sexual abuse

The Trouble with the Age Thing

In this era of #MeToo, the list of powerful men who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse keeps unrolling like a scroll of the damned held by a demon in a horror movie. A few of them have lost jobs and have faced legal charges. Many haven’t. Jeffrey Epstein managed to dodge serious consequences several years ago, but now it seems as if his time is up.

Then there is the revolving door in which R. Kelly keeps getting arrested, but which hasn’t yet ended his career in the music biz.

Surely it’s a good thing that individual men are being “outed” as sexual predators. It’s a better thing if “rape culture” itself is now under scrutiny, and if sex education in schools now includes discussions about the need for common-sense respect, as well as consent before sex can take place.

Basic respect for other human beings would preclude the kind of casual groping (an arm around a shoulder or a waist, a pat on the bum, ruffling of the hair) that men routinely practiced on “girls” when I was in my teens and twenties (1960s and 70s), even in very public places. “Girls” who tried to free themselves from a man’s hands were usually told they were overreacting, or misinterpreting the man’s intentions. “Girls” who didn’t complain were likely to get bad reputations, which were as easy to acquire as black fingertips from carbon paper inserted into typewriters to make copies.

One well-established way to deflect criticism of sexual abuse is to claim that some very specific group of men is responsible, and they are always different from oneself.

To give examples, men in the U.S. who are caught causing sexual harm to girls or women are often labelled as either Democrats or Republications, right-wing dinosaurs or left-wing radicals. (“You can’t trust those people.”) Men of African descent, like Clarence Thomas in the 1990s, are either defined in racist terms as horny gorillas, or they are defended on grounds that everyone they victimized must be racist and paranoid, including women of their own race. Jewish male predators can be attacked and defended in similar terms. Any Muslim man caught abusing women these days would definitely be defined by his religion.

In the late nineteenth century, especially on the west coast of both the U.S. and Canada, immigrant Chinese men were suspected of having sinister plans for white women, which involved the illegal trading of opium and female flesh. White, English-speaking, native-born men could consider themselves innocent by contrast.

By this time, it should be clear that rape culture exists wherever male dominance is upheld, and this includes most cultures on earth. Male dominion over the earth and everything in it, including  female humans, is explicitly defended by “holy books” as interpreted by the leadership of three related major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Anti-racists can usually see the logic of a non-partisan approach to sexual abuse. However, many of the morally righteous make a big distinction between adult victims and “children,” which includes anyone under the legal age of consent in a particular jurisdiction.

I would like to propose a radical revision to certain current clichés. In real life, it’s not necessary to decide whether someone is “still a child” or a mature, independent adult who thinks rationally all the time. (By this standard, adults might not exist at all.)

Growing up is a process, as every parent on earth has observed. A two-year-old is much more capable than a newborn baby.  Children who have reached “school age” are presumed to have the intelligence to learn basic literacy in their own language, as well as basic math skills, basic table manners, and basic politeness. Girls usually go through puberty at age thirteen, more or less, when their bodies change shape and they begin having menstrual periods. Boys go through growth spurts that last longer (e.g. my two stepsons eventually outgrew the suits and shoes they wore to their high-school graduations), but teenage boys are visibly and audibly different from children.

The ages when young people are legally allowed to drive cars, drink, get married, and sign other contracts are always arbitrary and up for debate. Is a sixteen-year-old really old enough to have consensual sex? Were you? If not, is eighteen a better age for that? How about twenty-one? Would a forty-year-old virgin be mature enough to handle an intimate relationship if he or she had never dated before? If not, should sex outside of marriage be outlawed altogether, as it still is in some countries? (Then the awkwardness and potential for trauma exists within a binding relationship, for what that’s worth.)

Donna George Storey has posted some fascinating historical material on this site, including the development of the legal concept of “age of consent.” Before the mid-nineteenth century, this concept didn’t really exist. Working-class girls, in particular, were vulnerable to sexual abuse by a wide range of men, from family members to  bosses.  Making it illegal for young people, especially girls, to have sex before they had reached a presumed age of maturity must have seemed like a form of protection when these laws were first passed.

As many of the #metoo stories have made clear, girls under the “age of consent” are still vulnerable, and so are boys. Adult men who are charged with sexually abusing the young usually have appallingly long track records when they are finally held responsible. If age of consent laws are meant to protect the young from exploitation, these laws aren’t working.

Confusing predators who go after vulnerable populations with actual pedophiles is a mistake, IMO. A pedophile, strictly speaking, is someone who is sexually aroused by children, and I assume this means little people with fairly androgynous bodies who have not yet reached puberty. Judging from a recent documentary about the late Michael Jackson, I suspect that he was a real pedophile who preferred the intimate company of children to that of adults. Certain priests seem to have the same taste, or sexual orientation.

If all the men on earth were secretly given a truth serum, and then asked to describe their ideal sex partner, how many do you think would confess to fantasizing about four-year-olds, or even eight-year-olds?  My guess is that these men would turn out to be a small fraction of the general male population. “Children” with young, firm breasts and hips are a different case, and so are “children” with deepening voices, biceps, and facial hair.

I’m not recommending that parents of high-school girls should just relax when their daughters are pursued by men in their thirties, forties, and beyond.  These men are clearly not looking for relationships with their peers, and if they are in positions of authority over teenagers, the adults are in a conflict of interest if they try to broaden the relationship to include sex. However, the potential for harm is not ONLY based on the age of the victims.

I’ll admit that the abuse of the young is especially disturbing because it is likely to be an initiating experience, an introduction to sex or to “love.” This doesn’t mean that adults can’t be harassed, abused, or exploited, or that sexual abuse has no effect on non-virgins. In fact, some forms of harm have a cumulative effect.

Predators tend to look for potential victims who are unable to protect themselves, and who are unlikely to be believed if they tell anyone what happened. In male-dominated cultures, women of all ages are more-or-less vulnerable. In racist cultures, women of colour are generally more vulnerable than white women. In class-based cultures, the poor are vulnerable because they aren’t guaranteed to get the physical necessities of life unless they consent to do things that are not in their interests. The sex trade and casual minimum-wage work exist on a spectrum of economic exploitation, and they’re not mutually-exclusive.

I cringe when I hear the words “real” or “really” in any discussion of sexual abuse. In my youth, every guy I met claimed to be completely opposed to “real rape” – as distinct from what? The acceptable use of force against girls who don’t want to be fondled or fucked? A gentle insistence that “girls” of any age really have no right to decide what happens to their own bodies?

Claims that a victim of sexual abuse deserved better because she is “really just a child” give me the same reaction. Every human being deserves better, and until the impunity that goes with power-over is revoked, the system will keep creating victims.

Getting to the Good Parts

by Jean Roberta

The introduction of sex in a work of fiction can feel problematic for several reasons: sex has traditionally been considered “unspeakable,” something that can’t and shouldn’t be described in detail, at least in the social mainstream, and sex is considered an exceptional activity, a form of interaction that is completely different from any other. Of course, sex is different from every other shared activity, but even the most casual hookup is usually preceded by a comment or question (“Looking for a good time, sailor?” “Are you alone?” “Do you come here often?”).

The challenge for an erotic writer is how to get from here to there. Going beyond conversation to the shedding of clothes usually means shedding certain readers as well. Erotic writers know that some readers won’t read writing about sex, even if these readers actually have sex lives, and even if they bring murder mysteries with them to the beach for “light” reading.

Besides all this, there still seems to be an amazing amount of confusion about what is sexually acceptable in the real world. I recently had a conversation with my stepson (age 36, and a veteran of several serious heterosexual relationships) when he agreed to drive me to the home of a fellow-volunteer counsellor on the local sexual assault line so I could pass on the satchel that contains a mobile phone for emergency calls.

Stepson seemed to feel he was under suspicion of various crimes just because he is male. I assured him that I trust him more than I trust most men, having known him since his ninth birthday.

My assurance apparently didn’t ease his discomfort enough. He told me that when he sees an attractive woman, he wants to have sex with her. I wasn’t sure if he was confessing a sin or defending his male nature against a particularly feminist form of prudery. I told him that wanting sex is fine. (He knows I’m an erotic writer, but this fact often seems to slip from his consciousness.) I explained that wrestling a protesting woman to the ground or putting a drug in her drink to knock her out is not fine; in fact, those activities are crimes. He implied that no sane man would do any of those things, but he still seemed troubled.

I was aware that a stepmother-stepson relationship is an awkward context for a conversation about sex that is not intended as foreplay. For all practical purposes, I am one of his parents, but we’re not actually related by blood. I still feel as if someone needs to explain the concept of consent to him as thoroughly as possible, but I doubt if I’m the best person to do that.

I wonder how many other men either feel like criminals because the sight of attractive women excites them, or who feel entitled to do whatever they have to do to overcome most women’s refusal to have immediate (unpaid) sex with strangers—or with men they know too well.

A fellow erotic writer recently suggested to me that none of us are “politically correct,” which apparently means that scenarios about men using force or deception to have sex with women shouldn’t offend any of us. It’s not as if any erotic writer was ever a young woman who needed a job, and didn’t want to be tricked into a sketchy situation involving non-consensual sex and no pay, with the risk of getting killed. And it’s not as if any erotic writer was ever a woman who wanted human status.

As I’ve said here earlier, my fantasies about true sexual freedom (without degradation, contempt, or various forms of punishment) take place in an alternative world because I’ve rarely seen it in this one. I can imagine a culture in which it would be perfectly acceptable for a person to approach another person for sex, and perfectly acceptable to accept or refuse. In the case of rejection, the seeker would just continue looking for a playmate. In the absence of sexual hypocrisy, homophobia, or a sexist double standard, the search probably wouldn’t take long.

In a fantasy novel that I read years ago (sorry I can’t remember the title or the female author), the question “May I offer you anything?” was widely understood to be a proposition, and the answer was often yes. The simple honesty of this form of etiquette appealed to me, and I wished I could visit that imaginary world.

So in the world we live in, as well as in the stories we write, how do we take two or more sympathetic characters from everyday interactions—in which everyone is fully dressed—to sexual ecstasy? A standard guidebook on sexual etiquette would help. More honesty and empathy in the culture at large would help more.

What would help the most would be a general understanding that no one is “out of character” when they are out of their clothes. Au contraire. The butcher, the baker and the cabinet-maker want sex is some form, with someone. So do the doctor, the lawyer, the accountant, your child’s kindergarten teacher, and the bag lady pushing a shopping cart.

I haven’t found a way to segue comfortably from non-sex to sex on the page without feeling as if some part of the narrative doesn’t fit with the rest. As my spouse often says, I want to live on my own planet.

As long as I am stuck on this one, I will be tempted to describe sex (when I do) in a culture that speaks what is still largely unspeakable here.

Ecstasy For All or Hell on Earth

by Jean Roberta

In about 450 BCE (Before the Christian Era), give or take a few years, a jolly Greek playwright named Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata, a comedy about a woman leader who ends the war between Athens and Sparta by persuading all the other married women of Athens to refuse sex with their husbands until they stop fighting. (Meanwhile, Lysistrata’s Spartan counterpart Lampito is doing the same thing on her side.) By the end of the play, all the men are so horny that they agree to a peace settlement, to be followed by a feast and an orgy. And the women are as horny as the men.

The logic of the play is unassailable. If you had to choose between killing “enemies” in a war while risking mutilation and death or enjoying every kind of physical pleasure, which choice would appeal to you more? If you, as a non-warrior, had to deprive yourself of sex temporarily in order to pressure the warriors into a lasting peace, wouldn’t it be worthwhile?

Centuries later, in the 1960s, the protest movement against the American war in Vietnam (re-)invented the slogan “Make love, not war.” This command, as compelling as it seemed, was about as effective as Aristophanes’ play. (In the real world, the war between Athens and Sparta caused massive damage to both sides and ended the “golden age of Greece.”)

In fantasy, any activity that creates sexual pleasure can solve most personal and social problems. Sex is a form of exercise that burns calories, it enables two or more people to transcend their basic human loneliness, at least temporarily, and it increases the participants’ knowledge of themselves and each other. It is earthy and spiritual at the same time. Being desired is good for the self-esteem, and having one’s own desire satisfied is an antidote to negative feelings of all kinds. The hippies of the Counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s proposed orgies and “free love” (sex outside the bounds of formal, committed relationships) as an alternative to materialism, the profit motive and organized violence.

We all know how that revolution turned out.

Ideas for erotic stories are not hard to find. I assume that sex fantasies are part of every person’s stream of consciousness. Utopian fantasies about ideal societies seem closely related to fantasies about satisfying sex. Erotic romance, with an emphasis on an evolving relationship between soulmates who live happily together ever after, seems like a logical component of utopian fantasy.

So why do I often have trouble completing either a work of erotica or of erotic romance in which all the characters get what they want? Because real life messes with my imagination.

In the real world, several decades after the advent of “Second Wave” feminism in the industrialized world (circa 1970), sexual harassment, gang-rape, and forced prostitution are rampant in countries once classified as “Third World,” and there is no evidence that these traditions are disappearing in the “First World.” I am well aware that my currently privileged life (secure job with good income, equal relationship) is an exception to the way most women live.

Lately, when I try to imagine a delightful scene of “ménage,” formerly defined as “group sex,” my mind’s-eye flashes on a scene of gang-rape on a city bus, committed by a group of male buddies who apparently assumed they would get away with forcing increasingly violent forms of penetration on a young woman who clearly didn’t want it, wasn’t ready for it, and hadn’t invited it.

Religious and cultural traditions in which all females are defined as worse than males in every sense obviously have an effect on male-female interaction, but violence against women is only part of the problem. Dread of sexual “perversion” results in homophobic persecution, and while same-gender couples in Europe and North America increasingly have the option of getting legally married, violence against unmarried non-heterosexuals, especially those known to be transgendered, is still widespread.

Deteriorating economic conditions for the majority of the population all over the world seem to intensify existing hierarchies of power. A man who doesn’t think he could be thrown in jail for beating his wife is more likely to take out his frustrations on her when he loses his job. An unemployed racist who blames immigrants (legal and illegal) for his poverty is likely to attack them one way or another.

The Athenians blame the Spartans, and the Spartans hate all things Athenian. The feast has been cancelled, and the orgy has been transformed into a massacre. After the most aggressive humans have killed off all the rest, the ultimate earthquake or tsunami is likely to swallow up the “winners.”

The part of my mind that could be labelled “Leftist Puritan” warns me that thinking about sex when the world is on fire is self-indulgent at best. How can I think about tempting bodies when so many people lack the necessities for healthy survival?

The answer to Leftist Puritan comes from Physical Self. My skin, my sensory organs, my clit, my orifices, my spine, my fingertips all remind me that a desire for touch that leads to orgasm can’t really be separated from the experience of living in a human body. Puritan disapproval tends to separate my consciousness from the body it lives in. If I want to stay in touch with reality, trying to function as an ego floating in space is not the way to do it.

So, when looking for an erotic story idea, I bounce from fantasies that are hard to hang onto because they seem unbelievably good (or childishly naïve) to a joy-killing awareness of human violence and misery. And I’ve been writing long enough to know that reality can never be completely ignored, even when I’m describing a fantasy world. If a feast and an orgy on some distant planet (Pelopponesia would be a good name) are to grab the imaginations of earthlings, they have to be fleshed out in realistic detail.

For the sake of my sanity, I should probably limit my exposure to world news, and other writers should probably do the same. Yet if we want to write honestly about sex, we need to be aware that it is a language that can convey many messages, including some that seem paradoxical (whips and bondage to express fierce love or pride; sexual abuse or sexual rejection to express contempt). Sex is literally used to create life, to enhance life, or to destroy life.

In an earlier post in this blog, Lisabet Sarai claimed that real sex can be as good as our fantasies, and I believe her. I’ve been there too. Yet so much of what passes for reality convinces too many to give up hope. As sex-writers, we’ve taken on the mission of keeping the faith. It’s a challenge.


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