Anything but that!

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.

  15 comments for “Anything but that!

  1. Penny Goring
    September 2, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    Well said, RG.*applause* Shame it needs to be said, but we must & we will keep saying it. Yes.

  2. September 2, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    I have had many arguments with other authors about verboten subject matter. Your last line sums it up beautifully.

  3. September 2, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    *ClapClapClap*
    There’s another very good reason for challenging that author: she’s promulgating the idea that writing about a taboo subject promotes that taboo behaviour in real life. If this were the case crime novels should all be banned, and as for Mills & Boon romances…

    • September 2, 2011 at 3:09 pm

      Touche! *shudder* All those fucking heaving bossoms.

  4. TFP
    September 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    RG,

    Insightful reading, it is struggle to deal with the emotions we have as humans. Your convictions are impressive.

    Thank you,
    -TFP

  5. September 2, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    RG,
    well said. :}

    I will add a corollary to your essay, societies that prohibit the use of imagination in literature and entertainment end up as the most restrictive and demeaning society.
    In the end they are a whited sepulchre of corruption.

    As for your Twitter writer, they say that there is one born every minute.
    In a population of over six billion, well!
    I cannot say that I suffer fools gladly, but suffer them we must. ;{

    Warm hugs.
    Paul.

  6. September 2, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Totally agree with you here RG.

    They are stories and we are stretching our imaginations to challenge and confront people’s thoughts and ideas and fantasies and to bring about a reaction not to encourage taboo areas in real life.

    If we do not stretch those boundaries then we do not grow. Oh and hear hear re the Mills & Boon Romances! *shudder*

  7. September 2, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    I’ve blogged a couple of times on the attraction of the taboo, and also written stories that explicitly address the idea. Why does something that we know is wrong turn us on? Why do so many non-pedophiles get a physical rush from incest, or stories about 15 year olds becoming sexually active? It doesn’t take much perusal of free erotica story sites to realize that such stories are very very popular. It surely can’t all be by pedophiles.

    Shutting down the discussion accomplishes little, in my opinion, other than pushing such desires into the shadows where they’re *more* likely to cause damage. I have to second, and third, and fourth, your next to last paragraph. Making ourselves willfully blind just increases the chance that something will go running rampant through our lives.

  8. the realsoldierboy
    September 2, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    Hear Hear If forbidden subjects were never written about how could it ever be known what was forbidden. That didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. What I am trying to say is the Kuma Sutra has been forbidden and yet in temples in India it is worshiped. Just an example. Still not correct. Will think some more on what I wish to say.

  9. September 2, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    It would be interesting to have a conversation, a real one, with someone who felt like that. Beyond just “I don’t like that.” What is the real fear? Is it a fear of being aroused by something you think is wrong? (That’s my guess, but it’s just a guess.)

    I got halfway through a blog post during Banned Book Week sort of on this, but then wound up somewhere with no Internet and didn’t finish. But I was thinking of the reasons one US school gave for banning Lois Lowry’s “The Giver”–that it would encourage infanticide. Yeah… if you read about a society in which this occurred–even if the book were critical of this society–then you (that is, you the middle-school reader of this book) would somehow be compelled to go and carry out a few specific practices from it.

    WTF?

    Is every novel a recommendation? “This character murdered someone, and it is therefore strongly recommended that you do too”? Then we certainly ought to ban anything written about war. Let alone murder, and revenge, and embezzling, and using natural resources irresponsibly.

    I think there are perhaps a few things going on. RG, your stories are on the dark side. My favorite one (sorry if I’m getting the title a little wrong), “The River of Time,” makes me cry every time I read it. But that’s because I know those emotions. I have never taken it as a blueprint for how I ought to conduct my relationships going forward. There’s truth in it, that’s what I see. Some truths are too hard for me even to read about–I don’t “do” stories about kidnapped and murdered children. Some are on the edge–like heartbreak. That’s my choice as a reader. If something is too overwhelming for me (or simply not interesting), then, well, I don’t read it.

    Those stories on the edge, though, like the river of time one, they hurt, but there’s a purge/relief too, and a sort of validation, from seeing my feelings down in print. Other people have other edges, so they read other things.

    Erotica is (often) meant to arouse. And at least here in the US, there’s a lot of shame and guilt mixed up with sex. So… if you read something about a character who is 17, and you are turned on, you’re a pedophile, and you’re Bad. If the character is 18, you’re quite OK! Whew! And yet sexual awareness hits at puberty. Which is what, 12, for most of us? Are we really all pretending that none of us dated or masturbated or kissed or touched each other or had sex until we ALL hit age 18? When the legal marriage age most US states is 16 with parental consent? (I just looked this up the other day–the youngest age at which you can MARRY in one US state is 12 for a girl, 13 for a boy, with parental consent.) Obviously a disconnect between reality and legality and what’s permissible in fiction.

    I have no interest in incest, so I don’t read those kinds of stories. I don’t mind that they exist, though. I think it’s that I don’t fear that causal link. That some perfectly straight and happy parent is going to pick up a book about incest and then start molesting his/her children. It doesn’t work that way. People don’t act out all their fantasies, not even the ones they admit they have. I have fantasies that turn me on greatly that I don’t *want* to act out, and wouldn’t, given the chance.

    I might like to read about them, though. 😉

  10. September 3, 2011 at 12:58 am

    I completely agree with everything you say. Furthermore, I feel that writers who don’t tackle tricky subjects for the reason that they’re afraid of being misunderstood or misinterpreted are often underestimating the intelligence of their readers.

    I believe in having and exercising the freedom to write whatever you want, but if you’re not writing about age-play or incest, it doesn’t mean you have a right to silence those who are.

    I’ve ready plenty of age-play/incest themed stories, and it hasn’t effected my ability to know what is morally wrong or right in reality.

    (By the way, I love the photograph with this piece. It’s brilliant.)

    • September 3, 2011 at 10:29 am

      What I found interesting, when looking for a photo for this piece, is just how mainstream Lolita images are. There were literally thousands of stock photos of women licking lollipops like pubescent girls. For me that says it all. No matter how offended we supposedly are, the images we constantly produce say otherwise. The fact that we don’t want to talk about it as a society, or allow people to write about it only highlights what a truly sick, hypocritical society we live in.

      • September 3, 2011 at 11:39 pm

        Oh! absolutely. And nowhere is that worse than in the fashion industry… which is EVERYWHERE really, putting 14 year olds girls in heels and minidresses. And yet somehow, actually tackling these topics in intelligent, thought-provoking literature is wrong. It’s ridiculous.

  11. Leah
    September 3, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    I’ve read so many books that have challenged my comfort zone, which I have loved and have made me think about my preconceived ideas. I enjoy being taken to places that are dark or taboo, especially if they written in a compelling way that helps me see a POV that is alien to me. And I enjoy, through reading or other media, exploring the more unacceptable side of being human. But then again, I’ve not hidden from my own baser or darker fantasies or thoughts.

    The range of human emotion and experience is so vast that to just stay within certain so called “acceptable” realms is boring, unrealistic, and a lie.

    I just don’t get why some people have to tell others what they should think or feel or what’s “right.” If you don’t want to read something, or write it, or watch it in a movie, or do it, don’t. But don’t take that away from others. If people want to read or write only fluffy, superficial things, nothing wrong in that. But others are more interested in exploring all facets of emotion and sexuality and they should have that right as well.

  12. Morag
    September 5, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Ooh, thanks for linking to your dentist fantasy. That REALLY works for me. Must just go and adjust my clothing …

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