“Veiled Girl” and the eroticization of torture

Having received a number of emails and twitter DMs criticizing my eroticization of torture in my short story “Veiled Girl With Lute,” I have decided, after some thought, to address the matter specifically.

If you are a regular reader on my site, this post is probably going to seem patronizing, and I apologize for that. Usually, I refer disgruntled people to my manifesto page and leave it at that. However, in this case I feel the need to specifically address a few issues, and give some explanation for why I chose to delve into this topic.

Although I hold a deep belief that fiction is fiction and should never be read as a how-to guide or an encouragement to any sort of practice, I acknowledge that my eroticization of certain topics might be interpreted as an ambivalence towards them. However, I would like to point out that, especially as regards the story in question, I have made considerable effort to explore the complexity of the subject of torture within the story. Not only has the character Nathaniel tortured people in the course of his work, but he is profoundly damaged by the experience of having done it. If this is not obvious to you in the story, you’re not reading carefully enough and, for that, I cannot be held accountable. I did not set out to, nor do I think I have ‘glamourized’ torture.

For the record, and probably unsurprisingly to my more consistent readers, I absolutely and unreservedly condemn the practice of torture. I have done extensive research into it over the course of a number of years and, beyond finding it to be a deeply immoral act, unforgivable barbarism to those who have suffered it and soul-destroying to those who do it,   I have also come to the conclusion that it fundamentally destabilizes the structure of democratic civil societies and seldom if ever achieves its stated goal – that of gleaning important information on the enemies of whatever state uses it. By all accounts (including those of US & UK military and governmental agencies), the amount of actionable intelligence gleaned from the ‘extraordinary renditioning‘ to either ‘black sites’ or to Guantanamo Bay of prisoners during the Iraq and Afghan wars was negligible. The ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario made so popular in series like “24” is an oft-perpetuated myth. The is no documented case of any ‘ticking bomb’ threat ever having been averted through the use of torture. Torture is not only deeply immoral, it is also generally unsuccessful.

So why did I choose to not only write about it, but ‘eroticize’ it in my story?

It is possible to find something morally repugnant and still be fascinated by its psychological ramifications.

Many years ago I read an obscure book by Arthur Koestler called “Darkness at Noon.” Set during the time of the Stalinist Purges in the Soviet Union, it is about the arrest, interrogation and punishment of a supposed traitor. What I found compelling about the story was the intensely intimate, almost erotic relationship that develops between the main character and his interrogator.

This interaction doesn’t just change the victim, it also changes the victimizer. They become locked in a transgressive dance. Dependencies develop. The sustained mental intimacy of one person prying violently into the mind of another produces interesting behaviour patterns. Better documented ones are, for instance, something very much like Stockholm Syndrome in which kidnapping victims begin, slowly, to identify with their captors. People who are brutalized and terrified sometimes lose the ability to maintain their sense of themselves or any informed perspective of their situation.

From a fictional perspective, I was interested in exploring the facturing of the self. Nathaniel arrives already having had his sense of self demolished in the act of ‘doing his job’ – an excuse many people who have violated the human rights of others use in their defense. Nonetheless, some part of him rejects the validity the ‘excuse’. Moreover he is driven to seek out others he believes can truly understand the damaged state he has been left in and, if necessary, take someone else into that psychological place, in order to soothe the isolation that comes from it. Gennie’s interest in this dynamic has been objective and analytical, but she is persuaded to allow herself to be taken to that mental place in a belief that it will answer questions as to how torturers allow themselves to do what they do.

To me, psychological extremes are always very intimate places. Moreover, according to Bataille, these landscapes of transgression are the places where what he calls ‘discontinuity’ (a person’s sense of themselves as unique and separate individuals) becomes disrupted. For Bataille, whether through extreme pleasure, pain or mental anguish, these are sites of eroticism.  This is essentially why I was interested in writing this story and exploring its erotic potential.

That being said, let me be very clear. This is fiction. It’s not a blueprint for something fun you should try with your kinky partner. If you are reading my blog, you’re an adult. Be an adult and use your judgement. If you find what I write offensive, then just stop reading it.

 

 

 

  18 comments for ““Veiled Girl” and the eroticization of torture

  1. kathleen bradean
    April 8, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    Interesting.
    Interesting that people feel compelled to tell you what you’re allowed to write.
    Interesting that I, too, have been working around a story that depicts torture for some time. The difference is that I haven’t found the words, or your courage, to put it to paper.

  2. Catherine Mazur
    April 9, 2013 at 1:58 am

    I don’t think eroticizing torture is any different than eroticizing rape, which is done TO DEATH in mainstream romance novels. There’s even a name for it: “forced seduction.” So, in my opinion, if we’re going to criticize one, we ought to start criticizing the other…which I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    I guess my point is that the transgression of boundaries is always going to hold the potential for eroticism and it shouldn’t matter how that’s framed within the context of a story. So you like to fantasize about getting raped; that’s fine. I like to fantasize about getting waterboarded and then fucked. Big deal.

    It’s all good.

    True confessions time: interrogation/torture, framed as BDSM play, is one of my biggest kinks. In fact, it’s probably my biggest kink of all, so as you can imagine I am enjoying the hell out of this story. Not just because it’s well-written, which it is (very!), but because people just don’t write this stuff. I don’t know if they’re afraid to, or they just don’t have the skill level required, but it’s one of the things that I really wanted to explore with Freaky Fountain, but the submissions just never came.

    • April 9, 2013 at 2:19 am

      I can’t promise to write you a waterboarding scene, but I can get close. *smirk*

      • Catherine Mazur
        April 9, 2013 at 3:26 am

        ::does the happy dance:: Yaaay! 😀

  3. Mike
    April 10, 2013 at 3:57 am

    I am amused that you, a long time author of erotic subjects, would get criticism about a relative mild story about masochism when the author of ’50 Shades …’ is treated as the next coming of Dickens. I have enjoyed your writing for years as you are one of the few authors that can write well about sex and you can patronize me as much as you want!

  4. April 10, 2013 at 7:37 am

    The eroticization of torture is something deep in the human psyche, I suspect – and not just in contemporary worldviews. It goes back to early erotic writing. This probably isn’t even the earliest (English) example: ‘Place me before a Cannon, ’tis a pleasure / Stretch me upon a rack, a recreation’ (Rutillio, in Fletcher’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ – a play first perfomed in 1619). In the original context it’s supposed to be an ironic statement made by a male prostitute in a brothel used exclusively by women, but still… More in ‘Before Pornography: Erotic Writing In Early Modern England’ by Ian Frederick Moulton (2005).

    I haven’t checked but I’d be willing to bet you could find erotic torture in Greek, Roman and probably even Sumerian erotica. There is at least one source on the latter – ‘Sex and eroticism in Mesopotamian literature’ by Gwendolyn Leick (2003) though I confess I haven’t read it in any detail.

  5. TFP
    April 10, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    RG,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this read, the overly violent scenes are not to my liking but the relationship between the characters is very intriguing.

    ~TFP

    • April 10, 2013 at 6:27 pm

      *grin*

      I’m not sure you’re actually supposed to like them. I didn’t much like writing them either. 😛

      • TFP
        April 11, 2013 at 9:42 am

        Yes, some very rough scenes, but of course I just had to keep reading so I could find out what occurs! How does this correlate with the Stockholm syndrome? I suppose you’ve touched on that subject in other stories, such as Gaijin.

  6. Monsieur Jongleur
    April 12, 2013 at 4:06 am

    Thank you for your explanation. I’m sorry you’re getting criticism (I mean, really, why this piece and not Gaijin?) but I always like to hear the author explain in their own words what they’re exploring.

    • April 12, 2013 at 4:44 am

      At the time of writing Gaijin and posting it online, I did get quite a bit of criticism, and I did write a post or two discussing it

  7. EV Lee
    April 13, 2013 at 1:55 am

    When I think of “romanticizing torture”, I would assume that would mean Gennie felt like she deserved it, or it demeaned her in some way that made her a weaker person, or that she was powerless to stop it and hero worshiped the person doing it to her. That really isn’t the case. Yes, she is reluctant, but Nathaniel makes sure to give her the proper aftercare and she is a willing participant. He hasn’t forced her to do anything, in a sense, because she has the power. She can say no at any time and he would stop. So no, I think what you did here was completely acceptable. It’s a dark fantasy, but that’s exactly what you wrote, a “fantasy”.

    As for Gaijin, that’s just going to make readers uncomfortable no matter what. But it is a reality, some girls do go through that, and you didn’t ever make what the main character did “okay”. So even in that novella you were true to realism and didn’t romanticize the things he was doing to her.

    In my opinion, Fifty Shades of Grey is a worse offender than either of the above mentioned novellas because it actually romanticizes an abusive relationship. It makes it okay for a man to turn the woman into something weak and strip her of her power. She can’t even say no to dating him because he’ll stalk her and scare away all potential suitors. Then I hear all of these women, “Oh, why can’t I find a man like Christian Grey?”. It’s all about comfort zone and apparently there is only one acceptable way to enjoy torture.

    Stand your ground, RG, and damn the critics.

    • April 13, 2013 at 2:23 am

      I don’t think that any of the circumstances you mention would necessarily entail glamorizing or romanticizing torture. I think romanticizing or glamourizing something requires misrepresenting what it is, its impact, its effects, its history. I think I acknowledge how problematic it is, in different ways, for both characters.

      The big problem with FSOG is simply that a) it is essentially a pedophilic story. Yes, she’s stated as being 22, but in fact, the person described (a virgin, never masturbated, never had an orgasm) is in reality idealizing an impossible innocence that is, in fact, that of a child, and b) that the pathology of how willing she is to do things she does not enjoy sexually to keep his love is pathological.

      If either of those two elements were recognized in the story as problematic, then it wouldn’t be romanticization. If, for instance, the writer had acknowledged, in the text, that it was rather atypical and probably indicated some kind of condition that a 22 year old was so utterly unaware of her own sexuality, that would have been fine. If the author had acknowledged that Anastasia’s willingness to use her body as ‘coin’ in exchange for ‘love’ was unhealthy, then it would have also been okay. And either acknowledgement in the text would have made it a far superior story.

      • EV Lee
        April 13, 2013 at 3:23 am

        Wow I never thought of it that way in FSOG. I was so hung up on the abusive partnership that I didn’t delve deeper into why it bothered me so much. It makes me profoundly sad that such a story falls under the label of erotica. It really misrepresents the genre. Thank you for pointing that out.

        And yes, I agree, the circumstances I mentioned aren’t necessarily glamorizing or romanticizing torture, they’re just my idea of red flags. It’s very hard to put your thumb on where a fetish crosses a line because as you point out, it’s the misrepresentation of what is happening, the delusion aspect, that leads into dangerous territory, for example Stockholm syndrome and the like.

        Very intriguing food for thought. Thank you for your reply.

  8. May
    June 15, 2013 at 7:49 pm

    This reminded me about a fascinating documentary about a torturer during the military dictatorship in Greece (1967-1974). Done after the events was finished, ones the democracy was reinstalled. It was made like an interview or like two friends talking to each other over a weekend. Filmed in his house, you could see glimpses of his daily life, even of his wife and children. It was filmed in white and black, with the camera staying during long period of times in his face, in his eyes while he talks about his “monstrous” work during his period as a torturer for the regime. Other times the camera travels over his hands, his beautiful long and slim hands with the perpetual cigarette he is holding. Or over his nervous movements taking back his hair from the face or his dancing with his legs or arms. Over his lips sucking the cigarette or smiling with displeasure remembering. He never breaks down, cries or even raise his voice. He just talk calmly, breaking eye contact like you do when you are trying to remember things. The interviewer don’t ask many question and there are few interruptions. He just lets him talk freely, he don’t even try to fill in the times when the torturer stops talking, not sure how to continue. It was a long time ago, I can’t remember one word but the images is still there. I have search for this documentary many times. First I thought it could be a work of Costa-Gavras, but then I understood it was only so because is the only Greek director I know. I was very young so I would love to see this documentary again and reallly listen to the things the torturer says, but also all the things he doesn’t say but are still there, in his body language, in his silences, his gaze…. For me though, the most disturbing thing of all, was his beauty. He was so incredible beautiful. You know the ancient Greek principles of beauty in art; he was all of them in flesh. I just couldn’t understand how something so beautiful could be a monster.

    • June 16, 2013 at 12:35 am

      Actually, one of the best interviewed and documented torturers on record was a Greek. I wonder if it is the same guy I came across in my research?

    • June 16, 2013 at 2:45 am

      This is possibly the documentary ‘Your Neighbour’s Son’ which includes a lengthy interview with Michalis Petrou, who started as a military conscript but became one of the most notorious torturers of that time. The film describes how the training to become a torturer is itself a kind of torture, designed to ensure trainees’ obedience to their superiors. I don’t remember ever seeing the whole thing, but I can remember seeing short segments of it many years ago, possibly at a conference on human rights or similar. The Wikipedia stub on it is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Your_Neighbor's_Son – it was a Danish film and doesn’t appear on IMDb but there’s a page for it at http://www.filmstriben.dk/skole/film/details.aspx?filmid=9000000390

  9. May
    June 16, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    Hey Fulani, thanks a lot for the information. I have looked at the pages you post and yes, they do seem right.
    I have two different IP-addresses but, anfortunately, if your not located in Denmark you haven’t got access to the film. But it doesn’t matter, I’m just so happy because you helped me identify the film. It’s enough, now I have a way to work things out. Thanks again.

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