This is the sort of thing I have tried to avoid writing on my public blog over the years. But after reading about the tropes in a certain scifi series of which I have no prior knowledge, in which bisexuality and kink apparently feature heavily, and after following the stuff with Gamergate and the Sad Puppies this past year, I have something I need to talk about. Oh, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading a couple of classics that I’ve been meaning to read for years, in which I think one could say sexuality plays a role in defining the main character.
One of my favorite books is Snow Crash. And one of the biggest reasons this is the case is because it is the first book I read that had a female gaze sex scene.
I had taken OWL and read plenty of scifi with the usual quantities of gratuitous sex and leering descriptions of well-proportioned females, so I was pretty familiar with the concept by the time Snow Crash came into my life. But even with my relatively positive education on the subject, I don’t recall finding the concept at all appealing. It was something that made me feel scared and ashamed of my own body as I hit puberty, to be consuming vast quantities of terrible Star Trek novels in an escape from real life around me and internalizing all this commentary on what I was becoming. I remember turning books face down in my room because the staring faces of men on the covers was too much to handle.
A few years later, then, along came Michael Pitt and his dramatic reading of the first pages of Snow Crash to our sophomore English class, in all its Deliverator fire. I think some huge portion of our class immediately devoured the book, which played so well to our teenage desire for epic awesomeness amidst the dreary hormone-ridden land of adolescence. Crammed in a van full of rowdy teenage boys for a miserable cross-counry drive during my personal reading of the book, I was already absorbed in the story as much as I could be, trying to escape – and when I got to this scene late in the book, it was like the heavens opened up. Here was a girl hardly older than I, kicking ass and taking names, going where the main character (a man) couldn’t go, incapacitating the main baddie, and doing all of it while enjoying her sexuality. The descriptions did not focus unduly on what she looked like, what her partner was enjoying about her – it focused on her experience of the act. How she made her own decisions and participated fully, in accordance with her established character. The chapter was from her point of view, after all: she likes her own body but obviously doesn’t need to describe it for herself.
In reading Slaughterhouse-Five recently, I found its sex scenes to have that same old scifi flavor that I had been used to. The couple of women in the book just seemed to be there to be humped. Their job was to lie in bed and have it done to them. Their sexuality was for saying something about the main character. The resulting pregnancy was completely acceptable for them. Some more participatory women in old scifi I’ve read have gone so far as to be engaged in the situation, inasmuch as it will fulfill the author’s fantasies.
The scene in Snow Crash may well have been fulfilling Neal Stephenson’s fantasies as well, for all I know. But I can’t fault him for wanting a woman who is in charge of her own sexuality.
We need people who will tell stories from the female gaze. People who, if they’re going to write their sexual fantasies into novels, do so in a way that respects gender identities and self-determination, instead of just using them to drool over stereotypes. Young people need to learn the idea that females are in charge of their own bodies and sexuality, and can make their own decisions. They need to learn that women have just as much right to enjoy it as men.
A comment a man made to me in college, that women are works of art, like sculptures, but men are not – that still stings. Women’s views on attractive men are simply incorrect. Invalid. Why is that sort of view reinforced in our modern society? (I mean, have you seen the men in The Avengers?! And I dare anyone who has seen the David up close and personal to argue men are not sculptural.) Yet it is the sort of opinion that is reinforced by all our media, requiring women to conform to a certain level of beauty that men may slip.
So here’s a thanks to all the writers of empowering sex scenes that buck the trend in hetero white male gaze.