With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, looking for media about romantic love seems a natural. From there, many happily add imaginary spice and make the jump to sexy stories . . .
Or . . . not.
I once did an unofficial poll among mostly young adult readers. The surprising thing is, the greater percentage of them found UST, or Unresolved Sexual Tension, far more interesting than X, or up-front sexual content.
I’d done this poll expecting older folks, especially those of us who were raised with the double standard of the fifties (Don’t do what I do, do what I say, and Men can do what they like, but the women they do it with are trash, unless they’ve managed to get a ring on their finger first) to favor UST over X, but actually most tended the other way. Of course it could be that those being polled had already self-selected for media that favored UST over X.
Those who favored UST gave various reasons, including the obvious one about guilt and shame, and feeling that intimacy is only legitimized by the marriage bond. Aside from the moral issue, which I don’t want to debate here as no one ever convinces anyone else, it just takes longer and escalating tempers to reach that impasse, I’d like to move straight to what works and why.
For many who prefer UST, this generalization might serve: in either fiction or movies, a finger trailing down a back and over a hip is far more enticing than clinical depictions of the mattress tango. Many females added with some asperity that far from finding filmic sex a turn-on, they find it uncomfortable, because the camera is burrowing in to reveal far more of the woman than the man: the point of view that is important is the het male gaze. The woman thus becomes the object for the male gratification on the visual level, even if the storyline insists that the partnership is balanced.
An aspect of the discussion that I found interesting was that not everyone agreed about the degree of UST or X images or scenes in the media involved. Some were okay with more revelation in books than in film, as it’s more difficult to escape the immediacy of image (and it lingers longer in mind for some) and others felt just the opposite. This made it clear to me that people process image differently, as well as text.
Because those participating in the discussion were primarily het females, the subject then shifted to what they found attractive in males. Some stated that they were sick of the ubiquitous broody, PTSD dangerous male, with or without two-day stubble.
“If I see anyone like that in real life, I’m outa there,” one said. “But in fiction? I’m all over it. I guess I like danger when it’s not up close and personal.”
“I hate them in fiction as well as life,” another said. “I think the only readers who like those ultra violent guys are teenagers who’ve actually never been in a dangerous situation.”
And a third said, “This kind of fiction makes me uncomfortable because it’s a reverse of the male making women sex objects for their imaginary gratification. Women othering men for their sexual gratification might seem like equal opportunity, but how much closer to understanding, or real love, does any of that bring us?”
“It’s recreational,” a fourth scoffed. “You don’t watch spy movies then go out and start snooping around embassies or blowing up cars.”
My thought was that the dangerous man that the woman tames through love is an enduring trope, Beauty and the Beast. Byron understood that very well—and all the Brontes who lived long enough to write seem to have been inspired by him, just to name a few. Georgette Heyer used to call her brutal hero the Mark I type. There was a pop song when I was young, wherein the girl band crooned, “I want a cave man, I want a brave man . . .”
Male writers have also written about powerful, dangerous women. I don’t know if the Beauty and the Beast thing works the same way for them. More often the woman has been an unattainable object, her beauty being her primary power, instead of physical strength or political (or intellectual) prowess. The story is really about the striving between the various men who try to win her. (Or win her and discover the game was better than the prize.)
Another observation I’ve made from my own experience: the sight of a woman going ballistic, whether in fiction or real life, tends to cause concern, laugher, even scorn, among men. When a man goes ballistic, women will watch in fiction, but in real life, there’s this shockwave of fear. I’ve never witnessed anyone enjoying the sight beyond creeped-out fascination. If your experience counters this, I’d be interested in hearing about it.
But that’s wandering far from UST. I think it works because the imagination is engaged, because the tension between the personal boundaries and the intimate can be fascinating. Because there is also a balance between the individual and the potential for that romantic attachment. Hardcore X is seldom about character, or emotions, it’s all about the mechanics.
That brings up the element of time. In a story in which UST is successful, the medium (text or film) has developed the characters so deeply that we’re engaged with them on an emotional level to such a degree that that touch, finger to hip, carries a mighty charge. Psychological time is a different measure than clock time: Proust and Joyce made brilliant use of this awareness. X—the mechanical approach—barely introduces the characters as individuals before the clothes fly off and they get down to business.
Really, I am convinced that psychological time is what makes stories linger in memory, especially when the characters do find love. But feel free to disagree.