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.