Wednesday, June 27, 2012

SPECIAL ROUND TABLE: Sexuality in Fantasy

by Gustave Courtois
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another installment of the Amazing Migrating Fantasy Round Table, started earlier this year by Sylvia Kelso. This month, I'm hosting the topic of sexuality in fantasy. Here you'll find a range of viewpoints, ways of approaching the topic, . Please join in the discussion!

A few years ago, I had the privilege of editing a new anthology series, Lace and Blade, from Norilana Books. The concept was a certain flavor of elegant, romantic sword and sorcery, witty and stylized, sensual yet with plenty of swashbuckling action (think The Scarlet Pimpernel with magic). Because we wanted to release the first volume for Valentine’s Day, I contacted a group of seasoned professional authors, people I could depend on to understand what I was looking for and to deliver top quality stories to deadline. For various reasons, the publisher wanted the second volume to be open submissions. If I'd had any idea what I was getting myself into, I would have refused. Insulated in the world of competent fantasy writers and readers who are versed in the grandeur of writers from J.R.R. Tolkien to Tanith Lee, I was ill-prepared for what mundanes think of when they hear “fantasy.”

Needless to say, when I talk about sexuality or eroticism or sensuality or gender issues in fantasy, I do not mean pornography. It seems that for far too many people, sexuality is such an emotionally difficult subject that instead of facing it honestly, discussing it openly, they shroud it in prurience and embarrassment, or else turn it into something salacious or forbidden. Yet just about every human being over the age of puberty has had sexual feelings (notice my delicate use of qualifiers). So if sexuality in fantasy does not mean “your most lascivious and pornographic imaginings, regardless of whether you’d really like to do these things, because how would you know what you enjoy if you’ve never been permitted to experiment,” what is the role of sexuality in fantasy? Does it even have one? Should we keep sex out of fantasy literature, restrict the love stories to a chaste kiss now and again, and keep the hero/ine’s mind firmly fixed on nobler causes?

by Salvador Viniegra
I believe that sex is such a powerful force in human lives that it is impossible to portray the full scope of emotions and motivations without it. People might not, for a whole panoply of reasons, act on their sexual desires, but they have them. They have them in wildly inappropriate situations, as well as those times and places that nurture genuine emotional intimacy. The feelings are ignored or fulfilled, misdirected or frustrated, overly indulged or denied utterly. Freud had a few things to say about what happens when such a basic drive does not find healthy expression, and although his theories were dead wrong on many counts, he was not mistaken about the fact that sex will not go away simply because society (aka The Authorities, secular or clerical) disapprove. So already, we have two ways in which considerations of sexuality are important to any story: character development and world-building.

What are the attitudes and practices regarding sexuality in this culture? Is it permissive, repressive, or a combination? Is marriage live-long or fixed-term? Monogamous, polygamous, polyandrous? Do different cultures in your world treat love, sexuality, and marriage in the same way? (For example, how are sexual fidelity and jealousy regarded? Is marriage a personal or a business relationship? Who determines what is acceptable in sexual behavior? Have norms changed over time and if so, why? What are the social, moral or legal consequences of transgressions? Are there times, places, or partners for whom “anything goes”?

by William Blake
Where does a specific character naturally fall within the norms of his/her culture? How does he deal with the conflict between desire (or abhorrence) and expectation? Are other options (secrecy, emigration to a more compatible culture, open defiance) possible for him or her? Not all characters experience the same degree of sexual energy, and most will vary in their interest, depending on circumstances. Some will react to stress by becoming more sexual, while others will respond with diminished desire, even becoming asexual. Some interpret every personal interaction in sexual terms, and others are extremely private or compartmentalized. Interesting characters, like interesting cultures, are not monolithic in their sexuality.

Sexuality has a special role in fantasy stories because of its universality (or near-universality) in human experience, and its power. It’s fairly common to use sexual energy as the basis for magic. In some systems, magicians create power by channeling the sexual energy either of themselves or of someone else, making sex a necessary part of magical use. But in other systems, sexual energy and magic are incompatible, leading to painful choices for characters and societies.


Andrea Hosth

"I like the story, but why do your characters breathe? How is that relevant to the plot?"

"There was eating in this story, which spoiled my enjoyment."

"The protagonist's reconcilement with his father was completely shoe-horned into the novel."

Sounds a little off, doesn't it? Common human experiences marked out as not fitting into a novel. Yet I've heard this time and again in the science fiction and fantasy genres: sex and/or romance is something out of place.

Somehow, an important concern in our hierarchy of needs is cited as something which doesn't belong. Irritable complaints about time spent on a romance subplot are nothing to the disdain directed to novels where relationship content is foregrounded, let alone where there's some descriptive intimacy going on. These novels somehow become classed as "not really fantasy".

Of course, such criticism is not universal, and many fantasy novels delve into sex both as part of the relationships between characters, and also as part of the genre's ongoing exploration of what it means to be human.

When sex becomes part of a story, fantasy opens up many different doors to possibility. What are the social norms of your fantasy world? How do they impact on intimacy? Will there be shifts in who initiates such encounters? Is there an expectation that intimacy leads to permanency? What ability is there to prevent children? What are the laws regarding sex? The unwritten rules behind boy meets boy or girl or other? How many genders are there?

Do their bits fit together?

I'm a cut-away writer for most sex scenes. Where they occur, I'll describe the beginning, and focus more on emotional response than whether tab A goes in slot B. I generally do this because a very detailed description of the sex changes the pace of the story. If there is nothing remarkable about the encounter in itself, then I won't detail it unless I'm writing a story where the relationship content is the primary focus.

The most detailed sex scene I've written in the last few years is contained in what I like to call my "space naga smut" story. There is actually very little sex in this (unfinished) book, but it was necessary to describe the event properly because there was such a physical difference between the participants. I would be in danger of leaving the reader distracted with technicalities outside their usual bounds if I didn't lay that encounter bare.

Books which explore sexuality, particularly positive portrayals instead of the lovingly detailed rape scenes common in recent years, seem to me as deserving of their place in the fantasy genre as books where characters wrestle with honour, betrayal, or the vagaries of dark lords.

Andrea K Höst was born in Sweden but raised in Australia.  She writes fantasy and science fantasy, and enjoys creating stories which give her female characters something more to do than wait for rescue.  See:

Carole McDonnell

As a writer of Christian fantasy, I have hurdles to jump over when it comes to writing about sex. First, there are the moral rules I have to follow. Rules dictated within the Bible and rules followed by Christians outside the Bible which may or may not be Biblical but which fall into the category of "acceptable for Christian readers."

So far, I have not had a homosexual character appear to me wanting a story to be written about him. I have however had characters who engaged in sexual acts that did not quite fit in with what a Christian fantasy reader would accept.

I have, for instance, created one graphic sex scene and one rape scene. In Wind Follower, I wrote six small sex scenes and got several rebukes from Christian readers for writing them, although there is no way those sex scenes could have been described as titillating because there was so much woundedness, cruelty, and evil involved.

I did create a mini-harem of sorts in Wind Follower: a man with a wife and a concubine. No one was really bothered by that sexual situation because Christian and/or western readers are used to stories where men have wives and concubines. In Constant Tower, my novel which will be published by Wildside Press, I create a world where women have two husbands each. I am not sure how that will go over with some folks. The main characters in that "marriage" are teenagers so I had to be careful about being too sexual because although ancient times were different and youngsters married earlier, in our modern times sex between teenagers is taboo.

I think my biggest issue when showing sexuality, other than always worrying about my Christian audience, and trying not to affirm any kind of sexuality forbidden by my religion, is the problem of showing wounded sexuality. I tend to think that all humans are wounded and that this woundedness affects our sexuality. I also think we are confused sometimes and there are people who fall into our lovemaps and folks who fall into our lustmaps. In Wind Follower, my main character Satha probably loved her husband Loic, but I suspected she was more sexually-attracted to her husband's father Taer, and she was probably somewhat sexually attracted to the villain, Noam, even if she hated him. (Ah, if they had met at another time without that pesky family vendetta!)

From what I have seen in many Christian fiction, many characters have majorly sane healthy sex. I don't think that is true in real life. My characters tend to be sickly and often are battling self-loathing, depression, and other mental or physical issues. Sex gets complicated and the joyous blissful perfect combined orgasm is not something one is gonna find in a Carole McDonnell book. This is not to say that I do not understand that a book often carries the writer's wish-fulfillment character. In stories such as A Knight in Shining Armour, by Jude Devereaux and in the Korean drama, Queen In Hyeon's Man, the perfect man of a character's dream (and the reader's perfect man as well) pops up and love and lustmap match perfectly. However, as a writer of Christian fantasy, and as someone who has been ill and someone dedicated to truth (although truth is often merged with wish-fulfillment), I don't think I could ever write a book with joyous unwounded sexuality.

Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her novel, Wind Follower, was published by Wildeside Books. Her forthcoming novel is called The Constant Tower.


Sylvia Kelso

There’s an anecdote, probably from Ellen Datlow herself, that she once asked K. L. Jeter to write a story for an antho titled Alien Sex. To which the redoubtable K. L. responded, “What other sort is there?”

Like the equally out-there Rudy Rucker, Jeter is an SF practitioner, but the question could apply as well to fantasy: both are genres of Elsewhere, in my terms. What form of sex could be as native to them as the alien?

Some parameters here: the OED defines “sexuality” as: 1, capacity for sexual feelings, 2, sexual orientation or preference, 3, sexual activity. Since sexual preference/orientation will take us instantly into GLBT territory, slated for a later Table round, here “sexuality” means either 1 or 3. And 3, yes, is K.L. Jeter’s sense, usually the modern shorthand for intercourse. First question, then: what have either 1 or 3 to do with (modern) fantasy?

The immediate answer is, Not much. The basic fantasy story arcs are the Quest and the Battle of Good and Evil, with a common side-helping of Bildungsroman – young wizard grows into/discovers magic. Sexuality, either in 1 or 3’s sense, is not integral to any of these. In fact, all 3are notably missing from early modern or even classic high fantasy, right back to Andrew Lang and Lord Dunsany. This is not surprising in early SF, with Gernsback’s emphasis on a teenage audience, but fantasy has earlier avatars. Sex in the 3rd sense is all over epic and mythology, from Enkidu and the harlot to Circe and Ulysses to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And it’s at the centre of Malory’s great romance, the epitome of the medieval.

Sex in any sense only “got into” SF in the post-War period, while modern fantasy’s eminence begins in the ‘60s, with the popularity of Tolkien. In SF treatments of sexuality, “human” or alien, suffered at first from stereotyping – most often, the female side, in either 1 or 3, appeared either a victim, a pattern still apparent in Connie Willis’ “All My Darling Daughters,” or another Evil Female stereotype, immortalized by the alien sexual predators in Tiptreee’s “And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hillside.” But in SF, with its focus on the idea, second-wave feminism rapidly made sexuality a powerful basis for thought experiments. Ursula Le Guin opened the ball with her biologically gender-fluid aliens in The Left Hand of Darkness, and has continued to construct secondary worlds where sexuality, in both cultural and biological forms, offers a way to rethink our own societ(ies.)

But fantasy is not a genre integrally focused on The Idea. So when sexuality in all 3 senses begins appearing in modern fantasy, the questions arise: why now, and what’s it FOR?

The superficial first answer is that even fantasy writers can’t escape their cultural matrix. Coleridge’s Gothic verse romance created uproar over a glimpse of the wicked Geraldine’s naked “side” – not even her breast, mind you – in an age when rape of female servants, by male peers or masters, was a commonplace. Nowadays it’s an expectation that fiction include more and more explicit sexuality. A modern fantasy writer would not think of constructing a secondary world without reference to the inhabitants’ sexualit(ies).

Hence the skirts of the fantasy mountain now brush the modern genres of erotica and (commercial) romance. Admittedly, modern fantasy in sense 3 usually escapes the stock genre romance patterns, where descriptions of intercourse have become almost paint-by-numbers predictable. But steamy sexual encounters for major fantasy characters are now more usual, and some fantasy would count as erotica, if not porn. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books, Laurell Hamilton’s Meredith Gentry series, are only two that come to mind.

But if sexuality’s not a way of thinking about ideas, what’s it FOR? One functional answer is, sexuality humanizes. The Quest or the Battle of Good and Evil push a hero, in particular, to Deeds, not Words, let alone Lust. Consequently, as Tolkien discovered with irritation, he can turn out a stick, like Aragorn. But a hero who suffers from sexual passions or sexual handicaps or just plain inability to keep his trousers buttoned – very notably, Lois McMaster Bujold’s apparent hero Arhys in Paladin of Souls – is far more engaging. Malory already knew this, way back when he crafted Lancelot and Galahad.

Beyond actual sex, there’s all the delicious UST so beloved of fanfic writers. (Unresolved Sexual Tension, for the ignorant like me) and so useful for driving a narrative. The dynamo for Tanya Huff’s first novel, The Fire’s Stone, was the long-term UST between the protagonist and his eventual male lover. But UST is routinely done just as easily in realist genres. What, then, can sexuality be for solely in fantasy?

One answer is the term I started with. Alien sex. That is, sexual capacities that are not human, sexual activity that may involve partners more or less than human. Bestiality is a very gray area at the moment for publishers, but alien sex doesn’t merely have to mean sex with animals. It can be truly alien, in fantasy as much as in SF.

To mention only two notable examples, Sheri S. Tepper’s heroine in Grass eventually escapes her alien planet’s tyranny with a “native” lover who, from glimpses in the later Sideshow, may well be some form of god. In the last of her Door series, Diane Duane group-marries seven main characters, including a fire elemental, a gay king and his partner, and two other couples, including the female warrior Segnbora and the dragon Hasai – referred to as “he,” but whose answer to, “What do dragons do to get married?” is, “Get pregnant, of course.” Whether Hasai or Segnbora is to do so isn’t quite clear.

Alien sex can be much more integral, as in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which focuses on the protagonist’s own sexuality, in senses both 1 and 2. But the alien sex he encounters is confronting and horrifying. On the other hand, in Hamilton’s Gentry series, sex with the alien – goblins, half-humanoids, gods – acquires even religious overtones, because it raises and recovers the Goddess. I’m not fond of Hamilton’s vanilla elf-porn, but as in Grass and Door into Sunset, there are scenes – when the Faerie Dun walls move to create a garden, for instance – when alien sex achieves that hoary goal of both genres: the reader experiences the sense of wonder that comes from a fleeting glimpse of another, un-human and enchanting world. If sexuality becomes a reclaimed weapon in the Elsewhere genre-writer’s search to grasp that moment, so much the better, say I.

Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland, Australia. She writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published six fantasy novels, two of which were finalists for best fantasy novel of the year in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards, and some short stories in Australian and US anthologies


Warren Rochelle 

Musings on Tolkien, Sex, and Fantasy

Tolkien is described in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy as “the 20th-century’s single most important author of fantasy” (951). To say his influence is profound and lasting seems to be stating the painfully obvious. Middle-earth has become a template for many fantastic worlds—to the point these other worlds could be considered clones. But, the master is not without flaws; his shortcomings with female characters have often been discussed. All of which made me curious to explore in a little more depth, Tolkien’s use or non-use of sex and sexuality in his fantasy. Just what does Tolkien say about sex and sexuality and how are they expressed in his fantasy?

For the sake of disclosure, let me insert here that while I am not a Tolkien scholar, I am a big fan and have been since I was twelve or so and read The Hobbit and the trilogy for the first time. I have read them over and over again since and teach Tolkien in both my fantasy lit class and in a senior seminar focusing solely on his fantasy. A Tolkien-basher I am not.

Romantic relationships are certainly present in Tolkien, such as the great love story of Aragorn and Arwen, Eowyn’s crush on Aragorn, and later her love for Faramir, Sam and Rosie, and the long-lasting marriage of Galadriel and Celeborn. As each of these couples had at least one child—Sam and Rose, thirteen—they had to have had sex, sex that occurred off-stage. Love between these couples that is expressed on-stage, more or less, doesn’t go much beyond kissing and hand-holding. Sex has the sanction of marriage—no fooling around before. Tolkien was nothing, if not a traditionalist in such matters, as he makes clear in a March 1941 letter to his son Michael. Yes, a “man’s dealings with women can be purely physical” … It is better, if he is a “lover … engaging and blending all his affections and powers of mind and body in a complex emotion powerfully coloured and energized by sex” (Letters 48), and this should happen in marriage, Christian marriage. Sex, and even love, can be, and has been used as occasion for sin, because, as Tolkien reminds us, “The Devil is endlessly ingenious and sex is his favorite subject” (48). Our notions of love and sex are also confused by the romantic chivalric tradition and its idealized concept of love, which Tolkien asserts, has the weakness of beginning as “an artificial courtly game,” and is not “wholly true.” This idealized love tends to get people in serious trouble, all the way to the “divorce courts” (49). We are, after all, all fallen beings in a fallen world.

This brings us back to the ideal of Christian marriage, which Tolkien argues is much easier for women than men, as the former are naturally monogamous; the latter, not so much: “No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithfully to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious effort of the will, without self-denial” (51). Yes, this does make one wonder, about Tolkien’s own marriage. That he was devoted to Edith, there is no doubt. Did he commit lust in his heart? Tolkien doesn’t say, of course, although in the same letter, he tells his son the story of his relationship with Edith—falling in love as a teenager, separated by the edict of his guardian until his majority, the letter sent on the night he became 21, and their subsequent marriage. He tells his son at the end, love the Blessed Sacrament first and foremost, and that will be “the true way of all your loves upon earth” (53).

So, love God first, no sex before marriage. Sex off-stage in marriage—and yes, it should be enjoyed, but sparingly. As Tolkien explains in the draft of a 1943 letter to C.S. Lewis, “Christian marriage is not a prohibition of sexual intercourse, but the correct way of sexual temperance—in fact probably the best way of getting the most satisfying sexual pleasure” 60). Christian marriage, as Tolkien describes it, is also clearly meant only for heterosexuals. He thought of homosexuality as a disorder. The job comes first—saving the world, fighting evil, running a country, farming, and so on. This doesn’t just apply to humans, either. Only about a third of the Dwarves were female, and not many of Durin’s folk married: “the number of dwarf-men that marry is actually less than one-third. For not all the women take husbands: some desire none; some desire one that they cannot get, and so will have no other. As for the men, very many also do not desire marriage, being engrossed in their crafts” (Return of the King 360).

As for the Elves, Tolkien’s ideal people, yes, they like sex: “the union of love is indeed to them great delight and joy”—but only in marriage, and only for a relatively short time in their long lives. Elves are sexually active for a “period of one of several hundred years,” and “are seldom swayed by the desires of the body only, but are by nature continent and steadfast.” After the children are born, they lose interest. “With the exercise of the power (of generation), the desire soon ceases, and the mind turns to other things . . .” Marriage can be a matter of “free consent,” done without ceremony or witness, but once consummated, they are married for life. No elf casual sex (in “Laws and Customs of the Eldar,” Morgoth’s Ring, History of Middle-Earth).

Tolkien was a man of his time and culture, and very orthodox in his Catholicism. His attitudes toward sex and sexual expression are not surprising. His characters remain true to the ideals and values of the man who created them. Does this mean they can’t be seen as fully-expressed human beings? For many contemporary readers, I think the answer is yes. Is that fair? A failure on Tolkien’s part? As a big fan, I hesitate here. Sex doesn’t have to happen on-stage, after all, nor does it have to be part of a particular story, and there are some people who are asexual and some who are celibate. But, as Deborah Ross notes in another blog in this same round, “sex is such a powerful force in human lives it is impossible to portray the full scope of emotions and motivations without it.”

I don’t think Tolkien would disagree, but I cannot imagine him approving of casual sex, homosexuality, premarital sex, and a whole list of sexual behaviors with which 21st-century readers are okay. Would the people in The Lord of the Rings be richer and deeper characters? Maybe—but would they still be Tolkien’s?

Warren Rochelle has taught English at the University of Mary Washington since 2000. His short story, "The Golden Boy” (published in The Silver Gryphon) was a Finalist for the 2004 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Story and his novels include The Wild Boy (2001), Harvest of Changelings (2007), and The Called (2010. He also published a critical work on Le Guin and has academic articles in various journals and essay collections.


  1. "There was eating in your story" OMO! That is soooooo true. I get that from fellow Christians a lot. Ah me...well, Fellow Christian, I didn't mean to turn you on.

  2. It's almost canon among LGBTQ writers that there is at least one full-on, flat-out sex scene in every story of 10,000 words or more. As with such canonical matters the discussions on the grey areas often take up much more space than the actual canon.

    This was a response to the invisibility of positive imagery, let alone anything approaching consensual sexuality in our literature before Stonewall, before Gay Pride, before the second wave of feminism.

    The tide turned somewhat as more LGBTQ characters started stepping out from the chorus line, and were able to experience all the aspects of their fantasy or SF adventures.

    Personally, I'm all for reading well-written, in-context, sex scenes in my SF/F.

    It's also fun to write!

  3. One of the real-life tragedies of not having a vocabulary and skills for talking about sexual feelings and experiences is that we also lose connections between those areas of our lives and our hearts and spirits. This is one of the gifts of storytelling -- that we can show -- and learn -- the many, complicated, and sometimes painful ways people deal with sexual energy.

    Carole, as a Christian, what do you make of the imagery in The Long Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross? To me, it's frankly erotic in its descriptions.

  4. A lot of medieval religious poetry uses imagery that to us sounds actually sensual and/or physically erotic. St John of the Cross is well-known, but only one. May come from the much-used image of Christ as the lover of the Christian, which turns up in everything from Piers Plowman to Bach, and also of Christ as the Groom, and the Church (or individual Christians) as the Bride.

  5. We welcome the Sabbath as a Bride, and it is particularly meritorious to delight one's spouse on Friday nights (although, according to the Talmud, men who engage in physically exhausting occupations have a less frequent obligation, as do sailors and camel drovers). And there's no getting around the sensuality of the Song of Songs.

  6. Song of Solomon etc. I don't think Christians are bothered by sexuality and Christian imagery as it pertains to Christ. It's just the "I didn't mean to turn you on" factor. I think the last sexual Christian book I read was Mariette in Ecstasy.

  7. Foz Meadows recently posted a piece discussing the need for positive portrayals of sex (in YA).

    Mileage might vary into how much detail is wanted/needed for any story, but I definitely feel that it helps a great deal to readers to see sexuality dealt with in a positive, mutual manner.