Saturday, May 10, 2014


"She was his beautiful, impossible creature: a woman, not reared to live in shame." -- from "Sealed" by Laila Blake, published in A Princess Bound: Naughty Fairy Tales for Women (ed. Kristina Wright).

This story is a complex exploration of the myth of the selkie, wound up with the concept of consent, with some breathplay and rope not only creating erotic tension but symbolizing the nature of the relationship between the main characters. Laila Blake is a masterful writer, and it's well worth reading.

I want to talk about the line I quoted, though. This line just breaks my heart and makes my gut twist. Blake's description feels true to me—a woman not reared to live in shame would seem like a beautiful, impossible creature indeed. I just don't want it to be true.

I've thought lately about how, despite so much effort to focus on female desire and female pleasure in much of the erotica that's being published, there are these moments when the curtain slips and one can see how low the societal standard for those things is. That we should take shame for granted—that the idea of being free of it should be an impossible dream... I feel like all of us ought to be up in arms about that.

Jean Roberta engages with this a great deal in her work. Her book The Flight of the Black Swan is an impressive envisioning of sex enjoyed without shame, and I'm sure it wasn't easy to write.

I notice in a lot of my reading the many signals that writers are sending that this particular thing is "nice" erotica, not "shameful" erotica. Especially in erotic romance, there are all these things—the heroine is acting out of character, overcome by the hotness of the hero. She'd never normally behave this way. It's been a long time since she had sex really. A lot of this amounts to, "She's not a slut." And she needs to not be a slut or else it seems like the sex becomes too illicit to be enjoyed. There's a flip side, of course—the eroticization of shame. That's a powerful tool, and maybe important for resistance.

More and more, though, I'm thinking about the question Roberta's asking in her work. What would this look like without shame?

And here's my question: Why are we taking "reared to live in shame" for granted?


  1. Aww you! I totally came across this by accident!

    I don't think the quote is a universal truth though. It was a truth for that character's horizon, which is kind of a small, religious community at the edge at the known world.

    At the same time... yeah, of course it's true, too. My mother actually tried very hard NOT to instill sex as something shameful, but then I felt shame for being submissive, and when I accepted that, I still had my body to feel weird about and I assume there will always be something.
    However, maybe it's not quite as huge a thing as the character thinks. I mean, he's far from a perfect person, and he may not like about her what he should like about her. Now I'm rambling ;).

  2. Hi!

    Fair point on the universal truth thing. He's an interesting character, and I generally liked him for his complicated relationship with consent. Despite her having asked him to burn the skin, he's uncomfortable with doing so, and that made me feel he was worthy of her. That line, however—I think it made me angry at him. Too many times, I've been around people who praised shamelessness on one hand but reinforced shame on the other, and this made me think of that.

    And then, I think treating it as more universal came because I was thinking about how that line would read to people. What about this fantasy is appealing? And part of what's appealing to me is the idea of being a mythological being who actually is without shame and being with someone who appreciates that. Perhaps because of the relationship of erotica to sexual fantasy, it's really difficult not to insert myself into a story in some way.

    It's interesting what you say about your mother. Some of the problem I think is that no one person can counteract all the shaming that's always coming at a person from societal standards. I've been thinking a lot about this and noticing how much I hear just on the radio, for example. There's also the problem of stepping out of one's own context enough to not instill shame. My mother (just as contrast, not as equation) says she tried to raise me free of sexual shame as well, but ironically one of the most intense experiences of shame I can recall is the time we discussed this, when she listed the things she had let me do without comment when I was younger. The implication, I think unintended, was that I should have been shamed for them, but instead she said nothing. I don't think she wanted to undermine her own efforts so badly, it's just that she had internalized so much stuff that she couldn't help letting it out right then.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting and discussing—happy to do it more. In case it wasn't clear, I loved the story. I actually had a long conversation with someone about why it works so well—it had so much unity, the way the symbols of the fairy tale served the erotic aspect and vice versa.

  3. It's funny you said that about your mother; it kind of worked similarly in my case. She spent so much time on how sex is normal and what sex women deserve (gentle, nice, with lots of focus on her pleasure) when I realized what I liked it felt not only wrong but also distinctly anti-feminist lol.

    In the story, I really feel you for not liking him at this point though. I think because he's driven so much by shame and fear, and trying to deny it, that he dislikes these traits in others to an irrational degree. He was an interesting character to write lol.

    In general, I think there is shame as a positive force that works to keep communities together (i.e. we long for approval from our friends & family and hence avoid actions that will cause us to feel shame) but too often it's used to manipulate us into feeling ashamed of things we shouldn't have to feel ashamed of. Not sure that made sense lol.

    1. I find that a lot of supposedly female-positive portrayals of sex turn out to be gender essentialist and shaming (i.e. women deserve and are supposed to want sweet, soft, romantic sex all the time). In my case, it was specifically about masturbation. So, so mortifying to have my mother talk about how she knew how much I'd been masturbating but had resisted saying anything to me about it. Um...

      For all that I have issues with that character, I think it's one of the things I liked about the story—there was a darkness to it all that felt appropriate considering the elements at play. And it totally makes sense that he's projecting his shame or perceiving people through the lens of it.

      Totally agree about shame as a positive force. I was driving through a town recently and saw a sign that said something like, "This is a hate-free zone," and I was intrigued and interested in the potential benefits of a community statement like that. Shame is so valuable for enforcement of community standards, but like so many tools, it's blind to whether it's being used for good or ill.