cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

Women/Writing 2: That Classic Combination: Sex and Violence, by cupidsbow

That Classic Combination: Sex and Violence

an essay by cupidsbow

I wasn't planning on the second essay in this series to focus, once again, on Joanna Russ's feminist writing. However, in response to the events of Strikethrough07, there's been a discussion about fanfiction texts which explore the dark sides of sexuality, particularly through the themes of incest, pedophilia and rape. As I've just finished reading an essay by Russ in which she discusses exactly these issues, but with relation to feminist concerns about pornography rather than fanfiction, I thought it worth taking a look at what she has to say, especially as Russ takes a decidedly different approach to that of the binary split fandom has so far tended to take ("responsibility" versus "artistic freedom," to shorthand it).

A summary of the fannish debate

If you have been following the debate, there's no need to read this recap--skip to the next section.

While this current version of the debate about what is acceptable in fanfiction clearly arose from Strikethrough07, it was thatpalebluedot who initiated the discussion with her post on responsible fanfic. The core of her argument is that:
I work with children every day who are the victims of abuse, neglect, and incest, and I wanted to very clearly state what that means. I take what I do very seriously. I don't regard social work as a job, I regard it as a vocation--seriously, folks, for what we get paid, you better believe we're not in it for the money. ;) So I hope you can then understand while I am personally unable to see stories featuring incest, relationships between teachers & students, adults and children, or non-consensual sex, as entertainment.

The people offering counter-arguments have responded in several ways, and I'm greatly simplifying these responses when I shorthand them as "artistic freedom." However, that does seem to be the common factor. Here are some examples I think offer particularly relevant points:
  • realism, fantasy, and why we write what we write by xanphibian

    "One of the things I feel from thatpalebluedot's post is profound confusion. Who is she talking to? Who is she trying to protect? Does she think that the majority of fanfic writers don't actually understand that there are rape and incest victims out there in the real world? [...] [B]ecause of her experience with victims, she seems to have a rather narrow view of the aftermath of rape and sexual abuse. To quote: Understand that the individuals reading your stories may be survivors themselves, and because all survivors are unique, some may have no objection to reading stories about incest--others may feel ashamed and degraded reading something that was a traumatizing experience for them turned into a trivialized erotic fantasy. Which is entirely different from the way I would have put it. I would have 1. mentioned the fact that many of the people writing these stories are survivors and 2. mentioned that those survivors reading your story sometimes actively search out these kinds of stories specifically."

  • Fetishizing the Real by ellen_fremedon

    "thatpalebluedot's essay, with its long explanations of How Things Work in the Real World, also implies that the only way, or at least the best way, to do that [approach material responsibly in fiction] is to show the consequences an action would have if the story took place in the real world.

    It privileges naturalistic psychological realism over other narrative modes. It implies that one cannot be honest, respectful, and responsible in fairy tale, allegory, gothic horror, any non-realistic genre (including, needless to say, erotic fantasy.)"

  • Authorial Responsibility, Consequences and Context by alixtii

    "I think that, in the large, the people who are "for" authorial responsibility [...] are ignoring the differing effects that context can have on what authorial responsibility requires. [...]

    Our defining feature is that we are not passive consumers of texts. We are not going to be affected by a fictional text in the same way as Joe Average. We recognize the possibiliy [sic] of ambiguity of meaning and unreliable narrators, and God knows we know how to read "against the grain" (a grain which is itself, to my mind, socially constructed) to give a text the meaning we want to give it."

(I'm indebted to cathexys for archiving these links in one handy location, and spurring me on to expand ideas I first discussed in the comments there; however her post is f-locked which is why I haven't directed you to her summary.)

"Pornography and the doubleness of sex for women" by Joanna Russ

This essay is available online at Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. Off you go and read it; I'll wait.

As you can see, the central argument of the essay is that because of the way women's sexuality is co-opted under patriarchy, often through violence and silence, women experience a double sexuality, both versions true, but also opposite and in many ways incompatible: the bliss/rape spectrum. I call it a spectrum because each woman's experiences will skew differently, although the doubleness will still be apparent wherever her experience lies on the spectrum.

The opening section of Russ's essay once more left me feeling like I'd been kicked in the head; before reading it, I had always considered myself lucky to have had very few non-consensual sexual encounters.


Rewind: I'm lucky because I've had very few non-consensual sexual encounters???

Oh. My. God. I have had more than one non-consensual sexual encounter! Why the fuck did I think this was in any way lucky?

Once I started thinking about it, once I included my experiences with, as Russ puts it, "Uncle Max" and his ilk, suddenly those non-consensual moments are edging towards double figures. Double figures of sexual harassment, and I had considered myself lucky! How can that be?

It can be, as Russ points out, because I, like her, had felt silenced by everyday harrassment, expected to laugh it off, expected to think that it wasn't really sexual harassment at all. But, goddamn it, yes! I have been touched by people when I had given no signals that I wanted to be touched. I have found myself suddenly kissed (and I'm speaking about sexual kisses, not greeting or parting kisses) with no warning. More than once! To say such a thing seems crazy; how can someone be kissed without warning? There must have been some clue, some hint, some tension... that is what I thought at the time. How did I miss that it was coming? There must have been something wrong with me, to have missed it. In hindsight, of course, this is clearly a nonsense; I was sexually harassed, I just didn't recognise it for what it was.

How extraordinary, though. And how piercing Russ's insight is: even if we have never been raped, never experienced childhood sexual assault, never even had any sexual contact at all (because virginity is sacred, and we aren't allowed to feel that way!), it is still very likely that we have experienced some aspect of the bliss/rape spectrum, without it ever being acknowledged.

This has serious flow-on effects. The example Russ gives is the pornography debate, and her theory explains the differing responses of feminists:
I think this doubleness of experience may explain the bitterness of the fight against pornography (to which I've contributed as much as anyone, I'm afraid) and the phenomenon of the sides being so very horrified by each other because they are perpetually talking past each other. When A attacks violence and B hears her attacking sexual freedom, B will defend sexual freedom — and A will hear her defending violence. You see how it goes, round and round and louder each time, though A doesn't intend to attack sexual freedom per se, and B doesn't mean to defend violence.

Does this sound familiar?

The doubleness of sexual discourse in fanfiction

I would argue that the current fannish debate revolves around the same issue of women's sexual doubleness:
  • on the "responsible" side are people who see the violent aspect of sexuality more strongly (for instance, in the ways that depictions of sexual violence can trigger PTSD responses, or the potential real-world effects of fetishizing sexual misogyny);

  • on the "artistic freedom" side are people who see the sexual empowerment of women more strongly (for instance, in the way fanfiction is so often about discovering joyful sexuality, or how it offers a way of finding/raising/exploring our silenced sexual voices).

And both sides are right! These are both legitimate and real responses to the bliss/rape sexual doubleness experienced by most women.

Once this aspect of the situation is clear, I think non-binary strategies of negotiation open up to us in new ways. For a start, as so many people have pointed out in the responses I've linked to in the first section of this essay, context is especially important when we consider the deployment of sexual violence in fanfiction. This is because fanfiction primarily exists in counterpoint to the mainstream misogyny and (often coded) sexual violence of canon. That is not to say that women can't be just as misogynist (or unaware) as men, or that fans are somehow not a part of mainstream culture; rather I'm suggesting that in this space we've created, we are implicitly and explicitly deconstructing, questioning, re-writing and unsilencing patriarchal constructions of gender and sexuality. It is because fanfiction fandom is a predominantly female space, and one fundamentally concerned with gender and sexuality, that I'd argue our texts transform many of the assumptions that tend to underpin depictions of sex-as-violence in the mainstream. Which is where, for instance, cesperanza's discussion of identification/subjecthood comes in (Porn, incest, underage, slash--oh, my!); as both readers and writers (and as readers/writers) our subjective position in relation to fanfiction texts is not the same as the subjective position we are expected to adopt in relation to mainstream texts. saltandhoney has just discussed this at more length, and very eloquently, in her post, history of reading final paper, round one: fandom is my fandom.

This contextualising of ourselves as both the subject and audience of fanfiction is yet another reason we inscribe ourselves through male bodies, I think: because we are examining where our sexual emotions and desires fit into a patriarchal framework which insists we either don't have them, or that they are dirty and wrong.

Obviously these transformative tendencies in fanfiction are not clear-cut or easy to assess, and I certainly find some of the dark fic out there very, very disturbing. However, rather than discussing this issue in terms of "responsibility versus artistic freedom," the question I want to consider here is: in what ways does a predominantly female space, which is open about discussing sexual experiences, transform the mainstream expectation of sex-as-violence found in misogynist spectacle (such as action movies and crime shows) and pornography?

I can't possibly offer a comprehensive answer to that, as I've only just realised that it's a question worth posing. I can only offer my first thoughts. For a start, I would argue that in fanfiction, especially fanfiction about the violent aspects of sexuality and misogyny, we are not discussing these ideas in the patriarchal mode. In context, we're discussing them as women, as the survivors of violence, as people who have been told contradictory, damaging and controlling things about our sexuality. We may also/still be encultured to think along misogynist lines, but that doesn't mean these texts aren't a valuable form of questioning sexual violence. Further, I think that part of their value is in sharing these stories, making them public, letting us see what our doubleness of sexuality looks like--exactly how ugly/joyful it can be, letting us see if there's a commonality of experience and response... or not.

It's no surprise to me that these dark themes are in fiction by women for women, right alongside the shmoop (unconditional love) and mpreg (bodies out of control; unplanned pregnancy where it will catastrophically change life forever; shame; loss of face and power under patriarchy; possible loss of job under DADT; etc... but also love; making a family; being responsible; becoming a parent). In fact, it's easy to see how so many of the darker aspects of fanfiction can speak to the doubleness of sexual experience:
  • incest: desire we aren't allowed to admit to; what love looks like when it's combined with close pre-existing ties with someone we trust... or not

  • pedophilia: a childlike lack of power in a sexual situation; taking no responsibility for sexual pleasure; whether children can have positive sexualities... or not

  • rape: how to short-circuit the threat through fantasy; rape leading to healing and love... or not.

These are sexual issues we deal with every day, to a greater or lesser extent: every time we submit to a kiss from Uncle Max, or secretly sneak off to buy a vibrator, or never speak about whether we get off on the idea of being pregnant; every time we fetishize forbidden desires, turn rape into a fantasy, reconstruct childhood memories of powerlessness so that they become something else. Of course our fiction is going to be full of these themes. This is Russ's bliss/rape spectrum, and I think it's what many of us have been trying to negotiate, despite silencing, all our lives. And now we've made this space for fanfiction, we've found these (male) bodies we can borrow, bodies which short-circuit the doubleness baggage we actually bear in real life, allowing us to re-engage with bliss/rape from different perspectives, while controlling and limiting the outcomes to as much or as little as we choose.

This is why I think the question is not whether we should stop, or be more responsible (is our misplaced sense of responsibility not part of the problem, in fact?), or more sexually and artistically free; it's how we can come to understand the misogyny underpinning our sexual doubleness and transform it into something that hurts us less, within our own space.

* * *

ETA: I posted a link to this essay on whileaway, and I've been having an interesting discussion in the comments there.
Tags: discussion, essay, fandom, links, reading, women/writing, writing
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