I'm here to talk about sex and writing about sex, especially writing sex in SF that expands beyond real-world boundaries and assumptions about sex. To evoke a recent Hugo winner, I'll call it a three-body problem, where the three elements are sex, science fiction, and writing itself, and the solution requires understanding of each. I see many essays about sexuality or sexual identity in genre fiction—I've written quite a few myself—that I feel don't adequately include the act of writing itself in the equation. Because once I began to address writing directly in the relationship between sexuality and science fiction, I laid bare the entire fallacy of the literary establishment, which condemns laser beams and lasciviousness equally.
So let's start with writing. Fiction writing involves a confluence of the writer revealing their subconscious to themselves and the writer revealing a story to the reader. Let's call the former the "inward-facing" approach and the latter the "outward-facing." Distinction between the two explains the underpinnings of the divide between genre and non-genre ("literary") fiction as defined by the literary establishment. That divide has nothing to do with genre elements like space travel or magic or detectives or cowboys. Literary fiction is deemed inward-facing because anything outward-facing is considered pandering. This is true both for work criticized as "commercial hack"—pandering to the market or the un-literary tastes of the unwashed masses—and for work criticized as "political"—pandering to "special interests." Back when I was in an MFA program, I saw this as a bankrupt value system, because the social enforcement of literary rules in academia forces conformity onto writers, stifling creativity. But the real fallacy is much juicier than that.
First, consider that the inherent purpose of writing is communication: to make entirely inward-facing writing would be to ignore the actual purpose of words. The perfection of the writing craft is not in attaining the ultimate ability to merely "express" one's subconscious in words, but to communicate that subconscious idea, thought, or feeling to another human being. No writing exists in a vacuum: it exists on a continuum of comprehension strung from writer to reader.
Second, words don't merely convey facts. Fiction creates an experience for the reader which is not merely adding knowledge but which creates emotional states. Emotional states are tricky things, though, because humans have such varied experiences and varied reactions. The attitude that only inward-facing work has value makes sense only within a sphere of highly privileged groups or individuals, where similar life experiences (default: educated white heterosexual middle class) are assumed. If you know that audience, then you know what the expectations are, what the rules of the game are, which words are likely to shock, and which are likely to pass unnoticed.
The true fallacy of the "inward-facing" artiste—who has zero regard for his audience because he's been taught that would be pandering—is that actually he's much more outward-facing than he realizes: it's merely that he's facing a mirror in which the literary critics, awards juries, reviewers, and even expected readers are so much like him that he cannot see what he's actually doing is pandering to a narrowly-defined status quo of what "literature" is supposed to be. In other words, literary fiction is the genre which panders to those who claim to hate genres because genres pander. (Aside: God, I miss David Foster Wallace. And yes, I'm using "he" on purpose.)
Now, into this neatly solipsistic self-perpetuating sphere come science fiction, the genre whose status quo is to disrupt the status quo. And sexuality, specifically alt-sexuality, queerness—whatever term you prefer to label the state of being non-normative to the mainstream in terms of sexuality and gender relations.
I was originally introduced to the idea that science fiction's relationship to the status quo is unique in Melissa Scott's excellent 1997 book on writing science fiction, Conceiving the Heavens: Creating the Science Fiction Novel. To paraphrase Scott, all other genres restore the status quo as part of their endings. In a mystery, the culprit is revealed and justice is served. In a romance, broken hearts are mended. In science fiction, the status quo of whatever world has been created is disrupted in the course of the story and irrevocably changed.
In SF, we have a genre that demands the reader accept a new status quo that is not the real world to begin with—a world with intergalactic travel, angels plotting against Heaven, or whatever—and then on top of that dislocation from the real world asks the reader to accept that this unreal world is now going to be shaken up even further. In this way, science fiction assumes no common ground or experience between the reader and the protagonist: the reader of science fiction picks up a science fiction book expecting to be dislocated. We want to be transported to "a galaxy far, far away." This makes science fiction fitting and fertile ground for exploring human experiences that may be quite far outside of the reader's normal comfort zone, a fact that would work to my advantage when I started writing.
I always intended to write science fiction. I was a huge nerd who grew up watching Star Trek (back when there was only the one). I was ten when Star Wars came out. I was an aspiring writer even then: I wanted to be the next Roger Zelazny. I didn't intend to write erotica. But in 1991, working my first job out of college and trying to get my writing career started, what caught fire for me when I sat down to write was erotic stories. It seemed like I couldn't write anything else. I was grappling with my own alternative sexuality, so despite my intent to write a highly outward-facing genre in science fiction, a huge amount of inward-facing work was necessary not only for me to become a functioning adult but to master my voice as a writer.
Writing helped solidify various aspects of my identity that, lacking role models, I did not know how to be. I was bisexual, androgynous, and a switchable masochist searching for my BDSM tribe. I ended up writing the role models for myself that I hadn't yet found in real life: something I could really only do within science fiction, where I could define a new normal. At the time I wrote Telepaths Don't Need Safewords I really hadn't met anyone like me: the BDSM scene was hidden underground and bisexuals were mythic creatures like unicorns—everyone heard stories about how they used to exist but no one had seen one themselves. Of course, publishing Telepaths in 1992 led to not only meeting tons of people like me, but also the founding of Circlet Press, which put me in the position of not only writing erotic science fiction, but also editing and publishing it. Here we are 24 years later and many, many manuscripts have passed through my hands, so I now bring to bear not only what I've learned through what I've written, but the work of many authors I've acquired, shaped, and nurtured.
Here's the thing. In order to write SF, a writer must dig pretty deep to cook up entire worlds, magic systems, interplanetary politics, alien beings, societies, etc. The real-world writer hangs their story on a framework provided by the world around them. The SF writer has to build the framework itself. That's a whole lotta subconscious to dredge up. That's a lot of necessary inward-facing work to satisfy the requirements of an outward-facing genre. And if you're not a member of one of the default mainstream sexual or gender identities, then pretty much every time you dig into your subconscious you're going to hit some stuff associated with your sexuality.
No, wait, let me rephrase that. No matter who you are, when you dig into your subconscious you're going to hit a bunch of stuff related to your sexuality and your gender identity. But if you're a member of a mainstream-accepted group or fit a default identity, you can incorporate these elements of self invisibly—they might be barely noticeable to you or readers. Whereas for the person who can't fit comfortably into whatever default molds are acceptable in the mainstream, the sex and gender stuff that is part of the weave of our subconscious isn't as likely to be invisible—and the fact that it doesn't fit the mainstream may be what drives us to write in the first place. One thing that is attractive about science fiction for the non-conforming is that within our stories, we can create a new normal. But even in stories where we recreate the oppression we live with, the inward-facing work we do for worldbuilding is necessarily going to dredge up issues of identity.
This is true for many kinds of non-default identities, of course, but sexuality is the subject of this essay, so I'll stick with that. Sexuality as an identifier of people—as opposed to other ways people categorize themselves, like ethnicity, nationality, geographic origin—can be odd because of the way we automatically conflate "this is what I am" with "this is what I do" when it comes to sex. Conflating action with identity in writing typically causes us to devolve to stereotypes. Introduce an Italian American character who gestures while talking, says "mama mia" often, and is cooking red sauce and spaghetti in a scene? That would be stereotyping. The problem is not that some real people don't do this, it's that the actions the writer chose to use to signify this character's ethnicity are stereotypical.
But what about sex and sexuality? We're caught in a trap here because a sexual identity like "gay male" contains the action within the definition: men who love men get this label. An identity like "kinky" is for those who take bondage and BDSM as part of their self-image. If you're writing erotica, there's no quandary: you'll have ample opportunities to demonstrate the sexuality of every character. I have no doubt this was part of why erotica appealed to me so much when I was trying to find my voice as a kinky, bisexual, androgynous science fiction writer. They preached "show, don't tell" in my MFA program, and so I did. Whether my characters were bisexual, lesbian, gender-nonconforming, kinky/BDSM-practicing or what, that was going to be right in the action, not the exposition.
Science fiction writers who don't, perhaps, show as much genitalia in action as I do, though, can still represent relationships and sexuality in their stories even if the bedroom door remains closed. And they should. One of the beefs against early pulp fiction (not only science fiction but "adventure fiction" in general) was that the heroes tended to be one-dimensional characters whose only emotions appeared to be patriotism, bravery, and maybe, maybe a touch of nostalgia or regret over a gal left behind. Personally, when I consider the pulp heyday was post-WWII and many of the (predominantly male) writers and readers of pulp fiction were grappling with their own inability to express emotion in their real lives after the war, I am more forgiving in my analysis. Nonetheless, we now consider fiction to be lacking if it does not contain fully actualized three-dimensional characters. And you can't have a fully actualized three-dimensional character without knowing the emotional relationships to other humans—not only sexuality, but also family, friends, etc.
Science fiction also gives us the ability to create worlds in which sexuality does not matter, where gender is mutable at will, or where concepts of sexual identity are not the same as the ones we've got right now in the early 21st century English-speaking world. But as I mentioned above, science fiction is as much about destroying the worlds we build as creating them in the first place. Utopias are boring. Conflict is what makes stories interesting. For me it's much more satisfying to put my characters into an imperfect world where their struggles for self-actualization are metaphorically represented by the plot, whether they are fighting oppressive regimes, rival groups, personal nemeses, or some other kind of enemy.
Wait, I hear you thinking, I thought you wrote erotica. Yes, but I still consider my primary genre to be science fiction. People merely having sex doesn't make a story for me. People having sex that both advances a plot and builds/destroys an entire fictional world? That is a story.
For example, when I set out to write The Velderet, I had been commissioned by Taste of Latex magazine to write a cybersex SF novel that they would serialize one chapter at a time. This meant there had to be sex in every chapter and I couldn't backtrack or retrofit. The sex had to move the plot forward. I knew I was setting out to destroy the utopia I had created: a world where total egalitarianism had been achieved and where inequality was taboo, meaning anything resembling BDSM was forbidden, too. Our main characters become part of a budding underground kinky subculture, and that alone would have been enough for an erotic romp with plenty of social satire. But my goal was to introduce first contact with a culture whose societal structure is based on sexual domination. That created a complex plot which happened to require not only a great deal of sexual action, but inward-facing work on the part of the characters themselves. Their struggles to accept their sexual desires are mirrored by the outward conflict, and for both the individuals and their society as a whole, the message is the same: change or die. In the end, embracing the sexuality that is reviled is the key to survival.
In The Prince's Boy, I up the ante a little on that concept, where the reviled sexuality is male homosexuality, and a powerful form of magic can be worked by mages trained in Night Magic, which is fueled not only by gay sex but by dominance and submission. Throw in an evil mage trying to turn the prince into a sex slave right under the oblivious king's nose, and a whipping boy in love with the prince who'll do anything to save not only the prince but the entire darn kingdom, and you have a situation rife with internal/external parallels. In real life, it can be difficult to accept a sexuality that society doesn't accept. In a high fantasy book, I can validate the inner truth that Kenet and Jorin feel about their forbidden relationship when they actually get to defeat evil because of it. And so it goes in pretty much all my books: in the Magic University series, saving the world depends upon our hero's acceptance and understanding of his own bisexuality. In the books I'm currently writing for Tor, The Vanished Chronicles, all these themes will be coming around again on the guitar.
I said earlier that when I started writing erotic science fiction, it was a way for me to create the role models that were absent from my reality. As my career has gone on, my own "muse" has shifted from being very inwardly-focused to being more outwardly-focused, for three reasons. One, I figured a lot of stuff out about myself, so I no longer have quite the same relentless need to unearth the secrets of my subconscious that I used to. Those secrets have been largely mined now, though that doesn't stop me from lovingly re-examining them like a dragon with her hoard. Two, when I began publishing my own books in 1992, there was no market for erotic science fiction at all; twenty-four years later, I have many publishers actively soliciting work from me. By definition that's outward-facing work. Three, I've also got twenty-four years under my belt as an outspoken activist for bisexual visibility, freedom of sexual expression, and so on—I can never write anything now that is 100% inwardly-focused because I am keenly aware of the effect my words have on others and how they change the world. I have been provided ample evidence that readers out there who are bi, kinky, poly, etc., find themselves and need role models in my work. I am fully aware of the continuum of comprehension strung between me and the audience and knowing what effect my words can have makes me a better writer, not a worse one.