~ The Erotic Writer’s Dilemma ~
I remember reading the essay of an African American woman filming bondage. Given the history of race in America, she considered not doing the scene; but her answer was to do it and by doing it declare ownership of her sexuality, of bondage – its symbolism – and ultimately the freedom to express herself.
1 out of every 6 women, according to the Rape Crisis Center, will be raped or the victim of attempted rape. Women are kidnapped, held against their will, and raped by their captors for years on end. But what prompted this post was Daesh’s [the al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria] release of a pamphlet detailing what’s considered permissible (admittedly Quran-approved) treatment of female sex slaves — women and pre-pubescent girls.
Daesh’s treatment of girls and women is horrific.
How can an author write about “slavegirls”, sex slaves, non-consensual sex, or bondage of any kind, given the reality of rape and sexual slavery? Is writing about non-consensual sex an endorsement of rape? Is the fantasy of the master and slavegirl an endorsement of forced sex, prostitution, and sexual exploitation?
If authors are to continue writing erotica, shouldn’t these questions be confronted?
My own answer, first and foremost, is that good erotica, like good writing in any genre, is an art form. And just as in any artistic genre, there are good, bad and great artists. The objection may be made that extremely offensive work is too often excused as “art”, but my answer would be that just because someone claims their work is art doesn’t make it good art. In other words, the question shouldn’t be whether someone’s claims to producing art are valid, but whether their art is good or bad.
The latter question is still a subjective one, but a better and more productive one. There’s lots of pedophilia-themed erotica on the web, for example, and calling it art doesn’t therefore make it immune from criticism or excuse the author. The accusation that some erotica does endorse pedophilia or rape might, in fact, be a fair one. How is it written? Are the aims solely prurient or does the pedophilia serve a more expansive vision? Is it a three page description of sex with a nine year old by Anonymous, or is it Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita?
Second, my answer would be that the best erotica is symbolic, metaphoric, and archetypal. Erotica is, by in large (if not wholly), about imaginary events. When we read about non-consensual sex (as opposed to the not-consensual sex of rape), we imagine ourselves not just as the dominant character, but also as the submissive. For some, that is, the genre of non-consensual sex symbolizes (or serves as a metaphor for) our desire to express our sexual thirst and aggressiveness without fear of rejection, harm, or judgment. For others, conversely, the genre expresses our desire to be freed from responsibility. We give ourselves wholly over to another’s sexual desire for us without risk of rejection, harm, or judgment. We have no responsibility but to be available. Stories of non-consensual sex allow us to experience these desires and emotions in the context of literature. They are, in the Aristotelian sense perhaps, cathartic. We don’t enjoy Shakespeare’s Richard III because we want to be sociopathic killers and sexual predators, but because he, and all the other characters, serve as cathartic archetypes through which we can safely explore and understand our humanity. Erotica, at its best, serves the same function. It is a place where we can safely explore and understand our human sexuality. A story in which we explore our sexuality in the guise of the master and the “slavegirl” has as little to do with Daesh as Daesh with Yeats’s Leda and the Swan or all the many paintings portraying the mythological rape. Daesh, after all, would destroy any such paintings and would surely condemn both author and painter to death.
Lastly, the analogy of the opening paragraph may be a fraught one, but erotica has always been the final test of free speech and freedom of expression. In a sense, ceding erotica to its critics (who have from time to time argued that erotica endorses pedophilia, sexual abuse, predation, and rape) is tantamount to ceding ownership of our sexuality to the sociopathy and psychopathology of a few. There is no contradiction in the erotic author’s condemnation of pedophilia, sexual abuse, predation and rape even as he or she explores these facets of human sexuality in his or her own writing.
Shakespeare didn’t endorse murder when he created Macbeth. Steven King didn’t condone psychopathy when he wrote The Shining. Michelangelo didn’t endorse rape, let alone Zoophilia, when he portrayed Leda and the Swan. Nabokov didn’t condone pedophilia when he wrote Lolita. To suggest the same, ipso facto, is to fundamentally misunderstand art and literature and the reason we read and write. The assertion, in fact, allies the critic with the iconoclastic and book-burning fundamentalist.
William Crimson • December 15 2014