Here is a round-up of the erotic fiction I know that features characters with mental health issues. It is substantively skewed to BDSM erotic fiction, and queer erotica, as I am much more likely to read that. It is not as thorough as I would like to be, as I do not currently have access to much of my erotica collection, because I recently moved and it is in storage. So it is mostly from memory. I will update it as I find more titles. Please feel free to share titles in the comments, if you know them.
My Own Work:
I write queer BDSM erotica (and do kink/sexuality/relationships education), and am fairly open about being a trauma survivor and having PTSD, especially in my sexuality and kink education. I also am fairly open about having spent many years working professionally in the trauma field. Trauma is what I know well, so that is what I have been including in my erotica.
I have published several stories that feature cathartic BDSM play, where characters choose to engage in play experiences that are trauma related, as a way of healing. (As a heads up, all of my stories involve BDSM, on the heavier side.) I try to represent this carefully, and to make sure it is clear that this practice is edgy, needs to be intensely negotiated and deeply consensual, and contains substantial risks.
- In “Ready”, first printed in Biker Boys: Gay Erotic Stories, edited by Christopher Pierce, a cathartic edgeplay scene is depicted in the context of an ongoing Daddy/boy relationship, that includes the boy pushing his limits, facing his fear of falling, and experiencing a positive catharsis around a homophobic bullying experience.
- “Dancing for Daddy”, printed in Best SM Erotica Volume 2, edited by M. Christian, explicitly names the protagonist as a trauma survivor who is choosing to do cathartic play around her trauma history with a longtime partner.
- “Facing the Dark”, printed in Backdraft: Fireman Erotica, edited by Shane Allison, published by Cleis Press, describes a fireman who has recently been injured and traumatized in a fire choosing to test his strength with an experienced top who takes him through a cathartic scene that includes facing fire again.
- “My Precious Whore”, printed in Best Lesbian Erotica 2011, edited by Kathleen Warnock, describes a scene between two lovers who are both trauma survivors, and are choosing to do edgeplay with each other, that evokes some of their trauma history.
Some of my stories briefly reference a trauma history of some sort, usually to name that the sex and BDSM that is to follow might be edgy for the characters. A good example is “Strong”, printed in Say Please: Lesbian BDSM Erotica, edited by Sinclair Sexsmith, which references “minefields”.
Examples I Would Not Recommend:
I generally don’t believe in listing negative examples. In this case, I am making an exception, as there are so few resources and as Harvey Fierstein has said, sometimes we would “rather have negative than nothing.”
There has been a recent wave of straight kink erotic novels that have a lot of popularity, which feature dominants that have a few things in common: they are very very wealthy, they are troubled in a way that explicitly mentions them as “crazy,” and they are kinky/dominant/controlling because they are “crazy,” usually due to childhood abuse. (Examples include the popular Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James, and Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series) In these novels, the mental health issues of the dominant are centralized, and at the core of the story. I would not recommend these novels for this purpose, so I mention them in a cautionary way. They have a lot of ableism around being “crazy”, and set it up as a problem that can be “cured” by love (a common theme in romance in general). They also include a lot of sex negativity and anti-kink prejudice, and deeply misrepresent consensual BDSM relationships and sex/play.
Similarly, there are a number of straight erotic romance authors that center characters with mental health issues. It is common for both old school and new school straight erotic romance to include characters (more often women) who have been traumatized by sexual assault, domestic violence, or child abuse, who then experience sex/love as a way to work through their trauma, or cure it. Authors who repeat this theme are Bertrice Small, Lora Leigh and Nora Roberts (though Roberts is more of a straight romance, not erotic romance author, but wow does this theme occur in her body of work). Of particular note, the Breed series by Lora Leigh centers characters that have been deeply traumatized, both men and women, as a core part of the paranormal worldbuilding, and this trauma is core to their motivations and deeply impacts their sexuality and relationships. Sex and mating (that includes a lot of dominance) is seen as a route to healing in these books, though they are less “cure” oriented than the previous authors I named. Lora Leigh also has a few other erotic romance series that are not paranormal, and involve characters with trauma who often experience love/sex as a pathway to healing.
I do not find the healing theme in any of these books to be careful enough for my tastes, or to represent pathways to healing that I would recommend for trauma survivors, which is why I list them under examples I would not recommend.
I should also mention that mental health issues are a common characteristic of many many villains in straight erotica, erotic romance, and romance of all sorts. Some authors that particularly favor this simplistic ableist stock character include Jennifer Crusie (see Crazy for You as a solid example) and Lora Leigh (who seems to favor “crazy” stalkers in particular). The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy also features this kind of villain as well, along with the earlier work of Laurell K. Hamilton (which I would not characterize as straight).
Examples I’d Recommend:
I have found the work of Patrick Califia in representing addiction and sobriety to be complex and nuanced and worth a read. Of particular mention are “Incense for the Queen of Heaven,” printed in No Mercy, and “Big Girls,” which appears in Melting Point. He also represents trauma survivor’s sexuality more realistically than most. Examples that come to mind are “Frankie and Johnny,” printed in No Mercy, and “Daddy”, which appears in Melting Point.
Patrick Califia edited a collection of Daddy erotica, Doing it for Daddy. Working through past trauma and having past trauma come up in play are a common themes in Daddy erotica, and some good examples include Califia’s own “Daddy”, and “Daddy’s Girl Meets Daddy’s Boy” (printed in Bi Guys: Firsthand Fiction for Bisexual Men), as well as “Daddy’s Girl” by Marilyn Jaye Lewis, printed in Tough Girls: Down and Dirty Dyke Erotica, “Ask Me” by Laura Federico printed in Doing it for Daddy, and “The Edge of Night and Day” by Peggy Munson, printed in Best Lesbian Erotica 03. I have a Daddy erotica round up posted on this site that includes more specific descriptions of these stories.
In addition to Daddy erotica being a place where you are more likely to see characters with mental health issues that are not simply the villain, but who are main characters with a complex sexuality of their own, I would also specifically name the Best Lesbian Erotica collection as a place where I have seen that represented (and lesbian erotica in general as more likely to include this than gay erotica or straight BDSM erotica). As I recall, there is a story in BLE 03, reprinted in Best of Best Lesbian Erotica 2, where a character pauses sex because she has a trauma reaction and then the sex restarts when she is ready. I believe it is “Boys” by Ana Peril, but am not completely certain as I cannot get my hands on that story right now.
There is one gay story I can think of: “Minotaur”, by Scott Thompson, printed in Roughed Up, centers a character grappling with a recent trauma (gay bashing) as he develops a sexual connection with a man he had picked up earlier that night.
There is a paranormal author whose work includes substantial erotic content, including quite a bit of BDSM, that is worth mentioning. Laurell K. Hamilton frequently includes characters that are in recovery from trauma and addiction, and characters that are trying to grapple with the difference between trauma/real world violence and consensual sex/BDSM, and between mental health issues that are occurring in a destructive manner vs. every day mental health concerns that are part of life. She is particularly interested in developing these contrasts as the books continue, and this contrast gets more complex as the books go on, though at the beginning its a bit simplistic and relies a bit too much on a “crazy villain” trope. Both her Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series and her Merry series (focused on faeries) take their time with these issues over many books, and show her characters growth around these issues as the books go on. The characters in the Anita Blake novels start out with a lot of internalized sex negativity and internalized ableism around mental health, but they continue to develop and grow and heal as the books continue. If you are looking for the place where these changes really start getting going, it is the book Narcissus in Chains.
Jacqueline Carey’s fantasy novel series Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s Chosen, and particularly Kushiel’s Avatar feature a character (Phedre) who experiences trauma and explores sexuality from an empowered place. She goes on to focus on this theme in the next trilogy of the Kushiel’s legacy series (Kushiel’s Scion, Kushiel’s Justice, Kushiel’s Mercy), which is much more filled with struggle and challenge around intense childhood trauma, and a whole lot less empowerment; I do not recommend that set of her books.
A few fiction recommendations that are not erotica
Crescent Dragonwagon’s The Year it Rained was a YA novel that I found intensely compelling as a young person exploring my sexuality, particularly because it has a protagonist who is quite open about her mental health issues (she has schizophrenia) and is exploring her sexuality. It is most easily accessed on Smashwords.
Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues is a novel that centers a character who experiences multiple traumas that have a deep impact, and continues to work on creating relationship. It is a gorgeous depiction of a person with PTSD working to claim their body and sexuality. (A free author edition is forthcoming.)
I have great affection for the Ruby Oliver novels by E. Lockhart, a quartet of YA fiction that center a character (Ruby, who is one of the most charming YA protagonists I’ve ever read) who has panic attacks and discusses her experiences with therapy. It focuses a lot on her sexuality and relationships with boys, which is pretty clear from the titles of the books. (They are: The Boyfriend List, The Boy Book, The Treasure Map of Boys, Real Live Boyfriends.)
A few nonfiction resources on sexuality/kink and mental health/trauma:
- Circumstance and Carefulness is a blog about kink and trauma survivorship. There haven’t been new posts for a while, but it might be useful to look at the things that have already been posted.
- Cuntext is a blog by a queer femme erotica writer and educator who is open about her mental health issues and writes a lot about being borderline in the context of kinky and polyamorous relationships.
- I cannot vouch for the quality of it’s content, as I have not read it, but there is a website dedicated to Domination/submission (D/s) and mental health, called Broken Toys
- A personal essay by Aurora Levins Morales about reclaiming sexuality in the aftermath of sexual trauma, “Radical Pleasure: Sex and the End of Victimhood” in Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity
- Staci Haines’ book (and DVD) Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma
- This blog post by Jasmine James on kink, masochism and depression
- (ETA) This post on BDSM and depression
Again, I welcome comments, and suggestions for other erotica that I have not included.