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Does a work need to be sexually stimulating to be classified as erotica/erotic literature? Or will any book that deals extensively with human sexuality and sexual relationships be put in that genre?

I'm curious about this because I am writing a short story in which a young woman is dealing with a kind of sexual dysfunction called vaginismus, which makes her incapable of having penetrative sex. The story is about her attempts to overcome the physical condition in a practical and clinical manner. While the story is entirely about human sexuality and sexual relationships, most of the story is not very sexy at all and is not intended to be sexually stimulating. The sex (or trying-to-have-sex) scenes are explicit but more of "what goes where", since the couple are only trying to achieve penetration, not experience pleasure. For the most part it is almost more like assembling IKEA furniture together.

The plot is less about the sexual gratification and making the relationship work and more about overcoming the handicap - which happens to be on a sexual body part. It is about the woman's desire for self-acceptance and a sense of wholeness rather than a desire for sex. Would this be considered erotica, erotic literature, or neither?

How are these sorts of stories generally classified? Does it need to be sexually stimulating? Or is any work that deals substantively with sex considered erotic?

Similar (but, in my opinion, not identical) to At what point can a story be considered “erotic”?

  • Are you asking for a dictionary definition or are you asking a marketing question? In other words, is your question really "Would my book be shelved as erotica in the bookstore?" This is a significantly different question from whether it meets some dictionary definition. – Mark Baker Aug 20 '17 at 12:03
  • @MarkBaker, yes it's more of a marketing question. I've edited to clarify. – sudowoodo Aug 20 '17 at 12:50
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From a marketing point of view, books are classified according to the type of pleasure they give. Stories can give different kinds of pleasures. Some readers are more open to a variety of pleasures, and some want a steady diet of a particular kind of pleasure. Genre sections of bookstores exist mostly for the latter kind of reader.

To illustrate this, consider whether a book about a sheriff in a the oklahoma territory in 1870 trying to catch a murderer would be shelved as a western, an historical, a mystery, or on the general fiction shelf. The answer is that it could be shelved on any one of them, depending on its theme, tone, and the kind of pleasure it gives.

  • It is it a celebration of the cult of rugged individualism and stoic manliness, it will probably be shelved as a western.

  • If it is focussed on the powers of detection or the psychology of crime, it will probably be shelved as a mystery.

  • If it is focussed on the reconstruction of the historical period, it will probably be shelved as an historical.

  • If it is none of these things, but perhaps a lyrical hymn to the landscape or an intimate character study, it might be shelved in general fiction.

I doubt, for instance, that you will find Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses or Mary Doria Russell's Doc (about Doc holiday), or Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop shelved as westerns, nor CS Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet or Doris Lessings Canopus in Argos or Russell's The Sparrow shelved as SciFy.

Not all books about sex, therefore will be shelved as erotica, only those that give the kind of pleasure that readers of erotica are seeking, which is, I presume, titillation.

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I think the Supreme Court definition applies; to paraphrase: erotica and pornography are pretty much undefinable but we know it when we see it.

If you are describing the genitals or breasts of naked people, many will consider just that description erotica, no matter how clinically you approach it. What is not sexually stimulating to you might well be sexually stimulating to somebody else; particularly if you are describing attempts at penetration.

Consider a sixth grade American classroom: they have seen countless murders and kisses on regular used-to-be-broadcast television in prime time (i.e. the main networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, etc). They have most likely seen pretend-naked men and women under a cover. The naked back of females. But they haven't seen anything on those channels normally covered by underwear. If your work describes what is under the underwear or an attempt at sex (or if you describe alternatives to P-V sex, which is often the backup plan when vaginal sex is too painful), or would not plausibly be read to a sixth grade class, then it is going to be lumped into "erotic fiction".

  • I was with you until your third paragraph. Surely the rules for nudity and sex are different for TV and literature? Both sex and nudity can be and are described explicitly in many kinds of fiction that are intended for adults, but not considered "erotic" novels because the eroticism is not the main focus. – sudowoodo Aug 19 '17 at 20:19
  • Also What is not sexually stimulating to you might well be sexually stimulating to somebody else; particularly if you are describing attempts at penetration. reminds me of Rule 34. Can't the same be said of anything? I think it depends more on how it is written. Someone could find a description of a gynaecological exam or a colonoscopy erotic, but that doesn't mean it is an erotic scene. – sudowoodo Aug 19 '17 at 20:45
  • I don't think the rules are that different; as I said, "lumped". A detective novel about a serial rapist might not be so lumped; the story is about the mystery. But the thrust of your story (I'm sorry, really sorry, I couldn't help it) is all about two people finding sexual gratification with a handicap. It is indeed the sex that is captivating the reader; at least I gather there is no other plot line or mystery to solve other than whether this girl can make an intimate relationship work despite her sexual handicap. – Amadeus Aug 19 '17 at 20:48
  • I don't think this falls into that category (if it exists there is porn using it); that applies more to sexual fetishes about toy ponies. But you are describing the pain of attempting standard natural copulation, by at least one character that the audience is rooting for and cares about: That is not a fetish at all, nobody would be surprised in the least that a couple would attempt such a thing. It would not be surprising at all if any readers identifying with your characters (and we hope that is all of them) feel whatever sexual hunger the characters must be feeling in order to attempt this. – Amadeus Aug 19 '17 at 21:04
  • Ah, I get you. I will update the question for clarity, but the plot is less about the sexual gratification and making the relationship work and more about overcoming the handicap - which happens to be on a sexual body part. It is about the woman's desire for self-acceptance and a sense of wholeness rather than a desire for sex. What I was trying to get at with the rule 34 bit was that there is a level of clinicalness that is not by normal standards deemed sexually arousing, even when genitals are involved. These scenes are on that level. Thanks for your input though, I've a lot to think about! – sudowoodo Aug 19 '17 at 21:23

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