When I heard about #OutWriters, I knew that I wanted to write about this subject, which is one of the central projects in my erotica writing. This is Part 1 of a three part blog series. Here is part 2. Part 3 is here.
Being a Queer and Trans Reader
There’s a thing that queers do, and that trans folks do, when engaging with media. Because we are not often represented in our fullness and complexity, we sometimes engage with media in a sideways kind of way. This can look like switching the genders of characters, focusing on queer and trans subtext, eliding the heteronormativity, shifting the plot in our heads, going down a rabbit hole in our minds around a minor character or plot point.
Susie Bright talks about this in The Celluloid Closet, when describing her experience of watching Morocco, how one moment of connection between Deitrich and another woman had her writing a whole other script in her head. (Skip to :56 to see that part of the clip.)
We get very good at rewriting in our heads. We do this so that we can read queerness (and ourselves) in the story, identify with characters, get emotional satisfaction or catharsis from the story. Our reading experiences are particular to each of us; we never really read the same book or watch the same movie.
Reading Erotica As a Trans Person
I’ve been an erotica reader for much longer than I’ve been an erotica writer. I love reading erotica, and I read a lot of it. I enjoy erotica as literature, and as fantasy of the wish fulfillment variety. I read it as a resource for me to learn and grow as an erotica writer. I also, and primarily, read erotica for my own erotic engagement. In other words, to get hot, get off, for my own desire and pleasure. (And for that, I vastly prefer the printed word. This is especially the case over the past few years as my migraines have gotten worse and my screen time capacities have lessened.)
As I read erotica, I rewrite it in the ways I described above, especially when I’m engaging erotically. I do all sorts of reworking in my head to make it the kind of text that I can engage with erotically, not all of which is about gender or queerness: I insert more conscious play with power, shift things to clearly consensual BDSM, highlight queer subtext, alter the context of the story, skip sections that are offensive, change the genders of characters, intensify power dynamics, shift point of view, and imagine dialogue, dynamic, and activity that is more aligned with my kinks.
What is particularly relevant for this blog post is that I often rewrite characters to be trans, so I can identify with them and more easily ride their erotic experiences. I’m damned skilled at this kind of mental gymnastics. Much of the time, part of what I’m most intensely focused on is making one or more characters trans in my head, often with a gender that I am or have been in my life. (Which is a rather wide array of genders.) I need some way into the story, some way to connect with the desire being evoked, in order to hook into my own desire through engaging with the text.
That said, however skilled I am at reading erotica for my own erotic engagement as a trans reader, there are often moments when I get jolted out of the story, where I cannot work around the written text, but instead am yanked out of my own erotic experience to one of distance, disconnection, and sometimes alienation. In my experience of this, it is often the way that bodies and sex are described that jars me.
When I’m reading erotica, and a character’s body is described outside of the descriptions of sex and BDSM play, I can sometimes elide those descriptions, even when they disrupt my rewrite of a character, and get back into the story. If something is working for me in the story, and I’m motivated to continue my erotic engagement, I can often still queer it (which is critical because my desire is deeply queer at its core), and find a way to recreate a character I could desire, a character I could be, or ideally both. Because of the shapes my desire takes, it usually takes deeper translation, stronger elision, or more intense rewriting to get there.
So, I’m finding something hot in the story (often it’s the power dynamic between the characters), and I’m riding along with the characters, remaking them so that I can connect, and the trouble usually arises in a few key areas: when characters take their clothes off, when they admire each other’s bodies, or when they fuck or do play involving specific parts of the body. I’m going along engrossed in some hot gay erotica, reading one of the characters as a trans butch like me, and then the POV character who desires him describes his cock and/or balls in such detail that I am jolted out of the story because it could not possibly be my body anymore, by any stretch of the imagination. I’m deep inside a kinky orgy scene, reimagining it as a bunch of genderqueer folks, and then I’m jolted out of the story because something happens that feels too dysphoric or just not ok or just not physically possible for the characters I have created in my head, like a detailed description of CBT, bukake or triple penetration. I’m reading some Ds erotica and I’m connecting to the submissive as a trans guy and then there is a detailed description of a clit or a cunt that makes the elision and rewriting I was doing in my head impossible and I’m jolted out of the story.
Jolt is the right word, because it is a yank outside of my self, my erotic engagement, and my body that feels jarring, and can have some intense reverb. (For example, it can intensify dysphoria, or evoke alienation.)
We all get jolted out of stories, for a range of different reasons, myself included. This kind of jolted feels different to me from the other kinds. It’s not the same as the kind of thing that happens for me when reading a story that is not crafted as well as I’d like, or reading a description of sex that has more arms than people generally would have, or continuity difficulties. It’s not the kind of response I have when folks are writing about kinks they don’t get or have characters doing things that are dangerous in a way that is unacknowledged. It’s not the same as reading something that I experience as offensive because of the way it enacts oppression. It’s not even akin to what it’s like to be triggered by something while I’m engaging with it erotically, which happens somewhat often. (Such is the reality of the trauma survivor.)
This is a different experience, partly because of how it feels, but also because it is rare that it doesn’t happen. Most erotica is not written so that trans folks like me can identify with the characters. And a good portion of what is termed “trans erotica” is not about trans folks as erotic subjects, not for us, not even from the point of view of trans characters, but in the business of fetishizing us.
As far as resources go for printed trans and genderqueer erotica that has felt accessible for me, there is a good portion of Patrick Califia’s later work, The Leather Daddy and the Femme, some stories printed in BLE, and a few trans anthologies I own that I like (GenderFlex, Best Transgender Erotica, and Take Me There). There is also my own work, much of which was written to create more erotica I could use to get off.
Because this experience of being jolted out of erotic engagement is so common for me as a reader of erotica, when I write erotica, I endeavor to create smut that is less likely to do that. For myself, and for other trans readers. I’m going to discuss how I do that in Part 2 and Part 3 of this blog series.
I’d love to hear from you about your own queer and trans erotic reading experiences, the kinds of things that jolt you out of erotic engagement with a text, and the trans erotica resources that you have found.