The Guilty Pleasure: Shaming and the Pressure to Conform

First, I’d like to apologize for what I consider the lower quality of last week’s post; I had a lot of different thoughts and emotions flying around and alternative ideas buzzing in my brain, which tends to affect my output. Also, writing is something that I am hyper-passionate about and there are times when (in the immortal words of Jane Austen) “if I loved it less, I could talk about it more”.

Moving onward. Today I want to talk about one of those buzzing topics that plagued me, but has once again managed to pop up several times since then and sparked this week’s post: the guilty pleasure. Now, I consider myself a fairly moral and law-abiding person, but I don’t think that that gives me the right to tell other people how to live their own lives; I promote passion and positivity, but I’m not going to tell you how to raise your kids or anything. That being said, I think that so long as no one is being hurt and all things are consensual, anything that you personally find to be pleasurable and is not needlessly (or ludicrously) considered illegal is an allowable activity. Live and let live. (Except for pedophilia… that is never cool no matter what culture/society you come from.)

As someone who has written some smuttier fics and who reads her fair share of erotica, romance novels, and Captain Swan fan fiction, I have become intimately familiar with the concept of kinks and fetishes—I own several books on the subject of BDSM, specifically looking at the psychological aspect and motivations behind people who go to “extremes” to find their pleasure. (More than half a lifetime in therapy has also made me more self-aware than the average individual and fairly conversant with psychological terms, practices, etc.) But it is the average person who I am discussing today, a person who may enjoy said kinks and fetishes—whether through active participation, voyeuristic participation, or through vicarious participation of them via reading. My big question here today is why. Why does a person obviously find enjoyment in something, but then feel guilty and ashamed to openly admit that they enjoy it?

I remember the furor that occurred in the media when E.L. James’ Fifty Shades books came out, how everyone seemed to be talking about them (most without having read them), and how many media outlets—and not just Fox News—were producing segments and articles about them. The thrust of a lot of these bits were that women were openly reading these books, no longer hiding the fact that they were reading erotica and romance novels. And guess what, Geeks? That was the first time I realized that choosing to read a romance novel or erotica was something to be ashamed of. Rather like being certified a Fake Geek Girl by someone else, I had been perfectly content to go about the daily business of living, carrying around reading material that I should have blushed to be seen with…until some self-righteous other decided to start ranting and raving. The so-called guilty pleasure is only guilty because we allow others to impose a sense of shame, secrecy, and fear upon us.

[I have plenty of issues with James’ books, but she does deserve credit for at least calling attention to the fact that women and members of the BDSM community are constantly bombarded with moralistic imagery and rhetoric which constantly asserts that their sexual and sensual desires are to be considered unilaterally vile and taboo, to be kept secret, to be relegated to the fringes of society where all other “deviants” and “wackos” reside.]

When we read erotica or view bondage photos or watch porn, especially if that consuming audience is female, we have a little Patriarchal angel on our shoulder telling us that we should feel guilt and shame. When a woman feels desire, especially if that desire in some way deviates from the accepted social norms of desire, she should feel afraid that her peers, her potential sexual partners, her family, her boss, and everyone she knows down to her Starbuck’s barista will be disgusted by said needs/urges. Upon confirmation of the fact that I was no longer a virgin—based on emails stolen from my personal computer—my own brother asked me how I could possibly have “defiled” myself in such a way as to “mock the very innocence of my nephew” … My nephew was a baby at the time and was in no way involved in the situation, but I believe that I was meant to see myself as having let even him down. So, the expectation is that even pre-verbal toddlers will be disappointed in you if you feel or act upon unlicensed sexual desires.

But the truth is that despite how open and accepting our society has become, we are still a long way from social, sexual equality. This is because, in part, most of us are fundamentally social creatures who crave approval and acceptance; it is also because the apparatuses which underpin culture are predominately controlled by White, heterosexual men. And any expression of sexuality which in any way finds the sexual prowess of said male (WHM, pronounced wham, as is wham, bam, thank you, ma’am) to be lacking is to be automatically slated for termination; and because these structures pervade our everyday lives, most members of society automatically think and behave the way that Patriarchy expects them to—they have assimilated those values and ideals, rather like Captain Picard was hacked by the Borg, but from birth forward. When our mother tells us to “sit like a lady” it is because she was previously taught by her parents to value only women who could be easily identified as “ladies” (i.e., in how they sit); any female who did not “sit like a lady” could, would, and most ominously should be treated as “unladylike”—or, to put it more bluntly, be treated like a whore.

This past week, I also read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire, the plot of which mainly details the media frenzy and slut shaming of the main character when she is suspected of three murders. It was definitely a compelling read, but the way the character is blatantly assassinated by medical professionals and the police had me literally growling in frustration and flipping off the chauvinistic slime-balls. Yes, I was so pissed off by what they said and how they said it that I took one hand off of the book and emphatically waved my middle finger at the page (I wanted to throw the book, but I have a very strict anti-book-desecration policy). A huge portion of the fictionalized media articles regarding Lisbeth Salander focus on the sensational—she was casually seeing a woman, so she’s an antisocial lesbian; she was arrested for sitting on a park bench with an older man when she was 17, so she was charged with prostitution; she had two violent run-ins with men who had sexually harassed or assaulted her (one of whom was a convicted sex offender), so she was a psychotic man-hater… the list goes on. Even the people who are on her side and attempting to prove her innocence, people who know that she dislikes men who hate/abuse women, are baffled by the supposed “evidence” against her as presented by the media and by the police force. In short, because Lisbeth does not care what other people think and because she does that which she finds pleasurable regardless of social mores, society (via the media and the repressive governmental arms, the police and the medical establishment) gleefully and enthusiastically tars and feathers her reputation. There was exactly one sentence dedicated to the fact that, should Salander be caught and tried for the murders, she would never get a fair trial in Sweden. One concerned individual who was worried that no empaneled jury could be unbiased and objective because of how much mud and muck had been flung at her in absentia. One!

While this is a fictionalized version, we don’t need to look all that far for more current examples from our own country. How many rape victims are put on the stand as if they are the ones on trial? How often to victims of rape later report that the police officers who took their statements and collected evidence treated him/her as a suspect? Asked what the victim was wearing? Asked how many sexual partners they have had in the last year? Asked them if they had ever had consensual sex with their alleged attacker? In a more famous instance perhaps, how many people were quick to denounce Amber Heard as a gold-digging whore and attention seeker when she filed for divorce and accused Johnny Depp of spousal abuse? And, despite the fact that his lawyer and representation have submitted a statement verifying Heard’s claims, how many people are still treating her as the aggressor and as a liar?

How does this connect to the idea of the guilty pleasure?—I hear you say, oh darling Geeks. It is because the same mechanisms, the same Patriarchal codes governing sexual desire are in play here. The same impulses of shame and fear are activated by the expression of any sexual desire (or in the cases of the fictitious Salander, and the real life Heard and rape victims, the refusal of WHM sexual desire) which does not conform to the Patriarchy-endorsed “normal”. You, dear Geeks, have power to scare everybody else; unfortunately, you don’t scare them witless and speechless because they are quick to open their mouths and denounce you as vocally as possible. And in legitimate cases, where the pleasure sought is morally and legally wrong (again, using pedophilia as the example), the shame impulse can be beneficial in protecting the victims; sadly, like slut shaming, the impulse still often gets used against the victim. Just last year, a California judge chose to lessen the sentence of a man convicted for the rape (vaginal and anal) of his 3-year-old niece, because according to the defendant and the judge, the little girl was “asking for it”. She was in her parents’ garage playing with a toy, but we are supposed to believe that a child, presumably under 30 lbs. was just asking for her adult uncle to rape her. I’m going to pause and let that sink in for a bit…

I’ve had people refer to my fics, as well as romance novels and erotica, as a guilty pleasure, and I know a few writers who have been given the same backhanded compliment. When you tell a writer or an artist that their work is a guilty pleasure, you’re admitting that you are ashamed of them and afraid of yourself. You’re saying, in essence as you might say to a potential partner, “You’re someone that I like, someone I connect with on a really deep level and want to hang out with… But I’m never going to take you to meet my parents. I’m never going to want to go out in public and risk being seen with you. I care too much about what other people think. I don’t want to be judged, so can you come over after midnight and leave before 4 am? Oh, and my roommate is a light sleeper, so is using the window okay?”

Something that entertains you, that brings you joy; something that arouses you and stimulates you, whether it be intellectually or sensually, should not be a conduit for fear and shame. Because when you live your life afraid of what people might think, then you have to ask yourself whether or not you are truly living and loving your life. Boldly open that romance novel while on the bus to and from work! Don’t let the bastards—whether they are nothing or everything to you—dictate what you can and cannot enjoy. As always, keep calm and geek on!—J.J.

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