Thursday, January 5, 2017

O Pioneers! (#censorship #pornography #literature)

lady chatterly's lover cover

I've been publishing books about sex, including sexual activities that many people consider profoundly deviant, for more than fifteen years. So far, no one has given me any trouble. No jackbooted feet kicking in my door. No placard-waving fanatics protesting in front of my house. It's true that I carefully guard my anonymity, maintaining as strict a separation as I can between my writerly personna and my more prosaic day-to-day identity. Still, if someone wanted to unmask me, I don't doubt that it would be possible.

Maybe if I were more popular, I'd be more of a target. As it is, I feel moderately confident that I can continue to quietly pen my dirty stories (storing them on an encrypted drive, just to be on the safe side) and sell them to publishers without being ostracized by my neighbors, losing my job, or being hauled off to jail.

It wasn't always like this.

My contemporaries and I like to believe we are in some sense pioneers by writing openly about sex. The true pioneers, however, were the authors who fought to publish sexually-explicit work in the first half of the twentieth century, giants like D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Pauline Réage, and James Joyce. All of them faced legal battles against forces who wanted to ban their work because of its sexual content. Avant-garde publishers like Barney Rosset and Maurice Girodias circled the wagons and defended their authors against charges of obscenity (though perhaps with as much of an eye toward notoriety-inspired sales as for moral principle). Gradually, these trials led to a grudging acceptance of sexually-oriented fiction as a legitimate form of literary expression, at least in most Western countries.

Perhaps, however, I am being overly complacent, believing that these battles are in the past. Certainly, individuals continue to be harassed and discriminated against if they engage in sexual practices that are considered "abnormal" []. The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2003 [] reports that more than 38% of the U.S.population favors the existence of laws forbidding the distribution of pornography to adults and that this percentage has fallen only slightly between 1987 and 2002. Calls for censorship of the Internet are raised with increasing frequency and ferocity. I spent several hours on-line searching for authoritative data about societal attitudes regarding pornography but found only emotional diatribes and pseudo-statistics from both sides of the issue.

I did find an interesting scientific report on a survey taken in a mid-American city. The majority of respondents in this study thought that pornography was acceptable and should be legally available to adults. However, the people who voiced this pro-porn opinion believed that they were in the minority. Likewise, the minority who thought that porn should be banned were convinced that they held the majority opinion.

In short, you may support sexually-explicit entertainment, but you feel like an outlaw.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this argument. I personally don't feel that I'm taking risks or pushing boundaries in my work. Lately I've been writing more M/M erotica and erotic romance. It takes a deliberate effort for me to remember that many individuals regard homosexual relationships as an abomination. For me, men fucking men is more or less natural—maybe even more natural than being bound or spanked. Sex is sex, and variety is the spice of life. Very little of what I write feels particularly daring or transgressive.

I don't write for political reasons. I write to entertain my readers and myself. I would love to believe that my work is striking a blow for freedom of expression, striking down barriers, opening doors, but I strongly suspect that it is not. Those who read my work already appreciate erotic literature. I'm preaching to the converted. Embedded in a community of authors whose work is as sexually charged as my own, I find it difficult to comprehend that I may be engaged in activities that some view as immoral or illegal.

On the other hand, if the unthinkable occurred—if my website were shut down because of its prurient content or my books were banned, if I started to receive hate letters or the police seized my computer—I'd fight back. I don't know if my writing provides any societal benefits beyond recreation, but I am certain that it does no harm. And it is my right—perhaps even my responsibility—to express myself, to share with the world (or whatever segment is interested) my vivid, visceral, polymorphously perverse visions.


Devorah Fox said...

Because I was researching something else, I recently read "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Groundbreaking (and scandalous) as it was for its time, I doubt it would get published today. Not because of the subject matter but because writing styles and reader preferences have changed so much.

Cecilia Tan said...

For me, writing and publishing erotica is inherently a political act because of its "outlaw" status in many people's minds. A lot of those same people who think erotic fiction should be illegal think homosexuality and/or sex outside of marriage should be illegal, too.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Devorah.

People don't have as much patience with prose these days.

Also, a significant component to the "scandal" associated with Lady Chatterley was the fact that a lady, a respectable woman, was having an affair with a member of the underclass. The social distance between the two increased the degree to which the relationship was seen as taboo.

Lisabet Sarai said...

I know you're right, Cecilia. You've been a pioneer. It's just that I've always been so comfortable with sex, though (compared to the average person I know) that I have a difficult time appreciating the depth and virulence of those people's views.

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