Defining Deviancy Up: The Red Rose Conviction

I write erotica.

Sure, I write science fiction and fantasy and pirate romances and now I'm writing contemporary alt history, but all of those are frames for the picture, and in the picture are two (well, usually two) people having sex. I tend to enjoy huge, ornate, justifying frames, sometimes to the point of having the full story, characterization and setting and so forth, be more important than the sex scene they frame. And sometimes, I just want to write a sex scene, and the frame is an excuse.

There are only so many different kinds of sex that people want to read. As most writers will tell you, sex scenes have a lot of heavy lifting to do. It has to do everything a normal scene does: reveal something about the character and/or the relationship, advance the story, and it has to arouse the reader. Writing erotica is harder than a mainstream sex scene because you start out with the sex as the main plot advancement. Erotica writers are left with a basic supply of plots and premises.

You can write stories about old loves trying something new, or discovering what makes something familiar really work, and whether or not that discovery improves or wrecks its pleasure. You can write about deceiving one lover with another, or both against each other.

Still, the most common form of erotica is that of new love. New love is fun, it's confusing, it's terrifying, it's perplexing. New bodies to explore, new things to do. It's a welcome theme for experienced lovers, to get past their jaded experiences of doing and grow into being part of a relationship. It can be fun to show the discord between one experienced partner and one inexperienced, to show how the more experienced can still learn something. And it can be fascinating to explore topics like late virginity, or the abandonment of life-long deliberate celibacy.

Even more-so, the strongest form of new love is young love. Adults, especially by the time they've reached their mid-30s, have learned to live with the disappointments of life, and have come to understand that every experience is tempered and comes with its own risks and rewards. Young people know nothing of that. Teenagers and young adults fumbling with one another, sometimes with book learning, often without. Guilty fingers in the back seat of Dad's warp-capable shuttlecraft, or happy smiles from the dragon half of your family the day after your wedding. Playing with that kind of fire in innocence and ignorance is really powerful stuff for a writer.

I am not going to suggest that Karen Fletcher wrote anything at all like that.

Fletcher, aka "Red Rose," was a furtive and occasional poster to the Usenet erotica writers hangout. I'd never read anything by her, and that's probably because her self-selected story codes always tripped my kill-filters, which right away told me a lot about her imagination, if not her personality.

Fletcher has pleaded guilty to distributing obscenity. She didn't have photographs. She didn't do movies. All she did was write stories. Apparently vile stories involving the rape and murder of children. There's no doubt that Fletcher has some kind of mental illness: she's a shut-in, living behind locked doors, and her inability to deal with the outside world is certainly part of the reason she wrote rather such vile stuff.

There's another case, Frank McCoy, who's also in the same deep trouble for his own stuff. Several of McCoy's stories, while not so thematically obsessive as Fletcher's, were still in much the same channel. McCoy, I should add for disclosure, also hung out on the usenet erotica writers' forum; he had his detractors, but he had a crackling sense of humor and he didn't care much about what others thought. McCoy was apparently indicted for the crime of "potentially emboldening criminal activities," according to the words of a prosecutor, although the actual charge is "transportation of obscene materials." (Is it just me, or does "embolden" already belong on the list of words that will be verboten come 2009?)

But still, the fact that the U.S. Government has decided to go after fiction writers because they dared to show their stuff to others really bothers me. How is what they did any more abhorrent than the story of, say, the Friday the 13th series, a multi-billion dollar movie franchise the essential message of which was "If you want to have sex then you deserve to die?"

The prosecutor on the Fletcher case said that her writings were "more horrifying than any photographs or videos of child pornography which can be seen on the Internet." You really have to question the man's judgement: photos or videos involve, you know, real victims suffering somewhere in the world. (And that's another thing; can our courts please learn to distinguish between actual victims and ordinary photos of individuals under the age of eighteen? Or even, photos with nobody in them?) The judge was equally over the top: "If anyone would have read the story and acted upon it, a little child could have suffered devastation that you would have had to live with for the rest of your life." Has this judge been to a bookstore? Is he aware of just how many books out there use the threatened or committed assault of a child as a melodramatic point? Has the man even read Bill O'Reilly's Those Who Trespass (1998), in which a drug dealer hooks two underage girls on cocaine, encourages them to have sex with each other, then has sex with each of them himself?

I'm not going to write about the sexual fumblings of pre-pubescents; I don't think kids have them, really, and if they "play doctor" those experiences don't really translate into the kind of complicated, adult tumble of emotions that I like to write about it. They just aren't a worthy subject for the kind of writing I do.

But that doesn't mean I feel safe. To the extent that the Feds are prepared to go after Fletcher and McCoy, they feel safe going after any writers who they feel is "emboldening" criminal activity. In Fletcher's case, the "membership fee" to her website is balanced on the one hand as an attempt to keep her stuff out of the hands of minors with its depiction as a "for profit" endeavor. McCoy, like many on-line writers, gave his stuff away.

I've already deleted one directory of stories, The Ruse Angel series, about a robot that hunts down and neutralizes pedophiles; all the characters were well over the age of majority, but the topic and the way in which she did her job, well, let's just say that while the story would have been a good fit for commenting on certain social trends (re: Japanese familial enclaves within a collapsing youth population against an adult male population rife with dysfunctional violent sexual imagery) it wouldn't have been appropriate in the current political climate. Yes, I have self-censored.

Let's face it: Fifteen-year-olds have sex. Writing about it is a valid topic. You can't show the excitement, the confusion, the embarrassment, the pleasure and the disappointment ("That was it?") of joining the sexualized adult world without showing the scene. Often, it's a disaster. Sometimes, like in real life, it actually works out okay. Maybe not great, but okay. A learning experience, and one worth pondering.

People worry about the "defining down" of deviancy. I worry about that as well, but I also worry about defining it up, too: once they've bagged Fletcher and McCoy, maybe they'll go after the writers at Camp Crystal Lake, maybe they'll go after Bill O'Reilly, and maybe they'll come after me.

Earlier: I've still got. It doesn't go away.

Later: Muse and I, Sittin' In A Tree