This post by Foz Meadows on Grittiness and Grimdark covers a lot of ground in discussing the current fashion for grimdark and why it is important to analyze some unexamined assumptions underlying an insistence that it is realistic.
when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality
Cheryl Morgan follows up on this in a response post:
the fairly common view that because a book portrays the world the way it is, then it is portraying the world the only way it can be . . .
The problem is that if you try to challenge [this view] then your ideas are dismissed as escapist fantasy. It is a seductive argument. But it is wrong, and we know it is wrong.
Both of those posts are well worth reading and I don’t want to go over ground they have already covered (that discussion is already going on in those posts). In fact, the Spiritwalker Trilogy was in part written to address this very question of things always having to be “that way” when “that way” relies on and perpetuates within the story the racism, sexism, and other historically attested and currently experienced inequalities.
However, I want to follow up on the (seemingly endless) discussion of the depiction and frequency of rape and sexual violence (most commonly against women) in gritty realistic grimdark fantasy.
As it happens I have written about issues of sexual violence in fiction and film/media:
That brings me to a point Anne Lyle raises in the comments to Meadows’ post:
Anne Lyle remarks that “it really irks me that consensual sex is often seen as “icky” in fantasy when rape gets a free pass.”
To which Meadows replies, “It’s like there’s this unwritten rule that rape can be described because the details are plot relevant, but sex can’t be because it isn’t, and every time, I can’t help thinking: where does this idea come from that the details of sex don’t matter?”
The details and presence of consensual sex and love, even in epic fantasy, can not only be plot relevant but crucial to the development of characters or to the outcome of a story. Writers make choices about how they construct and elaborate on their plots and what they leave out. Any time a writer weaves a plot element into the story that writer is making a decision about what is decorative and what is foundational. If consensual sex and love are developed and presented as part of actual lived experience that matters to the characters, as experience that changes and defines characters, then it will matter to the plot.
For the purposes of this post, my definition of consensual is twofold:
1) Between two (or more) consenting adults. Consent and intent are the crucial elements here; different cultures and eras will have different ages at which any given individual is considered to become an adult.
2) who are on the important levels equal in their ability to consent. For example both free (as in not indentured or enslaved unless they are BOTH so burdened). Paid sex workers and camp followers are another category in which it is easy to stereotypically write them as “in love” when in fact there are a lot of questions about equality of consent in such situations.
Feel free to argue with or augment this definition.
So here is my question:
What role does consensual sex and love play in epic fantasy?
In some cases I am sure there is “too much” for some people’s taste (and it is important to acknowledge that people’s tastes vary and that is how it should be). More often in my own reading I see less examination of the place of these central human emotions and desires. Consensual sex can be love or it can be sex. It can be romantic but it can be other things too. Love can be portrayed as intense hot romantic attraction or as a steady affection that may not be sexual at all.
Many societies both today and in the past have had arrangements by which marriages between families are arranged or brokered for a multitude of reasons (as would, for instance, be the case in most marriages made within the upper classes across medieval Europe for reasons of alliance, wealth, security, and inheritance). There is evidence that some of these marriages resulted in affectionate stable unions, and why not? Human beings on the whole seek connection; affection and trust are forms of creating connection.
It is also reasonable to assume that sexy hot love as a form of lustful attraction happens between people in all human populations, whether forbidden or allowed. Likewise in some societies this species of attraction is viewed as disruptive of the social order (for good reason!).
Out of the past we find time and again people who genuinely loved their partners or a lover (forbidden or otherwise). On Letters of Note you can read this heartbreaking letter from a widow to her dead husband, written in 16th century Korea, or this equally heartbreaking letter from a 17th century Japanese noblewoman before she commits suicide upon the death of her beloved husband. I don’t mean to highlight only tragic examples; love poetry and songs in one form or another are a staple in most societies. For just one example check out this review of Classical Poems by Arab Women (Abdullah al-Udhari).
To my mind, we lessen the story we are telling about human experience if we do not include and see as worthy all of human experience, especially including positive depictions of sex and love. What kind of world do we vision if we only tell the ugly stories about such intimate matters?
So I’ll ask again: How does epic fantasy–and heroic fantasy, and however you wish to define or parse the categories–do in conveying the realities of consensual sex and love?
Do me a favor: If you’re going to mention examples please don’t only mention examples from novels written by male writers (particularly white straight male writers of UK/US extraction). All too often these sorts of discussions devolve into talking about the same people over and over again. Nothing against male writers. Some of my best friends are male writers. Give the awesome dudes their props. But I would really like to see a more diverse set of examples woven into any discussion that may ensue.