When I was interviewed recently, I didn’t expect to wind up posting now to justify writing about sex. In ensuing comments on the interview on the Facebook group for Thinking Horror, I was faced with arguments that sexual repression can be a friend to creativity, and that the chief legacy of Sixties sexual openness was an uptick in STD rates and the numbers of hippie-chick single mothers on welfare. Personally, when I’m tackling my own sexual identity in prose, welfare economics are not the first thing to spring to my mind, but apparently it’s a natural connection for some.
Still, normally I wouldn’t bother with addressing such remarks, but the interview itself was hedged round with warnings and qualifications about the graphic nature of my writing. I’m not to any degree singling out John Linwood Grant – a fine writer of sometimes transgressive weird fiction – and greydogtales for a practice that appears pretty much genre-wide. And I’ve been warned off trying for a slot at comic cons, etc. before on similar grounds, as well as seeing one dark/weird fiction publication venue after another carrying a rider on the submissions page stating “no explicit sex scenes” or “no sexual abuse of any kind” or closing the door to “graphic sexual scenes” or welcoming sex only “in moderation” with an implicit or explicit warning against explicit or transgressive material. Ralan lists “Use of vulgar language, explicit sex, excessive violence, etc. when it is clearly stated ‘not wanted’,” as the #3 pet peeve for editors – indicating how prevalent those clear statements are. A matter of taste, fine – but a matter of policy? As the American Civil Liberties Union states, “American law is, on the whole, the most speech-protective in the world – but sexual expression is treated as a second-class citizen.” And take a look here on Horror Tree for Ken MacGregor’s provoking question on the flak he gets when asked “You write erotic horror [I do] and children’s books under the same name?!? What if someone reads your kids’ books and decides to see what else you write?” So I’d like to say some more about the value of transgressive horror and weird fiction, and more broadly, about sexual issues and the acceptance of transgressive writing about sex in the whole dark/weird/fantastic/speculative fiction community.
There are chapter-and-verse arguments available everywhere about the value, aesthetic merits, and social utility of free writing about sex, and what kind of writing should be acceptable, or prohibited. Those are all worthwhile, important, and separate arguments – that we can have elsewhere once we tackle the whole genre-wide issue that even dictates whether there can be a discussion in the first place. This is a plea for a more mature, more adult – in every sense – attitude and climate of opinion across the genre community, because we need that, for those same reasons and some additional ones that I’ll outline below. Perhaps this isn’t such an issue as it appears to me – and of course I’m special pleading to an extent – but I’m just going from the reactions I’ve had so far.
Most of this rant is going to be directed at American genre culture, because this exercises such a powerful influence on the whole imaginative fiction genre cluster worldwide, and because the broader American (pop) cultural landscape exhibits such a marked, bizarrely unbalanced, attitude towards sex versus violence. As I keep getting reminded, by honest well-wishers who respect my work and want to see it more widely read, America will accept wholesale slaughter onscreen, but not a single nipple. A rampant free-fire gun culture with epidemic levels of campus rapes and addiction to slasher porn, never mind gun deaths, can’t handle adult approaches to sex? Old enough to shoot, but not to shoot your wad? Is that contradictory, or causal?
Prudishness over sexual issues certainly isn’t uniquely American, but its mutation into whole wildly successful pop-culture sub-genres of media violence against women might well be. Look what happens in the slasher flicks that North American teens cut their affective teeth on. As Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson put it, if you have sex, you die. If you are sexy, you die. If you disturb or upset the confused, poorly articulated libidos of young malehood, if you dare threaten their fragile, unstable self-esteem by actually eliciting desire, your reward is bloody dismemberment, in as creatively sadistic a fashion as the audience can vicariously get off on. Why is the Final Girl always a Girl? Isn’t that the most transparent sublimation, “where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behavior, possibly resulting in a long-term conversion of the initial impulse.” Only in this case, what society deems acceptable behaviour is the mass slaughter of young girls.
Slasher flicks feed the same appetites that find outlet in communal rapes, honour killings, and group violence against women in other cultures and contexts. Sadistic vengefulness descends on girls who dare transgress communal mores in honour-bound cultures, and gets a free pass off the spirit of righteous retribution. And in such mucho macho societies, of course, a man out to commit honour killings is motivated far less by concern for the women in question, than for the threat to his manhood and social standing for being unable to keep his womenfolk in line. Men’s fear for their own manhood – at the root of so much cruelty. Think of Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” What pathetic disproportion. And for anyone naive or prejudiced enough to think that brutal punishment disguising socially sanctioned sadism is alien to Western cultures, read Brian Jarvis’s recent study Cruel and Unusual: Punishment and U.S. Culture for just one up-to-date analysis of America’s love affair with excessive and twisted punishment regimes, embodying “the secret, silenced histories of sadomasochistic desire.”
Whatever the hypocrisy involved in America’s relative acceptance of violence (and especially, highly sexualized violence) versus actual sex, for horror writers, filmmakers and readers, that should highlight one point. Or rather one letter: X. Horror is… ahem… explicitly rated as adult. Unless you’re working in the slightly oxymoronic and easily demarcated zone of YA horror, this material is by its nature destined for a mature audience. And it is specifically intended to upset, disturb, unsettle, horrify, even disgust. The adult rubric of horror ought to be a free pass to do just that. So why the issue with explicit sex and transgression in horror writing? I shouldn’t need to underline how transparent that double standard is. And I really could wonder about the mentality of those who believe it’s acceptable and fine to frighten and unsettle people, but not to arouse them. That side issue aside, what argument could there be for not using this specific tailor-cut opportunity to probe areas of human feeling and human life that other genres often simply cannot?
I’m very happy with the immaturity of the horror and weird fiction community in one context – the cosplay, comic book fun level, which makes gatherings so entertaining and innocently enjoyable, like Trick-or-Treat for grown-ups, all year round. If the price of keeping that part of the genre community on board is the rigid exclusion of explicit adult content, then perhaps it’s a price worth paying, but I don’t believe this is a straight either/or choice. And I’m certainly not advocating deliberate exposure of a YA audience to truly adult content. (For an interesting, SWFA-hosted, discussion, in passing, with plenty of links about this topic, see here.) But the YA audience, with kids and teens involved, has been pushed at me before as an argument for keeping transgressive and explicit material – like mine – out of comic and genre cons entirely. Adult content is sidelined or excluded – and anti-harrassment policies are mandatory. Are such policies required because of the breathy sexual content of weird fiction and graphic novels? Unlikely. It does suggest, though, that the genre fiction community has a problem with sex that has nothing to do with explicit content.
I’m not the only one to link this to the same toxic adolescent mentality that has disfigured fandom of all kinds, from comics to Star Wars, for so long. I don’t agree with Giles Fraser that the alt/nerd-right is worse than the Evangelical right, but I do agree that he’s right in linking the emergence of the alt-right to the culture wars around Gamergate and the Rabid Puppies – a little brushfire war that has now gone mainstream with the Trump campaign. And the apparently seamless carry-over from Gamergate into the Sad/Rabid Puppies debacle suggests to me that there’s no age barrier or cutoff here – gaming, comics, speculative fiction, all part of the same broader community with the same constitutional defects.
I’m also rather suspicious of the whole perception of a closed-off geek ghetto that leads many to caricature the genre community as populated by sad social misfits and delayed (or permanent) adolescents. Ironic, I’m as guilty of that caricature as any – see above – but then, what feeds the troll? Or rather, what creates a troll-friendly environment? Where is this coming from? Couldn’t this sustained puerilization of the geek community have as much to do with censorious policies that force it to be forever adolescent, as much as genre marketing priorities that target boys? Precisely by preventing full expression of genuinely mature sexual topics, and thereby involving actual adults and adult attitudes, aren’t these policies reinforcing immaturity and social exclusion, acting as a magnet or safe zone for immature personalities, and preventing their maturation, by prohibiting exposure to the kind of material, conversations and company that would actually enable and require them to mature?
And if all this prohibition and censorship is supposed to protect our vulnerable young, I’ve got to wonder who’s getting protected. Obviously not the girls who get harassed at cons. Not Zoe Quinn. Not Chelsea Cain. Not Leslie Jones. Not the women, including celebrated writers, groped and molested by Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison, among others. And pure horror writing, as against the broader field of related imaginative genres, definitely isn’t immune to such problems as online harassment and body shaming. Probably the only ones really getting protected are the type of sad git who Tweeted a propos the Chelsea Cain controversy that “comics are the last safe space for men,” and that “Women have novels. They don’t need to take over comics as well.” Whose infantile paradise contains no … ahem … graphic content, involving actual female bodies, and personalities, but endless nubile Spandex playdolls.
How refreshing, in contrast, to turn to European continental literature, where sexual content is accepted as a basic ingredient of serious literature. I have huge issues with the values and focus of the work of Michel Houellebecq, for example, but I understand and accept that its sexual subject matter is integral to its claims to any literary standing at all. Ditto Alain Robbe-Grillet. With the likes of Georges Bataille and Anaïs Nin, there are not even any such issues. In the English-language context, I don’t think there’s any argument that William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard wrote science fiction that is also accepted as serious literature. Transgressive sexual content, whether it’s adolescent boys being throttled in Naked Lunch or sex-death auto porn in Crash, is absolutely central to the broader concerns of the writing. To a degree, it’s fundamental to its value as serious literature. In “The Pornographic Imagination,” Susan Sontag defines the transgressive artist as “a freelance explorer of spiritual dangers,” producing work whose value is judged by its “originality, thoroughness, authenticity and power.” I shouldn’t need to underline how art created according to such criteria can tick any number of boxes for those who judge art by its social utility, as well as achieving the highest merits when considered as art.
As a first step towards maturation of the genre community, would it be so hard to maintain more adult content tracks and zones, as at Marcon, rather than blanket bans? I wouldn’t buy any argument that maintaining mature content zones would burden cons unduly. Cons clearly can and already do operate a highly sophisticated, time-consuming and expensive policy about sexual issues – in the shape of their anti-harassment policies. They can surely take similar, or far less, time and trouble to manage and police mature zones, where explicit material is presented and discussed. Conference organizers may fear for their reputations or licenses if they do such a thing, but the choice is either to address this issue like adults, with a legitimate right to adult self-expression, or to knuckle under to the current mindset – which shows no sign of deterring the bad publicity over harassment in any case. Embrace more grown-up content in the broad genre community, and you have a slight chance of a more grown-up genre community, with more grown-up standards of behaviour. That could only be an improvement. As for editors and publishers, at least nuance your restrictions on explicit content, if you’re not prepared to drop them entirely, and if need be, be prepared to stand up for the value of such content. Many do. Many don’t.
I’ll conclude with a quote from Burroughs that is always getting pushed out at the inspirational Facebook meme level: “There is no intensity of love or feeling that does not involve the risk of crippling hurt. It is a duty to take this risk, to love and feel without defense or reserve.” Love of whatever kind. And as a publisher, editor, conference organizer, or other member of the genre fiction community, I do believe you have a duty to take that risk and stand up for that love, by enabling, embracing and welcoming its expression in clear accordance with First Amendment rights. And for any number of others, in every sense, GTFU.