The Fifty Shades phenomenon marked an interesting sea-change in the history of erotica -- the quiet death of shame about reading rumpy-pumpy, at least for middle-class women. Helped along by the discretion promised by e-readers (the 21-century equivalent of brown paper covers?), smut got decoupled from sleaze, as "mommy porn" went mainstream. And although we have issues with the "mommy porn" tag, it certainly puts a more wholesome face on the conventional furtive-men-in-raincoats image of porn consumers.
While innovative erotica has always flourished in the short story format and in online niches, women's erotica was generally either tacked onto pornography for a male audience, or served up with loads of sanitizing romance. There was the Mills & Boon mythos in which sex was wrapped up in the search for true love -- while the hero and heroine might ride each other, it was always off into a technicolored sunset.
The bodice-ripper genre, meanwhile, offered escape into a fantasy-land in which lush women with heaving breasts melted at the first hint of a throbbing member. But the frilled shirts, lavish hats and furbelows (and that's just the men) made it clear that these books were adult fairytales populated by pirates, cowboys and Fabio-lookalikes.
So-called chick-lit novels put sex for women in contexts that looked more like their own lives: The sex was hot, but it took its place alongside concerns about family, career, friends, fashion, travel and food.
But it wasn't until E.L. James went supernova with her Fifty Shades series that women's erotica could go bare, as it were -- almost overnight, women no longer had to apologize for reading for purposes of titillation. And with that genie out of the jar, there was an explosion of erotic writing oriented to women readers, for every imaginable niche -- from Biblical erotica to senior porn, not to mention the wackier categories of tentacle and dino-porn (we're not intending to join their ranks anytime soon, but it gives us joy to live in a world in which they exist).
At a bank in a modest Cape Town suburb, female staffers are typical of those taking an interest in our Girl series. One admin clerk (heavily pregnant with her third child) told us, "When Fifty Shades first came out, we all chipped in to buy a copy and circulated it amongst ourselves, like a club. We're on the lookout for more reading like this."
With this kind of enthusiasm from women readers, and with much less stigma attached to producing and consuming erotica, the three of us felt it was a pity that the moment that women's erotica went mainstream, it reverted to stereotypes from the 1950s: the rich, powerful, mysterious, slightly cruel man initiating the wide-eyed and innocent heroine, who learns the thrill of submission as she redeems him with her love.
Lotz had read the "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" books to her daughter, and felt that the "choose-your-own-ending" structure would be a far more dynamic and empowering approach to erotica. But there was one small hitch: She knew she wasn't up for writing sex (horror is more her metier). But Moffett and Nick were smitten by the idea, and had erotica writing notches on their belts.
And so the concept of erotica that puts women in charge, and more specifically, choice in the hands of the reader, was born, at a moment when the publishing industry was hungry for something fresh in this genre.
The Girl books are deliberately written in the second person, literally giving the reader -- "you" -- the spotlight. The books work with similar "signposts" as the CYOA format: The reader is presented with a series of options or partners. Does she hook up with the rumpled rock star, or the toy-boy barman? Does she check out a mystery woman's portfolio, or does she climb aboard a motorbike with a sexy photographer? It's all up to her (or "you") to decide, as the reader turns to the corresponding page to see how each scenario plays out.
We liked the idea of the reader as an active story agent, in charge of her own "ending" to a degree, although there are also author-driven twists and surprises along the way. It's certainly a match made for e-books, and we've been encouraged by early readers who've posted their own "optional scenes" on social media, or recommended fantasy scenarios and settings for future books.
As the vast variety of erotica now available to women indicates, it's not possible to cater to everyone, and the Girl series tends towards the vanilla end of the spectrum. Given media reports of Fifty Shades-related bumps and bruises (the author admits she didn't personally research all the toys and activities she chronicled), we were cautious about including BDSM scenarios, especially as none of us were up for "hands-on" research (we were diligent about interviews and internet searches, however, to the extent that we have a pact that if anything happens to one of us, the others will immediately delete our Google search history).
Lotz also points out that we have no intention of treading on the toes of the great LBGT material out there: While our books have gay characters, the heroine, while not averse to a walk on the Sapphic side, has been straight (so far).
Possibly the most interesting direction the genre might take would be towards humor: While erotica needs to steam up the mirrors, Nick contends that sex IS funny. We hope that our readers will laugh as well as gasp.
In the final analysis, while we don't believe that our series will lead to the storming of barricades, we're encouraged by positive responses to the notion of women being in charge of their sexual choices -- not just in their bedrooms, but on their bookshelves and e-readers too. Here's hoping to see more of this trend in the future.