Monday, September 19, 2005


Those who confuse convention with cliche or those who basically believe that romance writers are clones with an IQ below that of the average geranium might become educated and broadened a bit by reading a long discussion over at Smart Bitches.
In case I didn't make the link right, it's a post "Talking about the R word" - a discussion of the treatment of rape and forced seduction in the genre with cogent, articulate, often brilliant, perceptions in depth.
There were over 200 comments last I looked, dealing with everything from archetypal patterns (Zeus et al) to rape as a societal reflection of shifting power roles to the place of pheronomes - and that doesn't begin to do the discussion justice.
Discussion made me remember an archived comment I read somewhere else concerning the commentator's distaste for "rescue sex" in fiction. Dreadful alpha male taking advantage of a female after he had rescued her.
Dreadful, dreadful, sick, sick, brutal chauvinist lust. Disgusting people to write about it. They must be sick.
First, I thought there's nothing like reflecting and reinforcing the stereotype of females as helpless victims, prey to the maurauding male is there, huh, huh? - directed at the commentator, not the writer. Who may have had a few clues.
Then I thought, you don't much about sex, do you?
And then I thought, that unlike my monogamist self, the commentator probably knew much more about sex than I did - but what she didn't know anything about was danger.
Real, sustained, physical danger and its effect on the human libido. Females as well as males.
To her, unconsciously, sex always occurs in a safe environment. Le back seat or the boss notwithstanding. I doubt she knows any women warriors.
She apparently could not comprehend that sometimes sex is defiance, an overpowering urge to defy death, death dearly and nearly evaded, to assert life in its most primitive biological form, and - gasp - women can react that way too.


Angela James said...

Hi Bernita, thanks for commenting on my blog on PBW. I agree!

I didn't read all the comments on SB. By the time I saw that post, there were over 200 and I couldn't sit and read them. I did skim them and I wish I would have joined in the conversation earlier.

What you've written here is interesting and I agree, there are different reasons for having sex and enjoying different 'moments' so to speak.

I hope you'll come back and visit me again!

Bernita said...

I certainly will.
I liked your style.

Robyn said...

My favorite point in that discussion was that in fiction you can safely explore all the different facets of sexuality, from forced seduction to rescue sex. Speaking as someone who was molested by a teacher as a child, it's a very complicated subject.

Muse said...

I haven't read the discussion on the other blog (and this may have come up there, too), but there's always Margaret Atwood's, "Rape Fantasies", a story from the Dancing Girls collection (McClelland and Stewart, 1977). A group of women sitting around talk about their rape fantasies. The protagonist points out that they are missing the point: " ... you aren't getting raped, it's just some guy you haven't met formally." She describes a series of her own 'rape fantasies', in which the perpetrator is invariably inept, leaving her, in the end, disappointed.

Here's one:

""All right, let me tell you one," I said. "I'm walking down this dark street at night and this fellow comes up and grabs my arm. Now it so happens that I have a plastic lemon in my purse, you know how it always says you should carry a plastic lemon in your purse? I don't really do it, I tried it once but the damned thing leaked all over my chequebook, but in this fantasy I have one and I say to him, "You're intending to rape me, right?" And he nods, so I open my purse to get the plastic lemon, and I can't find it! My purse is full of all this junk, Kleenex and cigarettes and my change purse and my lipstick and my driver's licence, you know the kind of stuff; so I ask him to hold out his hands, like this, and I pile all this junk into them and down at the bottom there's the plastic lemon, and I can't get the top off. SO I hand it to him and he's very obliging, he twists the top off. SO I hand it to him and he's very obliging, he twists the top off and hands it back to me, and I squirt him in the eye.""

The story closes with this private musing: "... I think it would be better if you could get a conversation going. Like, how could a fellow do that to a person he's just had a long conversation with, once you let them know you're human, you have a life too, I don't see how they could go ahead with it, right? I mean, I know it happens but I just don't understand it, that's the part I really don't understand."

Which brings us back to Bernita's point that the commentator might know a lot about sex, but almost nothing about danger. The protagonist in Atwood's story is similarly confused, finding her own rape fantasies ultimately tepid and unsatisfying and not really understanding why. In part, it's because she can imagine the setting but relatively little of the plot: she can't get past her need to issue stage directions.

And sex is not about stage directions. It's not about posing so that your hair spills invitingly across your breasts (simultaneously concealing and inviting). It's not about superstructures of leather and lace worn to be pulled off in acts of taking or tease. It's not about 'power exchange', that clinical term favoured by those looking to be or beat a willing corpse. It's not about 'tops' and 'bottoms'. That's all a tepid act, and one reason literary and performative sex is almost invariably self-parodying.

A good sex scene (not to mention good sex) should acknowledge that sex is a visceral assertion - as Bernita says, against mortality, against enemies -- but also toward them in a collision of contradictions made manifest in the moment. By exposing these contradictions, sex is also against the kinds of orderly or hackneyed stage directions the mind dreams up in efforts to deny or bury the body.

And rape fantasies? Although they leak out of the pages of so many torridly titled bodice rippers, they aren't about sex any more than rape is. Rape fantasies are a socially acceptable way of rationalizing and repressing the viscera, of perpetuating the stereotype Bernita rightly objects to, that women lack viscera, that sex means being penetrated by others whose purpose is to enact urges we don't ourselves possess. How trite, and how tiring the stage directions become.

Bring on the women warriors, the ones cognisant of their own sexuality and its contradictions.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Muse, you certainly added dimensions to my simple thesis that mutual danger can lead to honest, mutual sex.
I think Atwood was mentioned in that discussion, too.

Sela Carsen said...

Wow Muse! That's some very thoughtful material. Thanks for your insight.

Bernita, I figured I had to comment because I have just left my characters in a "thank God the danger's gone" clinch. It's an adrenaline rush and a grasp at reclaiming their lives. And I don't begin to understand why a woman wouldn't be as affected by that as a man.

Bernita said...

...because, in fact, they do.
Good for you.

Muse said...

I'd like to add to my earlier comment about rape fantasies. I hope the sarcasm was evident in my depiction of rape fantasies as a "socially acceptable" way of rationalizing female desire. By this I meant to convey that describing sexual fantasies as "rape fantasies" is a misnomer, a subterfuge invented to make women's sexual narratives conform to the social norm that women do not ourselves possess the visceral (and animal) sexual identies men are admitted to have).
In my view they aren't rape fantasies at all, but rather a denial (by some women) of women's sexual desire, a re-writing of the view once espoused by some radical feminists that all sex is equivalent to rape. In other words, criminalizing male sexual desire (in literature and in life) is preferable to admitting our own.

I am going to challenge the claim (including the one made by venerable sexual fantasy collector and Jungian writer Nancy Friday -- dated but probably a good source for the romance writer) that women have rape fantasies at all. While women may fantasize about strong (or supplicant) males and various forms of power exchange, these are not fantasies about rape. They are half-admitted-and-half-buried narratives of female sexual desire, in which women are not yet quite able to take possession of our own desire and visceral power.

It's interesting how ambivalent western culture is about female sexuality. For almost every image of women depicted as wilting flowers, there's a drawing of a vagina with teeth. Given that most of these surviving portrayals have historically been produced mainly by men, I'd like to see some more ownership by women writers of female sexual identity, including all its contradictions. One half-decent beginning (a beginning only) is Lynn Crosbie's edited anthology The Girl Wants To: WOmens Representations of Sex and the Body (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1993).

Bernita said...

Thank you, Muse.
Your comments and those from the original discussion would make a terrific essay collection.

ScaramoucheX said... least, the absolution of personal responsibility in the sex act, through compulsion...a release from the burden society has placed on the woman's shoulders, of being arbiter of sexual congress, whose permission is needed by the man for his sexual gratification...payback for that grotesquely chauvinistic instrument of the patriarchy, 'marriage'...