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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 2 (Winter 1996)
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Erotic Fantasies, Fantastic Erotica

by Gary Bowen
Copyright © 1996, Gary Bowen

Those of you familiar with my work know that questions of sex, sexuality, and gender are frequent themes of my stories, and that I often use genre fiction to explore these issues. On the other hand, since my work is rarely published outside of "adult" or "porn" magazines and books, I am largely an unknown to the community of speculative fiction readers. The division between erotic fantasy and mainstream fantasy is a steep one, crossed by few hardy souls. Time and time again I've been told by a genre editor rejecting my work, "You're a good writer. Can you send us something without sex?" I consider sex a legitimate subject for speculation, and therefore a legitimate subject for the genre that calls itself "speculative fiction."

It isn't just rocket ships and aliens any more. Yet while it is acceptable to posit aliens with three genders and to speculate upon their mating customs, it is not acceptable to posit three human genders--doing so explodes sexual stereotypes and unnerves people. Which is why I do it.

Human beings are far more fascinating to me than imaginary aliens. The endless permutations of human behavior and the implications for personal relationships are engrossing and important, exploring as they do the assumptions and subtexts of our society. In our world, gay teenagers commit suicide, adults go through sex-change operations, and polyamorous people live in marriages of three. Why do they do it? What does it mean for our society? Speculative fiction with its range of motifs from demons to space colonies is the perfect medium for exploring these issues.

While entertainment is a legitimate purpose for writing, I always have a larger purpose in mind. I am careful to sublimate my message, because I know that preaching will instantly shut off the receptive mind. I prefer to let the readers observe for themselves the ramifications of events, and draw their own moral conclusions--even though I know some of them will draw conclusions I don't like and don't agree with. Unfortunately, some genre editors reject my works on the grounds that somebody might get the wrong idea. What they fail to understand is there are no wrong ideas! But ambiguity is intolerable, commercial fiction must be neatly wrapped up with a tidy conclusion so that people know exactly what to think about what they read.

Sex is powerful stuff, which is why Senate bill 314, introduced into the Congress of the United States by Senators Gorton and Exon, seeks to forbid all "lewd," "filthy," or "indecent" communication over a "telecommunications device." [The "Communications Decency Act" is now with us, of course. --Ed.] The proposed penalty for talking dirty to your lover via telephone is two years in prison or a hundred thousand dollar fine, and they'll send the telephone company or online service to jail along with you.

Why are they afraid of sex? Because American society is operating according to very strict, unnatural, and difficult to maintain rules. Case in point: birth control has dissolved traditional family arrangements and obligations. Women are no longer the property of the men in their family, a system which made sense only when women were having eight to ten pregnancies with four to six surviving children. Out of necessity society codified rules that required people to support, defend, and assist mothers and potential mothers. Naturally, the people who benefit from such a system defend it fiercely, both the men who enjoy the power and the women who enjoy the protection. It is notable that female opponents of women's rights are generally wives and mothers who do not work outside the home. The prospect of being compelled to care for three children, keep house, and work two low-paying jobs to support the children is enough to keep many women locked in marriage, even when it turns abusive.

These are powerful issues, and yet they are rarely the stuff of fantastic literature. How much more appealing it is to imagine being swept away by Prince Charming to live happily ever after! Which is the precise plot of most romance novels, and quite a few fantasy novels as well. The ugly human issues, when they are discussed in the genre at all, are usually relegated to horror fiction, where victims of rape and incest abound. Yet few of the fictions published on these themes offer any illumination into the nature of these crimes. While they may sympathize with the victim, they offer no insight into the motivations of the perpetrator, nor do they offer any healing to the victims. I have yet to see a story in which a female victim obtained justice or vengeance through her own efforts; it was always the gift of some larger, more powerful male (human or supernatural).

Those who claim pornography does harm to women are perpetuating the old myth of helpless women needing to be protected by older, wiser, more powerful men. The feminist rant against pornography is the same, except that now it is older, wiser, feminist women that will protect their hapless sisters from the forces of evil lust. But pornography is a social barometer; it does not induce offensive behavior, it merely records whatever the prevailing attitudes about women are. It is a market-driven industry, perhaps the only purely capitalist industry left in the United States. Whatever people want, that is what pornographers give them. If people demanded tasteful, sensitive pornography (and were willing to shell out the dollars to buy it), then pornographers would publish it. They have one goal: to make money. But instead of demanding good porn, consumers cry foul and demand the destruction of all porn.

In the midst of such harrowing public debate, it is not surprising that many genre publishers, already aware of being stigmatized as "juvenile trash," want to avoid the label of "adult trash," and avoid any contact with the one subject guaranteed to arouse the ire of just about everybody.

Yet precisely because sex is such a volatile subject, it ought to be written about and discussed in every publication in the land. Sex ought to be treated no differently than, say, black holes. Treatment is tailored to the audience, presenting information and viewpoints appropriate to the editorial policy of the magazine. Unfortunately, standard editorial policy on sex is "none." Yes, editors claim to allow sex "when the plot requires it," but this denies the validity of sex as an appropriate topic in its own right. Sex is only acceptable when it has some excuse for being there; the fact that sex is an important form of human expression is not an adequate reason to publish it.

By excluding meaningful examinations of sexual subjects from genre fiction, the genre is depriving itself of a rich source of human material, issues, dilemmas, ethics and tension. In other words, it is depriving itself of good fiction. In spite of the complaints about the poor quality of pornography, addressing sexual topics does not inherently make a story "trash." Reviewing the field of pornography turns up good and bad examples--Sturgeon's Law applies to all literature. ("90% of everything is trash.") Placing legal and editorial restrictions on the treatment of sexual subjects suppresses creative thinking and enforces mediocrity.

Compare the following examples: The hero and his girlfriend have pulled an all-nighter, hacking alien computers in search of proof of the alien's vile plans for humanity. Exhausted and frustrated, they go to bed. They make love, taking comfort in one another's faith and affection . No problem here, this would be printed without blinking an eye, we've seen it a million times before. But consider this minor variation: The heroine and her girlfriend have pulled an all-nighter, hacking alien computers in search of proof of the alien's vile plans for humanity. Exhausted and frustrated, they go to bed. They make love, taking comfort in one another's faith and affection . Betcha never seen that one in print! And you aren't likely to either. The content is exactly the same as the other piece, but as editors have so often told me, "I don't have any problem with your characters, but bookstores won't stock our magazine if parents complain. Can you send me something else?" I used to oblige them; after all, I was a new writer and I wanted to get published. Now I don't like what I've had to do to get printed in standard genre magazines; most of the thoughtful erotic fantastic literature I've written has been confined to Circlet Press, the only erotic science fiction and fantasy publisher in the world. They started with Telepaths Don't Need Safewords, photocopied and stapled by hand; now there are four thousand perfect-bound trade paperbacks in print. Circlet Press books are found in Barnes & Noble these days, making them a rocketing success story, and moving them from the status of "small" to "independent" press.

Clearly, the market wants intelligent, imaginative, erotic sf. Bigger companies are waking up to the potential. The late Stan Levanthal, Editor-in-Chief of Mavety Magazine Group, a major pornography publisher, was working on an anthology of erotic sf when he died. Masquerade Books, another major pornography publisher, has bought two books from me, the erotic Diary of a Vampire, and Man Hungry, a collection of erotic short fiction featuring a multitude of genres, from mainstream to western to science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Traditional publishers who are loathe to publish well-written sexually themed material are surrendering the genre of erotic sf to pornographers who do not share their sensibilities about what makes speculative fiction important.

While I am happy to see work of this kind being published, regardless of who publishes it, I am worried about the continuing division between erotic and non-erotic fiction, and the way this important element of humanity is villainized and ostracized from polite society. Rather than dismissing all erotic literature as trash, one should subject it to the same standards of review and publicity as non-erotic works. What is the author trying to say? Does his choice of technique fulfill his purpose? Does he offer insight and originality? Does the work echo in the mind long after the book has been put down? In other words, is it any good?

The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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