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The Pecman

Sexual Content: When Does Explicit Become Too Much

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Recently, I had a heated debate with another writer who runs a gay fiction website. He had recently made the decision to exclude running any stories with R- or X-rated content, basically saying that he felt there was a profusion of pornography on the Internet, and he was tired of contributing to it.

I got indignant about this, and argued that to just arbitrarily slam the door on sex scenes in novels was silly and unreasonable. Even worse, I looked upon his attitude as a subtle kind of censorship, since he was now put in the position of having to remove stories that had been on his site for months (if not years).

I feel that the current political atmosphere in America has had a chilling effect on free speech. We?ve got a government that?s obsessed with Janet Jackson baring her breast on the Super Bowl, with Howard Stern doing fart jokes on the radio, and trying to stamp out Gay Marriage to appease religious fundamentalists. I believe these are all BS smokescreen issues, and the government is really ignoring the really important problems we have, like the lousy U.S. economy, rising unemployment, the lack of good education, the need to cure AIDS (and other important diseases), the importance of stem-cell research, and how the U.S. should stop trying to be the policemen of the world, particularly in the Mideast.

Well, a veritiable firestorm erupted from my arguments. I told the website owner that my main problem with his decision was that he needed to do three things:

1) give us the specifics on why he felt that stories with sexual content should not be allowed.

2) tell us how reading stories with sexual content will harm teenagers (particularly when he already has an ?18 years or older? warning banner on the first page of his site).

3) give us a specific list as to what can be permitted in stories, vs. what cannot; tell us what the limits are.

But the website owner got very flustered and refused to do any of this. Instead, he insisted that it was his website, and he could do what he wanted with it -- something on which I completely agree. I simply wanted to know why he felt the way he did, but I never got anywhere with my argument.

I was appalled by the attitude of a half-dozen people who agreed with him, many of whom supported the web owner?s position and felt I was trying to attack the guy. I argued and argued that to me, sexual content should be a matter of choice by the writer. For a non-paying website to dictate to an author how their story should be written is absolutely appalling to me. (It?s bad enough when a paying editor forces you to make some changes, but that?s the reality of commercial book and magazine publishing, and I accept that to some degree.)

I pointed out that some of the greatest works of gay fiction ever written, such as Patricia Nell Warren?s brilliant novel The Front Runner, or Edmund White?s A Boy?s Own Story, had scenes that wouldn?t pass muster with his website?s new rules. Neither novel is pornographic by any stretch of the imagination; the sex scenes are there, but they?re what I would call ?R-rated? at best ? not in-your-face explicit, but still beyond a PG. Sort of like the difference between an issue of Playboy and one of Hustler. Or, in gay terms, the difference between an episode of Showtime?s Queer as Folk (which I would call a ?soft R? in movie terms) and a XXX-rated Falcon video. And that's a big difference.

My argument was, to me, the website owner should worry more about whether the writing is good first, and worry about the sexual content second. If his concerns were about teenagers getting exposed to anything, I think his biggest fear should be about them getting exposed to mediocre writing more than anything else. To me, as long as the characters are well-drawn, the story is compelling, and the quality of the writing is good, then some degree of sexual content hurts no one -- or at least, no sexually-mature teenager. (I am opposed to exposing young children to sexual content, but I also believe that?s a matter for parents to police.)

Anyway, after about a week of beating my head on a brick wall, I finally took the bull by the horns and wrote a response myself for the website owner, and told him he could use it without attribution. I also apologized for upsetting him (which I clearly had), and gave my permission for him to remove all of my critical remarks -- remarks which, by the way, were in the most measured, rational tone possible. Here?s the statement I gave him to use:

?It seems to me that a lot of the gay fiction websites on the web, like Nifty, have stories that are almost totally about sex and not about people. I want the stories on my site to concentrate on story and characters first, along with good writing, and make sex a secondary issue. I'll permit some sexual content in the stories on my website, as long as it isn't gratuitous or extremely graphic. I'll make a judgment on a story-by-story basis, and will try not to have any hard-and-fast rule that tries to cover everything, because so much of it is a matter of personal taste.?

And that was it. He chose not to run it, never did answer my final email (with my apology), but did -- with my permission -- delete all the messages in the debate about sexual content in gay fiction. To date, he hasn?t responded to my argument or my attempts at a reconciliation.

So my question is: am I crazy here? Is sexual content a bad thing? How much sex is too much? To put things in perspective, as I?ve gone back and polished my novels Groovy Kind of Love and Jagged Angel, I?ve actually toned-down some of the sex scenes in later drafts, mainly because I think some were getting into an uncomfortable area. For my own writing, I prefer to make the sex scenes a little vague, and more about the emotions of the participants rather than what their body parts are doing. But that?s strictly my own preference. I think strong sex scenes can work if the writing is good enough -- I?d offer Gordon Merrick?s gay best-sellers as examples where this works well -- but for my own work, there?s too much of a ?yeesh? factor when there?s a (ahem) blow-by-blow description of everything going on. To me, it?s the difference between erotica and pornography.

My second controversy: A few months back, I had a (polite) screaming match with a commercial book publisher who read my manuscript for Jagged Angel, but then sent it back saying, ?it?s not bad, it?s actually well-written, but we can?t publish it because the characters are under 18.? I asked where there was a U.S. law that said that stories with teenagers having sex could not be published, and they responded, there was no law -- it was just their ?policy.? Case closed.

A passionate debate followed. I?ll spare you the details except to say that I couldn?t convince the editor that a) teenagers [straight, gay, and otherwise] can and do sometimes have sex, b) books of fiction with teenage characters having sex are legal in North America, and c) booksellers can and do sell books about teenagers having sex. (I can name 10 gay literary classics on this theme? but I digress.) My arguments fell on deaf ears, and now I?m preparing to publish Angel myself through P.O.D.

So my second issue is: why is there a prejudice by publishers against gay fiction with teenage characters? Am I crazy, or is this legal? And does this bias exist, or is it merely a figment of my imagination?

Tell me what you guys think. And please, I?m not just looking for a chorus of people agreeing with me; if I?m off-base, tell me so.

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Hi Ya Pec

This very subject is the core to the ongoing debate in various circles pertaining to the sexual contents of websites that I am a member at. To be honest with you, a majority of the problem is and has been created by the need of this society to overeact to possible situations that could be construed as child porno. The far right views even the stories that are written about teens over the age of consent in most states as a form of molestation. Yes protected free speech you will argue, but porno the right will argue back.

Sex, just how much is really needed to be a part of the plot, action, motiff, & themes of a story? Or does the sex merely become a gratious plot device to stimulate the readers sex drive and hormones?

Honestly, some writers have found that to imply and create impressions up to the point that the reader's imaginations fill in the blanks. Drake, Dewey and a couple of others come to mind.

Yet is Sex needed to carry the central theme?

Websites are also dragged into this debate because they now view this as a possible "legal" problem. Hey we do live in the age of litigation!

I guess I answered your questions with a question so I will wait to see your comments.

Paul :mrgreen:

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This is such a subjective thing it almost defies rational discussion.

Most people have a level of erotica in fiction with which they are comfortable. Unfortunately, with sites like Nifty.org (bless 'em) they take all comers and let the chips fall where they may. This can be a real minefield for the casual reader, however. If you are looking for hard porn as a masturbatory tool... you can find it on Nifty. If you are looking for a tender love story... you can also find it on Nifty. The problem is that how many raunchy pud-pounders do you have to sort through before you find that tender love story?

I think the recent US Supreme Court ruling barring implementation of the hastily drafted federal law -to keep Internet pornography away from children- because it violates constitutional free-speech rights, takes a lot of the pressure off the websites.

That leaves it to a matter of taste.... it is easy in my case... I just post stories that I like. Stories that I am comfortable with or perhaps which push my envelope a bit.

Content, to me, is more important than form.... so Pecman and I sometimes disagree about what makes a "good" story. Good intent and creation of a good feeling can sometimes trump "rules" in my opinion.

So far, I believe the main appeal of AwesomeDude is the selection of stories we present. Many of our "fans" say they come here because the stories they like seem to be here. And they know that they are likely to find more here, without having to run the gauntlet at Nifty.

The site that Pecman alludes to... which won't run "r" or "x" rated stories will have a following of like-minded people, I'm sure. More power to them... but I am looking for a story that can be entertaining on more than one level... heart-warming... humorous... and memorable.

And if ,in the process of bringing a certain level or quality of story to our readers, we can encourage readers to try their hands at expressing themselves through writing... all the better.

Sex should be the spice that makes a story more tasty... not the whole story itself. Who would like to live on a diet of white bread doused in tobasco sauce?

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In the final analysis, the purveyor of what is deemed acceptable, really is the website's owner. For a writer that makes it fairly simple. Follow the established guidelines and procedures for submission and final posts.

Ah yup, makes sense to me! :mrgreen:

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It is entirely the website owner's right to say what he will or will not allow on his site. If he feels a particular story or author crosses the line of what he considers acceptable for his site, if certain themes or situations or content is unfavorable to the site owner, that is equivalent to the editorial guidelines or house rules of any in-print publication. The site owner can reject something for publication on that basis.

Yes, it is a subjective decision. It is more about house style than about censorship. Some other site or publisher may find the work suitable publication.

A website owner is the owner and the chief editor. His name is somewhere on a dotted line for payment for his internet access, web hosting, domain name, and any other services, and it's his posterior that hits the fan if the site does not meet the service agreement about content. And any site that publishes written works or images or member forums runs that risk, whether they allow adult content or not. So people like our friend the Dude are showing real courage in what they do.

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If he feels a particular story or author crosses the line of what he considers acceptable for his site, if certain themes or situations or content is unfavorable to the site owner, that is equivalent to the editorial guidelines or house rules of any in-print publication.

I have no problem with that, Blue. My problem is that the guy won't tell us why he wants the rules, and what the rules are.

That's kind of a problem, don' t you think? And the implication is, if one were to submit a story, only to have it rejected, if you deleted the sexual content yourself, then it would be deemed acceptable. To me, that's a subtle form of censorship.

But not even knowing where the line of acceptibility is... well, to me, that's maddening. I think I have an idea in my head of what the differences between erotica and pornography are. Again, it's the difference between an episode of Queer as Folk, and a XXX-rated porno video. But this website owner is essentially telling us, "I won't carry a story that can't run on broadcast television."

To me, that's just crazy -- even more so, when it's not explained or justified.

--Pecman

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Follow the established guidelines and procedures for submission and final posts.

Paul, did you actually bother to read everything I wrote up there?

Did you see where, several times, I stressed that there are no guidelines and procedures on the guy's website? He won't say exactly where the line is, except to talk vaguely of "PG-rated content." What does that mean exactly? Can you define it?

If the guy just answered my three questions, I would've been fine with it. But he didn't. We have rules being enforced, but we aren't being informed what the rules are. To me, that's a big problem.

And the publisher I spoke of does actually have some printed guidelines. Nowhere does it forbid sexual contact between teenagers, but that's exactly what they cited to me in their emails.

Go read my stories on this website, and tell me if you think any of them are offensive or indecent in any way. And be specific, because I'd really like to know where you stand on this.

--Pecman

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OK, now I understand what you meant. I thought you meant, earlier, that he did have some written guidelines. It's really a subjective judgment call, when you get right down to it. I don't know of many editors, though, who would say why they rejected a story and give an author the chance to re-draft it, unless it had already been accepted.

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Actually my last comment reflected on Dude's point, I wasn't specifically noting your earlier post. My apology for not being clear. And yes, I do understand your point Pec. :oops:

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Oh I forgot to add, I actually read your stories awhile back because of the very high rating they got from The Tarheel Writer. To tell you the truth, I liked them both, but Jagged was a little rough on me as a classmate of mine lost his child in the Columbine Shootings and I knew the family. That factor does not deter me from saying to you, the writing is good, and well, does not fall within the accepted parameters of community defined porno ala Nifty. :mrgreen:

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...but Jagged was a little rough on me as a classmate of mine lost his child in the Columbine Shootings and I knew the family.

Oh, believe me, I'm very aware of Columbine and the other school shootings around the country. Scares the living hell outta me, and I'm terribly sympathetic to the people who've gone through these tragedies.

My point in weaving that into the story was mainly because of the plight of Andrew Williams, the kid in San Diego who was taunted by bullies as if he was gay, even though he wasn't. After a few months of that, he got pissed-off enough to bring a gun to school and start shooting anybody and everybody he could. After the prosecution assured his family if he pled guilty (for a speedy trial), they'd give him a relatively-light sentence, like 20-25 years, but instead they gave him life without parole, which I think is horrible. I dedicated the book to him, because I think Williams is a symbol of the consequences that happen when kids who are different are harrassed by bullies.

So I was thinking about the amount of gay harrassment that goes on in schools every day, and the fact that -- unlike when geeks like myself were pushed around in school -- now, kids think they can even the odds by killing the bullies. It's a very sad situation, and I hope the story makes the point that there's a lot of victims there -- the kids who were shot, the parents, the teachers, and even the kid(s) who did the shooting. If nothing else, I hope the story makes people think about the subject.

--Pecman

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I was very interested in Pecman's comments on the school massacre segment of Jagged Angel. When I read it, it was not Columbine that came to mind, but young Andy William's case.

Both were tragedies but in both Andy's case and the incident in Jagged Angel, it was the authorities who were definitely the heavies. Of course, I am in no way condoning that kind of violence. But we often --thanks to the low level of local television news in the US-- get a totally distorted picture of incidents like this. And never really seem to find out the true cause.

I really liked the part played by a dedicated journalist in Jagged Angel getting the true story out. It was one of the better parts of the plot. This is the way it should be, unfortunately not the way it usually is.

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Yeah, the journalist was loosely based on my own experience as a staff writer for a couple of magazines (not Time magazine!), and some of the character's own traits were inspired by my friend Keith Morrisette.

I put the journalist in the story for two reasons: first, because I was upset at how the U.S. government is censoring certain kinds of news stories (particularly overseas), so we don't quite get all the information by the time it winds up on our TV sets and newspapers, and secondly, because when you hear about bizarre violent incidents, it's very rare that anyone ever finds out WHY it happened. Hell, I still don't know why the Columbine kids shot up the place -- unless you go with comedian Chris Rick's theory, which was "they was f-in' crazy!"

Note that in a rewrite, I plan to bring back the journalist in a brief scene in the next-to-last-chapter, where he asks the lead character, "do you see yourself as a gay kid who plays football, or a football player who happens to be gay?" And the kid thinks for a moment and then answers, "I'm just me -- me first, just a guy. And those other things are just parts of me." And the writer nods and tells him that's the best answer he could possibly have.

BTW, I just saw Farenheit 9/11 tonight here in LA, and man, that's a helluva movie. There's still a lot of twists and semi-truths in it, along with some contrivances, but the way Moore shows how the U.S. media is covering (and sometimes covering up) what's going on in America and overseas was quite sobering.

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I got indignant about this, and argued that to just arbitrarily slam the door on sex scenes in novels was silly and unreasonable. Even worse, I looked upon his attitude as a subtle kind of censorship, since he was now put in the position of having to remove stories that had been on his site for months (if not years).

I agree with your position 100%. I want you to understand that because I thought what was done was flat out wrong.

Well, a veritiable firestorm erupted from my arguments. I told the website owner that my main problem with his decision was that he needed to do three things:

1) give us the specifics on why he felt that stories with sexual content should not be allowed.

2) tell us how reading stories with sexual content will harm teenagers (particularly when he already has an ?18 years or older? warning banner on the first page of his site).

3) give us a specific list as to what can be permitted in stories, vs. what cannot; tell us what the limits are.

But the website owner got very flustered and refused to do any of this. Instead, he insisted that it was his website, and he could do what he wanted with it -- something on which I completely agree. I simply wanted to know why he felt the way he did, but I never got anywhere with my argument.

See, here's where you go wrong Mr. Pecman, sir. Ultimately it IS his website. He owes you (or me) neither an excuse, an explanation, or anything else. On your website you may post what you want (as long as it's legal) and may remove what you don't want. NOBODY has the right to an explanation. Period. End of sentence. He doesn't have to explain his reasons or anything else. I, too, would like answers to your questions. However, I respect his right to not give them. I politely asked similar questions and was ignored. I respect his decision an right to do so.

-- wbms

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