Book Bitches
6 min

Reading with one hand

There’s more porn than ever, but print still goes deeper

It’s Pride month! But I’ll first need time to recover from May, International Masturbation Month! It started in 1995, when the San Francisco sex shop Good Vibrations declared a day in honour of former US surgeon general Jocelyn Elders, who was fired for saying that masturbation is a normal part of human sexuality “and perhaps it should be taught.” The protest caught on and became an international month-long event because, hello, masturbation.

With better-than-ever sex toys, a wide variety of lubes and an internet jammed with porn, it seems there’s never been a more convenient era for spanking the monkey but before you stop reading this to go do so, I ask you to consider putting a book in that other hand. Yes, erotic fiction. A bit more work than Xtube, perhaps, but far more stimulating.

"There’s a difference between erotic fiction and visual porn,” says Michael Thomas Ford, author of acclaimed novels like Last Summer and Full Circle, “A photograph gives you a very definite visual, but creating a fantasy around it is limited by the viewer’s imagination. In a good story, the author will engage all of the senses and build the experience in a more detailed, and perhaps surprising, way. Both experiences can be very powerful, and I think that’s why the physical porn magazines worked so well. The fiction was interspersed with photo spreads, giving readers both experiences.”

“My first published fiction was erotica,” Ford says, “specifically, a story in Blueboy. I chose them because of the Cyndi Lauper song ‘She Bop,’ which contains the lyrics ‘in the pages of a Blueboy magazine’ and is, as everyone by now knows, about jerking off.” That first story was printed in 1994, “before the internet made porn available to everyone for free, and there were a lot of gay erotic magazines. I published fiction in all of them, using the name Tom Caffrey, and wrote a story or two a month. It was so much fun to go to the newsstand when the new issues came out and go, ‘I wrote that, and that, and that.’” In a typically disrespected genre, Ford’s “tales from the men’s room” were clever, playful and always got the job done.

“I considered the stories writing exercises,” he says, “I would start with a single image and write a story around it. Or I would pick a theme I thought was worth exploring — sex with someone who wouldn’t normally arouse you, for instance, or portraying older gay men as sexual beings — and write about that. There was always a point to my stories, in addition to the obvious one of getting the reader off.” And if real life found its way into his fantasy sex stories, sex was always a part of Ford’s novels. “I can’t imagine not writing about it, so I’m always bemused when other fiction writers shy away from writing about sex or show disdain for including it in our fiction."

Those magazines may be gone now but Ford’s terrific stories were collected in the giant 2005 anthology Tangled Sheets from Kensington Press, which has also published hot gay stories from Sean Wolfe. The publisher who’s done the most with erotic fiction, however, has been Cleis Press, creators of the Best Gay Erotica and Best Lesbian Erotica series (pictured above) that have run annually since 1996. Almost monthly, Cleis publishes at least one paperback collection of queer erotic stories and this past year has seen books that are sexy, clever, hilarious, or all at once.

One busy Cleis editor is novelist Rob Rosen, who’s put together not only Best Gay Erotica 2015 but also Men of the Manor, a book of porn stories inspired by Downton Abbey, featuring randy aristocrats and naughty footmen galore, with one story by Michael Bracken including this hilarious line from a butler’s employer: “‘You’ve been serving us all evening, Stephens,’ Carnegie said as he dropped to his knees in front of me. ‘It’s about time someone served you.’” Legendary gay author Felice Picano can also be found in these pages, along with one story’s hilarious title, “Front Door, Back Door.” Unlike the often robotic nature of video porn, the creators of print erotica often have a healthy sense of its silliness.

Many of the Cleis Press gay erotic titles feature bikers, sailors or skater boys and some of the latest are even more specific, like Rookies, Shane Allison’s new collection of stories involving newbie cops, fresh on the beat, or Active Duty, a surprisingly romantic set of stories involving gays in the military. Here, Neil Plakcy, prolific author of the Mahu mystery series, turns the typically uber-macho world of gay army porn bottoms-up as soldiers swoon in the busy barracks.

But if filling your brain with buff dudes doesn’t do it for you, there’s the book comedian Margaret Cho simply calls, “incredible.” The fantastic Tristan Taormino has put together an astonishingly diverse set of dripping-wet stories in When She Was Good: Best Lesbian Erotica, while DL King and Rachel Kramer Bussel come from both sides of the kink spectrum in their respective 69(!)-story collections The Big Book of Domination and The Big Book of Submission. (Incidentally and very unscientifically, Toronto has been called “the city of bottoms” and at Glad Day Bookshop, Bussel’s book is outselling King’s three-to-one. Make of that what you will!)

“That’s great news!” laughs Bussel, “I loved getting to work with so many authors, about three times the usual I can include in my books. The flash-fiction format can be challenging because you only have 1,200 words to do justice to BDSM, but the authors rose to the challenge wonderfully. The best part, for me, was the variety; I got to include characters who’ve never experienced BDSM along with practiced kinksters. I wanted this book to be something people who’ve maybe just heard of Fifty Shades of Grey might pick up, as well as those who know they’re into BDSM. I consider these stories an introduction into some of the many practices of BDSM, and you don’t need a lot of time to enjoy them. As someone who has a very short attention span, I appreciate that the authors honed in on the hottest part of each kink in such a short space.”

The frequency and consistent quality of Cleis Press’ output in recent years has been making every month International Masturbation Month but it’s also what’s made their recent news so troubling, however. Six months after being bought up by a bigger company looking to increase its ebook market, Cleis publisher Brenda Knight and her staff abruptly quit, citing “irreconcilable differences of vision with the new ownership.” What does this mean for their future queer output?

“I can’t speak to Cleis’s future plans,” says Bussel, “save for I’m editing the next edition of Best Women’s Erotica for release in December, which is a huge honor and I’m looking forward to sharing lots of creative, diverse stories, many by writers who’ve never been published in the series.” She’s right to keep moving forward creatively, regardless of what Start Publishing might plan, but it’s these kind of corporate buyouts that worry queer creators. By 2009, for instance, most of the gay porn magazines Michael Thomas Ford wrote for were all owned by one company that then cancelled them all at once.

“I absolutely miss the days of the print magazines,” Ford says, “The editors were fun to work with, the other writers became good friends, and it was just an experience that doesn’t happen anymore now that almost everything is done online. I’ve actually been thinking about resurrecting the old zine form, where we did everything ourselves, and putting together something that incorporates photographs/art and stories. I’d like to create something that people can actually hold and look at. I think there’s an audience for that.”

There is, and hopefully we might see such a resurgence just in time for, oh, next May?