Reality, Taboos, and Denial

The Flirtation

There’s a myth that when Parliament passed a law criminalizing homosexuality during the reign of Queen Victoria, she refused to sign the bill until references to lesbianism had been removed from it, stating “women wouldn’t do such things.”

The story is untrue about the queen (for one thing, by Victoria’s time the monarch’s power to veto acts of Parliament was already an on-paper power that was never, never used), but it’s true that the Labouchere Amendment of 1885 outlawed only male homosexuality. Exactly why that is so is unknown, but it seems that the idea of outlawing lesbianism never crossed Labouchere’s mind. Some speculate that Parliament kept silence on female gay sex to avoid drawing women’s attention to the possibility.

Be that as it may — whether in Victorian times or modern times, we have taboos surrounding sexual behavior. They aren’t the same taboos in all cases or in all times, but they certainly exist. In mainstream society we no longer condemn homosexuality, male or female, and so we’re no longer in denial about its existence. We still condemn rape and we still condemn infidelity in a committed relationship. We condemn adults having sex with teenagers, whether consensual or otherwise. We condemn sexual harassment and sexual discrimination. (These are new taboos.) Sex being a powerful and potentially dangerous activity, it’s necessary to have boundaries and regulations around it, and so all cultures have some taboos or other in connection with sex.

It’s one thing, though, to recognize this need and to place boundaries and restrictions, enforced by social convention and in extreme cases by law, around sex. It’s another thing entirely to pretend that the behavior we condemn doesn’t exist, or that the impulse to engage in it is a propensity only of a few scumbags and most of us are innocent of such inclinations.

This subject came up in a discussion in social media about a secondary character in my soon-to-be-published novel Refuge Volume One: The Order Master. The character is Emily Russell, a 13-year-old girl with a troubled past who becomes a fierce magical prodigy. (You can be introduced to Emily in Chapter Four of the book, which you can read here.) In one scene, Mike Cambridge, the main protagonist, is troubled by the fact that he finds himself sexually attracted to Emily despite the fact that she’s a child barely into her teens, and more troubled by the fact that she is also attracted to him and tries to seduce him. Needless to say — or maybe not — he doesn’t act on the attraction, but he does feel it. I had one beta reader comment that she found it hard to believe a grown man could find himself physically attracted to a 13-year-old girl.

I always take such objections seriously. I know that there are quite a few girls that age that look older, look like young women, and could very easily incite sexual desire, but if this is not universally known I needed to tweak the story a bit so that Emily’s early blooming is acknowledged. I made a post to a writer’s discussion group on social media asking for comments and suggestions. The problem itself was easily enough dealt with, but in the course of discussion other things came up, essentially denying that adults could be attracted to young teenagers (ever!), and that young teenagers could never attempt to seduce adults (even more ever!), and saying that a writer who included such elements in a story would find himself confined to the adult-fiction limbo.

And this prompted the current post.

I remember also a discussion I had once on a different forum regarding sexual fidelity in marriage. I’m not particularly a believer in monogamy myself, but I recognize that many people (probably most) are, and that’s fine. But the discussion and disagreement was with a woman who insisted, not only that her husband had never cheated on her (believable) but that he had never even felt any inclination to do so or any physical attraction to another woman (absurd). Her husband himself came into the discussion to deny that he had ever felt any desire for any other woman, and was quite rude about it. (Gotta love the Internet.) (My suspicion is that he was adamant about this because his wife would feel betrayed to know that he had ever felt any such attraction — as if it was avoidable.)

I’m a firm believer in realism in fiction, aside from genre conventions that deliberately warp reality. I write fantasy, so of course I include those warped elements. The Order Master includes reincarnated aliens, for example, and some remarkable feats of magic. But in every area that isn’t shifted by such fantasy elements, I feel an obligation to depict reality as accurately as possible. This is particularly the case when a story is set, as The Order Master is, in our own modern world.

So let’s be clear on a few things in refutation of denial.

Sexual attraction of adults for children younger than puberty is a perverse aberration, but sexual attraction of adults for teenagers — people who are sexually capable even though we don’t consider them emotionally mature or legally adult — is universal, or nearly so, and those two attractions should not be confused with each other just because of legal conventions or cultural taboos. A girl in her teens is capable of bearing, and a boy in his teens of siring, children, and we are programmed by thousands of generations of natural selection to find this state of affairs attractive. What’s more, teenagers who have reached puberty are a boiling mass of hormones, and they are certainly going to find adults sexually attractive, as much as (or more than) they do one another. (There’s a reason why pre-modern societies often got people married in their teens, girls especially.)

Today’s sexual morality is based on respect and mutual consent, and we as a culture have decided that young teenagers are incapable of giving responsible consent to sex. There is something to be said for this position as a way to protect children from exploitation by unscrupulous and uncaring adults. However, that does not change the reality of sexual attraction. We have rules like this not because we don’t want to break them, but because we do, and need the restriction to prevent us from doing so. As adults, we should not act on any attraction we feel for teenagers. But it’s absurd to suggest that we shouldn’t feel that attraction, and even more absurd to insist that we don’t.

Similarly, a committed monogamous relationship does not stop its participants from feeling sexual desire for people other than their respective partners. If they are responsible and disciplined, they will not act on any extraneous attraction they feel. But it doesn’t help matters one bit to deny that the attraction exists from time to time.

And so as a writer I resist calls to make Emily a few years older, or to remove references to her attraction to Mike or his attraction to her. It would have been equally unrealistic to make Mike act on the attraction (he’s a bit of a stiff prude, actually, so that would have been completely out of character for him), and would also have introduced a plot complication I didn’t want. But while having the desire go unconsummated was perfectly plausible, having it not exist, given Emily’s situation and the physical description of both characters, was not. To depict this mutual attraction in a realistic manner is in no sense to endorse adults getting it on with 13-year-olds. It’s simply presenting emotional reality as it exists in the real world, instead of modern-Puritanical make-believe.

If that costs me a few readers here and there, so be it.


Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

6 responses to “Reality, Taboos, and Denial

  1. I certainly agree with you, but the question I would pose to you as a writer is whether this sexual tension moves the story along. If it’s a sideshow, drop it, because it simply inflames prejudices in your more prudish and denial-prone readers and doesn’t move the story. If it’s essential, then put it in without apology or regrets.

    I did a semester of teaching in the secondary schools, and the issue of sexual tension was a serious one. At 16-18, the girls are definitely on the prowl, and as a male teacher — especially an older male teacher (which I fortunately was not) when you hit that point of realizing that “chemistry teacher” is going to be your epitaph — it can and does spill over. And then lives get thoroughly ruined, more by the social backlash than by the events themselves. A stiff veneer of extreme public denial, combined with a lot of locker-room talk behind closed doors, is a survival strategy.

    Pushing that age down three more years is poking a stick at a social bomb. Expect trouble.

    • It does, in fact, advance the story. Mike’s rejection of Emily’s advances sets up an important plot turn later in the book.

      If it didn’t, I would consider cutting the interaction purely for that reason, as I would any scene that proved unnecessary or cluttering. However, I refuse to be moved to do so by expectations of trouble. As I see it, it’s part of my job as a writer to offend prudish and denial-prone readers. Try to please everyone and you’ll end up pleasing no one.

      Actually, if it provokes some controversy, that’s likely to help sales. Not my motivation, but hey . . .

  2. The new book sounds very interesting Brian … wishing you the best with it. My latest also involves the touchy subjects of sex and teenagers (in my case human trafficking) and I dealt with some of the same quandaries. Nice to see you take a stand for being able to write honestly. It’s not the same as condoning creepy behavior.

  3. It took a lot of courage to address this attraction in your book and I agree it is important to the plot. Emily’s character development is enhanced by the way she responds to rejection (real or percieved).
    I think it took even more courage to address this whole issue the way you have done in the above essay.

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