Erotica and Romance Need to Break Up

Fair warning: this post should, uncharacteristically, probably be labeled as 18+ / NSFW.

I do not read much erotica / lady porn / vaginal fantasy. Part of the reason is that my upbringing was pretty tight-laced, but as I’ve become a more vocal advocate of feminism, I have come to believe that part of the battle for human equality along the gender divide is demystifying sex. It’s okay for ladies to get horny, and it’s okay for humans to indulge their horniness as long as doing so does not endanger or degrade one’s self or other people. Erotica is one of the simplest and safest entry points for bringing the conversation about female sexuality into a broader sphere, but with few exceptions, I despise the entire genre with the fire of a thousand newborn suns.

This weekend, while trying to read a book that was recommended to me by a friend who is a connoisseur of the genre, I was about ready to hurl my ereader across the room when I had another inter-genre epiphany. Erotica doesn’t have to inherently suck. Erotica is only sucky because there is some badly mistaken and deeply ingrained notion that it is appropriate for all erotica to be romance.

Wait, wait, wait, you may say. Aren’t erotica and romance the same thing?No, my friends, they aren’t, and I would even go so far as to say they’re locked in a mutually destructive relationship.

Let’s define erotica first…

Erotica is any book in which the description of sex reaches an anatomically specific level ending in details of how climax was achieved. In short, it’s porn, in words. I have zero problem with porn in words because I don’t need to stop to worry about whether the end result was achieved in a way that is non-exploitative: the people doing the sex are fictitious. Whether or not the authors are given a fair shake is a conversation for a different day, but the issues there are generally the same issues faced by authors in general and (usually) female authors in specific, rather than the issues faced by actors who are getting naked for the camera.

Erotica, furthermore, has the opportunity to provide healthy examples of consent, safe sex, and the right of women to enjoy their bodies. It can sometimes be the most ass-backwards of genres when it comes to power and gender roles, but when it’s done well, erotica is one of those genres that is capable of lighting the path towards gender equality.

And now, for romance…

A romance novel, by contrast, is any novel where the primary conflict in the plot revolves around the success of the romantic/sexual relationship between the two main characters. I rather loathe romance novels because, by and large, they are fond of upholding that ass-backwardness I was just referring to. They usually end in a wedding and babies and very frequently involve a dynamic in which either the woman has to be rescued by a stronger man or a strong woman has to learn how to be meek enough to be lovable to a man. Gross.

Because the sexual relationship is at the heart of the plot, rape or attempted rape are disgustingly common tools for increasing the drama of the plot. Ex-cah-uze me? You’re writing a book that’s designed to get ladies in the mood and you’re going to throw the cold reality of the prevalence of rape into the mix? I’m not saying society is at a point where we don’t need to expose the prevalence of rape in fiction, but good lord, people–rape and erotica are a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad combination that undermine erotica’s ability to empower women to enjoy their sexuality. I call bullshit on the commonplace use of rape to up the drama-ante in erotica.

Beyond the rage-inducing incompatibilities, romance and erotica are just fundamentally a poor match. The point of erotica, let’s not mince words here, is arousal. The structure of your typical romance novel goes like this: reader meets girl > reader meets boy > girl and boy meet > girl and boy hate each other > girl and boy find a common problem that brings them together > girl and boy decide that maybe they can stomach each other > girl and boy get down to business. That means a bare minimum of three to four chapters before any fun stuff happens, and most of the book is designed to leave the reader completely frustrated by all of the stupid arguments and external influences that are preventing the sexytime from happening in anything that resembles a dominant percentage of the book.

Romance and erotica, I think you need to take an honest look at your relationship. You’re just going to keep hurting each other if you stay together, but you could both be so much stronger, so much happier if you agreed to see other people or, you know, take a break to just work on yourselves for a while.

A modest proposal…

You may very well still be scratching your head about how we could possibly separate romance from erotica. There’s genre erotica, I can hear you thinking. Supernatural erotica is a billion-dollar industry, isn’t it? No doubt. But I have read a fair amount of that, and every one so far has been romance cosplaying SF/F in a poorly constructed costume.

I wouldn’t, however, want to read a book that was absolutely nothing but X-rated sex scenes…there’s something to be said for a bit of build-up and the value that plot has in making you care about the characters you’re peeping in on. So here’s what I want to see a market boom in: erotica whose main couple is in a stable, loving relationship and who are working together against some larger problem. Still not seeing the potential? Imagine a book written from this rough concept:

Opening scene: Zale and Talon, life-partners and co-captains of the inter-stellar messenger ship G.S.S. Gutenberg, are engaging in some delightfully inventive zero-g sex (which would necessitate some sort of light bondage, or maybe acrobat-style ropes, just to handle the whole equal and opposite reaction bit of physics) when their com beeps, alerting them that they have an unexpected visitor.

Introduction of conflict: The visitor is a mob-boss who intends to destroy the legitimate government of their home planet. He has some leverage against them that makes it very difficult to say no to his demand that they play a critical role in his devious scheme.

Role of sex: Because the conflict is external to their relationship, sex can be used as stress relief, a way to break up expository discussions about how to manage the conflict, and an act of celebration. Lots of opportunities exist for quality, consent-positive, body-image-positive, safe, and creative sex.

With this approach, erotica can tackle plots that are actually interesting in a format that permits a higher ratio of sexytime to plot. And unshackled from the bone-weary tropes of the erotica/romance tango, romance is set free to work on being less shitty in its treatment of women.

I’m sorry to say that I do not have the courage to actually commit vivid, anatomically-precise descriptions of sex to paper, so I am not likely to be the person who turns the genre on its head with my brilliant non-romance erotica. I would love to read the book I envisioned above, though, so if anyone wants to take the idea and run with it, it’s yours. Just let me know when you need beta readers. Also, if you have read any good erotica that avoids being romance, please feel welcome to share recommendations in the comments!

Not As Micro As You Think

Some of you may know this about me already, but I have a habit of yelling at people on the internet. Why I continue to do this in spite of the apparent futility of smashing sphincter trolls with my hammer of reason is a post for another day, but it makes John nervous, primarily because it can take me a while to de-Hulk after reading a piece of choice stupidity and he receives the dubious honor of listening to me rant myself around to being ready to confront said troll with logic and dignity.

This morning was such a morning. I warned John as he walked down the stairs, “I’m yelling at an idiot on the internet.”

Part of John’s joking response was, “Sometimes I think you’re the man in this relationship.”

I did not say a word, but John knows me well enough to know (a) I am a vocal advocate of avoiding gender segregating language and (b) my look was not one of amusement. I wasn’t going to dignify the joke with a response either way because it wasn’t that important to me, but he immediately launched into the following defense: that comment might have no place in a public forum, but between people who know each other well enough to know that the intent was not sexist, it should be okay to use gendered language in a comic way to reference past stereotypes. He went further to say that when I chide him for a use of sexist language, it’s a breach of trust in the relationship because he feels like I don’t trust him to not be sexist, and he can’t trust me to give him the benefit of the doubt.

His argument and feelings are not invalid. John is a good guy, and taboo-breaching humor is certainly part of what defines close relationships. But there’s something frustrating behind his reasoning and baseline assumptions that I had, until this morning, been unable to communicate to him, which is that he, as a guy, does not understand what it’s like to be under the constant psychological siege that our culture imposes on women. It’s difficult to voice because it’s never one punishable breach: it’s an absolute deluge of tiny infractions. It’s the appraising look, the standing six inches too close, the snide cracks about women who are too masculine in their mannerisms, the catcall, the subtext of an ad, the thoughtless application of power in a million ways that, if you were to explain individually, would all seem inconsequential, but together act like a flight of swallows forming into a massive hand to drive women into the ground.

And people get away with these microaggressions. “What do you mean, sexist? God, you’re so sensitive.” “Grow a sense of humor, it was just a joke.” “Calm your tits.” “Stop over-reacting.” “Don’t be such a bitch about it.” Women are silenced into not calling the real assholes on their bullshit because we’re not allowed to react to the needles that slide under the radar of what’s enforceable under a sexual harassment policy. If we do, we’re put down again using gendered language that attacks an emotional or even a verbal response. There is no escaping this barrage–some of it is innocent in intention, as I know John’s comment was, but a lot of it is vicious and underhanded and characteristic of the scum that feeds on the fecal matter of the lowest scum.

Maybe this is unfair to my sweet, feminist, kind husband, but when he makes a crack that would fall decidedly under the category of aggression if the intent were sexist, I can’t not experience the emotional reaction that is tied to the myriad slaps in the face I deal with every time I walk out the door. John will always have the benefit of the doubt with me where sexist intent is concerned, but that doesn’t mean he’s magically disconnected from what I hear and see in the rest of the world. He’s not an ass for making a gendered joke once in a while either, but he was being a little bit of an ass for insisting on his right to not experience my annoyed look when the shit I deal with as a woman makes me less than entertained by some off-handed quip.

I remained uncharacteristically articulate while I was telling him off, apparently, because when I finished explaining this to him, he said, “Oh. I didn’t realize. I speak with the voice of a thousand assholes.”

It was a strange crepuscular ray in the murk that has surrounded our marital chats about feminism, but I think it sums the issue up nicely. When you use the language of gendered microaggression, you speak with the voice of every other person who uses that language, and your words are festering with the maggots and gangrene of their rotting intentions.

Take that for what it’s worth.

Be a Man

At least three of you just started singing this to yourself:

Probably more. Disney, right? Who didn’t grow up taking some of their most inspirational memories from those singing cartoons? I might smack talk them about gender roles from time to time, but credit where it’s due, they’re not as far behind the times as some, and when they fall short of creating strong female leads, I don’t think it’s for lack of trying. It’s for lack of knowing how to define a strong female because we’re still in the process of defining this paradigm.

The video above, from Disney’s Mulan, is an interesting example of the challenge of gender equality. “Be a man,” the CO tells his troops. “Be strong, be fast, be self-reliant, be deadly.” The lyrics might be a touch more subtle than that, but the training montage isn’t. Mulan is praiseworthy (and also reviled) in the context of the story because she masters this masculine skill set and finds a way to pass.

Feminism has moved, or is in the process of moving, beyond the notion that in order to be given equal power as efficacious human beings, women must become manly in the sense presented in the Mulan clip. I recently came across this preview for a new documentary from the Representation Project:

What a simple notion, that “be a man” is one of the most damaging things boys hear. I don’t know how strongly the research substantiates this claim (sorry, I’m a lazy ranter, but feel free to share relevant research links in the comments), but it strikes me as intuitively valid.

I’m reminded of the story that Plato tell in the Symposium, of how humans were once eight-limbed, powerful creatures, and how Zeus split them in half to make them less powerful. (Search for “four” with ctrl+f in the linked document, it will get you in the right ballpark if you don’t have time to read the entire thing.) They spent their lives clinging to their opposite half, trying to become what they once were. The division of gender roles strikes me as having the same impact–when we limit ourselves and one another by the structure of our chromosomes, we are not complete people. We’re missing out on half of our potential.

This narrative isn’t new for women–we’ve been fighting to be allowed to reintegrate the qualities that have been reserved for men for a while. But I think an important part of the struggle is to acknowledge that women aren’t the only ones who are damaged by a gender dichotomy. We are hurt when the world says, “female things are not good enough to be manly,” but so are men.

I was listening to NPR the other day and some pundit or other was talking about the identity of victimized shame that is part of China’s perception of its relationship to the world. Without even touching on those politics, the pundit said something to the effect that China is hobbling itself with that narrative of being a victim–as long as it refuses to recognize that it has a powerful role, the anger at being shamed by the rest of the world is only hobbling their own progress. A victim is a victim, shame is shame, no matter the circumstances, and I suspect the same thing is true for women–anger at those who still see women as less and as objects feels like shit (something I struggle with constantly), it doesn’t do a hell of a lot to hurt the folks who hold that perspective, and it gets in the way of being compassionate towards the members of the more powerful group who are being harmed by the same narrative they’re using to harm us.

It also makes sense that changing tactics (for me, at least, I realize I’m not at the leading edge of this shift) will make the idea of gender equality more palatable to more men because we’re not just trying to take ground for women and we’re not just offering to share ground with homosexuals. What if men were hearing words like this: “You know what? You have the right to express hurt and pissyness, and you have the prerogative to change your mind too. You are allowed to be struggling to be nice because your hormones are out of whack. You may express that your job is stressing you out, or that you don’t feel supported by your spouse. You can cry. You can crave chocolate. You have a voice in how your kids should be raised. You are just as desirable and strong in jeans or skirts, in plaid or floral prints. ”

The damage runs so deep that it might make little difference. The more deeply a man has been convinced that it’s not okay to be a woman, the less this offer of shared ground will mean, perhaps. But perhaps it will mean enough to enough men that by the time our children are raising children, their boys won’t be made fun of for liking neon pink crocs and their girls won’t be underpaid for their hard work.

So. That’s all just food for thought. I will continue to rant against the idiots who still act as if women are second class citizens (Spoiler alert: Planet Fitness has a polite and thoughtful nastygram headed their way soon). I will, however, be on the lookout for the ways such attitudes are hurting boys and men as well. Maybe trying to take a broader perspective on who deserves compassion and protection from such viciously stupid narratives will make me a little less angry. And maybe taking a perspective of compassion for the dopes who don’t realize what they’re doing to themselves will make them a little less threatened by the notion that feminine characteristics are essential to being complete people.

My Apologies, Mr. Whedon

John and I got talking about Joss Whedon last night, after John read an article in Wired (based largely on this interview) about one of very few television writers whose career I envy. For those of you who don’t know who I’m talking about, Whedon is largely responsible for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly, Serenity, and most recently, The Avengers. I haven’t seen The Avengers yet and, quite frankly, I had no real interest in seeing it until Charlie (who only knew that Whedon was of consequence because her fiance pointed it out) mentioned that Whedon was in charge. I’ve been falling in love with Whedon as a writer since I saw Serenity in the theater, but I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that the same man was behind these amazing works of art until I watched Dollhouse last fall, and then only because I started reading Hijinks Ensue, whose writer will most likely either end up with a restraining order  from Whedon or as his best friend and collaborator.

Joss Whedon
Joss Whedon / Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY 2.0)

Yes, I am the lazy sort of fangirl who can adore just about everything in a screenwriter’s oeuvre without knowing it. Shut up.

As John and I were discussing what makes Whedon projects whedonesque, two qualities stood out to me. First, the man is a master of dialogue. He has a keen ear for the way people talk that gives me serious keyboard envy. Second, and equally important to me as a writer: he’s a butt-kicking feminist.

I had a hard time coming to grips with that second fact. A word to the wise: while you can watch most of his above-mentioned projects through Netflix Instant, I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. “Whedonesque” means that strong women characters are going to occasionally have their asses handed to them in an extremely graphic manner. When I was watching Buffy, I found that I sometimes had to pause in the middle of an episode and go for a walk to shake off the yick of watching this young woman lose a no-punches pulled fist fight with older men. Dollhouse was infinitely worse.

I kept going back, though it took me a while to understand why I found this fairly violent television to be worthy of my time. My reason? Buffy and Echo are on the frontiers of feminism, rewriting the paradigm of what it means to be female. The paradigm I was raised with is that girls are capable of kicking butt BUT not so capable that it’s okay for boys to kick back. By putting strong women in the category of “not to be touched,” media sends the message that women really are more fragile than men. It’s sickening on an almost physical level to watch a particularly close fight in which the woman seems to be losing, especially when the staged fighting is fairly believable, but I don’t have the same gut reaction watching a similar fight between two men, or between two women, for that matter. Why? Because I have been trained to believe that men and women are not equals, that women are physically inferior to men.

Mentally, I am capable of saying, “That is incorrect, kind sir!” But the attitudes that matter are not the ones you pull out at the university colloquium. The attitudes that have power are the ones you carry in your bones–the ones that will tell you how to react if you should ever face a given situation in real life. In other words, my brain tells me that I am capable of standing up for myself if I am ever attacked by a man, but my bones tell me to cower, weep, and beg for mercy. I have  been blessed in my life to never be faced with a situation where I had to make that decision, but many women are. Domestic violence is not a rarity in the United States, and plenty of women stay in abusive situations, allowing themselves to be hit again and again and again, and not least among the reasons for this is that our cultural perception of women is that they aren’t really empowered to do anything about it.

When a man refrains from hitting a woman, too often his reason is, “You shouldn’t hit women.” That’s a bad reason. You shouldn’t hit anybody. The same man might also back down from a fight with a man, probably on moral principles (if only to save face), but what media usually tells us about this interaction is that the man is also somewhat concerned that he might be seriously injured. In other words, he respects the power of the other man’s fists. When you “respect a woman” by refusing to fight her on the premise that she’s a woman, the only thing you’re respecting is her fragility. I’m not saying you should go around picking bar fights with women, mind you, but I am saying that Joss Whedon’s work is ripping that paradigm to shreds.

Neither Buffy nor Echo is ever beaten up. They lose fights. They win more fights than they lose, however, and when they do lose, they pick themselves up and approach the problem from another angle–with more training, more knowledge, and backup. The narrative of gender this creates is that women and men are inherently on equal footing, and given that equality, women sometimes lose. They have the power, however, to push themselves through hard work and study to a place where they can take down the monster who beat them. Women are not fragile flowers who are helpless when the world fails to protect them: they are powerful, and God help you if you make the mistake of turning your back on a woman you’ve done wrong by.

I am pathetically addicted to television, because I love the indefinite drawing out of the lives and stories of characters. In movies and even books, it seems like I hardly get a chance to know and like a set of characters before their authors wrap up and move on. Seven seasons is a good long time to enjoy the growth of a character’s life. Where television almost inevitably fails, however, is in its consistent inability to stick the landing. I understand why this is–endings are notoriously difficult for even mediums in which you have the time and resources to work them out and rewrite preceding details to accommodate them and many factors make this an unlikely situation for television shows. (These reasons don’t apply to the LOST producers, so I still want to know what the heck their excuse is.) The single best exception to this rule I have ever enjoyed is the finale of Buffy.

*SPOILER ALERT: THE END OF BUFFY IS REVEALED HERE.*

The solution to the series of problems building to the climax in Buffy is a stand up and shout anthem to Whedon’s take on feminism. For those of you who don’t know the show, the basic premise is that there is always exactly one girl who has the particular power to defeat evil: the Vampire Slayer. When one dies, that potential is awakened in another. Buffy & co. find themselves in a more apocalyptic situation than usual (still my favorite quote from the show: “I find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.”), and their plan is to unlock the Slayer potential in all of the girls the world over. There’s a great series of shots of girls in bad situations waking up to the fact that they don’t have to take it anymore. Buffy no longer has to carry the weight of being THE Slayer because she is not the only woman capable of kicking butt and taking names. It’s an incredibly empowering moment, and I will always forgive Joss Whedon for writing decisions I strongly disagree with because of that scene.

 *SPOILER DANGER OVER*

I hate to be too much of a rabid fangirl, but Whedon’s ideas of feminism push me in my own writing to go to uncomfortable places that we need to pay attention to… like getting a pap smear or a prostate exam. It’s uncomfortable and a bit painful to write outside of the paradigm I still believe in my bones, but my writing will be better off for it. If I’m lucky, someday I’ll have readers who will be better off for it. If I’m REALLY lucky, society will change because of my writing and I will be remembered as one of the critical literary pap smears of the post-modern, anti-feminist social cancer.

And now I’m wondering if I need to reconsider my aspirations in life. (Also, does being a card-carrying member of the Over-Extended Metaphor Society really give me the right to imply that Joss Whedon is a literary pap smear? Honestly, Mr. Whedon, I mean it as a compliment.)

UPDATE

John says my metaphor is not only over-extended, but also inaccurate. He says Whedon is more like a gynecologist because it’s his oeuvre that’s the pap smear. And now I’m going to award myself some gummy bears for using the word “oeuvre” three times (two of which were totally legitimate) in one post .