mythology

Problems and Pleasures of The Myth of the Uncontrollable Urge

Minotaur crouching over sleeping woman; Picasso, 1933

I’m going to begin this essay by asking you for the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to ask you to assume
I’m not an insane or immoral person. I’m asking this of you because I’m about
to wade into the uncomfortable, murky waters of consent, intentionality and
biological imperative when it comes to sex – both fictionally and factually.

Attempts to unpack these issues, to examine philosophical, historical,
institutional, artistic and socially constructed understandings of human
sexuality reveal uncomfortable realities. They don’t always accord with the way
we want things to be or live up to our ideals. But I’d like to argue that approaches that seek to present the issue as uncomplicated for the sake of clarity, are not realistic or productive ones.

I just watched the documentary “India’s Daughter.” It
chronicles the events of the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of a woman
identified in the film as “Jyoti”. Some Indian feminist have
criticized the film because it allows a number of the rapists, their defense
lawyers and a few others to air, what to most Westerners and many Indians, too,
are deeply misogynistic views on where women belong in society and the part
they play in their own victimization. These statements are not directly and
immediately rebutted in the film – it allows the audience to be appalled at
them. The strategy works well in the context of a Western liberal audience that
is probably unaware of the extreme schisms of social attitudes surrounding
women. But for an Indian audience, where these views are not uncommon or unknown,
it fails. The Indian Government has banned
the airing of the documentary
, ostensibly because it offers a platform for
views it wishes to eradicate. However, this decision might also have been influenced by a recent incident in which a
mob of thousands pulled an accused rapist out of a prison in Dimapur
, and
beat him to death. The event is more complex than it appears. The accused was a
Bangladeshi, so there are both issues of religious and immigration tension that
have played significant roles.

I’d like to examine the myth that humans are at the mercy of
their animal instincts, driven by their biological imperatives; how old and
widespread this fallacy is and how deeply it has embedded itself into many cultures;
and what part it plays in both our fictions and our social norms.

It’s all Aristotle’s Fault.

Not really, but at least in Western culture, Aristotle’s
Nicomachean Ethics has served, through the centuries as a font of great wisdom
on the matter of the human condition. In Part Seven of the Ethics,
Aristotle submits that, once in the thrall of sexual arousal, humans are no
longer capable of exercising reason, restraint or judgement. Historicity and
language is a bit of a problem. We don’t know what stage of arousal Aristotle
is referring to. Perhaps he was referring to the moment of orgasm, in which
case he’d be spot on. The problem is that our historical unease with the
specifics of the human sexual response led to very broad generalizations about
states of sexual arousal. This myth that a human in any given state of sexual
arousal is incapable of exercising choice, or control, or good judgment, has
been responsible for a millennial get out of jail free card when it comes to
sexual ethics.

Sorry, Different Department.

By the time we did get around to studying human sexual
response in the mid-20th Century, courtesy of Kinsey and Masters
and Johnson
, the sciences had specialized. People who were interested in
philosophy, ethics, sociology or psychology had all been given their own
departments – nay – buildings on another campus. Let me tell you, interdisciplinary studies of human
sexuality
are a rare, belittled, and underfunded species.

However, we know humans can and routinely do exercise
enormous control over their ‘animal’ instincts. We seem to be able to restrain
ourselves from peeing in our nests, we often find ways to negotiate our
territorial instincts, and unsurprisingly, we manage to restrain ourselves from
spending all our time mating – even though some of us spend an inordinate
amount of time thinking about it. There are men and women of diverse religious
orders who manage to live a life of complete sexual celibacy. Even
hormone-addled 16-year-olds don’t generally rampage through the countryside
raping every orifice they encounter. To look at it more quantitatively and at
more extreme levels of sexual arousal, practicing the ‘withdrawal method’ (27
pregnancies in 100) is still vastly more effective than using no birth control
method at all (85 pregnancies in 100). So, even at the abyssal precipice of
orgasm, it’s clear that we can and do have the capacity to exercise some
choice, some judgment.

Once We Were Dumb Mammals

Meanwhile, in the realm of society, we consistently ignore
that fact. Historically and to the present day, we create narratives about
humans helplessly carried away by the urgency of erotic bliss. Our literature,
drama and films are full of it. But, more darkly, so are our laws, our judicial
systems, our security structures. 
We may acknowledge rape as a crime in theory, but even in the most
‘enlightened’ egalitarian social systems, it is astonishing how often
responsibility is shifted from the person who refused to exert control over
themselves and onto something or someone else. It was the clothes the victim
was wearing, the fact that she was out alone, the fact that she wasn’t
accompanied by a relative, the fact that she (or he) came up to the rapist’s
apartment, alcohol, drugs, peer pressure, prison, porn, the prevalence of a
‘rape culture’. The list of reasons why an individual is not wholly, personally
accountable for their actions goes on and on. Whether you find yourself in a
culture that denies women autonomy, or one that offers them an equal legal
status, the
myth of the uncontrollable urge always rears its head
.

Mythological Beasts

We can control ourselves and we enjoy the lie that we can’t.
It’s not really that surprising: biological drives are compelling, and it takes
effort to refuse their call. It makes sense that humans would have fantasies
about respite from that control. In his book “Speaking the Unspeakable:
The Poetics of Obscenity,” Peter Michelson explains the liberating appeal
of pornography. It is, he says, a space where we can luxuriate in relinquishing
the very real control we have over our animal instincts. There is romanticism,
authenticity and empowerment in our fantasies of giving in to our animal
natures. I don’t wholly agree with Michelson on the specific mechanisms of
this, because I think our ‘animal natures’ are themselves a fantasy
construction.  Nonetheless, he
presents an excellent argument: there is erotic pleasure in the prospect of relinquishing
control only because that control is, in fact, so real and so often exercised.

Meanwhile, romance often features motifs of being swept
away, overcome, overwhelmed, desiring beyond the boundaries of social
acceptability. The pursuer can’t help but want the object of his or her desire.
It obsesses them; it drives
them to extraordinary and unruly lengths within the context of the storyworld.
And the pursued, it usually turns out, cannot refuse the pleasure of being that
object of desire and, if all is well, return the feeling.

Fictional Outposts

One of the reasons I champion
fictional, eroticized portrayals of reluctance and even rape is because to deny
that these ideations have semiotic power is dangerous. But also, to attempt to
force limits (i.e. to have rape fantasies is a betrayal of feminist ideology)
on what metaphors, what metonyms, what ‘signifieds’ might be is also futile. I
think fiction is a safe space in which to negotiate the uncomfortable fantasies
and nostalgias humans possess for the lawless, reasonless, unempathic animals
we used to be. I’m not convinced of the veracity of that earlier state of
natural ‘innocence’, but it haunts us and calls to us nonetheless. Fantasy and
fiction are the only safe places we should give it power or credence. To
situate this myth of the uncontrollable urge in fantasy and fiction is to put
it exactly in the place it belongs – beyond the pale of the everyday world and
civil society, and to underscore that it is the ONLY place it belongs.

One of the stark messages of “India’s Daughter” is
that it is social attitudes, the tolerance of real world inequities, the historical
absence of women’s voices, their lack of power and the perpetuation of utterly
baseless justifications that create an environment in which crimes like this
are possible. The shocking testimonies of rape-apologists in the documentary
are offensive as hell, but they serve to remind us that these attitudes don’t
survive and are not perpetuated through fictional works, but through entirely
real-world levels of tolerance that predate ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and even
basic literacy.

Billionaire Lurve

K D Grace

I’m guessing no one reading this blog has any doubt whatsoever why I’ve been writing a lot about billionaires the past two weeks. I’ve written a billionaire post for the Brit Babes blog and for my own and, since the Big B is a timely subject right now, I thought that for my monthly ERWA post, I would try to summarise why I think billionaire romance is so appealing.

The billionaire romance is loved and loathed far and wide. Though it’s always been a huge part of the romance cannon, it burst onto center stage in all its glitz and glam with Fifty Shades of Grey, and since 50SoG, the number of novels, novellas and stories available with the word ‘billionaire’ in the title is boggling.

It’s safe to expect the number of billionaire novels to skyrocket yet again with the Fifty Shades of Grey film due out on Valentine’s Day. That being the case, I found myself wondering the other day while I was doing the ironing just what it is about billionaires that we find so appealing.

OK, I suppose that sounds like a stupid question. People are always curious about how the other half (or in this case less than 1%) live. That’s only natural. And who hasn’t fantasized about how their lives would be different if they won the lottery or a long lost relative died and left them with a fortune? So here are just a few of the reasons I think billionaire romances appeal to readers so much.

THE MYTHOLOGY: BILLIONAIRES AS GODS:

In the secular modern world where the belief in magic, monsters, demons and gods is pretty much reserved for us paranormal fans, I would like to suggest that the realm of the billionaire romance is mythology and magic for contemporary romance readers.

As with the gods of mythology, the rules don’t apply to billionaires. Wealth and power allow billionaires to do the seemingly impossible, wining and dining the objects of their lust and sweeping them away to the proverbial Mount Olympus in their helicopter or private jet. Zeus seduced Leda in the form of a swan. Eros rescued the bound Psyche and swept her away to his glorious palace to live in incredible splendor. All sorts of magic and miracles can be performed with wealth and power, and who better to perform such feats than a sexy, brooding billionaire?

The general theme in billionaire stories is that the billionaire, like the gods of old, becomes obsessed by a mere mortal, an ordinary person living an ordinary life. The billionaire then sets about seducing the object of his or her obsession with whatever magic or miracle money and power can buy. In billionaire romances, the billionaire is no more willing to take ‘no’ for an answer than Zeus himself was.

THE PARANORMAL BILLIONAIRE

I would like to suggest that the reverse is also true. Money and power are the billionaire’s equivalent to fangs, claws and magic. Our love of vampires, werewolves, angels and demons and all things paranormal is just a different twist on the billionaire romance. With fangs and claws and magic, the rules no longer apply, and when the rules no longer apply, the situation changes drastically.

THE RULES DON’T APPLY

If money is no issue, then the rules that apply to most of us can be bent and broken. And who doesn’t fantasize from time to time about being able to break the rules without consequence? While money may not be able to buy love, it can certainly buy sexual satisfaction in more than fifty shades and way more colours than gray. There’s something very edgy and exciting about the idea of buying sexual control over another person. It’s a Dom/sub relationship based on wealth. When we live in an age when money is power and money is control, it’s not surprising that money is also very sexy. Neither is it surprising that many of our fantasies involve ‘being bought’ in some way.

THE FREEDOM

Billionaires don’t have the financial constraints the rest of us constantly live with. If a billionaire can buy it, he or she can have it. Helicopters, jets, palatial mansions in south France, yachts the size of the QE2, a private island in the Med — all just an afternoon’s shopping spree. There’s something very appealing about the freedom that money buys, which leads me to my next point.

LIVING THE LIFE

The typical billionaire story involves a billionaire loving or at least lusting for someone who is very average. Again

the connection between the contemporary billionaire romance and the myths of gods seducing mortals is strong. And while we read that story, we fantasize ourselves right into that role. We become the character who is wined and dined, whisked away in the private jet and shopped for by a very exclusive personal shopper. In essence, we get one helluva makeover, readying us to walk in the rarified air of the billionaire’s world. It’s the luxury and adventure of our fantasies along with the hot nasty steamy sex of said fantasies.

THE LOOK

In billionaire novels the polished, airbrushed look of wealth is associated with the look or our dream guy or girl. We want our billionaires to conform to our personal fantasies of what sexy and rich look like, and it’s amazing, though not surprising, how often the two go hand in hand. If we’re going to have a fantasy man, he might as well look good AND be rich. And of course, he will lust obsessively after US! It’s gods and mortals getting nasty all over again.

SUFFERING BILLIONAIRES

Perhaps one of the big differences between the gods and mortals and the billionaires analogy is that our billionaire must suffer. No silver spoons in these stories. Our billionaires must have suffered tragedy and loss, been raised by crack whores, lost a loved one, had an abusive childhood, secretly suffer from self-doubt, self-loathing, horrible nightmares, think themselves unworthy of love. In the eyes of readers, there has to be a cost for wealth. Most of us can’t really imagine what it’s like to have that much money and power. If we’re being honest, we resent the hell out of people we feel have it but don’t deserve it. We find it gratifying to know that, yes, the wealthy really do put their pants on the same way the rest of us do, and they don’t get off without suffering. We need to see that suffering to make that love connection.

SALVATION IS AT HAND

Enter the love interest, just your ordinary girl/guy (insert your own name here) whose soul purpose in the story, as in all love stories, is to rescue the hero from himself, lift him above his self-doubts and heal him. The heroine’s job is to aid the wounded hero, even if he’s a surly billionaire, in becoming a better person, and lead him/her to a shared HEA. There’s something very satisfying about a billionaire who has everything, but is totally lost and impoverished until the love of his life saves him and brings him true love.

BALANCE OF POWER

It’s essential to the story that the love interest has something to offer to the billionaire that he needs, craves, can’t buy with his money. No one really wants to read a story about two perfect billionaires falling in love with each other in their perfect billionaire world. I’m convinced the billionaire story works because if offers the non-billionaire reader a balance of power. There’s something outrageously satisfying about an ordinary person having exactly what a billionaire needs, but can’t buy, what a billionaire is willing to give up all his/her wealth to have. The HEA in a billionaire story is the balance of power that happens when the billionaire and the ordinary heroine come to a state of equilibrium that allows love. Because the contrast in the beginning is so great, the achievement of this

balance of power can be spectacular to watch. And the HEA can be very satisfying because of that contrast.

In mythology, I’ve always been particularly fond of the stories in which the mortals, one way or another, infiltrate the realm of the gods. These days the distance between the very wealthy and the average person seems as great as the distance between the shepherd in his field and the heights of Mount Olympus. Divinity and magical powers are replaced with all things money can buy, which is a helluva lot if you have enough of it.

The billionaire romance affords the reader a visit to heaven, or to Mount Olympus or to paradise – chose one. We are transported to a place, which we can only otherwise go in our fantasies. We go to the penthouse and the palatial mansion right along with the billionaire’s lover. We become the billionaire’s lover – his Psyche, his Leda, his Persephone, his Anastasia Steele, and we visit the realm of the gods – a place where we don’t belong, but we want to. So, along with the heroine of the story, we have to find a way to stay there in paradise with our billionaire.

The moral of the story may well be that billionaires need love too, but I think it’s more likely that the moral of the story is the gods are alive and well and living in their penthouse apartments. Just ask Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.

Orthodox Erotica

By Oxartes (Guest Blogger)

 

I joined ERWA in September 2006 and began writing erotica, as a hobby, about a year before that. Nothing that would justify me being this month’s guest blogger, right? Well, what is out of the ordinary and what might justify my being this month’s guest blogger is that I’m an orthodox Jew.

You’ll have never read anything I’ve written, except on the ERWA site (with one exception, check out Jewrotica), for one very simple reason, other than I consider myself a rank amateur, especially in comparison to the excellent, excellent writers here at ERWA. I’m afraid, I’m very afraid. I certainly don’t see a contradiction between my writing erotica (that ranges from PG-13 to XXX) and my being an orthodox (as opposed to ultra-orthodox) Jew; if I did I wouldn’t be here. But I live in an entirely orthodox area here in Israel (moved here 27+ years ago) and I don’t think that my friends and neighbors would be so generous. On the contrary, they would probably consider what I right to be rank pornography. The fact that I’ve written several stories based on accounts in the Bible would only make it worse, much worse. I might be judging my friends and neighbors too harshly but I don’t care to ever find out. So, I have a mania about staying as deeply anonymous and underground as possible. I won’t risk my family being ostracized. So why do I write?

I started erotic and/or paranormal fiction, as an escape, a sanctuary from the darkling plain (I love that poem) outside my door. (I do live in the Middle East.) The shadows that I create sure beat the insanity outside. Lots of people here live, eat, breathe and sleep “the situation” (as we call the Arab-Israeli conflict). They read books about it, talk about it on Shabbat and are totally preoccupied with it. It defines them. I can’t and won’t live like that. I live it and will never be away from it. But I won’t become consumed by it, I won’t let it define me. In order to keep my sanity, I need some respite and sanctuary from it. This is where writing fits in. It’s where I can forget the reality outside my window and help keep the wolves at bay. It’s where I can relax, unwind and have fun. I write purely as a (secret) hobby, as R&R and as a kind of therapy (to let off emotional/psychic steam). That I can immerse myself in fictional realities helps me deal with “real” reality. This is what writing does for me. I’ve never really had a hobby before; it’s very relaxing. Why specifically erotica? I really don’t know but it’s a lot of fun and I’m enjoying the hell out of myself.

Verse #45 of Omar Khayyam’s “The Rubaiyat” says:

“But leave the Wise to wrangle,

and with me The Quarrel of the Universe let be:

And, in some corner of the Hubbub coucht,

Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.”

Writing is the corner in which I leave the Wise to wrangle, let the Quarrel of the Universe be and in which I couch and make Game of the lot! Writing has become such a part of me that I really can’t see not writing.

Erica Jong writes:

“Never does she feel more truly ‘successful’ as a writer than when she sees what passions her works arouse in people. One writes alone in blissful, or paranoid, solitude…So, to see actual fellow humans being moved to laughter, tears, and argument by one’s work — that is vindication. One is a good social being after all.”

I’ve created a series of stories about succubi and incubi. I’ve written several stories based on people/accounts from the Bible. Being an orthodox Jew, I’ve created an orthodox Jewish couple and written about them.

If I cause my readers to laugh (or just smile; I’m not greedy), cry, puke, argue or be entertained or moved in any way, then I figure I must be doing something right.

Do I have moral qualms about writing erotica?

There are certain things, especially in regard to Bible-based stories that I won’t do. Someone suggested that I write about David and Jonathan. I’ll pass. (Personally, I find the idea that they were gay wholly unsupported by the text. But I have written gay/lesbian stories.) On the other hand, I had no qualms whatsoever about writing how Delilah sexually tortured Samson into telling her the secret of his strength (our sages comment on Judges 16:16 and say that’s exactly what she did) or about King Solomon sleeping with the Queen of Sheba (our sages say he did) or about creating wholly fictional accounts about who the woman from Thebez was who dropped a millstone on Abimelech’s head (Judges 9:53-55), or how evil Queen Athaliah could’ve actually gone into the Temple at the precise moment when High Priest Jehoiada was launching his coup d’etat against her. (II Kings 11:13-16). I started a story about David and Bath-Sheba from Bath-Sheba’s point-of-view but didn’t like the way it was going; I’ve shelved it for now.

On Yom Kippur, whatever qualms I still have about writing erotica give way to thoughts about my temper and judging others, about being a better husband/father/son, etc. Am I shortchanging God thereby? I don’t mean to and I sure hope that He doesn’t see it that way. I see myself as kind of like God’s court jester. His Majesty keeps me around and lets me say outrageous stuff (within limits) because He knows that I love Him and am His most loyal subject, flawed as I am.

I love to read history. My pen name, “Oxartes”, is a hybrid of “Oxus” and “Jaxartes“. These Asian rivers were, to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the barely known end/edge of the civilized world. They were mysterious in and of themselves and marked the border between the known and the vast unknown. I find writing a way to explore the unknown in my psyche.

I adore Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I have a little Bantam paperback edition (very dog-eared by now) that I reread every year or so. It has an introduction by someone named George Stade who writes:

“(…)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in short, is an apparition of what we repress, particularly eros. To be bitten by Dracula is to become slave to a kind of lust, abandoned to unlawful hungers, a projection of the beholder’s desire and dread…

Dracula is the symptom of a wish, largely sexual, that we wish we did not have. The effect of repression is to turn a hunger into a horror; the image of a repressed longing as it appears in a dream or a fiction is a sinister shape that threatens with what it promises, that insinuates the desire beneath the fear…

…For Dracula is a classic, a book that tells us not what happened but shows us something of what happens wherever there are humans. The fear of death and the fear of the dead and the dream of immortality; the psychological and sexual dialectic within us of mastery and submission, of sadism and masochism, of the desire to hurt those we love and be hurt by them for our desires, the conflict within us between knowledge turned into civilizing power and the power of unknowable and uncivil urges, the alternating control over us of the moonlit energies of the night, when fantasies rise from our sleeping heads to enact our darkest desires, and the waking renunciations of the day, and define manhood and womanhood — these have always been with us. In Dracula, for all its occasional clumsiness and systematic naivete, Stoker transformed what was merely personal or only of his time into images of something more — of something at once monstrous and definitively human.”

For me, much of the erotica that I write is where I give voice to those repressed hungers and uncivil urges and enact my (darkest?) desires, and not only let them frolic in the moonlit energies of the night but get naked and frolic right there with them (as it were).

I suppose some/much of what I write is personal fantasy and repressed wish fulfillment. It’s fun, and I suppose, therapeutic to be able to give voice to my fantasies and repressed wishes.

As fun as writing the occasional raunchy stroke piece (i.e. sex for sex’s sake) can be, the story is very important to me. I like writing stories with varied, often historical, backgrounds. I’ve always liked doing research and try to make my historical settings as accurate as possible. Among the earlier things that I wrote is a series of ten stories about succubi and incubi. In the order in which I wrote them, they take place in modern-day New York, 1302 Ghent, modern-day New York again, 9th-century west Africa, modern-day Buffalo, 1880’s London (involving Jack the Ripper), a Jewish community in 1702 Pinsk, Atlantis and then Carthage on the eve of its fall to Rome (this is the “origin” story), Tibet during the Cultural Revolution and 10th-century Mesoamerica. I would like to go back to the series one day, rewrite some of the earlier stories (I think my writing has improved since then) and write some new ones. I have ideas for stories in modern-day Honduras, ancient India (with a guest appearance by the Buddha, no less!) and late 19th century Samoa.

I’ve written a trilogy of short stories set in ancient China, a few Norse mythology tales, two (unrelated) stories set against the background of the US Civil War and several Israeli (as opposed to Jewish) stories. I’ve given an erotic makeover to several classic fairy tales, written about voracious snake- and spider-women and tried some fan fiction (if Darth Vader was motivated by anger, guess what motivated Darth Maia??).

One of the things I love about the creative process is how ideas take root and develop. Once in a while an idea will spring fully-formed, Athena-like, from my head and I will just have to flesh it out. What has become my magnum opus, what I’m working on now and which I would eventually like to try and publish, has been the exact opposite.

In November 2007, I wrote a 4,000-word story “The Vow” (in the ERWA Treasure Chest) about Alex, an orthodox Jewish private investigator, a former cop and a widower, in New York who stumbles across a ghost, a beautiful Jewish woman who died in 1931, and with whom he must have sex in order to release her from a terrible vow. When I wrote it I had no idea for a sequel.

But an idea took root and just wouldn’t let go. Building on the characters and setting of “Vow” (which I did not rewrite), in May 2010, “Fiend in Need” was born. (It is just under 20,000 words and is also in the ERWA Treasure Chest.). As opposed to “Vow” (which is an almost sweet story of self-discovery), the issues in “Fiend” are larger and considerably darker. Here’s a spoiler: “Fiend” and the as-yet nameless sequel (almost 37,000 words so far) are my version of the Lilith legend. Lilith stars in “Fiend”, as does my other new main character, Devorah, whom Lilith possesses and whom Alex eventually marries. “Vow” and “Fiend” are told in the first person, by Alex. As-yet-nameless sequel (in which the issues are larger and darker still) is being told in the first person, by Devorah. Writing in a female voice is proving to be quite a challenge, and a lot of fun.

Creating Lilith is a challenge in and of herself. She is the villain but I want her to be understandable, tragic, even sympathetic to a degree. I do not want her to be some monochrome figure who is more caricature than character. As-yet-nameless sequel really revolves around the struggle between two strong-willed women, Lilith and Devorah, with Alex playing more of a supporting role.

I have a general idea for the plot for “sequel” but I’m finding that I’m changing things as I go along. Often an idea that I have in my head just doesn’t come out right on my monitor. Often, as I’m writing, an idea will take shape and run more or less on its own and it fits and I like it. The creative process can be such a hoot.

I guess this is me.

Questions?

L’chaim!

Oxartes

[email protected]

Oxartes is 50, married for 25+ years, the proud the father of two teenage sons and the proud owner of two dogs (who, unlike the teenage sons, actually listen). He moved to Israel from the US 27+ years ago.

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