Writing in an Age of Sexual Freedom
The question has been around for a long time, ‘Does art reflect culture, or does culture reflect art?’ and the answer has always been both. I remember reading an article about how early mob movies drastically influenced the actual mofia culture in New York and Chicago. So what are our responsibilities as authors? Recently I’ve been faced with this question particularly in reference to the way that we portray addiction and sexual deviance in our writing.
Let’s face it, we live in a culture of sexual freedom. Whatever your personal beliefs are, culturally speaking it is no longer ‘bad’ to be homosexual in large portions of America. I firmly believe that within the next ten years bestiality will follow this trend, and probably pedophilia* after that. We are becoming a much more tolerant culture. As with everything this has positives and negatives.
The Good: I was recently listening to a radio program discussing addiction recovery programs. The discussion was focused on how such programs are becoming more acceptable and anonymity, while still valued, is less necessary than it has been in the past. This is a very good thing, and a direct result of having a more tolerant culture. We are near the place where people with problems can seek legitimate help for those problems without facing the social stigmatization that participation in such a program once had. Anything that makes it easier for addicts to get the help they need is a good thing in my book. We are also seeing less hate violence, against homosexuals in particular. This is not to say that it has ended, but that the culture of tolerance has brought about a lessening in actual hate crimes.
The Bad: In some areas the culture of tolerance has turned into a culture of praise. This is most noticeable in the areas of homosexuality and women’s liberation. We have moved from an attitude of, ‘you don’t have to like it, but you do have to deal with it,’ to an attitude of, ‘if you don’t think this is wonderful then you’re a horrible person who should be burned!’ We have moved from looking at women who want careers as ‘strange and possessed of inappropriate priorities,’ to looking at women who want to be homemakers as ‘horribly backwards and trapped in an age of oppression that the rest of the country has thankfully escaped’. Neither one of these attitudes is appropriate. Likewise we have moved from defining homosexuality as a psychological illness (removed from the DSM in 1986) to a culture that demands the attitude that homosexuality been defined as not only acceptable, but desirable. Furthermore, some things that were once considered disorders are no longer treated this way. I wonder if pedophilia will still be classed as a mental disorder in twenty years.
The Ugly: We have steadily redefined certain terms, specifically ‘hate crime’ and ‘hate speech’, so that while the actual instances of hate crimes have lessened the reported instances have grown. We see a growing number of news media reports about ‘hate crimes’ that were not motivated by hate. In common definition, thankfully this hasn’t made the leap over to the legal or actual definition yet, hate speech has become anything that can be taken as offensive in nature, rather than speech that is truly hateful towards its intended target. Saying that ‘All [blank] should die, we need to cleanse the human race of [blank]’ is hateful, saying that ‘I think that [blank] is stupid and wrong’ may be intolerant, but it is not hateful.
As a Christian I am faced with the question of whether I should include certain things in my writing and how those things should be portrayed. For instance, is it appropriate to have a homosexual character? After all homosexuality is a part of our culture, should I avoid such an issue because I disapprove of it? If I do have a homosexual character how should that character be portrayed? As a Christian I believe that homosexuality is sin (if you don’t like that then call me a bigot, but keep reading), but then I also believe that worry and gossip are sins, so should I avoid using characters that worry or gossip as well? If I do have characters that worry or gossip, should they always be villains? The same question can be asked for bestiality, alcoholism, or any number of other issues.
The key here is not to avoid difficult issues, but to deal with them naturally. A book might very well not have any characters that struggle with addiction or deviance because they don’t fit. On the other hand, to purposely avoid having characters with these issues because you don’t want to deal with them…well, I’m sure you can figure out how I feel about that. Another common mistake I’ve seen is to include the issue, but to write the issue instead of the character. Whether it is on television, in literature, or in video games, most of the characters that I see who are homosexual, addicts, or deviant are defined by those qualities. A gay character is often nothing other than gay, an alcoholic is generally only presented in light of his/her alcoholism. In modern culture it is equally risky to write an evil homosexual or a good alcoholic because the action is often the entirety of the character and our culture praises homosexuality while condemning alcoholism. We can’t make the mistake of writing a story that encourages sin, but we also need stories that deal with sin issues in real ways. And please don’t think that I am advocating that every story should include these issues. That is not necessary, and would not be appropriate, but some stories must.
I’m fairly sure that everyone reading this will agree that pedophilia is wrong (I can’t say the same about some of the other issues I’ve mentioned). When confronted with something like this we tend, in real life as well as in fiction, to define the person by the action. We generally assume that anyone who is attracted to small children must be a horrible, horrible person in every aspect of his/her life. This is a poor assumption whether it is made in real life or in fiction. A villain may very well be a pedophile, but that doesn’t mean that every pedophile must be a villain. Perhaps he/she is a ‘good’* person who recognizes that his/her desire is inappropriate and takes steps to ensure that he/she never acts on it. Perhaps it is something that the character is conflicted about, or afraid of. Whatever the case, if the character is nothing more than ‘that nasty pedophile’ then he/she will be a very flat character.
So, how do you write the character as good without implying that the issue is good as well? Make it clear that it’s a problem. Let the character’s attitudes and actions reflect that, don’t justify the problem, but make it real. One movie that does a great job of dealing with addiction is Mr. Brooks**. The movie is about a serial killer who doesn’t want to be a serial killer. He tries to deal with his problem by going to AA meetings and using the techniques they teach to deal with his desires. At its core the movie is about addiction, serial killing is used to make it interesting to potential audiences, and (unlike Dexter) it does a great job of portraying an addict’s struggle without justifying the addiction itself. This is the key, make the character a real person and the issue only one aspect of his character, instead of making the issue into the character and vice versa.
Also keep in mind that sometimes the stereotypes are true. While not all pedophiles are horrible, horrible people, some are and this does need to be understood. However, it is not the problem that makes a person horrible, it’s the way that person handles the problem. There is a big difference between a pedophile who takes steps to make sure that he/she does not indulge his/her inappropriate desires, a pedophile who struggles with his/her inappropriate desires, and a pedophile who indulges his/her inappropriate desires at every opportunity.
*This is technically defined as a psychological disorder normally found in adults or adolescents characterized by a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children. In the case of adolescents the object of interest must be at least 5 years younger in order to qualify as pedophilia.
**Good can be defined in many ways (and I’m not talking relativism here). One might be ‘good’ according to subjective cultural standards, ‘good’ according to their personal standards, or ‘good’ according to an objective or religious standard. Because of this I want to define ‘good’ in this context as: A person who acts appropriately according to cultural standards.
***I always try to give fair content warning so if you’re thinking about watching Mr. Brooks be aware that it is R rated because of violence, language, and one sex scene that includes both male and female nudity. While I have great respect for the way this movie deals with difficult issues, it is not a movie that I am willing to own and, while I am glad that I watched it; I don’t plan to watch it again. If these issues don’t bother you, you are sure that you can handle them, or you think that the potential gains of watching the movie are worth dealing with these issues then I encourage you to watch it. If the above don’t apply then this is one movie that you probably want to avoid.
Among the Neshelim
Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, seek it out, and break ourselves trying to find it. But it is always a rare commodity.
Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before – all for the hope of understanding. This journey will turn upside down the world he thought he knew and challenge all of his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?