Erotic by Nature

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Edited by David Steinberg

Erotic by Nature is a collection of visual and written erotica of unprecedented artistic quality and imagination, a celebration of the potential sex holds for deep joy, wonder, intimacy, and self-awareness. Directed to women and men of all ages and life styles, Erotic by Nature demonstrates that quality erotic photography, writing, and art can be intensely passionate and provocative without being pornographic -- without being stale or inflated, without manipulating sexual frustrations and fears, without depicting sex as an arena of male control and female submission. It is an affirmation of the importance, complexity, and subtlety of sexual feeling, a new genre of erotic imagery and writing that invites us to move beyond both pornography and sexual prohibition to welcome and explore the best of our erotic selves. Drawing from the work of 36 women and 25 men, aged 30 to 73, Erotic by Nature presents a wide range of erotic perspectives that take the reader from the sexual to the sexual, from the familiar to the novel, from the conventional to the daring, from lighthearted play to the deepest aspects of personal identity and interpersonal connection:

David Steinberg has been active in feminist and men’s movements for the past 16 years, leading workshops on men's roles, fathering, and male sexuality. His books include The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self; Fatherjournal: Five Years of Awakening to Fatherhood; Beneath This Calm Exterior; Welcome, Brothers; If I Knew the Way; Yellow Brick Road; and Doing Your Own School. His writing has appeared in Playboy, Salon, Boston Phoenix, LA Weekly, Salon, Notorious, San Jose Metro, Cupido, The Sun, Libido, The Realist, Gauntlet, and Issues in Radical Therapy. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.

A fine quality, large format hardbound edition
224 pages, 11" x 8-1/2"
ISBN 0-940208-13-X


If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at There is no cost and your name and email address will remain strictly confidential.


Copyright © 1988 David Steinberg

I have always wanted an alternative to pornography -- something strong and sexy, but with a completely different feel: something closer to what interested me about sex, something that touched the heart of sexual experience with aliveness, perception, subtlety, and depth.

As a person interested in expanding the various levels of erotic experience in my life, I have been hungry for the support and encouragement of a rich and imaginative erotic culture -- the cultural context taken for granted by people interested in classical music, painting, architecture, baseball, or fine wines: stories to read, images to enjoy, a wide variety of public perspectives to stretch the imagination, explore nuance, stimulate movement in new directions.

I have wanted to feel a connection with other people fascinated with the erotic world -- to have access to a full range of their thoughts, feelings, and reflections. And so I have looked for erotic material of real quality -- material that acknowledged the power, complexity, and mystery of the phenomenon we call sex, rather than reducing it to the silly clichés and grand exaggerations of locker-room chatter.

Unfortunately, whenever I have tried to find such resources, I have consistently been disappointed. In truth, for all its preoccupation with sex, our culture still adamantly refuses to address sexual eros with the simple wonder, open curiosity, and profound respect it deserves. And so we have no complex, imaginative, affirmative culture -- written or visual -- that is deliberately, honestly, and sexually erotic.

What we have instead is the consequence of relegating creation of sexually explicit erotic material to a rebellious and often outlawed subculture -- the consequence of driving sexual fascination underground. We have material that trivializes not only women and men, but also sex itself -- material that presents a narrow range of stylized stories and images, as if these were all that sexual material, sexual fantasy, or noteworthy sexual experience could possibly include. We have material that is produced with surprising disdain for its audience -- an audience presumed to be entirely male, lonely, sexually desperate, and oblivious to the interplay of sex, intimacy, and emotional complexity. We have material that draws its power primarily from our sexual frustrations and fears, emphasizing the supposedly unresolvable contradictions between who we know we are and who we think we should be, as sexual beings. We have material that teaches men to be in sexual control of both themselves and their partners, and that teaches women both to subordinate their desires to those of others and to manipulate their partners through sexual temptation and denial. We have material that implies we must resemble glamorous superstars, male and female, in order to be sexually desirable. We have material that suggests that sexually exciting people are never vulnerable, afraid, confused, or uncertain -- indeed are rarely so much as playful or silly. We have material that encourages us to separate sexual desire from tenderness and affection, and almost completely ignores the subtleties of surrender, mystery, and wonder. We have pornography.

This book is one person’s response to commercial pornography’s domination of the world of sexual material -- to the absence of high-quality, sexually erotic literature, art, or photography.

I have tried to locate quality erotica, both in the pornographic marketplace and in the world of "legitimate" art. I have looked for pornography that was "better than most" -- more flexible in its vision of sexually attractive men and women; more sophisticated, more varied, or at least more honest in its concept of sex itself. There is pornography that is more tastefully produced, less pretentious, less lurid or obsessed with glamor, friendlier, warmer than the rest. But even the "best" of the pornographic spectrum barely touches the core of what I know sex to be about, hardly enough to justify sorting through oceans of predominantly mediocre, and often emotionally offensive, material.

When one gives up on pornography and turns to legitimate media -- art photography, literature, collections of short stories and poetry -- one immediately confronts the sex-phobic attitudes that permeate our social/sexual landscape. One repeatedly feels an artist or writer proceeding on tiptoe: cautiously approaching (and ultimately yielding to) the rigid, unspoken boundaries of "good taste" -- the limitations of what is considered acceptable sexual focus or impact. We are all familiar with the stories and poems that move to edge of engaging our specifically sexual energies only to stop short, as if to deny or minimize the writer’s sexual intent -- the works where sexual messages appear only peripherally, as sidelights to more "respectable" concerns. If there is a directly sexual portrayal, the attitude is usually titillating, simplified, and superficial. Thus we are taught that the intricacies and complexities of sexual feeling may intrigue us, but do not deserve our more careful and respectful attention.

In the worlds of respected painting, drawing, sculpture, and art photography, one finds the same ubiquitous implicit prohibitions. Images with hints of erotic feeling may be honored, but those that focus on sexual eros directly -- that allow sexual feelings to ripen and become the unapologetic focus of the work -- are rarely published or shown in respected galleries. Apparently artists and photographers my invoke the immense power of the erotic, but only obliquely, and only if they disclaim intending to stimulate or encourage sexual feeling in the viewer.

Why does our culture discourage truly artistic work that explores the sexual/erotic realm without reservation or apology, artwork that addresses sex with enthusiasm, celebration, and joyous appreciation? Among the thousands of books that are published every year, why are there so few stories, photographs, and drawings that express explicitly erotic and sexual sentiments with respect for their importance, richness, and power? In these times especially, when our social fabric is stretched taut by the turmoil of rapidly changing sexual values and practices, it is essential that we encourage creative exploration of sexual subtleties and complexities as an antidote to the simplistic platitudes of both pornography and puritan anti-sex. And yet the more complex, more difficult-to-resolve aspects of sex and eros -- the aspects that I, for one, find most important, challenging, and meaningful -- are precisely those that are systematically neglected and ignored by pornography and mainstream media alike.

Five years ago, I began to explore these issues serious and directly. I found myself creating opportunities to discuss my thoughts and feelings on pornography and quality erotica with a wide variety of people: women and men, friends and strangers. I had dozens of earnest talks, with individuals and with people in small groups. I traveled to different parts of the country, conducting workshops on "Pornography, Erotica, and Sexual Fantasy," in order to hear other people’s perspectives, and to ask what people would really want if they had viable choices about the erotic material available to them.

I found there were many people, women as well as men, who were interested in quality erotica, but who knew that no such material was generally available. Among men I was interested to find a great deal of embarrassment about the sexual themes and perspectives familiar to commercial pornography. I discovered that many, perhaps most, men purchase pornography not for the particular images of women or sex found there, but because they enjoy the unapologetic sexual focus unique to that world. Among women I found much theoretical interest in erotic images and stories, especially those that might reflect women’s real desires and sexual perspectives, but also a deep disaffection with the caricatured material currently available, whether in Playgirl or in male-oriented magazines and films.

Among artists and writers I likewise found more than a few people -- some widely known, others relatively obscure -- who were interested in creating more directly erotic or sexual work, but who avoided these themes (at least publicly) for fear of being ridiculed or discounted. These people were painfully aware of the absence of appropriate networks through which to publish or display work that would be considered too sexual by mainstream publishers or galleries, and too subtle, complex, or women-oriented by publishers of pornography. What was needed, it seemed, was a way for the artists and their prospective audiences to discover one another. And the audacious though emerged that if no one else was willing or interested, perhaps I should undertake this project myself.

I began to meet with friends who shared my interest in these issues, and whose political and aesthetic perspectives were close to my own. We talked at length, trying to get a sense of what "alternative erotica" might include. This was surprisingly difficult. We found it easy to specify what we didn't like about pornography, but defining what we would like was another matter. The entire concept of wholesome, sexy erotica was new and strangely unsettling. We found ourselves embarrassingly limited in our erotic imaginations. After several months, still having only the vaguest sense of what this collection might become, I decided to begin soliciting material anyway. I hoped that as I reviewed submissions, a clearer sense of what I was looking for would emerge.

In fact this is precisely what happened, although the process was much slower and more frustrating than I expected. The initial submissions were uniformly discouraging. I waded through literally hundreds of stories, poems and drawings, almost all of which I found to be insufficiently erotic, hopelessly clichéd, or dominated by sexual points of view remarkably close to those of the pornographic mainstream. Clearly my friends and I were not the only people with stunted erotic imaginations! Gradually, however, I also found -- more often from personal acquaintances than from mass solicitations -- work that reached deep inside me in new ways -- ways that felt positive, original, strongly erotic, and richly imaginative. From these I began to distill some criteria that I could offer as guidelines to potential contributors.

I knew early on, for example, that I wanted this book to address an audience of women as well as men -- an audience I took to be sexually healthy, active, curious, and open-minded. This meant that the book would represent and respect women's erotic desires and perspectives as much as it did men's. I knew, too, that I wanted work that was truly celebratory of sex: that saw sex and sexual desire as beautiful, joyous, powerful, and life-affirming -- even awesome and profound -- rather than as lewd, titillating, petty, or demeaning.

I made a point of soliciting material that acknowledged sexual diversity -- emphasizing a broad spectrum of sexual attitudes, interests, and practices rather than trying to reduce "correct" sex to a few familiar perspectives. And I wanted very much for the material in the book to help us all appreciate who we really are as erotic beings (us, not the Beautiful People), and to encourage us to trust the wisdom and power of our core erotic feelings, sensitivities, and desires.

I discovered that the material I liked best felt familiar even as it was new, striking responsive chords from personal experience even as it might offer new erotic perspectives. I found, too, that the work that most affected me often addressed some of the more unsettling, even frightening, aspects of sexuality -- the unpredictability, loss of control, fear of intimacy, and supreme vulnerability that are such important parts of sexual experience.

Most broadly, I chose a general tone for the book that was celebratory, encouraging, and uplifting -- an affirmation of the incredible potential sex has to bring us deep joy, wonder, intimacy, growth, and wisdom when it is approached with honesty, courage, and humility.

The process of defining these goals and finding the material to fulfill them has taken over five years and has taught me more than I ever would have imagined, both about myself and about the sexual culture we all live and breathe. It has been a slow and frighteningly vulnerable process. To go public with one's sexual values and beliefs, to explicate a perspective on sexual eros that reaches below the surface and flies in the face of our culture's dominant sexual mythology, is to stand painfully naked in an unknown and potentially hostile world.

The most important process, initially, was to demonstrate that this collection of erotic material would be different from what had been published before -- different from pornography. One by one I met with potential contributors and pledged to them that I would neither trivialize, sensationalize, nor dilute the erotic power of their work. "I intend this to be a superior quality publication," I stated in my solicitation flyer, "both in content and in form. The format of the book will in itself be a statement of respect for the beauty of sex."

From the beginning, I have been gratified by the positive and enthusiastic response I have had from contributors, both famous and less widely known. I have had neither public reputation nor generous finances to recommend me. Yet, almost unanimously, artists, photographers, and writers have been so delighted at the idea of a truly erotic and artistic collection that they have responded with overwhelming support and encouragement. People who began by saying they had "nothing really erotic" to offer ended up showing me work they never thought could be published appropriately. Some contributors took this book as an opportunity to create new work, and found that the existence of a respectful, artistic context enabled them to move into sexual or erotic work more seriously than they had done before. Often they would recommend me to another artist who was also "doing interesting work." And so, around the seed of this book, a loose network of talented and responsible erotic artists and writers has grown.

What has developed from the contributions of these 36 women and 25 men from California to New England, some in their early 30's, some in their 60's and 70's (averaging about 45), is a collective sexual/erotic perspective that is radically different from that of pornography yet no less evocative, stimulating, or engaging. Indeed, I find these works more powerful than pornography because they engage our erotic and sexual energies more fully and deeply, touch us more closely, more honestly, and at so many different levels. Where pornography would condense our sense of the erotic to a few stylized, glamorous images, this collection encourages is to expand our erotic sensibilities to include everything from light-hearted play to confronting the deepest aspects of personal identity and interpersonal communication. And where pornography is primarily a means of elaborating masturbatory fantasy, this book's main appeal is to different and more complex desires: the desire to curl up and be intimate with a loved one; the desire to love and be loved; the desire to express who we really are; the desire to open more fully to the wonders of life and the world around us; the desire to become a little more energized, without needing to do anything with that feeling other than relax and enjoy it.

Because pornography has monopolized the sexual marketplace for so long, it has become easy to believe that direct and powerful sexual/erotic material is inherently pornographic. This book demonstrates that it is not. It demonstrates that erotic work can be sexy, powerful, and provocative without being stale, without manipulating men's and women's sexual frustrations and fears, without depicting sex as an arena for men's dominance over women, without denying the full erotic subjectivity of all human beings.

This book offers an alternative to pornography, one that encourages us all to be fully erotic, fully sexual beings without alienating ourselves, our deepest human values, or the people with whom we are most intimately involved. It represents only the beginning of what is possible when erotic and sexual themes are addressed ethically and artfully. Much more work of this sort is possible and needed. Perhaps this book will encourage others to produce and distribute original material reflecting a wide variety of sexually erotic aesthetics and points of view. Hopefully there will eventually be a wide range of positive erotica to help us trust the goodness, the sanctity, and the wholesome power of this central aspect of who we are; help us celebrate without apology our opportunities to explore this important part of being alive; help us to enjoy, rather than fear, the fact that we are, truly, erotic by nature.

A fine quality, large format hardbound edition
224 pages, 11" x 8-1/2"
ISBN 0-940208-13-X


If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at There is no cost and your name and email address will remain strictly confidential.

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