Published on February 7th, 2013 | by Setsu Uzume0
Feature: The Erotic Reading Circle
One thing you can say about San Francisco is that it is a sex-positive city. I once bought a dozen red roses from my local florist and he reminded me not to scatter petals across white sheets because they will stain. I got the same candor at the Erotic Reading Circle, a monthly writers’ group hosted by Carol Queen and Jen Cross.
The Erotic Reading Circle began in the mid-1980s at the Good Vibrations sex toy shop in San Francisco, where the staff (one of them being Queen) hosted a group for anyone who wanted to read their erotic writing. However, the group started to lose momentum, and eventually the meetings tapered off.
Meanwhile, Cross was leading an erotic writing workshop for queer survivors of sexual trauma, and was looking for material. She came across Sex Spoken Here, an anthology of writing from the Erotic Reading Circle compiled by Queen and her former colleague, Jack Davis.
“I was surprised that such a group no longer existed in San Francisco,” Cross said. “I approached [Queen] in 2006 about starting the group up again, and she was game.”
That year, Queen and Cross joined forces and moved the Erotic Reading Circle to the Center for Sex and Culture, where the group has been going strong ever since.
Every 4th Wednesday, a core group of 5-10 people — ranging in age, income level and sexual orientation — gather to share short stories, vignettes from novels, poetry and other works. Most attendees are regulars, but meetings always attract a few newbies who want to see what the group is about. Kooky and humorous stories abound here (for example, a story about interspecies dating between a Hyena and a Zebra); but braver, more personal stories are the ones that truly stick out.
“I leave nearly every reading circle inspired,” Cross said. “I love it that folks are willing to come into a circle of strangers and share…It’s so risky, and in taking that risk, they open themselves to being generously witnessed in their creative skill and brilliance. There are so few places in our lives where we get to be witnessed in that way.”
When I sat in on a session last week, everyone was incredibly supportive. Cross and Queen use the Amhurst Method of critique, letting the author know what they valued in the writer’s work. Fellow writers at the Erotic Reading Circle provide insightful feedback on whether or not scene is realistic, emotions come across and, of course, whether the writing is hot; as a result, writers have the unique opportunity to develop confidence in presenting explicit material.
I was surprised to find that rather than using thin plotlines as an excuse to write about sex, each reader had a unique voice, perspective and story.
“As far as challenges, the first, I think, is falling back on trite language and ideas rather than seeking a new, creative way to represent erotic ideas and experience,” Queen said.
Writers often surprise themselves when they first say aloud what they desire. Cross believes that writing and reading aloud makes writers more in tune with their bodies that can lead to a lifestyle more welcoming to delight and pleasure.
“Erotic writing is so powerful when it can surprise us,” Queen said. “Writing about something that’s initially embarrassing strengthens the writer. We have certainly seen, MANY times, people grow comfortable within the group and become more skilled and fearless as writers. If that’s happening in the bedroom too, I’m thrilled.”
Cross quoted Li Thorn Han (author of Conflicting Desires: Notes on the Craft of Writing Erotic Stories) about the power and necessity of writing about sex: “Erotic stories are stories about human behavior. The genre is fundamental to our nature… Everyone who is here is here as a result of sex. Everyone who will ever be here (barring cloning and the like) will be here because of sex. No other area of storytelling can make a corresponding claim.”
Queen went on to say that sex as plot device is natural for stories involving erotic tension. It can help characters move into a new phase in their relationships, or heal estrangement between characters.
“It also expresses emotional issues, sexual orientation issues and many other things,” Queen said. “Just like real life!”
Despite its universal themes, erotica is still marginalized even in the wake of successful books like 50 Shades of Grey. Our culture has a mixed relationship with the erotic itself, and authors don’t get enough support and recognition.
“A culture that marginalizes its erotica doesn’t get enough good erotica,” Queen said. “We’re making more space for writers to delve into and create erotic inspiration and knowledge.”
The final piece of advice that Cross gives to writers of erotica is to take a deep breath and dive in. Queen heartily agrees.
“If YOU think it’s hot,” Queen said, “there will be other people who’ll think it’s hot too, so write for yourself first. Don’t edit or censor yourself, especially in the first draft; get it out on the page!”
Keep an eye out for upcoming Erotic Reading Circle events on Twitter: @CentrSexCulture, or sign up for the Erotic Reading Circle’s mailing list at www.sexandculture.org. Readers and listeners of all orientations are welcome.