September 21, 2009

Defining "abstinence porn"


When it comes to "abstinence porn" as a literary device, I think it'd help to more precisely define the term, at least when used in the manner than I intend. Clarifying the actual application to narrative works is a goal for the future.

1. All revved up and someplace to go.

Etymologically, the flippant use of "porn" suggests a frisson created in the absence of plot. In anime it's called "fan service," gratuitous nudity and crude visual gags censored for broadcast but not in the DVD versions.

Drag racers "burn rubber" to heat up the tires and give them more grip. But we don't go to a race just to watch drivers spin their wheels. There's a finish line out there somewhere and we expect them to get to it eventually.

But the smoke and noise and spitting flame is fun to watch.

2. Movie stars don't look good by accident.

As long as the "fan service" doesn't cannibalize the tone or plot, I say the more the merrier. In fact, it seems to me that of late that the standard Hollywood genre fare doesn't contain enough beautiful naked women.

Most mainstream romance authors, on the other hand, know better than to leave the reader begging for more than a fleeting glimpse or well-placed sheet. Plot is a scaffold. What's hanging on it had better please the mind's eye.

3. It's not about commitment (or the lack of it).

In any kind of romantic narrative, keeping the leads apart while other subplots unfold is a major challenge to the writer. Though after a while, the tangled webs woven to accomplish this can begin to strain belief.

But this is "commitment porn," not abstinence porn. It's not enough that the couple in question be abstaining, but they must have something to abstain from. A real and present temptation. Commitment precedes abstinence.

4. Neither is it about plot development.

Except to show how much the leads really like each other. Compelling dramatic externalities that would keep them apart is, again, what we call "plot." Rather, its purpose is as stated in the Harlequin writer's guidelines:

We want to see an emphasis on the physical relationship developing between the couple: fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism are needed.

Once we know that Buffy sleeping with Angel turns him into a psycho-killer, abstinence becomes logical. That there are forces conspiring to keep Romeo and Juliet apart is the whole point of the play.

The dying stuff aside, Romeo and Juliet is like two BYU students racing off to Wendover for a quickie wedding so they can satisfy their lusts "morally." Given the nature of the social constraints, it kinda makes sense.

Abstinence porn is not about the plot and it's not about making sense.

5. It's about putting out fires with gasoline.

Abstinence porn pretends to be celebrating chastity while reveling in carnality. Or as my brother puts it more bluntly, "Bella and Edward have lots of sex, just not intercourse." They have the cake and eat it too.

Twilight could be faulted for being like those anti-tobacco commercials that end up making smoking look cool. Though it took Deseret Book until volume four for some moralist in corporate to finally say, "Hey, wait a minute!"

Yet another case where DB "gets it" but for all the wrong reasons. When religions get pharisaical, the Pharisees deserve a hoisting by their own petards.

At the same time, as much as I like discussing it, I don't think much of the persuasive powers of "subtext." All the girls who read into Edward the very picture of the perfectly chivalrous boyfriend, all the power to them.

True, Bella trusts Edward the way no teenage girl should ever trust a teenage boy. Fantasy is fun for its ability to disentangle obvious causes and likely effects. That's why we say it's "made up" and call it "make-believe."

6. But a man's still got to know his limits.

For abstinence porn to produce friction and heat, prohibitions must exist. Take the foot off the brake at the wrong time and the car burning rubber will careen into a brick wall. The forces must balance out (ideally until marriage).

Yet if the external forces are too powerful, we don't end up with abstinence porn but The Scarlet Letter. There must be enough play left so that the needle cranks into the red zone before coming to a screeching halt.

If the desire is equal and balanced, then the woman drawing the line is a dog-bites-man story. Hence Meyer's brilliant stroke of having Edward draw the line and turning the standard male escapism into a female fantasy.

As my sister Kate observes, "Bella gets to say, Let's get it on! without having to worry that the male will say, Alrighty, then!

Granted, "I love you so much I won't" sounds like a sermon by Boyd K. Packer, except that Edward is hanging those stagecoach wheels right off the edge of the abyss while promising not to end up at the bottom of the gully.

Like the little warning says down at the bottom of the screen during car commercials: "Closed track and professional driver."

7. There's nothing new under the sun.

Any genre with the insatiable demand and enormous supply of romance has been there and done that a thousand times over. But Meyer pulled off something unique in Twilight, a literary feat that's probably not reproducible.

I don't think she planned it that way. 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!"

Lucas pulled an old monomyth of the hat in Star Wars--and didn't know what he did. Joseph Campbell explaining it to him didn't help. Like Lucas, I wonder if Meyer--or anybody--can trap that light in a bottle again.

8. So you write what you know.

While Meyer's one-off can't be taken as a template, the basic principles are worth a long look. Abstinence porn typically thrives in historical settings, but the right modern religious context could work too.

I believe a big reason that Meyer made it work was because she knows whereof she speaks. The series ends the way it does because according to Meyer's world view, abstinence ends with marriage and sex. That's the whole point!

She just never came out and explained why.

The official Mormon position on the "Law of Chastity" might obviate my requirement against externalities. But the church's ecclesiastical bark is louder than its bite and modern mores bend the tree awfully far over.

To put it cynically, the tree doesn't fall in the forest if nobody hears it. Or confesses to chopping it down. To clarify, I'm not belittling such proscriptions, just pointing out that they do not incur a physical risk to life.

When it comes to contemporary American culture, Mormons are practically alone in living though the Sturm und Drang of abstinence porn. They should figure out how to take advantage of that fact.

Related posts

Abstinence porn
Selling the sizzle

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