We’re not supposed to admit this out loud, but when I was a kid, I ignored the “you must be 18+ to read this” warning on erotica websites and marched right in. I remember that for the first few years (without revealing too much, I was still in high school a couple years into reading erotica), I couldn’t read a story that didn’t take place in high school. If a story took place in college, or, god help us, an adult environment where people had to work and could just drive cars everywhere, my eyes would glaze over and I’d ask myself what the point of reading this was if I couldn’t feel something directly for the character.
Representation has become a buzzword in stories over the last decade or so, more so than it seemingly was in the past. Mostly we think about visible types of people when we talk about representation – a female superhero, a black James Bond, a character on Sesame Street in a wheelchair, etc. Some people, 99% of the time people who never had issues with representation of their demographic in the media, don’t like it when it’s brought up. “Ugh, a black James Bond???” As if a certain character type is reserved for one demographic and one demographic only.
I myself have been trying to increase the demographics in my stories for a little bit now. Most erotica is told from the narrative perspective of some white, hung, circumcised boy, usually either skinny, fit, or at worst, average. You could probably name at least five erotic stories where the main character is that kid I just described. Can you name five erotic stories where the main character is a fat boy? Or how about five stories where he has a smaller-than-average penis? Five stories from the POV of, say, a black girl? A kid in a wheelchair? I could go on, but most reasonable people see my point.
If I had an accident when I was young and was confined to a wheelchair, and my favorite erotica author had published a piece where the main character was also in a wheelchair, I would have been through-the-roof with happiness. I would have felt seen. Hell, even as I was, when I was in high school and I read erotica where the main character hade my first name (which was a rarity, as I have an uncommon first name) or had my exact haircut or even said a line of dialogue that sounded like me, I would have been floored. I felt seen, and I felt happy to have been seen. Especially since erotica is usually a happy fantasy, it made me feel like people like me could ‘make it,’ so to speak.
Some representation is purely about demographics. I’ve received an email or two noting that I wrote from a lesbian’s perspective and now a Chinese boy’s perspective and, at one point coupled with an eye-rolling emoji, the emails asked if I was trying to represent everyone and make everyone happy or something.
Imagine asking “are you trying to make everyone happy?” and making that out to be a bad thing. You know what the invisible part of that statement is, right? The part they’re refusing to say out loud? “In my opinion, some people don’t deserve to feel happy.“
That’s made even worse when realizing that this came from me writing from the POV of a woman and a Chinese person. What am I even supposed to say in response to that? “You’re totally right, dude. Chinese people and women don’t deserve to feel happy and seen when reading erotica.” It should not be controversial to say that all races and all genders deserve to feel happy and seen when they read erotica.
Now, I’ve kind of sucked at contributing meaningfully to this, even though I talk a big game. A general sweep over my stories can tell you that most of my stories’ protagonists are presumably white men. Not only do I predominantly write from my own generalized experiences (I myself am a white man), but as well, I don’t just want to write a story and slap a race or gender on the character afterwards as if I’m only fulfilling a quota. We can pretend we’re a post-racial society all we want, but there are going to be some changes if a character is white, or if they’re first-generation immigrants from China. Hell, even if you’re a first-generation immigrant from another whiter country like Sweden, there will be significant differences.
Mutual Benefits has been written with the slight help of a friend of mine whose parents come from China. He’s a first-generation immigrant (unless I misunderstand the term and the term for him would be ‘second-generation immigrant). I consult with him because representation in stories isn’t about checking off all the race boxes and mentioning once, “Oh yeah, he’s Chinese.” Making sure the mother character was accurate but not too much of a stereotype, making sure I understood the very slight ways Asian kids were treated differently in schools (such as the math teacher presuming he’d be happy to tutor the popular kid), the diet, and especially the outbursts written in Pinyin, making sure they’re grammatically correct and all that. Representation, as it’s applied, is a product of care, not of arbitrary inclusion of terms. We’re looking to include people together, not percentages on a graph. As I find more people to talk to from different demographics who would be willing to consult, I’ll feel comfortable representing more. So if you’re in a wheelchair and wondering why I’m talking up a big game without featuring a story told from the POV of a kid in a wheelchair, that’s why. I want to write all experiences, but more importantly, if I do, I don’t want to fuck it up.
I had a lot more to say about representation, especially since representation is usually only talked about this way but there’s another angle we keep glossing over, but this blog is already longer than usual so I’ll save that for next time. I’ll talk to you all next week.
8 thoughts on ““That’s Me!””
I think you do a good job of keeping some character details vague so readers can project their own experiences into the story.
For example, as I’m from Europe, I’m not circumcised and I don’t know anyone who is. When I stop to think about it, obviously your male characters would be circumcised but as you don’t mention it in your writing I automatically apply what’s familiar to me and just imagine dicks I’m accustomed to.
You do the same with dick size, I think the only time you mention it is early on in BMS but even then it could just be interpreted as a compliment or ego boost. That way of writing means readers have to make assumptions, which isn’t a bad thing.
Your writing is a good example of when less is sometimes more
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It’s interesting you say “obviously.” I’m uncircumcised too and always envisioned my characters as the same.
I guess I just proved your point.
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I take – and largely agree with your points, but just to be Devil’s Advocate – or rather ‘PC Advocate’, how do you (or would you) respond to charges of culural appropriation? From what I hear, that’s a big trap for a lot of people – trying to write in the persona of someone different from yourself (especially if that someone is a minority or in some way disadvantaged) seems to be frowned upon almost as much as writing about middle class white men! Incidentally, I realise that I’ve never seen criticism, at least on cultural appropriation grounds, of people ‘impersonating’ rich, privileged males!
I suppose what I’m thinking – if indeed I am – is that Society seems to be moving towards a place where the whole idea of ‘imagination’ is fenced around with so many rules, written and unwritten, that this place, and similar sites, are almost the only places where someone can write in any mode, and adopting any persona, they like. Anyway, do keep going. As I know nothing whatsoever about the home life of Asian-origin boys in America it’s unlikely that I’ll be shocked or offended by any of it!!
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As far as I understand the concept, cultural appropriation hinges on the idea of taking a part of culture and claiming it as one’s own, as opposed to representing it fully. The whole debacle about dreadlocks, for example, stems not from the fact that white people wear them, but the fact black people with dreads are denied jobs and asked to change it, whilst a lot of white people not only don’t suffer the same consequences from dreads, but also deny any link, claiming that Vikings had dreads before Africans (spoilers, they didn’t).
I have never gotten accused of cultural appropriation, although I don’t think it would be called that at this point, as that is its own thing – maybe “cultural misrepresentation”? If that happened, I’d ask what I got wrong and then consult with a knowledgeable friend about it, in case the commenter is the misinformed one. If it turns out I’ve been wrong, I’ll fix it.
I also have a lot of optimism in the social movement, and a lot of the cringiest opinions on wielding ‘cultural appropriation’ as a sword largely comes from 14-year-olds that just joined the movement and want to look important – 99.9% of people talking about cultural appropriation seem reasonable and knowledgeable on the subject, but an outsider to the subject would of course only hear the loudest voices in the room, hence the screaming 14-year-olds.
TL;DR – I haven’t been accused of cultural appropriation because I consult friends and write these characters realistically, instead of boiling them down to their fetish value or something. I might get a few things wrong and hopefully they’ll get corrected, but it would take a special kind of person to get offended at the mere mention of a “””minority””” in a story of mine.
Fair enough, and I certainly don’t want to get into an argument if only because I largely agree with your original blog post.
But the way I’ve seen ‘cultural appropriation’ (which, just to be clear, is not a label I would throw at any fiction author) used in this side of the Atlantic has nothing to do with the quality of the depiction and everything to do with the ‘culture’ (usually race) of the depictor. You could be writing meticulously accurate descriptions of the culture in question but – in certain ‘gate-keepers’ eyes – if you do not belong to that culture then you have no ‘right’ to write about it.
Absolutely not my view: my point was that there is a narrow, and I suspect sometimes imperceptible, line between inclusive representation and so-called appropriation.
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It makes sense! People will always gatekeep. The gatekeepers have not found me; likely because I’m probably not on their radar and never will be. Thank goodness.
As someone who is very left-wing and has many people in the camp a lot of people derisively refer to as ‘woke,’ I’d say that a lot of my friends at least are more level-headed with that kind of thing. I imagine, and hope, that as long as I write different cultures and perspectives in good faith specifically, that mobs will not go after me. And if they do, if it’s gotten to the extent of a whole mob, odds are there’s something I could at least improve. Even if the line is imperceptible, if I cross it, I need to do my best to see if I have done wrong and if so, what I have done wrong. And if I haven’t done wrong, I’ll just keep on writing. If the mobs at sexstories dot com couldn’t keep me down, no one can. 😉
I do agree mostly on what you said. But let’s take your example of a black superman, I don’t actually like that idea as a black man myself, not because superman is ONLY supposed to be white. But because from my experience of watching superman movies as a kid I always admired him and never really thought of the color of his skin. I feel like if someone is trying to represent other cultures it might be better to just create the character from scratch rather than taking a character that already exist and known as the way it is. Because I would take it wrong as well if a well known black character suddenly got changed to a white one for representation.
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I’m fine with it for something like James Bond because James Bond basically is a type of character at this point, one that gets re-invented with each incarnation. Pierce Brosnan is totally different than Connery. So making a black James Bond wouldn’t be weird, and neither would Superman in the right context, given as you said, we don’t really fixate on skin color. I would agree heavily that we should primarily focus on telling stories of different people first rather than one story through different lenses. Hence why Quinn is Quinn and not just Nicole Baker but she’s an Asian boy now or something. If we only got a black superman after white people “got a turn playing him,” that would feel pretty demoralizing I’d imagine.
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