A self-published erotic novelist pioneers a new kind of porn

Selena Kitt's "Babysitting the Baumgartners" rethinks romance in a very kinky way

Published October 19, 2013 8:00PM (EDT)

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Selena Kitt is one of the most successful authors in a quietly booming market — self-published erotic e-books. Kitt got into the market early, in 2008. By 2010, she had three books in the top 10 erotic titles on Amazon. She has more than 70 books available and told me by email that she earns $500,000 annually.

While there are no certain figures, Kitt says her sense is that her readership is about 80% female. And while the romance genre used to follow certain predictable formulas, self-publishing has changed the landscape substantially. Selena Kitt's writing demonstrates just how many options are available now for genre readers and genre writers interested in love, romance and lust.

Of course, E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey" has demonstrated (not for the first time) that there are a lot of women interested in reading explicit sex scenes. Still, for all its "kinky fuckery" (as the book itself puts it), "Fifty Shades" fits pretty comfortably into the romance tradition. Many of the familiar tropes are in place — virginal heroine, dark mysterious powerful hero, love/lust at first sight, hero transformed by good woman's love, marriage as resolution and apotheosis. The nipple clamps and restraints are really just exotic window-dressing, little different than setting the story in Paris or Acapulco. In terms of romance plot and themes, "Fifty Shades" is much more conventional than the "Twilight" novels that inspired it.

Selena Kitt's work is different. These are not just romances with a smattering of ball-gags. Her oeuvre includes incest, dubious consent and lots and lots of lesbian encounters. Her most successful book, "Babysitting the Baumgartners," which has sold more than 75,000 copies and inspired seven sequels, takes the tried-and-true porn trope of the sexy babysitter and does the tried-and-true porn thing with it — sex, sex and more sex, stapled together with a thin tissue of plot. Nor does this approach seem to have alienated female readers. On the contrary. One Amazon reviewer named "Mommy of Cuties M&Z" warns other readers "Make sure you have a spare pair of panties handy/yours will be soaked…Seriously, this book is HOT and steamy, new scenes, lots of sex, LOTS of it, it never got old." Another reviewer, Jennifer B. Graham, enthuses "What's hotter than seducing the babysitter? A nineteen year old babysitter?" What indeed?

Explicit romance like "Fifty Shades" tends to embed sex in characterization — the erotic is there as part of the tale of true love. But "Babysitting the Baumgartners" revels in its porniness; it has no qualms about presenting its characters as characters second and masturbatory aids first. One of the first set-pieces in the novel involves the babysitter Veronica (Ronnie), the narrator, stumbling upon her employers, Doc and Mrs. B, as they have sex. She secretly observes them as they fantasize about her.

"Do you want to see me eat it?" She moved up onto him, still stroking his cock. "Do you want to watch me lick that sweet, shaved cunt?"

I pressed a cool palm to my flushed cheek, but my other hand rubbed the towel between my legs as I watched. I'd never heard anyone say that word out loud, and it both shocked and excited me.

Ronnie's breathless surprise echoes, not exactly coincidentally, Amazon commenter cmoonlight, who enthuses "Oh my goodness, I have never read a book like this before." Kitt places Ronnie in the position of the reader, discovering the pleasures of dirty words. The Baumgartners are essentially teaching her how to read and use pornography. She is learning how to treat them as instrumental sex aids by having them treat her as an instrumental sex aid. It's a seamless self-referential objectification tutorial.

This is a microcosm of the book as a whole, which is structured as an erotic education. Nineteen-year-old Ronnie has traveled to the Florida Keys with the Baumgartners partially to watch their kids and mostly to soak up the sun and surf. She's been babysitting for the Baumgartners since she was 15, and as the marketing copy at the beginning of the book says, she "has practically become another member of the family."

The Baumgartners are, then, surrogate parents, and the book is one long, not-all-that-coy exercise in incest fantasy. Mrs. B (who Ronnie cutely/queasily never stops calling "Mrs. B.") has the massive breasts of a maternal icon, and patiently and lovingly introduces Ronnie to various erotic acts, from shaving her pubes to anal sex. Doc, for his part, is a fatherly presence, cheerfully tossing Ronnie like a child in the surf at her request and checking in with an earnest "You okay?" between bouts of ravishment. Every now and then Henry and Janie scurry across the prose, to remind you that it's all a big happy family ménage. "I snuggled down between them," Ronnie sighs in one of many post-coital moments, "so full I felt I could simply burst." She could be an infant newly fed; pleasure, satiety, parental comfort and sex all slide over and into each other, deliberately indistinguishable.

On the one hand, this underlines Kitt's distance from romance — you don't get much more hardcore than the incest taboo, after all. On the other hand, though, the emotional content actually links up surprisingly well with traditional romance themes. In her groundbreaking and still foundational 1984 anthropological study of romance readers, "Reading the Romance," Janice Radway argues that romance narratives are essentially about women's relationships with their mothers. Using Nancy Chodorow's theories of female development as a basis, Radway says that women "require an intense emotional bond with someone who is reciprocally nurturant and protective in a maternal way." Yet in their families, Radway wrote, the romance readers she talked to were generally required to do most of the nurturing themselves; their husbands rarely took care of them emotionally. Romance novels, Radway said, presented a fantasy in which distant, cold men are revealed to actually have nurturing maternal qualities which the heroine brings to the surface. Romances, from this perspective, are incestuous dreams; Christian, in "Fifty Shades," is really, deep down, Anna's mother.

Whether or not this applies to all romances, much less all women, it undeniably fits "Babysitting the Baumgartners." In fact, from Radway's description, you could see "Baumgartners" not as a repudiation of the romance novel, but rather as a less homophobic, less anxious and more fearless embrace of the romance's core themes. Ronnie doesn't need to pretend that some man will be her mother; rather, she gets to screw the man and her mother too. In one scene, Mrs. B asks Ronnie to watch her try on a series of dresses before she goes out. Ronnie is then left behind, the child abandoned for the night. She ends up discovering and playing with one of the older woman's vibrators, moaning "Mrs. B" and wishing the said Mrs. B would come back and satisfy her. And then, inevitably, she does just that — returning for her earrings, she finds Ronnie in the throes of self-pleasure, and efficiently licks her to climax before going back out. Nurture is no sooner asked for than it is provided; every need is satisfied.

It's interesting, perhaps, that those needs are satisfied not only in the context of family, but in the context of work. "Babysitting the Baumgartners" doesn't so much address the conflict between job and home life -- a perennial issue for mainstream feminism -- as it gleefully refuses it. Ronnie is an employee of the Baumgartners. Buts she's also a family member, and on this trip is actually not being paid — her bodily presence is both the job and the recompense. She is sleeping with her parents, but she is also sleeping with her "employer."

This has in itself been a staple of romance fiction, as Leslie Rabine points out in her much-lauded 1985 article "Romance in the Age of Electronics: Harlequin Enterprises." Moreover, Rabine argues, the conflation of work and romance is deliberately utopian:

The very fact that the hero is both boss and lover, that the world of work and business is romanticized and eroticized, and that in it love flourishes suggest that the Harlequin heroines seek an end to the division between the domestic world of love and sentiment and the public world of work and business.

Though Rabine was talking about work from the '80s, her analysis still  applies almost eerily well to "Fifty Shades," in which Christian is not only Anna's lover but her employer. And it applies to "Babysitting the Baumgartners," too. In fact, the closest thing to a villain that "Baumgartners" has is Mr. and Mrs. Holmes. The Holmeses employ a sexy au pair named Gretchen; they fire her when they discover she has condoms in her purse. This prompts Mrs. B to declare, in deep disgust, "Maureen Holmes is a prude." Later, after the vacation is over and Ronnie goes back to college, the Baumgartners hire Gretchen themselves — and presumably have the sort of relationship with her that they are accustomed to having with their babysitters. The happy ending is not marriage, monogamy and successful career, but a reiteration, or extension, of the idyll in which childhood, sex, and work are all part of a single whole. "Happily ever after" means, in this case, endless sex with your parents while you work.

The point here is not that "this is what women want" in some sort of totalizing way. "Babysitting the Baumgartners" is very popular, but it is just one book. Still, it seems clear that Kitt is working with, and thinking about, issues and themes that have been central to women's genre literature for some time — it's not an accident that Ronnie mentions Nora Roberts in the third paragraph of the book. The difference, perhaps, is that, freed from the formulas of publishers and traditional marketing expectations about what women are or aren't looking for, authors like Kitt have been able to rewrite or rethink romance in ways that are impossible even for a supposedly daring effort like "Fifty Shades." There have long been erotic books for women, of course, but the outpouring of possibilities, from lactation porn, to minotaur porn to gay male stories for women, seems unprecedented. "Babysitting the Baumgartners," too, seems like a new kink  — a bastard child of porn and romance, which snuggles up, scandalously and satisfyingly, with both.

By Noah Berlatsky

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