This is just a short and, at times, rather obvious rant to get back into the swing of things; I recently returned to university and am running around trying to get settled.
I should make it obvious right now that this is not, primarily, one of the things I read fantasy for, which might make the rant even more obvious than usual. And the few fantasies I have read where different sexual practices were emphasized were often badly done. (It is one of the factors, though by no means the only one, crippling Jordan’s series, and to a lesser extent Goodkind’s).
So, with those caveats in mind:
1) Watch out for authorial speeches.
Those little speeches that turn your character into a mouthpiece for your personal views on the Goodness of Sexuality/the Goodness of Gayness/the Goodness of Polyamory? Yeah, not on. They’re often flat, entirely out-of-character for the person giving them, interjected with no care for the flow of the story, and blindingly obvious for what they really are. On non-sexuality grounds, I still wincingly remember the anti-environmentalist speech that goes on for a few pages in one of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels—the second, I think. At the time I read that book, I hadn’t run into many of those, and I still thought it came out of the blue and made no sense whatsoever.
For a sexuality example, there’s always Lackey! The speech in Magic’s Pawn where Moondance tells Vanyel, the main gay male character, about the homosexual swans and wolves is quite a bit out there even for such a melodramatic novel. The rhetoric could be plopped down in one of today’s arguments about the natural homosexual behavior of animals and scarcely miss a beat.
Basically, retain control of your impulses to preach, okay? It’s old advice, and I still think it’s good advice. And no matter how important the conflicts are in one’s own life, I still think it bad form to introduce them into a world that has no trace of them, in the mouth of a character who has no reason to think that way.
2) Have a spectrum.
Many fantasy societies with polygamy, or high proportions of homosexuality, or a fondness for ritual sex, or whatever, are so monolithic in their attitudes towards said sexual practice that I often wonder if the author has actually lived on Earth.
Yes, you may say, monogamous heterosexuality is obviously exalted by modern Western society. But that doesn’t stop it from existing side-by-side with heterosexual serial monogamy, and adultery, and people who loudly preach against homosexuality but engage in it themselves, and people who are closeted, and people who are bisexual, and people who pretend to an orientation they don’t have, and sappy and idealized depictions of homosexuality in some media, and polyamorous advocacy, and feminism that regards marriage as a fundamentally flawed institution, and religion that advocates celibacy.
Ah, an author may say, but that’s our own modern society. A fantasy society will of course be more monolithic.
Really. And just because people speak publicly in favor of one kind of sexual practice means they never practice any other? And just because stereotypes exist of a sexual minority means the minority fits all those stereotypes? And just because one class of society favors monogamy means that another would never practice polygamy?
Authorial speeches are the biggest single problem I have with fantasies that try to show different sexual practices, but this is probably the biggest global problem. It spreads throughout the book. All the female characters are perfectly happy to have multiple husbands, if they’re practicing polyandry. For that matter, the multiple husbands are never jealous of one another, individual temperaments notwithstanding. All classes, all age groups, all religions, all races do the same thing. There is no abuse of power. If bisexuality is favored, it’s comfortable and natural for everyone, and absolutely even, with no one preferring partners of one gender. Those characters who might are presented as repressed. If the author makes her heroine a prostitute in a world where that’s disapproved of, she’s a prostitute all her life and lets herself become bitter about it. She never, as did some Victorian prostitutes, makes a name for herself as the benefactor of her poor family, able to bring them money and gifts, and an object of admiration for her younger siblings, or “works” only during certain seasons of the year and then goes on to different employment during the rest.
Consider the places where the sexual practice you’re working with would split along fault lines in your world. If you can easily see where traditional heterosexuality would do so, then why are you waiting to divide and rearrange your bisexuality or your ritual sex along the same lines? It makes your world more interesting, and less like a whitewashed portrait.
3) Resist the temptation to have this sexual practice solve all personal problems.
This is a corollary to point 2 in some ways, but point 2 can also involve monolithic disapproval of a particular practice. This point corresponds almost always to those portraits of shining!, idealized!, happy! sexual whatever.
Let’s take one of the situations often proposed for a love triangle: turn it into a threesome. Why do three people having sex together solve all the problems inherent in those particular tangled relationships? Do the edges of tension and jealousy the two people competing for the character in the middle felt for each other just melt away? Does their previous apparent predilection for monogamy vanish overnight? Does a possessive streak modify itself because, ah golly gee, Mary’s right, I should see that having sex with John just works? Does a heterosexual character become bisexual Because?
I call silly on all of those ideas. Worse, I call stupid. The author would have to show why those things happened, not declare they did because of course a relationship with three people in it is ever so much more wonderful than a relationship with two!—and even then, having everything happen so quickly and neatly still isn’t the best solution. Why? I don’t care how much the author likes the idea of this happening. She still has to show the problems with it and consider the obstacles associated with it.
Thus I’m instantly suspicious of the author presenting any and all of these:
- a relationship between people of extremely different statuses in society and saying that they’re so completely in love that power differentials never matter.
- a relationship between one character who’s comfortable with the sexual practice and one new to it, and saying the character who’s new to it never needs time to get adjusted because the sex is so good.
- a relationship involving a magical component that supposedly guarantees instantaneous and pure and endless true love, as well as orgasms (SOULBOND ALERT).
I don’t care how much you may think our own world might be improved if people would be a little less monogamous, or a little less focused on sexual orientation, or whatever. Creating a world where that’s literally true is so goddamned silly. And fantasy has enough problems with the Silly already, thanks.
4) Focus on the non-sexual aspects of the practice.
Saying “What non-sexual aspects?” is a good recipe for cocking this point up.
Let’s take the economy. What are the differences of opinion regarding this particular sexual practice across classes? Perhaps the upper classes do have multiple spouses in one house, and many children, but that’s not something the lower classes can do because they don’t have enough money to support multiple husbands/wives, and old, draconian laws declare that their lands and possessions must pass down through blood inheritance, so the parentage of each child is important.
Let’s take morality. What are the acceptable shades of propriety? Does a man cheating on his wives raise no eyebrows as long as he does it discreetly? Would it be impossible for him to bring a sixth wife into the household because you just stop at five, since that’s sacred, being the number of fingers on a human hand? Would there be gossip about one wife receiving no action at all, since her husband hated her?
Let’s take religion, which is probably poking its nose into sexuality if it’s around. Would it be required that priestesses bear children, in order to have a guaranteed supply of small worshippers who could be raised in the faith? Would men and women marry to receive the blessings of the gods, but live apart from one another, in order to reduce the temptation for the sins of the flesh? What does the church say about inheritance in one of those households where the father legitimized all his bastard children on his deathbed? There’s no end of trouble that a church can get into, especially if there are separate branches that follow different doctrines or different gods, or if they’re clashing with political leaders for power, or if the church is itself a political power.
Don’t leave sexuality unencumbered, somehow separated into a pure and liberal realm. Show how it flows into, and mixes with, and messes up, the other aspects of its world.
5) Know the justifications behind these particular sexual practices.
And justifications that fit the world, and aren’t pulled from current political theory unless this is a world in which current political theory would be appropriate.
Does everyone in your fantasy world think bisexuality is “natural?” Why? Does that mean that someone who prefers one sex over the other is considered “unnatural”? (The usual response seems to be, “Oh, of course not, all sexual orientations are valued in this world!” Then don’t go throwing words like “natural” around. Or reconcile the differences. Or, which is more interesting, be willing to explore the places where tolerance might fall down in your imagined society instead of saying that everyone is infinitely accepting).
Does the fantasy world have a concept of sexual orientation at all? It’s actually a fairly recent invention even for Western society, and a good many of the stereotypes aren’t much more than a century or a century and a half old. Does this alternate history of Elizabethan England have a reason to give a flying fuck about whether a man sleeps with men or women, or to think that that’s the most important aspect of his sexual existence? If it does, why?
I’ve already discussed ways in which a certain practice might be justified more in one class than others. Perhaps it’s justified for certain age groups and not others, too. Of course, dear old Uncle Ernie would talk about the days of straight laced polygamy, that’s just his way, but we daring young avant-garde people know that monogamy is the wave of the future, because those oldsters just cared about having as many children as possible, and we care about lavishing attention on a particular partner.
I don’t know why there seems to be a tendency to idealize particular sexual practices in fantasy—whether it’s a cousin of the tendency to idealize romance, or whether an impression truly exists that we have just got sexuality all wrong in our world and in any other world, it would be better.