September 16, 2009

Abstinence porn


I was reading this entertainingly nasty review of the Twilight series by Christine Seifert, which introduces the wonderfully precise term: "abstinence porn." And I had an epiphany.

Granted, Seifert takes the standard lit. crit. line, namely way overreacting to the horror, the horror of conservative mores invading the hallowed ground of pop culture (which has always been as reliable "real" as a Ken Burns documentary, right?), not to mention treating such frivolities so deadly serious to begin with.

I enjoy taking pop culture too seriously too--but with tongue firmly wedged in cheek. Lefty academics treating bad genre fiction as a poisoner of tender young minds and a threat to civilization is no different than the religious right getting riled up about sex education and evolution (at least the religious right is ideologically consistent about policing thought).

Besides, as Moriah Jovan points out, every time the literary critics pull on their scorn-laden boots and resolve to squish the paleo-romance genre to death once and for all, it just pops out someplace else under a new, superficially politically-correct guise (such as yaoi).

I mean, geez, people, can't you just laugh about it? Because I laugh more at critics wringing their hands about how "worrisome" and "disturbing" Twilight is, and how it's going to "undermine feminist sensibilities." Not to mention the annoying habit--again, usually expected from the right--of using "porn" to describe anything you don't like that's somehow related to sex.

Though I'll have to plead hypocrisy here too, because I rather like "abstinence porn" as a genre description, and see no problem in exploring and exploiting it the best I can. In any case, I would respectfully submit that when it comes to messing around without "crossing the line," a good Mormon like Stephenie Meyer knows what the heck she's talking about.

Unlike Seifert's aforementioned essay, in which she is surprised at "how successful this new genre is. Twilight actually convinces us that self-denial is hot." (I glean from the tone that this is a bad thing.) What's more surprising is how clueless the writer--a professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City--is. Talk about fish discovering water last.

And when are we going to finally bury this hoary, pedantic insistence that if a given demographic enjoys a given genre of entertainment, then ipso facto they must desire what's represented in that entertainment in real life? I hope nobody takes the fact that I like Bruce Willis actioners to mean that I'm longing to get shot up by a bunch of Eastern European terrorists.

As my sister Kate puts it, "I can't think of anything dumber than telling a teenage girl that she should stop adoring Edward." Twilight, after all, turns on the fantasy of the

romantic other who totally understands us and totally wants us and never wants to leave us and is always there for us and knows what is best for us . . . [In real life,] this type of relationship would get very tedious very fast, but I think it is unfair to get after women who voice it.

While Seifert's analysis turns hilarious when she notes a fan's "salient" (albeit "subconscious") "understanding of the theme Meyer has been establishing: that sex is dangerous and men must control themselves." A subconscious understanding? I'd call it FREAKING OBVIOUS! Getting teenage boys to corral their sexual impulses is what makes civilization function.

Which makes some teenage girls smarter than some college professors. You know all that fuddy-duddy stuff about chivalry and honor--Who cannot rule himself, how should he rule others?--gee, I have no idea why anybody would be attracted to stuff like that nowadays in a romance novel. Cue Meat Loaf singing "Paradise by the dashboard light."

And then (as Kate helpfully suggests), "I would do anything for love" (the same couple twenty years later).


That once married, Bella turns out to be really into rough sex is the icing on the cake. Didn't Nancy Friday cover this ground, oh, about forty years ago? It's the "hip" Meyer versus her "stuffy" critics. Her skills as a writer aside, I'm cottoning to the idea that Meyer understands women--perhaps especially Mormon women--a whole lot better than her oh-so-progressive critics.

In short, abstinence porn pretends to be celebrating chastity while reveling in carnality. But I believe that Mormon theology supports the contention--in contradiction to the Gnostic heresies--that within proper constraints, carnality deserves being reveled in. It's a fine line, but the struggle to tiptoe down those fine lines is at the heart of dramatic conflict.

To be sure, it's not the thing itself, but the contradictions inherent in the oxymoron that ultimately make the story compelling. And here I return to the point I originally intended to make, which is that Mormon culture provides one of the few contemporary American settings (aside from the Amish) where "abstinence porn" plots actually prove plausible.

Hawt Mormon romance abstinence porn--maybe that's the literary ticket to breakout publishing success!

Related posts

Defining "abstinence porn"
Selling the sizzle

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Comments:

# posted by Blogger Th.
.

Abstinence porn. I love it.

In Byuck, I went the whole book without my leads even kissing. And no one ever notices. I'm not sure that counts....
9/16/2009 12:54 PM
 

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
C.S. Lewis wrote (in, I think, Experiment in Criticism) that "myth" does not have to be well-written to be recognized. That is, unlike story, myth attracts readers for the whole concept or idea or whatever that it communicates.

My latest epiphany about Meyers is that this is what she did with Bella and Edward. Most readers I know, even those who LUV the Twilight series, aren't all that interested in Meyers' non-Twilight books. But in Twilight, man, she plugged into something totally atavistic. I don't think it was conscious but who cares: it made tons of money! (And no, it does no good to squish it.)

Don't forget the awesome Meatloaf follow-up: "I'd Do Anything For Love" (the same couple twenty years later)!
9/16/2009 5:01 PM
 

# posted by Anonymous Moriah Jovan
And let me tell you something. I'm milking that abstinence porn in MAGDALENE (book 3) for everything I can...

...right up to the wedding night. (And then Bad Mojo takes over.)

You heard it here. I'm taking lessons from Stephenie Meyer in how to write hawt abstinence.
9/16/2009 5:36 PM
 

# posted by Blogger Joe
You're both overstating your case. Not consummating a relationship isn't anything new. It Happened One Night, heck Romeo & Juliet. Twighlight is obviously derivative of Buffy (the series) and a central dramatic element of Buffy is she and Angel NOT doing it. If I didn't know any better, I'd assume both of you were illiterate hermits.
9/16/2009 6:31 PM
 

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
Ah, yes, but Buffy and Angel couldn't (continue to) have sex due to an external reason (darn those gypsies or, in the case of Romeo & Juliet, those parents!).

I sometimes think the need for external reasons is why many romance writers use historical settings: no need to explain (from a religious or ethical pov) why the couple aren't sleeping together (yet).

In any case, I would agree that the use of prolonged forced abstinence before the all-desired consummation has a long and noble history. Still, romance novels of this type have been on the shelves for a long time (and most of the writers are better at creating characters, plots, and pay-offs than Meyers); Meyers struck that particular cord at some particular buy-tons-of-my-books frequency. Since Meyers herself says Twilight was based on a dream (which I believe more than elaborate after-the-fact explanations), I'm thinking there's an unpurged quality about the books: straight boy-meets-girl with no singing (West Side Story), side plots, wit, comedy, pathos, or anything else to distract the reader. Just an unending rush of endorphins as the couple rush continually into each other's arms.
9/16/2009 8:37 PM
 

# posted by Blogger Eugene
The point is not whether writers could pull this off in the past. What made screwball comedies so great is that everybody could pretend that nobody was having sex without a lot of convoluted plot twists to suspend disbelief.

But of course everybody knew that they were.

And with Shakespeare, the Elizabethan language helpfully obscures the vulgar jokes in the first scene of Romeo and Juliet and elsewhere. I don't think Zeffirelli was out of line having them consummate the relationship.

What sets Meyer apart is that she so successfully pulled it off now in an ostensibly secular context. As I've clarified in my amended post, the trick is to celebrate chastity while reveling in carnality. It's not easy to do.

One of the unique and truly clever things about Fast Times at Ridgemont High is that it starts out at one extreme and ends up at the other, actually in favor of abstinence, and yet without a speck of moralizing.
9/17/2009 9:43 AM
 

# posted by Blogger Joe
But the reasons why a relationship isn't actually consummated is rarely relevant (and even there, I doubt most viewers/readers care.) Jack Wayland being one of the few exceptions.

What's perverse about this review is that the reviewer attaches to Twilight Meyers' a stereotypical social morality that simply doesn't exist in the story; the reviewer simply assumes that because Meyers is Mormon, she is preaching Mormon morality. I really dislike Twilight because it's just plain bad writing, but preachy it ain't. Frankly, if I didn't know Meyers was Mormon, I wouldn't have guessed (though maybe there are references deeper in and in the other novels that are obvious.)

A broader point is that if you think that "abstinence porn" will sell a story, you're dead wrong. You still need a compelling story and compelling characters--characters who you want to actually have sex.
9/17/2009 9:56 AM
 

# posted by Blogger Eugene
As far as the reader is concerned, there needn't be any articulated reasons. Only the willing suspension of disbelief. But I would argue that the writer must have reasons, even if they aren't articulated in clearly didactic terms.

In Meyer's case, I don't think she had reasons so much as she had an instilled world view, which will do in a pinch. Angel is a far more complex character because (sheer talent aside) Whedon gave him a lot more actual reasons.

As I noted above (I'll get around to saying what I mean eventually), if you create believable (meaning the reader keeps reading) "abstinence porn," then inherent in that contradiction is the kind of conflict that makes for good storytelling.

It occurs to me that this sort of "dramatic oxymoron" may constitute the ultimate "high concept" pitch. For example, "peaceful warrior" describes the first act of every other action flick.
9/17/2009 11:37 AM
 

# posted by Anonymous Moriah Jovan
But the reasons why a relationship isn't actually consummated is rarely relevant

Au so contraire. At least in romance.

Nowadays, you MUST explain a character's abstinence and there are very few ways in which you can do that without someone throwing the book at the wall.

No one believes there is such a thing as a virgin after, say, age 21, or that an adult would not have a healthy sex life where abstinence was not predicated on trauma or unattractiveness.

The reason "abstinence porn" exists is, IMO, a way for readers to get that virginal heroine without having the character state outright, "I choose to be abstinent because I believe X." No matter how you phrase it, it'll be on the cusp or on the other side of believability.

Oh, yes, it must be explained and very often one has to go to extraordinary measures to do it.
9/17/2009 2:23 PM
 

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
This discussion reminds me--

In her notes to The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, Lauren Willig writes, "One of the constraints of working in the early nineteenth century is that heroines tend to marry young, much younger than suits our modern sensibilities. If they don't, the author is forced to engage in alarming contortions to explain why the heroine has been left on the shelf for so long--forced to take care of the family estates, without money to afford a Season, kidnapped by bandits and locked in a box till after she turned twenty-one, and so on. An interesting trend recently has been to have older, widowed heroines, where the age problem is dealt with by the expedient of an earlier marriage and conveniently deceased husband."

Good series, by the way, although I didn't like the last book as much as the first four.

On the other hand--not really in opposition to Willig but as a comparison--I think one reason most Jane Eyre-inspired modern romances fail is because they fail to account for the strong religious feelings of the original characters. Rochester doesn't cavil over committing bigamy because of Jane's youth; he cavils because he honestly believes it's a sin (not just illegal) and wants her to meet him half-way to committing it: way more interesting conundrum! Bring back the internal motivation, say I! (Although I'm not sure Edward's "No, no, we mustn't" really counts.)
9/17/2009 3:11 PM
 

# posted by Blogger Joe
Moriah, you may be correct about romance, but only if aren't clever enough to invent physical reasons to keep a couple apart. Moreover, I was looking at Twilight as being derivative of Buffy and akin to most action-romance plot lines. Bones comes to mind. Still, in general if you can create a plausible reason to suspend disbelief for anything in a story, you can get a way with a whole lot.

The flip side of the coin is what happens after you consummate the relationship. In many cases, your story either ends or you have to invent increasingly absurd artifices to continue the drama. Hence, soap operas. One interesting exception was Buffy/Spike though, to the producers' everlasting shame, they didn't run with it.
9/17/2009 7:43 PM
 

# posted by Blogger Eugene
I think in Meyer's case, she simply said, "Oh, let's pretend that when it comes to sex, men are still all chivalrous and everything like in the fairy tales." And millions of girls said, "Oh, yes, let's!"

But this is also a reflection of Meyer's actual world view, which is why the only thing that surprises me about the ending is that anybody is surprised. Because according to Meyer's world view, abstinence ends with sex. That's the whole point.

Apparently a lot of readers made abstinence the fantasy. And for many of them, it probably is. As Kate puts it, Meyer plugged into this atavistic impulse, an expression of our stubbornly medieval natures rising inexorably to the surface.

I can see why the "nurture" crowd would find it disturbing.
9/18/2009 9:07 AM
 

# posted by Anonymous Moriah Jovan
Joe, you keep tossing around words like "clever enough" or "good enough," without regard to the fact that what you are talking about has been done, overdone, charred, and buried out in the back yard.

Of course writers are clever enough to give them reasons to be physically apart.

They're clever enough to give them reasons to be abstinent (or, in the alternative, chaste with one another).

They're clever enough to create all sorts of scenarios in which the male and female don't get it on--

--but nobody's using (to cop Kate's usage) "it's a sin" or "I don't think this is right [note marked absence of circuitous reasoning that would normally go in this spot]" because the reader will take it as a bad judgment of her mores.

This usually doesn't go over well.

So when it happens that you put it in a religious construct like, say, Amish, the reader already knows what she's getting and those who would be offended by the "it's a sin and we must be circumspect" themes won't read them anyway. Or will read them knowing that it applies only to Those People.

Edward couldn't just say, "No, I don't believe in sex before marriage, Bella, you ignorant slut, but I don't know you well enough to marry you." No. He had to be a vampire controlling his bloodlust to pull it off.
9/18/2009 9:15 AM
 

# posted by Blogger Joe
Moriah, that's my point!

Eugene and this reviewer act like "abstinence porn" is some new thing they've just discovered. I argue that it's the same old shtick all over again; there's nothing here, just move along. Moreover, Twilight didn't even try; it threw up an excuse, readers bought it, and the story went forward.
9/18/2009 9:45 AM
 

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
Well, the publishers were certainly aware of what Meyers had done: they wanted sex in Book 1; she said, "No." Turned out she was right. Makes you wonder what publishers are there for (oh, right, marketing).

I'm wondering if another part of the fantasy for women re: Twilight is that Bella gets to say, "Let's get it on!" without having to worry that the male will say, "Alrighty, then!" In other words, in a nice reversal of form, he does all the what-could-be-the-consequences worrying stuff (tricky problem with romances: talking about birth control kills the fantasy; not talking about it stretches the reader's suspension of disbelief).

There is probably also a link here to the thousand-inches-a-minute growing baby at the end: no consequences, not even a baby that keeps you up nights, has to be fed, and taken to the pediatrician, something which is totally not true for women in general, but they probably wish was.
9/18/2009 9:59 AM
 

# posted by Blogger Eugene
I don't think Meyer is doing anything "new" here. I'm amused by the critic who doesn't seem to--or want to--admit how tried and true this stuff is, who has evidently purged Nancy Friday from her memory banks. The funniest thing is how Meyer--who comes across as the personification of the Molly Mormon--does get it.

As with Star Wars and the monomyth, Lucas was doing something very old. He just did it--and seems to have done it despite himself, which makes it even more interesting--very well. And like Lucas, I wonder if Meyer will be able to trap that light in a bottle again.

When it comes to narrative fiction, I'm always fascinated when very old things can be sold so successfully to new audiences. Especially when the reinvented wheel isn't all that fabulous to begin with. Because, well, I wish I could do it and I want to figure how they did it.

Alas, William Goldman is probably right. But that doesn't keep artistic gamblers from searching for the "system" that will break the bank. To begin with, I think Mormon writers with any kind of "edge" should shoot for the mainstream romance market and quit diddling around in the DB shallows.

Just a theory, though. Perhaps Meyer pulled a one-off. But I want to believe she's plugged into a source that's got a lot more power than that.
9/18/2009 11:39 AM
 

# posted by Anonymous Moriah Jovan
Moriah, that's my point!

Oh, okay. I see now.

That's me talking from a "I resent the hell out of all those acrobatics" point of view.
9/21/2009 3:01 PM