Thex makes me thad

Theric rides again!

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You know how sex makes me sad? I tell you how sex makes me sad. Sex makes me sad when people are talking about it and don’t think to invite me. What is that all about? Man alive. I’m an artist! Of course I want to talk about sex!

The problem is, no one wants to talk with me. In a 2009 issue of Irreantum, Bruce Jorgensen wrote a tired retread titled “Reading About Sex in Mormon Fiction — If We Can Read” which basically was the for-idiots version of his much better 1987 Dialogdue article on the topic. On Thutopia, I wrote a response to that article as part of my LDS Eros series (I’ve also written about the 1987 article) in which I pretended that Jorgensen should be reading my blog and know all about the interesting and scintillating and crazy-sexy things I’d been saying. In fact, as far as I know, I’ve had exactly one BYU professor read my blog exactly once. And if memory serves, he wasn’t interested in fictional-sex advice. So even if I am opening new doors and not just revisiting tired antiroach arguments, it doesn’t matter because I’m not part of the conversation.

But what should I say about literary sex, now that I have the BCC stage?

How about I say five short things and then open it up to the rest of you to explain what’s wrong with me?

One: Brother Joseph might have dismissed the Song of Solomon as not inspired, but I beg to differ. It might not be inspired scripture but that doesn’t mean it’s not inspired. In fact, given the importance our faith places on romantic love (and the paucity of healthy relationships well explored in scripture), I think we’re lucky to have a bit of hankypanky at all, “inspired” or not.

Two: Sex is holy. I mean — it may not have gotten an explicit shoutout in the Proclamation, but you can only be told to love your spouse so many times before you have to be rather dense not to make the conceptual leap. I think we can safely assume Mormons have sex and even that Mormons should have sex. We can even assume enthusiastic approval on the part of deity.

Three: As Jorgensen writes in his good article, in order to have a “pornographic event”, we need “three elements: a porn author, a porn text, and a porn reader . . . [although] the porn event seldom requires all three . . .  it always requires one: . . .  a porn reader. Porn author and porn text make the event more likely but do not inevitably guarantee it.” Pornographic physician, heal thyself. Or, in other words, that written sex is dangerous we deny not. That written sex should be abolished we deny with vigorous thrusting.

Four: Having healed ourselves (doctrinal clarification), we can now stop worrying ahead of time whether we’re dealing with a porn author or a porn text. We can just look for what is of good report and read from the best books. For my last two points, let’s look at a couple examples. First, Todd Robert Peterson’s novella Family History which opens with a tale of hot Las Vegas sex, written by a convert who asks his son to destroy it without reading. (Son doesn’t, natch, though he is suitably shocked.) His mother says: “These stories don’t get told much in our church, David. We want stories of success without having to hear about the struggles of sin. . . . There has to be an opposition in all things, otherwise we could not be redeemed. And the opposition is part of the whole. . . . Please consider that as you write our history. Please record all of us. Let our lives be of use.” The erotic experiences of life are part of our history (and not just the sinful Vegas eroticism mentioned here — holy sex is also part of our reality). Besides, regardless of what the sexual actions of characters are, the real question to ask the story is: Are the consequences of those actions true? Using that as a guide, the answer in this story is yes. And the result is beautiful, artful, responsible, artilegitimate, holy.

Five: My second example is from a Mormon author who never thought Mormons would read her books and gets a little uncomfortable with how I’m always trying to sell her work to our fellow Saints. Magdalene by Moriah Jovan (note disclaimer regarding this book here) might be the best Mormon novel published this year. Probably is. But besides the fact that it’s a good read, it is also accurate. Sure, it’s a romance. It starts with a widower bishop (why are these so common in our fiction?) who falls in love with a former prostitute (why not?) and then all sorts of things happen. Believable and fantastic at the same time. You will see Mormons you know — both the type you love and the sort you rather with would disappear. Even the parts I was skeptical of are true (eg, the church-disciplinarian letter was copied directly from a real one sent to a mutual acquaintance). This is the rare novel, aimed at a national audience, that tells Mormons like we are. Also, to get back on topic, it’s loaded with sex. The first half is a Meyersesque erotics of abstinence, but that ain’t so in the second half. There’s all kind of real sex here. And it’s not wasteful or gratuitous. This sex leads to genuine character development that could not have happened any other way. And think about it: doesn’t sex lead to character development that doesn’t happen any other way? You bet it does. Plus, Magdalene is an allegory for the Atonement, so, really, it’s got something for everyone.

Okay. As promised. Tell me why I’m wrong.

Comments

  1. Not a single picture in this article? I’m thisappointed.

    I’ve read a lot of books that include sex and sexual content. I’ve yet to find one that I would classify as pornography. I don’t doubt that it exists, but I highly doubt that it gets published with anything approaching regularity.

    It seems popular to say that there has always been pornography or pornographic media, but I’m a little skeptical. So bring it on, Mormons. Find me the sexiest, most pornographic Egyptian hieroglyph you can find. I want to see some BCE pornography. Frankly, some 15th century pornography would be fascinating.

  2. There is a lot of Greek and Roman era porn. Do some searching, it isn’t hard to find.

    There is also a lot of explicit Near Eastern and Egyptian discussion of divine (and human sex). It is hard to know if it was designed to arouse (as porn is) or not, because the surrounding culture is so ill understood. In a world with active fertility gods present, is porn necessary? Does it carry the same meaning? It exists (see Greece and Rome), but its meaning would be different than today’s. It wouldn’t be as transgressive, for instance.

  3. Check on the murals from the brothel at Pompeii if you are looking for explicit images from antiquity. Is it “porn”? Who knows?

  4. What I like about “Family History” is the way it responds so effectively to the cockroach analogy. Petersen does a nice job of responding to those who, like Larry Lomax, would prefer to talk about the atonement without getting their hands dirty. As a reader, I admit that I initially questioned the necessity of the Las Vegas scenes until the final section of the novella put me in my place. True,”Family History” may not be fore everyone, but the story’s payoff justifies any discomfort it may cause readers. It’s one of the great Mormon fictions about Mormon fiction.

  5. And, to risk contradicting myself, I think because “Family History” is about–in many ways–the cockroach analogy, it’s okay to talk about the cockroach when we talk about “Family History.” Maybe…

  6. .

    Hey, I brought it up…..

  7. Well there is the sexually explicit graffiti found in an ancient egyptian cave: http://www.maat-ka-ra.de/english/personen/senenmut/senenmut_hatschepsut.htm

  8. Theric,
    There’s nothing wrong with you.
    1. The Song of Solomon fits neatly within ancient religious traditions regarding the divine bed. Fertility gods and goddesses had sex as a part of the regular cycle of the year in order to bring about the spring, etc. That said, ancient fertility practice has been obviously exaggerated by ascetic German intellectuals and we certainly don’t want to emulate the ones we are fairly confident. But is the Song of Solomon ancient scripture? At least as much as anything else in the Old Testament. Remember that the Jews keep it around as a celebration of life for a reason.
    2. I think that this is an important point. In the LDS tradition, Sex is treated as holy. Certainly, that explains our general reticence to discuss it publicly. We tend to think of it as “temple” holy, as opposed to “sacrament” holy. I’m not sure that is the correct holy, but I think that explains it. Certainly, we have plenty of evidence of people misusing or misunderstanding their own sexual urges, so that probably explains the desire to build walls around the discussion. However, those same walls make appropriate or truly holy expressions of sex incredibly rare to find. Do we have a way out of this that won’t shock my Gramma?
    3. That quote succinctly explains why discussion of “living pornography” is not particularly helpful. Since porn is always a matter of what is in the mind of the reader (looker, etc), then the intent of the object (read, looked at, etc.) is secondary. Not unimportant, really, but still secondary.
    4. One of the problems in our discourse is that, because we don’t have any open notion of holy sex, we’ve allowed the Las Vegas sinful sex to define us. Other than that, I’ve not read the book, so I can’t comment on it. But, one of the questions we need to ask in this is can we write about sex without being pornographic in intent (assuming that is a bad thing)? One of the issues seems to be how explicit the description is. I’m reminded, for instance, of the Truman Show, when Truman and his wife are intimate, the camera always pulls back through a window and the curtains close. Is that sufficient? Is that untrue? Where should we look to find examples to emulate and avoid? What do you think?
    5. I’m curious about the assertion that sex leads to character development that doesn’t happen any other way. What do you mean by that? I’m open to it, but I need a better idea of what you mean. I ask, in part, because the mixture of romantic love with BFF-ness in modern relationships seems to indicate that relationship stuff could be accomplished without sex. Certainly that’s a very Catholic notion, but it is one that has found a foothold amongst the Mormons (with Orson Scott Card, for istance). Also all the discussion of marital compatibility after the initial honeymoon fires have cooled. So, what developments in character do you see as explicitly tied to sex (illicit or otherwise)?

  9. Also, although it is well a good to look up ancient sexually explicit art and stories on your own time, I’d rather we didn’t turn this particular thread into a clearinghouse for such. So, let’s stop that, okay?

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I wouldn’t call them pornography, but there are a couple of pictures of erect penises in the Pearl of Great Price (yes, the one you lug with you to Church every week). One of them is ejaculating. But you kind of have to know what you’re looking for. Instead of playing Where’s Waldo with your Facsimile 2, if you want to pursue this look at the Michael Rhodes commentary on the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus; the images will be clearer in the reconstructions.

  11. Guys, get a room ….

  12. Scott H.–forgive me, I’m new to BCC and have been reading for about 2 months now. What is the cockroach analogy? It’s probably obvious to everyone else, and so I feel a bit self-conscious asking, but I really want to know. Did I miss something? (probably…)

  13. Picolo,
    There is a link in the OP, but here it is again.

    Kevin,
    Not helping.

  14. For your BYU professor, are you counting my chemistry prof spouse?

  15. .

    JohnC#8:

    re4: I think that “One of the problems in our discourse is that, because we don’t have any open notion of holy sex, we’ve allowed the Las Vegas sinful sex to define us” is precisely the problem. I know when I was a teenager I was so afraid of even appearing to talk about sex that I was all kinds of neurotic. That we can talk about sex without being pornographic I take as an article of faith. Porn‘s root of course is a reference to prostitution and just as we can have sex without prostitution in the church, so can we have written sex without prostitution.

    (cont) I also have no problem with the cutting-away means of dealing with sex, but ……

    re5: I do believe there are things we learn about ourselves and about our partner during sex that does not happen otherwise. Sexual experience is inherently vulnerable and open (though if it’s not, that also tells us something). And the things we learn about each other on the honeymoon are no more important that how we use sex to communicate in middle-age. I don’t have a straight answer on HOW this is done because I’m still figuring it out. But books like Magdalene and On Chesil Beach prove that sex can be a powerful tool of character development.

    Consider also the way Elder Scott described how sex “bind[s] husband and wife together in loyalty, fidelity, consideration of each other, and common purpose.” That’s character development, in my mind.

  16. .

    re:14: I . . . don’t know? Who are you married to?

  17. Scott Burt.

  18. fMh Lisa, Larry Rigby, and I were panelists at Sunstone this year, exploring the erotic in LDS fiction, and of course, that necessitated the defining of erotic versus porn.

    I mention this because fMh Lisa made a point that underscores the distinction between porn and the erotic. Basically, porn is all about the body parts to the exclusion of everything else. That’s it. Tab A, Slot B.

  19. Oh yeah, I’m talking to other Mormons. If there’s sex, there’s porn. I’ve seen the vases with the sodomy and the hieroglyphs depicting erections.I’m not convinced that any of those can rightly be considered pornographic.

    While we’re at it, the Church builds some pretty phallic structures. If a teenager in a tanktop can be pornography, can a temple be porn?

  20. .

    I hadn’t thought about the fact that people I know later become BYU professors. Color my mind blown.

    re:19: Exactly — once we want to label things pornographic, nothing is off limits. But if it’s all perception, then why should we choose pornography?

    re:18: DH Lawrence said pornography is “the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it.”

  21. John C., thanks– got it.

  22. Nick Literski says:

    I ask, in part, because the mixture of romantic love with BFF-ness in modern relationships seems to indicate that relationship stuff could be accomplished without sex. Certainly that’s a very Catholic notion, but it is one that has found a foothold amongst the Mormons (with Orson Scott Card, for istance).

    I hate to see anyone use Orson Scott Card as an example of Mormon sexual mores. Card has developed an unhealthy obsession over other people’s sexuality, even to the point of rewriting Shakespear’s Hamlet to suggest that Hamlet’s father was a gay pedophile who raped Horatio and several other youth, ultimately expressing his deep desire to have sex with his son (Hamlet) eternally in Hell. (Yes, I’m serious–this was published in a couple anthologies in 2008/9, but has just been released as a stand-alone volume, under the title, Hamlet’s Father.) Whatever one might infer from Orson Scott Card’s growing obsession with homosexuality (cough…), he’s clearly not a good example of healthy LDS sexuality.

  23. So I’m about halfway through Card’s novella and I skipped to the end. Nick is right that Old Hamlet makes it clear he intends to have Hamlet in hell.

    Now, what is disturbing to me about the whole outraged furor is that he is consistently touted as a GAY pedophile by people who (rightly) also insist that gay != pedophile and vice versa. Pedophilia is its own deviance.

    Thus, I would submit that had this been any other author than Card, who’s burned so many bridges over the Hatrack he may never get back, Old Hamlet would have been seen as your garden variety pedophile.

    There are a lot of points I want to make about this novella and its uproar, not to defend Card, because I have always generally disagreed with his opinions in the past and I find him utterly shrill, but to address the knee-jerk reaction to a book nobody seems to have read.

    And if there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s people getting up in arms over a book they haven’t read.

  24. At one time that’s what you got for reading Ginsberg on the metro. Then again, Card is no Ginsberg.

  25. Oh, but I also do want to agree that Card and his opinions shouldn’t be held up as pre/proscriptive of Mormon thought.

    5. I’m curious about the assertion that sex leads to character development that doesn’t happen any other way. What do you mean by that? I’m open to it, but I need a better idea of what you mean. I ask, in part, because the mixture of romantic love with BFF-ness in modern relationships seems to indicate that relationship stuff could be accomplished without sex. Certainly that’s a very Catholic notion, but it is one that has found a foothold amongst the Mormons (with Orson Scott Card, for instance). Also all the discussion of marital compatibility after the initial honeymoon fires have cooled. So, what developments in character do you see as explicitly tied to sex (illicit or otherwise)?

    I’m going to go ahead and address this, since the question is rather at odds with the traditions of my genre (romance).

    Firstly, the idea of romantic love is a fairly new concept. It requires both love and sexual attraction, where in previous centuries, it didn’t even require like, much less BFF-ness. That’s not even accounting for the medieval concept of chivalry and courtly love.

    Secondly, does one have sex with all one’s besties? No. I have in the past and still do have male besties. But my husband is my Chief Bestie, he’s the only Bestie I have sex with. Sex changes the entire equation of BFF-ness. COULD I have sex with my other male besties? Sure, but it would change the relationship and thus, change me and him/them.

    Thirdly, in my genre, there is no such thing as simple platonic love between the main characters, be they straight or gay. Yes, they go do stuff together, hopefully have common interests, but the couple isn’t just a pair of besties who have sex. Platonic feelings will be in the mix, but they sure aren’t going to carry the relationship.

    The idea that sex isn’t somehow life-changing, if even on a microscopic level with, if even with your BFF, is rather odd, really. How can it NOT contribute to a character’s development, especially if the character isn’t having sex with anyone else, and chooses to have it with this other character? Somehow or another, for good or ill, the sex, what happens in one’s mind and soul during sex, is going to change the participants–in ways that cannot happen in any other way.

  26. Moriah, I’m still interested if you’d like to write a review of it for BCC. Though frankly it sounds like it sucks.

  27. Steve, I’d be happy to, especially after that other thread got yanked.

    It has some problems. Old Hamlet’s pedophilia isn’t, IMO, the biggest one, especially for what I think Card was trying to do.

  28. “Old Hamlet’s pedophilia isn’t, IMO, the biggest one, especially for what I think Card was trying to do.”

    You mean there’s more to talk about in the book than the sex?

  29. You mean there’s more to talk about in the book than the sex?

    Yes.

  30. Sorry it took me so long to respond. I been busy.

    Theric:
    “I don’t have a straight answer on HOW this is done because I’m still figuring it out. But books like Magdalene and On Chesil Beach prove that sex can be a powerful tool of character development.”
    I agree that the HOW is the problem. Do you think that it can be addressed by the WHY? In other words, no gratuitous sexuality? Also, do you think that there is a way to describe sex as it is that isn’t glorifying it (in the way that violence is glorified). It isn’t an inherent end (for most humans) but we often treat it as if it was.

    Moriah:
    I guess the point I was trying to make is that the idea that your sexual partner is supposed to also provide emotional fulfillment is relatively new (at least amongst the upper class). Certainly, we’ve got stories going back to the Bible about love matches, but I agree with you that “romantic” love as a common thing is fairly new (arguably, it really only became prominent with the invention of no-fault divorce).

    I suppose, however, that there is still a prominent thread in American culture that sex without a concommitent relationship is possible (and possibly desirable). Two movies this summer tried to disprove it, as have thousands of movies before them (and books). So, in spite of our modern enlightenment, the idea that sex and friendship (or love even) can be separate persists. In the church in particular there is a tendency to assume that all sex outside of a matrimonial context is shallow in this way. I can’t speak to the accuracy of that; but it seems like a common perception. There seems to be two competing beliefs in American culture: Sex will matter, whether or not you think it will, & Sex may or may not matter, you know, depending.

    I’m skeptical that good romance (or good relationships) are built on raw lust (not that you are arguing for that). It seems to me that the tension in romance comes from two disparate partners, drawn together by mutual attraction or circumstance (and mutual attraction), have to try and make things work. Although in romance they usually do, there is always the question of if and how to keep the reader interested. Good matches (in romance and life) force the finding of mutual interests and mutual compassion. Strangely, some people argue that this is more important than the sex itself.

    Is it a case of being overly analytical? Perhaps we are separately (and judging against one another) things that cannot exist alone? Can there be romantic love without any of these elements?

  31. @JohnC

    I think I did totally misunderstand what you were saying. I apologize.

    It seems to me that the tension in romance comes from two disparate partners, drawn together by mutual attraction or circumstance (and mutual attraction), have to try and make things work. Although in romance they usually do, there is always the question of if and how to keep the reader interested.

    In genre romance, they ALWAYS do. The happily ever after (HEA) is the genre’s only real requirement. However, whether the reader BELIEVES that the couple will stay together after the book ends is up to the skill of the writer. (In fact, I give a nod to this concept at the very end of Magdalene, wherein the reader has to decide whether or not s/he thinks the [now former] bishop and the ex-prostitute will stay together past their agreed-upon commitment.)

    I firmly believe that most relationships wouldn’t pass the fiction test. That is to say, if you wrote a book about them, they’d be about half a page and yawners to boot. Mine goes like this:

    Met Dude. Got married. Had kids. Bought a money pit. In a world of cheerleading fees and high gas prices, will they or won’t they be able to put new windows in their house before winter?

    I suspect most people’s are like that. Now, I COULD make that semi-interesting, but do I want to? No. Would anybody want to read about it? No.

    Unless.

    The tale were highly exaggerated for tragic or comic effect, and that’s what entertainment really is: exaggeration. Romance is no different in that respect. So then the story becomes:

    Met Dude. Got married. Had kids. Bought a money pit. In a world of layoffs and foreclosures, will their marriage survive through the nightmare of whole-house window installment done by shady contractors who kidnap their child? Or will their struggle to find their child and a new contractor before winter bring them closer together than ever?

    Everybody knows what real life is like. People who like to read genre fiction don’t want to read about real life when it’s happening all around them. So this:

    I’m skeptical that good romance (or good relationships) are built on raw lust (not that you are arguing for that).

    takes on a whole new meaning in that context. The idea (usually) is that the romance is built almost independently of the lust, consummated or not, but that the lust gradually turns into something deeper and more meaningful. There should be a tension between what happens in bed and what happens outside of it that together build the relationship.

    I’ve written a couple whose relationship really did start out on the basis of lust and a few shared philosophies, but they made a conscious decision to really work at it, and it was not easy for them. But there had to be something there for them to hold onto besides the lust. Regardless, having sex would’ve changed them any way it turned out.

    As for Magdalene, the bishop (Mitch) was very clear to say that while he was attracted to the ex-prostitute (Cassie) the moment he saw her, his goal was not sex. It was companionship with a woman his equal in intelligence and power and money. No matter how much he lusted for her, he would not have spent time with her if that’s all it was for him.

    I’ve not written a romance (yet) that didn’t involve sex, with varying levels of frequency and explicitness, depending on the tone and mood I’m going for. I find romance without the implication of the couple having had sex at all (“I’m pregnant!” doesn’t count) to be one-dimensional. And it doesn’t take much. As long as there is an acknowledgment that these two people not only like each other and are committed to their relationship, but they are also sexually attracted and aroused, I find that satisfactory. To completely ignore that part of a couple’s relationship is to ignore what it means to be human. And, quite frankly, I think Mormons tend to want to believe we’re simply above all that “being human” stuff.

  32. I swear my previous comment made sense in my head when I hit the post button.

  33. .

    To John (30):

    I’m not convinced sex should NOT be glorified. Las Vegas monkey sex, no, but sex itself? Maybe we should, now and then. “Gratuitous” sex though, I think is a problem. Sex for the sake of sex isn’t doing fiction any good.

    In the latest issue of Tin House are two reviews of old books by Henry Miller and Paul Zweig. Both reviews (but particularly the one about Miller) make the sex sounds selfish and self-centered and, for those reasons, juvenile. That’s not the sex I think your average Mormon is anxious to promote. Our sex is community-building, not thrill-seeking.

    =====================================

    To Moriah (31):

    To completely ignore that part of a couple’s relationship is to ignore what it means to be human. And, quite frankly, I think Mormons tend to want to believe we’re simply above all that “being human” stuff.

    This might be exactly my point. Sex, present or absent, hedonistic or habitual, is part of being human. Ignoring part of the human condition is not part of great art. It needs to be acknowledged, no matter how subtly or indirectly. And sometimes a story will require something rather more obvious.

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