(Because the Book View Cafe blog, which usually hosts my New Worlds essays, is having difficulty right now, I’m reposting the piece in question here.)
Having talked about what people do in bed (and how society feels about that) . . . now it’s time to discuss how things can go wrong.
This one comes with trigger warnings, as you might imagine.
We can start off in the shallow end with the things we don’t stigmatize nearly as much anymore. (Admittedly for values of “we” that may not include all of my readers; I’m speaking from the position of mainstream American culture.) Masturbation, for example, gets heavy disapproval in societies where sexual pleasure is considered to exist only for the purpose of convincing people to procreate. The same is true of oral sex: if it doesn’t put the seed where it needs to go, then it’s nothing more than self-gratification, and that’s a priori bad. We’ve normalized those to a fairly high degree, along with same-sex intercourse. Although homophobia is far from gone, the laws against such activities are becoming a thing of the past; in the majority of the modern world, they’ve either been struck down or are simply ignored.
Speaking of those laws, I should pause for some terminology here. Although we commonly assume that “sodomy” refers to anal sex, its usage is actually broader than that. The most sweeping sense of the word is any non-procreative sexual behavior, but when we talk about anti-sodomy laws, the three things usually encompassed under that term are anal sex, oral sex, and bestiality. (Ditto “buggery,” which is more specific to Britain.)
Some researchers split bestiality into two different concepts, zoophilia (attraction to animals) and bestiality (sexual activity with animals). Not all those attracted to animals act on those impulses, and for those who commit the act itself, there’s reason to think it’s often as much a matter of opportunity as desire. The reported percentages of people who have had sexual contact with animals have dropped significantly as our population becomes more urbanized, and therefore has less contact with farm animals. Regardless, in most places the act is criminalized — but also weirdly common in mythology, usually with a deity taking the form of an animal. Whether that reflects prehistoric religious practice or merely some kind of symbolism, no one really knows.
Turning back to humans: I’ve mentioned incest before in the context of defining kinship, but we should take a moment to talk about it as a taboo and/or a crime. From a reproductive standpoint, the taboo makes sense because over time it can lead to inbreeding . . . but where’s the line for that? First cousins have often been considered ideal marriage material — even in Europe, where that falls within the range the Catholic Church deems too consanguineous for marriage. But when it comes to criminal incest, we’re mostly looking at far closer relations than that: siblings, for example, or (all too commonly) parents and their children.
That latter situation often combines two problems, incest and the sexual abuse of children. Viewed strictly from the perspective of contemporary laws and mores, though, that latter category is different from how we define it now; if people officially become adults at puberty, or at some numerical milestone far earlier than we place it today, then society does not treat sexual activity with them as pedophilia. Only the abuse of those who are not legally adults is criminalized or punished, at least under that header. (To be clear: I’m not making any claim that sex at an early age ceases to be traumatizing just because your culture deems you an adult. This is only about what society classes as a crime or a sin.)
The question of how society conceptualizes these things brings us to the elephant in the room: rape.
Tons of societies, both now and in the past, would readily agree that rape is a Very Bad Thing. Unfortunately, what they consider to be rape, and why they consider it to be bad, sometimes take appalling forms. I said in the previous essay that intercourse is sometimes treated as a duty spouses owe to one another; well, when that’s true, then there’s no such thing as rape within a marriage. If a husband wants sex from his wife (and it most commonly flows in that direction, though not always), then under this mentality, he’s legally and morally within his rights to take it whenever he wants. The wife gave her permanent consent by marrying him. In my country, we didn’t start to criminalize marital rape until the 1970s, and it wasn’t fully outlawed until 1993.
Nor have wives been the only vulnerable targets. In slave-holding societies, slaves are generally considered fair game; it’s legally impossible to rape them because their consent is meaningless in the eyes of the law. And our problems with victim-blaming now are simply a continuation of past attitudes where any “unchaste” woman — meaning not just a sexually promiscuous woman, but one who behaved immodestly or stepped outside society’s bounds — basically had it coming. Even speaking to a man might be taken as proof that she consented.
In fact, rape was often treated as a Very Bad Thing not because it harmed the woman, but because it harmed the man she belonged to. If she was unmarried, then the offense was against her father, who now had a soiled daughter on his hands. If she was married, then her husband was the one suffering grievous insult. Prosecution or revenge was for the man’s sake, not the woman’s. Meanwhile, folklore and history alike are full of women who died in the aftermath, either committing suicide, or simply perishing from shame. That was basically the only way to retroactively re-establish her virtue — because no virtuous woman would live with that stain — and if she didn’t do it herself, her outraged father or husband might do it for her.
Obviously in the preceding paragraphs I’ve slipped into speaking of rape specifically as something inflicted by men on women. That’s not true, of course, though it does represent the majority of sexual assaults. Women can rape men; women can rape women; men can rape men — and the rape of men might be the most stigmatized of all. Even in societies that aren’t ancient Rome, with citizen men whose status means they should never be beaten or penetrated, there’s a strong sense that being raped damages a man’s identity as a man. As a result, they can be even more profoundly reluctant to come forward than female victims are. This makes the true frequency difficult to measure.
But it does happen . . . and here’s a place where speculative fiction has often fallen down very badly. We have piles of novels that feature the pervasive sexual assault of women as just “how things were in the past” (nevermind the evidence to the contrary from historians who actually study that past), but vanishingly few that touch on the sexual assault of men. And this is true even in violent, hierarchical, all-male contexts — like, say, armies — which we know are where male-on-male rape is the most likely to happen. To pick one extremely well-known and justly criticized example: George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire is positively saturated with sexual assault of female characters, but the Night’s Watch? The violent, hierarchical, all-male military unit that’s sequestered under harsh and dangerous conditions? The narrative provides them with a convenient brothel, rather than having them turn on each other. It doesn’t matter that most of those men are probably straight; so are most of the men who rape each other in war contexts. Rape is more about power than about desire, and as with bestiality, it’s a crime often born of opportunity.
If any of these offenses are going to appear in a story, it behooves the author to pay attention to when, where, and why they happen in reality. And while the in-story response to them may not always match our current ideals, that should be a deliberate choice, not unthinking bias at work.