam also had a few common erotic romance tropes: Max and Lucy are young and early in their careers, but they both already show markers of financial success. Max works in finance and wears gorgeous tailored suits. He’s like Christian Grey or any other romance hero, but kinder, funnier, and not a huge asshole. Actually not much like Christian Grey except he dresses well.
So I wasn’t sure what guys would get out of this story, a story where the man’s pleasure isn’t the focal point of the scene and Lucy is straight up female-gazing her friend. Plus I don’t generally think of erotic romance as a dude-friendly genre. It’s not even a genre I like much, but the tenderness of the central relationship and the implied HEA (Happily Ever After) made it fit the genre expectations.
Anyway, I shared the story around, first with the man who inspired it and later with other friends and partners. The women liked it, sure. Max is a sweetheart and easy to fall for. But the guys… the guys loved it. My muse joked that if inspiring that story was the best thing he ever accomplished, he’d be just fine with that. A boyfriend—who was not the nicest or most romantic guy in the world, which made his reaction even stranger—said he’d read it in one sitting, unable to put it down.
And then when I released the ebook this summer, I saw similar responses. My male friends privately admitted to me that they read it and loved it. Most of them highlighted Max himself as a wonderfully relatable, human character. He was dorky and nervous but still confident and sexy, and a far cry from the Christian Grey’s they were used to seeing positioned as the ultimate female fantasy. I assumed that was it—I write male characters often inspired by real people, and as a result they feel real and nonthreatening. Comforting, even, to a male reader.
And then the bros arrived. They came to my blog to read my essay about fraternity abuse, and I had many wonderful conversations with brothers about my experience. I even got a few sorely needed apologies from old friends. But the oddest plot-twist of all was this: many of them stayed to read other blog posts… and to download my ebook.
I shouldn’t use “bro” as an all-encompassing category; they range in experience and preference like anyone else. Bros can be survivors of assault, can be queer, can be submissives, can be romantics, can occupy many of the feminized labels we wouldn’t match them with. And I went to Wesleyan, where bros were mostly liberal in political affiliation.
But still… Bros? Erotic romance? Really?
A friend (recent college grad, fraternity brother) asked me why I had jokingly described Memory Foam to him as “dude-friendly.” I explained the reactions I’d heard, the claims that Max had a relatable personality. He said that wasn’t it, at least for him. He’d enjoyed Memory Foam because it satisfied his fantasy of pleasing his partner. Of knowing beyond a doubt that he was enough, and that her orgasm was genuine. He could put himself in Max’s shoes. “Hell,” he said, “I caught myself thinking that I could have been Max.”
It wasn’t that Max was a relatable character. It was that he could represent guys in the sex scene. I had tapped into not only women’s pleasure, but male pleasure in providing that pleasure. And men could know, beyond a doubt, that Lucy’s pleasure was real because the story followed her point-of-view. Erotica offers something porn doesn’t: internal commentary. There is no wondering if the orgasm is faked in erotica. There is no wondering where your partner’s mind is, or if they really want this, or what feels best for them. It’s all there on the page. Erotica is a safe place for honest female pleasure and experience, and that’s… that’s actually what (most) men want too. They want to have a good time, but they want their partner to have a good time, and they want to know they had something to do with that.
I’m not a stupid lady. I have learned by the age of twenty-two (sadly, earlier than most) that plenty of men enjoy cunnilingus because they love getting their partner off and to do so turns them on. In a culture that normalizes blow jobs, cunnilingus is much less of an expectation and can make young women uncomfortable. This makes me sad. I also know that some of my fantasies, and thus some of my erotica, is about being generous with a lover. Am I Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat, with my clit in my throat? No. There is nothing physically stimulating about giving head. But there is definitely something stimulating about it psychologically, about seeing my partner in bliss and knowing I did that, I gave him that gift, and I love reading blow jobs in erotica for that reason.
It just never occurred to me that men might enjoy reading about cunnilingus.
So bros, I welcome you to erotica. There’s a lot here for you. I write feminist erotica, but part of what makes it feminist is its appeal to all genders. The sex here is safe, sane, and consensual, and there’s plenty for everyone.
P.S. I could not possibly be more excited for Alison Tyler’s anthology Just For Him: Sexy Stories, slated for release this winter. I’m so curious to see what a Cleis Press title aimed toward straight male readers will look like.