A Brief History of Erotic Writing

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If we’re going to define erotic writing as writing that intends to arouse sexual desire, then this stuff has been around for a long, long time, way before the protagonists in Fifty Shades were even a glint in the author’s eye. Erotica has gone in and out of vogue and been pushed underground in certain times and places, but it has existed for as long as storytelling has been around. Sex, after all, is something we all have in common, whatever our particular tastes!

Some of the first erotic writing that we are still aware of today was, believe it or not, penned not between lovers but from worshippers to their ancient gods and goddesses. Before the modern day notion of divinity as a somewhat sexless being and sex itself as decidedly sinful, the gods were portrayed as being as lusty as the rest of us. The verses about the goddess Ishtar and her shepherd lover from ancient Babylon, for example, are both beautiful and positively pornographic. A later version of these even made it into the Bible in the form of the Song of Solomon! Although Old Testament scholars, rabbis and priests have argued that the verse is actually a metaphor for the love between God and Israel, the imagery is undoubtedly highly erotic.

From Ancient Greece we have the poems of Sappho of Lesbos, who wrote such erotic verse dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite that we take the word ‘lesbian’ from the name of her fabled isle. Prostitutes of the time – who took Aphrodite as their patron goddess – gave us the first recorded accounts of erotic memoirs, writing about their exploits for the entertainment of each other and their patrons. The word ‘pornography’ is believed to derive from the Greek ‘pornographia’ which as well as meaning ‘writings of prostitutes’ was also one of Aphrodite’s titles.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages and erotic fiction begins to take shape as a genre, with Bocacci’s Decameron, saucy tales about the goings on of priests and nuns, scandalising medieval society in 1351. In fact, the book was being banned right up to 1958! In the 16th century Marguerite de Navarre wrote the Heptameron, based on Boccacci’s earlier work, and it was widely read throughout Renaissance Europe.

By the time we reach the Georgian era, when the novel in all forms was becoming increasingly popular, erotic literature was ever more widely read, with Cleland’s Fanny Hill being published in 1748 and the Marquis de Sade – who of course leant his name to the term ‘sadism’- publishing 120 Days of Sodom towards the end of the period, with graphic scenes of what we now call BDSM.

Erotic fiction went underground during the more puritan Victorian period, but it certainly didn’t go away. Writers of erotic literature tended to conceal their identities however and it certainly wasn’t spoken about in polite society; attitudes that have prevailed up until perhaps the mid to late twentieth century. DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a tale of infidelity that would seem tame by today’s standards, sparked controversy and court cases resulting in a ban on the book under grounds of obscenity. This was in 1928, but by 1978, just fifty years later, we had Anais Nin’s now classic erotic work Delta of Venus.

Today, sales of erotic literature are booming, with every genre and style being easily available. If you’re serious about writing any genre it’s advisable to be well read within it, so here’s my personal recommended reading list;

Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

Story of O – Pauline Reage

Delta of Venus – Anais Nin

Exit to Eden – Anne Rice

The Dark Garden – Eden Bradley

Extract taken from ‘Passionate Plots; a Guide to Writing Erotic Stories and Scenes’.

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