Why Lesbian Erotica is Valuable Activism

December 10, 2013  |  essays

ble14I’m reading some erotica—along with Jen Cross, Carol Queen, Amy Butcher, Xan West, M’kali-Hashiki, Cheryl Dunye, BD Swain, & Jiz Lee—to celebrate the release of Best Lesbian Erotica 2014 this Thursday night. (Details here and here and here.) I’m so excited to have helped curate an amazing lineup, and I am now sacrificing all the luck I have to get a good audience to show up. If you’re in the area, come!

I’ve been thinking about “lesbian erotica” lately, how edgy it is, how valuable it is. There’s a bit of controversy around this particular publication of Best Lesbian Erotica, and while I have a lot of thoughts about that article, I still have a lot of my own feelings about how important lesbian erotica is, and how it helps on the process of building one’s some people’s identities. (“One” here meaning someone FAAB who tends to prefer to sleep with other FAAB people, at least at some point in their life.) [ UPDATE: Katherine commented, "So, why don’t you feel that lesbian erotica is important to building the identity of trans-feminine spectrum lesbians?" And of course that's a valid point. I'm sorry to have excluded trans women from that statement, and that was an oversight on my part. I was trying to be specific, and ended up being TOO specific. It doesn't really matter who "one" is in that sentence above, all that matters is that some people use lesbian erotica to develop their own identities, and that's my point. It is valid for all kinds of genders and orientations, and I never meant to leave anyone out. I'll try not to write so hastily in the future, and be more careful. See my comment for a bit more of my thoughts. ]

I realized I wrote about my own experience with it, and why I think queer smut (“lesbian erotica”) is valuable activism, in my introduction to the 2012 Best Lesbian Erotica anthology, so I figured I’d share it with you here.

See you Thursday night, right?

Introduction to Best Lesbian Erotica 2012

I know what I want.

I knew exactly what I was looking for when I read the submitted stories for this anthology: dirty, smutty, smart about gender, smart about power, packed full of sex with the bare necessary descriptions of setting and context, and, oh yeah, good writing. It doesn’t have to be dirty in my personal favorite ways—with sultry accoutrements and costuming like stockings and strappy sandals, or with strap-ons and lots of fucking, or with blow jobs and dirty talk. I like stories where the characters are so turned on and lusty that I feel it too, even if it is not my particular kink or pleasure. I like stories with unique descriptions and rolling prose and insatiable narrators and rising and falling action. I like stories where I want to recreate the action for myself, when I am inspired by the delicious positions and settings and words.

Yes, and the words, let’s not forget the words. That’s what these kinds of books are all about, really. If you wanted a quick, easy turn on, you could load up any of dozens of queer porn sites—there is no shortage of real, good queer porn out there these days. But for some of us that is too crass, and a well-done turn of phrase gets us swooning and biting our lips and rubbing our thighs together even more than a dirty video.

I didn’t always know what I wanted. When I was coming out in the late 1990s, though there was a serious lack of queer porn in the video stores, there were plenty of people paving the landscape for what would become the blossoming queer porn of the 2000s. Diana Cage, On Our Backs magazine, Good Vibrations, (Toys in) Babeland, Annie Sprinkle, Susie Bright—and, of course, Tristan Taormino. It was Tristan’s 1998 Best Lesbian Erotica anthology that for me clicked something into place, something I could no longer pretend wasn’t there. I would hide the book in the back of the shelves at the bookstore where I worked so it wouldn’t get purchased, and I’d sandwich it between two others and sneak it into the stock room to read when it was slow. I wore creases into the spine with Toni Amato’s story “Ridin’ Bitch” and Karlyn Lotney’s story “Clash of the Titans.” I was genuinely confused as to why I liked these stories so much. What was this affect they had on me? Why did I love them so much? What did it all mean?

I began to find other books, short stories, and essays that helped move my budding baby dykery along: Nothing But the Girl—oh, swoon. That essay by Anastasia Higgenbotham in Listen Up: Voices From the Next Feminist Generation. Cunt by Inga Muscio. Breathless by Kitty Tsui. And the Herotica series, which was erotica for women before Rachel Kramer Bussel’s prolific erotica editing career.

I bought one of the Herotica books at a little indy bookstore—now gone—on Capitol Hill in Seattle when I visited one summer, before moving there. But it proved to be too threatening to my boyfriend who, enraged some night after yet another argument about my sexuality, stabbed that book and two other lesbian erotica books with the wide-handled screwdriver which I’d used to masturbate since I was a teenager.

These books are filled with three powerful things: 1. women, who are 2. empowered, 3. about their sexuality (which, by the way, does not involve men). Even the books themselves are threatening.

These books of lesbian erotica are not fluff. They are not nothing. They are not frivolous or useless.

For queers coming out and into our own, they are a path.

Fast forward a few years and I’ve managed to snag myself a lesbian bed death relationship, going out of my mind with desire and disconnection. I stopped writing, because the only thing that I was writing was how miserable I felt, how much I wanted out of that relationship—a reality I wasn’t ready to face. I decided that to work off my sexual energy, I would either go to the gym or I would write erotica. Well, I ended up writing a lot of erotica, rediscovering this tool of self-awareness and self-creation that had led me to smut in the first place, and I began writing myself back into my own life, back into the things that I hold most important: connection, touch, release, holding, witness, play.

My first published smut story was in Best Lesbian Erotica 2006. Between the time I wrote it and the time the book came out, I was beginning to end the bed death relationship, in no small part because I’d reminded myself of the value of the erotic, of my own inner erotic world, of erotic words. Between the time I wrote it and the time it came out, I started Sugarbutch Chronicles, which has carried me through these last five plus years, often being my sanctuary, support circle, best friend, and confidant.

Writing these stories, for me, has not been frivolous. They have not been nothing. They are not fluff or useless.

For me, they were a path back to myself when I got lost.

When I was lost, I had no idea what I wanted, aside from the basic daily survivals: work. Eat. Pay bills. Sleep. Shower. But when I wrote, when I connected with my own desire, I felt a little piece of me bloom and become in a bigger way. I felt more like myself.

I turned again to the great books of smut to help me find myself, to help me find a way back to a partner, a lover, a one night stand—hell, even an hour with a Hitachi was sometimes enough. The Leather Daddy and the Femme. Mr. Benson. Switch Hitters: Gay Men Write Lesbian Erotica and Lesbians Write Gay Male Erotica. Back to Basics: Butch/Femme Erotica. Doing It For Daddy. And Best Lesbian Erotica, always Best Lesbian Erotica. I still eagerly buy it every year to see what the guest editor’s tastes are, to see what the new trends are, to read the emerging new writers, to get my rocks off.

I rediscovered what I wanted through reading smut and writing it. Through carving myself a path in connection with a lineage of sex positive dykes and sex radicals and queer kinksters and feminist perverts.

After six years of writing and publishing erotica, I am thrilled to be a guest editor for the series which sparked me into queerness in 1998, thrilled to be choosing stories for the same series that published my very first piece, “The Plow Pose,” in 2006, which helped spark me back to myself. It is so exciting to be contributing to this queer smut hotbed that Cleis Press has helped nurture all these years, and I’m so glad to continue to be part of it in new ways.

I know what I want, now. And lesbian erotica, or as I prefer to call it, queer smut, has helped me not only visualize what is possible, but create a path toward getting what I want.

The stories in tis book reflect my taste, my favorites, my personal hot spots, certainly, but also the best-written stories from a large pile of well-written stories by some of my favorite authors, like Kiki DeLovely and Xan West and Rachel Kramer Bussel. There are some less-well known writers in here whose work you may not be familiar with, yet, but who will leave an impression on you, writers like Anne Grip and Amy Butcher. I found dozens of moments of signposts, signals directing me toward myself, words illuminating my own meridians of ache. With each story, with each act of lust, with each dirty command or submissive plea, I rediscovered my own want.

I hope you find some of what you want within these pages, too.

You can still pick up print copies of Best Lesbian Erotica 2012 via your local queer feminist independent bookstore, or, if you must, through Amazon.

And: Come see me & Jen Cross, Carol Queen, Amy Butcher, Xan West, M’kali-Hashiki, Cheryl Dunye, BD Swain, & Jiz Lee read smut from Best Lesbian Erotica 2014 this Thursday night, 12/12, in San Francisco at the Center for Sex & Culture. $20 at the door includes a copy of the book! Details here.

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2 Comments


  1. “I still have a lot of my own feelings about how important lesbian erotica is, and how it helps on the process of building one’s own identity. (“One” here meaning someone FAAB who tends to prefer to sleep with other FAAB people, at least at some point in their life.)”

    So, why don’t you feel that lesbian erotica is important to building the identity of trans-feminine spectrum lesbians?

    • … Um. Right. You are right, I absolutely mis-spoke in that sentence and it was completely out of line. Adding the parenthetical was an afterthought, when I realized I was referring to “one” and not identifying who that “one” was, so I tried to identify that, but yes, you’re right, I absolutely think lesbian erotica is valuable and identity-building for anybody involved with lesbian sex, women-identified women fucking women-identified women and also trans-identified women and female-identified trans people and male-identified trans people who were assigned female at birth and genderqueer folks of whatever kinds of stripes and——see how it gets kind of sucky to try to describe this? I don’t really know what to say or how to distinguish who finds lesbian erotica valuable. I think my slip-up and difficulty also comes with my cringing at the word “lesbian” to describe erotica most of the time for me in general—I much prefer to call it “queer smut,” and have ALL sorts of genders included, regardless of how they identify.

      So probably what I should have done there was not include a parenthetical … or to change “one” to “some people’s” and let the people self-identify, if they have any identification with lesbian erotica or not. I don’t AT ALL mean to dictate or control who gets value or validation for their identities through lesbian erotica—I think it’s great, regardless of who you are, and real, and important.

      So. Yes. I’m sorry I wrote it that way. I will update the text, and leave this note here. Thanks for helping me clarify it.

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