Erotica reading cuts straight to the climax

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Danielle Shi/Staff

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The dildo store smells like hot rubber and looks like a candy counter. Everything is colorful and slick, shining under the lights. Vaguely suggestive dance music plays overhead: “Do you right, yeah / All night, yeah.” Nervous women, always in groups, cluster around the displays, whispering.

“I heard they have one now that plugs into your iPod.”

“What? Like it vibrates to the music?”

“Yeah!”

Behind them, the rack of bachelorette-party penis candy winks under cellophane beside a desperately dignified display of licensed “Fifty Shades of Grey” paddles and neckties.

We — giggling women, silent single men and me — are gently herded to the vibrator museum at the back of the store. Rows of folding chairs are set under track lights. The room is warm and set up as a museum of vibrators. No one will fall prey to hysteria tonight.

It’s hard to guess who will show up to a live reading of “The Big Book of Orgasms.” The crowd is a remarkably well-dressed mixture of young and old, and the creeper vibe is pleasantly absent. The room fills up and heats up. Jackets come off, and everyone glistens.

We have come to hear a live reading. Nine of the contributors to this anthology will read their erotica pieces aloud, and we in the audience will negotiate how we should react. These are explicit stories; they were clearly crafted to engender arousal. We sit in a room that is too warm, squeezed in too close to one another, being read to and turned on. No one reads us the rules.

Alexa, the cotton-candy haired manager of the Good Vibrations location hosting this event, welcomes us and thanks us for coming. Rachel Kramer Bussel, the anthology’s editor, speaks first. She introduces each writer and reads her own story. The authors all present tales of incredibly bold, frank sexuality, but each one seems differently timid about doing so before an audience. Kramer Bussel stares at the ceiling, looking over our heads. Lily K. Cho nervously assures us her reading glasses make it so we’re all a blur before she adjusts her leather corset and reads us a bodice-ripper about two men. Malin James looks like Julia Roberts doing Spock’s eyebrow raise, but she plucks at her sleeve all the way through her spanking story.

The more confident offerings nonetheless tax the readers. Jade A. Waters looks like a model with her waist-length hair and spiked heels, and she reads her flogging story with gusto. It seems to be a memoir of times spent undressed, but the protagonist does not share her first name. The signal of literary dominance in erotica, Sinclair Sexsmith (yes, that’s Sexsmith — as in someone who works in the medium of sex), swaggers to the front of the room and reads not from the book but rather from a newer first-person piece off an iPad. Sexsmith reads the most edgy story by far, delivering it in exactly the low and loaded tone of voice one uses on a lover in the act.

The stories are well written and surprising. They are personal and political, and each one pushes taboo and reminds us that sex is much stranger and more varied than we think. I lose track of the pronouns, and I stop assuming I can guess what someone will read by how they look.

Is this a sex act? Is the audience aroused? All around me, legs cross and uncross. Women mop their foreheads and fan themselves. The reading draws to a close, and everyone applauds. We pour out into the open air, clawing for cigarettes and inhaling the night.

I stopped to use the restroom on my way out of the dildo store. A diagram beside the toilet showed the location of the prostate and advised readers about how to stimulate it. On the other side of the wall, I heard two women have very quick, very loud sex.

Meg Elison covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].