By T J Pennington
Were it possible, I would have posted this response on Erotica Readers & Writers Association. Regrettably, while Jean Roberta’s’ editorial on women who write male/male romance was there, there was no reply button, and thus no way to discuss or debate her statements…or beliefs that she stated as fact. So I am compelled to answer her comments here.
Ms. Roberta begins by saying, “Sexually-explicit literature comes in various genres and genders these days. Explicit sex scenes can appear in literature of every genre, as well as in “erotica” per se. “ I would agree with the first comment and raise my eyebrows at the second—after all, according to the rules of punctuation, a word or phrase separated from the rest of the sentence by quotation marks implies rather strongly that she doesn’t find explicit sex scenes in the least erotic—but no matter. We will let this, and her assertion that butch and femme are genders on the level of male, female and transgender rather than two different forms of sexually oriented behavior, pass.
However, she then says that “[o]ne genre which interests me is male/male erotic romance” while saying that male/male pairings were more rarely posted to ERWA’s Storytime section than the male/female and female/female pairings. This does not surprise me; ERWA is run by a woman who prefers het pairings above all, and who prefers f/f to m/m. It takes very little time for a member of ERWA to learn that while all pairings may be posted, writers of male/male stories are likelier to find positive feedback on lists and in communities where the webmistress and the membership do not favor the exact opposite of what they’re writing.
Ms. Roberta, though, does not mention the strong het bent of ERWA as a possible reason that male/male writers might be posting elsewhere. Instead, she offers a theory that, allegedly, an unnamed person in an unlinked thread told her. This nameless someone, she said, “explained that heterosexual men (who largely ruled the world) were squicked by images of men with men, but no one was squicked—or threatened—by images of women with women or by more conventional sex (men and women together, provided there was no coercion or incest).”
The theory does not make any sense when applied to ERWA. The membership is overwhelmingly female, and the webmistress and her two associates are female. Therefore, there is little reason for straight patriarchal males to have the influence that Roberta’s unidentified source claims over what gets posted to Storytime—especially as the tales are posted directly to the e-mail list. Nor does the unnamed source, who claims that squicked heterosexual men were the reason that there were were so few self-identified gay men on ERWA’s lists, even consider that gay men might not want to be hanging around a predominantly het-and-lesbian list or website.
All this, she says, was in 1998, when she first joined ERWA. “Some said [male/male erotica] would never fly,” Ms. Roberta says—though again, she does not tell us who said it. Ms. Roberta and these unnamed people seem unaware that gay erotica and literature involving gay characters and gay romances (which is not the same thing as gay erotica) have both been around for a while. “Gay fiction never existed as a distinct genre until the 1970s,” says David Seubert, but, he adds, gay pulps—primarily erotica and exploitation stories, dealing as much with stereotypes, neuroses, the difficulty of coming out and so on as they did with love and sex–existed in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the earliest of the pulps was Andre Tellier’s Twilight Men, which was originally published in 1948. As for literature involving gay romances, I do not think that it would be a stretch to go back to Ancient Greece, with its tales of the Theban Band and the myth of Zeus being smitten by the beauty of the boy Ganymede.
Ms. Roberta does not mention the history of gay literature or gay erotica, however. She cites slash fan fiction and the popularity of yaoi in manga and anime as ways that women became exposed to and started writing male/male romance. “Both the history and the appeal of m/m erotic romance are clearly complex,” she says, and in this I agree with her.
But then, alas, Ms. Roberta hits her stride. She does not like women writing male/male romance, and she says so: “The motives of women who write sex scenes featuring two or more male characters have never seemed self-evident to me.
I confess that I am perplexed. The motives of a writer have never mattered to me in the slightest; all I care about is whether the writer can tell a good, believable, well-characterized story. Why on earth would it matter to anyone why a writer was writing a story, as long as he or she was doing a good job?
Conceding that there is good work being done in the male/male romance genre and that many of the characters are well-written, interesting people—things that she dismisses a couple of sentences later—Ms. Roberta then raises two peculiar arguments.
First, she says, “describing bodies which are different from one’s own is bound to be a challenge.” Apparently she feels that women are inherently less able to write about men because they are not men. Yet she does not make the same complaint about male writers. Men have been writing about women for thousands of years, yet Roberts does not seem to consider their female characters invalid simply because their creators lacked vaginas. But in her discussion of females writing m/m romance or erotica, their lack of a Y chromosome is the first thing that she brings up.
Secondly, she claims that “[t]here seems to be no corresponding genre of f/f erotic romance written by men—aside from the work of a few very versatile writers such as M. Christian.” It astonishes me that she would say that no men seem to be writing f/f, as the genre has been around for some time. Indeed, Edgar-winning mystery author Lawrence Block, to name but one male writer, admits freely that he got his start writing f/f erotica. Some of his books have recently been reprinted. Perhaps it has not occurred to Ms. Roberts that males writing f/f fiction might have female pseudonyms. Consequently, it might be somewhat difficult to discern whether a f/f book was written by a man or not.
Ms. Roberta also makes it clear that she has asked women who write male/male romance why they write on the subject—and that she will not be satisfied by the answer. She has received answers, certainly: that the writers find men interesting, that they like writing about gay men, that they became used to writing about male/male romance in fanfic, that men historically had more freedom than women. She takes great exception to the last, disingenuously comparing maidservants who were seduced or raped by lustful employers to men facing imprisonment and execution if, as she puts it, they wanted to express their love for another man. The argument that men had freedom in the past while women had none does not hold up to scrutiny as a reason to write exclusively about men,” she says.
To me, Ms. Roberta is arguing apples and oranges. Men DID have greater legal, economic and social freedom in the past than women did, simply by virtue of being born male. Men, in general, had access to parts of society that women did not: the military, the law, medicine, the church. If you want to write stories set in the past…well, yes, there were women who ran businessess, wrote books, painted pictures, sculpted statues, healed the sick, ran forges and went to war. But they were all operating, to some degree, outside of the established society, and all were facing a great deal of static–societal and legal. Most women did not do this.
It is possible to write about a woman historically operating in a man’s world, of course, but then you would have only two options: to write an actual biography or a historical novel/romance based on a real woman, or to write about a romance heroine being anachronistically revolutionary and trail-blazing in ways that would not have been legally possible in order to satisfy the outraged sensibilities of readers who do not wish to think about the fact that men and women were not, for most of human history, considered equals.
Now, were gay men liable to lose a great deal if penetration and emission could be proven? Of course they were! Imprisonment and hanging are no joke. I think that is part of the appeal of gay historical romance—the reader’s awareness of how much is on the line for such a couple. There is a certain charm in knowing that someone will hazard all they have and all they are for the sake of the person he or she loves. (And the legal and social consequences for gay historical couples, should they be caught, blackmailed or arrested, means that conflict is built into the story from the beginning.)
Not content with muddling the difference between the legal, economic and social liberties granted to those who were born with a penis and the lack of freedom suffered by males who’d been caught violating sodomy laws, Ms. Roberta then states that there is no reason for women who write male/male historical romance to bother their heads about historical accuracy. “And if it is true, as I suspect, that fantasy literature has had an influence on this genre,” she says, “writers of m/m romance are not trapped in the pillory of historical reality anyway!”
In other words, why bother being historically accurate? Why bother writing historical novels at all? You could write male/male fantasy romance and not have to deal with the problems of gay men in history at all!
And there, as in so much else, Ms. Roberta misses the point. People write what they write because they want to write it. If a writer wants to write accurate historical novels, it is foolish to complain that she could write fantasy novels and not have to deal with actual historical problems. Presumably if the writer wished to write fantasy novels instead of historicals, she would choose to do so.
Ms. Roberta then proceeds to lambaste women who write male/male romance for being self-hating females. “Choosing to write about males need not be based on an aversion to females,” she says primly (strongly implying, by her sentence structure, that it usually is), “but several women writers have explained why they write m/m by explaining why they don’t write erotica about female characters.”
To write about characters that one person does not like or one group of people do not like, is not the same as expressing hatred for characters that a writer does NOT choose to write about. Writing is about freedom–saying what you have to say in the way that you choose to say it. There are not and should not be any restrictions on this. Women can write about gay men. Men can write about gay women. Blacks can write about Asians or Amerindians. Jews can write about Catholic saints. And so on.
Given that the tenor of Ms. Roberta’s comments is “Why can’t women writers write about women?”, I’m not surprised that some of the writers she queried responded by politely explaining why they preferred not to write about women—not realizing that she would misinterpret this as gender hatred. “Invariably,” she says, (contradicting her earlier statement that “several women”–no more than three or four—said this), “these reasons are based on the supposed negative qualities of women in general, or of supposedly unbreakable female roles.”
I have no idea what she means by “supposed negative qualities of women in general.” I suspect that it could have been as innocent as “I like reading and writing about men more than I like reading and writing about women.” As for “supposedly unbreakable female roles”–well, here we are, dealing with Ms. Roberta’s dislike of historical accuracy again. Let’s face it—if a writer who likes historical accuracy wants to write about a love affair in the British army circa 1790, she’s not going to be writing about Lieutenant Elizabeth Farrell, the noblest and bravest officer in His Majesty’s forces. There are plenty of scriveners already composing drivel of that sort, blithely ignoring the fact that the past was not, with respect to women’s rights, an exact copy of the present.
“In addition to the claim that actual women in the past lacked the independence to inspire fiction centering on female characters,” she continues, “several writers have mentioned the difficulty of writing sex scenes involving females who can still be respected afterward. This looks to me like an internalized double standard presented as an objective fact.”
This, more than anything, shows me that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Trail-blazers, whether male or female, are never the norm. Most women in the past—and most men, as well—were not trail-blazers. They were not independent; they simply tried to fit into society as best they could while remaining individuals. And women lived in a far more circumscribed world than men did—one focused on marriage, children, society and religion. Of course, this also limits the kinds of stories that a historically accurate writer can tell.
As for her protest about an internalized double standard about the respectability of sexually active heroines…I’m not sure if the writers she cites were talking about whether the other characters would respect a sexually active unmarried woman during, say, the Regency (which they obviously wouldn’t) or whether they were discussing the fact that while readers rarely have problems with male characters being sexually active in any sub-genre of romance, there is often a division between those who will accept sexually active heroines and those who will not. Those who prefer virginal heroines—especially virginal historical heroines–are often passionate about them, protesting those who write about sexually active women and promising to boycott future books by such an author. I think that the reluctance to write about sexually active women has less to do with an internalized double standard than an awareness of historical vs. anachronistic attitudes and a canny knowledge of what the market will bear.
Ms. Roberta then states that she sent a draft of this article to the women who replied to her questions and asked that she be allowed to quote them anonymously. I don’t understand why she wanted to quote them anonymously, rather than putting names with specific quotations. Perhaps it would have been more difficult to make all of the women who write male/male romance sound as if they thought the same way. In any event, one of the writers refused permission. Ms. Roberta seems to feel that she got around the issue by not quoting directly but paraphrasing. Given her lack of comprehension of the women she is paraphrasing, I can only wonder how accurate the paraphrases are.
“It is clear to me by now that I can’t find a non-controversial way to report other writers’ squicks,” she continues. Again, she puzzles me. Up till now, she has been discussing why women write male/male romance. Squicks have not come into the discussion. Nevertheless, she comes up with an entire laundry list of squicks at this point—a list so long it only serves to demonstrate that one person’s squick is another person’s turn-on.
Then she delivers her polemic:
My comments here will probably squick a number of readers who will want to expose me, not themselves, as irrationally biased and therefore undeserving of this platform. One of the ironies of a commitment to tolerance is that it has to involve “zero tolerance” (to quote the anti-abuse movement) for hatred presented as fact.
I will not discuss whether or not Ms. Roberta is irrationally biased. I will say that she has stated a dislike for women writing about men based on female biology, an aversion to historical accuracy which does not stress of radical feminist view of women and a granite conviction that women who write about men are self-hating females—without supplying proof of any of her assertions. I feel certain that the readers of Speak Its Name can decide for themselves if this is biased, irrational, both or neither.
(However, I do find it amusing that she has zero tolerance for hatred presented as a fact while presenting her own considerable hatred for male/male romance and women who write it as a fact.)
“In my world,” she continues, subtly suggesting that she does not live in the same world as the rest of us, “men are approximately half the human race, and no more than that. Women are approximately half, and no less.” I think that this is her way of saying that men are disproportionately represented in romance, but I’m not entirely sure.
At any rate, she goes on…only now what she’s saying has no connection with the rest of the article. “The occasional lurid accident which happens when a sadomasochistic scene goes wrong is overshadowed by the constant, nonconsensual, institutionally-enforced oppression of whole demographics in most cultures on earth.”
Nonconsensual oppression? As opposed to what? Consensual oppression? And what, oh what, does constant, institutionally-enforced oppression of most cultures on earth have to do with women who write male/male romance? And what does a lurid accident in S & M have to do with either? If there’s a connection here, I’m not seeing it.
“Heterosexuality”, she goes on to say, “is culturally taught and enforced. It is not instinctive in all people, most of whom are not white.”
I don’t know what a cultural bias toward heterosexuality or the non-whiteness of most of the human race has to do with the subject of male/male romance. Again, I’m baffled.
Finally, she contradicts her entire article with these words: “Human beings are sexual and complicated, and these qualities can be found in the literature they write. That’s my view and I’m sticking to it.”
As it happens, I agree. Human beings are complicated, and they have multitudes of reasons for the things they say and do and paint and write. Those reasons are not always easy to understand, particularly if what is being said and done is not to one’s taste, but trying to understand is better than projecting one’s beliefs and prejudices on others and reporting those prejudices as stone cold fact. Projecting one’s assumptions onto a group one does not like does not really fit a vaunted ideal of zero tolerance.
I would hope that Ms. Roberta is not given the opportunity to use ERWA as a bully pulpit again. There is quite enough hatred in the world already without her adding to it. Frankly, Ms. Roberta should forget about the mote she sees in the eyes of women who write male/male romance, and concentrate on removing the beam from her own.
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