Content Warning: Discussion of common erotica tropes, including lack of consent, kink, etc.
I love erotica. Of all the sexy media available out there, erotica is by far my favorite. Maybe it’s because I grew up on fanfiction and read the Clan of the Cave Bear series too young; maybe it’s because I’m prone to sensory overload and written erotica is easier to manage for me; maybe it’s because I communicate best in writing myself.
I’m going to admit now: my taste in erotica is not spectacular. I’ve genuinely enjoyed everything from free Kindle erotic romance to Tumblr smut to Archive of Our Own reader-insert. I’ve read smut with good plot, smut with bad plot, and smut with no plot. I’ve read erotica that contains personal limits or squicks because it’s brief enough that I can look past it to the stuff I actually want to read. Just as I can enjoy an 80s movie with questionable premises and dumb dialogue, I can enjoy erotica that has a few silly or even uncomfortable things. As long as there’s enough to titillate or at least interest me, I can compartmentalize most of the time.
But there are a few things that will make me stop reading. Whether they trip me up as a writer, or they irk me as someone deeply interested in sex and kink, there are a few issues I see a lot that will, upon notice, pull me right out of the story. These are pretty personal—what bothers me may not bother someone else, just as I can overlook things that might make you retch on your Kindle and make you spend the rest of your afternoon watching wholesome YouTube videos to try to clean your brain. But for me, these are trends, habits, or simple flaws that I see with some frequency that always, always cancel out anything sexy going on.
Glaring Grammar and Formatting Errors
Look, I don’t care if you end a sentence on a preposition. I can overlook a dangling participle. Realistic dialogue is rarely, if ever, grammatically correct by textbook standards, and narrative can be written as natural human speech as well. That’s cool. My biggest issues are when people don’t know how to format dialogue, or neglect to break their story into paragraphs.
Dialogue is one of the biggest problems I see on Tumblr and AO3. I recognize that this isn’t something that’s taught in school—at least, it wasn’t when I was in school. I personally learned by reading books and mimicking how it was formatted in the novels I liked, but some people don’t learn that way, and I get that! Instead of going into a little lesson, here’s a pretty simple guide.
Wall-of-text posts are particularly frustrating because the human brain likes things broken up into manageable chunks. When faced with a big block of text, it turns into one of those Magic Eye puzzles that you have to stare at until you see a sailboat. That’s a pity because there might be some quality stuff in there! Paragraphs in casual writing don’t have to be hugely structured, but you should at least change paragraphs whenever a new person speaks, and when there’s a scene change, a point-of-view change, or any other time you want to introduce a new thought or concept. That’s a super bare-bones way of putting it, but the important thing is: please give your readers some space to process your words!
There are other grammar issues that can drag me out of a story, but those two are the biggest issues. Whatever magic there might be in the story, I can’t immerse myself anymore. I’ll explain a little more in the next section.
Weird Euphemisms for Body Parts
I recognize that there aren’t a lot of universally-loved words for “vagina,” and saying “vagina” can to many people sound kind of clinical. I understand that we, as a society, within the confines of the English language, are limited. I’m not talking about whether you should say “pussy” or “cunt,” or other common slang terms, because to an extent that’s about personal taste and the character you’re writing.
I’m talking about the time I was reading someone’s personal sexy story and she kept calling her vagina her “pumpum.” Or the one Tumblr graphic I saw back when they allowed porn that referred to the vulva as a “taco.” Or the Wattpad erotica I stumbled on that referred to a penis as a “peepee.”
If it sounds like either a toddler or a 13-year-old boy is writing your erotica, kindly stop at once. I don’t care if you’re writing caregiver-little smut; if everyone involved is a consenting adult (and by God they should be), then please at least write the narrative as though you, too, are a consenting adult.
This is not just because it sounds silly or because it sounds, uh, youthful. This actually ties in a bit with the previous point, and that is this: you want your reader to forget that they’re reading. You, as the author, should disappear behind your writing, and your reader should be immersed in the story. When your formatting and grammar are noticeably weird, or when you use an extremely odd word choice, that brings attention from the story to what you said. The reader has to go back and read it over again and make sure they’re comprehending what you said, and that makes the illusion evaporate. If it’s just for a moment, sometimes that’s fine—sometimes that’s what you want—but if it happens a lot, it’s very hard to get invested in, or carried away by, the story.
Please. Cock and pussy are fine. No one has to stop and think about what those things are; we can just pay attention to what they’re doing. Something fun, I hope.
This is something I used to see frequently, but not exclusively, on Literotica. (Is Literotica still a thing?) This might be a broad generalization, but it seems to be largely a habit of straight cis male writers, or people who learned to write from straight cis male writers. Usually it looks something like this:
“On the morning of her 18th birthday, Kelly woke up naked. She crossed to the mirror and admired her tan skin, slim waist, long blonde hair, and generous DD breasts.”
(They’re always barely eighteen. This is another personal peeve. Eighteen-year-olds can have all the sex they want, but I’m 32 and I don’t want to read about it. People, including women, still exist and are sexual over the age of 25.)
Anyway, here’s the thing about cup sizes: they don’t mean jack shit. Cups are dictated not just by the quantity of breast tissue, but by rib cage diameter, not to mention brand differences. Personally, depending on the brand, the band, and how well I’ve adjusted my breasts, I’ve been known to fit anywhere from a C to an E, and I don’t consider myself especially well endowed. Cup sizes just don’t tell you anything.
You want to talk about someone’s titties? How about using actual descriptions? “Her breasts were heavy and soft, threatening to spill out of her corset.” “Their breasts were small and high, with pink areolas.” “Her breasts looked like two beach balls glued to her rib cage.” (Okay, maybe not that one.) It’s stronger writing, much more vivid, and doesn’t make me feel like I need to haul out the measuring tape.
(Also, a quick note to cis dude writers in general: we really don’t spend that much time staring at our tits. We know they’re there. The only time I’m that aware of my boobs, it’s because I’m on my period, and for some reason y’all never want to write about that.)
Improper Use of Sex Toys
One time I was reading erotica and it wasn’t great but it was okay and then a guy shoved a bullet vibrator in his partner’s asshole and I assume they later went to the ER to get it extracted but I don’t know for sure because I had to stop reading and breathe into a paper bag.
Inexperienced Girl Meets Experienced Dom
Christ, this is such an overused trope. She (always she) is a shy, virginal young woman, almost always under 24. She has never seen a vibrator in her life, and might not be sure what her clit is for, but he (always a he) is there with heavy bondage, hard spankings, and a throbbing cock to show her how to Be A Twue Submissive.
Aside from the fact that the dynamics are kinda gross, it’s been done. Give me a submissive who knows they’re submissive already. Give me a dom who’s a little uncertain about things. (Also, while I do seek out a lot of female submissive characters in my erotica for obvious reasons, I would like to see more masculine and nonbinary subs as well please, not to mention feminine and nonbinary dominants.) And for fuck’s sake, can they actually discuss preferences instead of just having him decide everything and her magically responding to it all? I get the fantasy of, y’know, “My new lover knows exactly what to do!” but honestly.
Flat, Boring Characters
Erotica is about fantasy, and as such, there’s a desire to be able to put oneself in the character’s shoes. I understand that. But if your characters have absolutely no personality, I’m not going to imprint on them and insert myself; I’m going to get bored and leave.
I’m inhabiting the heads of these characters for prurient reasons. I don’t want to have sex with boring people in real life. Why would I want to have sex with a boring person in a fictional context? If I don’t care, at least a little, about the characters, then I don’t care what they do and I don’t care what happens to them.
People are whole, with rich inner lives and interpersonal conflicts and preferences and dislikes. Please, give your characters some personal interests other than just who they’re boning. When you put two whole, interesting people together, it’s much more fulfilling to watch their attraction grow, to see their chemistry, and yes, to watch them go to pound town. You don’t even have to have all the build-up; if you’re just here to write the sexy part, that’s great—you can still include moments of humanity! Have someone fumble with the condom or make a dumb joke. It won’t destroy the magic. It’ll just make it more relatable, and infinitely more endearing.
If you’re writing any sort of anal sex, please give these poor people some lube. The anus is not naturally self-lubricating. It’s not hot to have someone going in dry. It’s painful! It can lead to tearing! My butthole is sad for their butthole. Please just let them have some fucking lube.
(Bonus points if you include an artificial lubricant for vaginal sex as well, because a lot of people with vaginas could still use some outside help, and it’s a good way to help normalize the use of lube.)
So, what do I like in my erotica?
I love humor, and well-developed, fun characters. If it’s a longer piece I love some conflict that’s resolved by the end. I love explicit consent, especially if it’s written in a really sexy way. (Anyone who thinks asking consent can’t be sexy does not have a very good imagination.) I love non-PIV sexual pleasure. I love when people remember that the clit is a thing. I love when kinky scenes are not just foreplay but are whole in and of themselves. I love diversity in sexuality, gender identity, skin tone, and body types. I love characters who are over twenty-five. I love pre-scene kink negotiation in fiction. I love genre-busting erotica, with monsters, aliens, spaceships, or sword-and-sorcery elements.
So what’s your erotica pet peeve? What are your erotica faves? Can you overlook a pet peeve if the story’s titillating enough? Let me know, and feel free to drop recommendations!
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