I recently had a twitter showdown with a fellow author who asked writers who write age-play and incest-play fantasy to stop following her. It’s not that I write much of that sort of thing myself, although I have. You can read it here. It’s that I am frankly disgusted by a writer who would seek to berate fellow writers for tackling certain subjects.
It makes me flaming angry. It really does. In a world full of pseudo moralizers who can’t seem to grasp the basic distinction between fiction and fact, and who dedicate their lives to saving readers from exposure to ‘dangerous material’, I expect more of a fellow writer. I expect tolerance.
When I challenged her on the subject, she said she refused to ‘promote it’. Promote what?
Because the implication here is a serious one. It implies there is no difference between fiction written about incestuous or age-play fantasies played out between consenting adults and pedophilia.
She didn’t answer my question. Instead she said it just ‘squicked her’.
Murder squicks me. Battlefield carnage squicks me. Genocide squicks me. Cock and ball torture squicks me. Corporate greed, institutional corruption, water-boarding, and suppurating sores all squick me. Hell! Formulaic romances squick me. But I would consider it the height of betrayal to our craft to even contemplate suggesting people shouldn’t write about those things. Writing about something doesn’t promote it. It doesn’t imply that you are morally tolerant of it in fact.
I’m about to sit on a panel on writing taboo at the EAA conference in Las Vegas in a week, so I’ve given this issue a lot of thought.
For me, it’s not about whether something taboo turns you on or offends you. For me it is grounded in a belief that most good literature deals with extremities. I don’t set out to write things that make people comfortable. In fact, the opposite. I am very interested in the edges of human desire where attraction and revulsion meet. I think it is important for us to contemplate those places in the safety of fiction. We learn about ourselves there, without having to act out in real life and incur the real life consequences of them.
From Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal to the Marquis de Sade’s Justine to Nabokov’s Lolita and Brett Ellis’ American Psycho, the literary tradition of taking readers to dark places has been a hallmark of how we imagine the unimaginable in our culture. And in contemplating those things in the pages of a book, we are prompted to examine ourselves, as individuals and as a collective.
I won’t beat around the bush – I write stories that eroticize non-consent. It allows me to explore the very complex feelings that we have about power – especially power in a sexual context. Why do fantasies of non-consesual sex turn some of us on (and, it appears, a considerable number of us)? Is it the fantasy of relinquishing responsibility? Or sex presented as inevitable? Do we, in our real, daily lives, feel the burden of choice and agency? Is it about wanting to be desired beyond civilized boundaries? I’m not a writer with answers. I’m a writer with questions. Writing on taboo subjects allows me to push at those questions in visceral ways.
It’s the same with age and incest fantasy. Most societies prohibit incest. And most ascribe an age of social sexual maturity that is considerably higher than the biological reality. Why? I’m not saying it is wrong that we prohibit these things in reality. I’m saying that it is interesting that we do and that these prohibitions are so dire as to take on the status’ of taboo. I think they have taken on that status precisely because as human animals, our drives and feelings on the issue are sometimes ambivalent. Lord knows, up until the 19th century, girls were married off at the age of 13 or 14. They still are in many countries. And the Ancient Egyptian royal families practiced incest on a regular basis and the Empire didn’t grind to a halt. It lasted considerably longer than any modern superpower has lasted. Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s not a fear of impoverishing our genetic pool that triggers such reactions of disgust about incest. So, our very strong feelings on these subjects are problematic. It’s not really surprising that they are going to rear their heads in fantasy.
(And let me pause right here for the hysterics that might be reading. I’m not suggesting that rape or incest or messing about with 13 year-olds is acceptable. It isn’t. We live in a society that finds those things an anathema, and I – being a member of that society – also find them an anathema. I am not a moral relativist. We’re having a discussion, so calm down.)
I can think of a lot of reasons why both men and women might fantasize about being underage, or about having sex with a parental or sibling figure. Not only for the simple reason that forbidden fruit has it’s attractions simply for being forbidden, but because of the imbalances of power and authority that any of those acts might expose. Perhaps with parental figures, it’s the fantasy of being loved unconditionally. Perhaps it is the fantasy of being innocent and sexual at the same time. Perhaps it’s just the truly nasty image of semen stains on a frilly pink garment. But whatever it is… it says something about our interior needs that people fantasize about this sort of thing. And fiction is the perfect place to explore that.
If we prohibit ourselves from looking into our dark hearts, we are being willfully blind to who we are. We are pretending to be simple and uncomplicated. That, in my view, is very dangerous for any society. Fiction does not give us permission to act out the dark part of our natures in reality. In fact, quite the opposite. It proclaims that here, in fiction and fantasy, is the appropriate place to examine the parts of ourselves we do not want running rampant through real life or destabilizing our society.
I feel that as writers, we have a moral obligation to keep the realm of fiction a free-fire zone. Not only for the sake of literature, but for the sake of our society.
Addendum: While searching for an image to go with this post, I was floored by just how many stock images (photography for sale for mainstream media) I found featuring adult women, dressed like girls, licking or sucking lollipops. The pervasiveness and acceptance of Lolita imagery speaks to a considerable taste for it. That we, as a society, don’t want to even discuss it or allow writers to write about it highlights just what a dysfunctional and hypocritical society we live in.