by | March 26, 2013 | General | 13 comments

by Jean Roberta

Everyone who writes erotica and posts it in semi-public space, such as the ERWA lists, knows the basic rules: no non-consensual sex presented for arousal, and no sex of any kind involving characters under the age of consent in their jurisdiction. In North America, this is generally understood to be eighteen, the current legal age of adulthood. And “underage” sex in a story can include masturbation by a horny teenager who is clearly not being coerced or manipulated by anyone else.

Did your earliest sexual feelings take you by surprise long after you had reached puberty, had your first drink, learned to drive, developed crushes on a few other people, and voted for the first time? I thought not. The years between twelve or thirteen, when physical transformations change a child into a youth who looks more-or-less adult, and eighteen, when one’s adult status is recognized by the rest of the world, are full of new experiences. Whether or not these experiences include a technical loss of virginity, they are likely to include coming to terms with itches and urges that can feel like demonic temptation, especially if one has been taught (as I was) that “nice girls” never have them, and “nice boys” don’t act on them.

In today’s cultural climate, there seems to be an enormous gulf between the general parental belief that teenagers can be persuaded to abstain from sex because it isn’t good for them and the teenage tribal pressure to “hook up.” Regardless of how an individual responds to that pressure, it’s hard to imagine how a teenager today could be as sexually ignorant as my grandmother (born before 1900) was said to be on her wedding night. Even the kids who aren’t doing it are thinking about it. This was largely true fifty years ago, when the “Baby Boom” kids, born just after the Second World War, reached adolescence. Our parents were usually vague about why they didn’t want us to listen to rock-and-roll, but we knew.

What everyone knows is still what no one can afford to say out loud. I am well aware that young people with little knowledge or experience of sex, and no legal rights, are more vulnerable to abuse than are their elders. This is why the legal concept of “statutory rape” (sex committed by an adult with someone not old enough to give meaningful consent) makes sense. But there is a huge difference between not wanting a younger generation to be hurt (if that can be prevented) and pretending that completely banning all descriptions of their sexuality can make it go away.

Two recent events illustrate the problem with the current prohibition on “kiddie porn.” A respected colleague of mine in the university where I teach was charged with downloading child porn on his computer at work. This case hit the local media in January, and the newspaper article claimed that someone in the university had reported him to the police. Since then, Colleague seems to have disappeared without a trace. No one I’ve spoken to knows any details – or if they do, they’re not telling. He was supposed to be tried in February, but no outcome has been reported.

This case makes my head swim and my heart ache. Considering that literary scholars have an interest in the early lives of the writers they study, and considering that Colleague has studied such diverse topics as the novels of Benjamin Disraeli (British Prime Minister under Queen Victoria, the first from a Jewish family), the stories of Oscar Wilde and the history of the detective novel, I wonder what “child porn” actually means in this case. I’ve been acquainted with Colleague for years; we’ve worked together on the organizing committee for gay/lesbian/bi/trans/genderqueer Pride Week and we’ve discussed strategies for teaching grammar to first-year students. He never seemed like a predator to me. Who reported him for what? And for what purpose?

In February, about a month after my colleague’s arrest, a conservative professor of political science at the University of Calgary gave a talk at another university which was recorded on a cellphone, then posted on Youtube. Tom Flanagan, the professor, was recorded saying:

“I certainly have no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures.”*

Within a week, Tom Flanagan was notorious for supporting “child porn.” All the Canadian institutions with which he had been associated have uninvited him, cancelled agreements and generally distanced themselves from him.

I never thought I would agree with a conservative on anything, but I can’t help recognizing some common sense in Professor Flanagan’s statement. “Pictures” can include cartoon images or even suggestive drawings of young bodies. They can include sepia-toned photos of naked children taken in the nineteenth century by the likes of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, which were regarded as sentimental images of Innocence personified by a Victorian audience, but which look creepy to suspicious viewers now.

I don’t know if the material that attracted my colleague’s interest showed the actual abuse of an actual person. That question seems crucial to me, and as long as I don’t know, I can’t have a clear opinion on the case.

So far, both my colleague and Professor Flanagan have been stigmatized and ostracized; this is what I know beyond a doubt. I don’t know if any actual child or youth was harmed by either of these men. As academics, they both had the ability to influence a vast number of young adults, mostly over the age of majority. And university students have an obligation to evaluate what they hear, based on its merits.

As a university English instructor and an erotic writer, I can’t pretend I’m not nervous. Literature, even the stuff not labelled “erotic,” shows a spectrum of human behaviour, including some that my students’ parents might not approve of. I don’t mention my own work in class, but some of my former students have discovered it. So far, my academic supervisors have been incredibly supportive of everything I do. I hope their support never wavers.

In the current social climate, I would hesitate to write or post any expression of underage sexuality, including my own quirky fantasies and drawings from many years ago.

Braver souls than I have posted well-written, thoughtful work in the ERWA lists that seem to feature underage characters – but their ages are never clear and in some cases, they discover their sexuality in some other era or some other world than ours. It`s always tempting for erotic writers to sift through our own fantasies and experiences for ideas, and to consider the first spring buds of our current sexual identities. Writing about early lust shouldn`t be so dangerous.

There have been moral panics in the past about the supposed dangers of homosexuality or any sexual activity that becomes known to anyone besides the participants. Panic tends to obscure details and shut down debate.

In the case of the two profs accused of being defenders and consumers of “kiddie porn,” I really hope that cooler heads will eventually prevail and that the whole truth will come out. Enforced silence has never supported justice. Or creativity.

*For more information, see: http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/tom-flanagan-says-he-was-trapped-into-child-porn-comments-1.1180824#ixzz2OQWe6Yqo

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica (http://excessica.com). Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, www.eroticanthology.com. Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links: www.JeanRoberta.com http://eroticaforall.co.uk/category/author-profiles


  1. Rachel Green

    Well done for pointing this out. I suppose I could be accused of the same because I have books (yes, real books) full of pictures of naked children. The pictures are by Rembrandt, Carravagio, Botticelli et al and I was first introduced to them as a minor by *gasp* a teacher.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    Ah, Jean!

    Your post highlights the more scary side of one of my biggest complaints about the current world of erotica.

    Some of the most erotic experiences in my life happened when I was a teenager. There's nothing comparable to the mix of intense desire and utter confusion that characterizes the post-pubescent but pre-adult years. I'd dearly love to write stories that capture those emotions. Furthermore, I believe that today's teens would benefit from reading about those mad, terrified, shame-filled, exultant days.

    The current prohibition regarding anything that might suggest that young people have a sexual life is illogical and indeed, damaging. You've cited a couple of cases where adults have been damaged, but I believe that young people suffer, too, due to the ridiculous notion that they have no sexual identities. How are they supposed to learn how to deal with sexual feelings if it's forbidden to write or talk about those feelings?

  3. Big Ed Magusson

    I've argued for some time that charging people with possession of child pornography is the wrong approach to the problem. They should be charged as accessories to the crime of rape for failing to turn the evidence of said rape over to the police. Since children cannot consent to nude photos, the borderline cases are covered as well.

    This focuses the crime on the real damage and the real victims. It removes "thought crime" from the criminal process, like it is today.

    And I think it might be effective in encouraging consumers to interact with the police. Right now, if a guy downloads a picture of a little girl getting sodomized, what reason does he have to tell anyone? He's more likely to go to jail for the download than the person who raped the child is. I'm not sure we want to incentivize people to help cover up serious crimes…

  4. Kathleen Bradean

    Jean – It is a mess. Even talking about it, someone will no doubt say we're trying to protect child rapists. For the record, I want all child rapists to go to prison for life. (I suggest the governments of the world tackle the religious organization that openly protects them as a start) There has to be a more logical way to handle this.

  5. Anonymous

    The gulf of time between my first masturbatory experience at 12 and my first sexual encounter at 20 holds a wealth of sexual experience that I would be hesitant to write in a book. Oddly enough, during this time I remember reading at least one mainstream(ish) horror book that went deeply into the sexual awakening of others my own age or younger… in explicit detail. Strange how times change.

  6. Miz Angell

    I once submitted a piece to my editor, using one of my sexual experiences from high school. It was written as fiction, but based in fact, and yet, even through the two characters were BOTH under the age of eighteen, I was asked to change it. I did, but it was awkward as I needed to explain why I was still in high school after the age of 18. So many sexual awakenings happened to me between the ages of 12 and 18, but they can't ever see the light of day (in public anyway).

  7. Fiona McGier

    AS someone who didn't "lose" my virginity as much as give it away as soon as I could so I could begin to discover what fun sex could be when you weren't doing it alone, I laugh at the idea that teens aren't sexual. I was 17. One of my closest friends was 14. We are both hetero-females, as if that mattered.

    Our culture makes money from sexualizing children…they sell tiny hot pants with words on the butt for elementary aged girls! Then we recoil in shock when teens get pregnant, despite the fact that we didn't allow anyone to explain to them how not to…and we ourselves were too embarrassed or too uncomfortable to discuss such vital matters with our own kids.

    Laurell Hamilton has said that when she goes on book tours in England they tell her she writes too much violence. But when she comes back to the US, we tell her she writes too much sex. I guess the Puritans still rule here.

  8. Jean Roberta

    Dear Readers,

    You are all delightfully sane. Unfortunately, I bet none of you are elected politicians. (I know some of you better than others, so in some cases, I know you aren't.)
    Thank you so much for speaking out here. Big Ed, I'm glad that some actual sexual predators have bragged on-line about abducting & assaulting underage victims, and that's how they've been caught (e.g. the 2 guys in Steubenville, Ohio). It shouldn't be hard to distinguish between assailants & academics (who discuss images) and artists (who produce images/words).

  9. Remittance Girl

    Outstanding post. And a sad reflection on the frightening hypocrisy alive and well in our culture.

  10. A. Silenus

    A timely and poignant observation. Very few of us would condone abuse of minors, but free expression is curtailed in a fundamental way if childhood sexuality can't be addressed through creative writing.
    This column reminds me of a photo of me that my mother took decades ago. I'm about two years old and standing stark naked at a picnic site. She thought I looked very cute, and I'm certain it never occurred to her that the image could be controversial. Sometimes I wonder though what the consequences of having such a photo in my possession might be. Could I be charged with corruption for viewing myself naked? Hopefully the moral climate will become saner.

  11. Jean Roberta

    Remittance Girl! Your priase means a lot to me.

    A. Silenus, I've often wondered the same thing. When I was a teenager, I was embarrassed by my parents' collection of naked baby photos of me. (I was an only child until I started school, & my parents seemed determined to record every moment of my young life.) However, I never thught those photos were sexy and I'm fairly sure my parents didn't either – different times. In my turn, I took a few photos of my own naked baby — but then "child porn" became a general obsession, & I kept those pictures out of sight. (I'm fairly sure some campaigners against "child porn" would consider my secrecy suspicious in itself.) Sigh. I hope for saner times too.

  12. Garceus

    There are definately double standards for the world of literature and erotica. Erotica has strict rules for what is permitted.

    But recently I read a short story by the much respected literary lion Ian McEwan called "Homemade" in which a teenage boy determines to lose his virginity and the story ends by him seducing and having graphicly depicted intercourse with his 10 year sister. Would anyone we know publish this? I doubt it, but its a highly regarded story. i don;t know what to think.


  13. Lady Flo

    As Garge says there is a difference between literature and erotica.
    If you want to talk about child abuse you can write a high-level litterary text.
    But if you write an erotic text in order to excite it is better not include minors.

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