Blood, Guts, Breasts, and Insanity

Demographic disclosure: I am an American who likes good adult (note the lack of euphemistic quotation marks) entertainment, and I am disgusted and ashamed at what thirty years of cultural conservatism has done to my country. Perhaps I’d better back up and explain…

It’s been two years since I started putting my fiction out into the aether through podcasts, selling stories, and otherwise subjecting the universe to my…shall we say “colorful” mental meanderings. My readers and listeners have been good enough to send me feedback throughout the endeavor, which is excellent market research as well as great motivation to keep on.

If there is a single topic – beyond “you cliffhangering bastard” – that I get hit with most, it’s about how I deal with sex in my stories. There are the occasional “that’s really hot” comment, but more often there are the complaints, such as “I can’t stop listening, but do you really have to have so much sex/homosexuality/eroticism/etc.?” I find it fairly ironic, in these post-Heinlein days populated by paranormal romance, vampire erotica masquerading as everyday fiction, and abstinence porn, that treating sex merely as a normal part of life could raise so many hackles, but there you are.

More interesting than that, though, is how little I hear complaints about the violence, which is every bit as unflinching (or, in the words of one reviewer, clinical), as the sexual content. There are moments in Predestination or The Man In The Rain which turn my stomach
reading them, and yet they pass with relatively few comments compared to, for example, the sex scene between Joss and Cassy toward the end of Predestination or pretty much anything in Down From Ten.

As an American, I’ve been hearing about the double-standard between sex and violence most of my life – over the last two years I’ve been able to see it in action through my audience and through the eyes of non-American colleagues such as Philippa Ballantine, who once quipped to me: “On American TV sure, we’ll show murder and mayhem, but God forbid you show a boob!”

We all know this, right? Or at least we’ve heard it before. Most Americans ignore it in one fashion or another. Toward the conservative end of the cultural spectrum it can even look like a good thing: Robert M. Price once told me in an interview that he found Hostel powerful because it shows that the trivialization of sex through pornography and prostitution leads directly to slavery and torture (he’s not alone in this assertion – there’s a broad coalition of feminist and fundamentalist philosophers who share the same general conclusion, though their core values otherwise differ).

Normally I keep my trap shut about things like this, unless someone asks me about it directly, because it’s the kind of topic on which people tend to be partisan. That changed this week, though, when I watched through a TV series called Harper’s Island – a nice little mystery thriller made for CBS last year. The premise is simple – it’s Ten Little Indians done in the style of a slasher film, and it’s remarkably effective. It’s effective, well-executed (no pun intended), and deeply twisted.

I had a lot of fun watching it until it occurred to me, sometime in the middle of the series, that this was done for broadcast TV – not cable, not satellite or premium channels, but broadcast. This series which features the kind of gore that, even today, would earn it a hard R rating in the theater, was broadcast on American TV.

You know, American TV, where three frames of breast exposure is enough to cause a national crisis? Where Bono saying “fuck” on an awards show costs the network hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines? Where the word “piss” is bleeped out of Mythbusters episodes that air on cable? America, the land of the free that banned Carlin from the radio? The America that is so culturally brittle that it can’t stand the freedom of speech enshrined in its own constitution for fear of what might happen to the children?

There was a time not too long ago when you could expect the similar levels of sex, violence, and “bad” language on TV. Quality adult programming required a wink and a nod sometimes, but a good writer could do it – and recently there’s been a flowering of really good adult entertainment as broadcast has had to compete with cable and the Internet. It was censorship, and appalling, but there at least seemed to be a consistency about it – a sense that some level of intensity (about anything) was for adults, and thus not okay for broadcast where anyone of tender years might be watching.

Now, the situation seems to be changing, and in a bad way. Harper’s Island features some of the most grisly violence I’ve seen this side of a slasher film – done well enough to make the makeup artist part of my brain goggle in wonder, to be sure – frosted by a sense of calculating sadism and paranoia worthy of the villains (or heroes) of Thomas Harris. It’s not an exploration of violence, it’s merely a thrill-ride, and a remarkably effective and occasionally nauseating one.

Does it feature the kind of language people might use when being stalked by a serial killer? Does it show anything sexual beyond the briefest acknowledgments that its characters have some kind of sexuality? Of course not! Children might be watching.

Growing up as I did on the cultural right wing, I long considered the American double-standard to be harmless and quaint. I understood the fears that lay behind it, even though I thought they were ridiculous. I chuckled at the amount of effort certain groups put into the mind games behind sexual purity, and the money they waste on meaningless political and cultural campaigns. I thought it was understandable, and maybe silly, but not really harmful.

It took seeing Harper’s Island to realize how much my views have changed. The cultural conservative picture of sex, and the double-standard it dictates isn’t just quaint, silly, or something that can be condescendingly shrugged off as the product of too much insularity. It’s an insidious, destructive lie that is now so baldfaced that we can watch dismemberment on prime-time broadcast while anthropology documentaries censor tribal nudity (I kid you not).

A basic part of adulthood is the ability to deal with the world as it really is. Every social creature – including every human – has sex organs, sexual appetites, and sexual inclinations. The bonding impulse is as foundational to life as the need for food. Everyone touches, everyone eats, everyone dies, and virtually everyone has orgasms. To pretend otherwise is unbecoming the dignity of an adult.

It’s also genocidal. That’s because there is, after all, a link between sex and death and violence. The lack of willingness to deal realistically with sex is something that endangers the lives millions of people every day. In the age of AIDS, the price of childish delusion and the illusory comfort it brings can be measured by a metric once used exclusively for strategic warfare: Megadeaths.

I have a very high violence tolerance. I believe that violence in art and entertainment can be life-affirming and useful as it caters to our visceral natures. It helps us cope with the prospect of death. Violence can even be a social good (though such circumstances are far fewer than they once were). It can help us feel keenly alive in ways that we in civil society can’t access in any other way without harming those around us. But in no way is it more life-affirming than our primary bonding impulses, or touch and pleasure, or the difficulties of love and friendship.

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7 Comments

  1. I believe in censorship and the right to censorship. But only for yourself and your kids. I have no right to tell someone else what they should and shouldn’t watch. I admit that I am one of the mainstream Americans that is much more desensitized to violence than sex and nudity. But I also don’t feel it is my place to be telling others what to watch or producers what to create.

    Simply saying, if you don’t like it, turn it off, but don’t go on a crusade to get everyone else to do the same.

    Thanks Dan. Great post.

  2. I agree almost completely. The only part I disagree on is a matter of personal taste. I dislike fictional violence (though I certainly prefer it to real violence). But I do like sex in my fiction. The fact that mainstream media caters to our violence-obsessed, sex-negative culture is strong reason I watch hardly any mainstream TV or movies.

    I’ve been bitching about this American double standard for quite a while now. I’m glad to see that you applied your considerable writing skills to address this topic.

  3. Good post. Having lived a time in Europe, I’ve seen first hand that less stringent restrictions on nudity don’t lead to a societal collapse, as some conservative thinkers might lead one to believe. It seems so silly that there can be so many working examples of different societal choices, and we Americans seem to ignore it all and make up consequences with little or no logical basis. The rules don’t make sense, but to change the rules can be difficult (Just as we were unable to successfully ban alcohol, I would imagine many societies would have an incredibly difficult time legalizing it).

    While I’m with you on the disproportionate reaction to sex and violence, I can to some degree sympathize with those who do not want illicit sex in the things they read. I’m fine with it in many cases, but there are a number of science fiction books that have that sex scene that just seems forced, as if the book just had to have one, even though it did nothing for the plot. It’s like that one breast shot in an 80s movie that had no purpose except that all movies had to have one. I’m all for mature fiction, in that anything told well is fine by me, and I’m firmly anti censorship. But I quickly sour on anything that is trying to be too shocking with its sexual content. If I get the impression the writer is immature, I don’t want to waste my time with them.

    I probably won’t read a writer who writes only erotica, not because I am making a morality judgment, but because I expect that such a mind is doing it for the purpose of sexual gratification or exploration, and not for the sake of telling a good story that happens to have sex in it. I won’t read a book solely because I want to read a sex scene, but I won’t disparage a writer who writes them where they fit the story. Some people (like you, Dan) seem to be able to write them with some frequency without being immature about it. But in a true, write-what-you-know sense, if someone with no science knowledge tries to info dump me and fails horribly, I will boycott them for their lack of effort. Similarly, if an author can’t write a believable character (I usually see it where a male author can’t write a realistic female…only a boyish male fantasy caricature) in a sexual situation, I will put their work down.

    To go back to the movie analogy, if my sci fi has a 5 minute scene in a topless bar for no apparent reason, I’ll not be impressed, but if there’s a similar amount of nudity (or more) that is relevant to the plot, then I won’t even blink.

    It’s the same way with violence for me. I don’t have a set limit, but if it seems to have no place then I will just see it as bad writing and move on. I wouldn’t read someone who writes stories just for the purpose of going as violent as they can.

  4. Odin – You got me cheering here. That’s exactly what freedom and maturity is about: the willingness to do what is right for you, and letting other people do what they think is right for themselves, and letting all bear the consequences (good or bad) of their decisions.

    Sid – You won’t get an argument from me on matters of taste. I talked about my own tastes as a way of saying “If *I* think this is screwy, then we’ve really got a problem.”

    Bryan – Thanks very much for the compliment, and I’m with you. I have the same reaction to bad/ridiculous sex as I do to bad/ridiculous poker, or science. It’s a taste thing, maybe, but I do like the things I read to display some sense of deliberation. Unless it’s bad on purpose, but that’s a weakness I have, and a topic for another day.

    Thank you all for your comments – keep ’em coming!
    -Dan

  5. I’m suprised that you’ve gotten complaints, but I will also bet that such complaints about content have a lot more to do with expressed sexuality in the absence of tradtional pairbonds than most people realize or would admit. Adult decisions outside of that containment are threatening to one’s own traditional bond-structure, no matter how remote.

    Being a person who is broadly asexual, and therefore omnivorious, I find that sexual content has remarkably little effect on me except for its consequences is a narrative: I barely notice until the bill comes due, as it were. (and yet, having the curtian drawn too early still annoys me. Every data point for a character’s personality is important, damnit.)

    The fact that the bill -does- come due, that there are always consequences, is where the assiduous avoidance becomes puzzling from a purely logical standpoint. It’s like deciding it’s never going to be cloudy on television, because then people might forget where the sun is, or fear their children will be rained on too soon.

  6. It always seemed strange to me that almost all mainstream references to sex consist of mentions on shows like CSI and Law & Order: SVU… where sex is all tangled up with the violence. Sex of any kind, but especially the “deviant” kind, is linked to unhappiness and even death. Even on shows like Nip/Tuck, which is steeped in sexual story lines, there is no sex positive message. They make something of an effort to be tittilating… but not much more. Sex is still all tied up with dysfunction, deception and pain.

    Like you said, everyone has sex organs and urges. It’s natural and one of the most wonderful things about being alive. But there is little to no media that portrays sex in a postive light.

    And yet… how many movies and shows are out there that glorify violence and/or portray it in a postive way? Movies like Crank, or Onk-Bak (a movie I personally really like) where the main character is out for revenge and inflicts all manor of violence on people and the audience is meant to feel for them and feel justified in what they’re doing. I’m a HUGE horror fan, and the latest trend in horror films has been playing the sympathy card for killers like Michael Myers, Jigsaw and Leatherface (and now Freddy Krueger). It used to be that we as an audience could identify with the characters being chased and that made us feel afraid. Now they are cardboard cannon fodder and the killer is multi-dimensional… we are left seeing things from his perspective and glorying in the bloodshed.

    As a horror author, I of course include violence in my writing… but I include sex as well (where it makes sense). I can’t imagine writing something where I spent more time trying to make the violence more arousing than the sex.

  7. Anthony aka: BeanChef

    As Hercule Poirot said, “Eh, It keeps the little grey cells sharp.”

    Thanks for this post Dan. While I know there is much we would disagree over, I have greatly appreciated your Dialing In discussions as well as this one here. In those discussions, I REALLY appreciate, & greatly respect you, for the way you present your arguments. (I would enjoy the act of debate w/ those of faith would they conduct themselves as you do) Instead of jumping down the throat of the person presenting an opposing opinion, you calmly start of with, “See, here is where you are wrong …”

    I never thought about the subject of this post. I watched Harper’s Island as it was broadcast and remember being a bit surprised by the graphic violence, but not at the fact there was little to no sexual content save for the one scene where the affair bride’s brother in law and the bride’s brother in law.

    While I personally choose not to read erotica styled stories (sorry Pip), even thought they may be written by people whose other works I enjoy, because of the direction they send my thought life, I don’t necessarily object to sex being included as part of the story. part of the reason for this suddenly finding out that the man I considered my best friend was a sex addict. While some may not consider this a problem, he had continually spoke against this type of behavior and has somehow avoided incarceration as his addiction has manifested itself.

    But when sex is included just to *punch up* the story, why bother? An example is right at the end of “Sideways”. Another is the movie “Ready to Wear”. In the final scene and entire fashion house’s models walked the runway nude. I yawned and wondered how much time was left in the movie,

    This post has set me to thinking how I have let myself get desensitized to certain things I thought I was previously bothered by.

    Thanks again and please keep up the thought stirring posts or podcasts.

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