Tag Archives: sexuality

What’s Good for the Goose…

Today’s word, boys and girls, is “hypocrisy.” It means not holding oneself consistently to a standard one presents as inviolate. In this case, I am talking about the hypocrisy inherent in the different forms of criticism I have received.

Let’s start with my very well established objection to violence. To be clear, I am not opposed to violence per se, as long as it is within a clear context. Rather, it is gratuitous violence, presented as entertainment, which I find objectionable. Further, it’s not violence as much as killing that upsets me greatly. The idea that the only way to solve a problem is to end a life. To execute your enemies. Life is precious, ephemeral, and once snuffed out, is gone forever. Have we such little respect for it?

We live in a violent world, true. The apologists for violent entertainment point that out as a justification. But do we really need to surround ourselves with fake death when there’s so much real death in the world? The answer, apparently, is yes, as book series like The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner fly off the shelf and get made into blockbuster movies with “plots” that amount to very little more than, “Children get brutally killed.”

Less than a decade ago, teen fiction wasn’t so nihilistically savage. It was uplifting and inspiring, and we had no problem cheering Harry Potter’s brave and often humorous attempts to achieve the heroic status everyone told him was his destiny. But now we have youthful antiheroes being psychologically destroyed, and in many cases outright killed, by a system they never wanted to fight.  It’s the classic illustration of the laws of thermodynamics writ large: You can’t win, you can’t break even, you can’t quit the game. That’s life, kids. No matter what you do, it will crush you. What a bleak message to send to tomorrow’s visionaries. Anyone wonder why this generation is the most disaffected generation in modern history? And why they would try to salve their despair by turning to the very same violent media that engendered it?

What’s the appeal? Why does violence make so many people feel better? Stephen King, in the oft-anthologized “Why We Crave Horror,” suggests that deep down we’re all crazy, and violent horror is a release for these urges that, left unfed, will manifest in much more dangerous ways. I don’t buy it. For one thing, not everyone craves horror. For another, King is a writer; horror is his bread-and-butter, so he has a vested interest in defending, even promoting it. Similarly, comic book writer Gerard Jones has argued that “Violent Media is Good for Kids.” Obviously, he is defending his own work, and he argues the benefits for children who feel “powerless” to find refuge in violent fantasy. But why must fantasies of power automatically involve killing? It’s limited thinking to equate power with violence, and, as result, children internalize the idea that killing is a valid response to problems. This has been documented.

But let’s set objections aside and take the arguments at face value. Okay, violence isn’t harmful, it may even be beneficial. I am certainly able to grant that the vast majority of consumers of violent entertainment are not then driven to commit violence. But we cannot ignore the counter-argument to the apologists. The one that suggests that people with violent tendencies will be driven to act out violently by exposure to violent media. And those who do not have such tendencies, the argument continues, will nevertheless become desensitized. We do see this among children, who are well-documented as having less empathy than previous generations. As I have said before, violent media may well be a contributing factor in the rise in bullying. Children see violent confrontation as the norm. Because, frankly, it is the norm. Spend just five minutes perusing the television and movie listings.

And then there’s the escalation argument. We actually see this one playing out. The idea is that, once something has shocked us, triggered that emotional reflex King and others would argue needs to be exercised (exorcized?), it no longer has the power to shock. To get the same reaction, we need a bigger shock. Decades ago, Dracula was considered terrifying; modern audiences mostly find it laughable. The envelope keeps getting pushed: more graphic, more horrific. A story where people have to hunt each other to death? Eh, that’s old news. Make it children hunting each other. What happens when we become blasé to that? What happens when watching fake murder on the screen is no longer enough? Won’t we be driven to seek out the real thing to feed the demon?

No, say the apologists, and I grant they may well be right. I would like to believe that human rationality will win out. It’s just a movie. Fantasy is an escape, a release, but sane people know the difference. So, again, I shall accept the arguments, for the moment.

Okay, so what’s my point? And what does this have to do with hypocrisy? I have been told that my objection to the rise in gratuitous violence in teen fiction is an extremely insulting perspective. Arrogant, offensive, and sure to prevent me from ever getting published (it looks like they are right on that last one). This outrage comes from people who read, and write, violent teen fiction. They like it. They are offended at my implication that there’s something psychologically wrong with people who get off on that sort of thing. Some have posed the rhetorical question, suggesting that I want everything to turn into some sort of Pollyanna, sweetness-and-light utopia where everybody is happy and gets along and is never angry or hateful and there’s no violence. My response to the people saying that is very simple: “You mean you wouldn’t want that? You prefer a world full of death and hate and despair?” How incomprehensibly sad.

But that sort of reductive response to my position is a gross oversimplification. There are people in my writers’ group who enjoy and write some of the most awful horror imaginable, and they are kind, gentle, compassionate people. They aren’t crazy, or dangerous. They would argue that violence is, ultimately, harmless entertainment, a visceral thrill that gets the blood pounding and pulls us out of the mundane of our lives for a brief moment. Fair enough.

That’s where we get to the hypocrisy. You see, at the same time as people have criticized my for my hatred of violence, for my belief that it can be harmful and at the very least it says something very depressing and disturbing about humanity, I have also been criticized for something else entirely: my attitude towards sexuality and nudity, and especially my assertion that the ideal female role-model is strong, smart…and sexually empowered.

I’ve discussed the changing role of sexual content in my book. It’s been added and removed enough times that my readers must be seasick by now. But the fact remains that the story I want to tell has sex. Teen sex. Underage sex. Let that sink in. My romantic leads are both sixteen years old. The girl is more sexually assertive, and far more experienced. She is from a culture where polyamory is the norm, and has had numerous sexual partners, of both genders, since her very early teens.

She is undamaged by her sexual life, and unapologetic. I present it as a perfectly acceptable way to be. I also have the boy, who is the one making the case for commitment and love and all those things. His case is compelling, and the girl realizes that there may well be something to it. It’s a dance between two equally valid perspectives.

Add to this another character, a thirteen-year-old girl in the process of discovering her sexual identity, and, while that doesn’t play out much in this book, there are two more books in mind. As far as I’m concerned, sooner or later she will have sex. Preferably sooner. Because I intend it to be a major positive turning point in her character arc, with profound story implications.

And then there’s all the nudity. People get naked with abandon. Often there is a symbolic element, particularly in the case of the thirteen-year-old. But I also have a ten-year-old girl who is unabashedly, innocently naked as often as possible. Let me point out that, while different readers have different favorites among my four main characters, all are universal in loving the ten-year-old. None see anything salacious in her nudity, but rather find it a natural part of her character and charm, and they objected vocally when I took it out at one point.

Whoa! Sexually active sixteen-year-olds, with multiple partners? A thirteen-year-old in the beginnings of a same-sex relationship very likely to turn sexual? A ten-year-old running around naked? That’s sick! What kind of perverted mind would come up with this sort of thing, let alone write it? It’s certainly not appropriate for teens, nor even adults. Child pornography, that’s what it is! I should be locked up, or at least put in a mental ward, and kept away from children!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you hypocrisy. I am going to take up this issue in the next article, coming soon. In meantime, I ask that you re-read all the arguments above as to why stories involving horrific violence are not only not harmful, but may well be beneficial, including to children, because I intend to revisit every single one of them, and explain why my book, with all its sex and nudity, is at least as beneficial to teens as all these books full of death. See you soon.

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The Rite Thing to Do

My sister eloped. Okay, not exactly, and it’s old news, really, since this was brought to mind by my recently receiving an invitation to the celebration of her twentieth anniversary. Which is interesting, because I wasn’t invited to her wedding.

See, she and her boyfriend were vacationing in Hawai’i, when they decided, on the spur of the moment, that this romantic tropical setting would be the ideal place to get married. They are far from the only ones who reach that conclusion, of course. Having made their decision, and arrangements, they then informed the families. Well, by families, I mean my parents. I wasn’t informed except by my father, who was, as is understandable, grousing long and loud about having to fly to Hawai’i at the last minute and at enormous expense.

He didn’t have to, of course. My older sister didn’t go, and was fine with that, despite having a very close relationship with my younger sister. “What’s the big deal?” she said. But my father understood, which is why, in fact, he did have to go. His daughter was getting married. For some reason, he felt that was an important thing to attend.

I didn’t go. There was no way I could afford it. And that hurt. She was my sister, and I had looked forward to being at her wedding, even standing up in her wedding party as she stood up in mine. It was important to me that she be there, and I would have thought it might be important to her that I be there for her. It wasn’t. But I think what hurt me even more than that was realizing that it wasn’t important to her that it was important to me.

That’s the thing about weddings. Despite all the “Bridezilla” stories, it’s not really about the bride, nor the couple, or anything like that. It’s about the people in attendance. It’s for the father who has dreamed about walking his little girl down the aisle since she was… well… a little girl. It’s about the family. It’s about the community, bearing witness to a couple passing through one of the last surviving rites of passage our society affords.

I use that term intentionally. A wedding is a moment of transition, one most people experience. It is a common experience. And there are rituals involved, the exchange of rings, the vows, the “march,” all that. That’s why a lot of people get very nervous at any attempt to change that. The pastor who officiated my wedding said he was very reluctant to allow a couple to mess with the ceremony too much, especially when it came to writing their own vows. We didn’t do that, although we did personalize a bit by opening the ceremony with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Oh yeah, and I sang at my own wedding. I’d sung Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” at all of my friends’ weddings, and I wanted it sung at mine, but by the same person who sang at everyone else’s. So yeah, I sang it at the beginning, and watched my wife come down the aisle toward me during the flute solo.

But we didn’t mess with things too much, and the pastor was right about that. He explained it. He pointed out that the familiarity of the vows binds us all together. Not just the couple, but the whole community. They are sharing something with everyone who has gone before. He pointed out that, when the bride and groom are up there reciting their vows, all the married people watching are silently remembering, and re-reciting, their own vows. Why do you think so many babies are born nine months after a major wedding?

This shared experience is why some conservatives are extremely uncomfortable at anything that would change the “definition” of marriage. And it’s why advocates of gay marriage fight so hard to be able to share the common experience as well. “It’s just a piece of paper,” people might say (my sister likely among them), but it’s so much more. It’s a step further into the adult world. And we have very few left.

Rites of passage tie us together, going through an experience knowing those around you went through it themselves. In earlier times it might involve a test or an ordeal, sometimes dangerous, and it’s okay with me that we have removed most of the danger. But we maintain the vestigial ritual in initiations into social organizations, fraternal orders such as the Freemasons or the Elks or whathaveyou. Those are dying out, but such traditions do live on, somewhat, with fraternity initiations, although the significance is increasingly lost in the face of ever more dangerous hazing. But perhaps that’s an attempt to cling to our true roots. Because part of the purpose of the ordeal is to come out of it stronger, more confident. Ready for the challenges that face you. Ready, in many cases, to truly be an adult.

We no longer have a clear delineation between child and adult. We lost the ritual where you officially cross the threshold between the two worlds. Certainly it still exists in some cultures. The Hispanic Quinceanera is one case, although it could be said that’s a remnant of Patriarchy, where a girl is announced as a now-available commodity. But it’s a very important moment in the girl’s life, where she really gets to feel like she’s a woman.

A better example is the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. This is the moment when a boy literally stands before the community and says, “Today I am a man.” He has studied and prepared, and his parents watch with pride, while everyone else nods and smiles, remembering their own passage. It is a welcoming into the adult world. And what’s important is that it was preceded by serious lessons on what it means to be a man. We used to teach our children how to be adults. Boys learned to take off their hats indoors, or when the flag is passing. They learned how to shake someone’s hand. They learned how to behave like a responsible adult. And, yes, this was true for girls as well, but the fact that this has largely disappeared is a more serious problem for boys.

The very recent concept of adolescence is actually causing difficulty for young people. It takes nearly a decade to transition from child to adult now. I’m not advocating we return to a time when children were put to work as soon as they could pick up a tool. But we take a long period where teens aren’t really sure if they are children or adults, nor which they want to be. It’s a troubled time, full of raging hormones. We treat them like children and they chafe because they are ready to be adults. Then we treat them like adults and they cower because they actually aren’t ready. And at no time do we show them a point of passage, one where yesterday they were children, and today they are adults.

Consider: you can work at age 15; drive at 16; go to an R-rated movie at 17 (not that that means anything anymore); vote, sign contracts and join the military at 18; and drink and gamble at 21. Which is adulthood? We could say 18, but that’s arbitrary, and mostly just corresponds to the end of universal education, another recent invention our society once thought essential for a robust democracy, but which, sadly, conservatives are now trying vigorously to tear down. Education is also, by the way, why legal age of consent laws tend to pin on age 18, a biologically ludicrous delay. We don’t want sexuality to distract “children” from their schooling. Of course, it does, far more than it would if we were tolerant of the reality that teens are sexual beings.

So what happens? Teens, whose bodies are screaming their readiness for adulthood, are cast adrift by a society who sees no value in rituals and transitions, with no one telling them who they are, or what they should do. They take their lessons from any place they can: books and movies and music and games and other media that isn’t there to strengthen society, but to make money by pandering to adults’ darkest instincts. And that’s how boys learn how they are “supposed” to treat girls, and girls learn how they are “expected” to respond. They learn to solve problems with violence. They learn it’s all about “me,” rather than about “us.”

And the teens eat it up. That is, I think, a symptom of a deeper hunger. More than just sex drives and bloodlust. Teen books are full of stories full of tests and ordeals; it’s a central theme, the “child” proving him or herself by overcoming a great challenge. We yearn for these rites of passage, especially children, who, unable to experience it for themselves, seek it out in their fiction. In that respect, I suppose it could be said that teen fiction is serving an important purpose, but maybe it shouldn’t have to carry the entire burden. Rather, we could be mindful that we are a community, a common people.

Social rituals and traditions connect us, and I think it’s no coincidence that, the more we abandon them, the more fragmented and fractious societies become. Rituals are the embodiment of order, and the absence of order is chaos. The authors of teen books offer many anarchic, dystopian societies, where the dignity of life and the spirit of community have lost their meaning. But rarely do they really explore how these societies came to be. That’s a shame, because I suspect that it would look much more familiar than we might like.

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The Subjective Objection

You are probably aware of the recent news story about the woman in Florida who was robbed, beaten, stripped naked and abandoned in a field by the person she was out with on a first date.  You must have heard about this.  Jay Leno made a joke about it three nights in a row.  I know, right?  Hilarious!  I mean what a loser.  And on a first date!  Maybe things will go better on the second date, and—

Hey, why aren’t you laughing with me?  Come on, it’s funny.  Oh, okay, I admit, it’s not true.  It wasn’t a woman.

It was a man.

Other than that, it’s completely true, including the punchline.  He was beaten, robbed, left naked in a field and Leno made a joke about the second date.  And the audience laughed.  I didn’t.  I was furious.  Because where was the concern, the compassion, the outrage?  Apparently, that’s all been used up by the people taking me to task for posting pictures of pretty women on my website.

I’m trying to remain reasonable and objective here, but it’s hard.  And to the women who are jumping down my throat for “harming” women by liking beauty, I say this: what the hell is wrong with you?  Where are your priorities?  Or do you subscribe to the bullshit line that says only women can be victims?  I dare you to take a stand on violence against men.  Go on, let’s hear your sadness about hunky beefcake photos.

Silence.

That’s what I usually hear.  And it sickens me.  Men are the only class left it’s okay to victimize.  We can make fun of them, engage in the most awful stereotyping, anything.  Make fun of women and you are a sexist.  But make fun of men and it’s okay.  In fact, it’s what they deserve!

Well enough is enough.  If I’m wrong for celebrating beautiful women, then everyone else is wrong for demonizing men.

You know why my photos are predominantly women?  Partly because I like women, true.  But also, to a great extent, because that’s what I can find.  I don’t take the photos myself (I wish!).  I find them on line.  And the internet is full of photos of women in stages of very artistic, attractive nudity.  Men are a different story.  There are far fewer images to be found, and what there is is either really non-nude, or outright pornography, and pretty raunchy at that.  Very little middle ground.

There are reasons for this.  Men are larger consumers of these sorts of images.  That’s why most of it appeals to men.  And that’s also, I suspect, why so many women raise objections.  Because they aren’t attracted to images of that sort.  It’s easy to disparage things you yourself have little interest in, and to demean those who do like it.

But it’s also true that our society is much more comfortable with the female nude than the male.  Topless images scarcely raise an eyebrow any more.  Rear images also are largely seen as tame.  Even full-frontal nudity isn’t automatically going to raise a hue and cry.  But let there be even the least glimpse of a penis and the sky comes crashing down.  Oh the humanity!

It’s a pernicious double standard.  Female nudity is artistic, erotic, or perhaps represents vulnerability.  Male nudity is hilarious!  Or disgusting.  So don’t blame me for being a product of this dichotomy.

People accuse me (and others who produce or appreciate these images) of “objectifying” women.  This is patently false.  As I have addressed elsewhere, photography by definition objectifies the subject.  But these images celebrate the subject, reveling in beauty.  Even, believe it or not, pornography.

People will say pornography is the worst, utterly demeaning the women in it.  Some will call the women who appear in pornography “victims,” because no self-respecting woman would choose to do that.  How arrogant!  This assumption is based on projection: “I have self-respect.  I would never appear in pornography.  Therefore, women with self-respect don’t appear in pornography.  QED.”  Based on this “logic” a woman must have been forced to do it, to subjugate herself for the sick pleasure of men.

Or maybe, just maybe, she enjoys it.  Maybe she likes the feeling of being desired.  Maybe she’s proud of her body and likes letting others see it.  Is that possible?  See, that’s the thing about the supposed objectification.  When you examine straight porn, one thing comes clear: the woman is subject, not object.  The content is entirely about her.  Her body, her reactions.  Sure, it’s usually ludicrously fake, with hyperathletic positions and over the top “acting.”  But it’s still all about the woman.  The man barely appears, often reduced to little more than his penis.  Now that’s objectification.

I know, you’ll say that this is done so that the male viewer can imagine himself in man’s place.  Fair enough.  But still the result is the same: the male performer is dehumanized far more than the female.  This is why most porn is really really bad.

It’s also wrong to say that only men (disgusting pigs!) consume pornography.  Women do too, in growing numbers.  They have somewhat different preferences, however.  Women prefer pornography that’s less anatomical, more sensual.  More about feelings, and connections.  More real.  Where both participants are equal.  Hey, that is a lot better.  In fact it sounds good enough to serve, indirectly, as an influence to me.  My one-and-only sex scene is like that, focused on feelings, the relationship between the two.  It’s about the beating of hearts rather than the thrusting of loins.  And would it surprise you to know that the female character is the one taking the lead?

Don’t be fooled by my correspondents who tell me what I write is “inappropriate” for YA.  I used to believe that, but then I followed the advice they gave me to read more YA and found that, in fact, there’s plenty of sex.  Almost invariably, it’s from the point of view of an inexperienced, even virginal, female, being “seduced” (for lack of a better word) by the male lead.  Always he’s more experienced, she’s timid, reluctant, you know the drill.

Not in mine.  I’ve reversed the roles, made the girl experienced and in charge, and the boy inexperienced and nervous and so very awkward.  And it’s still in the girl’s point of view.  What am I doing with that?  As I see it, I am telling my female readers, “Hey, it’s okay to have these feelings, these desires.  You don’t have to wait for a boy to act upon you, nor to expect him to be a perfect love machine.  You can take charge of your own sexuality.  You are answerable to no one except yourself.  You go girl!”  I consider that an excellent message for young women.  Guess what: the women in my writers’ group agree.  They loved the scene, thought it was real and sensitive and handled very well.  The men were indifferent (I’m not sure what to make of that).  But everyone agreed it would be okay for teens to read.  I was gratified.

Here’s the thing.  I think it wouldn’t just send a good message to girls, it would send one to boys as well.  It would say “You don’t have to be a stud.  She’s an equal and it’s something you do together, rather than something you do to her.”  Most boys don’t want to be studs, don’t want the pressure of the macho stereotype.  They want their partners to be equals, to be as interested and engaged as they are.

But they only have society’s message to go on.  Which is, “Go out and score!”  That’s why it bothers me that we are so concerned about girls’ self-respect, but not boys’.  We tell girls, “Have respect for yourself,” but we tell boys, “Have respect for girls.”  Not only does this attitude objectify girls far more than a sex scene or a naked picture, it tells boys they aren’t worthy of respect.  And people who don’t think they are worthy of respect make bad choices.

But when boys see representations of women who have taken charge of their sexuality, who aren’t afraid or ashamed of their bodies, women who are subjects rather than objects, and above all, women who feel the same as they feel, who like what they like, it makes the women more human, not less, and easier to respect and consider an equal partner.

Some might call my images on this site sexual harassment, with the idea that they have been placed there to somehow intimidate women.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When men “accidentally” show women these sorts of things, what they actually want is for women to be accepting, to validate their sexual feelings.  They hope beyond hope that a woman will say, “Wow, that’s kind of hot” (which is what one reader said about my scene).  Or perhaps, “Well, I don’t care for that, but this one’s nice.”  Because then he’ll say, “Yeah, I like this one too.”  Then they know that women are okay with sexuality, that they don’t consider it dirty or offensive.

Let’s be honest, the men who do this do a very bad job of it (myself included).  It’s easy to understand why women turn away.  But understand that it’s not because of some hatred or objectification.  It’s not because we want women to look like that or be like that or do that.  It’s because we want women to be okay with sex, the most fundamentally important thing in all of being human.  Living in a culture that teaches girls to hide and repress their sexuality; that teaches boys they are monsters for being attracted to girls; and where we laugh when a man is beaten and humiliated in ways that, if the victim were a woman, would draws cries for the death penalty, it’s pretty hard to find validation for our essential humanity.

But is it really too much to ask?

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