Here's the problem: People Have Sex.
Well, okay, that's an over-generalization of the problem. People Having Sex is not, in and of itself, that big of a deal. Sex can be a very useful thing, not only for procreation, but for the delight of intimacy, the chances to explore another person on an emotional and physical level, or even just the satisfaction of lustful impulses. Sex is a basic component of the human condition, the problem occurs when I have to write about it.
Let me explain why:
Whenever there is hue and cry over a child model being stuffed into something low-cut and skanky, I get annoyed when people decry it as the sexualization of children. My annoyance comes out of the word choice: it's not the sexualization of children, it's really the pornographication of children. The choice of words is revealing about the way society views children.
I remember being thirteen, the age at which my characters currently are. I remember it quite vividly, with the sort of wry nostalgia I hold for most of my past (I said what? Why? I can't possibly have been that arrogant. Oh. Oh, that's just sad...) I have equally vivid memories of myself at other ages, including cracking dirty jokes with friends on the playground in grade three, in which I would have been eight or so. Now, doubtless these were not the most hilarious jokes about copulation ever voiced by humankind, but the sophistication of an eight-year old's humour is not my point (for the record, my jokes were ace). We can not sexualize children anymore than we can colourize them: children already have sexuality. Please note that I am not using here in the sense of specific orientation, but to simply note that they have an instinctual libido. Freud's Psychosexual development is a theory I've always found to be rubbish in the details, but what I do find notable is its acceptance of youth and erogenous experimentation from a very early age. There's a quote by Donna Tartt that I use in Part Two of Benton, which I'll use again here:
I think it's hard to write about children and to have an idea of innocence...
I think innocence is something that adults project upon children that's not really there.
To put my own spin on it, let's look at the term “innocence.” I actually think children are innocent, but in a different way than the people who decry the loss of childhood innocence do. There's a myth that children these days are more exposed to sex than they've ever been, but this is a ridiculous statement. It's not that there more exposed than ever before, they're just more exposed they've been recently. The dichotomous Victorians, with their predilection for sex obsession mixed with puritanical sexual repression, created a social culture that hid sex from youngsters on a level not really seen before, at least from a Eurocentric standpoint. This “children should know nothing of sex [and therefore should not be aware of it]” culture lasted for about a century and a half. The modern, “sexy” media has clearly driven it off the rails. The people who decry the loss of innocence undoubtedly had the same lustful urges of youth, but they see their own past like many of us do: with rose-tinted glasses, and an ability to forget that which is inconvenient to our currently world view. The tight-ass pundit with his moral certainty turns a blind-eye to the “show me yours” experiences he had in kindergarten as he does to the pot smoking he did in college.
Children are innocent, but innocence doesn't mean an ignorance of sexual expression. What it means is that they are innocent of the adult, free of the prejudices of the grown-ups. Children (and I'm really using this as a catch-all for everyone 15 and under, here) grow up to be us, but its an evolving process. No one gets handed a maturity package at 16 that suddenly takes childlike innocence away.
When two young kids make the first fumbling gestures that are hooking up, they do so, by and large, without the concerns that will haunt them later in life. They're not weighed-downed with the memories of bad previous relationships. They're not worried with getting seduction “right,” or parsing couple doublespeak, or anything we create as adults to make our intimacies the minefields of past mistakes and weaponized miseries they become. No, the sexual explorations of the young are the only true innocent adventures we ever get in that particular sphere. Whether they are done out of curiosity, boredom, or the sweet, green love of first affection, the fact of the matter is that they happen. The young kids who walk far ahead of their guardians so they can have a quick snog by the lockers every time they turn a hallway corner out of sight are the perfect example of that kind of innocence. Those youngsters are innocent and naive: they honestly believe that the people lagging behind are completely clueless to the hidden romance going on under their noses. Us cynical, older bastards can look back on ourselves with disdain, and wonder how we ever thought we were fooling anyone, but you know what that leads too? It leads to us becoming one of the pundits, shouting that innocence is being destroyed, all because we can't come to terms with the fact that we were ever really that young, dumb, and carnal.
They aren't dumb, though. To me, that's the innocence of childhood. It's making jokes on the playground about daddy putting his car in mommy's garage and thinking you're really clever; playing doctor during a sleepover; or being oblivious of how transparent your cries of “did I show you this thing that is conveniently out of sight of our parents for the next forty seconds?” are. Kids aren't stupid (they instinctively know what parents will disapprove of), but in their innocence they just lump that with every other irrational parental disapproval, like staying up late watching movies, or pigging out on candy. Parents are a bunch of fun-hating old duffers, what do they know about life's pleasures? And, of course, there's the old refrain of “no one understand our love, no one has ever been as much in love as us.” As an adult, I have a tendency to smack that shit down hard whenever I see it, but that's because I'm a grumpy misanthrope. Our rite of adulthood (at least when it comes to “mature” relationships) involves having that kind of cloying ebullience beaten out of us by more experienced bitter people who want to spread their bitterness around. The forbidden fruit was only a problem because God was a colossal cockbite who planted a shame tree and then didn't give adequate reasons not to eat the fruit beyond “because I said so.” Occupy Eden would totally be speaking truth to power against that kind of ipse-dixit credentialist bullshit, I can tell you that. Who died and made him G-, well, nevermind. For those of you who don't care about my novels, here's the part where you should feel free to stop reading.
So, “What does this have to do with Benton,” I hear you cry. Well, first, it's sweet of you (if not a little ingenuous) to assume that every long winded thing I write has a point, but I swear this one does. Like I said, I remember being thirteen. I remember the eddies of hormones, the lusts and desires and so on. My characters are also thirteen. While Benton is certainly not as comprehending of his own libido as I was at that age, Min is much more aware of it, and Ash certainly is, having gone so far as to actually date people, albeit out of rebellion than any intrinsic romantic desire. What exactly are my limits as a writer when it comes to building the relationships I didn't even want in the first place.
I'm going to be honest. One of my initial plans for Benton was that I was tired of reading stories about a boy and a girl who were friends who always seemed to end up falling for each other. I was going to write a story about platonic friendships!
That... didn't work out, obviously. I mean, I started with the best intentions, but the problem was that I fell in love with my own characters, and by some kind of strange affection mimesis, the pure platonism I was aiming for sort of... went... away. So, now I'm stuck with two characters who are falling in love who weren't supposed too and then, woops, there I go, inadvertently adding a third member to the group and creating that which I hate more than anything: a love triangle. That's not actually the problem, I know how I'm going to handle the generals. The devil's in the details, ja?
What are my limits here? What is okay, and no okay to broach – not just morally, but narratively? I'm not going to be writing much about self-gratification, for example, this isn't that kind of coming of age story. Burgeoning sexuality ought to be addressed more obliquely, not jammed in your face like a shitty Michael Cera film, at least in this book. The answer isn't to eliminate sexuality either, though. My issue is in finding a happy medium between the two extremes, one that is narratively and emotional satisfying without coming off as titillating or exploitive. I'm afraid this particular diatribe isn't going to end with any kind of answers – these questions aren't rhetorical. Ash, Benton, and Min have a staring road ahead of them – how to I express it properly?
There is a place for good eroticism in stories. Even two weeks on, I'm still coming off the emotional high of Katawa Shoujo - not only a beautiful, non-exploitive look at dating in highschool for the disabled, but the few sexual scenes felt right, not just titillating pornography (although, to be fair, I've only played through Emi's path). Now,a re there going to be sex scenes in Benton? No. But again, I remember being thirteen.
It's almost funny. I wrote scenes of torture and no one batted an eye. I outright murdered my protagonist beyond my ability to account, and people said "that's an interesting concept." But if I wrote that "[blank} consensually fondled [blank] to the mutually satisfaction of both parties" - I would open such a can of worms, I can tell you that.
SEX! It exists, except when it doesn't!