Good Vibes Only: The World of Wholesome Queer Erotica (NSFW)

Tony Wei Ling
ZEAL
Published in
14 min readNov 20, 2018

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a straight line in Kazimir Lee and Blue Delliquanti’s short erotic comic, Miles and Honesty in SCFSX! Its freehanded panels have rounded-off corners; its characters, soft bellies and soft, friendly designs. On the page, they curl sweetly into each other’s curves, lounge together, tease and grind. Even when things go awry, and one of the title characters has a panic attack in the midst of a crowded sex party, the line art remains soft rather than jagged, the comic’s mood a swift recovery into comfort.

The lack of hard edges makes a kind of atmospheric sense: the erotic fantasy it allows us to enter is as much about sexual comfort as it is about sexual acts or attractions. Everything is going to be okay, even when you’re not in the mood, and not on the same page as your partner. “Sexual tension” in Miles and Honesty is less about a pent-up desire for someone than it is about nerves — about being literally nervous, precisely because you feel comfortable and safe enough to try something new. Its setting and premise is a utopian, sci-fi themed sex party, described in-universe as “a chance to explore the final frontier in consensual, anti-transmysoginist, anti-ableist SEX, KINK, and LOVE.” And since this description on the party’s event page doubles as the comic’s back cover, that pitch is also the comic’s self-description — a necessarily idyllic vision of ethical fucking. Or, as the costumed organizer Neil explains, a “quest to merge science fiction and sexual community!”

Lee and Delliquanti take their cue from the soft positivity of cute, low-stakes content (currently in high demand, for obvious reasons). Miles and Honesty is their contribution to the realm of wholesome queer erotica, a body of comics and comic-adjacent games that spans the titillating, the instructional, and the autobiographical. Alongside Lee and Delliquanti’s piece, there’s also Colleen Coover’s Small Favors, Hien Pham’s It Will Be Hard, Sarah Winifred Searle’s “Gorgeous,” as well as Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan’s Oh Joy Sex Toy and OJST’s attendant guest comics. Within this designation, I’d even include the Carta Monir one-pager in Trans Sex Zine 2, “Managing Dysphoria With a Partner”; like Miles and Honesty, it stages a paused sexual encounter, emphasizing the sexual intimacy of giving comfort and relieving distress over than that a strictly defined sexual pleasure.

Miles and Honesty’s erotic pastiche of dorky queer sex communities clarifies something about the comics genre of wholesome erotica: namely, that the fantasy imagined by such comics isn’t just the scenario of a specific encounter, but a larger situation in which queerness and queer sex could be guaranteed as safe and sweet — negotiated, tender, and affirming. Like queer-made pornography more properly, the genre of wholesome erotic comics engages with the ethics and issues of sex, attaching Good Politics to Good Queer Sex, and then going one step further: making an ethical-erotic the fantasy itself, and not only its condition of production and distribution (fair pay, safe sets, consent-based play). Taken together, these works rewrite wholesome sexuality in a queer image, rewrite queer sexuality into wholesomeness — fantasizing about an idealized non-normativity that (perversely? sensibly?) only includes goodness within its borders.

I’m not here to chastise this kind of queer erotica, nor exactly to celebrate it. There’s something equally hopeful and forbidding in the prospect of a wholesome queer sexuality, and all that this attachment promises us: coziness, cuteness, affirmation, safety. Queerness as a stable future and not a condition of injury, oppression, or loss. Instead of critique or approval, I’d like to figure out how to talk about this genre in terms that aren’t only about it being necessary or valid, that don’t applaud it for existing or deride it for its sweetness.

The titles I’ve named are ones I admire. The genre is full of thoughtfully written, well-crafted and sexy work, which together break off from a pornographic practice of featuring queer sex minus any real engagement with queer life and politics. Instead of queers serving as props in an erotic fantasy, the erotic fantasy is an idealized queerness itself, taken into a realm of low-stakes conflict. Comics like these often take the “approach of considering sex as story,” in Searle’s words — writing sex as a component of a larger story — and, in the other direction, writing story as a component of sex. A story’s exclusion of high-stakes conflict, shame, and dystopia is inseparable from the draw of its erotic scenes.

What then happens, when a Good Queer Erotica’s fantasy excludes the possibility of unresolved shame? What happens to shame, or to fantasy, when one’s erotic fantasies are made identical to political desire?

Wholesomeness is all tied up in a social future, a general good. And queerness, on the other side, has often been defined by its ejection from the social order, its theorization in conservative politics and certain strains of academic queer theory alike as a social negativity, an intimacy with death and impurity. What’s “wholesome” gives us over to a brighter, desirable future, while what’s “queer” strands one alone in “backward feelings -– shame, depression, and regret,” to quote Heather Love. Even if you don’t ascribe to a Lee Edelman association of queers and the death drive, or to a rejection of social futures, you still have to reckon with the way that waywardness (of desire, of lifestyle, of feeling) looms large in queers’ lived experience.

This moment and this genre, which invent queer wholesomeness outside the bounds of assimilation and compromise — and make it cute? Feel like an odd coupling. It’s a fantasy I don’t quite know how to read, not least because it’s porn as well as art.

For all that we might sometimes get off to it, erotica tends to exceed the bounds of its apparent function as either masturbation material or purely wishful narrative. Even attempting to give an explanation for it seems like a step down the wrong path, an impulse to produce a truth out of sex, or to confess our way into understanding desire. (Ugh — Foucault.) I know that you don’t always genuinely desire what you fantasize about; giving an explanation is often beside the point. It might be better to talk about the knowledge and fantasy and relationships that erotica is always imparting and creating, rather than try to interrogate its secrets. I also know from talking to friends that I’m not the only person who reads E-rated fanfiction on my phone in public, and not necessarily with any intent or interest in being aroused. Which doesn’t mean you can stay disinterested in its fantasy: erotica draws you in through your desire, which may or may not be purely sexual. Which may not be sexual at all, but is no less charged and enigmatic.

Maybe what I’m saying is: there are certain expressions of sexual fantasy that are easy and inviting to read into. They say good things about us and our desiring hearts, and what we want from sex and the future: to be very tender, for example, per our instructions from Jenny Holzer stickers. And there are some fantasies that we indulge in with the understanding or the hope that it doesn’t mean anything about us. It’s difficult to reconcile these two things.

Bringing the wholesome to bear on queerness — as a radically utopian fantasy — draws queer utopia in a cute, sex-positive image, a scene in which no desire can be left ashamed in the dark. At least in theory. But such an erotic also has to eliminate a whole range of tones and imagery from its purview of desire, even in its reassurance that sexual fantasies don’t signify anything about your character. There’s a stark contrast between the language surrounding works of fanfiction and works of erotic comics, particularly the wholesome kind, despite the overlap between these two readerships. Descriptions of queer erotica laud it for being necessary, illuminating, and just generally wonderful, as friendly to the eye as they are to a sex- and body-positive ethic. “It’s very round, it’s very soft and it’s easy on the eyes,” said Erika Moen of her visual style.

Whereas the language around fanfiction — dark or not — is usually an apologia for its making. The role-reversal arranged-marriage AU no one asked for! Or, on the extreme end, the tag DEAD DOVE: DO NOT EAT, signifying a garbage heap and an upsetting, intense read. Grotesqueries that become pleasure, sort of. You don’t usually want to linger in the space of the narrative after you’ve read it; instead, you read until you’re sick of it, and then go about your day. Since emotional and bodily identification isn’t always clear, you don’t always even know whether you’re being masochistic, sadistic, or something else entirely. The fantasy is both about hurting and being hurt, and about a twisty kind of comfort.

Dark erotica doesn’t seem to imagine a future world or a reader’s future; if anything, it hopes fervently that its writing and being read doesn’t contribute to creating a world like the one it fantasizes about. Wholesome queer erotica, on the other hand, feels like an undertaking of utopian sex, and sometimes even comes with the promise of redesigning desire, of humanizing the subject of your lust. They pare back representations of pain in an effort to be tender to you, the reader, as well as its characters. In a way, the genre assumes you’ve got enough of high-stakes, precarious conflict in your life already — that the hurt precedes the reading, and that you’re looking for comfort in a demonstration of goodness. Wholesome erotica’s fantasy is that of softness-as-goodness; it imagines that you could become better by reading it.

Being sort-of-utopian, sort-of-didactic, even when not explicitly educational like Oh Joy Sex Toy, these comics aren’t so much about the present moment of sexual arousal, to be forgotten as soon as you stop reading — the way pornography vanishes as soon as you close the tab. Instead, they’re all about the reader being able to see a future before them, whether it’s in terms of healthy relationships, healthy sex lives, or healthy larger communities. (Besides Miles and Honesty, Pham’s It Will Be Hard also explores the interactions between community and individual relationships.) So while with hurt-no-comfort fanfiction you seem be indulging your worst human instincts and trained desires, wholesome queer erotica seems to occupy the anticipated radical futures it may hope to create. It’s a version of José Esteban Muñoz’s queer utopian aesthetics, which asserted that “we are not yet queer,” and glimpsed better futures in the warm horizons of queer writing and art.

But what does it entail that these futures, in wholesome erotic comics, are made out of softness? Rounded characters (complex people of whom we are only getting a glimpse), drawn in rounded, soft styles (easy on the eyes), engaged in relatively low-intensity conflicts (easy on the stressed-out heart). The rounded visual style, by the way, does not always mean that fat characters will be meaningfully included — although the best works in this genre, such as Pham’s and Searle’s, do so. It does mean that a lot of this genre is rooted in the aesthetic category of the cute.

In her work on cuteness, Sianne Ngai writes that “cute objects have no edge to speak of, being simple or formally non-complex and deeply associated with the infantile, the feminine, and the unthreatening.” For cartoonists, some of this formal simplification feels inevitable: people making comics aren’t usually trying to draw an illusionistic figure, but rather communicative figures that convey emotional and narrative information, and that smooth over the narrative divides. But cuteness is also inevitably a grounding aesthetic element of wholesome queer erotica, part of its ability to relieve distress and give comfort. This upsets a straightforward reading of the genre as repairing the power relations of other fantasies. However much wholesome queer erotica extends the imagined time of an erotic encounter (sex becoming one element of a larger life), it illustrates all of that story in the squeezable, non-threatening image of the cute.

Another academic, Lori Merish, writes that cuteness defines a “realm of erotic regulation,” a way of relating to someone’s marginalization or social difference from you by asserting a maternal role in relation to them. Her essay is about the commercialized spectacle of little people in the nineteenth century. Key to the genre I’m speaking of, the cute is non-threatening; its form is inviting, its edges sanded-down. Cute things are “tender” — sensitive, succulent, soft. Chillingly, Ngai argues that a cute image or object appears to call to us, to invite our touch or violence, at the same time as it asks our protection: “the cute object addresses us as if it were our child.”

Ngai has me wondering whether queer cuteness and queer futurity might be connected here, in this genre that’s so much about a future of sex sutured to comfort. Most of these comics call on us in the form of the adorable, making us want to protect the figures imparting humanizing stories of good intimate relationships like they were our children. The upside of cuteness (besides, plainly, its visual appeal) is its tactility without “gratuitous,” immoderate focus on genitals, penetration, sex acts; often, the aesthetic design comes in the form of cuteness because it wants to push back on pornography’s extreme objectification of performers’ and characters’ bodies.

There’s also sometimes a commercial aspect to cuteness and erotica: in the educational webcomic Oh Joy Sex Toy, the sex toys (the objects being reviewed) and the masturbators (the non-autobiographical figures used to illustrate the toys’ use) feel oddly alike in cuteness. Bodies meant to diversify a visual discussion of sex toys also become representations of the erotic commodity’s non-threatening appeal. (“Who knew vibrators could be so adorable?” exclaims the Publishers Weekly review.)

I don’t want to simplify or deride the work being done by the artists I’ve named; much of their work more diverse and more complex than I’ve been able to address here. What this illustrates, I think, is not that this genre is “actually bad,” or “actually unethical”; just that it’s embroiled in the same untold webs of power fantasies and power trips as every other kind of sexual media. It struggles with those ethics of representation, of empowerment and diminution, and it tries to work out a vision of negotiated comfort and pleasure from within that bind. Cuteness works against the “shameful” and “perverse” tags of pornographic work; it brings its own challenges.

The unease I feel about fantasies of the wholesome is only a mirror image of the unease I feel about every other, decidedly unwholesome fantasy, about what all other erotic genres have me imagining for myself or others. Which doesn’t boil down to being ashamed of sex, but perhaps does amount to being fearful of desire. Desire is so unwieldy, so embarrassing, and so impossible to totally assimilate into our identities. We might want to identify ourselves only with wholesome queerness, and may only want to read into those desires, but we can’t read into those without acknowledging that they mean something, and that our non-wholesome desires therefore do, as well. We can’t choose only one fantasy to call up better futures.

What I’ve tried to group into a genre doesn’t fully exclude the possibility of shame and shameful desires, but it does it seeks to resolve and move past them. For some reason, I’m hesitant to abandon shame as a motivating association with queerness, the efficacy of what Douglas Crimp calls “collectivities of the shamed.” If there’s power in the word “queer,” it still lies partly in the word’s sharp-edged history, and the refusal to resolve what shame has carried through time. Though queer bodies and queer sexualities are definitely not defined by shame, neither do I want us to be entirely free of shame’s deflating perceptions, its cutting recognitions. Kadji Amin insists that re-historicizing the term “queer” means engaging with some of the unsavory fantasies that have been attached to queerness’s paradigmatic heroes, like Jean Genet. It may mean, Amin writes, “allowing queer to come not only to mean but also to feel differently than it does now.”

What can shame do for us, if it’s a part of us that we must hold and feel, and not a problem to be fully solved? Is it possible to fantasize about it? Is it possible for those fantasies to do the affirming work that this genre of wholesome comics has been accomplishing?

In Nadia Nova’s Can You Say My Name Again and its sequel, Disaster Lesbians, neither shame nor the deep effects of marginalization gets written out of the story. On one hand, the comic is extremely cute, totally wholesome. Disaster Lesbians works from a now-familiar narrative structure: sex is initiated, then interrupted by emotional distress, then assuaged and continued differently. On the other hand, Disaster Lesbians lets shame, illness, dysphoria, and anxiety pervade the whole comic, with a kind of ordinariness that defies narrative resolution. It’s a slice-of-life erotic story in which comfort plays a key role, yet somewhat unlike most works in the same genre, it allows the distress of living as marginalized, mentally ill trans women to be continuous with, not fully assuaged by, romantic and erotic comfort.

For some reason, I find this comforting. It feels like a representation of comfort where no one makes everything better — but maybe someone gives you moments of reprieve, and helps you bear a future that still has pain, shame, and desire in it.

If wholesome erotica is more than an outlet for our traumas and insecurities, or our hunger for kind hands, then trashy fic is also more than an outlet for our undesirable desires. It might also impart some kind of knowledge, imagine some muddy relationship with the reader and with desire. And although we can’t search our desires for a vision of ourselves — can’t force a fantasy to confess its intentions — we can ask ourselves what relationship we’d like to have with our many kinds of erotica.

What would we like it to teach us, if anything? What can we ask of it?

Comics Cited:
Can You Say My Name Again (Twine game / narrative) by Nadia Nova
Can You Say My Name Again: Disaster Lesbians (comic) by Nadia Nova
“Gorgeous” by Sarah Winifred Searle in Smut Peddler 2014
It Will Be Hard (slightly interactive graphic novel) by Hien Pham
“Managing Dysphoria With a Partner” by Carta Monir in Trans Sex Zine 2.
Miles and Honesty in SCFSX! by Kazimir Lee and Blue Delliquanti
Oh Joy Sex Toy by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan
Small Favors: the definitive girly porno collection by Colleen Coover

Also Cited:
Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity by José Esteban Muñoz
“Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple” by Lori Mersh
disturbing attachments: Genet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History by Kadji Amin
Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History by Heather Love
No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive by Lee Edelman
Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting by Sianne Ngai

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Tony Wei Ling
ZEAL

Managing Editor @ Nat.Brut. Studies comics, contemporary literature, and new media at UCLA.