Friday, March 23, 2012

Sex Scenes: How Much is Too Much?

Actually, the better question may be "How Much is Too Little?" I have noticed two interesting trends in gay fiction and I imagine it holds true across mainstream fiction as well:

First, there is the trend toward separating well-written fiction with explicit sex scenes into its own category: "erotic". I imagine this began as a way to flag the reader that he/she was stumbling into some frisky ground. I understand that. At some times in my own life I have not wanted to have to stand in someone's bedroom in the middle of a scene: it felt invasive. I was embarrassed. For me and for them. A warning is understandable. But my concern is that in our zeal to pass on a polite warning we have relegated some high quality fiction to a seamy back room.

The second trend I notice is that in a well-written book or story where the reader would benefit from more detail in a sex scene, the writer shies away. At times, one can almost feel an author holding sex at arm's length - his or her own squeamishness getting in the way of the integrity of the story. If you think about it, sex is part of human experience. It is such a deep part - and a necessary one - that how can one hope to paint a true picture of human experience without exploring a character's sexual viewpoint?

I just recently read a really amazing novel, full of truly beautiful language, imagery, characterization - everything a great book needs and a great writer boasts. But where a sex scene should have been was a paragraph of euphemisms and a hasty retreat to the following morning. The thing is, this scene was pivotal, and what happened in that bed mattered. Details mattered. It mattered to the state of mind of the main character, because that event changed his life. If the author had been courageous enough to add more detail, the scene could have been spun into a haunting one that would have informed the story on a deeper level and enriched the entire novel. It was good enough as it stood, but could have been so much better because it could have made the novel better quality story-telling.

There is for most of us a difference between "erotica" and "porn". To me there is. It's quite simple: in pornography the explicit scene is about the sex, as is the whole piece. It is offered for the reader to revel in the detailed mechanics; it assumes that the reader isn't overly invested in the characterization or plot. In erotica/erotic fiction, the scene informs the story in the rest of the piece - the rest of the piece being of the same quality as any work of fiction worth its name. Porn examines the technical detail of the sex act; erotica examines the emotion, physicality, the story as a whole, with the details of a sex act being only one more layer of meaning amongst the many offered. Perhaps writers avoid writing sex scenes because they assume others will see them as writing pornography. Perhaps we as writers need to speak up more about the difference, and the merit of a good graphic sex scene.

I believe that we as a society, and therefore the literature that reflects our collective psyche, are evolving. I see a day when a writer won't think twice about including graphic sex in a story within the context of the story - as naturally as human sexuality occurs within the context of a life. Sexuality is so integral to our core, to omit it when it is part of our story, seems to me a real disservice to a good book.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Simplest Version of History is Usually Wrong

I have been doing a lot of research into homosexuality in the Middle Ages and in the centuries after the advent of Christianity. You may think that has all been settled - gays were always persecuted, given the death penalty for being discovered, etc. You might be as surprised as I was to find out you would be wrong: it is apparently far more complicated.

I am now half a century old, and if I've learned one thing, it is that the Truth usually lies In Between. In other words, when an issue invites extremes of opinion, those extremes are often just that: extreme. I have been a bit frustrated with the challenge of finding reliable history on the question; I finally realized that I needed to read the historians that offered and had perused the greatest variety of historical documents to support their views.

The big problem with the issue of finding reliable research about gays in history is twofold:
- First, much of it is written by extreme voices. God Bless them they make some valid points, and often raise pertinent questions. But they also have a vested emotional and political interest in one point of view. For example, I personally believe that both some members of the gay community and some members of the conservative community want it to be true that gays were always put to death, driven underground, etc. The truth is of course more complicated. I have no doubt that there were terrible persecutions when a scapegoat was needed - the historical documentation to support this is considerable; but what I am finding is that there were not always persecutions, and was more social acceptance than we are often led to believe.
- One cannot understand this issue without first understanding the political climate of a given era. It seems that many times, decisions to execute an individual, or to allow a government-sanctioned gay union (and yes, that did happen and there is ample documentation) were motivated by politics, by concurrent community concerns, and by far more than the simple question of morality or immorality of a homosexual act.

One surprising discovery - amongst so many! - is the fact that pre-Christian Jewish society was the first documented to outlaw homosexual activity. But in general, it wasn't apparently due to any sort of moral repulsion around the sexual inclination itself. Rather, in came out of a time where the practice of pederasty (sex between grown men and pubescent boys) was near-universal outside the Jewish community. Pederasty was widely practiced in the Far East, the Middle East, amongst Northern/Eastern European barbarian peoples (except interestingly the Celts)and pretty much all around the world the Jews knew. In many of these societies, relationships between men and children was far more common than relationships between men. The prohibition was thus affected by the rather enlightened conviction that men should not be mentoring young boys into sexual activity. A second reason for the Jewish prohibition involved the status of women. Apparently, in societies where pederasty and other forms of male homosexual activity were openly practiced, women were too often relegated solely to a domestic/reproductive role. Where men formed their primary and closest relationships with other males, there was little loyalty to a woman and one's children, a desire to provide financial support, or a sense of needing to protect the family. So, in a primitive sense, the Jewish prohibition reflected a concern for the welfare of the women in its society.

As I mentioned, there have been many and varied revelations in the course of this research. If anyone wishes further information, please contact me - I'd be happy to share! I leave you with one more surprising fact: Up until the fourth century, according to contemporary documents, the Christians were seen by non-Christian groups as particularly given to sexually licentious behavior! Male prostitutes were taxed in this society, which would indicate that their activity was accepted and sanctioned by local government and the community.