One of the events that's emerged over the last year is what I call "the beautiful-people backlash." In so many stories I've read for the new millenium BAE, the plot turns on a character who-- for either supernatural or quite pedestrian reasons-- is physically grotesque. Ugly people seem to be calling the shots, ranging from the disabled to the strange to the terribly plain.
"Introduction," by Susie Bright
In contrast with the sentimental message of a Beauty and the Beast fable, these anti-cutie characters do not change as a result of a magic kiss; they don't transform in any way in the end. They offer neither apologies nor pleas for understanding. It's the people and lovers around them who change as a result of meeting them, without necessarily getting a pat on the head for it. Some of the conventional-looking characters even end up yearning to be distorted in some way themselves: Their sexual hunger has gone beyond a pretty face and latched on to a new kind of passion.
This sort of literature is the dead opposite of everything that one would think is attractive from looking at the mainstream media. The skin of our magazine-cover models is still dewy, their chest-to-waist proportions are ever Barbie-like. Like glowworms, the beautiful people shine on and on and on, as epitomized by airbrushed celebrity myths. They are the icons of the consumer culture. Some observers point out correctly that advertising is not quite so blond anymore, that the glossy media have even glamorized the plump and the aging. But I suspect that this craving for "diversity" is motivated by market-niche scouring rather than genuine appreciation of what's different.
Meanwhile, back in eroticaland, not everyone is taking a daily bath, not everyone's teeth are straight, not everyone's nipples line up in perfect symmetry. It is this very dirtiness and waywardness in their physical features that often makes these characters so irresistible.
I think erotica authors who explore the imperfect side of the human body are reflecting a sexual truth: We may know what perfect beauty is, we may stand in awe of it -- but what arouses us comprehends every shadow, every image. We get wet dreaming of the unknown; we get hard contemplating risk. Yes, we wouldn't kick Supermodel Baby out of bed, but we might want to invite her Evil Twisted Twin for an even more intriguing ménage.
No one ever said our intentions and actions aren't contradictory. I often wonder: with the popularity of plastic surgery, will the critical mass of pert noses, Hostess Snow Ball titties, and curveless thighs finally fold in on itself? Will we end up creating an appetite where everything that is desirable is dark or crooked or pendulous?
I remember when blond hair coloring became available to every woman, and the advertised message was that now, at last, anyone could be platinum, anyone could score. Of course, the specialness of the fair elite was diluted. Now, if we have one life to live, as the slogan goes, many will choose to live it as a raven-, plum-, or magenta-colored hair diva.
There is also a dramatic quality at work here. Erotic writers are often drawn to the spectacle of the awkward and deformed, simply because that element adds a twist to the genre "Person A meets Person B and they must get it on." An outstanding erotic story is one that makes you forget that you know that formula backward and forward. By adding a physically unsympathetic character to the mix, writers test the boundaries of a reader's expectations.
Interestingly, what is coveted and rhapsodized today, more than any other quality of beauty, is youth-- pure, childish sensuality and teenage bloom. Certainly young people are beautiful in their new skin and wild vitality, but as the twentieth century closes, it seems that we have fetishized their "innocence" beyond all reasonable recognition.
My colleague David Steinberg is an author who has spent a lot of time thinking about the various sex panics of our age. He notes that in our American culture we treat sex as something chaotic that must be constantly guarded and suppressed.
Over time we've developed the concept of an "idealized class of innocent, supposedly nonsexual individuals onto which society can project its yearning to escape the conflicts generated by overly repressed sexual desire."
This virginal category used to include both women and children, but in modern times, since liberated women have thoroughly ruined the feminine ideal of unblemished virtue, we have come to mythologize our children, as David puts it, as the "designated innocents."
Of course, the problem with being a designated anything is that the targeted individuals may feel their true selves do not coincide with their designated label. Our young people naturally go through puberty, begin their adult lives, and feel all of the powerful sexual feelings that come with such maturity.
Unfortunately, American politics has reacted by giving young people a big abstinence program to stuff all those nasty feelings back in their pants. How about a nice cold shower to go along with that, my little darlings?
Meanwhile, the people who reject the Just Say No propaganda-- who give in to chaotic feelings instead of stifling them-- these are the folks who get called perverts, who arouse the public's suspicions.
It's clear that many, if not all, erotic writers have been targeted as perverts simply because they have crossed the very first line of sexual repression: They have written down something that turns them on. They have articulated an erotic feeling that can't be denied. They have taunted the thought police.
Nowadays, the irrational hysteria surrounding youthful sexuality has spurred many erotic writers to reminisce about their sexual awakenings. Many publishers won't print those stories anymore, but that hasn't stopped the stories from coming. In them, we hear about the experiences of young people feeling the first spin of lust, of wanting to connect with someone else intimately-- not knowing the rules, but wanting to touch.
Time was, this would not be considered an unusual topic for erotic reverie-- in fact, for any aficionado of erotic literature, it's a classic coming-of-age tale. Yet in the era of designated innocents, this topic is a sin.
We face the new year with a national education and health-care establishment that warns the public that sex will have an apocalyptic effect on their lives. Shame and fear are their operative tools. The mystery of AIDS has linked sexual risk with death in most people's minds. Parents have focused their efforts on making their children more and more infantile in an effort to protect them from what will inevitably be their experiences of real life.
For all these reasons, we have now produced a millennial generation of neopuritans. The kids think of the older generation as "sluts," and they swear that they won't let it happen to them.
Erotic artists have realized that, in this climate, speaking of their early sexuality produces the most shocking story of all. If we say that the teenyboppers can't feel that way, then why did we feel that way once upon a time? Why could we entertain risk and imagination, but they can't? Why are the stakes now so high that we have to lie about the most natural facts of life? When do today's young people get to learn about sex and death-- in grad school?
Erotic storytellers are frequently truth tellers as much as they are fantasy writers. They perform the function of pointing out what is real under surreal conditions. There will always be fashionable notions in the body politic of what ought to be -- but the truth about sex will belie every institutional myth, every consumer-crazed folly, every bright shining bit of nonsense.
I don't think that I'll understand the spirit of erotica in the 21st Century until I'm at its tail end; but I do know that, throughout, I will hear voices from the sexual underground, and they will carry the weight of a new century's most blatant fears and desires.
Continued in Best American Erotica 2000
Photo: Tee Corinne, Nothing But The Girl