Have you ever chanced upon a book that was seemingly innocent, but as the pages grasped your attention, each turn brought you to a forbidden salacious opening, until realisation dawned upon you, that books can contain explicit content too? For me, it began when I found a R rated graphic novel in the kids section in Crossword and my mom hurriedly took it out of my reach, telling me it was a ‘dirty book’.
‘Dirty’—that’s the primarily used word for anything sexual in nature, especially in a country like India.
It’s very difficult for our countrymen to contain sex and knowledge in the same sphere, which is a big reason why our sex education systems are so flawed. You don’t talk or impart knowledge about this topic, you’re just expected to know after a certain age. India is a largely prurient as well as a puritanical country. This means that our countrymen have an inane thirst to consume any and all sorts of salacious content, owing to the infamous Bollywood Item Numbers that ceaselessly objectify and degrade women, of course that’s common knowledge at this point. However, when it comes to literary erotic works in their true regard, suddenly the concept of moral policing kicks in—Parampara, Prathishta, Anushasan and all that flowery jazz. Amidst the ongoing pandemic which amounted to surplus free time, I happened to delve quite deeply into this topic. Being a long standing consumer of this genre, I wanted to write something that could encompass my love for it. So here it is.
What exactly is erotic literature? Well, in layman terms, it’s a romance novel with graphic sexual encounters, and in official terms, it’s a record of stories of human unions that aim to excite and stimulate the reader, both physically and mentally. As TinHouse has rightly said, ‘the power of the erotic is that even at its most basic, it portends to evoke at once the vulgar and the divine’.
Looking at it in retrospect, a lot of people confuse erotic literature or erotica with written pornography. They are, however, two very different things. Love and sex are the two most dynamic forces in human life and their alliance creates a spiritual fusion, that some may consider obscene outside of fantasy. Written pornography’s sole purpose is just to excite the peruser but erotica is what brings to light this fusion that explains in a charming manner, what brings about that excitement or arousal.
And in a way, pornographic material limits a person’s imagination whereas erotica tries to broaden it. As Jericho writers have said, porn seeks to lower, erotica to elevate. Porn is imposed, violent, debasing. Erotica celebrates sex within an adult, and with the genre of ‘erotic romance’ catching on, increasingly intense, romantic relationships. Where on-screen pornography fades away with the release, erotic fiction etches itself into the memory of the reader and adds more dimensions to the act of sharing intimacy than just its face-value or what meets the eye.
Since the beginning of time, women enjoying pleasure of a sexual nature has in itself been an absurd concept, with those that do stray down this path being labelled as conspicuous or wanton. Erotic fiction is more often than not the only titillating pleasure that many women are able to access because age-old traditions have taught us that the man’s satisfaction is the prime motive of any salacious activity (or of course, procreation). This is a primary reason why erotic fiction caters mostly to female readers, and thus, its audience harbours majorly to women. Reading erotic fiction is a journey towards embracing this whole other side of theirs, even if it’s only for the little duration within which they immerse themselves in the fictional world of a tantalising knight in shining armour that knows just the right buttons to push.
A most common and well known example of Erotica—Fifty Shades of Grey. Here, a myth buster is that erotica was prevalent long before this particular trilogy (goes all the way back to the 5th Century ghazals and the infamous Kama Sutra, and who could forget, Lady Chatterly’s Lover). Myth #2 is that Fifty Shades is an optimal example of erotic literature. It is an example, but not of quality literature. Why? Because it creates a lot of inane stereotypes of a practice as well as wrongfully demonises its practitioners.
It portrays people with deeply traumatic psychological issues as the sole partakers of this lifestyle and highly blurs the lines of consent, around which the entire lifestyle actually revolves. However, giving credit where it’s due, this trilogy did wonders in creating awareness about this genre and thereby, breaking the stigma around it and bringing it into the light.
Speaking in regards with our beloved nation, it’s safe (or not) to say that India is extremely regressive when it comes to talking about sex. I mean, a culture where they’d rather show two flowers being rubbed together in lieu of a couple consummating their marriage (that’s right, no marriage = no coitus), it’s not a shocker that films that show any inclination of a woman harbouring lust are either censored or banned from releasing. If the heroine in your work of fiction has the biological anatomy of a woman, and her reproductive organs respond to stimulating situations in a biologically expected manner, congrats! She’s no longer a heroine but a wanton vamp that is ruled by her desires. Sangeeta Bandopadhyay states that if one wishes to write about society, people and relationships, one cannot omit the sexual aspect of it all as its no longer complete and honest writing. In India, the only kind of titillating written content accessible was through Chetan Bhagat books—amongst others, which sadly, only consisted of sub-standard plot lines and cliche characters. The fact that a trilogy like Fifty Shades sparked the popularisation of erotica amongst the youth, is a very interesting factor indeed.
Coming to terms with the relevance of Erotica as a genre of literature has indeed been a struggle, there are still many who do not consider it an art form at all, let alone a part of literature and dismiss it as mere smut. Despite its existence since the beginning of time, with Kama Sutra being written in 400BCE and many other literary works that are regarded as superior forms of writing today, Erotica hasn’t exactly burgeoned as other classic texts have. In order for it to be treated as a genre as relevant as any other, people need to step up and proclaim their love for it with pride, give their all into writing and reading it whilst also recommending it to like-minded people. An interview with Narayan, a clinical psychologist, was quoted on SheThePeople where he said, ‘Every time we read in a way that re-imagines the world as erotic, we daydream—consciously or unconsciously—alongside our reading, and in doing so, we add to our own storehouse of erotic imagination. That storehouse allows us an inner space in which the erotic can stay alive, a buffer zone in the mind from erotic poverty. And the so-called anti-Romeo squads of the society do put us at risk for the poverty of the erotic because they rob and make unsafe the erotic, shutting off our own erotic imagination.’
The ongoing surge of sex entertainment, is unmistakably from the male gaze where, many a time, a passionate encounter between two individuals is simply decreased to a demonstration of a power play. How would we even test the elements in the room when numerous ladies are simply advised to satisfy their spouses—no inquisition allowed? This is exactly where erotic literature plays a huge role. It’s not just a form of entertainment in the mass culture, it can moreover be regarded as a source of information about the human anatomy and its carnal needs in a world where sex education itself is rare, erroneous, and (of course) only graced upon privileged adolescents.