On Ethics: Response to “Sex in YA[…]”

**Warning: Discussions of assault, abuse, and rape mentions**

Tonight I read this fascinating article. and I found myself really revisiting an old conundrum that has plagued me before. Ok, let me just say I obviously am not for abuse, but I am for having rational ethical discussions of how simply saying legality is enough when addressing creative fiction or non-fiction. Let’s broaden that actually: Legality and morality are not absolutes strong enough to address the reality of fantasy and fiction being things anyone can make for any reason, from any prospective, and to any purpose. We simply cannot control what others are aroused by, but we can mitigate the sexualizing and fetishizing elements of what we create in order to avoid the promotion of harmful norms, mores, and values. This does not only apply to age in writing about sex(not just erotica), but in writing that can promote harmful views of vulnerable groups, minorities, and practices. The difficulty we face in all these things as writers is the differences between people, being misunderstood, evaluating our personal positions on our creative social obligations(if any), and simply writing what we feel we must. While I obviously have my personal beliefs, as do you…we all have to question what we consider absolutely true otherwise we can end up establishing beliefs, mores, and norms that prevent open discussion and can ultimately hurt those we try to protect. Without further ado…

Sex is very complicated and our relationship to sex, society, and medical science is all very complicated. For instance: if there was a book you read at 15 with very steamy scenes involving the also 15 year old protagonists that arouses you for the rest of your life are you a pedophile? If you fantasize about your first sexual encounter at age 16 are you a pedophile? If you turn 18 and don’t have sex with your still underage partner are you still a pedophile? If you’re 26, don’t have sex with a person you are in love with, don’t ever plan on it, but still have feelings for them are you a pedophile? If you’re a writer and you describe a character as a teenager with incredibly sexually attractive looks to your main teenage character are you engaging with pedophillic practices?
A lot of arguments logically follow through to “yes”.
As a sociologist, I can’t help but acknowledge that so much of this is culturally informed and that setting any moral absolutes on this subject and related ones outside of legal law may be pointless. Law is easy and we can base it on real world harms that are tangible to people and society. Harms we can measure. Harms require us to seek understanding, do research, and then say the goal is to do as little harm as possible while preventing as much harm as possible. That doesn’t require moral  absolutism. That can be applied on a case by case basis. Figuring out what harms is easier than the changing norms between societies. That can motivate law and more easily be digested as a writer picks up his or her pen. Still when it comes to pure fiction the harms become difficult to process broadly. Chances are, no living existing creature is being harmed, and more so…we have to decide what harm even is. Is harm showing teenagers ever have sex? How are we measuring harm, does the intention of the artist matter, and that intention isn’t to arouse but someone is aroused how do we address that and should we even try? The law can refer to medicine, the supposed necessity of actions that would otherwise be considered harmful, etc. with ethics at the core of it, but not necessarily what you and I may deem tasteful. However what you and I deem tasteful is tied to valid points of free will, consent, psychological readiness, and appropriateness. Fact is Age and sexuality are not so much regulated by logic as by emotion and morality after a certain point. For good reason in many cases, but I often wonder whether this is a subject we can ever make piece with as people let alone as writers.

It isn’t just about writing young people engaging with older people, and I think that’s a mistake people often make when talking about this. Writers have characters who are both the same age who have sex. Where it isn’t smut, erotica, or designed to titillate on a sexual level but on an emotional one, to demonstrate to love and wonder of discovery. Where everything is in flowy flowery metaphor. It is about writing and about our beliefs about young people and our beliefs about sexuality. Some of it is about power. Some of it is related to how expressions of adulthood and/or sexuality have moral and social implications…

One can make a very strong class and race argument that the stigma associated with teenage pregnancy, for instance, developed in response to those with power who had the assets to postpone adulthood without reputation harms (Girl vanishes for a year…comes back “thinner”and no one is the wiser. Other girl can’t go anywhere and everyone knows). So aspects of “adulthood” and “sexuality” become tied together and the ability to postpone them or put a happy “high school sweetheart” bow on it becomes tied to the powerful and thus to positive behaviors. So to ignore young people’s sexuality, to hide the fact that many (but not all) teens may engage in sexual behaviors becomes tied to our perceptions of what is “good” or “bad”. Then  you think about a hundred plus years ago and…by definition many people were, under modern standards, marrying children who grew into productive members of society more or less. People didn’t live long. People didn’t and still don’t in many places have the luxury of choice. So many westerners turn their noses up at those cultures when we were there not even a hundred years ago. The lack of freedom a specific time and place gave to individuals, to young people, deeply affects how we value freedom and the very concept of love not to mention sexuality. Those are all things we have to acknowledge when talking about sexuality, age, and fiction because writers can write stories in any era with people of any age. We have to acknowledge them because they inform how we validate individual stories and how/what we decide to write. If I write a story in 1500 about a 16 year old girl marrying a 22 year old does that have moral implications? Does it have moral implications only if I don’t spend a large portion of time writing about it being wrong? Does it make me a bad person for acknowledging this once common practice? Some may argue yes, but to me regardless if I write sex or not the story isn’t based on ideas of abuse, but on the emotional implications of a once common emotionally harmful practice. Teenage is a recent invention, a luxury, but back then young people were adults as soon as they were married off or on their own. In a world like that, a place like that, how harms are concieved of become very different things…and the harms this caused to many who became productive members of society we can say were present, but manifest in a different way perhaps to a different degree due to the day to day struggles of the period. If I’m writing all of that must I write at length about the 22 year old as a monster and the 16 year old a victim when for them, this was normal (though very upsetting) practice and normal life because it is mortifying to me in 2016?

Then if you think about brain development alone…most brains finish developing only around the age 25, so is anyone under 25 fully capable of consent? Recently a lot of people have been struggling with this in relation to Monica Lewinsky again, but she wasn’t the first person to have consensual, non-coercive, sex with their superior or someone powerful. If there is ever a age or experience inequality is sex fair? I’ve been hearing arguments that lean no. Something about that seems like it suggests adults aren’t capable of consent, but then again should anyone below 25 be considered an adult if brain development can take that long? Can we be adults if our reasoning may be affected by incomplete development? Is any opposition to that idea just self-serving and not based on logic? I don’t know. I do know children can’t consent. They’re young. They don’t know about the world. They don’t fully grasp sex, and  while children can experience sexual pleasure like all humans they can’t truly ever consent. Consent requires a level of understanding that a child cannot have not just  in mental knowledge but in emotional knowledge. But when you talk about young people over the age of 14, people with knowledge, sexual drives, and urges how do we thread the needle when depicting their lives?

At the end of the day all we can do is try not to glorify harmful practices.

To me the most useful question in regards to that is: How do we negate harm that can be done to young people as an aggregate?  The best argument I subscribe to is that how an author depicts certain subjects, their intent, and the perspective therein have an obligation to avoid normalizing harmful attitudes, practices, and behaviors. You can write the development of a relationship that ends in two 17 year olds having intercourse. You can write it with the purpose of showing them as a loving couple without sexualizing it. When you sexualize it, when you fetishize their youth, then you are engaging in harmful unethical practices. But then again someone can reasonably argue the point that we have to define what “normalizes”, which could be anything from “ever writing the concept of young people having sexual interactions” to “the only normalizing thing would be something akin to a NAMBLA pamphlet” depending on who you speak to. I believe it is wholly unnecessary to get into the nitty gritty of young people having sexual interactions for the sake of arousal. I believe normalizing harms is as I said, turning youth and being young and those who are young into objects of fetish.

For me, I loved steamy YA as a young teen and I see nothing inherently wrong with it. I think it helped me come to grips with being a highly sexual person in a world where I by virtue of my gender and my appearance were supposed to be essentially sex-less. Now erotica in YA doesn’t work. It just does not. But depicting sexual discovery, sexual characters, differing views on sexuality is not making erotica. Does that mean sex should be everywhere? No. The question to me is always “What is the purpose of this in this story?” To me, fetishizing youth and characteristics associated with youth of younger characters in their sexual encounters is a huge no, no.

I wrote an erotica story where the main character has a flash back to being a teenager, being home alone, and masturbating all weekend. You don’t “see” it so to speak, but she recalls it with a desire to feel that excited about sexual things again. I wrote it not to sexualize a teenager, and I edited it to cut back on the sexualizing elements there in order  to focus on the purpose: to convey how thrilling sexual discovery fueled her first desires, but became something embarrassing and alienating over the last several years…because the story is about her exploring, discovering, and reconnecting with individual moments of embodiment via sexual bdsm encounters.

There is a way to communicate sexual experiences with tact, love, and without sexualizing people of almost any age. There is a right way and wrong way to write sexuality, and with young people you have to understand that the story can’t be erotica. It can be full of sexual experiences, but it can’t be erotica. It has to be a story about young people being people, and yes people, real live teenagers, engage in sexual actions. Yes, sometimes a story heads into or towards that direction. That isn’t erotica. That can’t be it for the story and that can’t be carried out to be “sexy”. Truthfully young adults of all ages have so much to think about with sex it simply is impossible for it to be erotica. It just isn’t realistic or really right. Regardless it does really becomes a grey area because of the one thing: “It is still fiction”. On one hand it bothers me to think that we writers have to tip toe around sexuality, and how experiences felt or feel to characters because of something our society is struggling with for both sound and unsound reasons. On the other hand I don’t want people peddling gross stuff that fetishizes kids. I don’t want a piece of writing that glorifies the youthfulness of a teenage or younger character as sexually appealing with a tone of seriousness and genuine belief for the sake of sexualizing the character. To an extent I can even take a character that is a disgusting monster giving his perspective so long as it is overtly reflecting his or her sick twisted mind. I just don’t want gross lusting over children played straight to be portrayed as serious and normal without any context. Luckily YA doesn’t go there.

The question is what can we even do and why do we want to try to do something about this? Can we really regulate the world of fantasy because of our chosen morality across the board? Can we really arbitrarily decide we know the reason and motivation without question in all situations with X or Y element? More importantly how far do we go with this?

We should always question motives and reasons, but we can’t assume them. We can’t assume every dominant wants to assault people, we can’t assume all rape fantasies mean the author and reader believe rape is good or justified. I know of a woman writer who doesn’t write erotica at all, but is sex positive and has described to me how she has these fantasies of being a child who is molested and seduced. What can I tell her? I don’t know. These fantasies are disturbing, completely unrelated to her feelings outside of her head, and ultimately the reality disgusts her on a level she’s conveyed whenever we have discussed the matter. She doesn’t take abuse lightly. She doesn’t take abuses of power lightly. She doesn’t take consent lightly. This is a woman I’ve marched with at rallies, whose escorted women to clinics, whose beliefs go into highlighting the erasure of male abuse victims. And these are just fantasies that came to her. She’s never the predator. She is the prey, the victim, and that is the sexual interest. Is she an inherently bad person for conceiving of those thoughts as sexually exciting…even if she is essentially the “willing” victim in those fantasies? Fuck. I’d say no, but you could make several convincing arguments for yes if you really tried. Is this a form of “thought crime”? If we say that thinking of any situation makes you as guilty as doing it or at the least as gross as participating, and normalizing the harm…what do we do about those scenarios? Is the problem only a problem if she shares these fantasies with others? She’s not mentally ill. She’s not “broken” or some sort of monster. She simply has these fantasies of complete and utter powerlessness, and I honestly feel bad for her because she seems troubled by them. The problem of harms is when you decide to include fictional characters as being harmed, or say “the category of young people is being harmed by this fiction whether it be produced or imagined” you overlook the complexities of human sexual thought and action. You make a blanket statement instead of getting to the source of what makes the harm so harmful

The realms of fantasy and sexuality are incredibly complicated when they’re theoretical thoughts…but then they’re still just thoughts…what happens when they appear in art?

A few years ago a man who sells different Japanese Manga was arrested in Canada for having”child pornography” based on how the characters were drawn. The styles weren’t realistic, the characters were said be the age of majority in the stories, and ultimately they were works of fiction. He was shocked as were others because essentially the arrest wasn’t made to protect anyone and was based on “The characters look young”. Ultimately, the court and prosecutors contended that the characters were “drawn to depict children as sexual”. Let’s be honest that very well may have been the case, but we can’t say that with any absolutes? Complicating things is…can we assume everyone read them for that purpose, that they were drawn with that intention, or??  Now shit gets complicated. Some anime and manga artist draw their characters to look young not intentionally, but that is there style. The only difference between how they draw one age group after a certain point and another may be height, or muscles, or breast size. If that is the case for a certain artist do we end up inadvertently implying that the body is what differentiates what is and is not appropriate, and suggest that, for example, anyone involved with a flat chested woman or an androgynous man is secretly attracted to or enjoys sexualizing children? And by that same token are we not saying certain body traits make someone more or less equivalent to a child regardless of age That isn’t overthinking. That is the unfortunate implication. Even then if characters are said to be of legal age or just turned that age, but we still take issue with it how can we justify saying the legal ages of sexual majority are based on fairness and not doing harm, or that they even really matter? I know a 27 year old who has been mistaken for a 12 or 13 year old on a nearly regular basis because of her size and voice. If someone is attracted to her…how do we interpret that?

Is the problem that these works exist or is the problem that monsters exist?

Is the problem that a piece for one reason or another might appeal to those monsters, or is it that we feel these pieces push uncomfortable situations for most of us?

Is the problem people thinking about teens having sex even if it isn’t fetishy or gross?

I would argue the difference is in the depiction, in the writing and art. I would argue that plenty of people in this world look younger than they are and even act that way or dress that way. I myself like Japanese lolita and ganguro fashion which is basically what happens when victorian dolls meet Lisa Frank. However, differences in how characters are depicted, obvious descrepensies in their supposedly being of sound and legal mind to consent versus their language, and other story by story contexts are what make all the difference in the world. I still don’t think you can legally penalize it with ease, but I do think you can see the intentions of who something is for, why it was written, and its purpose if you look closely. You can’t lump a story about a petite girl who looks younger than she is and has sex into the same category as a story about a petite girl who looks, acts, and thinks like a little kid across the board who has sex. You can explore the dd/lg lifestyle, with the former, but if the latter is literally all but calling the girl a child or a teenager that will be obvious. Once again context is everything.

If I have a teenage character who is insanely sexual, would realistically describe sex with relish, do I just skip over it and sacrifice what that scene reveals about them, their sexuality, and their relation to their body? I don’t think I know. Regardless of the book, too much sex can be a bad thing either way, and the goal wouldn’t be to sex up this teen in a pornographic way so it wouldn’t read like erotica in the slightest. The purpose of the scene would be to show this teenager’s fictional life, their active sexual life informs that life and “this is what that means to the story”. So a scene like that wouldn’t even include the sex so much as it would include the emotions, the mental state, the character’s feelings in the moment over any sexual acts. In fact I know I could write the scene without describing more than a kiss directly, but to some people even having the obvious implications would make me part of a large social problem.

With porn they used to say I’ll know it when I see it, but that can only go so far when talking about art. Full disclosure us westerners also have a nasty habit of deciding what is sexual for other societies so we really can’t be trusted. Just last week I read an article arguing that traditional dress in some South African groups that have women bare breasted are somehow exploitative based on the western author’s discomfort and own social, culture, and moral education in a completely foreign land. Essentially the argument was “We think its sexual. You cover up”, which I find racist, ethnocentric, imperialist, and incredibly unethical. This is the world we live in and all of these things come down to us as writers of fiction or non-fiction, as artists, as people who try to engage the variety of human experience in a fair, enjoyable, and purposeful way.

What are our ethical and moral obligations here? I believe that they are to do no harm. I believe they are to motivate thought. I believe we mustn’t treat the vulnerable as sexual objects just because we can. But ethically how do we go after those who may not always live up to my or your standards? How do we do that when we aren’t actually protecting real young people? How do we do that when we can’t and should not have “thought crimes” like in a dystopian novel?

I’m constantly wondering what to do about this because I am still close enough to teenage where I remember exactly how I thought, where I was sexual from a young age even without sexual experience, and I struggle with that greatly because I turned 18 and I did the things I couldn’t have before. My mind didn’t magically change. I just was legally able to do these things with people I was attracted to, and so I did with abandon. At the same time for someone else that difference between 17 and 18 is a vast chasm. At the same time I knew people who had kids at 13. Then again I knew people who didn’t even really know about anything beyond the mechanics of sex until their mid twenties or early thirties who feel the better for it. I know people who are 100% aesxual who support being open and frank about sexuality and those who never want it discussed around them. I know people who want their kids to read everything…and those who want their kids to read what is appropriate to their age group and then one day read everything.

There is an obvious line in western culture of what is not ok. I agree with and believe with that line whole heartedly. It is based on psychology, sociology, and the traumatic experiences far too many face. Kids and young people must be protected from predatory beasts in any and every way possible. But when we talk about young people, when we talk about the reality of young people being willing sexual participants with partners they choose, when we talk about writing in the minds of characters, when we talk about writing for the story, when we talk about avoiding turning our works into flashy inauthentic gross poop….we walk a fine invisible line. We must do no harm. We must be aware of how our writing reads so our intentions are not misunderstood. We must be aware of the difference between sex and sexualizing individuals no matter the age. As writers we must write honestly to tell the tales we want to convey in the way that best suits those stories. With care, gentle crafting, and understanding a writer can engage with human sexuality without ever crossing that line. It isn’t censorship to write smart, to understand how your writing will be seen, and to understand what makes you cross that line or not. You can write from the perspective and beliefs of a horrible person without glorifying that horror seriously in a persuasive way. So I will say to you once again…

At the end of the day all we can do is try not to glorify harmful practices.

*******

I don’t believe I said anything insulting or radical here. I don’t believe I said anything gravely inappropriate. I tried to be very even handed in regards to censorship, morality, and ethics of this very sensitive situation. The truth is there are no easy answers. I wish there were, but we live in a world where terrible things happen, where consent isn’t always valued(and that goes both ways). I’m an adult and I still have to explain that adults can consent to bdsm. I still have to explain that saying any sexual practice that is consensual, but doesn’t fit someone’s views is just reestablishing gender norms…is like saying because men have more power in society straight sex can never be fully consensual. I still have to explain to people that saying “no” means “no”. I still have to explain to people that assuming one gender is inherently the victim is why a lot of male abuse victims end up in jail, being harassed/stalked, and ultimately suffering in silence. So with all that in mind how do we even get to the issue of actually protecting those who need it…and acknowledging that there are complexities in fiction. Sex is very complicated, but it is also part of most people’s lives. To pretend no teen has sex is ignorance, but to glorify the sexuality of children, of teens, of those without sound mind to consent is to glorify the abuse of the vulnerable. Do not mistake that for conveying the sexuality of all people, of all characters. But do not confuse that last part for ok’ing fetishizing those vulnerable people. We truly walk the invisible line as writers…but if you cross it intentionally you risk your career, your life, and your reputation. All we can do is protect each other, and those who most need protection due to lack of lived experience, mental or emotional maturity, knowledge, and power.

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