Monthly Archives: October 2017
Did you know that in 1885, the age of consent in the majority of the United States was 10 years old?
This was news to me.
Mind you, nine states–Arkansas, the District of Columbia (I’m from the D.C. area, and it’s a state, okay?), Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia–were more protective of their young. Their age of consent was a geriatric 12. In Delaware, a girl of 7 was old enough to “consent to her own ruin”—as the ladies fighting to raise the age of consent to 18 years of age liked to frame the issue.
Popular mythology decreed that ladies in the Victorian Age ruled over the home and never sullied their pure spirits with public matters. Yet we know that determined women played an important role in the temperance movement, the “civilization” of the West, and the campaign for woman suffrage. By 1920, they also convinced legislators to raise the age of consent to 18 years old in twenty-one states and 16 years old in twenty-six states. Georgia took the prize from Delaware with the lowest age of consent of 14. The ladies did all this in spite of having no power of the vote in the East. (Another lesser know fact: in the West granted female suffrage years before the Nineteenth Amendment gave the vote to all U.S. women in 1920. For example, Wyoming territory gave women the vote in 1869, Utah in 1870, and California in 1911.)
How then did these ladies accomplish this feat in the face of notable male resistance to an increased chance of statutory rape charges and their loss of access to the physical comforts of those agreeable second-grade girls in Delaware?
The answer may surprise you as well.
For in fact, a key weapon in this victorious battle was a novel loaded with illicit sex that was written by a most respectable lady. Helen Hamilton Gardener (nom de plume of Alice Chenoweth, 1853-1925) was a public intellectual, suffragist and staunch opponent of the sexual double standard. Gardener was married, twice, but reportedly had no children. She published learned articles, essays and lectures, but her best-selling works were two novels about “depraved” sex that she wrote to help convince the public of the wisdom of protecting girls from older male predators. Her first novel, Is This Your Son, My Lord?, was published in 1890 and sold over 25,000 copies in the first five months. The book was especially popular with reformers, who sent the novel to legislators and leading citizens in the hope that the poignant narrative would sway them to support raising the age of consent.
Imagine using a work of fiction to influence legislators today. How about sending copies of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy to Congress to help them understand how we can reform sadistic billionaires into caring husbands and fathers through our unconditional love?
Perhaps we should think outside the box in our current time of turmoil?
But back to our topic at hand. I first learned of Gardener’s novel, and the age-of-consent campaign, from Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 by Mary E. Odem. This is Odem’s summary of the novel’s plot:
“A strong condemnation of the double standard and male vice, the novel describes in lurid detail the ruin of an innocent young woman by two outwardly respectable men. One of these men, Mr. Mansfield, a wealthy mill owner and highly regarded member of his church and community, decides that it is time for his seventeen-year-old son, Preston, to become a man by having his first sexual conquest. Looking for a suitable victim, Mr. Mansfield takes Preston to New York City, where they befriend a fifteen-year-old working-class girl named Minnie Kent, who is living with her poor widowed mother. Mr. Mansfield invites the unsuspecting girl for a buggy ride in the park but takes her instead to a rooming house. After locking the door, he coaxes her to yield to his advances. When the frightened Minnie refuses, Mr. Mansfield takes a revolver from his pocket, forces her submission, and threatens to kill her if she breathes a word to anyone. After ravishing the girl himself, Mr. Mansfield then turns her over to his son. As a result of this rape, Minnie bears an illegitimate child and is forced to become a prostitute; Preston and his father return to their comfortable bourgeois home and family. Mr. Mansfield lives a long and prosperous life, but Preston’s fate is not such a happy one. He is tortured by guilt over his cruel treatment of Minnie and eventually commits suicide because his past immorality prevents him from marrying the virtuous girl he loves.” (Odem, p. 17)
Odem manages to make the novel sound humorless, melodramatic and silly. How could such a story be taken seriously? I realized I had to read Is This Your Son, My Lord? and judge for myself the persuasive powers of this best-selling sexual fantasy (all written sex is a form of fantasy, I would argue). I was especially curious to see how Gardener handled the sex scenes for an 1890 audience. That revolver is so Freud-before-Freud. For a writer of historical erotic fiction, reading the novel was a professional duty!
Scrolling through the free Kindle download, I found myself yet again surprised. Is This Your Son, My Lord? was witty, psychologically astute and bold in its portrayal of male hypocrisy. Odem’s summary has a number of belittling inaccuracies, but she is correct that the novel clearly meant to hold middle-class men accountable for their role in non-marital sex, thus creating a single sexual standard where partners of both sexes pay a price for illicit sex.
From the preface to the second edition, I learned that the book received a lot of attention, negative and positive, when it was first published. Some men of good conscience listened. “The Nassau Literary Magazine, conducted by the senior class of Princeton College, in its review of the first edition of this book says: ‘It states plain truths, and teaches a plain lesson. It comes very close to any college boy who has kept his eyes open. When we finish we may say, not ‘Is This Your Son, My Lord,’ but, Is it I?’”
The Princeton undergraduates might well have chuckled in recognition even as they blushed in shame. A good example of the author’s wit comes from a second plot-line in the novel, the story of an aspiring young minister and habitual liar named Fred Harmon, who, immediately after pleading his good character to the father of Maude Stone, the girl he hopes to marry “… asked [a stranger] for the most fashionable gilded house in the city, quite as simply as he inquired his way to the leading church two days later. Fred had no prejudices. He went to both. He believed in sustaining all well-established institutions.”
I find this to be delightfully wry humor from a proper lady of 1890. But enough about rhetoric, what about the lurid sex? In her summary, Odem did fair justice to the rape scene as Gardener portrays it, but she neglected to mention the significant catalyst for the assault on young Minnie Kent. Indeed, the first chapter hits us right in the trousers with a variant on male sexual sin that doubtless resonated with Princeton men. What follows is my summary of the novel, with more attention to the sexual elements.
Young Preston Mansfield falls ill at military school and is brought home to the family doctor, who serves as one of the novel’s narrators.
“It did not take me long to discover the origin of his malady. He had fallen into certain unwholesome practices, — an epidemic of which appeared, from his account, to have broken out in the school, where the young fellows had been too intimately crowded together, — the effects of which were painfully apparent to a practiced eye. These facts, together with the full history of his own case, I got from the boy, by degrees, and then told his father the whole story and what the ultimate outcome might be in both his mental and physical nature, if he were sent back to the school.”
Blame my own lurid imagination, but I couldn’t decide whether Preston had contracted gonorrhea from gay orgies in closely packed bunk beds or had developed anemia from too many circle jerks, as medical experts from the period warned. The doctor settles the matter by assuring the father they can put aside the moral issue and treat him for the physical symptoms of his “languid, unnerved” condition because Preston has “hurt no one but himself.” Okay, then, code for masturbation it is.
“Moral side be hanged! Harmed nobody else! That’s the trouble—the little fool!” declares the father, who we will soon learn, is not at all averse harming others, especially young teenage girls. The novel never discusses why a visit to the local parlor house won’t accomplish the healing same effect, but apparently Father has his standards.
Determined to save his 17-year-old son from masturbation, Mr. Mansfield takes Preston from their home in “the West” to New York City in the company of the doctor-narrator. The good doctor tries to teach the father a lesson by telling him Preston picked up a girl who is now at the hotel with him. The father rushes to the hotel to encourage Preston to take advantage of this gullible hussy, only to discover the veiled young lady is his own daughter who is attending school in the city. The doctor had hoped Mansfield would realize that since he would not want his own daughter so callously used, he shouldn’t inflict this fate on another innocent girl. However, Mansfield, who is indeed president of the school board and a Sunday School teacher back home, is programmed for conquest, not empathy, and thus only becomes more insistent that his son become a real man by having intercourse with a lower-class city girl. The doctor returns home in disgust.
Cut to five years later, when the same doctor encounters Preston by chance in New York. The young man seems hardened by life; he was expelled from Harvard for too much drinking and too little studying. His father is dead—which I wouldn’t exactly call a long and prosperous life, another of Odem’s inaccuracies. The narrative then turns to Preston’s drinking buddy, Fred, the aspiring minister who blithely goes to a brothel immediately after declaring his love for the respectable Maude Stone. Clearly Gardener does not cower from calling out the moral failings of men of her own class, ministers included (in the preface, she defends against the charge of anticlerical sympathies by reminding readers that her father was a minister). Incidentally, in case you were thinking Gardener was totally anti-sex, Maude realizes with the help of her father that it is her upstanding childhood friend Harvey Ball who truly loves her. Her father purposely leaves them alone in the moonlit parlor where they kiss and coo and caress at some length. Gardener makes it clear she is not opposed to sensual intimacy in the proper circumstances.
We then pick up the Mansfield plot, a less fortunate narrative. The troubled Preston confesses to the doctor that after he left them in New York, his father, whom he now refers to as “lie,” finds his son a boarding house where young Minnie Kent lives with her widowed mother. A natural affection develops between Preston and the sweet-natured (but “n’t very bright” as he describes her) Minnie. His father takes them buggy riding, then stops on a side street outside a large circular building, saying he has business there. Mansfield takes Minnie with him claiming he doesn’t trust Preston with her because they are sweet on each other, thus accusing the boy of his own intended crime. Father comes back alone and tells Preston to go back to the boarding house, with the excuse that Minnie twisted her ankle and is being examined by a doctor. When Mansfield brings the tear-stained girl home, she faints and Mansfield carries her upstairs and quiets her with “some powders and a little champagne,” the date rape drugs of 1890.
Later Mansfield takes Minnie and Preston back to the house of assignation and, after he violates her again, locks them in the room together. To Preston’s horror, Minnie reveals the depths of his father’s bestial betrayal. Thus, the reader learns of the dramatic defloration fourth-hand, protecting us from the full visual impact of brandished revolvers and naked male members. In an era when obscene material was highly regulated, Gardener had to rely on readers’ imaginations to fill in the blanks. More importantly, Odem’s overview sounds like Preston gleefully raped Minnie, but he is actually a far more sympathetic character. This is how he went astray in his own words:
“Here is where my own devilment comes in. While I sat there with that girl in my arms, trying to comfort her, calling down the wrath of heaven on his head, the devil got the best of me. We were locked up there for hours together, and in promising to avenge her, in swearing to take her part against him, in the helplessness of our youth and ignorance, clinging to each other for mutual comfort, I added my infamy to his, and the girl was doubly damned, before we realized that sympathy could lead to crime!”
Preston gallantly offers to marry Minnie, but Gardener gives the poor girl a most powerful line: “You cannot give what you do not possess yourself. You cannot make me respectable.”
Ouch. Poor Minnie might be a little brighter than you thought, eh, Preston?
These five years later Preston is in love with a nice girl of his own class, Nellie, but is haunted by his own irreparable past. The doctor urges him to confess all to Nellie, but Preston doubts she’ll believe his father was so terrible and regrets the fiend is no longer alive to confess the sin himself. His cry of disgust seems aimed at a wider audience of men than the sympathetic physician:
“Well, a woman has to trust wholly to a man’s honor in marriage, and men think it is smart to deceive them. They have no sense of shame about it. Look at my mother! Father would have murdered her if she had done half what he did. He demanded all of her life to be true to him, and he gave her, in exchange, a miserable, beggarly, warped corner of a deceitful, underhanded, unclean nature in exchange for it. And he thought it was good enough for her. He had no sense of shame about it. What did he give her in exchange for her honor and loyalty? Dishonor. What did he give her for her truth? Lies. What did he take home to her every day of his life? A mere shred of his nature, patched up and stuffed out and dressed to look real, and he depended entirely on her not finding it out — on her strong faith in him to carry him through. He traded on her tenderest emotions and then pretended to love and respect her! Bah! That kind of love and respect wouldn’t go down with him. Why should it with her?”
Note that Gardener gives the young man the empathy to understand the situation of the angels in the house. By putting her argument in his mouth, she extends hope that men do have the power to understand the effects of their actions on their mothers, sisters and wives.
Now onward to the dramatic conclusion of our tale. Preston asks the doctor to give him drugs so he can commit suicide. The doctor says he’ll think about it but actually plans to convince Preston to tell his girlfriend the truth. Alas for the wisdom of an honest confession, Preston bursts into their next meeting holding the lifeless body of his heart’s love in his arms. Nellie died jumping from their carriage in horror when he told her about his shameful past. Two hours later, Preston kills himself. “Dead by his own hand. Or stay,— was it by the hand of his father?”
Point taken, Mrs. Gardener! Exploitative sex doesn’t create life—it destroys it. Lustful men beware, the author knew what devilment respectable fathers, brothers and sons were up to out on the town with vulnerable working-class women, and she didn’t like it one bit. Far from silly, I was struck by the author’s eloquent arguments about the consequences of the double standard to family relationships. As a lady she was supposed to look the other way, but instead she spoke out about what she saw, to the extent she was able to given the constraints of the time. Rather than laugh dismissively at her efforts from the comfort of our more “liberated” age, I felt her sense of violation and frustration at this widespread social hypocrisy that still lingers one hundred years later. I’ll admit, though, that I suspected the Mansfield shenanigans were pure melodrama, crafted for the maximum odiousness of her villain. Yet Gardener directly addresses this suspicion in the preface:
“To those who think the picture of sex depravity in the Mansfield family is overdrawn, there is this to say. The case upon which this story was based is from life. The elder of the two is still living and is a respected member of society to-day and a deacon. In the story he is killed off. That is about the only bit of fiction in his case. He made the request of the ‘doctor.’ He afterwards paid a bank cashier to do what he is made to do in the story. The aforenamed cashier is also a prominent “’society’ man to-day.”
I was still thinking the revolver was overly melodramatic until I happened to read the October 2, 2017 New Yorker profile of Gloria Allred, a noted attorney for sexual assault victims including Bill Cosby’s accusers. When Allred was a young divorced mother living in Los Angeles in the 1970s, a local physician asked her out to dinner, claimed he had a few house calls to make first, took her to a hotel, pulled out a gun, and raped her. “She didn’t report the crime to the police, fearing that she wouldn’t be believed.” (Jia Tolentino “Gloria Allred’s Crusade,” New Yorker 10/2/17)
Later the same day, the Harvey Weinstein story broke in the New York Times. Unfortunately, these stories are all too real.
Indeed, as a writer who focuses on the erotic experience, I’m heartened that a lady novelist of yore had the courage to tackle such a taboo subject with her gloves off. She may not have prevented the abusive behavior of many powerful men then or now, but through the power of her storytelling, she actually helped change the age of consent to protect vulnerable girls under new, enlightened laws that respected the innocence of their youth.
Or did she?
Tune in next month for the twists and turns in our story of sexual desire and dastardly deeds in America at the turn of the last century.
The image of the “fallen woman” is reprinted from the cover of Ernest A. Bell, Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls, or the War on the White Slave Trade (1910) via Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 by Mary E. Odem (1995).
In case you might be wondering what I’ve been up to lately, check out this link to the articles I’ve been doing for the great Future Of Sex site. Other things brewing, but writing about the sexuality of tomorrow has been a blast!
Self Or Not?
Before I begin, a bit of disclosure: While the following has been written in an attempt to be professionally and personally non-biased I am an Associate Publisher for Renaissance E Books.
Now, with that out of the way…
So, should you stay with the traditional model of working with a publisher or go the self-publishing route?
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been thinking – a lot — about this. The arguments for stepping out on your own are certainly alluring, to put it mildly: being able to keep every dime you make – instead of being paid a royalty – and having total and complete control of your work being the big two.
But after putting on my thinking cap – ponder, ponder, ponder — I’ve come to a few conclusions that are going to keep me and my work with publishers for quite some time.
As always, take what I’m going to say there with a hefty dose of sodium chloride: what works for me … well, works for me and maybe not you.
Being on both sides of the publishing fence – as a writer, editor, and now publisher (even as a Associate Publisher) — has given me a pretty unique view of the world of not just writing books, working to get them out into the world, but also a pretty good glimpse at the clockwork mechanisms than run the whole shebang.
For example, there’s been a long tradition of writers if not actively hating then loudly grumbling about their publishers. You name it and writers will bitch about it: the covers, the publicity (or lack of), royalties … ad infinitum. Okay, I have to admit more than a few grouches have been mine but with (and I really hate to say this) age has come a change in my perspective. No, I don’t think publishers should be given carte blanch to do with as they please and, absolutely, I think that writers should always have the freedom to speak up if things are not to their liking, but that also doesn’t mean that publisher’s are hand-wringing villains cackling at taking advantage of poor, unfortunate authors.
It took finding a good publisher to change my mind … that and seeing the business from the other side. While there are a lot of things that separate a good publisher from a poor one the most important one is that a good – and maybe even great – publisher understands the business.
Case in point: authors love to bitch about their covers – but a publisher that takes the time to look at what is selling, what isn’t selling, what distributors will and won’t accept, and creates a cover accordingly is actually doing the author a service. Yes, the cover may not be an accurate scene from the book, but it – if it works — should tease and tantalize enough to get people to buy it. By the way, since this is supposed to be about publisher versus self-publishing keep in mind that you would not know what sells and what doesn’t – by the way, the amazon best sellers list is not a good indication – and so will be operating pretty much in the dark.
Authors often work from ego – and there is nothing wrong with that – but far too often what they want, and what will actually sell, are polar opposites. They want to see their work like books they admire … but they also may be completely ignorant of the fact that while those books look nice they simply don’t leap off the shelves.
Being in the trenches of publishing, looking at the numbers myself, is very sobering. Just take social networking. For people in self-publishing it’s the end-all, be-all — you can’t succeed, they say, without it. But while exposure is important, many of your FaceBook friends will not buy your book. The people who will buy your book are looking for erotica they will enjoy – and if your cover, your marketing, your whatever, doesn’t speak their language then they simply won’t cough up the bucks. It’s a sobering though that many bestselling erotica books are written by authors who don’t play the social networking game … at all.
Yes, when you self publish you have complete and total control – but that also means you have no access to a publisher’s experience: you will have to do everything from scratch, from learning how to get your book on amazon, iTunes, etc. to dealing with cover art specs and ebook formatting. Sure, when you self-publish you keep every dime – but you could very well spend it and more in time doing what a publisher does.
And marketing … I totally agree that publishers should do more of it, but publishers have never been good at that, even before the ebook revolution. But even a little publicity from a publisher can work wonders: many authors are discovered not via advertising or marketing but because their book was put out by a publisher whose catalog had a best seller in it.
If you self-publish then you are a single voice yelling as loud as you can – and these days there are a lot of single voices yelling as loud as they can – and against this din a lot of readers, and reviewers, are turning a bit deaf. It may be hard to hear but being with a publisher still carries a lot of weight when it comes to getting noticed.
Sure, if you’re a huge author then going the self-publishing route may make a lot of sense, but think of it this way: huge or not, with a publisher your mailing list, fans, and miscellaneous contacts will not be the only way people will hear about you and your book – and the cost of getting more would probably be the same as the bucks a publisher would take.
In the end, though, the decision is yours. If I could leave you with anything, though, is that while there are many publishers out there worthy of scorn there actually are many that not only know what they are doing – though experience and observation – and who can do a lot for you. Often their advice may be hard to take, but if you trust them they can be a great help – and perhaps the difference between writing a book that doesn’t sell … and one that does.
A: To get a new Point of View
You are in a dungeon. You look around. You see implements of torture on the walls, floggers, thumbscrews, other stuff you don’t even recognise. Except the stains; you have a good idea what those stains might me.
You hear a noise behind you…
Second person POV is definitely an acquired taste. Beloved by RPGers (that’s Role-Playing Gamers, not Rocket Propelled Grenadiers—what the fuck’s wrong with you?) but hated almost universally by everyone else, you probably won’t see any traditionally published Second Person fiction outside of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. (more…)
By Ashley Lister
Each brisk slap
Upon your bare ass
Groaning when you get to seven
The Fibonacci poem is an experimental Western poetry form, having similarities to haiku, but based on the Fibonacci sequence.
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…
A typical Fibonacci poem is six lines in length, although it can be longer.
As I’ve said before, these short, simple forms are an excellent warm-up routine for writers because it works on so many levels. Not only is it a fun activity for the start of the writing day, it’s also a way to prompt different parts of our brains to consider the words we will use. Ordinarily, we don’t limit the lines of what we write to specific syllable counts. This approach can help us consider words in a way that differs from what we consider the norm.
tied and spread.
And yet I still see your broad smile.
As always, I look forward to reading your poetry in the comments box below.