Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Oh Noes! Teh Sexeh!

I don't think anyone will argue with me when I say that there's a lot of weird when it comes to sex in America (and much of the world). I think the situation is, if anything, worse in science fiction and fantasy literature and roleplaying.

A brief anecdote: in college, I was two really compelling games of Changeling: the Dreaming. In one of them, I played a child, an 11 year old pathological liar who could turn into a dog and wanted, most of all, to be a noble knight, just like his adoptive father. It was great fun - possibly there's a longer post in here about the joys and challenges of writing and roleplaying children - but at the end of the game, the Storyteller noted something rather disturbing. He had been able to get away with exposing the characters, all children, to horrific levels of violence. Exposing our characters to a similar amount of sex would have squicked us all out, but the fact that our characters were repeatedly beaten, cut, burned, and imprisoned didn't phase us. We used to joke that my character, Glyph, couldn't go outside with his shirt off anymore because people would see his scars and think he was an abused child. Grownups did this to Glyph, but if we had played scenes where grownups tried to seduce him, I guarantee that game would have ended prematurely, and right now I'd be writing "in college, I was in this one really creepy game..."

Clan of the Cave Bear? Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter (click here for the author's site)? Kushiel's Dart and its sequels by Jacqueline Carey? Anything by Anne Rice? Did you read them or did you avoid them? Was it for the sex - and I don't just mean the sex scenes, I mean the sexiness of it, the 'adult themes and situations' - or despite it? More importantly, what do you feel when you look at them? Are these fine examples of science fiction and fantasy, or are they something you're a little ashamed of?

I see two main reasons for this.

First of all, science fiction, fantasy, and roleplaying lack the veneer of sophistication that conventional fiction enjoys. This layer of legitimacy (usually) protects the art from the negative associations attached to sexiness. When you see something sexy in 'art' you don't think, "how trashy!" you think "well, that's nice." Of course, some people are insensible to this layer of sophistication, but we call them "philistines."

Secondly, I think we are ashamed of our past. Oh, sure, we started out classy enough. Tolkein and Lord Dunsany wrote epics, very sophisticated, with roots in the old European epics. After them, however, it was a short downhill ride to mighty heaving thews and glistening bosoms. And since we live in a culture that likes to pretend that sex isn't happening, except for when we're plastering it all over everything (like I said, crazy) that means it's bad. Now that we're trying to rise above our past, to grab the coattails of magical realism to the promised land of legitimacy, we want to pretend that all those thews and bosoms never happened.

Where do we go from here?

Well, I don't think science fiction and fantasy are going to save the world from itself. There is a lot of crazy when it comes to sex, and it's going to take us a while to sort it all out, if we ever do. However, there are a few things we can do.

Firstly, I think fantastic fiction and roleplaying has to stop being ashamed of itself. We are making art, and it isn't pretentious to say it and act like it. I don't think this is going to help us with outsiders, but at least it will let us not feel ashamed of ourselves. Secondly, I think a little more bravery is in order when we write sex. Let's not go crazy here and write sex scenes at every juncture, but let's write it when it's important. If we want to live in a world where sex is something to be explored and celebrated, not something to be hidden and ashamed of, we need to start living like it and writing it.

* * *

  • What successes and failures have you had writing sexiness into your fiction?
  • Have the paradoxes of sex and violence occurred to you? In what form?
  • When have you had to defend your choice of reading material, to yourself and others?


Becca said...

Interesting topic.

When I was younger (late elementary school and middle school), I often read stuff that was above my grade level (aka books for adults), and that meant a healthy amount of sex. It made me feel really, really embarrassed at the time, and I remember wishing that people could write books without that so I could enjoy them just for the sci-fi/fantasy content.

Now I don't mind at all. I'm an adult who is comfortable with her sexuality. I wouldn't go as far as to say I'll go out of my way to find a book with lots of sex, but I enjoy well written sex scenes. Er...sorry if this is TMI.

And if you haven't read the Kushiel Books yet, I really recommend them. The way that Carey incorporates BDSM into the book is really, really well done and doesn't have that feel of "sex tacked on" that other books have.

Also, even though I don't always comment, you make interesting posts here :D

Anonymous said...

Not TMI at all.