My Sex Positive Story Part 2: Rachel Kramer Bussel

In this second instalment of Rachel Kramer Bussel’s interview, we hear from Best Women’s Erotica founder and editor, Rachel Kramer Bussel.

Rachel Kramer Bussel of Best Women's Erotica

Rachel Kramer Bussel is a prolific writer, editor, and advocate for erotica. She has been published in over 100 erotica anthologies as well as editing over 60 of her own, including The Big Book of Orgasms, Come Again: Sex Toy Erotica, as well as the Best Bondage Erotica of the year and Best Women’s Erotica of the Year series. Her books have won 8 IPPY (Independent Publisher Book) Awards.

Carol Battle talked to Rachel in the lead up to the publication of Best Women’s Erotica Volume Six about insights gleaned from over 20 years writing and editing erotica.

Carol:  Over the 21 years that you’ve been writing and editing erotica, what kind of changes have you seen stylistically in erotica, and also kind of themes and content? 

RKB: That’s difficult as I see a sort of small slice of what people are wanting to write about right now.

I’ve always seen an interest in writing about BDSM. It’s not that I think that’s the majority of the writing, but my experience has been that people who either have practiced BDSM or interested in it, want to explore it in writing, if they’re inclined to be a writer.  I think there’s so much to unpack about it.  Most of them probably didn’t grow up seeing healthy representations of BDSM and I think it can be confusing to try and understand why an act that might seem violent in another context, or it might seem troubling in another context, turned me on.  What is that about?

I think it can be confusing even if you don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. If you are coming to it totally new it can be just a lot to figure out. I think a lot of people turn to erotica to explore that.

I think the market for erotica has changed. I think it has expanded, especially with the rise of eBooks and so many niche sub-categories: there’s dinosaur erotica and a lot of paranormal erotica.

I think the heart of what people are writing is similar to what I was reading and writing 20 years ago.

I think people still want to explore first times. I think a lot of people are really drawn to characters who are either doing something that they’ve never done before, or hooking up with a new partner and I am all for that, but I also stress to people to write me stories about couples or threesome relationships or people who’ve been together for a long time.  I think there’s value in looking at how relationships and sex change over time too.

Of course there’s initial drama when two people who don’t know each other or just meet are exploring their first sexual encounter. But when you’ve read that dozens of times, not that you can’t do it in a new way, but I think there’s also a drama in exploring new things with the same person — that’s a different kind of drama, but I think that is also really worth unpacking.

And because it’s realistic to a lot of people’s lives, but also overlooked a lot of the times in favor of ‘sexy stranger on a train or a plane’ or whatever.

I think there two kinds of erotica, very broadly speaking.  There’s the kind that looks at real life situations and incorporates a radicalism that are somewhat plausible, that you could maybe envision really happening.

And then there’s the kind where they’re either impossible in our world, such as sex with an alien or a dinosaur or just highly unlikely, the kind of more fantastical. I think there’s value in both of those.

I think they reach readers who are looking for different things.

I think the stories that have stayed with me the most are the ones that talk about real life situations that you might not think would be erotic, like dealing with the aftermath of cancer, or dealing with how how bodies change in that situation and how relationships change.

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There was a story I published about a woman who had had cancer. And then her partner is treating her very gingerly and tenderly. And she feels like she wants to be treated roughly the way he did before; to feel like she used to feel. He felt like he was doing what he should do to protect her and to be considerate. For her, she wanted to feel the central way she felt before and for her to access that she wanted him to treat her that way.

I don’t think fiction and especially erotica is a blueprint or sex ed per se. I think it can show you different perspectives on desire and sex and life that maybe you hadn’t considered before.

I’m not saying ‘everyone write erotica about cancer’ because I think that’s sort of an outlier of a story, but it definitely is one that has stayed with me. And I think it has, because that emotional resonance mixed with sexuality, I think it’s really challenging to not have a story like that get very dark and veer away from the eroticism. You kind of have to force yourself to come back to the erotic part of it.

For me as an editor, I’m always looking for a balance of both of those ‘over the top incredible’ and ‘crazy and weird and like just mind blowing’ and then the sort of, ‘wow this made me almost cry’.

Carol: With respect to erotica not being sex ed, how do you see a writer’s responsibility in representing consent in in stories?

As much as I don’t believe it’s sex ed, in the sense that I don’t think erotica writers should be held to the standard of responsibility, if someone tried the things in your story and had a different outcome.  I feel a responsibility as an editor around consent specifically, and also around safety protocols.

I wouldn’t publish a story where someone’s tied up and left in a room by themselves because in real life I don’t think that would be safe. I work with writers to make it clear that consent is happening throughout the story.

Even if you know, it might be implied. And I think often the writers don’t intend to not address it. They know in their head that everyone is consenting. But if you don’t write it out, it’s not always clear to the reader. I think it’s important to establish that and also show that you can do it in a sexy way. I mean maybe that’s starting with one point of view and then switching to the other person’s point of view so that the reader knows that.

You know, maybe they’re giving off a signal; you can convey that to the reader in ways that the characters in the story, would know about each other. But if the author doesn’t explicitly say it, then I think that’s a missed opportunity and I think it can be done in a really, creative, central and sexy way.

You know, you don’t have to make it dry or clunky. Trying to find ways to convey consent, but make it hot, is something that might be challenging at first if you’re not used to that, but I think it’s a good and worthwhile challenge.

Subtle, ongoing interactions and consent can be done through dialogue or through other means available to writers, whether the story is from one person’s point of view or whether it’s the third person and you can give both points.

If there’s more than two people, everyone’s point of view, you have that freedom to play with that and, you know, and do it in a way that’s realistic.

You can use cues in a way that doesn’t detract from the storytelling and in fact enhances the storytelling. I think it’s a really interesting opportunity from an educational perspective that authors can really explore a lot more.

I think there are also situations that are ripe for exploring.  For example, where one person is trying to introduce something or broach something that they want to try. And the other person is open to it, but doesn’t know what to think. You know, it’s not that they’re consenting, but they don’t and can’t say “definitely do this”. Or they might say, “maybe”.

I think this is also really a rich space to explore: “maybe I’ll like this” or “maybe I won’t”. There’s a learning experience for the couple and this is also common in real life, where maybe one person is into something and the other person isn’t.

But they want to allow their partner to experience it in some way, so they have to find a compromise. Maybe that compromises is that they do it with someone else or maybe they watch them do it or they some other alternative. I think those negotiations are worth exploring too. And they can lead to maybe a third or fourth outcome that neither party had considered at the beginning. And wouldn’t have unless they talked it out or tried it out or experimented.

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CB: Consent is definitely nuanced and really interesting to explore in writing.  I’m interested in your story—have you always been what is referred to as “sex positive”?

RKB: I think we had sex ed in school. It wasn’t super extensive, but I never thought that sex was a bad thing or something to be hidden. I wouldn’t say I was always super comfortable talking about sex.  I lived in New York when I started writing erotica.

Going to sex parties, sexuality events, talks and being part of the sex positive community at the time helped me be more comfortable; to meet people and witness things that were outside of my previous experience.

Some things I was personally into, but that really helped broaden my perspective of what desire can look like for all kinds of different people.

And I’m not saying I’ve seen everything or done everything, but I think interacting with people, whether virtually or otherwise, who are turned on by different things to you is really valuable, and can really broaden people’s perspectives of what sex is. And to me, that is part of what being sex positive is about. When I refer to everyone, I don’t really think there is an everyone.  As a community, we have to be welcoming of asexual people, of people on that spectrum whose sexuality changes over time.

I don’t think there’s any one size fits all of what sex means to people. I think that’s really worth continually thinking about and expanding our definition of what sex positivity means.

I think there’s this assumption by some people that a sex positive world is one where everyone is just having more sex or talking about sex more.

One where people are allowed to have the sex that they want to have and to talk about the sex they might want to have, or think about and where they’re allowed to and encouraged to think about sex in a really extensive way.

I know people and meet people all the time who may not personally feel a sense of shame about their sexuality, but they are connected to people who would make them or try to make them feel ashamed of their sexuality.

There’s still a lot of shame around sex for people of all genders, that is baked into mainstream society. At the same time sex and sexy images are used to sell products, and there’s also a really limited view of what is sexy now that is being expanded.

Notions of beauty and body image have expanded to a large degree but there’s still a lot more to go in that regard, and I think those are all connected.

You asked me what’s changed; my brain has gone to, what hasn’t changed, and I’ll tell you. I still get a lot of stories about idealized body images. With women there tends to be more body diversity.

The traits of men, especially when the story is about a women who sleep with men, are somewhat limited in terms of what I see repeatedly: six pack abs; a certain buff thin muscular physique; tall, dark handsome; and rich.

It troubles me to some degree — not that you can’t write characters who are like that, but when it’s repeated over and over, it is just as damaging as the idea that, say, women should have a certain breast size and body shape.  I think we need to eroticize, admire, and publicize a much wider range of physical expressions.

That goes along with making room for different types of approaches to sexuality. I don’t think you can really explore your sexuality if you feel like there’s something wrong with it or you feel like it’s only okay.

Whether that’s being in a polyamorous relationship or being bisexual or kinky or whatever it is, I think until all of those things are seen as normal, as being straight and monogamous, we won’t have that total freedom to explore both in our minds and in our bodies.

It’s really about expanding the possibilities of all gender roles across society both in sexuality and in other areas of life.

I think with erotica, porn and sex positivity, they’re connected to all these other ideals that we sometimes uphold in our society. And it trickles down into the writing. I’m always supportive of writing about sexuality and desire in ways that are underrepresented right now — maybe in five years or 10 years, they won’t be as underrepresented.

I’m not saying you can’t write about thin people or rich people but these are not types of people that are underrepresented in any way. I don’t think that just means write about a plus size woman, but you can write about plus size women. There’s also a huge range of body diversity within that and I think we could all, myself included as a writer, always go further in looking at different types of physical traits and personality traits to offer readers that may give them a different perspective on sex. I wouldn’t call that sex ed per se, but I do think that that impacts people. They remember it, and they might look at their own biases differently.

Begging for more? You can find out more about Rachel Kramer Bussel or buy Best Women’s Erotica 6 here.