It’s happened to all of us at least once. You walk in on a conversation between a couple of your fellow queer ladies while they’re discussing TV fandoms. One of them is raving about her favorite wlw character, and you agree wholeheartedly, only to realize you’re not even talking about the same person. Then you get very confused. Wait, are we talking about Supergirl or Orange is the New Black? Turns out they’re talking about Degrassi and you look like an idiot.
Let’s face it, when we meet female TV characters with certain names, we just know they’re probably going to turn out to be queer. Maybe it’s especially obvious to me because I have one of these names, but there’s a clear pattern. This past year or so of TV brought us a new queer character with at least 4 of the following 6 names, so I know I’m onto something here. Behold, my totally scientific list of names that signal your newest TV crush is probably into chicks.
Editor’s Note: As of 4/1/18, this article has been updated to include characters missed at the time of initial publication.
There haven’t actually been a ton of wlw characters named Emily (as far as I know), but they’ve all been memorable enough to make this name an easy pick for the list. The big one is Emily Fields, the Pretty Little Liars resident lesbian jock. She’s famous for her gay as hell outfits, kind and loyal personality, and having ALL the girlfriends. Emily Fields was an incredibly important character to have on screen. Though she had the obligatory coming out story, the show moved past that early and made her sexuality just one part of the character as a whole. She was allowed that angst as she figured out who she was, but also the happiness that comes with self-acceptance. We got the full journey over seven seasons with Emily. Unfortunately, the show disappointed by killing off many of its other queer female characters, including transwoman CeCe Drake.
Before Emily Fields, we had Emily Fitch of Skins. She was one of the major characters in the group the British teen drama followed in seasons 3 and 4. Her romance with Naomi Campbell was both adorable and gifable. It also brought the drama and broke our hearts. It may have been hard to watch at times, but in 2009 we still had a dearth of teen wlw characters on TV, and hey, we can all relate to angst.
The treatment of the couple by the show was controversial, however. Certainly in terms of negative tropes. They pulled the lesbian sleeping with a man trope, which was disappointing. It’s debatable whether or not that counted as cheating since Naomi was still being unclear what she wanted from Emily at that point, but in any case Naomi later cheated on Emily too. The cheating wlw trope tends to target bisexuals more, but still, this wasn’t the best. Then the show pulled the Bury Your Gays trope (barring a miracle) in Skins: Fire, but we don’t speak of that. Emily and Naomi lived happily ever after, okay? On the bright side, we got to hear Emily proudly declare that she wanted to have sex with girls and liked soft thighs and tits and fanny. So… there was good with the bad.
This past spring brought two new queer Emilys to our screens. On Supergirl, we officially met Maggie’s notorious ex-girlfriend and her name turned out to be Emily. Meanwhile, three episodes into The Handmaid’s Tale we learned that the character we knew as Ofglen was also named Emily. Though nothing in that show is sunshine and rainbows, Emily undisputably had one of the most painful storylines of season 1. After being caught with another woman, she was subjected to mutilation and forced to watch her lover hanged. Understandably, this upset some people in the community. However, I maintain that this was a good use of the Bury Your Gays and gayngst tropes and indeed a necessary one. Queer people would absolutely be targeted in a right-wing religious regime, and it’s important no one forget that. Not us, and definitely not those outside our community who think we have achieved equality.
Paige McCullers of Pretty Little Liars is basically me as a TV character, and her arc hurt so good. While Emily’s coming out was somewhat difficult for her, Paige’s story was arguably more painful. Raised in a religious family, she was deeply closeted and had to fight through a lot of self-loathing homophobia. She was also bullied deeper into the closet by Alison, who didn’t want her getting close to Emily. But after some seriously problematic behavior and scared false starts, she managed to come out and be happy with herself. Some people don’t want to see homophobia and painful queer storylines on TV, but I strongly disagree. This is important. Those of us who have gone through things like this need to see ourselves represented. And people who still are going through it need to know there’s hope on the other side.
Degrassi: The Next Generation also had a wlw by this name, the bisexual Paige Michalchuk. One of the main characters, she got involved with bad girl Alex Nuñez midway through her run on the series. The two dated for a couple of seasons, and after they broke up Paige hooked up with a guy again during season 7. And no, this did not somehow invalidate her queerness. I don’t want to hear any of that nonsense around here. Bisexual women are still bisexual when they’re dating men, period.
On that note, beloved bi/pan icon Kristanna Loken played a character named Paige on The L Word for a season. Well, she was in one episode in season 5, but Paige promptly left the show when she found Shane doing the realtor while they were searching for an apartment together. It was then implied that she may have burned down Wax, the skateboard/barber shop where Shane worked. This looked like a rather lovely instance of the crazy bi ex-girlfriend stereotype until Shane confessed to burning it down herself in the post-finale interrogation tapes.
There’s a couple more examples. Paige of Mary + Jane seemed to exhibit bisexual (or at the very least heteroflexible) tendencies. She had a weirdly hilarious queer sex dream, perhaps influenced by marijuana and her business partner’s sexual fluidity. Also, Community had a guest character named Page in one episode, who wasn’t actually a lesbian but was mistaken for one. Perhaps the name had something to do with it.
Lisa Simpson has got to be the most famous queer Lisa on television. The fact that she’s both polyamorous and bisexual is not necessarily common knowledge, but a series of family photos in The Simpsons 23×09 “Holidays of Future Passed” revealed she had two girlfriends (at once) in college before marrying Millhouse.
Arguably the most notorious queer character named Lisa, however, fittingly comes from the most notorious wlw show. The L Word’s Lisa the lesbian man is not a wlw, but still, he identified as a lesbian. That entire storyline made little sense and seemed to be an off-color joke. It hasn’t aged well either, as in retrospect it appears to be mocking a nonbinary character. Of course, The L Word rarely handled any trans or genderqueer issues with anything resembling tact. Additionally, there was at least one more queer Lisa on The L Word, possibly two. Then there was Tasha’s straight dead friend from the army who was also named Lisa. It’s by far the most common name on the show.
This is not just an L Word thing, though. House of Cards regular Rachel Posner developed a relationship with a woman named Lisa Williams during season 2 of that show. Theirs was a particularly beautiful and cathartic relationship to watch: two damaged women finding solace, comfort, and trust in each other. It was great and all until Rachel’s handler stalker Stamper forced her to break things off with Lisa because he was obsessed with her (and eventually ended up murdering her. Yikes.)
Shameless added to the Lisa trend in 2015 when it introduced a lesbian couple to the Gallaghers’ neighborhood. Not just one, but both of them were named Lisa. The Lisas were part of the gentrification storyline that took off in season 5 and has dominated the show since. That explains part of why they are not generally liked, but homophobia seems to come into play too. The couple is referred to by lesbophobic slurs as much as their name(s). I don’t like them either, since they are your typical overbearing and judgmental suburbanites, but some of the slurs and threats they were subject to were a bit much. We haven’t seen the Lisas since season 6, but at last sighting they were pregnant. At the same time. Stereotypical and hilarious.
The appearance of Nicole’s surprise wife Shae in Wynonna Earp this year cemented that name’s place on this list. She came on the heels of Orphan Black’s Shay Davydov. I think fans of Lost Girl were ecstatic to hear Ksenia Solo was going to play a queer woman until they heard the character was an alternative love interest for Cosima. Then boy, did she get internet hate. It was really too bad, because Shay was an interesting character who seemed to be really good for Cosima. She was caring and a good listener and overall a terrific catch, and I was sad she didn’t stay on the show in some capacity.
Though it was her last name, I also count Chicago Fire’s Leslie Shay in this tally. No one called her by her first name, anyway. Leslie the lesbian was probably a little too on the nose. The sassy paramedic had off the charts chemistry with her partner, Gabby Dawson. When Dawson moved on to firefighting, she also had some serious sexual tension with Allison Rafferty, her (probably self-loathing) homophobic new partner. She had a sketchy girlfriend named Devon for a while, too, probably because they needed a lesbian with an even gayer name than Shay.
Sadly, Shay was lost to a convenient pipe hitting her head, one of the more dramatically underwhelming instances of Bury Your Gays in the last few years. She was pretty much fridged for the development of her best friends on the show. One was a guy, and the other was Dawson, the woman we all wanted her to hook up with. Yeah, that was a tear fest.
Does Shane McCutcheon from The L Word count, since the names are so similar? Close enough, I say. Do I even need to get into her story and impact on the community? Probably not a good idea. It gets me riled up, and we could be here for hours.
Being Canadian, Alex Nuñez was the first queer Alex I became aware of on TV. She came out in 2005 during Season 5 of Degrassi: The Next Generation. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I didn’t watch the show. Because of my nationality, that is, not necessarily because it’s good (my friends’ reviews are mixed). But I remember hearing about it when Alex came out, because at the time it felt like a huge deal. And it was. We had so little representation at the time outside of The L Word, which was full of characters I couldn’t relate to. To be fair, fellow Canadian teen drama Edgemont also had a lesbian character. And I really related to Shannon’s story, as I was also a gay Christian. But Degrassi is a much more well-known show, which made Alex’s coming out and her relationship with Paige extra important.
Around the same time, The OC’s protagonist Marissa Cooper had a fling with Alex Kelly, the bisexual manager of local music venue The Bait Shop. This was, again, a big deal. The OC was more mainstream in the USA and this storyline turned some heads (as well as the tide). This may have been the character who cemented the queer Alex trope. A few years later, a lesbian named Alex dated a main character on the original UK version of Mistresses. When the series was adapted for US audiences, most characters who filled similar roles had their names changed. Not Alex, though. I wonder why…
Then Alex Vause came along and stole our collective hearts. The Orange is the New Black co-lead is easily one of the most crushable characters on the show. Between the glasses and sultry voice and assertiveness, it’s no wonder Piper fell for her. That and, you know, she’s played by Laura Prepon. The community likes to argue about to what extent the Pipex relationship is toxic and if it’s good representation. I’m not gonna dip my toe in that cesspool, but in any case I am very glad Alex is around. The identity intersection of poor queer women is one that does not get nearly enough attention. I strongly related to young Alex being teased about wearing Bobos instead of Adidas and how her mom worked multiple jobs. That and her depression storyline, and pragmatism, and the way Piper’s antics never fail to make her roll her eyes.
The real life person she’s based on is actually named Catherine, which could have been shortened to the gay-ish Cat/Kat. But her name was already changed to Nora in the original memoir to protect her anonymity. And I guess Nora just wasn’t gay enough for Jenji Kohan and company.
We can count The 100’s Commander Lexa here too, because her name is shortened from Alexandria. Like Shane McCutcheon, for the sake of brevity it’s best not to get into this one, but suffice it to say everyone knows who I’m talking about and what her impact was. RIP, Heda. You deserved better.
Supergirl’s Alex Danvers is the latest in this long line of wlw characters by that name. She wasn’t originally conceived as a gay character, but they felt it fit for her, and she already had the name. Coincidence? Or is every Alex destined to be queer? To be honest, I’m pretty sure every female Alex I’ve known in real life has turned out not to be straight. But I digress.
Coming out stories for women in their late twenties and older aren’t common on TV, so Alex Danvers is a novelty in her own way, despite the common name. Her coming out story was done incredibly well and respectfully. It was both earnest and honest. Though I can’t relate to her coming out process in particular, she’s an amazing character, and the show has done a great job with her arc. The backstory and arc of her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer, was more relatable to me. Honestly, it made me cry. Especially the scenes this season with her father, because I grew up in a similarly unsupportive environment. In short, Supergirl is doing amazing. This is the kind of queer representation I want to see on TV.
There aren’t as many examples of this name because it’s not a common one, but the percentage is still high. Rest assured, if you meet a woman on TV named Frankie, chances are she’s a fanny bandit. Frankie Dart, the absurdly boring efficiency consultant hired by Greendale College in season 6 of Community was outed as a lesbian when a bunch of faculty emails were leaked. Frankie Stone was a wlw character on All My Children for a few months in the fall of 2001. You know, until they killed her, as you’d expect. The actress later came back and played Frankie’s twin sister, Maggie, who ended up involved with the character everyone had previously shipped Frankie with. (The name Maggie borders on deserving a spot on this list too. More on that below.)
Despite a close call with a blowtorch and lots of prison power struggles, Franky Doyle is somehow still alive on the sh*tshow that is Wentworth. (I mean that in the best possible way. The show got too intense for me and I had to quit watching it, but it’s fantastic.) Franky has been in and out of prison a couple times and been involved with several ladies over the course of the show. You know, as fanny bandits do. She has a special place in my heart because she, much like Vause and Nuñez, is reflective of my underprivileged upbringing. I love seeing those girls succeed. Even if it’s just succeeding at seducing the HBIC or escaping from prison.
Let’s not forget about Frankie Alan of Lip Service, the iconic British wlw-themed show that came on the air shortly after The L Word ended. Frankie was somewhat of an analogue to Shane McCutcheon, only bisexual. She had similarly terrible emotional and family issues and, just like Shane, had a tendency to self-sabotage. Another thing she shared with Shane was the sex appeal and fandom following, for good reason. That attractive androgynous wounded woman thing just pulls us right in, doesn’t it? I blame Graham Eaton.
Stef and Lena Adams-Foster at one point had a bun in the oven whom they pre-emptively named Frankie. Because of course the lesbians would give their child a totally gay name. (Yes, I know she was named after Stef’s recently dead father, shhhh.) Tragically, Frankie had to be aborted for medical reasons. But if she had been born, she probably would have turned out to be a wlw too. If not for the name, because of the show she was a part of. The Fosters loves its queer characters, after all. And we love them too.
As those last three names illustrate, wlws are often given gender-neutral names on TV. It’s par for the course, seeing as wlw content creators tend to favor those names as well. (I myself have often wished I had a gender-neutral name, not a boring straight-sounding one. At least that second part is changing, on TV anyway.) I have a feeling we started it and the trend was picked up by the mainstream media. Either that or everyone just assumes queer women are going to be gender atypical and they give us names to reflect that. So really, any gender-neutral name can be considered an honorable mention here.
One notable example is Nicky. Aside from the obvious Nicky Nichols of Orange is the New Black, there’s Nikki from Nikki and Nora, the unfortunately aborted cop show about a couple of detectives who were partners in more than one sense of the word. Thanks to those two and Wynonna Earp’s Officer Haught, Nicole is starting to creep up this list.
There are a couple less gender neutral names that seem to be associated with wlws on a smaller scale. Lesbian witch Tara Maclay and bisexual human-turned-vampire Tara Thornton were on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood, respectively, and both met unfortunate violent ends. Also, Thornton and the aforementioned Emily Fitch both had girlfriends named Naomi.
Finally, I would be remiss to leave without tipping my hat to Maggie, seeing as I’ve already mentioned two of them in this article. Maggie Sawyer was already canonically a lesbian in the DC comics, but hey, that’s still a form of media. While this analysis focused on TV characters, the pattern extends across mediums into books and movies, comics and video games. (See Emily Kaldwin of Dishonored, for example.) Maggie Sawyer has been in multiple TV shows and video games, so she’s almost pushing that name up the list all by herself.
So, what do you think? Are there any other trending names I missed? Any examples of these names I don’t know about? Hit me up in the comments.
Images Courtesy of Hulu, Warner Bros., 20th Television, NBC, The CW, SoHo, Showtime, All3Media, and Netflix
Batwoman and She-Ra Are Why I’m Single: 7 Reasons Why
Hey folks, it’s me, Dan. The writer of the piece. Please don’t assume anything up there is my opinion, or the opinion of anyone at the Fandomentals. I just wanted to emulate the head space of someone who spends their time whining about children’s cartoons or comic book TV. It was not fun. If you agree with any arguments here…please go outside. Call your mom. Take a shower.
It’s difficult to be a straight white man in the world today. Half the men are gay, all the women are lesbians, and despite how low the white male representation in Congress has gotten (only 65%!) people still refuse to believe that white men are oppressed. And the SJWs continue to spread their lies with a reboot of She-Ra and an all new adaptation of Batwoman. Not only are these new shows doubling down on pandering to silly things like women or lesbians, they are also actively contributing to why I can’t get laid.
1. New She-Ra Isn’t As Hot As The Naked Barbarians Above My Bed, Which Are Very Cool
God, look how ugly she is. No low cut neckline, undefined thighs, no makeup. The new She-Ra is everything I hate about the SJW agenda. They want to take proud, sexy females and make them boys. If only she still looked like the tastefully nude girls in my Frazetta and Vallejo prints: buff, busty, and wrapped around a strong man’s legs. But because the SJWs have poisoned women my age, like my ex-girlfriend Lauren, they see these works of art as “exploitative” and “pornographic.” If only they didn’t fear their own bodies, they’d understand why I keep these posters up so I may “appreciate” them whenever I want.
2. Batwoman Is A Lesbian Like The Ones Who Keep Rejecting Me
The constant deluge of LGBT pandering has come to a head at The CW. It seems like every hot girl on the CW is a lesbian now, just like the ones I meet when I go out. Putting yet another “lesbian” on screen is just going to embolden all those women to keep lying to me when I try to buy them a drink. It doesn’t even teach them to be fun lesbians, the kind that have three ways with their best friend and boyfriend. That happens all the time, Lauren, you’re just a prude.
3. Noelle Stevenson, a 4/10 At Best, Is Spiting Me Like My Ex, Lauren
There’s only one possible explanation for why showrunner Noelle Stevenson would want to send her unsexy message to children: spite. Just like when my ex-girlfriend, Lauren, started hanging out with her work friends instead of coming home to watch Ben Shapiro videos with me, Noelle is hell bent on inflicting her vengeance on the world for seemingly slighting her. There’s nothing wrong with cartoons being sexy, Noelle, and there’s nothing wrong with missing date night for a DoTa tournament.
4. Batwoman Isn’t Hot Like The Lesbians In My Videos You Found, Lauren
Like any virile male, I have an appreciation for Sapphic love. It’s really the most delicate and sensual of the pornographic arts. And yes, I happen to have cultivated quite the collection of films featuring such delicate lady loving. It’s perfectly natural, Lauren. But Batwoman lacks the style and grace of your Mia Malkovas or Riley Reids. She has short, mannish hair (when not wearing that gross wig), unfeminine short fingernails, and she’s way too buff to be attractive.
5. Bow Gave Women Like Lauren Impossible Expectations For Male Beauty
This is a problem I’ve had with She-Ra since I’d occasionally see it when my sister had the TV and I went to play with my He-Man figures. Men like Bow taught all the women my age that men had to be in shape, well groomed, and in a color coordinated outfit to be attractive. Despite all the inner beauty that some men have, the women they try to date cannot look past their preconceived biases. So yeah, maybe I don’t go to the gym as much as Bow probably does, but Bow doesn’t have over 6,000 Reddit karma, Lauren.
6. Glimmer Tells Girls It’s Ok To Be Fat And Ugly Like My Ex, Lauren
Glimmer used to be so hot. But now look what they’ve done to her. She’s lost all shape and become just another fat SJW icon like Rose Tico. Plus, she’s going to be be a role model for the girls watching this. They’ll grow up assuming that it’s somehow ok to have weird colored hair, to not take pride in their appearance, to dress like a frump. Women need to take care of themselves like Lauren did when we first met. She was so beautiful.
7. Lauren, If You’re Reading This, Please Call Me. I’m So Alone
I’ve been living out of boxes in Jack’s apartment since you kicked me out. I miss our bed and kitchen. I even miss your cats. Lauren please, I need to get back with you. I’m so empty. I keep calling and you don’t answer. I’ll stop watching children’s cartoons all the time, I’ll get a job, I’ll stay off Reddit. Please take me back.
Images via DC, Filmation, and Dreamworks Animation
Loving the devil
He’s handsome, intelligent, funny, drives a great car and has an accent, what’s not to love. Well there’s that tiny detail… he’s the devil
There aren’t many shows that catch my attention from the pilot. Lucifer was one of the few that did just that. Understandably I was really mad when the news of the show’s cancellation broke. I finally watched the season finale. Let me tell you, that ending left me wanting more, what with dozens of questions, that thankfully should be answered since the series has been picked up by Netflix.
Yet still, the question that all my friends and I ask ourselves remains: why was the show cancelled in the first place?
An unusual combination
Lucifer captures the viewer with a charming mix of comedy, crime, and supernatural. It’s not really a common combination, when you think about it. Plus, there are few shows that use humor as well as this one.
The producers were able to give us a show where solving crime doesn’t always have to be serious and dark. The funny one-liners, devil puns, and blunt comments break the seriousness and tension. That doesn’t mean the show lacks violence or a certain darkness in some of the story lines.
The whole supernatural aspect of the show isn’t overpowering within the rest of the plot. It’s used as a background or explanation of the characters actions. It’s also a metaphor for Lucifer’s journey of self discovery in a way.
The devil’s in the details
What made me appreciate the show was its attention to detail. I know all shows try to track the small pieces, but with Lucifer even the most minuscule could completely destroy a plot line. This was especially the case since there are so many supernatural elements in the show. If the writers didn’t keep track of them, there could easily have been a lot of plot holes.
Furthermore, the writers always had characters reference past situations, making it feel more like real life. Examples included how Lucifer’s birthday gift for Chloe was a necklace with the bullet that she shot him with. It makes us fans appreciate the show even more, since things build off of each other.
Connecting with characters
Every good story comes from well developed and relatable characters. Without these, even the best plots would be dull and boring. Having said that, Lucifer can pride itself in offering the fans a versatile group of characters that are easy to connect to, funny, inspiring, but also at the same time frustrating; they make mistakes and don’t always think about consequences. That unique blend of characters is one if the main sources of success of this particular series. Their characteristics allow viewers to identify with them, face challenges together, and see how they overcome them.
Offering such a big range of different characters is important, but what’s more important for me is how many strong women are portrayed in the show. The writers made an effort to show various types of women, which I greatly appreciate, even if I didn’t like all of them. (There was just something about Lucifer’s mother that I couldn’t stand or understand.)
What makes these characters so great is also the way they are portrayed by the actors that play them. Without their hard work even the best of characters would fall flat. The perfect example of spinning a character would be Charlotte Richards played by Tricia Helfer. I couldn’t stand the Goddess, but really enjoyed Charlotte’s journey.
Chemistry is the key
Since we talked about the characters, I should also mention that characters only get you so far alone. The real driving force of every series are their relationships and dynamics to one another. And let me tell Lucifer had a lot of them. The relationships in the show varied from family to friends to lovers to ex’s to partners. One could think that the writers tried to cover every possible combination and they did. Yet they did it tastefully and with a grace that showed a deep understanding of the characters and the dynamics between them. Every relationship was natural and organic, and the development of them was also shown in such a way.
The relationships were portrayed as something that just had to occur. Of course Chloe has to have a relationship with Dan….they raise a daughter together, and naturally Lucifer and Amenadiel will feel responsible for Charlotte since their mother used her body as a vessel.
What definitely helped was the natural chemistry between the actors. Nobody would have believed in the romantic feelings of Chloe and Lucifer, Dan and Charlotte, or Maze and Amenadiel if there wasn’t any chemistry. There were times relationships felt forced, but overall their developments were portrayed well.
Playing with emotions
Because the characters take risks and make mistakes, we get to see all these emotions—emotions that range from family fluff to anger or despair. The way the show handles them is admirable. One could think the writers don’t need the crime aspect of the series to give us hour after hour of television.
All of the characters were taken on emotional journey throughout the show. Lucifer is taken on a journey of self discovery and experiencing human emotion as he learns to accept his feelings for Chloe and mends his relationship with his brother. This is all the while forming a friendship with Linda and somehow destroying the one he had with Maze.
Amanadiel builds a relationship with Charlotte and Linda is frenemies with benefits with Maze, who accepts his place as Lucifer’s brother and the part he plays in his father’s plan. Maze goes on a roller-coaster ride of emotions almost sacrificing her friendship with Linda and making Lucifer go crazy.
And don’t even get me started on the Deckerstar relationship drama. The constant will they or won’t they, the love triangles, and Lucifer’s impulsive reactions leave you hating it and wanting more at the same time.
And then there was crime
To top all that off, Lucifer is a crime show. So all the emotional roller-coasters are accompanied by some kind of murder or crime mystery that our characters have to solve. The crimes often give us a context or a background to what the characters feel or go through. Sometimes it’s the crimes that allow the characters to grow as shown in the friendship between Lucifer and Father Frank, or even the professional relationship between Linda and Lucifer.
The supernatural element the crimes committed in the show aren’t the most important part even if sometimes they’re shown that way. There’s always something more underneath, a deeper meaning.
I can only hope that the continuation on Netflix keeps these aspects of Lucifer in mind. If nothing else, at least we get to see these characters some more.
Images courtesy of Fox
How to Tell if You’re Reading Erotica
I like sex as much as the next non-ace spectrum gal. I enjoy reading about it in my fiction, too, especially if it’s between two characters that I really, really want to bone each other. But I have a problem. See, I’m also very picky about my smut. Whether it’s word choice, tone, specificity (or lack thereof), there are a lot of things that can take me out of it when I’m reading scenes of an erotic nature. I don’t generally read a lot of erotica/erotic romance precisely for this reason; unless it’s recced to me from a reliable source who knows what I enjoy, I can’t muster up the energy to go sorting through thousands of options to find something I want. (Incidentally, it’s also why I don’t read a lot of fanfic.)
In fact, I’m so unfamiliar with the genre that I apparently don’t even know when I’m reading it. The other day, I picked up a book someone had recommended, and it wasn’t until about a quarter of the way through that I paused to ask myself, “Wait, is this erotica?” (The answer is yes, it was.) So, if, like me, you look for very specific things in sex scenes—to the point where you can’t always tell if you’re reading erotica because it doesn’t appeal to your specific sensibilities—I’ve created a handy (and a bit cheeky) guide.
As you can imagine, this is going to be NSFW.
If Your Protagonist Thinks about Sex a Lot
You might be reading erotica. To be fair, like much in life and art that has to do with sex, there’s a spectrum. Some books contain little to no reference to sex in a character’s internal monologue. Others do. Because sex is a normal part of the human experience for those interested in it, a protagonist thinking about sex shouldn’t surprise us, and a character thinking about sex doesn’t make a book erotica. Katniss thinks about sex in the Hunger Games series and that is a far cry from erotica (kind of the opposite, actually, if you hold to the Katniss is ace headcanon).
However, if the protagonist’s internal monologue contains frequent and consistent references to sex, that’s another story (heh). Put another way, if removing thoughts of sex would depopulate a good chunk of the protagonist’s thought life or weaken their characterization, it’s erotica. Similarly…
If Sex and Sexual Fantasies are a Primary Feature of How the Protagonist Relates to Another Character
You might be reading erotica. This can be the hardest one to pin down sometimes because characters relate to each other in many ways, one of which may be sexually charged. The relationship between Jaime and Cersei of A Song of Ice and Fire includes erotic elements. Jaime thinks about having sex with—or other men having sex with—Cersei quite a lot, but their plotline isn’t fundamentally or even primarily, erotic. Even having explicit sex scenes between two characters doesn’t automatically make the book erotica. These days, explicit sex scenes and erotic undertones exist even in other genres (which is where my next criteria comes in, so I’ll have to delay fulfilling that desire for now).
At the same time, if sexual acts or fantasies dominate how the protagonist relates to one of the secondary characters, there’s a good bet the book is erotica. Sex drives their interactions. When the protagonist thinks about the other character, sex almost always comes up. Thinking about that person makes the protagonist aroused, and such reactions happen repeatedly and consistently and drives their actions. Basically, if every time they think about that person, they think of having sex with them, it’s probably erotica. Though again, a lot depends on plot and prominence, but for that, you’ll have to wait just a bit longer.
I should also mention erotic romance here, a hybrid genre of erotica and romance. As the name implies, erotic romance enfolds explicit sex scenes/fantasies into a larger romantic arc with a happy ending. I mention this separately because the larger romance and happy ending come from the romance genre and not all erotica has these elements. Erotic romance is still erotica, though, just a specific kind. For erotic romance, think of erotica as the foreplay to a story that ends in a satisfying romantic climax.
If There are at Least Four Explicit Sex Scenes
You might be reading erotica. As I said, just having a sex scene or two does not erotica make. Not even if those scenes are explicit. More and more novels written for adult audiences feature explicit sex, even in genres like fantasy or scifi. But sometimes, quantity does matter. Because the more something features in a book, the more likely it is to be central to the storytelling. I picked four because in your average novel of 250 pages, four explicit sex scenes would take up a lot of space (as much as 10% or more of the page time). However, I could go as low as three if one occurs within the first quarter of the book.
I admit, these are arbitrary numbers. A lot of it has to do with placement and vibe. Do the scenes feel like they’re the ‘point’ of the book? Do they seem intended primarily to arouse the reader? If you took them out would it change anything about characterization or plot? How close to the beginning of the book they begin to appear?
But also, yeah, quantity matters. Four times in a year is one thing, but four times in a night means something different. (Also, good for you. Sounds like you’re enjoying yourself.)
If the Protagonists Masturbates Within the First Ten Pages
You might be reading erotica. I feel like this one goes without saying, especially if paired with several explicit sex scenes. If your protagonist is getting off by their onesies that soon into the book, you can bet there’s more to follow. (Full confession, I include this because it happened in the book I mentioned at the outset and…yeah, this should have been my first clue.)
If Uncomfortable or Awkward Metaphors for Sexual Positions or Pleasure are Used
You might be reading erotica. This is one of those things about erotica that people mock a lot, and it’s worth noting that this is changing. The Ten Things I Hate About You “quivering member” style of writing erotica isn’t as prevalent as it used to be. Still, I run into it. I recently reviewed a book that used the metaphor of someone’s balls turning inside out with pleasure. I may not have testicles, but that just sounds painful. To be fair, this wasn’t labeled as erotica, it was just a weirdly written explicit sex scene. But it’s not alone. I’ve seen descriptions of moving a male identified character’s cock ‘like a joystick’ (why?!) or a female identified characters’ breasts ‘heaving like ocean waves’ (NO. OW. THAT’S NOT ENJOYABLE).
This is one of those criteria that’s best coupled with other elements, because as I just noted, uncomfortable metaphors for sexual pleasure or body positions occur outside of erotica. Especially, though not exclusively, with young, inexperienced writers or older writers used to the older style of writing erotica. I’ve also found it more likely to occur when the author is writing about a character who is not of their own gender (women writing m/m, men writing a female character, etc).
If You See the Word ‘Sex’ as a Euphemism for Vagina
You might be reading erotica. Unfortunately for my reading pleasure, lots of euphemisms for body parts that I find unappealing make their way into erotica. Nub in particular makes me drier than the Sahara, but other offenders include: pussy, core, slit, rod, sword (and sheath), nether lips, bud (for nipples or clitoris), budding (for breasts, looking at you George R. R. Martin, breasts do not bud), button. I’m sure there are more but these are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
Now, as with the previous criteria this is changing, especially as society becomes more comfortable with describing cis female pleasure. Most of the previous euphemisms referred to cis female body parts, and there’s a reason for that. (Hint: the word begins with s- and ends in -exism.) Historically, talking about vaginas and their pleasure experiences was taboo. Hence the multiplicity of—and at least to me unpleasant sounding—euphemisms.
Thankfully, it’s getting better. But, like a bad lover, such terms still turn up when we least want them to, even in works by female authors. Even works by queer female authors writing f/f erotica. And not just inexperienced authors or ones more used to writing in a more circumlocutory style. I see it everywhere, even in non-erotica, so as with some of the other criteria, this shouldn’t be used on its own.
To be perfectly honest, I’m probably not the best person to ask about word choice in erotica. It’s the single biggest offender for me going from totally into it to utterly unmoved. I’m very picky about word choice, and your mileage will likely vary. To each their own kink and their words to talk about them. (Just please, please, I’m begging you: never use the word nub again. I don’t have a nub, thank you very much.
If You Can’t Keep Track of Body Parts
You might be reading erotica. Yes, yes, books that aren’t erotica have this problem too. However, unlike the previous two, I do think losing track of body parts and what people are doing occurs more frequently in erotic literature. Why? Because of the explicit nature of the content. As readers tastes moves away from euphemisms and vague phrasing, more clarity and specificity means more opportunities to lose track of what people are doing. And unlike real life, you can’t see anything. And if you’re anything like me, I get anxious when I can’t tell what people’s bodies are doing.
Why is her arm there, wasn’t she just touching her leg? Wait, what is her hair doing again? And why does it sound like there are five legs when there should only be four? Arms don’t move like that do they? And wouldn’t that configuration be awkward since he’s less muscular?
If you, too, get confused and overwhelmed by the specificity of body placement and keeping track of what’s moving where, you are not alone! I don’t have any solutions other than watching erotica or only reading recs from friends, but at least you don’t have to suffer by yourself. And now, with my guide, you can be prepared for what’s coming.