Sunday, May 18, 2014

Who are we writing for?

If you write about sex, sooner or later somebody somewhere is going to take offense. It doesn’t matter how well you write, how elegantly you express yourself, how subtly or artfully you strive to convey your vision. It doesn’t even matter whether the offended party has ever bothered to read a single word of your novel or story or poem. Some people simply get off on outrage. Some people actually live to be offended. In the West, a few of those people are even paid to be pissed off. There’s a whole class of professional contrarians out there, those so-called “watchdog groups”, self-appointed defenders of “traditional family values” and their highly paid spokes-prudes, making broad statements about the decadence of society, the corruption of “culture”, the decline of civilization, and all the luridly imagined evils of “porn” (which turns out to be anything that even remotely hints at the possibility of undraped female flesh, or, for that matter, fun of pretty much any kind). Never mind that these bloated, hypocritical fascist gasbags cannot even define their own terms, keep changing the premises of the argument to suit themselves, and cannot frame their poisonous pronouncements of “absolute certainty” with anything approaching an accurate historical perspective.

Many so-called grownups in America—including a lot of aspiring erotic writers—still talk about sex in breathless, flippant tones born of secret embarrassment, as if somewhere in the back of the mind is a nagging belief that our Puritan ancestors were right. We want to believe that we’re adults when it comes to sex; unflappably liberated citizens of a more enlightened age; but we’re still looking back over our shoulders, afraid of getting caught, afraid of those joyless holier-than-thou finger-wagging scolds who continue to imprison our imaginations from beyond the grave. In effect, we have allowed the anti-intellectual heirs of medieval theocracy to frame the Twenty-first century debate in Seventeenth-century terms. Their narrow worldview has infected everything, and made it virtually impossible to move forward. Far too often, the practical result of this mindset is self-repression, a resort to infantile euphemism at best; outright self-censorship in more extreme cases.

In the United States we tend to take our freedom to say and write whatever we want for granted, while, in practical fact, exercising those rights very little. We may gripe about what we perceive as censorship or editorial prior-restraint, scoff at straight-laced pundits or the antics of the professional whining class, but under the protections of the First Amendment we can express ourselves in more or less any way we like without too much fear of reprisal or serious existential consequence. It’s when we try to publish that we can run into difficulties, not only because too many editors and publishers are afraid to offend anyone.  We see signs of a suffocating, atavistic cultural climate in small towns where teachers and other “figures of trust” can lose their jobs and have their careers destroyed simply for writing erotica under a penname. Courageous authors in other parts of the world often risk far more than career or reputation to write about sex. Erotic writers in the Middle East, authors of LGTB-erotica in the Russian Federation and much of Africa are actually making meaningful political statements with their work. Risking arrest, imprisonment, and even the possibility of execution, these “smut-peddlers” have become de facto human rights activists. (Think about that next time you’re afraid that what you’ve written is “too hot” or “not explicit enough”.)

Of course, it’s hardly news that American society is totally schizoid when it comes to sex and sexuality. Part of the problem is that everybody wants to control the flow of ideas about sex, but nobody’s willing to be honest. The prudes and “family-values” crusaders don’t want these things talked about at all—funny how they can’t seem to think about anything else—and, once having been allowed to frame the debate in terms of their own obsolete morality—that is, sex is dirty. Period.—it becomes virtually impossible for anyone else to explore new ideas. Regardless of who’s saying what on either side of the argument, there’s always this tacit concession to the Forces of the Uptight; a sense deep down that sex really is dirty and talking about it is naughty.  

That’s why the radical Left and the reactionary Right sound almost exactly the same when talking about sexual matters. They both want to do away with “pornography”—in the most nebulously-defined sense of the word—and tell people what they can and can’t think, do, say, read or watch. It’s all about social control regardless of which direction it happens to come from. In fact, these extremists represent two sides of the same perverse coin; intellectually and spiritually straight-jacketed nut jobs whose whole mission in life is making sure nobody has any personal freedom, privacy or fun.  (The only difference is that speakers on the left largely tend to eschew religious imagery or scriptural references.) Few people notice this lack of dichotomy because everybody is so shrill in expressing their opinions, so full of hate and fear of the other side that they become exactly like what they hate and fear. Ultimately, the so-called “anti-porn left” is just as stultifyingly dogmatic and doctrinaire as the flat-earth chauvinist reactionaries they so claim to despise.  

The irony of it all is that a large chunk of the business world depends on this sort of erotic cognitive dissonance to sell its products. If sex is more exciting because it’s forbidden, then associate products with sex and they automatically become exciting. The daily commute takes on the thrill of a hum-job from a super model if you’ve got the right car. Buy this or that brand of disposable razor and gorgeous scantily-clad women suddenly come out of the woodwork all turned on at the prospect of stroking your nice smooth chin.

But it’s not just mainstream Madison Avenue that thrives on taboo. The truly low-down sleazy degrading type of pornography (the very antithesis of genuine erotica) would not and could not exist in a society that was open and honest about sex. If people suddenly all grew up and felt comfortable about it—not just doing it, but talking about it—that kind of pornography would disappear overnight. There’d be no need to go underground, no need to talk about sex in these hushed breathless tones as if it were some kind of embarrassing secret or dirty little joke, no need for the nudge-nudge-wink-wink bullshit that keeps so many bad writers employed.

I dream of a society and a world where we have all evolved past these petty hang-ups and deep-down feelings of guilt. (Shucks! I dream of a society where we’ve all evolved beyond religion and money as well!) Once we are truly grownup, can accept all modes of love and sexual expression, can stop criticizing others for the way they live and love (whether that be hetero, gay, lesbian, bi-, pan-, omni-, a-, kinky, vanilla, or anything else), stop trying to impose our own narrow views on the rest of society either through legislation or doctrinal fiat, then we will have evolved into a society that can effectively deal with the real problems in this world.

The point I was hoping to make when I started working on this meandering mess of an essay is that we who choose to write about sex are often acutely aware of whom our audience is not. We usually have an extremely clear idea of who isn’t supposed to read our stuff, or probably shouldn’t read it, beginning, of course, with minors, but also including the excessively uptight, the narrow-minded, the humor-impaired, the overly-impressionable, the prickly, the prim, the prissy, the priggish, the prudish, the squeamish, the bearish, the Amish, and the criminally insane. This can be a stifling realization, to be painfully cognizant of all the many ways readers might conceivably take offense at what we do.

So the more important question to ask ourselves is, who are we writing for? Do we have a clear picture of our “typical reader”? Do we write for that imaginary fan, careful never to offend? Or, understanding that we cannot please all the people all the time, is it enough to please ourselves and hope that others will be interested as well? But whomever we decide to write for, though it may be inevitable that somebody somewhere takes umbrage at what comes out of our imagination—and hopefully, our hearts—it should never be inevitable that somebody somewhere is bored by what we do. 


  1. Wow. WOW. WOW.

    I love you.

    This was such a pleasure to read. So erudite, so contextualized, so true and yet, here I am reading this and you're preaching to the converted.

    How do we confront society with its own hypocrisy? That is the more challenging question. Difficult, at least in part, I think, because of the many and powerful interests in the world that depend on the very cognitive dissonance you have mentioned, for their livelihood.

  2. Thank you so much, RG. (I love you, too, by the way.)

    Yes, "how do we confront society with its own hypocrisy" is the more challenging question. Though it is not possible to change things over night--though it sometimes feels as if we were roaring into the wind--I think the simplest, most immediate answer is to keep writing, honestly and truly and bravely, with resolve to stand up and defend what we do in spite of the consequences. Perhaps, in time, if enough people rise up and declare "I have done nothing wrong. I am proud of my work!" we may see the beginnings of a movement for change.

    Thanks again for your kind words. I think you've made my year!



  3. I missed this piece the first time around, but am so glad that I caught it this time. You write such truth—it should be required reading for schoolchildren. My own sister fits many of the adjectives used, starting with prim, priggish, prudish, that I sometimes wonder if one of us was adopted. For the sake of family unity I have kept quiet about my writing career—yet I am annoyed with myself for being so cowardly. I did 'come out' to a group of friends, whom I have known all my adult life, and was met with a range of emotion that went from embarrassment to "Don't you think what you do is shameful!" Only one friend has bothered to look at my website. It does not bother me. I don't seek other's approval that desperately—but it would be nice if the occasional praise, or even interest, came my way.

    Keep writing your wonderful stories and blogs and, hopefully, within our lifetime we will be able to be 'out' and 'proud' about our writings on human sexuality. Thank you for this piece.

  4. Who do I write for? I write for me...which means I never have to mince words or use euphamisms or delete content or pull back on my vision of how to tell a story. If no one else reads it, their loss. If they are offended, too bad. I happily own every word, every uncomfortable scene, every inch of flesh laid out on the page.

  5. Great essay. Right on target and beautifully said. A pleasure to read and I couldn't agree more.