By Donna George Storey
Hard as this might be to believe, in the 1960’s and 1970’s “liberal” was not a dirty word. Today you must be brave even to use the euphemism “progressive,” but there was a time, or so it seemed to my youthful, idealistic self, when many believed that if we recognized the evils of racism, poverty and sexism, our society could quickly come up with solutions and move forward to a just world for all. Of particular relevance to this blog is the Sexual Revolution, which once promised liberation from the rigid morals of the past—which, let’s face it, were chiefly about controlling sexuality with fear and shame to assure a man of his paternal rights.
When I came of age in the late 1970’s, remnants of the bad old ways still lingered—I was often called a slut for the sin of being comfortable discussing and joking about sex, for example–but I was confident my children wouldn’t be troubled by the virgin/whore complex or face obstacles to reproductive self-determination.
As we all know, I was wrong.
Fortunately, I can point to one area of “progress.” Erotica, once discreetly swathed in brown paper wrappers, is now burning up the bestseller charts. It’s even possible for an author to use her own name without being socially ruined (discretion is still advised depending on your job and community standards). Yet Lisabet Sarai has correctly pointed out that the genre’s commercial success has led to homogenization. There are exceptions, but for the most part publishers and readers bring certain expectations to their erotica reading experience—to the detriment of originality, surprise and depth. In that sense, the more the genre has “succeeded,” the more freedom of expression has suffered.
More disturbing is Jean Roberta’s recent discussion of our society’s efforts to silence honest discussion of the sexuality of anyone under eighteen. Public discourse on the topic tends to hysteria, allowing for no nuance or complexity. Suggest a lesbian seventeen-year-old should have access to intelligent, thoughtful information about her sexual orientation and to some minds you’re no different from the founders of the North American Man Boy Love Association. Be but under suspicion for downloading child pornography (which could actually mean a 17-year-old consensually sending a topless photograph she took of herself for her lover’s eyes, although we all immediately imagine the very worst kinds of brutal victimization), and you’re condemned without a trial. It’s an effective way to silence us all with fear just like the old days.
The sexual abuse of a child is a heinous crime, and even speaking of it pains me. I am also horrified by the physical and emotional abuse of helpless children as well as the suffering caused by the refusal to provide medical care and food to impoverished children, although that far more common misuse of adult power seems to elicit little concern among lawmakers. I’m also deeply saddened by an environment where a natural human instinct cannot be discussed in any way that would suggest enjoyment or any positive outcome other than pregnancy. Far too many people feel shame about their sexualty because of ignorance, and thus are vulnerable throughout their lives in a childlike way to those who would exploit that shame (to the profit of capitalism mainly).
Jean’s column reminded me of a book I read recently by Judith Levine, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. The first section is all about why the author had such trouble publishing the book. And this is 2002 when the tolerance and enlightenment that first blossomed in the 1960’s ideally should have been fully incorporated into our national consciousness. Alas, the Big Five publishers might cautiously publish a book by a Ph.D. on sexual dysfunction or the dangers of the hook-up scene, but a suggestion that sex education for those under 18 should mention pleasure was too incendiary for the printed page. It was eventually published by a university press.
Such is progress in our time.
Erotica writers explore the pleasures of sex in their writing—that is in fact why and how our work is categorized as erotica. Characters must bizarrely exist without a sexual thought or feeling until their eighteenth birthday, but I have personally found enough to fascinate me in the erotic lives of happily married middle-aged couples, a relatively new territory of outrageous sexual expression that has yet to be made illegal. Yet Jean’s column got me thinking that in writing (the world of imagination) as well as law (the world of real actions), the rules designed to protect the innocent are arbitrarily applied.
For example, although the TV adaption underplays the ages of the protagonists as written in the books, the wildly popular Game of Thrones is bursting with sexually active teenagers and incestuous relationships of various kinds. Why do they get away with it without any of their millions of viewers protesting or engaging in copycat behavior? Is it only because the sinners suffer imprisonment, death, thoroughly evil spawn or miserable, miserly lives so that “pleasure” is clearly married with punishment? Or think back to Risky Business, Tom Cruise’s breakthrough movie, about a highschooler who earns money by running a brothel in his house while his parents are away. Skinny boys obviously in their early teens are shown cashing in savings bonds to take advantage of the new local business. Shouldn’t this horrible and dangerous endorsement of perverted entrepreneurship be pulled from the market as harmful to our morals? Yet somehow it has eluded the eyes of the censors.
Sometimes I fear we’re moving backwards or at best sideways.
Yet perhaps I am being too impatient. The pace of modern life accelerates, but revolutions always take time to root and flower. The rise of the middle class took centuries—let’s hope its reported fall is equally leisurely. Why shouldn’t a more enlighted view of sexuality be allowed a lifetime or two to stick? There are some promising signs that the progressive spirit need not despair. An African-American is president. Gay marriage is gaining mainstream approval, most promisingly among the young. A respectable married woman like E.L. James uses a pseudonym, but nonetheless appears in public to be celebrated for her provocative story. The forces of profound change provoke reaction, but democracy is slowly gaining ground throughout the world and in new, more subtle ways like self-publishing.
Okay, I’m feeling a wee bit better now.
Twenty-first century society is not as liberal as I imagined it would be 40 years ago, but I have to admit, we’re better off now in important ways. So I’ll do what I’ve always done–keep writing erotica, calling myself a progressive and doing whatever I can to make liberation a reality.
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com