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desire be, desire go: reflecting on erotica

Image: Mike Murphy

Image: Mike Murphy

‘…hardcore pornography is now the primary form of sex education in the Western world. This is where teenage boys and girls are “learning” what to do to each other and what to expect when they take each other’s clothes off.’ – Caitlin Moran

That’s a pity. Besides finding out what goes where, what use has a young person for the shocking mechanics of sex? When you’re young, the harsh portrayals of ugly genitals slapping together can be unsettling, and the same can be said for the lack of tenderness in the animal coupling of two faceless human beings.

While the raw details of sexy times can be exciting – there’s no shame in that – it’s missing something: desire. We become familiar with physical urges from a young age, but desire is a different beast that is much harder to understand, to learn about and to come to terms with.

A year 11 English class will teach more about desire than any dirty magazine will. There’s the worshipful adoration of a body’s curves in Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. There’s the jealous obsessing over a lover’s embrace with another in Tender Is The Night by F Scott Fitzgerald. And there’s the yearning of gritted teeth and crushing embrace to entwine with a partner’s soul that is the beginning of innumerable tragedies.

Porn is a click away – it’s easy to become accustomed to the cardboard sex of loud moans and performative ejaculation. But it’s more difficult to listen to the whispers of desire, to become accustomed to the longing of spirit.


At the top of a city bookstore’s escalators, fallen rose petals trail past thriller paperbacks and arrive at a circle of chairs, nestled between the biography and travel sections. Twenty women, one man and three authors sit under dimmed lights. The room is dotted with soft candles. In the centre a table is laden with chocolate and fruit and decorated with a scarlet feather boa, and someone is handing out glasses of bubbly. Amid the hushed lighting there is raucous laughter and loud joking.

Tonight, Dymocks is hosting a reading of erotic fiction: Sex In Words.

Host Kyoko Church has dark hair and a wide smile. She laughs breathily as she welcomes the audience, and reveals the courage it takes to read erotica in front of others.

‘Reading to you tonight,’ her Canadian accent sparkles, ‘Is like taking a big poo in the middle of the floor. Ha! It’s like taking a big poo in the middle of the floor and saying to everyone, “That was me!” Ha!’

Angela Castle, who writes Paranormal Romance novels, reads out a shower scene from her upcoming book. Her protagonist, Storm, is happy to use and discard men, but the hero, a big cat shifter, wants to mate with her for life. Castle details that much of the erotic premise lies in the pursuit of Storm’s whole self, not just her body, and says this is a fantasy for many women.

The writing moves beyond the contrived, sappy romance of Mills and Boon, and euphemisms are tongue-in-cheek, rather than terrible metaphors. When Castle signifies she is finished by lifting her gaze with a broad smile and flicking her hair, the audience applauds and a listener offers: ‘Now I’m horny!’

Up next is Church, whose passage is a playful story from an upcoming anthology that pits domestic drudgery against the novelty of discovering a new lover. Her words highlight the poetry of ecstasy, before ending with a twist. The audience erupts in giggles.

Everyone in the circle is calm with experiencing frank renditions of orgasm and intimacy in a room full of adults. While the scenes are mainstream (hetero, clean language, no kinky stuff) sex is not taboo. Desires and fantasies are accepted as a dimension of every soul; here there is no restriction of social convention, of appropriateness. There is freedom.

Kate Belle closes the evening by reading an excerpt from her novel The Yearning, which explores sexual power play in a dangerous first love. Discussing later why she finds erotic fiction so compelling, she says it’s all about Eros.

‘Porn is just the mechanics,’ she says. ‘Tab A goes into Slot B. Erotic fiction takes emotional engagement into it, using ordinary people.’

‘Women writers do that best, I think. It’s about sexual love; without that, it’s just lust.’

Lust is easy. And delicious in its entirety. But as we grow beyond teenage years and want experiences that are satisfying and beautiful and memorable, and have depth and authenticity, our own preferences and autonomy can be harder to grasp.

‘A lot of young women find it hard to know what they want,’ says Belle, ‘and to articulate it.’

It can be hard to articulate desire because for some people there aren’t any safe places to discuss it – events like Sex In Words are great for normalising sensuality and talking about it out loud.

And it can be tough to know what it is you like; to decide what goes where, when, and for how long.

Let’s take our sexual education beyond one-dimensional porn of perfect skin and oversized appendages. It’s not essential to be monogamous for fulfilling sex, but it is necessary to seek human connection.

Experiencing desire comes from chasing Eros – moving beyond the machinations of sex, to engaging in sexuality with our whole selves.



6 thoughts on “desire be, desire go: reflecting on erotica

  1. What a wonderful post Louise. So glad you caught the nuances of the evening and you’ve captured them perfectly here. Sex in Words could be seen as lewd, but it wasn’t. I hope to be involved in future events.

  2. I often think about what you mention at the top of this article about young people learning from porn, ever since I saw this TED Talk: It is scary to think that there will be a generation of people who might think – hopefully just initially but maybe not! – that what happens in porn is how real people have sex. American advice columnist Dan Savage has described how he told his son that porn is to real sex what action movies are to real life. I think more kids need to hear that.

    And I think more people should come out to events like this that can showcase all different kinds of sex… from romantic to kinky to bizarre and everything in between. I hope for an end to what can be a very sex negative culture and this is my little effort at creating a new and inviting environment.

    Thank you for this wonderful recap of our evening, Louise! I hope you will come out to future events.

  3. Louise, this is a fantastic piece, thank you so much!
    I really did not know what to expect when organising the event with Kyoko, but I am SO thrilled at how it turned out. Kyoko made it such a warm and relaxed event and Angela and Kate were brilliant. I can’t wait for the next one!

  4. Thanks for your kind words, ladies!

    Kyoko – I love Dan Savage’s words on porn. My prayer is that every teenager in the midst of understanding sex has sage adult advice like that – be it from a parent or older sibling or whoever!

    • Hi Lou, just saw your reply now! Yes, Dan is my favourite advice columnist. He’s so wise!

      I hope you’ll make it to my book launch at the end of the month. More sexy fun! :)

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