Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sex and its Consequences in Times Past

We tend to forget, in these modern times, just what a big deal sex was in days gone by. Really, our attitudes toward sex are rather unnatural. In centuries (or even decades) past, unless a woman knew herself to be barren, the spectre of pregnancy always hung over her head and if she was wise, she constrained her behavior. For a man, the threat of a "shotgun wedding" or some other form of compelled marriage was very real. Both sexes had incentives to sexually behave themselves.

But of course, people do not always behave. And consequently, bastards abounded. You only need look at novels written in times past to discover what the consequences could be of a single steamy night of passion.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a great story about a fallen woman. Alec d'Urberville either seduces or rapes Tess (Hardy isn't really clear, but I think he raped her), and she gets pregnant. Her child doesn't survive long, but still she feels it necessary to live in another area in order to escape her shattered reputation. When she remarries and tries to come clean with her husband on her wedding night, all hell breaks loose. Alex's action affected her entire life.

In Les Miserables, Fantine is another unwed mother. She has an adorable little daughter, Cosette, upon whom she dotes. However, since she is an unwed mother, she has a difficult time finding a respectable occupation. She comes up with this plan to leave her daughter with the Thénardiers while she finds work in another town. She manages to keep her secret for a while, but the Thénardiers keep demanding more and more money to pay for non-existent medical problems until she is driven to prostitution anyway.

In The Scarlet Letter, Hester has a child through an adulterous relationship. Because she is clearly an adulteress (her husband is missing), she must wear the A and she is pressured to name the child's father. It's been some years since I read this one, but I remember it as a real page-turner; much more so than I expected.

All of the above novels are tragedies, with unhappy endings for the mothers. I enjoy reading novels written in centuries gone by because it is so interesting to learn about the way attitudes have changed from then to now.

I enjoy a fantasy that deals with sex realistically. Authors, please don't put modern-day sexual attitudes in novels that take place in the past UNLESS, like today, there is a viable system of birth control.

In The Deed of Paksenarrion, there was a viable system of birth control; however the heroine was asexual. Go figure.

In Master and Fool, the third book of The Book of Words, Melli gets married and has one encounter with her husband before he is murdered. And once was enough.

In Destiny by Elizabeth Haydon, Rhapsody has an encounter with Ashe. However, when she begins to doubt that it was Ashe after all, she lives in terror of being pregnant with a demonic child.

In The Book of Joby, a single encounter between Joby and Laura left her pregnant.

In Dragonlance, there was lots of sex, but very few pregnancies. And the one pregnancy that did occur was with a married couple.

In His Majesty's Dragon, Laurence has sex with one of his fellow aviators, but there is no mention of the possibility of her getting pregnant. We don't know her actual age--just that she's about Laurence's age--but we had no reason to presume that she was too old to be fertile.

Most of the time, there is little sex in fantasies because sex is not usually what fantasies are all about. Most of the romances in fantasies are just that--romances without sex. They're love stories. I love a good love story, but in my opinion, once you bring sex into the mix, you shatter all that great romantic tension. Drag it out for as long as possible. It's a great way to keep the pages turning.

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On a totally unrealted note, I admit to some spectacular laziness as far as this blog is concerned. Please don't give up on me! It's brutally hot in Florida this time of year, and I just feel icky. After all, these are the dog days of summer. All I want to do when I get home is chill out, and it's hard to chill out on the computer. I'm almost done reading a novel that's turned out to be a pleasant surprise, so I hope to be able to post on that by Thursday.

In the meantime, as ever, I'll answer comments. What novels can you think of that handled sex and its consequences in a realistic way?


Kimber An said...

I so agree, Tia.

In centuries past, sex was a life-threatening occupation for women. Besides losing her reputation and prospects for marriage, women died during pregnancy, childbirth, and right after, and so did their babies, at a much higher rate than they do now. If I'd lived back then, I would have become a nanny for a rich family and made do with chocolate.

Having been knocked up four times, I have a really difficult time suspending my disbelief for a novel with lots of nookie, but no contraception or pregnancies. Seriously though, I'd rather have the babies! I love babies. (sigh)

Tia Nevitt said...

You put it perfectly, Kimber. I can suspend my disbelief for any system of magic, but throw in some flippant sex without consequences, and my eyebrows begin to raise.

Re: "made do with chocolate" -- very funny!

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Woman, you cannot imagine how great this post is for me. I was thinking this morning about my present quandary in my wip...and this post sooo hit the spot. I think I'll link to it cause I just finished writing a post on this. Thanks so much.

Everything in this post, super-well-said. -C

Heather said...

>Drag it out for as long as possible. It's a great way to keep the pages turning.

Hear hear!

I wish I could think of some books except that nothing I read recently involved a realistic handling of the issue. I think I need some more coffee to jolt the ol' memory banks.

I have to admit, though, *depending on the book*, I don't miss reading about the consequences. If the author clearly strove for a certain sense of realism, however, I expect consequences to be there.

Now that I'm thinking of it, I want to say that George R.R. Martin's characters in the Song of Ice and Fire series don't get away with anything as a result of their sexual exploits.

Tia Nevitt said...

Thanks, Carole! I want to read your post when it's finished.

Heather, you are right. There are plenty of bastards in A Song of Fire and Ice. I didn't think of that one.

Lisa said...

I find sex and sex scenes often a cheap way of getting more pages and an avoidance of having some really great story line! (Not exactly the point you were making but it's sort of on the same path)

Did you read the Invisible Ring? It has a really cool story line that I just loved but the reference to sex, sex parts, sex acts, sex feelings were on or nearly on every page so I was turned off reading any more of the series.

I believe a good writer can put the emotion and passion in without being graphic and crude.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

It's not so much sex that's the problem. It's the unreality of the depiction. Tia depicts books where sex happens and there is no aftermath. We all know that unless someone is really emotionally wounded or callous there really is some aftermath. I feel about stories with abortions in the same way. I think, "Did I just see this woman in this film or this book have an abortion and then go on her merry way?" Dang, all the women I know who had abortions are still recovering from it. Sex is so powerful that a character in a book would either become attached to the sexual partner, get pregnant, be found out later, feel guilty, feel used, feel empowered. Sex doesn't just happen and leave people as it finds them.

I've seen books where people have way too much sex. That were just empty. I got so bored with The Tale of Genji because of that. Lady Muraski was not that deep.

If there's a reason for a character to indulge in sex, then I say go for it. But definitely show the consequences. On my reading list is "So many ways to sleep badly" by my friend Mattilda Bernstein who is in the sex business. Sex everywhere but it shows the consequences and pain and all his issues since he began being raped as a four year old by his dad.

A story about sex exploits has to be well-written though. Not just a list. If it has to be graphic, let it be graphic. But all that inconsequential coupling with consequences does make me lose my patience.

Sex definitely shouldn't separate the heart from the body from the culture. One of the reasons I could not really like the movie Kate and Leopold was because the hero "accepted" stuff about the heroine --like the fact that she had had premarital sex-- so dang casually. -C

Tia Nevitt said...

I'm not familiar with that movie.

I'm not even against sex scenes in novels. But when they are there, I prefer to see some sort of consequence, whether good or bad.

Vivien V. said...

Stephenie Meyer has done a great job with Twilight. Talk about sexual tension!

Edward is wary of having sex with Bella because he's so strong, and he's worried of hurting her in her human form. The discussion of sex has been in the books since the first one, but the reasons for the characters to abstain has made their relationship even more fiery and passionate.

Bella's possible transformation into a vampire has become a metaphor for her losing her virginity too, which I love. The last thing she wants as a human is to experience sex, and after that, she's ready to be "undead".

It's much like any sexual encounter (especially the first), where your emotions and psyche can be changed forever. You've experienced something very intimate or phsyical with another human being. For women, that's a big deal - and it can be for men too.

I like how Bella's loss of virginity is juxtaposed with her loss of being a human.

Kelly Gay said...

Good point about Twilight. I think it would have been a completely different book had things led to sex. Have you read The Host? Meyer is really talented at keeping the tension on her characters, in both adult and YA, when it comes to this subject.

Anyway, awesome post, Tia!

Tia Nevitt said...

I haven't read any Stephanie Meyer, but it looks like I might have to!

Thanks, Kelly!

Vivien V. said...

Hi Kelly,

No, I haven't read The Host yet, but it's on my wish-list. Can't wait for Breaking Dawn to come out!

You should definitely check them out, Tia. They're very quick to read, despite their 500-page length. The writing can be marginal at times, but despite that, Meyer has created memorable, intriguing characters. The books really grab you, which I can't complain about. They're the next Harry Potter for sure.

superwench83 said...

I agree about A Song of Ice and Fire. Quite realistic.

I really like this post. It seems like so many authors throw in sex just for the sake of having sex in the book. Not only do I feel that the consequences need to be addressed, but there needs to be a reason for there to be sex in the first place. Even if it's alluded to but not fully described. If sex is there, it needs a reason and realistic consequences.

Raven said...

One consequence I rarely see mentioned is STDs. In fact, I'm wracking my brains to think of ANY sf/fantasy novel (other than the one I'm writing) where they've been mentioned. Does anyone know of one?

Tia Nevitt said...

Thank, you Katie! I've had this post on my mind for about a month now.

Raven, perhaps the thought of an STD is too horrible for readers and authors to contemplate? Aids is addressed in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, and I occasionally see STDs mentioned in historical novels (mostly where the bad guy contracts the disease), but I can't think of any fantasy that mentions STDs.

There were major Syphilis outbreaks in the late middle ages. Maybe Stephen Lawhead deals with it? He writes historical fantasy.

Anonymous said...

Well, there are STDs in my fantasy book. It's not a major plot point, but if you have a character who goes to cheap brothels every other night, I think STDs need at least a mention or two.

For some reason, I'm thinking that A Song of Ice and Fire mentioned STDs somewhere. I could be wrong about that, but I think I remember a minor mention of an STD in one of the books.

Tia Nevitt said...

Vivian, I fingered Twilight today at Books-a-Million, where it was on sale. I might have purchased it if I hadn't had the antsy darling daughter with me. (She's just no good to take to bookstores.) I don't usually do vampires, but when someone recommends a novel, I do consider it.

It was shelved with YA and I admit to being prudish with sexual themes when it comes to YA literature. If you want to write YA, please don't lace it with sexual themes! Our poor girls are exposed to too much sexuality as it is. But then, I have not read it yet so I may be jumping the gun. However, if I do read it and review it here, I may be harsh if I find it objectionable. What do you think?

Katie, I still have not finished A Feast for Crows, which I found just about unreadable. Did the reference appear there? I loved all the other novels, which was why I was so disappointed with AFFC.

superwench83 said...

It might have been in A Feast for Crows. Not sure. Series books tend to blend together to me so that I never remember what happened in which book.

A Feast for Crows wasn't my favorite of the ASoIaF books, but I still liked it. It started to get much more interesting for me at the end. That's what redeemed it, I guess. I do remember thinking as I got closer to the end, "Now this is more like it!"

Raven said...

Tia, maybe. I guess sometimes characters use "the pox" or "poxy" as a curse word, but that's not the same as putting the concept in the story in a sexual context.

Superwench, I agree. They're part of life, and in a situation where they might naturally be a concern, they need a mention.

George R.R. Martin is one of those writers whose books I just haven't been able to get into. I get stopped around the second chapter of the first book every time. I've given up.

Tia Nevitt said...

I'm not sure when I'll be able to give GRRM another chance. I still keep my reading list pretty full, but it's nothing like it was in the beginning of the year.

Vivien V. said...

Hey Tia,

I doubt that you would find it objectionable. The sex isn't even discussed seriously until the third book in the series, and the vamp insists that they be married first before anything happens.

I've also seen sex run too far in the other direction in YA novels, however, where the author is deliberately trying to turn younger people off of sex, making it into something disgusting. I read the first book in the House of Night series (which is another vampire tome), and I found it too obviously trying to put the young author's views about sex into her character's mouth.

Sex should be treated responsibly, but not as though it's some horrific act. I think it's better for young people to be made aware of what sex is, and the risks, rather than turned off by it completely.

I appreciate Twilight, in that it mentions sex, but Edward and Bella don't tear at each other in the throes of passion. They discuss it, what each of them wants to do, and then reach a decision about it. That's the way it should be, in my opinion.

Patrice Sarath said...

I'm dropping in a little late to comment but wanted to go ahead anyway. I agree about the lack of consequences and how it seems as if authors feel that if they bring up the likely consequence of unprotected sex they might derail their plot. And yet, after a while, the sex scenes become so detached from the emotional life of the characters that they no longer add to the richness of the novel.

Patrice Sarath
Gordath Wood