Art of the Genre: Should You Sell Sex?

Art of the Genre: Should You Sell Sex?

If you have a cover by Brom, are you selling your words or his art?
If you have a cover by Brom, are you selling your words or his art?  Even worse, are you simply selling sex?

Sex… yeah, I said it. Is anyone listening? Probably, because like rubber-necking a car accident, when someone says the word, we all have to take notice, especially here in the U.S. Face it, at our roots, the base Caucasian population is of a repressed Puritanical or Fundamentalist mind, the South, fire and brimstone Baptist, and the fastest growing minority, Latino, inquisition-descended Catholic.

Still, we are Human, and as such, if sex isn’t on our minds, then there is a natural selection breakdown in the root of our Darwin-based evolution.

This creates a hard edge of self-loathing, Hail Marys, and scarlet letters that is terribly hard to overcome, especially for those in the art community. Not that the art community doesn’t produce sexual products, but that doesn’t mean they are accepted without judgment outside that community for it.

I had this problem in 2012, but before I get to that, I’ve got to take the way-back machine to my formative years.

I was raised by a single mother who decided that when my father cheated on her when I was less than a year old, she would dedicate her life to her son, and no other man. So, in that sense, I was raised in a completely sex-free environment. It wasn’t spoken of or seen, and I was educated as a Methodist until my late teens, seeing the church as a counter to the budding feeling of puberty.

However, like my favorite line by Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, ‘Nature finds a way’ and my sexual rebellion was profound, even if I journeyed into that particular bliss blindly. In my home, there was never ‘the talk,’ so when my twelve-year old friends and I entered an abandoned house on the far side of a community woods and found a collection of Penthouse magazines, to say my world was shaken to its foundation is a massive understatement.

At fifteen, I rebelled against the establishment, went to K-Mart and purchased a poster of The Fall Guy’s Heather Thomas, which I pinned to the wall at the foot of my bed and waited. Silence… It was the only reprimand that came from my action, the same stoic suffering that my entire family has practiced since it came to Indiana through the Cumberland Gap in 1840.

Visually, buying into the selling of sex was forefront in my mind, and I got to see first-hand the balance trying to be struck in my new gaming passion, Dungeons & Dragons, concerning the female form in fantasy. In the late 70s, selling sex was something that TSR was willing to take a shot at in black and white illustrations by Jeff Dee, Erol Otus, or Bill Willingham, but then the Bible belt constricted a notch in the 80s and they pulled back from this ideal. Still, beautiful women in questionable clothing crept into the covers of Elmore, Easley, Parkinson, and of course the ‘thigh-master’ himself Clyde Caldwell.

What is being sold here?  Certainly Heather Thomas must understand why this image went up on countless boys walls across the U.S.
What is being sold here? Certainly Heather Thomas must understand why this image went up on countless boys’ walls across the U.S.

An innocence remained, however, and it wasn’t until Elmore and Caldwell broke away that more naked breasts found their way into their work, while new artists like Brom capitalized on S&M fashion posing as a new age vampire society in the minds of American youth. But weren’t they all really just taking a page from artists like Frazetta and Ken Kelly, who had painted half-naked women for decades before the rise of RPG gaming? Wasn’t there something inherently sexy, or sexist, about Fantasy?

My wife certainly would say that Fantasy is just a reflection of the breakdown in American moral fiber and the whittling down of the inherent power of women as a whole (she was born in L.A. and raised in New York, so she’s both sun-kissed and liberated). She takes great pains to point out every inappropriate female character (which are 95% of them) in the Pokemon episodes viewed by my six year-old son, stating, ‘You see her, she doesn’t have a very high opinion of herself. Never date a girl like that’.

So I must walk a fine line in my life, one that tries to give my son a healthy opinion on women, while maintaining a job where I solicit graphically sexist artwork and write stories that contain sex. Just last week, while playing a game of Gauntlet on an old 1992 Sega Genesis I pulled out of storage, my son exclaimed, ‘My armored boobs aren’t protecting me from these grunts!’. Now, how do you attack that situation? On one hand, he’s playing Valkyrie, the only female character choice in the game, so good for him because at 6 he’s not determined to think all things girly aren’t icky or stupid (as his friends would tell him); but on the other hand, he’s painfully aware that the Valkyrie has armored boobs, a ridiculously sexist way to portray the female warrior of the party.

I find that although challenging as it is to balance my job, my wife, and my son, the most extreme case of sexual dilemma I face is portraying sex in fiction that my mother, or, heaven forbid, entire extended family will read.

I mean, really, do you want to divulge your dirty little thoughts to your mom? Your grandmother? Your bible-thumping cousin? How do you face them down at the next Thanksgiving? Do these thoughts ever give writers or artists pause, especially when there is an ambiguous amount of money involved? I mean, you pose for Playboy, you get $25,000, and another $140,000 if you win Playmate of the Year. That might make your family give you a pass, but what if you write a tawdry novel that gets you a few hundred bucks? Are you willing to have that hanging out there for the rest of your days, especially if writing isn’t your full-time gig? In an age where companies go directly to your Facebook page and can Google you, do you want them pulling up your artistically created porn? I mean, once it hits the Internet, it is basically there forever.

There is a slippery slope here in so many aspects, especially when considering that while ‘sex sells,’ it is only in uncertain terms. I was certainly suckered into this trap. When considering that the largest growing fiction market today is ‘adult’ literature, I decided to do an erotic fantasy novel to flesh out my growing world of fiction. The result? I’ve got a book out that has sold next to nothing, but is forever bound to me like a lurking skeleton in the closet.

Jesse, Pokemon, Team Rocket, and a prime example of the kind of women my son shouldn't be dating.
Jesse, Pokemon, Team Rocket, and a prime example of the kind of women my son shouldn’t be dating.

Someday, will my son read it? Will he think, ‘God, my dad is twisted!’, and I won’t have the George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie fallback of ‘Well it paid for your college, so deal with it’ line in rebuttal.

And remember, there aren’t Hollywood ratings for literature, so the ambiguity of sexual exploits can be rough. Is penetration R? Is it X? Would Game of Thrones have been NC-17 in the theatre with a brother and sister getting it on before tossing a child out a window? Is this why it’s on HBO? So many questions, and so few answers other than the personal moral compass of the readers or viewer.

I recently read Tarnsman of Gor and was completely blown away by the nobleness of the book. I’d spent thirty-five years being told how sexually horrid this book was and in the end I just sat shaking my head. It was benign to a flaw, and the main character was about as much a Paladin as I’ve ever seen portrayed in a book.

Does this mean that Abercrombie’s work in 2045 will be like reading about lambs in the woods, just as Norman’s sexual S&M opus is today? I shudder at the thought…

Whatever the case, sex is a part of our lives if we like it or not, so I guess embrace it if you can because some day it will be beyond your reach and only regret can follow. For me, I can live in the bright lights of Los Angeles, Sin City, at the heart of a Blue State and hope that what I do will continue to pay, even if a part of me wants to raise my son in the wilds of New Zealand, but then again, I guess those are my stoic Indiana roots talking.

Also, just another fun item of note that I’m sure Jim Hines would love.  Did you notice the poses here?  I didn’t until I viewed them together on the page.  Looks like if you want to be sexy, ladies, you’d better cock your hips to the side in an uncomfortable fashion because that pose sells print!  Really, if I couldn’t see Heather actually demonstrating the pose, I’d think it was made up, but she somehow pulls it off and looks like she’s having fun doing it, which I guess is the whole point.


Scott Taylor is currently the Director of Publishing at Privateer Press. He lives in Los Angeles and along with guest blogging here at Black Gate he runs a small Kickstarter-Based press known as Art of the Genre.

If you like what you read in Art of the Genre, you can listen to me talk about publishing and my current ventures with great artists of the fantasy field here or even come say hello on Facebook here.

 

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TW

wow…I didnt think you were serious when you said that you would read a Gor book…

longhairedspider

I think that not all Gor books are as bdsm as others – I read one (can’t remember which one!) that was *very* scandalous, which has kept me from reading any others 🙂

Barbara Barrett

Scott,
Interesting dilemma. Have you thought about using a nom de plume when writing books that would shock or embarrass your family?

You’re right about the poses in the photos. Never would have noticed if you hadn’t mentioned it.
BB

Well-posted Scott, and thanks for sharing your observations, your experiences, and your thoughts.

Sarah Avery

Should you sell sex? Well, what kind of sex, and how are you selling it?

I write stories that have human characters. Most of the characters who are adults have sex lives of some kind, and sometimes that merits mention, or even narration. I don’t write erotica or romance–my characters argue on the page a lot more often and at greater length than they engage in sex acts on the page, so it might be more accurate to say that I’m selling argument–but the sex that does make it onto the page matters to the story, or it wouldn’t be there.

If I write professionally, and write about characters whose lives include sex, then am I selling sex, or am I selling selectively realistic fiction? (Selectively realistic because, in addition to arguing and having sex, my characters also sometimes rescue their dead parents from the wrong afterlife, foretell the future, or set up Kafkaesque municipal weather-control bureaucracies.)

One of my favorite novels is Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, a book whose central theme is that living under tyranny affects every part of the lives of the oppressed, and their erotic lives most of all. There’s a great deal of sex right on the page, much of which would be dysfunctional under conditions of freedom. The characters are not free. Even sexual relationships that are, in context, mostly positive are inflected by the various injustices, instabilities, and anxieties of a nation divided and occupied. Sexual bigotry’s in there, too, and at first it’s not completely clear that the homophobia belongs to one of the characters and not to the author. It’s not a book I would hand to my teenage students.

Is Kay selling sex? No. He’s getting his fair recompense for a brilliant, beautiful story that makes readers think some profound thoughts about sex.

Kay probably worried about what his mother would think, too.

Sarah Avery

Like it? Not exactly, but I don’t mind it, either. With my folks, what makes me twitch is something totally different. I worry that they’ll think I’ve written them into one of my stories in an unflattering way, because some minor detail of expression or incident was originally a part of their lives but is now attached to a character who is messed up enough to have an engaging fictional conflict.

The only time I have ever based a character directly on someone I knew in real life was when I auctioned off a Tuckerization in a charity auction after the Haiti earthquake–the winning bid was from one of my college gaming buddies. Aside from that, well, everything I’ve ever heard or seen gets thrown in the creative blender. I dread the day when someone I love feels that I have aired some bit of family dirty laundry by writing about people who don’t exist.

[…] Art of the Genre: Should you sell sex? […]

Miko

I guess I do not understand… What is the frigging hang up about the Gor novel’s exactly?

I have read them all and though it is true the is a BDSM theme through out all of them… but why is that a problem?

We celebrate extreme violence in it’s myriad forms… but when it comes to the sexual… we resort to Victorian roots?

I personally find it amusing and pathetic. Lange… a.k.a. Norman touches upon the very tip of BDSM themes yet that is somehow bad. Come on. Grow the frig up.

Miko

Miko

there… a typonese correction.

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