This isn't "mommy porn"

Fleshbot premieres its erotic e-book imprint, hoping that good writing matters more than particular kinks

Published March 16, 2013 10:00PM (EDT)

These are no Anastasia Steele wannabes. The female protagonists in sex-blog Fleshbot's new erotica imprint are not pliant naifs; they know what they want and aren't ashamed to ask for it. They talk of going to the office bathroom to "jerk off" and coolly refer to past partners as an "incredible fuck." These ladies are nerdy and irreverent; they say things like, "It always blows my mind to touch the inside of my own body. It makes me feel like Carl Sagan or something."

While the rest of the world attempts to cash in on "Fifty Shades" fanaticism, Fleshbot Fiction is trying for something different. As CEO Lux Alptraum tells me, she's interested in courting "people who like good stories and good smut." She isn't concerned with appealing to a particular gender demographic (so far, the e-books have featured only female protagonists, but that will change soon) or certain fetishes, so much as publishing good writing. Alptraum believes that craft can trump particular kinks: A well-written story can make cross-dressing hot, even if it isn't your thing, she says. This pansexual, or trysexual, mind-set is no surprise, given that Fleshbot's distinguishing feature in the porn world is that it publishes straight and gay content side by side.

I spoke with Alptraum about the key ingredients for good erotica, the gender politics of sexy stories and whether "Fifty Shades" hurts or helps her mission.

First things first, why start an erotica imprint? How will Fleshbot Fiction be different from what’s already out there?

I should go into this with a small confession: When I consume smut for non-work purposes, it is generally written erotica -- and to that end, Fleshbot Fiction is really a project that's attempting to fill a gap that I, personally, have noticed in the market.

For years, my habit has been to go to free sites like Literotica and scan them for stories that might appeal to my various and sundry erotic interests. These sort of sites have lots of good content, but the truth of the matter is that -- as with any free, user-driven content site -- it's often drowned out by poorly crafted work that's not really worth reading. So finding good content tends to involve sorting through a whole lot of rough in order to find any diamonds.

There is, of course, another option: There's plenty of well-written, thoughtful smut to be found in erotica anthologies. But these things have never really appealed to me because I'm not particularly interested in spending the higher price for an entire book of stories, especially as those run the risk of being more killer than filler -- and no one wants to pay $12 just to read one story they happen to find hot.

So Fleshbot Fiction is attempting to strike a balance between those two extremes. We're focused on sourcing high-quality, well-written stories that, because they're e-books, can be sold as single stories for a low price. Readers can know that, at the very least,  the work they're buying from us is a well-written, well-crafted story, and at 99 cents to $2.99, they know it won't break the bank.

What’s your definition of bad erotica? What traits are you most hoping to avoid?

To some extent it's one of those "I know it when I see it" things, but more specifically, I think bad erotica is, at the end of the day, bad writing. Bad erotica is penned by people who rely too much on clichés, who don't know how to string together a compelling story, who get bogged down in over-reporting specific details and miss out on crafting a beautiful arc.

I think rather than telling you what I'm hoping to avoid, I'd like to tell you what I'm hoping to achieve: It is my sincere hope that we can find stories that people can appreciate even if they are not into the specific kink or fetish depicted within. Erotic entertainment tends to privilege content over craft: people who make, say, smut that features BBW CBT CFNM ("big beautiful women," "cock and ball torture," "clothed female, naked male") don't have to try hard to make their content -- whether it's photo, video or written -- particularly good because they know that people who are into BBW CBT CFNM will pay money to anyone who's serving their niche. And I think that that is, in some ways, pretty disrespectful to the content. I'd like to treat all sorts of sexual desires as something worthy of good writing, something worthy of a well-written story.

Erotica is typically thought of as women’s domain -- any truth to that, do you think?

I'm loath to generalize based on gender, particularly when it comes to sexual preference, but yes, market demographics do tend to show that women are more likely to consume erotica, just as men are more likely to consume video porn. However, I'd like to step back from this and say that I don't personally think that this is due to any inherent "men are more visual, ladies like stories" sort of biological determinism. Rather, I'd offer that one of the benefits of written erotica is that it gives you the freedom to construct your own personal fantasy inspired by the written word: You can picture the characters however you like. When you're just reading about them, it's much easier to gloss over inconvenient aspects that might spoil the fantasy. With video porn, it's a lot harder to do that: Performers look how they look, they sound how they sound, they're in a specific set of positions, and it's harder to mentally manipulate what you're seeing and change it into something else.

So given that, and given that much video porn is shot with a male viewer in mind, I don't think that it's that surprising that women might turn to written erotica. It's possible that, given a perfectly shot, perfectly crafted video of exactly the fantasy, with exactly the people, that a particular erotica reading woman is into, said woman might find video porn more appealing than the written word -- or maybe not! But I think that given the way that much video porn is crafted today, it's not that surprising that women might find it easier to satisfy their sexual desires with books.

I noticed a reader complaining on Twitter about the "hotchix" on the e-book covers that you've released thus far. Is there a tension there in the cover versus the text? How do you avoid intruding on that freedom of fantasy that you mentioned earlier?

It may be worth noting that the person in question is an erotica writer who has a personal mission to promote the cause of visual depictions of hot men in marketing materials for erotica targeted toward women. So I don't think it was the "hot" she disagreed with so much as the women.

I think this is a very, very fertile topic for discussion. First and foremost, I definitely think that it would be nice to get away from the one-to-one correlation of sex/naked woman that exists in the mainstream media -- but not necessarily because I think that all women, or even all straight women, are specifically interested in visual depictions of hot men. I know plenty of straight women who are turned on by lesbian porn, which is a whole other, complicated topic that I probably shouldn't derail this interview with. I also think that it's important to have other kinds of diversity in the covers as well, though. Beyond the predominance of women, there's a predominance, specifically, of white women, which I find troubling; all of the above is something that I'm interested in working on as we work on expanding these lines.

I think some of our future stories will give us an opportunity to get more experimental with our covers. One story we have coming up involves a cross-dressing couple, both of whom will be depicted on the cover; another is a gay male story that features a black protagonist, so it'll absolutely have both hot men and people of color on it. I suppose this is all a very long-winded way of saying: I recognize that this is a problem, and it's one I am interested in working with. I'm not sure that the first three covers from this project are 100 percent indicative of what we will do or where we are going.

Obviously Fleshbot is largely devoted to the visual. What can you do with sexy text that you can’t do with sexy images?

As I mentioned before, written erotica gives you a bit more control over the fantasy. The words you're reading help inspire a fantasy, and it's much easier to picture the characters as whatever physical types you're into, rather than being locked into the reality of what the people in the images or video actually look or sound like.

I saw you put out a call for what readers want from erotic fiction. Have you gotten any interesting responses yet?

I'm still soliciting responses, and would love to hear more. So far one of the ones that I'm most interested in is a request for erotica that features people of color as something more than mere fetish objects. I think it's definitely an issue that extends beyond erotica and into most forms of media, of course, but it is one that I would like to help correct.

It's pretty much obligatory now, when talking about erotic fiction, to mention "Fifty Shades of Grey." Do you think the wild popularity of that book helps your mission by raising awareness about the genre, or does it hurt it by associating erotica with bad writing and retro, bodice-ripper dynamics?

I think it's a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, "Fifty Shades" broke through barriers and established new ideas for what you can and can't say in the press about sex -- I met a writer who did a radio interview with Geraldo about "Fifty Shades," and allegedly introduced him to the concept of butt plugs -- but on the other hand, part of why "Fifty Shades" got as much attention as it did was because it was poorly written, and therefore funny, and could be a subject of humor. I'm not totally sure that the mass media would be quite as comfortable talking about a well-written, genuinely erotic story that couldn't be, say, made light of by doing a mock e-book recorded by Gilbert Gottfried.

That said, to the extent that the energy from "Fifty Shades," the mass phenomenon, helps drive more public conversations about sex, and BDSM, and erotica, I think that's a net gain for all of us.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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