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'10 Authors Insider Tips

Cooking Up A Storey
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Sex Is All Metaphors
by Jean Roberta
Holiday Ghosts
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Sex and Children
People Against Bad Things
Virtual Acceptance
His Cold Eyes, His Granite Jaw
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Sex Is All Metaphors

by Jean Roberta

Trying to Make It Go Away


Back in 2001, my interest in erotica led me to compose a brief talk on the subject for my colleagues in the university where I teach basic essay composition to students. Brief meant forty minutes: the maximum time-allowance for a presentation to be followed by a question-period.

Reading up on the long history of words and images about sex in order to pick out the most important ones plunged me into the history of censorship, including legal penalties for the writers and publishers of banned reading-matter. I felt relieved to be living in a time when I couldn't be hauled into a public square to spend a long hour in the pillory for the entertainment of a hostile audience.  

Since then, my original brief talk has spawned an ever-expanding lecture on censorship, with lists of court cases and books on the subject. I have discussed censorship in a bookstore with a delightful audience of book-lovers, in a public library with an audience of two, and most recently, in a television interview, part of a series on local writers for the Community Channel.

What never ceases to intrigue me about censorship is the core belief that Bad Ideas, variously defined, can be made to go away even after they have been expressed in some physical form. Destroying all copies of a particular book seems harder than ever before in a digital age, but this doesn't stop the morally righteous from insisting that this must be done to preserve Civilization, or what's left of it.

My claim that censorship doesn't work well in the present, and usually looks ridiculous to future generations (who will either embrace a once-banned book, painting or film, or find it too badly-made or obscure to be considered dangerous) horrifies some listeners.

A vehement woman, one of the two people who came to the public library to hear me during Freedom to Read Month, asked whether I knew that prostitution is both immoral and illegal. (In fact, it is not strictly illegal in Canada, but I didn't want to digress into a discussion of laws applied to actual activities, as distinct from works of art.) When my other audience-member (a liberal clergyman) came to my defense, the righteous lady demanded to know whether he considered depictions of promiscuous sex to be "all right."

I have often been asked parallel questions. Do I really think racist propaganda is "all right?" Do I think "kiddie porn" should be tolerated? Surely there must be some sex act that even I find too sickening to see represented in any form, even a joke or cartoon? Behind all these questions is a childish faith that every idea that doesn't pass some universal standard of acceptability can be erased, vaporized or sent into a black hole in space.

There are actually many messages, expressed in words and images, that I don't consider "all right." The appropriate way to deal with them, it seems to me, is to respond—preferably in the same milieu in which the words or images appeared—with a reasoned explanation of why they are offensive. In some cases, offensive speech or images point to real-world harm that can be dealt with under real-world laws. In one case that I heard of, blog posts and on-line photos of the sexual abuse of a teenager by an older man led the police to an abductor and enabled them to rescue his victim.

Rescuing actual victims of coercion and abuse whenever possible seems morally necessary to me, but there is no guarantee that banning certain words or pictures can keep anyone safe. Consider the standard scenario that is often given as part of a defense of censorship: an innocent young man (maybe a farm boy on the Canadian prairies where I live) sees his first porn magazine or film. His eyes bulge, steam pours from his ears, he gets an erection, then rushes out the door to grab and rape the first young woman he sees. Her life has been ruined because of his exposure to porn, which should never have been accessible to him. And he has been turned into a monster.

Whenever I've heard this little melodrama, I've asked when and where this actually happened. Invariably, the crusader against porn becomes evasive. Well, obviously, sexual abuse does happen, and something must trigger it! This probably happened somewhere! Behind this claim is an amazing belief that banning sexual description from the media at large could preserve the "innocence" (sexual ignorance) of an entire population and thus preserve peace and harmony.

At one time, young women were expected to be sexually ignorant until they married. In some current religious sermons and past works of literature, virginity is elevated to a state of radiant grace.

In The Well of Loneliness, that 1928 novel about a female "invert" (either a dyke or a transman in current terms), Stephen is born into a spotlessly "normal" (heterosexual) world. In the backstory of her life, Stephen's father falls in love with Stephen's mother, the fair Anna, because she is "all chastity." Yet chastity, as a lack of sexual experience, is a strictly negative quality. Even when chastity is equated with "faithfulness" (lack of sexual experience outside of marriage), it doesn't guarantee mutual love or loyalty. Anyone could be kept "chaste" by being confined.                         
A woman who has been kept under house arrest all her life, first by her parents to preserve her "purity," then by her husband to preserve his rights of ownership, might well hate her jailers with a depth that would surprise them if she could express it openly. And a young man who has been "protected" from knowledge of sex and of women's bodies might well fear and despise what he doesn't understand. Compare the theory that "porn" leads directly to violence with the evidence that ignorance is an excellent breeding-grounds for it.

"Hate" literature, as the expression of ideas about a target population intended to arouse hatred against it/them, also flourishes best in a context of ignorance and passivity. In her books on bullying among the young, and genocide as adult bullying carried to the ultimate extreme, Barbara Coloroso defines three players in the drama: the bully (or bullies), the bullied, and the bystanders. Even in a schoolyard scenario, the bystanders are likely to be the largest group and the one with the most power.

Bystanders have the power to intervene before the bullying can progress beyond a first attack. An audience of informed bystanders, many of whom have personal relationships with members of targeted "minorities," is not likely to be influenced by "hate" literature. Bystanders like that would be more likely to relegate racist myths to a museum or a reference book of bizarre and irrational beliefs than to join "hate" groups united by ignorance .

Myths about the Other (some group of people defined as "abnormal") blend very well with myths about sex. Allow me to introduce my next piece of evidence. A former high school classmate of mine reappeared in my life when both of us were in our twenties. Since high school, she had been converted to some intensely fundamentalist Christian sect by her fiance. On learning that I was still single, she thought I should be warned about the Greek community in our town. (She mentioned that she came from decent German stock.) She was working as a dentist's assistant, and she told me she had many Greek patients with rotten teeth and infected gums. Why? Because of their sex lives!

I was fascinated. She seemed to think I knew what she meant. I didn't, and I wanted to know which sex practices could lead to such problems. My "friend" was indignant. She certainly wasn't going to spell it out for me! I knew about oral sex, but I couldn't be sure that was the unspeakable elephant in the room. 

Since then, I've often tried to imagine a big fat Greek sex life which could possibly lead to infections of the mouth (and cavities! caused by sperm as sweet as baklava?) in the absence of simple precautions—or good medical care. My imagination has probably gone far beyond what my self-appointed guardian angel wanted me to believe.

And there you have an example of "hate" speech and censorship combined. Comments about the awful, disgusting practices of Group X are usually expected to be taken on faith, theoretically because a detailed explanation would harm the listener in some way, but actually because the hater is too ignorant and irrational to make a convincing case. A public dissection of such comments without an anesthetic seems to me to be the best cure.         

Bad Ideas and righteous efforts to make them disappear actually seem to me to be two sides of the same counterfeit coin. And like the proverbial bad penny, Bad Ideas (however defined) keep turning up until they are either accepted or laughed to scorn.

Until censorship itself is banned all over the world (and I'm not holding my breath until then), I seem to have a growing career as a chronicler of doomed efforts to control what can be said, written, shown or performed. I'll probably keep going until the Thought Police catch up with me.

Jean Roberta
April 2010

If you have comments or questions about this column, please send them to Jean Roberta

Follow Jean Roberta's trail to Sex Is All Metaphors in 2010 ERWA Archive.

"Sex Is All Metaphors" © 2010 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written

About the Author:†Jean Roberta is the thin-disguise pen name of a writer who teaches mandatory first-year English classes in a Canadian prairie university and who writes fiction (erotic and otherwise), research-based articles, opinion pieces and reviews. She joined ERWA in December 1998, and has never looked back. Several of her stories can be found in the "Treasure Chest" gallery. Over sixty of her erotic stories have been published in print anthologies, and Eternal Press has released her single-author e-collection of erotic stories in various genres and flavors, Obsession (2008).
Jean is a staff reviewer for the monthly reviews site, Erotica Revealed (edited by D.L. King). She blogs on Livejournal as "Lizardlez" and at Her website ( is a work in progress.
Read Jean's full bio at Erotica Readers & Writers Association.

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