Posts Tagged ‘Men’

Trigger warning: some talk of rape, particularly if you click the link.

Internets, we need to talk about fantasy writer R. Scott Bakker.

Specifically, we need to talk about what he has to say on the subject of women, sexism and feminism in his own work. Which is, frankly, both frightening and creepy as fuck, but made even more problematic by the fact that Bakker considers himself to be a feminist writer (or at least, neither a sexist nor misogynistic one). In fact, he is both angry and flabbergasted at the temerity of anyone who suggests otherwise – particularly his “feminist critics”.

Here are some of Bakker’s quotes from the above link:

Evil is sexualised in my books, primarily because the primary icon of evil in modern society is the serial murderer, which is to say the serial rapist who kills his victims. In this sense, ‘evil’ is clearly gendered in contemporary consciousness…

What I’m always interested in in all my books is the reader, their moral sensibilities and their biological drives(among other things). I always assume this reader is male. As a male, I know the ways of the male gaze…

I have a very grim, very pessimistic view of male sexuality. For instance, in NP [his new book, Neuropath], for instance, one of the ‘future facts’ referenced is the discovery of a ‘rape module’ in male brains… As dismaying as this possibility is, it seems to make a whole helluva lot of evolutionary sense… The point, at every turn, is to poke the reader and say, some part of this is you, some part of you likes this, irrespective of what you shout…

So here I am, being relentlessly critical, not only of the genre, but of male sexuality and where it’s headed, and being called a misogynist because I’m provoking by engaging – playing Nabokov’s game…

The future will be more and more pornographic. Why? Because we, as a species, lack the conceptual resources to make any argument regarding moral conduct outside instances of obvious harm stick…

So, yes, women get the short end of the stick in all my books.Why? Because they find themselves caught in predatory systems designed to exploit them. Depicting strong women, ‘magic exemptions’, simply fuels the boot-strapping illusion that is strangling contemporary feminism: the assumption that the individual can overcome their social circumstances…

I have yet to encounter one remotely convincing argument as [to] why the approach I’m taking is inherently ‘bad’… I have no duty to conform to anyone’s ‘rules of representation’.


Or, to put it another way, Bakker writes:

  • for an exclusively male audience,
  • in the male gaze,
  • using sexualised evil commited by men against women,
  • in pornographic detail,
  • in the apparent belief that rape is an inevitable part of male psychology,
  • with the deliberate aim of omitting strong female characters

and doesn’t understand why feminist readers characterise him as sexist and misogynistic; or, at the absolute least, not feminist. Indeed, the idea that writing positively both for and about women is integral to being a feminist writer seems never to have occurred to him.

The level of doublethink here is staggering, and yet I can just about parse his (incredibly twisted) logic. Seemingly, Bakker thinks that male violence, and particularly sexual violence, is both innate and inevitable. His aim, at least in part, is to convince his male readers likewise, showing them their own dark side in order to make them uncomfortably aware of its dangers. As entities, women who triumph over, alter or otherwise subvert this reality are completely unrealistic, because no amount of hope or belief will ever change man’s bestial nature, and therefore women will always be oppressed. Any story or statement to the contrary is damaging to feminism, because it gives women an unrealistic view of their prospects in life. Instead, it’s better to focus on making men aware of their innate capacity for evil, so that they can try and rein it in.

This isn’t even a white knight view of female helplessness; chivalry at least demands an effort towards saving, protecting and helping women. Instead, Bakker seems to believe that the best possible outcome isn’t for men to protect women, but to repress their desire to hurt them – which isn’t the same thing. Feminism in this view, then, shouldn’t be about female empowerment, but about making men aware of their own violence. Which, presumably, is why Bakker is so skeptical of such feminists who do critique his work – poor souls, they’re under the deluded impression that things could ever get better! He rejects the label of misogynist because he doesn’t personally hate women: he just thinks we’re doomed to suffer at the hands of men beyond our ability to combat it. And he rejects the label of sexist because, in his own, warped way, he’s trying to make people aware of the only real danger he perceives as a threat to us: sexual violence.

In short: Bakker is a nihilist, and his nihilism informs his gender politics, and both inform his writing; and I suspect, therefore, that until or unless he’s willing and able to disentangle his beliefs about nihilism and the inevitability of male violence from his concept of feminism (to say nothing of his concept of reality), he can’t actually have a concept of feminism that accords with, you know. What feminism actually is. (Or reality, for that matter.)

In the mean time, though, Mr Bakker, if you’re listening (and based on the experiences of others, I’m going to assume you are): if you write books specifically for men, in the male gaze, that are devoid of unvictimised female characters, full of pornographically written rape, and which represent a world-view in which women can never succeed – and where, in fact, the best we can hope for is that men learn to like us enough that they repress their terrible, innate desire to hurt us – you shouldn’t be surprised that many people – most of them feminists! – find your work appalling. Feminism believes that the world can and will get better for women: in fact, it exists to make this happen! Feminism has a higher opinion of men than you do, because it doesn’t countenance the biological inevitability of male violence; rather, it acknowledges that, as some cultures and individuals believe this (falsely) to be so, it ends up being promoted, excused and deferred to beyond all reason. And if you believe both these things to be false, then you shouldn’t be surprised that feminists categorise you as part of the problem: as a sexist, and a misogynist.

Because whatever you think of women, Mr Bakker, your willingness to deny our agency and strip us of hope says it all.

Don’t let the title put you off. This isn’t what you think.

With few exceptions, there comes a point in every little girl’s life when she first suffers exclusion on the basis of gender. For me, this happened regularly in primary school sports: the boys didn’t like it when I wanted to play cricket, and would actively gang up to ensure I was either kept away from the bat or relegated to the furthest reaches of the outfield. Children aren’t paragons of political correctness: unlike later in life, I knew definitively then that gender was the reason for this behaviour, because I was openly told as much. Over and over again, whether it was soccer or cricket or handball or football or some other thing the boys were doing, I had to fight for inclusion, because even at the tender ages of seven and eight and nine, boys knew that girls were no good at sport; that my presence on the field, let alone my desire to play, was aberrant, and that my foregone incompetence would spoil it for the rest of them.

This isn’t the only way it can happen. Some of the exclusion is even orchestrated by adults, who, whether intentionally or not, project onto children their subconsciously-absorbed ideas about who should be doing what. Don’t play with the truck, dear – it’s for boys. Wouldn’t you rather wear a dress? Only boys have short hair; yours is lovely and long. The inverse happens too, of course, and to equal detriment: in fact, when adults police the behaviour of children, the crackdown on boys who behave in feminine ways is far more severe than what transgressing girls experience, with the result that boys are much more likely to be mocked and policed by their peers, too, and from an earlier age. My own experiences bear this out: only at high school was I ostracized for being masculine. Prior to that, none of my female friends ever minded my tomboyishness – but from the earliest years of primary school, my male friends were actively persecuted by other boys for hanging around with a girl.

The above scenarios are not atypical. Thanks to the hyper-gendering of children’s toys, clothes, television shows, picture books, dress-up costumes and perceived interests, the basic rules of childhood play are rife with learned gender politics. The ubiquity of school-sanctioned sports and games – that is, things boys are stereotypically meant to be good at – during primary education, especially when placed against the comparative dearth of stereotypically girlish activities, means that the dynamics of exclusion work primarily against girls. This is because, while boys are seldom confronted with or encouraged to participate recreationally in ‘feminine’ activities, girls are regularly taught and told to engage in ‘masculine’ ones. This means that unless, like my childhood friends, boys decide on their own initiative to befriend girls or take up ‘feminine’ activities, they may never experience gender-exclusion at school; but that girls, thanks to the gendering of sports and particular play activities, almost certainly will. Perhaps more importantly, however, this skewed dynamic means that both boys and girls are taught to associate exclusion with femaleness. In the vast majority of cases, girls aren’t penalised for behaving like boys – after all, teachers encourage them at sports, and girls are allowed to wear boyish clothing – but for being girls doing masculine things. Boys, on the other hand, are penalised both for behaving like girls AND for being boys doing feminine things. Throw in the fact that boys are invariably penalised more harshly for their transgressions than girls – adults police boys who wear dresses; peers police boys who play with dolls – and you end up with a situation where all children, regardless of gender, are absorbing the message that for many things, it’s better to be masculine and male than feminine and female.

We also teach children they live in an equal society.

Clearly, this isn’t true; and as the above should demonstrate, examples of its untruth abound in childhood. But children, by and large, are not critical thinkers, and adults, by and large, are sadly averse to questions from children that challenge the status quo. Asked whether boys can wear make-up, for instance, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that many, if not most parents would answer that no, they can’t; or that they could, technically, but don’t; or that make-up is just for girls; or even that it’s wrong for boys to do so. And because their question has been answered in accordance with what they see in the world, most children will probably nod and store that information safely away, so that if, some time in the future, they do see a boy or man wearing make-up, they’ll instinctively find it troubling – even though their original question has long since been forgotten. And all of that only concerns gender differences: throw in the additional and equally complex problems of race, nationality, sexual orientation and culture, and you’ve got yourself a maelstrom of youthfully-learned biases.

The point is, childhood matters. A lot.

Which is where we come to the inherent problem of telling these same children, once they’ve grown into teens and young adults, that society is equal. It doesn’t help – and is, I’d contend, actively harmful – that lessons which mention equality are almost always tied to the achievements of a particular historical group (the women’s suffrage movement, for instance) rather than to the pervasive bias that made their actions necessary to begin with. This creates the false impression that, as the movement ultimately succeeded, the equality of the outcome was absolute – and as the lesson tends to be about the movement itself, rather than what came afterwards or its ongoing relevance in the present day, students are left, quite literally, with the feeling that a chapter has been closed. Even if accepting the existence of total equality as gospel means actively discounting our own experiences with inequality as anomalous, the majority of students will do so – because even though teens frequently question the relevance of school or the utility of its lessons, questioning the truthfulness of their content in the absence of external prompting invokes a far greater conspiracy.

How, then, does any of this relate to the frankly incendiary notion that teaching equality hurts men?

Because of everyone, straight, white men are the least likely people to experience exclusion and inequality first-hand during their youth, and are therefore the most likely to disbelieve its existence later in life. Unless they seek out ‘feminine’ pastimes as children – and why would they, when so much of boy-culture tells them not to? – they will never be rebuked or excluded on the basis of gender. Unless someone actively takes the time to convince them otherwise, they will learn as teens that the world is an equal place – an assertion that gels absolutely with their personal experiences, such that even if women, LGBTQ individuals and/or POC  are rarely or never visible in their world, they are nonetheless unlikely to stop and question it. They will likely study white-male-dominated curricula, laugh ironically at sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, and participate actively in a popular culture saturated with successful, varied, complex and interesting versions of themselves – and this will feel right and arouse no suspicion whatever, because this is what equality should feel like. They will experience no sexual or racial discrimination when it comes to getting a job and will, on average, earn more money than the women and POC around them – and if they stop to reflect on either of these things, they’ll do so in the knowledge that, as the world is equal, any perceived hierarchical differences are simply reflective of the meritocracy at work.

They will not see how the system supports their success above that of others, because they have been told that equality stripped them of their privileges long ago. Many will therefore react with bafflement and displeasure to the idea of positive discrimination, hiring quotas or any other such deliberate attempts at encouraging diversity – because not only will it seem to genuinely disadvantage them, but it will look like an effort to undermine equality by granting new privileges to specific groups. Never having experienced inequality, therefore, the majority of straight white men will be absolutely oblivious to their own advantages – not because they must necessarily be insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic or unaware of the principles of equality; but because they have been told, over and over again, that there is no inequality left for them – or anyone else – to experience – and everything they have experienced up to that point will only have proved them right.

Let the impact of that sink in for a moment.

By teaching children and teenagers that equality already exists, we are actively blinding the group that most benefits from inequality – straight white men – to the prospect that it doesn’t. Privilege to them feels indistinguishable from equality, because they’ve been raised to believe that this is how the world behaves for everyone. And because the majority of our popular culture is straight-white-male-dominated, stories that should be windows into empathy for other, less privileged experiences have instead become mirrors, reflecting back at them the one thing they already know: that their lives both are important and free from discrimination.

And this hurts men. It hurts them by making them unconsciously perpetrate biases they’ve been actively taught to despise. It hurts them by making them complicit in the distress of others. It hurts them by shoehorning them into a restrictive definition masculinity from which any and all deviation is harshly punished. It hurts them by saying they will always be inferior parents and caregivers, that they must always be active and aggressive even when they long for passivity and quietude, that they must enjoy certain things like sports and beer and cars or else be deemed morally suspect. It hurts them through a process of indoctrination so subtle and pervasive that they never even knew it was happening , and when you’ve been raised to hate inequality, discovering that you’ve actually been its primary beneficiary is horrifying – like learning that the family fortune comes from blood money.

To be clear: these personal hurts are not the same as cultural disadvantages (though in the case of men being forced to adhere to a restrictive masculinity, they can certainly cause legitimate pain, distress and disadvantage, the discussion of which would merit a blog of its own). This post isn’t about bemoaning the woes of the privileged, but about making clear the circumstances under which the existence of that privilege can so often go unquestioned and unnoticed by those who have it; and to point out why, when the question of their being privileged is first raised, so many people react with disbelief and anger. I say people, because although I’ve focused this piece on the privileges of straight white men, they are not the only privileged group. Intersectionality must be a serious part of any discourse centered on equality, or else those of us who aren’t straight white men but who nonetheless enjoy privilege will only be training ourselves to unsee our advantages in just as problematic and damaging a way.

We all, right now, need to stop the pretense that the world is anything near an equal place. Sexism, racism and homophobia are not only commonplace, but actively institutional. Universal suffrage and the civil rights movement are not, and never have been, the be-all, end-all of either our legal or cultural freedoms. Fraternities of straight white men have equality – but when you consider that this selfsame group has majority control of Western government, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the ubiquity of the lie that everyone else has it, too. The only way to fight for equality is to acknowledge that we don’t yet have it – and to admit that sometimes, our self-perception, no matter how well-intentioned, is the very thing at fault.

Because teaching equality doesn’t just hurt men. It hurts everyone.

Responding to my post on default narrative sexism, commenter Kevin Veale reported the following incident:

It also reminds me, sadly, of a thread yesterday where an RPG author posted a question about how to shift cultural dynamics about gender in an RPG setting. The thread then proceeded to implode with a bunch of bullshit where people were citing other examples where authors had tried that as “bullshit” because “They’re doing unrealistic stuff purely to create a bizarro world where it’d be cool if women were cavalry,” rather than the listed intent of said author to create a different gender dynamic.

Being both a geek and a ladyperson, this phenomenon is one I’ve encountered many times before, and always felt frustrated by – so much so that I’ve decided to upgrade my response from comment to post.

The sort of incident mentioned above is sadly common in geek culture – a blind and subtle species of sexism-as-normative wherein any attempt to reverse established gender dynamics is written off as a nothing more than cheap attempt at novelty by virtue of the fact that the audience either didn’t expect it or doesn’t see the utility of it. Back when I first started playing D&D in highschool, I remember the pleasant feeling of shock and surprise when, on opening the handbook, I found that all the pronouns used to describe the hypothetical players and characters were female ones. When, seconds later, I remarked on this fact out loud, my then-boyfriend instantly expressed his irritation at it, saying something along the lines of, ‘They’re only doing it to seem cool and politically correct.’ And being sixteen, I instantly found myself agreeing with him: partly because he was my boyfriend (alas!) but mostly because it genuinely did look weird – by which I mean, of course, that I’d never seen it done before. And because I had no grounding in feminism at that point, and even though it had made me feel validated and welcomed as a girl geek just moments earlier, I took up his stance both then and for quite a while afterwards: that switching up the gender pronouns was just an arbitrary, pointless thing people sometimes did to look hip. Whereas, of course, the point was right there in my initial reaction: to make girls like me feel happier playing D&D, and – though it failed with my group of friends – perhaps to make male players more thoughtful and less judgmental when it came to women in general.

As far as I can tell, straight male geeks in particular tend to adopt this position – that is, Random Girls = Bad – for any of three main reasons:

1. Geek culture is so overwhelmingly dominated by images of hyper-sexualised women (anime, maquettes, comics, video games) that even though female characters are frequently shown to excel in traditionally masculine roles across all such media – as mechanics, hackers, warriors, engineers, gunsmiths, leaders and pilots, for instance – their visual, physical sexiness (and, frequently, costuming) is designed to signal that these attributes, rather than being markers of competence and equality, are instead intended as, essentially, masturbatory aids on par with their physical assets: the fantasy of hot women made even hotter by their (to the audience) unrealistic-yet-droolworthy possession of masculine skills. This is why fanservice, unrealistic bodies, ridiculous costuming and wildly impossible poses are so very, very frustrating to female geeks and feminists: because ninety-nine times out of a hundred, their sole utility and relevance is on the level of sexual exploitation. And though most straight male fans are self-aware enough to realise such bodies are meant as unrealistic fantasies, many still have a disturbing tendency to take the logic further, concluding that if women with ridiculous bodies and costumes are unrealistic – and if, given this fact, it’s similarly improbable that women who look, dress and act like that would actually go about their jobs that way in the real world – then logically, real women must not belong in those professions, because the idea that they might do is itself part of the fantasy.

2. Having realised that the depiction of women in games, comics, collectibles and anime is meant as part of a tailor-made fantasy, many straight male geeks, somewhat unsurprisingly, have become aware of something else: that as said fantasy has been explicitly created for and subsequently targeted, marketed and sold to them, there must be someone out there whose goal is to exploit – and subsequently profit from – their sexual desires. Rather than undertake an intellectual exploration of the relationship between sex, gender and advertising in a capitalist system, however, a disappointing number of these geeks make a different and altogether more prejudicial leap: that the presence of women in an otherwise male-dominated environment can be directly correlated with the efforts of corporations to take their money. Their willingness to pay for the product in this equation, whether pre-existing or not, is immaterial: women, and particularly sexy women, have become a red-flag event. Any attempt to insert women into a setting previously devoid of them must therefore come under immediate suspicion. Women are a cash-gathering exercise, the go-to weapon in some cynical marketeer’s arsenal to help Company A more readily collect the hard-earned monies of geeks everywhere; booth babes being a case in point. After all, straight male geeks are very aware of their own negative sexual stereotyping: the fact that they may conform to it at times doesn’t make it any less offensive when it’s being used to exploit them – and the fact that it is used exploitatively is why the sexy female character problem exists to begin with.

But that doesn’t excuse their knee-jerk reaction to and blaming of women themselves: sexism and the system are at fault, not women as entities. And yet, the niggling suspicion of straight male geeks that girls are just there to take their money ends up tarnishing not only legitimate, unsexualised instances of female characterisation, but the efforts of actual geek girls to be taken seriously. All girl gamer group? Yeah, they’re just a novelty act – we’re only meant to like them ‘coz they’re pretty. Girls reading comics or playing video games? Hot, but they’re probably just doing it so boys will like them. Girl geeks in costumes? Total attention whores – they just want men to throw money at them. The same thing happens in music circles, too, among other places. All girl rock band? Fuckable pop-moppet posers – they only got signed ‘coz they look good on a poster. And on, and on, and on.

3. Genuine incomprehension. This is the kindest blindness – a benevolent sexism found in straight male geeks who have nothing against women, per se; it’s just that, all unaware of their own privilege, they’ve never had to think about sexism or exploitation or anything like that, so if the issue comes up offhand, they’re unlikely to see the utility in trying to make women more visible, or to change the way they’re depicted – and if there’s no utility, why do it? After all, women have the vote now, right? And equal opportunities and laws and stuff? And it’s not like anyone’s forcing them to play video games or read comics or watch anime or whatever, so why is it our problem if they don’t like how it works?

Depending on the personality of the geek in question, any conversation after this point can go one of several ways. The most positive, assuming both that you have the time and inclination to explain sexism in geek culture from first principles and that your interlocutor is willing to listen, is that they realise the problem exists and see the utility of female inclusion. The most negative will devolve into angry defenses of the status quo along the lines of the points raised above, with (if you’re very unlucky) a side-order of genuine misogyny thrown in. I mention this because, while the first two points follow fairly specific trains of thought, the reasons for ignorance are wide-ranging; as are potential reactions to the prospect of enlightenment.  Nobody likes to be told they’ve been complicit in something they might otherwise hold in contempt, and particularly not when you tie that complicity to the things they love most, no matter how significant the connection is.

And this, really, is the crux of the problem. Thanks to several decades’ worth of abuse and mockery from the mainstream, geeks as a culture are used to seeing themselves – ourselves – as underdogs. This creates a false sense of certainty that, being outcasts together, we can’t possibly be discounting, belittling or abusing anyone, let alone other outcasts, in the way that we ourselves have been discounted, belittled, abused. Which premise rests squarely on the demonstrably false assurance that people never become what is done to them; that no victims ever become perpetrators. And as I have said again and again, intentionality only takes you so far, and it isn’t very. Intend all you want to be a responsible driver – but if you run someone over by accident, they’ll still be just as dead.

Cards on the table: I had never heard of Joel Stein until five minutes ago. Nonetheless, having just read his oh-so-condescending op-ed for the NY Times on why, in his estimation, adults shouldn’t read YA, I feel qualified to make the above assertion.

Why a sexist ass, you ask, instead of just the regular kind? Because certainly, his regular assishness isn’t in doubt. After all, any adult who’ll personally vouch for the suckiness of an activity he refuses to try on the grounds of having intuited said suckiness from afar – much like a toddler declaring his undying hatred for unfamiliar vegetables – is clearly deserving of intellectual mockery. But where in that is the sexism?

By way of answer, allow me to compare Joel’s opening paragraph –

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.

with his last:

Let’s have the decency to let tween girls have their own little world of vampires and child wizards and games you play when hungry. Let’s not pump Justin Bieber in our Saabs and get engaged at Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland. Because it’s embarrassing. You can’t take an adult seriously when he’s debating you over why Twilight vampires are O.K. with sunlight.

The bolding is mine; take note of it! Because rather than a critique of the content of YA novels, what this piece actually represents is the following assertion: that it’s fundamentally embarrassing for grown men to share any interests whatever with teenage girls. In fact, according to Joel, it is actually more embarrassing for a man to identify with a teen girl via the medium of literature than if he were publicly demeaning and sexualising her via the medium of pornography!

In five paragraphs, the only gender pronouns he uses are in those paragraphs: male to describe the adults who shouldn’t read YA, and female to describe the intended readership of the books to which he’s specifically objecting. Five paragraphs does not a lengthy article make. Certainly, it’s not long enough to enter into a nuanced discussion of why adults read YA (what then, I wonder, does Joel make of the adults who write it? or does he imagine that YA books spring full-fledged from the legs of hipsters, like Athena sprang from Zeus?), the changing face of the genre, or anything approaching an intelligent, reasoned argument.

It is, however, more than long enough to demonstrate his sexist credentials, and the nature of his real fear, which is that men might voluntarily be enjoying stuff written for girls. Oh noes! The horror! What could be worse than adult men identifying with the demographic they’ve historically most oppressed! GENDER EMPATHY IS SCARY AND TERRIBLE AND UNMASCULINE AND PLANES WILL FALL FROM THE SKY.

Those damn tween girls with their Bieber and their Twilights. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting the vote and refusing to act in pornography. The HUSSIES.

Yesterday, my husband and I rewatched Season 1 of Sherlock. It’s an awesome show, and one that was made even better by repeat viewing in all respects save one: the treatment of the women. I’ve blogged before, pointedly and with bitterness, about the terrible things Steven Moffat routinely does to his female characters in Doctor Who, and though his motives seem to stem more from ignorance than malice, the results are nonetheless unpleasant.

Early on, we’re introduced to Molly Hooper, Sherlock’s contact at the morgue. His obliviousness to her interest in him is played for laughs, which is fine and as it should be; what’s less fine is the way he consistently and cruelly criticises her appearance, which is also played for laughs. In A Study In Pink, he remarks on the fact that without her lipstick, she doesn’t look as nice; it makes her mouth ‘too small’. In The Blind Banker, he defuses her legitimate anger at his behaviour by complimenting her hair, which Molly accepts with a giggle. Finally, in The Great Game, Molly brings in a fake boyfriend, Jim, to try and attract Sherlock’s attention. As the boyfriend turns out to be Moriarty, the implication is that he’s duped her into friendship, though we don’t find this out until later. In the meantime, however, ‘Jim’ has pretended to be gay, which Sherlock points out (there’s a lot of guff about personal grooming and choice in underpants, which feels hideously superficial until it’s revealed that Jim has, in fact, slipped Sherlock his number) – and that might be fine, too, except that he also takes the time to tell Molly ‘You’ve put on three pounds since you’ve been with him.’

‘Two and a half,’ says Molly, desperately.

‘Three,’ Sherlock says again.

The encounter ends, not unsurprisingly, with Molly fleeing the room in tears, and even though Watson points out that Sherlock has been unkind, this is on the basis of so callously revealing her boyfriend to be gay, and not for the remark about her weight.

Next, we have Mrs Hudson. Given the character’s origins, it’s less surprising that she’s given short shrift, but her treatment by the other male characters nonetheless rankles. At two points in The Great Game, she’s shown nattering pleasantly (or trying to natter pleasantly) with Holmes, Lestrade and Watson: in both instances, she is rudely ignored, while in one they actually walk away and leave her talking mid-sentence. Again, this is played for laughs, the implication being that Mrs Hudson, above and beyond being a genial, clueless landlady, is so utterly irrelevant that nobody needs to even acknowledge her presence or attempts at conversation.

Sargent Sally Donovan gets a slightly better deal, in that she’s the one woman shown to interact aggressively with Sherlock, calling him Freak and telling Watson that he’s a psychopath; but we’re also meant to dislike her for this very same reason. She’s also a WOC – the only non-white cast member, in fact – and given the unfortunate tendency of the TV industry to continuously cast black women in angry roles, this facts strikes me as being doubly unfortunate. And then, of course, Sherlock makes the obligatory remark about her sexuality, pointing out to Watson that she’s been sleeping with her (equally unlikeable) white colleague, Anderson, saying she clearly spent the night at his house and must have ‘scrubbed your floors, going by the state of her knees’. Which – as ever – is played for laughs.

Charming.

Then we have Mycroft’s female assistant, Anthea, who’s shown as being aloof and disinterested in Watson to the point of outright rudeness. Texting almost constantly, she only looks up to rebuff him and, on their second meeting, professes not to know him at all. We’re meant to find her vapid and distant, despite the fact that, as Mycroft’s assistant, she must be exceptionally intelligent and capable. Her characterisation might be brief, but she nonetheless fits the pattern of how women on the show are treated.

Finally for the recurring characters, there’s Sarah, Watson’s love interest. As is par for the course, we know almost nothing about her except that she’s a doctor and a love interest; she obligingly takes on Watson’s locum duties when he falls asleep at work and then gets thoroughly damselled at the end of The Blind Banker, with the intervening time spent being sneered at by Sherlock. Not exactly an offensive piece of characterisation, but hardly stand-out, either. Besides her attraction to Watson, her passivity is her only defining feature.

And the one-off female characters are hardly treated any better. The primary victim in A Study In Pink is female (and one cannot help but notice how her love of pink has been tied to her femininity for the purpose of the plot); in The Blind Banker, Mei Lin Yao is killed while trying to escape a female villain who is herself killed at the end of the episode; and in The Great Game, the gallery owner, Ms Wenceslas, is shown up by Sherlock after trying to exhibit a forged painting. In the same episode, two women, a man and a child have explosives strapped to them: the middle-aged woman is called a ‘stupid bitch’ by Moriarty, while her blind, elderly counterpart is called ‘defective’ and then blown up for trying to describe his voice. Add to this another female victim – Connie Prince, a celebrity makeover artist – and a wife who colluded in her husband’s disappearance in order to collect insurance money, and the scoresheet for female characterisation remains steadfastly at zero.

But wait! I hear you cry. What’s wrong with having female victims and villains? They can’t all be men, and it’s not like there weren’t male victims and villains on offer, too!

Which, yes, of course; and under ordinary circumstances, unless there was an established pattern of preference for pretty female victims, I’d be happy to leave well enough alone. But in Sherlock’s case, these otherwise ordinary oneshot characters all stand as testament to the fact in nearly five hours of television, every single female character is either a villain, a victim, a dupe or a damsel: someone to be arrested, avenged, ridiculed or rescued. And under those circumstances, no, I do not care that a few male characters also suffer the same fate, because as the entire narrative premise is centred on Two Exceptionally Awesome Men Being Awesome And Exceptional, there is no imbalance between clever/likeable and stupid/unlikeable blokes to merit the comparison.

I am not asking for a female character to be smarter or better than Sherlock Holmes: it is, after all, his story. I’m not even arguing that it ought to pass the Bechdel test (which it doesn’t), even though I’d love it if it did. I am, however, deeply disappointed that not even one female character is anywhere near the equal of Watson, Lestrade or Mycroft, or who at the very least could engage in some sort of banter with one or any of them. There is a great, yawning gap between “as smart as Sherlock Holmes” and “gormless passivity”, and while we have male characters aplenty who fit that bill, not a single woman does. The only woman described as clever, in fact, is the victim in A Study In Pink – but seeing as how she’s already dead, that doesn’t add much to the overall quality of female repartee.

But then, the show is the brainchild of Steven Moffat, who hasn’t got aspectacular track record when it comes to writing women, and to whom the following quote from 2004 is lamentably attributable:

“There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands. The world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level – except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male.”

Which, um.

ABOUT THAT.

And it angers me. It angers me because I tend like, if not love, the stuff Moffat works with – Doctor Who and Sherlock and Tintin – but am forced to do so in spite of what he believes and says and writes about my gender. And I am SICK of it.

 This piece  is also posted here.

Scrolling through my Google Reader just now, I came across a post at the Book Pushers website, stating their must-have titles for July.  In order of appearance and category, the books listed are:

Urban Fantasy

Night Veil, by Yasmine Galenorn

Naked City, an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow

Hammered, by Kevin Hearne

Ghost Soldiers, by Keith Melton

Spell Bound, by Kelley Armstrong

Ghost Story, by Jim Butcher

Bloodlands, by Christine Cody

.

Paranormal Romance

Skin Dive, by Ava Gray

Dead Alert, by Bianca D’Arc

.

Steampunk

Dead Iron, by Devon Monk

.

Young Adult

Touch of Frost, by Jennifer Estep

.

Historical Romance

Heartbreak Creek, by Kaki Warner

.

Contemporary Romance

Only Mine, by Susan Mallery

.

What struck me immediately was the staggering difference between how male and female protagonists were depicted on the covers. The heroines of Night Veil and Spell Bound are both shown with bare, toned arms and midriffs, their long hair loose, wearing tight pants and staring sexily forwards from the center of the cover. By contrast, the heroes of  Hammered, Ghost Soldiers, Ghost Story, Bloodlands and Dead Iron are universally set to one side or depicted glancing with their heads turned down or sideways, and all of them bar Atticus of Hammered (who has a sword) are wearing Badass Longcoats. Three of them have weapons. The cover of Naked City, which features both a man and a woman, follows a similar theme: the man is set to the side, glancing downwards and swathed in a coat, while the woman stares sexily from a place of prominence, her corseted cleavage, long hair and bare shoulders on prominent display. Even the YA cover, Touch of Frost, shows a pretty, long-haired girl staring sexily outwards. Note that in every instance, the long-haired girls have brown/dark hair, which the cynic in me thinks is used to denote Sexy Girls Who Are Neither Stupid Not Sluttish, both negative characteristics which are the traditional purview of blondes. 

Compare this with the four romance titles: the two paranormal offerings, Skin Dive and Dead Alert, both show shirtless, well-muscled men. One is faceless, set to the side; the other has a sword, and is accompanied by a PVC clad woman, who – yes – has bare arms, long dark hair, a gun and a come-hither expression. The historical romance has a landscape; the contemporary shows a man and woman, both clothed, on a beach, cuddling intimately.

So, look. I am in no way trying to disparage these books, because they all sound awesome, and at least two of them are already on my TBR list; nor am I trying to point fingers at the authors, or say that the images, taken individually, aren’t compelling. But what the hell is going on in Coverlandia? I mean, it’s not like I’ve been unaware of the gendering of SFF book covers, and I’m certainly not a noob when it comes to trope-spotting. But seeing it all laid out so clearly in a post that had nothing whatsoever to do with cover commentary really brought it home to me. So far as I can tell, these covers have all been constructed in keeping with a set of rules that must look something like this:

  • Sexy, bare-armed brunette women and brooding, weaponised men in coats sell books.
  • Men will be objectified only when the books are being marketed to women.
  • Women will be objectified regardless of audience, though this will be dialed back slightly for YA titles.
  • Men are sexiest when they appear diffident.
  • Women are sexist when they appear confident.
  • Unclothed men are sexy. Clothed Men are sexy. Unclothed women are sexy. Clothed Women, though, are not.

And so on, to the point where my response to the whole wretched business is as follows:

   

In what will come as a shock to absolutely no one, I have a contentious opinion to put forwards.

Tentatively.

I’m not a hundred per cent on any of this: it’s something I’ve been chewing over for the past while, and I’m writing it up because I’d like to hear what other people think. But this is not a definitive statement of my beliefs – rather, it’s an attempt to tease out an idea that may or may not stand up to actual criticism. Still, I think it’s an interesting problem, and I’m going to make an effort.

So:

As things stand, female notions of male sexiness in our culture are deeply problematic, particularly as relates to feminism. Traditional concepts of masculinity – and, by extension, patriarchy – hinge on the three P’s of strength: protectiveness, power, and physique. Feminism has sought to challenge this ideal, emphasising equality, intelligence and agency for both sexes. The P’s aren’t just for men, this argument goes, but even so, they need not and ought not be the defining characteristics of society. Women have taken charge of their own sexuality, and feminists are fiercely – and rightly – determined to protect that agency. And yet, when it comes to male sexuality as coveted by women, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

To be clear: I am not saying that feminists have never argued against traditional notions of male sexuality, nor that they’ve argued badly. In that respect, what I’m saying isn’t new. But what has struck me recently is the extent to which the three P’s are still used as the basis for male sexiness in narratives written by feminist women – and worse, that the sexiness of female characters is frequently expressed as the ability to provoke those characteristics in men. I do not excuse or exclude myself from that statement. Part of what has prompted me to sit down and write this out is the fact that, in planning romantic and/or emotional encounters between various of my characters – something I do to do help me fall asleep – I’ve been hitting a wall of cultural preconceptions. Like it or not, I have a learned version of sexiness stored in my head, a set of rules to which I’ve subconsciously been adhering, but recently – perhaps because I’ve been thinking about feminism and writing – I’ve started to see that they’re there, and to poke at them.

Here are some of the tropes I’m talking about:

1. A strong female character surrounded by men who find her attractive and a smaller number of rival women will demonstrate her strength by showing up one or more of the women in front of the men, frequently through a refusal to behave in a traditionally feminine (negative) way. This proves she is better than the other women, and therefore more deserving of male companionship, because she does not Play Games.

2. A variant on the above, where the strong female character is picked on by other women in the sight of one or more men who find her attractive, such that her dignity in coping with the situation and/or her subsequent stoicism in refusing to complain about it becomes proof of her strength. In this instance, it is important that the male observer(s) remain concealed and not intervene, ostensibly to show that the woman is strong and can deal with things on her own, or that the man respects this about her, but in reality to ensure that he is later able to confront, comfort and offer to protect her.

3. Male love interests who are physically dominant, who always initiate the first kiss, the first touch, and who might go so far as to hold the heroine’s wrists or push her forcefully against a wall. This would perhaps be less detrimental if it weren’t a default setting – if we saw a comparable number of narratives, or really any number of narratives, where the woman was physically dominant, the first to initiate everything, who pushed or held the man. Instead, the reigning logic says that male dominance is sexy, while female dominance is wanton and potentially pitiable.

4. A more chaste version of the above, but still with sexual overtones: the protective male character who, in response to whatever plot-specific necessity, will grab the heroine, carry, push or embrace her in the name of ensuring her safety, such that the heroine must reflect positively upon and ultimately be made grateful for his physical strength. Again, this would be less detrimental if the reverse situation was equally as popular, but where male protectiveness of women is permitted, female protectiveness of men is seen as emasculating.

5. A strong heroine is shown to be strong by her decision to confront the villain alone, always for noble or altruistic reasons, so that we cannot suspect her of being headstrong or rash. Inevitably, she is injured or overcome in the subsequent confrontation, such that she must be rescued, healed and comforted by a male character, whose protectiveness of her is (of course) sexy. This shapes the heroine as decisive, brave, competent and selfless while still allowing her to be a damsel in distress.

6. A male love interest must be two things: traditionally strong and non-traditionally sensitive. If he is just strong, he is a villain; if he is just sensitive, he is the geeky best friend who lusts after the girl and never actually gets her. (Sidenote: this is one of my LEAST FAVOURITE TROPES EVER.) The combination of strength and sensitivity is explained by trauma in the man’s past, such that the female character, even if she’s the ostensible protagonist, is ultimately bound to a narrative arc designed to orchestrate his redemption. Note that the female character will probably have trauma of her own, but because she is female, her behaviour is never bad enough that she needs redemption: instead, it makes her stoic, so that the male character, as part of his own emotional development, can comfort and protect her.

And so on.

The thing is, though, that what I’ve just described are some of my favourite narrative devices – and I’m not alone in that. It actually hurts me to mock them, on which grounds I’ll beg bias and say that, despite the way I’ve painted them above, they can be done well, to a purpose, in a way that genuinely works. But the problem I’m trying to identify isn’t that such tropes are being used badly. It’s that they’re being used exclusively. They enforce the idea that the only viable definition of male sexiness is the traditional definition of male sexiness. This is tempered and excused in the narrative by the fact that the woman is strong, too, and maybe the man’s a bit sensitive, but what it excludes is the idea that women protecting men is sexy; that men who are just sensitive are sexy; that any alternate permutation is sexy.

I understand the popularity of these tropes: I really do. They appeal to me, and on some level, because I am a product of our culture, I can’t help that. At best, they represent a balance between traditional masculinity and feminism: scenarios where women are strong and competent, but in ways that allow for male protectiveness without emasculation. It’s the perfect compromise. Everybody wins! But at worst, the definition has become a subconscious default, and not one possible option among many. Men can’t be sexy in different ways, this trope says, any more than female strength can be derived from sisterhood, rather than the ability to keep up with and/or impress men by the adoption of traditionally masculine traits. There is only one proper way, and we ought not question it.

In the end, I’m left thinking about this ad, wherein the perfect man is discussed with no small degree of irony. In these tropes, men are shown to be a faultless combination of everything – strength, support and sexiness – while women derive their agency, not from their own selves, but through their ability to attract a man who is strong, supportive, sexy. And when that happens, it stops being female agency, and starts being female worthiness. And that is, I believe, entirely antagonistic to feminism.

So, people: what do you think?

Elsewhere on the internets, authors N.K. Jemisin and Kate Elliott (among others) have been speculating on the question of whether women write epic fantasy differently to men, and if so, to what extent that difference might be off-putting to male readers. A key aspect of this discussion hinges on sexuality – specifically, the question of the male gaze versus the female gaze. It is not unreasonable to assume that straight male writers are more likely to describe their heroines in sexual terms than they are their heroes, and vice versa in the case of their straight female counterparts: after all, most authors borrow from their own experience. This isn’t to say that straight writers never sexualise their own gender, but either consciously or unconsciously, some readers might well be gauging new books on the basis of the author’s chromosomes – and perhaps they’re not entirely wrong to do so.

Looking back on my own early introduction to epic fantasy, it’s easy to detect a pattern of preference for female writers. Beginning with Sara Douglass and Anne McCaffrey, I soon discovered the works of Robin Hobb, Katharine Kerr and Elliott herself, all of whom remain favourites to this day. Tolkien, by contrast, took me much longer: though I enjoyed The Hobbit as a pre-teen, it took me several abortive attempts before I finally finished the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though (male) friends urged me to try David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan, the results were mixed: I never got into Eddings, was frustrated by the extent to which Feist had cribbed his worldbuilding from The Silmarillion, hated Goodkind’s obsession with sexual violence and couldn’t push myself past the first book of Jordan’s mammoth series. Not that I eschewed all male-authored epics – George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet are both absolutely incredible. But though I’ve certainly disliked and/or abandoned epic series written by women, it seems my conceptions of the genre have been primarily formed by works which are either written in the female gaze, or which feature female POV protagonists who share equally in that role with men.

Possibly this makes me unusual, but I suspect not. There must be other women readers who discovered epic fantasy at a time when there were at least as many female-authored series on offer as male, and who gravitated towards those books, not because they were making a conscious decision to read within their gender, but because they were offered a choice, and simply found that those were the books they tended to prefer. But even given that bias, I still enjoy books written in the male gaze, Joe Abercrombie’s breathtaking First Law series and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss being two recent cases in point. Despite how the previous paragraph might serve to characterise my tastes, I have no objection whatever to reading in the male gaze, provided the story itself has caught my attention (as, of course, all stories must, regardless of who writes them). But were I to conduct a thorough, honest assessment of my favourite novels and authors, though both genders would be represented, books featuring the female gaze would dominate. As I am not a robot, my predilections are not conveniently fifty-fifty, but because I don’t disqualify books from my reading list on the basis of probable gaze alone, I don’t think that’s a problem.

What is problematic, and what prompted Jemisin to write her own piece on the topic, is the number of male readers who find themselves so disquieted by the presence of the female gaze in epic fantasy as to question whether those stories qualify as epic fantasy at all, or who, at the very least, are hesitant to read them. After all, the genre was begun by a man, and many of its seminal works are written predominantly in the male gaze: surely this implies a certain heritage, a certain focus, which is less to do with gender than it is the definition of genre? Why, if I can admit my own gender bias, am I so concerned with the idea that some male readers might have a different one?

Regarding the first of those questions, I’m sympathetic to the idea that a certain percentage of the epic fantasy readership was drawn to the genre by what were, at least originally, a fairly specific set of narrative parameters, and who now see those strictures being undermined or ignored by later writers. In terms of how epic fantasy has been changing over the past few decades, gender is far from being the only relevant factor. Traditional high fantasy, sword-and-sorcery epics are, if not on the wane, then in increasing competition with grittier, darker, unromantic works on the one hand, and more complex, multicultural, morally ambiguous tales on the other. That’s not a perfect binary division by any means, nor is it a sliding scale,  but by virtue of being a comparatively subconscious consideration in all of this, it’s arguable that the gender question has become emblematic of the more obvious changes in epic fantasy. With extraordinary works like Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Elliott’s Crossroads trilogy contributing to the move away from eurocentric mythologies, heterosexuality as standard and all-white casts, I can see how, for some readers, modern epic fantasy is not their epic fantasy – and as their epic fantasy came first, it must therefore be the true epic fantasy, an undisputed benchmark these other books simply don’t meet. Rubbing salt in the wound is the fact that they never attempted to do so.

I understand that. I do. But that doesn’t make it right. Because there is simply no such thing as a static culture – or rather, there is, and it is synonymous with dead culture. There is no law forcing these readers to like Jemisin’s work, or Elliott’s, any more than I’m required to like Terry Goodkind. But my dislike of Goodkind doesn’t allow me to claim his books aren’t epic fantasy, even though the themes and plot devices which characterise his work don’t line up with what I love about the genre, and which for me define it. And in fact, to return to the topic of the female/male gaze as specific to depictions of sexuality, Goodkind’s work provides a different kind of test case: whether or not a book which features descriptions of sex can still be described as epic fantasy. Having read the first four volumes of his Sword of Truth series, I can confidently vouch not only for their sexual content, but for the fact that those scenes are written firmly in the male gaze. Despite this, nobody has ever suggested that Terry Goodkind is anything other than a writer of epic fantasy. So the idea that the sexual content of Jemisin’s work (for instance) is enough to disqualify it from the genre seems ludicrous. The objection isn’t to the presence of sex at all – it’s to the idea of sex written from the female gaze, and while that might be a legitimate hurdle for some male readers, or to readers of any gender who object to reading about sex, it is firmly a question of individual taste, not genre.

Which leads us on to a meatier, more complex question: why, if this debate is really based on personal gender preferences, do I care about the intransigence of a particular set of male readers? After all, not only have I acknowledged my own biases, but I’ve stated a belief that having a perfect fifty-fifty split is neither automatic nor necessarily desirable. Well, yes – but to me, there’s something significant in the fact that, while women might prefer books written from the female gaze, we are also happy to read about the male gaze, too. In point of fact, we are allowed to do so, because it is, to a certain extent, expected. I don’t just mean that in the sense of early epic writers being mostly male, either. It’s that socially, a consequence of feminism has been the acceptance of feminine enjoyment of what used to be solely masculine pursuits. As a child, I was able to dress in blue, wear pants, play with trucks and aspire to be an astronaut if I wanted. I did experience a certain level of censure for my tomboyishness at various points, but by and large, society was on my side. Today’s girls can act like yesterday’s boys. But today’s boys cannot act like yesterday’s girls without encountering a much more extreme reaction. Any little boy who wants to dress in pink, wear skirts, play with dolls and grow up to be a ballerina will instantly find the world a more hostile place than I ever did. From the outset, his sexual orientation will be suspect. Because his behaviour runs counter to the social norm, he will be ostracised and declared unmasculine.

What does all this mean for male readers of books written from the female gaze? Simply this: that some may feel they lack the social permission to enjoy them. Arguably, the traditions and origins of epic fantasy make the male gaze an expected default, no matter the author’s gender – Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, for instance, is written from the first person perspective of a straight male protagonist. It must therefore come as a shock to some male readers to encounter a book whose sexual moments describe, not the woman’s mouth or breasts, but the man’s arms and stomach. Suddenly, a scene which would otherwise be sexy or tame has turned radical, threatening. It is pornography in which the position of the camera is reversed, and when the intent is obviously to evoke emotion or create arousal, how are they to feel? Are they being feminised against their will – or worse, made to feel a glimmering of homosexual attraction? Are they allowed to submit to the author’s intentions and accept the scene’s sexuality, or must they try to resist it? Either way, and even if the reader doesn’t consciously pin down the source of his disquiet, he is jerked out of the story, and perhaps made to feel an intruder in his genre of choice.

If so, this isn’t something that can be overcome in an instant. It is part of a larger argument: the struggle, not just for female equality in traditionally male fields, but for male equality in traditionally female fields. Part of that inevitably involves male acceptance of the female gaze; but another component is also a change in the reigning definition of masculinity, not just in the minds of men, but women, too. Particularly in epic fantasy, I’m hard-pressed to think of many heroes who espouse traditionally feminine attitudes, are trained in traditionally feminine duties, or whose overt sexuality, at least in part, doesn’t derive from a traditionally masculine appeal. Two who do spring to mind are !Xabbu, a protagonist in Tad Williams’s Otherland Quartet, and the Fool, also known as Amber and the Tawny Man, who appears in three of Robin Hobb’s trilogies. While the former is a romantic interest for the lead female character, the latter is inferred to be gay. Be aware, the Fool is a favourite character of mine, but in this instance, he might serve to illustrate a wider problem: that male characters ascribed traditionally feminine values within epic fantasy are either gay or viewed as effete and sexually unappealing to the women with whom they interact. They are, in a word, fops.

This is a shame, as foppishness is our primary case study within epic fantasy for feminised but still heterosexual male characters. The stigma of fops and dandies comes from the idea that a worst thing a man can do is act like a woman, and the only fops whom literature – particularly romance literature – likes to redeem are those who, as per the Scarlet Pimpernel, turn out not to be fops at all. Perhaps more tellingly, the idea of the dandy comes from an exaggerated, stereotypical and negative perception of femininity to begin with: women who share a fop’s traits are equally one-dimensional characters, but they, at least, have the excuse of their gender. If that is their behaviour, then it cannot be helped, whereas a straight male fop must cultivate his persona, and is damned for it accordingly. This isn’t to say that fops – or rather, superficial, self-obsessed, world-weary, easily bored elites with more money than sense – are entirely unrepresentative of the human species; nor am I contending that we ought to find them attractive. Rather, it seems as though they are the only consistent example of straight male characters in epic fantasy to be portrayed with feminine characteristics, and as those characteristics are negative, it doesn’t do a lot for the idea that traditionally female attitudes are something that men (or male characters) either should or would want to adopt.

Thus, the female gaze in epic fantasy does not disqualify a work from being epic fantasy. If it undermines, it does so through no more radical an action than showing one half the populace what the other finds attractive; but perhaps it might also be used to posit what we could find attractive, if only society were a little bit different, and to suggest to the current readership that they need not go in fear of their own sexuality. Books no more turn straight men gay than being allowed to wear pants turned women into lesbians. What changes is culture – and what is culture, but the way we view ourselves? No matter how intent we are on standing still, the world will always turn around us. And with that in mind, the question for those of us who take pride in our enjoyment of stories set in different times and places must then become: do we seek to set a limit on that difference? Or can we find room in our infinite selves for something more?

Those are the worlds I dream about. So, yes. I think we can.

Here’s an uncontroversial statement: different people find different things sexy, just as different people find different things repulsive, outrageous, risque or tawdry. This is why so much of the porn industry nowadays is devoted to kink and specialisation. People are weird, and so, quite often, are our fantasies. It’s a thing.

When I walk into a newsagency and glance at the lads’ magazine section – Zoo and Maxim and so on – I’m usually blinded by a sea of very large bosoms in very small bikinis, hoisted proudly on the torsos of half a dozen tanned and pouting women. These mags are sold over the counter, but while I’m not grossly offended by the sight of mostly bare women, I tend to think the content is more pornographic than not. That’s less a moral judgement than it is a statement of fact: no matter how much skin they may or may not be showing compared to their hardcore counterparts, the models are there to be looked at in a lustful context.

When trying to determine whether something is pornographic, it’s certainly logical to consider why it was created in the first place, and for what audience. In many respects, I’d argue, this is actually more important than what is (or isn’t) on display, but there’s always going to be dissonance between the reaction an image is intended to provoke and the reactions is actually provokes. Because people, as has been mentioned, are weird. We get turned on by weird and unexpected and – sometimes – terrible things. And that’s what throws a spanner in the works when it comes to the current debate on child pornography.

Paedophilia is an awful thing, one that leads to awful crimes and ruined lives. It is a violation of trust and a sexual circumstance in which it is actually impossible for one of the parties to consent, meaning that it should never be condoned or legitimised. We have a social responsibility to protect children from sexual predators. And yet, in trying to do this, we have managed to paint ourselves into a legislative corner, one  in which any image of a child becomes pornographic, regardless of the context in which it was taken.

Because children – and children’s bodies – aren’t the problem. Taking a photo of a child is no more synonomous with making child pornography than being a child is synonomous with being a sexual creature. This is an instance where only two things are capable of making an image pornographic: the perspective of the viewer, which is entirely removed from the original context of the photo, and those disgusting occasions on which an abuser has recorded images of their crime. The latter instance is both vile and undeniably sexualised. But the former is where we hit a snag: because it forces people to be concerned, not with the content of a given picture, but the likelihood that someone will view it in a sexual context.

At the moment, in our zeal to protect children, we are dangerously close to smothering them. It is no longer acceptable to show up to your child’s school sports day and take photos: parents are concerned with how the images might be viewed later. But do we stop the sports day entirely for fear of what perverts on the sidelines might take away in their memories? No: and yet, this is exactly the same logic used to justify the current stance on photographing children. The more we behave as though the general populace cannot be trusted to be in the same room with our children on the offchance of what they might be thinking, the more we buy into the mindset that children need to be locked up, protected, sheltered, kept from the public eye.

On the surface, that might not sound so bad. But take that last sentence and replace the word ‘children’ with the ‘women’, and you have a viable description of the logic behind societies whose female populations are required to stay covered up at all times. Men cannot be trusted in the presence of women, this argument goes: it is futile to pretend otherwise, and much easier to make the women invisible than it is to change the attitudes of the men. This is a mentality which ultimately punnishes those whom it claims to protect, by restricting their actions and, by default, assuming that they exist in a constant sexual context. For many reasons, this is not a perfect analogy, but given our current social struggle to decide how much freedom children should have online, outside the home and in their decision-making, it strikes me that our debate over the definition of child pornography stands as a parallel issue.

Ultimately, we live in a changing world. We worry about online predators grooming or luring children away; we worry about the digial distribution of photos of children, and how our knowledge of their possible misuse might taint our perception of their contents; we worry about stranger danger, and whether it’s better to let our kids walk home by themselves and gain a bit of independence, or whether we should constantly be holding their hand. We are making decisions with the best of intentions, but I also worry that we are approaching things the wrong way. Life will always hold dangers, no matter how effectively we seek to curb them: nothing will ever be entirely safe. With new technology opening up the world in an unprecedented way, our instinct has been to clutch tightly at what we hold most dear, trying to protect it from these new, expanded threats. But the more we grip and shelter, the harder it eventually becomes to let go, and the more difficult it is for children to grow up into confident, capable adults. There is both nobility and necessity in our desire to preserve the sanctity of childhood, but in so doing, we should never forget that childhood is something to eventually be outgrown. The real world never goes away, and the more fearful we are of its dangers, the closer we come to never understanding it at all.