Apr 082010

Hello everyone! I’m afraid that this is going to be my last post here at WriteSex. I warned Sascha that my life is crazy and that my participation was going to be short and bittersweet, and I’m afraid that my time here is at an end. That said, I’m glad I could help WriteSex find its feet, and I’m sure everyone will continue doing a great job with the site.

And don’t fret, I still have to blog at my own site, http://nicolepeeler.com, and I do tend to talk about sex a lot, over there. Probably too much. Luckily my mother can’t remember the name of my URL (it’s only the name SHE GAVE ME, after all), so she and my dad (who may have used a computer once, back when they had entirely black and green screens) are oblivious to the filth I churn out on a daily basis.

For my post today, I’m dipping into my own archives from my Emporium, where I discuss an issue close to my heart. Do I have a great big preternatural daddy complex?

Who’s Your Daddy?

Quite a few of the (awesome!) issues many of you raised in the comments to my post on the League of Reluctant Adults about sex in UF were about age. Which, in turn, made me think about about something that has always bothered me about many UF and paranormal romance love-matches. I know there are untold numbers of exceptions, but one common scenario is that in which the male love-interest is like a bazillion-and-five-years older than his female protagonist. That said, I am well aware that I quite obviously LOVE this setup. Not only is it the scenario at the heart of many of my favorite UF and PR novels, but I’ve DONE IT MYSELF. So I’m pointing the finger squarely at my own chest, here, people. Even so, I’m still bothered by it and it makes me wonder . . .

Do I have a great big supernatural daddy complex?

The irony is  that in real life I am single, very independent, rather commitment-phobic, and had I testes they would be made of a suitably tough and hard-wearing metal, albeit painted something shiny and bedazzled with rhinestones. In other words, I’m no wallflower, I’m ambitious, I’m successful in my own terms, and, if I’m honest, I’m a bit of a bitch.

So what the hell is up with my adoration of the alpha-male stud-muffin love interest, and with the obviously widespread  generic obsession, in general? As an academic who deals with issues of gender and power, my cultural studies whiskers’ twitch at the idea of an entire subset of literature in which women are literally hundreds of years younger than their lovers. Especially when it’s aimed, as in the case of paranormal romance, at a specifically female audience. This age gap between lovers raises my  Foucauldian  eyebrows, not least because of the inherent discrepancies that trickle down into other aspects of these relationships. For example, the sage and long-lived male tends to be outrageously wealthy. His great age make him vastly experienced, especially sexually, compared to his relatively inexperienced lover. He is often a cynical, world-weary soul pitted against the childishly optimistic and sparkling spirit of a fresh-faced young woman.

I can see a lot of reasons for the popularity of this trope, not all of which are nefarious. I’m also well aware that, especially in the case of paranormal romance, these are supposed to be just fantasies. And yet, as Freud established years ago, it is often through examining our fantasies that we discover the keys to our greatest strengths, most startling desires, and deepest insecurities. Unfortunately for our psyches, and luckily for both psychoanalysis and cultural studies, these three things are almost inevitably squeezed together into a big ball of hot mess.

So what are the “problematic themes” that I would latch onto and turn into a paper for a cultural studies conference? Well, first of all, the preternatural sugar daddy taps into well established gender binaries. The female is tagged alongside instinct, purity, inexperience, vulnerability, youth, etc., while the male is shelved alongside reason, sexual experience, wisdom, cynicism, age, and the like.

So this age discrepancy utilizes recognizable gender dichotomies.  But, again, it’s just make-believe! Right?  As such, this big age gap handily lends itself to instant sexual-fantasy fodder. These guys, after all, have been around the block so many times they’ve left grooves. They leave their lovers gasping for air, not gasping, “Why in the name of all that is holy did you think THAT would be a good idea?” Experience is, quite frankly, sexy. I think it should be sexy for women, too, and I’m not as big a fan of the sub-sub-subset of the sub-genre that has super-experienced, millennia-old men and virginal women. I’m not going to dismiss such a book, and there are quite a few writers I enjoy who often have virginal heroines, but I feel this scenario does pander to cultural stereotypes that insist sexually experienced women (read: tramps) are not worthy of their own story while sexually experienced men are ranked as dream lovers. But what really bothers me about these scenarios is what it assumes about “good” lovemaking.  Don’t get me wrong, one of my own characters is this exact kind of take-charge, has-all-the-moves, supe. But the thinker in me recognizes that part of growing up in regards to sex and one’s own sexuality, especially for women, is learning to voice one’s desires. It’s true that most women probably don’t fantasize about sex scenes in which they’re saying, “Um, actually, can you maybe do this, instead,” or, “try that!” or, gods forbid, “Ouch!” And yet, these are the very conversations that both men and women must have when they take a new lover. Granted, you may want to use phrasings slightly more erotically charged than, “ouch!”, but the point is that communication is vital in the sack. We should pray our lovers, be they male or female, understand this and reciprocate. After all, not a one of us comes with an instruction manual, although we should. Our bodies are almost as fiddly as Dysons but, unlike Dysons, we’re all different models. And yet these alpha male characters pounce on their women, make sweet love to them, and all you ever hear are moans.  Occasionally we get a “harder,” or, “more,” but the instructions never get much more explicit than that.  Because they don’t need to be! These guys are masters of the hootchie-cootchie, and it is the role of their female opposite to lie back and enjoy it. Despite the fact that women have fought for centuries to have a role in their own pleasure; to have a voice in the bedroom as well as the boardroom; and, finally, to give pleasure–without being labelled as wanton–as much as they receive pleasure.

So this is where I throw off my third-wave feminist cap and don my masculinity-studies cap.  All of the men I’ve talked to regarding this subject have said the same thing: the idea of a woman who doesn’t communicate her desires during sex is terrifying.  There are so many possibilities, so many opposing pleasures, what is he supposed to do with a woman who doesn’t articulate what she wants? All of my male friends express relief about women who bring their vocal chords to the bedroom, not to mention the fact they find it dead sexy.  All of which leads me to wonder if, in creating these smooth-move lovers with their lolling heroines, I’m not only resurrecting decades-dead female stereotypes but also thrusting the responsibility for sexual pleasure back onto the only recently-unshackled shoulders of men. Which suggests to me that such old-fashioned female stereotypes are actually very much alive and kicking. And that men are still challenged by unrealistic expectations placed upon them by a society that devalues women’s sexuality even as it overvalues men’s. A point underscored by the number of spam emails I get offering to enhance the size and the performance capabilities of my (nonexistent) penis.

In other words, as a feminist, a woman, and an academic, I’m uncomfortable with the gendered scenarios that I apparently find titillating as a reader and that I, myself, indulge in and recycle as a writer. My affection for this disturbing trope implies an ambiguity about contemporary gender roles, and, although I’m horrified to admit it, about my own expectations as a woman, not to mention as a reader, writer, and critic.  I don’t know what this ambiguity means, or what I’m supposed to do about it. Besides write blog posts and maybe do an academic paper on gender roles in UF (hello, tenure!).

So what do you think?  Is my having a bunch of much older dudes hanging out with fresh young chicks a great big supernatural daddy complex? Is it innocuous? Is it really just a fantasy? But what does such a fantasy say, to you? Do I need therapy?

Don’t answer that last one. Thanks! That’s all she wrote, on here. But she’ll keep ‘em coming at nicolepeeler.com. Including that euphemism post! As soon as I get this grading done… ;-)

Feb 252010

Last time I blogged here at WriteSEX, I had a number of lovely responses. Kate T asked if I’d blog about euphemisms, and that will be my next blog, for sure. But right now I thought I’d dive into Vague’s question, which Vague boiled down to, “what is your priority when writing: plot, character, or sex?”

My first instinct when I saw this question was to answer that, in terms of mainstream publishing, the author’s priority must be plot and character over sex. And yet, even as I typed that response, I thought about a number of characters (published as urban fantasy) for whom sex and character and sex and plot are so entirely inextricable as to complicate such a knee-jerk response.

A second problem with my initial response is that it sounds a bit like the Hollywood actress who insists she will only show her ladybits in order to “enhance a character.” On the one hand, this excuse is just that: an excuse. As such, it suggests that sex and sexuality deserve, or necessitate, an excuse. It implies we need to apologize for or defend our naked bodies. On the other hand, this excuse also implies that there’s a universal scale for determining “character” and its “enhancement.” I respect Halle Berry as an actress, but after all the fuss she made over showing her tchochkees, Swordfish didn’t strike me as the most impressive of vehicles.

Another problem with my initial response is that it cuts out my own role as the author of my characters. As a literary academic, I mostly agree with New Criticism’s Reader Response theory, which states that all we have, as readers, is the text in front of us. We should never attempt to “read” a text in terms of what we know about its author’s biography.

As an author, however, I know damned well that I made a lot of choices that boil down to what I wanted to write about. And I wanted to write about sex. I like to read about sex, I like to have sex, I like to talk about sex, and I think that my whole hedonistic philosophy about the importance of healthy, healthful sex in our lives helps define who I am, as a person. I like to think of myself as a short, zaftig D. H. Lawrence of urban fantasy, but without the obsessive need to use the word “loins.” Or “inchoate.” Or “inchoate loins.”

Anyway, my point is that I–Me! Nicole Peeler! That author you’re not supposed to notice!–wanted Jane to have healthy sex, and by that I mean sex that was unapologetic and frolicsome, but also safe and completely consensual. Jane thinks about her health–both physical and emotional–before she indulges, but when she does indulge, she’s unrepentant. After all, she’s a woman grown who knows what she wants.

And that’s what we do, as authors. We make choices. But these choices then have to make sense, which means we have to make them make sense. Jane lives in a tiny community in Maine. Why would she end up such a sexual savante? That question was easily answered by her mom’s behavior–sex is in her blood; the pursuit of sex has been her example. It also helped me flesh out Jason’s grandparents. I made them two louche ex-hippies who would be comfortable educating Jane and Jason in healthy sexuality. I also upped the ante with Jason’s character. Without spoiling anything, she has a sort of idealized “Blue Lagoon” upbringing with her childhood best friend and sweetheart. Because of their similar circumstances, they mature together physically, intellectually, emotionally and sexually, and their sexual lives together are as inextricable as their friendship and their maturation process.

To put it another way, I, as the author, had to think through the choices I made and make them seem like inevitabilities rather than personal preferences. I wanted readers to see Jane as being the way Jane is because she’s Jane, not because Nicole Peeler enjoys proselytizing about sex. Jane had to live, and breathe, and appear to make her own choices on the page. So, yes, sex was one of the “ingredients” that went into making Jane True and Tempest Rising. But my job, as the author, was then to balance the rest of the recipe so it worked, as a whole.

So was my choice and its execution effective? It was certainly a risk: some people don’t like reading sex in their UF (and have told me so) and others don’t like reading non-Romance sex. In other words, they don’t like that Jane is attracted to Ryu but not “in love” with Ryu (and have told me so). While I’m sad these readers don’t see joy in Jane’s sexuality, I do not control people’s preferences, so these critiques are easy for me to dismiss. Not least because of probably one of the best series of comments I’ve received on Jane, from a reader in Alaska. I was very happy to hear from this reader how she’d enjoyed Tempest Rising. But when she told me how she gave my book to her sixteen-year-old daughter because she thought Jane’s sexuality set a good example for young women, I was floored. I’m not ashamed to admit it: I totally burst into tears.

In conclusion, it will be your choice whether you write sex and how you make that sex natural to your plot and character. Authors are puppeteers. If we decide we want our puppet to bow, we must figure out how to move our fingers in order to make him do so. Unlike puppeteers, however, we have to do so without revealing the strings that attach us to our creations. Our choices must be “invisible,” camouflaged by layers of character, plot, tone, syntax, setting, and all of the other elements that make mere choices into entire worlds. The choice to use sex must be considered, and it will have repercussions for your writing and for your audience. But what a layer of complexity sex brings: so much nuance, action, subconscious and conscious desires, a wellspring of fantasy to tap into, and a kind of tension that can’t be matched, I don’t think, in any other type of interaction or expression.

So why not sex up our dossiers? I’m glad that I did. And I think Jane is glad, too. ;-)

Jan 142010

In many ways, I’m the odd (wo)man out here at WriteSex. After all, I don’t write erotica or even romance. I write the Jane True series: mainstream, mass market urban fantasy for Orbit Books, a publisher famous for its Sci Fi/Fantasy rather than its sizzle. Here’s what I write:

So why am I here?

One reason is that, while I don’t write romance, I do write sex. Urban fantasy is a fantastic genre in that it’s like a pick and mix: authors of urban fantasy get to cobble together whatever elements of fiction they like, as long as somewhere, somehow, they have some mixture of the “real” world and some element of the supernatural, paranormal, or magical.

When I started putting together my world, my version of UF, I knew that one of the elements I was definitely going to utlilize was sex. Not romance, per se, but I knew I was definitely going to have sex. The reason being, quite frankly, that I think sex is important. And not merely because I’m a lascivious little wench; it’s also because of my philosophies regarding sex.

Before you roll your eyes, let me assure you that, when I say “philosophies,” I mean philosophies. For one of the other reasons I was asked to participate in WriteSex is that I am a Ph.D. in English literature, whose academic background includes the conjunction of sex and power in contemporary British and American fiction.

As any literary theorist can tell you, sex has never been just about pleasure: not in life, and certainly not in fiction. Humans have sex for so many varied, complicated reasons, most of which we can never understand, nor even know exist.

That said, as thinkers such as Freud, Lawrence, and Nietzsche understood, we reveal so much about ourselves in the ways that we conduct ourselves, sexually; how we communicate about sex; and how we think about sex.

So when I sat down to write my first book, it was important for me to write about my protagonist’s sexuality because my whole book is rooted in her character. Of course plot is important, but Tempest Rising is as much character study as anything else. I couldn’t bring Jane to life without including her unique view of sex and sexuality.

And yet, as I’ve said, this book was published to be shelved, as it says on the spine, in either Fantasy or Horror, not in Romance. So, when it came to writing about sex, I had to make a lot of interesting choices, and defend those choices to myself and others, along the way.

These issues, and why I make the choices I make when writing sex for mainstream publication, are what I’m going to be talking about in my future blog posts for WriteSex. I’ll talk about such topics as how much is too much (learned that one the hard way); why none is too little for me, personally; building, or reducing, character through depicting sexuality; and there will definitely be something on the Dreaded Euphemism: or, “When a Lotus Blossom Should Remain Just a Lotus Blossom.”

Sound good? Let me know if there are other issues you’d like me to address and don’t be shy. I am here for you. ;-)

Nicole Peeler