When Erotica Stops Being Erotic In Self-Published Books

This post contains graphic descriptions of a sexual nature. Because it needs to be written.

I am writing this post because something disturbing has been occurring in the world of self-publishing. I don’t know if it’s the male backlash to Fifty Shades of Grey, or if this has always happened, and it was just that before self-publishing was a possibility, certain books were turned away by agents and we never heard about them again, unpublished, hidden and secret, their words never to reflect in the eyes of readers, never to haunt and terrorize. What books are these? Let me tell you a story.

About five months ago, I was at work scheduling reviewers for each submission I had received that week. As I read through my list, I noticed some of the books were pretty grim. One alluded to forced sex and abduction. One alluded to a vile murder including children. I remember I joked with the reviewers that someone was going to have nightmares that week.

However, as the weeks went by I noticed more and more that rape and non-consensual sex were cropping up as storylines. Young adults were being abused in books left, right and center. Women were being forced into situations then – enjoying them. Then this week, when myself and another female reviewer – who frankly, she won’t mind me saying, has an extremely strong stomach for violence and gore when it comes to books – turned to each other with concern. The concern is simple: more and more men are writing rape scenarios that combine violent and gory acts of terror, often on young women and girls.

Men are writing about destroying women. And women are buying their books.

Fifty Shades of Grey, in the beginning Twilight “fan fiction”, seems to have enabled these sorts of stories, without thinking of the consequences – especially for younger people.

The Guardian reports,

Clare Phillipson, director of Wearside Women in Need, a charity for victims of domestic violence, said she had been waiting for “a feminist icon to savage this misogynistic crap, but nobody did”, so she decided she needed to speak out herself.

EL James‘s books tell the story of the submissive/dominant relationship between billionaire Christian Grey and college student Anastasia Steele. The first novel in the series has sold more than 5.3m copies in the UK, and became the bestselling book in British history earlier this month.

“There will be a whole generation of young women hearing the women around them say: ‘What a great book’ [a generation] of 13- and 14-year-olds picking it up and thinking ‘This is all right’,” said Phillipson. “We are saying, could people try reading it again and thinking: ‘What is this man really about?’

Men are confused by these books maybe because they create problems in the real world. Tim Peel writes,

For years men have been portrayed as constantly sexually unsatisfied, barely restraining our roving, rampant needs. We like to perpetuate this mythology, never imagining that our partners would want to test the theory. And now there is the odd phenomenon of millions of women enjoying a book filled with detailed fantasies of acts outside the scope of their husbands’ experience.

Jackson Katz, an anti-sexist educator says in the same article, that p–n

has become ”a parody of love” addressing itself ”to love’s opposites, which are hate and death’

I used to be an editor at Penthouse magazine in the UK. I can tell you this: only six years ago I would have never published any photo, article or story that presented sexual abuse or attack in the ways that I am reading now. I remember deciding against publishing a story that saw a woman tied with a silk tie consensually, because it may titillate a feeling of abuse in the reader!  What I also received through the mail at my office were extremely disturbing photos, stories and items – yes, items – that led the team to believe in many cases we were dealing with a crazy.

And now I am reading self-published works that can only be described as a male reaction to Fifty Shades – style “erotica”. Goodness, the definition of erotica is being pulled around! You know what the definition of eroticism is? Nothing like any of these books labeled with an “Erotica” genre tag on Amazon, that’s for sure:

A philosophical contemplation concerning the aesthetics of sexual desire, sensuality and romantic love

So as men feel increasingly intimidated by these sorts of writing, they are attempting to jump on the gravy train. And despite the considerably grim results,  thousands of readers seem to be reaching for the sorts of stories that just half a decade ago, I would have been ruling as hardcore and too violent for publication. Why? Because they depicted women and girls as victims of abuse. Publisher’s Weekly report,

Amazon, Kobo, and Apple’s iBook platform have all essentially banned incest, pseudo incest, b-stiality, and rape fantasy. But while those topics are ostensibly verboten—as Kitt put it, “Incest is off the table”—that doesn’t mean the audience isn’t there.

In fact not only is the audience there, but so are the books. Are male writers just getting it horribly wrong in all this confusion? The Mail Online reported back in October during the UK WH Smith scandal that,

Typing the word ‘daddy’ into the search box [on WH Smith’s book site], for instance, brings up disturbing fictional accounts of bondage and sexual humiliation, as well as collections of bedtime stories for youngsters.

So let’s look at the official definition of “hardcore p-rn”, the sort of thing that you’d have to buy in a specialist store and put in a black plastic bag pre-Internet. I know it, because at the magazines I worked for back then, we were not allowed to cross the line. You can click the Wikipedia link here to read the full definition.

Not “erotica” then. And here’s the definition of “extreme p-rn,” banned in the UK:

Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 is a law in the United Kingdom criminalising possession of what it refers to as “extreme p-rnographic images”… “grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character” and portrays “in an explicit and realistic way” any of the following…

You can follow the link to see the definition in full on Wikipedia.

In each book submitted for review that my team and I had to really consider not reviewing, I hate to say that nearly all books contained one of those exact events. These are books that anyone can go onto Amazon or Barnes and Noble and purchase, and read, of any age group or sensitivity, without any trigger warning, age warning or any kind of “worksafe” warning, fondly categorized in “Erotic Fiction” and even, “Romance”!

So, in this weird and warped story of the Internet’s wonderful way of spinning anything, justifying anything, giving opinions about anything that rationalize anything – because anyone can have an opinion, qualified or not, we are in an age where majority opinion rules as the right answer, as The Truth. While one ATVOD study showed 200,000 children under the age of 16 have watched “hardcore” in just one month in the UK – that’s one in twenty visitors – the legacy of all this freedom of speech is surely seeping into a place we as human beings should not be enabling. The Truth is, to my mind, This Is Not Okay.

And to my editorial eye, the world of self-publishing with its lack of gatekeepers and all-out freedom to publish for all, may have just let in the gremlins in the same way the Internet already has. Because self-published books rely heavily on the Internet, that has to be something the self-publishing world takes notice of.

Therefore from today, Self-Publishing Review has added a clause to our review terms and conditions. We will not review any book- written by either a male or female writer – that presents anything that fits into the “extreme” category above.

Any books with violent adult themes we do decide to review will be led with a trigger warning from now on. Because as a woman, and the editor of this website, I just don’t feel comfortable perpetrating this trend any more, and I don’t want to normalize rape or abuse in fiction as an “erotic” ideal.

Because these books are not romance or erotica.

In light of our commitment to this here at SPR, I have also started a campaign for sufferers of sexual abuse, incest and rape over at RAINN.


  • I agree and support your position 100%. I think a new genre name needs to be created which defines the profane nature of this content, immediately recognizable to fans and non-fans alike. In much the same way both fans and non-fans have an immediate expectation when they see the word pornography. The content you describe in your post is certainly not erotica, and nowhere even close to romance.

    • Cate Baum

      Great to hear – from a male author too! Thanks for the support.