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 â€“ beyond “you cliffhangering bastard” â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ a nice little mystery thriller made for CBS last year. The premise is simple â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€œfuckâ€ on an awards show costs the network hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines? Where the word â€œpissâ€ 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 â€œbadâ€ language on TV. Quality adult programming required a wink and a nod sometimes, but a good writer could do it â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ done well enough to make the makeup artist part of my brain goggle in wonder, to be sure â€“ 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 â€“ including every human â€“ 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.